Punctuate Life

Pause Breathe Relax


4 Comments

An Unforgettable Trip

My father just celebrated a milestone birthday. On March 1st he turned 70. Ten years ago I had flown down from Boston with hopes of celebrating my grandma’s 80th birthday and my Dad’s 60th birthday back to back. But that was not to be, my grandma passed away a day shy of her 80th birthday and her cake didn’t get any candles and was never cut. We couldn’t celebrate my Dad’s birthday in a big way. It was just a quiet lunch with immediate family and one close friend from his Monfort school days.

I had  planned to go home for Papa’s 70th birthday. I hadn’t been home since we moved back from India after living there for a year. Two and a half years. I was so ready to go home to my parents. I ended up going alone because the kids had school and couldn’t take off for two weeks.

I took a day off from work to go shopping for gifts. After several hours spent wandering around the mall and its menagerie of shops, I still couldn’t find one gift befitting the occasion. So I settled for several smaller gifts. Books, a t-shirt that said “Papa” and a stash of letters addressed to “My Incredible Dad.” You see he is always asking me to write letters and I can never find time to sit down and write to him except when I’m waiting at airports to board a flight.

When I landed in Chennai, the city gave me its usual stinky welcome and I was on sensory overload for the next two weeks. The food had an exotic taste to it (although I pretty much cooked the same thing back in the U.S.). The vivid colors, the crowds, the noise engulfed me and so did the love of my parents. With the kids and my brother absent, I was the sole object of their affection! And how I basked in it.

I gave my Dad one gift every day up until his birthday. I baked a chocolate cake for him, that didn’t turn out as well as I wanted it to. (Note to self: Bring high quality cocoa powder from the U.S. next time.) But it was consumed in two days and I’m guessing my parents loved it.

My dear friend N came down from Pondicherry a day before my Dad’s birthday. Since her birthday had just passed we decided to celebrate with a black forest cake. The girl loves Italian, so we walked down to “Little Italy’s” and stuffed ourselves with garlic bread, lasagna, and gnocchi. My Dad treated us to ice cream at Amadova. We ended up eating “Bournvita” flavored ice cream to counter our over indulgence but ended up too stuffed for our own good. Suffice to say the walk back home was surprisingly long and hard.

On March 1st I gave my Dad the stash of letters, an Origami card from his granddaughter, and a card and some NC chocolates from my friend at work. My Dad’s friend from his school days (the same one who came down to celebrate his 60th birthday) showed up with a humungous chocolate cake and other gifts. My mom and I made puris and potatoes (my Dad’s favorite), curd rice, grated carrots, paneer curry, fried mushrooms, and fried rice for lunch. N left for Pondicherry after lunch.

In the evening, we put two candles (7 and 0) on the cake and had my Dad cut it. We all took turns feeding him cake. His friend, ever playful, tried to put cake all over Papa’s face but only succeeded in smearing some on his cheek. His nephew came over to pick him up later that evening. I have to say that some friends are one in a million and once you find a friend like that you hold onto them for rest of your life. And Uncle V is definitely such a friend. Even my friend N, who reads people like she’s a psychic, could tell he is special.

Next day, it was my turn to be graced by a visit from my friend from school. J and I ended up giggling like school girls and then she took me out to have some Indo-Chinese fare with her lovely daughters. I stuffed myself with chop suey, gobi Manchurian, chilli mushroom and fried rice. The girls insisted on ordering fried ice cream – a desert I had heard of but had never sampled. The verdict? I loved it and would definitely order it again.

After a couple of days my aunt flew down from Mumbai. Papa and I rode the metro rail to receive her at the airport. I have to say the station and the trains were cleaner than the New York metro. It was not crowded and shined like new. The white straps hanging from the top of the train to my great surprise weren’t grimy or grey.

The next morning my aunt and uncle came down from Kerala. My parents had bought sarees for all of us and we went shopping for matching blouses that evening. Again you can spend hours in saree shops looking at all the lovely weaves, hues, and designs. But we had rush back home and pack for our big trip the next day.

After packing way too much food (which we didn’t end up eating) we left early next morning for Thirukadaiyur, a temple town famous for celebrating 60th, 70th, 75th, and 80th birthdays. Six hours and many kilometers later we reached there safely, thanks to a driver who didn’t feel the need to race against time. After resting for a bit, we proceeded to the temple for the 1st set of poojas. (Look out for my next blog post on the story behind the temple.)

My dad and mom exchanged garlands while the nadaswaram and drums played and escorted them to the place where the priests were waiting for us. Sixteen homams had to be done and some of them were done that evening. The next day we were back at the temple at 8.00 a.m. where my parents garlanded each other again to the accompaniment of the drums and nadaswaram as is the custom at Hindu weddings. After a few more poojas and homams we proceeded to pour 16 pots of water on them. My mom shivered as the cold water hit her. After they changed into dry clothes, they garlanded each other again and we all sought their blessings. The very same day we returned back to Chennai and the next day I had to return back to the U.S. My whirlwind trip had come to an end.

Now that I’m back, the whole trip is like a blur. But I remember my mom’s soft idlis and sambar, my dad rubbing tiger balm on my swollen feet, my aunt letting me sleep on her lap when we were driving back to Chennai, my other aunt stitching a blouse for my daughter, and my uncle packing idols of Ganesha for me and staying up with me when I couldn’t sleep due to jet lag. I remember the unconditional love that only parents can give you and the sweet embrace of my friends. I will cherish this trip for years to come and I hope and pray that I get to spend many such precious moments with my parents and my extended family and friends.


2 Comments

Along Came Lucky

My daughter rushed into the room, “Amma! There is a kitten outside and it has been abandoned by its mother. It was hungry and we fed it some milk and Acha named it Lucky,” she said. It was 8 in the morning and I was still in bed contemplating another miserable day spent languishing on the couch. But my curiosity got the better of me and I got up and went downstairs. My daughter beamed proudly as she pointed to the kitten crouched behind some cardboard boxes. I hadn’t seen her this happy in a long time. I peered behind the box and two little grey eyes with a black and white face looked back at me and mewed pleadingly. Something melted deep inside of me and all my defenses came crumbling down. All my sadness stood meaningless in front of this poor helpless creature.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. We’ll feed you. We love you,” I found myself saying these words. I was offering the very comfort I was seeking and in that moment my life changed. If I could have named the kitten I would have gone with Joy because in a trice it had pulled me out of my sorrow.

Lucky was very wary of us on the first day, darting quickly behind the boxes whenever we made any quick movements or loud noises. The kids were relentless in attending to its needs. They made sure that it felt safe and it was fed. Now feeding Lucky was a challenge because both my husband and I had only had dogs for pets. Its diet on the first day was milk, curd rice and biscuits. When I went to sleep I prayed that Lucky would be around the next morning. The kitten had opened up a part of my heart that only pets can – by being vulnerable and by loving us unconditionally despite our flaws.

The next day Lucky seemed to be more at ease with the kids and allowed them to come close and touch it. It didn’t eat as much as it did on the first day. We replaced its coconut shell bowls with a plastic tray, now that Lucky was a part of our household. As we were playing with Lucky after dinner, a cat jumped onto the compound wall. My husband beamed the flash light in its direction and it slunk away into the dark. Could it be the mother cat? Will she whisk Lucky away in the dead of the night? Fears of losing him clouded our minds as we retired for the night. I prayed that he would be waiting for us in the morning.

My son gave Lucky an old ball to play with. In two days the frightened, helpless kitten had transformed into a sprightly fly-chasing fur ball! It let us stroke it and rub its belly. It ran to my son when he called his name and enjoyed playing with the kids. It tried to follow us inside but we decided to let Lucky be an outdoor cat. I remember how the neighbor’s cats used to steal fish from my grandma’s kitchen and I didn’t want any of that.

The kids had wanted a dog for a long time but life gave us a cat. In a moment of deep understanding I uttered these sage words, “We didn’t choose Lucky, Lucky chose us.”

Today we figured out ‘it’ is a male kitten. He showed up when we most needed it and it turned my focus outward. He touched my maternal chord. Triggered the flow of selfless love. If he wasn’t already named Lucky I’d probably have named it Miracle.

 


9 Comments

Uncertainty and Surrender

For a couple of years now we have been grappling with uncertainty. That strange feeling of not being in control and not knowing where you are headed. It started the year we left Florida. We were supposed to come back to India but somehow ended up in Washington. There again I knew we wouldn’t be staying for long. Every decision and interaction was colored by that knowledge. We all pulled on with bated breaths not knowing what to expect.

That was nothing compared to the state of flux we find ourselves in now. Everything seems to be up in the air, in space, nebulous as I stand gaping open mouthed for it to fall into my outstretched arms. Every day I wait and I return empty handed. The shapes dance and swim out of my vision – mocking me and enticing me with promising futures.

I lie in bed thinking of the world I left behind and the irony of it all is that I had wanted to leave – not when I had but many moons ago. I wanted to come back to something familiar, something certain. Something solid to build our lives on. Not a shifting and shaking earth. I have finally come back but that old familiar feeling has long gone. Gone are my cousins, brother, grandma, friends and so many places and people that made Chennai special. Made Chennai home. Home is a stable and secure place where we can be our best possible selves. But here I find myself flailing in my new surroundings trying to find my sea legs in this tremulous place. I’m not on solid ground. No terra firma here. Just undulating waves of uncertainty that wash you to uninhabited shores. So what does one do?

Uncertainty is part of life you say and I agree. Life wouldn’t be interesting if there weren’t some twists and turns every  now and then. But when uncertainty decides to make your life its primary dwelling place then things can get really sticky. After a point every waking moment is tinged in uncertainty that you simply cannot push it to some corner of your brain. It becomes every breath, every thought. Every instant you struggle with that hollow feeling deep inside and very soon the uncertainty turns into fear. Fear of the future and fear of failure.

Finally when my over wrought nerves could take it no more I sought refuge in God. I pleaded, I begged, I prayed but the uncertainty lingered on. It became bigger and bigger and harder to ignore. At long last when none of the old tricks worked I decided to stop fighting life and to simply surrender. There was no use straining, the shackles only became painfully tighter. No use swimming against the current to attain the unattainable. Let the waves lash, let the emotions smother you and let every damn security you invested in come crashing down. When you lie there stripped of everything, cold and trembling with your head held low in an act of complete and utter surrender, an outstretched hand appears to lift you up and out of the raging waters and soothes your troubled soul. To wipe the tears of frustration and show you hope. Hold on to that hand and never let go for it will take you to where you belong – home.


2 Comments

Haven’t I Been ‘Here’ Before?

My emotions surrounding our move to the Pacific North West were not entirely pleasant. It seemed like I had just about perfected my rhythm in life when this blaring move came along and threw me out of my poise. My blog was running along successfully. I had a part-time job that allowed me to balance work, home and the kids activities in a way that everyone flourished. And then this blasted move . It uprooted me from everything familiar and plunked me in a distant and seemingly unknown place.

My mental check list goes like this – friends- zilch, job – not a clue, number of hours spent job hunting – two to four, number of hours spent staring into space – infinite, self esteem – dangerously low and continuously plummeting. Being in an unfamiliar place, I hardly venture out afraid that I’d get lost. In an eerie way it reminded me of Boston and the early days of my married life. Thrown from a working independent woman to a full time housewife almost overnight. No drivers license, no work permit and debilitating morning sickness added to the miserable mix.

The circumstances are way different now but it was tempting to go down that spiral of self-pity and utter despair. In fact for a few weeks I wallowed in it. But luckily some higher wisdom kicked in and I remembered how I had moved from Boston to Florida. Again I didn’t have a job or a license. Within a year I got my license, then my blog came into being in 2 years and by the end of the 4th year I even had a job. The circumstances were the same and yet I had flourished.

I clearly saw two paths ahead of me at this crucial juncture in my life. One where my ego led me down the familiar road of depression, hopelessness and defeat and the other where the Universe led me through joyful experiences, love, passion, abundance and fulfillment. Is it any wonder I chose the latter?

On some days it feels like I’m going around in circles, following the beaten path over and over and going no where. I have to consciously lift myself out and hover above it to see it for what it is. I may be on the same path but unlike in the past, I now have an arsenal of tools to assist me. Light if you will, is a big part of this. I’m not stumbling and falling over every rock.  I step over them with ease. There is joy in my heart and hope even though my outside reality hasn’t changed yet. And faith so strong and unshakeable that even a storm will not throw me off my feet. I may be walking the same path but I sure am leaving a fresh set of footprints.

Sometimes I feel we are put into these kind of situations to show us how much we have grown spiritually and emotionally. Old emotions no longer have a hold over me. I believe that a higher power will slowly but surely show us a way out of these unpleasant situations.

As my inner reality shifts I see many things on the outside that are gifts. For instance our trip to Seattle reminded me so much of Boston. Both cities have a lot in common. Both are a melting pot of cultures, full of museums and places of historic interest. Pike Place Market in Seattle is akin to the Quincy Market. Ferries to Bainbridge and Bremerton reminded me of our trip to the Boston Islands. Whale watching is a favorite tourist attraction in both cities. Both cities are close to the Canadian border and buzzing with activities in the summer.

So in a way the part of me that ached for Boston is in ecstasy ( if I can quieten the part of me that screams Florida!)

If you want everything to be perfect before you can be happy you will never know happiness. Be happy and all else will follow. Pharrell Williams’s song  keeps playing in my head. Cos happiness is the truth!

 

P.S. The Universe agreed with a resounding yes! The song ‘Happy’ was playing on the radio right after I finished writing this post.


2 Comments

My Gastronomic Adventure – Part 2

Now the U.S. is a culinary jungle all by itself and living here for more than a decade has greatly influenced my cooking. As a young bride I focused on making everyday Indian food which was easy, given that I used to help my mom a lot in the kitchen and knew most of the basic recipes. I love Chinese food and we used to eat out at Chinese restaurants quite frequently. The Chinese food you get in India is usually spiced up and modified to suit the Indian palate. When I came to the U.S. I quickly discovered that most Chinese restaurants were Americanized. I was disappointed and craved Ind0-Chinese food so much that I started making it myself – just the fried rice, noodles and cauliflower Manchurian.

Another type of food that I missed was chaat (Indian snack food or street food). To try and explain what chaat is to someone who has never tasted it is next to impossible. Maybe the closest I can get to describing it is by borrowing a word from Japanese – Umami, which is a 5th taste, a savory taste. Chaat is an explosion of salty, sweet, tangy, spicy and crunchy that takes you to food heaven. So again I had to perfect my paav bhaji, pani puri and bhel puri for whenever the chaat cravings hit me hard.

I love to bake and out here baking is big. So I spent many years trying out different cake and pie recipes and now I have a few perfect ones under my belt. Like banana nut bread, apple pie (thanks to Aunty D’souza – who bakes the most amazing desserts), key lime pie (thanks to Florida) blueberry muffin, almond cake, brownies and chocolate chip cookies.

When you are vegetarian, eating out is such a tedious task. Our go-to places are Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants. My kids simply love Italian food and given a chance they would eat pasta every day. So chef DC did it again and perfected her pasta sauces, ravioli, lasagna, frittata and even home made pizza. The fun part of making pizza is getting the kids involved. They love getting in there and getting messy and I love cooking with them. It reminds me of the time I spent cooking with my mom and also G.

I used to spend many hours watching food network and my favorite show was 30 minute meals with Rachel Ray. She was my idol and I used to race against the clock and try and make Indian food (that typically takes hours to make) in just 30 minutes. The rice cooker and pressure cooker were my best friends and I quickly mastered the art of speedy chopping. So in under an hour I would make one veggie dish, one gravy and rice. I can make a one pot sambar (many traditional cooks frown upon this method) which to me tastes just as good.

Other friends I have made out here have also shared wonderful recipes with me. Most of my neighbors in Boston were from Andhra Pradesh, India and their dishes are very tasty and very different from ours. I learnt how to make mango dal and eggplant curry from them. My good friend and neighbor shared her mushroom biriyani recipe which has been passed on to many friends and is still a favorite at my house. She is a very good cook and we used to make and share vada and payasam during festivals and also try out different recipes and share them. She inspired me to make sweets for Diwali (although the seeds were sown by G’s family and Ganga). So I’ve made Ladoos, Jalebis, Halwas and Kheer. My neighbor S started making murrukkus with me when she was between jobs and I soon found myself in the possession of a murukku press (thanks to my husband), making murukkus from scratch.

My husband likes to cook on occasion and he has whipped up some very good recipes. One of the earliest ones was a veggie sub with grilled green pepper, mushroom, onions and tomatoes and melted cheese. He makes the best rava dosas and dry coconut chutney. These days he is into making plantain chips from scratch – we just finished frying up a batch after slicing them up in our spiffy new mandoline.

So that brings me to last month’s Thanksgiving Dinner. Firstly we don’t eat turkey – me because I’m vegetarian and the rest of my family simply doesn’t like it. So we replaced the turkey with chicken wings – buffalo style. My daughter wanted mashed potatoes and my son wanted lasagna! I replaced the lasagna with mushroom ravioli because it’s a lot easier to make and for dessert we had eggless cake. I’m glad I chose a simple menu because on the day before Thanksgiving I fell sick and I secretly thanked myself for not choosing to make Indian food! I consider myself a die-hard curry eater but no other cuisine involves so much soaking, grinding, marinating, frying, sautéing, mincing and spicing like Indian cuisine. Later that evening the guilt set in and I ended up making eggplant curry.

There is something about food that not only titillates your palate but also warms your heart and soul. When you break bread with someone, share your table or your cooking with someone, an invisible bond is formed – one that lasts for a long time and one that evokes a lot of fond memories of fun, food, family and friends. Here’s to your own culinary adventure…cheers!

 


3 Comments

My Gastronomic Adventure – Part 1

The other day as I chatted on the phone with my good friend G, with whom I have shared many a happy meal, I was flooded with food memories. Those of you who have seen me or pictures of me, know I have this figure that belies the foodie that I am. And yet food is such a big part of my life and my relationship with people. I guess if you are born in India, food is a big part of your life. We Indians spend a long time prepping, cooking, and enjoying meals.

Right from the womb I imagine every Indian baby floats in amniotic fluid laced with spice. Once out in the world, they take in the exotic aromas wafting through the warm air. Parents can barely wait to get their toddlers accustomed to spices. If you can’t take spice you aren’t fit enough to be Indian. I laugh when I see Indian parents fret and fume when their kids push away plates of spicy curry and ask for mac and cheese.

When I was a kid growing up in India my grandma had an amazing cook, Ganga. Her caramel custard was to die for and she made the best meatball curry (back then I used to eat meat). Fish fry and chicken curry were top notch and her biryani was awesome. Her dosas were crispy and brown and her chutneys always hit the right spot. Her parathas were flaky and soft and her garlic pickle was so famous that my friend M would bug me to bring some to school every day. Well you get the picture – I grew up in the lap of culinary excellence.

My best friend G lived across the street and I was always at her house. Her parents were from Punjab/ Uttar Pradesh and the food they cooked was entirely different from what we ate. I’m drooling here just thinking about Aunty Sharma’s Aloo and Methi paratha, arvi fry and just plain simple dal. I used to hang around all day until dinnertime and then they’d ask me to join them. I’d rush to the table after quickly calling my grandma to tell her I won’t be home for dinner. Dessert was another exotic experience at the Sharma’s. Malpua, ladoo, kheer and doodhi ka halwa to name a few.

At G’s place everyone helped out in the kitchen. At my grandma’s house I was not allowed to do any chores so I really enjoyed cooking and eating together at G’s place. I think my love for cooking started here. I used to bug my Mom to make cakes and puddings and she was most indulgent. Sultana sponge cake and coconut castle puddings were my favorite. She even got a second-hand cooking range (with an oven) – sort of a rarity in India. My brother and I used to invite our friends over and my Mom would cook a feast from scratch. Sometimes I’d test out some dishes on my unsuspecting friends (like baked cauliflower and potato).

My grandma from my Mom’s side lived in Kerala and she was an excellent cook. We visited her every summer (see Summer Escapes in God’s Own Country) and she baked us cardamom cake in her electric oven. She made marvelous shrimp curry and other fresh seafood. Her sambar was out of the world and she even made chocolate for us from her cocoa tree. Her neighbor used to help her make giant vats of mysore pak for us to take home.

In school we shared lunches with our friends and I remember R used to bring the tastiest Rajma (red kidney beans) and rice. When I was in college I was the only one in my group that brought lunch from home. My other friends ate in the mess or ordered food from the canteen. At the university, my dear friend A used to bring the tastiest Bisi Bela Bath. She actually brought two boxes. One for herself and another to share with the rest of us. Years later I wheedled the recipe from her and make my own BBB these days.

G and I decided to fast every Friday when we were in college. Looking back, I think it was crazy for two girls who live, breathe and dream about food to take up fasting. But we did it all the same. We only had tea and biscuits (cookies) in the morning and then drank water for the rest of day. We broke the fast in the evening by having dinner at my place or her place. Ganga and Aunty Sharma would go all out and cook multiple dishes for us poor starved girls. It would be a regular feast that we polished off. We’d end up stuffed, lying on the bed, so happy that we’d end up giggling. Giggling to the point where our tummies hurt. This went on for sixteen weeks and then we stopped because even God has His limits!

Now you all know I moved to the U.S. 11 years ago and the food culture here has influenced me in many ways. But that is a topic for a whole other blog – Part 2 of My Gastronomic Adventure follows…until then like Julia Child says – Bon Appetit.

 

 


10 Comments

A Heart Full of Gratitude

It is with utmost joy that I write (and now type) this post. A long awaited dream of mine has come true. Roll back to the second post I wrote (The Work Saga –http://www.punctuatelife.com/2012/02/13/the-work-saga/) and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I got a job! A real job! One that pays!

It’s been less than a month but I can’t keep it from the world any longer. No it’s not a writing job. It’s not even a full time job. But it’s just what I need. Part of me was always apprehensive about going to work and leaving the kids in daycare. I’m so used to being there for them when they get back from school that it was inconceivable to me to hand that responsibility to someone else.

Yet part of me craved for a job, for independence and even the companionship of colleagues. This I partially fulfilled by doing volunteer work at the school. The volunteer work (200 something hours spent cutting and gluing, helping with centers, buying supplies) finally paid off and landed me this job.

So at this job, I get to keep the kids with me, the hours work for me and my volunteer work helped me snag this job. I’ll keep you guessing while I go over my long list of things I’m immensely grateful for in my life. It goes without saying that I’m infinitely grateful for this job. I’m blessed to have two little angels for kids. They make each waking day a joy for me. From whiny, cranky, needy babies they have grown to be solid, sound and responsible little kids. I’m in awe of these little wonders that I helped bring into the world.

I’m thankful for an awesome husband who has made my life comfortable and easy. I live an almost stress-free lifestyle thanks to him – he bears the burden of providing for the family, paying the bills, planning for the future. I know he will take care of even the tiniest detail and that we are safe and secure under his wing.

I’m thankful for my family – my parents, brother, in-laws and my adopted Grandma (Ganga). We had the good fortune of celebrating my father-in-law’s 80th birthday with him. Thank you for all your prayers, support and good wishes over the years. A special thank you to my awesome brother who keeps giving me feedback about my blog and doing a lot of PR for me.

I’m thankful for my friends who swoop down to my rescue when family cannot. Without you guys I wouldn’t be writing this blog. Your support and encouragement over the years has built my confidence, has reminded me when I have forgotten who I am and what I am capable of. A special thank you to my bosom friend N for always finding time to comfort me, praying incessantly for me and my family (like her own) and above all for believing in me when I did not believe in myself.

My dear friend S tied the knot this year and I’m so happy for her. When you have a friend you have known from the cradle, you can’t help but want her to be happy and settled (not just money-wise or career-wise but also partner-wise). So I’m thankful that she finally found her soul mate and is starting to live her happily ever after.

I’m thankful that we finally got our green card (this summer) after years of waiting. I’m also very thankful that I got to see fall colors this year after a long time. I’m thankful for good weather out here in Florida (snow is really not my thing). Thankful for food on our table. Thankful for good people in my life. Thankful for every reader (secret ones too) and subscribers. Thankful for my blog. Thankful for my pet fish. Thankful for miles and miles of beaches. Thankful for my little garden and the flowers blooming outside. Thankful for electricity and running water. Thankful for a warm and cozy home. Thankful for Mother Earth. Thankful for sunshine and rain. Thankful for laughter, good health and joy and I wish you all the same. Have a happy Thanksgiving y’all.