Archive for the ‘Moments’ Category

Train on Wiesener Viadukt, Switzerland. Photo by David Gubler (www.bahnbilder.ch) via Wikimedia Commons

Train on Wiesener Viadukt, Switzerland. Photo by David Gubler (www.bahnbilder.ch) via Wikimedia Commons

(Rather conveniently, as you’ll see below, this was the Photo of the Day on Wikimedia Commons today.)

I’ve been away (on the exquisite shores of Curaçao, in the Dutch Antilles), but in the few days since my return, a few good nuggets have caught my attention:

India and film/photography

First and foremost, this gorgeously shot and completely fascinating film on the Aghori sadhus (holy men) of Varanasi, India. Very timely, as yesterday was the Maha Shivaratri festival celebrating Lord Shiva. Three young men–photographers and filmmakers–spent weeks on the banks of the Ganges among these holy men whose closeness to death, skulls and human ashes makes them both controversial and revered. Put life on hold and do watch this, then also check out these accompanying photos. Thanks to Farhana Huq for calling my attention to these.

Books and photographs

On the subject of photographs, here is another set, with very different subjects. This is what a librarian looks like. Any surprises?

The business of books

I found these statistics, on newspaper book reviews, reviewers and gender, thought provoking. Are female book reviewers likely to skew their reviewing toward women authors? What do you expect?

And while we’re talking of book reviews:
Do we really need negative book reviews? What is the value of criticism that is “unable or unwilling to criticize?” Should one go by the old adage, if you have nothing nice to say…? (via Randy Susan Meyers)

Writing

The world of writers was abuzz last week with Amtrak’s announcement that it is putting together a program of free or low-cost rides for writers wanting to use them as a writing retreat. As both a writer and an infrastructure planner (in a previous life), I was immediately deluged by vivid memories of train rides throughout my life, slicing through European countryside nibbling on butter cookies (edges and corners first) with my parents and brother, stopping in the middle of the night for the passport control in the Alps between France and Switzerland, piling onto the French TGV with classmates and mounds of duffel bags for an eighth grade school trip to the Mediterranean coast, peeing into the hole in the bathroom of the first class car of a train cutting through the dusty middle of India and watching the clankety tracks whizz by underneath, spilling apple juice all over my copy of Watership Down at the age of 11 as a train leaned into a curve, climbing up into the hills north of Tokyo among the cherry blossoms and mineral-green waterfalls in the Shikansen with my three year old’s head, heavy with sleep, cutting off the circulation in my thigh.

Needless to say, trains conjure up memories, descriptions, feelings of excitement, new ideas. What better location to sit and write? I’ll be following Amtrak’s program with much interest.

India and infrastructure

Google Maps has announced the availability of Street View and See Inside in India. There’s a slight creepiness to the fact that one can clearly see the people who happened to be at those spots when the pictures were taken, but at least a reasonable effort has been made to blur their faces. From a research standpoint, this ability to view specific locations is very useful. One can get an accurate sense, for example, of how far one can see from the rooftop of the Jaisalmer fort (click on the little yellow figure on the bottom right for the dots to appear that represent areas you can explore). Or how the shadows lengthen across a certain courtyard at sunset.

And now I want to get on a train and leave frigid Massachusetts and its dirt-encrusted snow for Rajasthan.

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Brookline_Booksmith

Brookline Booksmith. Photo by Eric Wilbur

I had one hour and forty-five minutes. It was a rare oasis of time for a Sunday. Time for myself, away from home, away from the temptations of planning out the week’s meals or running a load of laundry so as to start the week in an organized manner. Big One had a birthday party just far enough from home for it not to make sense to drop her off, go home, then pick her up again. But she’s just about 9 now, and it was made clear that parents were not to taint the party with the uncoolness of their presence. (Besides, I confess to doing a little jig for joy when she was invited, four years ago, to her first “drop off” birthday party. I think there may have been some liability waiver to sign, a padded room and gymnastics equipment, but it all seemed wonderful to me at the time.) So I left her in a moon bounce with about eight other girls (and many more, disgorged from vehicles sidling up to the sidewalk while parents watched them cross, streaming over to the yard, present in hand, shoes already half kicked off) in the eighty degree relative coolness that has followed a week of temperatures hovering around 100 degrees. Feeling light, I decided to take a stroll around Coolidge Corner a few blocks away.

I was well aware of the danger: the Brookline Booksmith, fabulous independent book shop, sits squarely in the center of Coolidge Corner, wedged between two coffee shops. I intended simply to mosey around and take in the new stores and restaurants, let my thoughts float. I considered crossing the street before getting to the book shop, just to reduce the likelihood of my getting ensnared. I thought: I do not need more books. I do not need more books. Not now. My shelves are already overflowing, and on my bedside table alone are three books I’ve been toting about for weeks: Erin Morgenstern‘s The Night Circus, to investigate what all the hullabaloo is about; Rosie Llewellyn-Jones’ Engaging Scoundrels, part of my research on Lucknow; and Janet Burroway‘s Writing Fiction, my current craft Bible. I tried to convince myself I had no immediate need for more unread books. I can always go purchase one later, correct? In my study, piles of unread books hide the spines of others.

I approached the book shop door, confident of my fortitude, steeling myself against its power. Just then, a woman pushing a stroller with another young child on a scooter trailing behind her paused in front of the door, clearly trying to devise her strategy for pulling it open and maneuvering her charges in. Instinctively, I opened it for her, and instinctively, I followed her in. Just for ten minutes. Not intending to buy anything. Just curious as to what books were displayed up front. Research into marketing and promotion for a book I hope to send out into the world soon.

Stop snickering, please. I can hear you.

I abide by schedules, even–perhaps especially–my own. I was, in fact, in there for just ten minutes. But in those ten minutes, an entire sea of thoughts, emotions, memories, hopes and ideas. Even dreams. In those ten minutes, I took in, in the most superficial of ways–my eyes sliding over displays, barely taking the time to focus–the “Recently Arrived” and “New in Paperback” tables and the second half of the fiction section, going backwards from Z to K, not even bothering to turn my head to read the spines. But even in that quick time, in my refusal to succumb fully, the book shop worked its magic.

There were many of the books I hear about repeatedly, and I must have reached the magical hear-about-it-seven-times-in-order-to-buy it moment in the case of three of them, because within two minutes they were tucked under my arm. There was Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild, which has received, well, wild acclaim. In what I’ve read of her and by her, Ms. Strayed seems like quite a likable person, and her story is compelling. There was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (actually, Bringing up the Bodies, but once I decided I’d buy one, it made sense to start at the beginning) which I justified as another piece of research, to see how an author brings to life such a distant time period with such success. There was B.A. Shapiro‘s The Art Forger, which keeps popping up ever since I took a seminar with the author at last year’s Muse & the Marketplace conference, and which I can also chalk up to research (neat how I do that, no?) because it is fiction that involves the art world, the way mine does.

There were the books of people I’ve come to know via social media and for whom I’ve been cheering, whose familiar names staring out at me from book covers made me smile for their success at bringing a book to market: Together Tea, by Marjan Kamali, whom I met in person at the conference last year, and whose journey to publication seems not dissimilar to mine (barring the minor fact that she actually has a book in stores now); and Eden Lake by Jane Roper, a woman of extraordinary grit and humor who is managing to have a writing career in the midst of a massive family challenge.

There were books I have read, and whose images, atmospheres and characters remain strong in my mind. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, magical for its storytelling power, and vividly rendered on the screen by Ang Lee. There was Jesmyn Ward‘s Salvage the Bones, which left me with searing images of a bone white dog, ragged but tough children, earth and blood and roiling water. I give it as a gift to an elderly Jewish grandmother and to a teacher/mentor of mine before reading it myself, then wondered, after I had read it, what they’d think of it, of me. There was Abraham Verghese‘s Cutting for Stone, memorable for its cast of characters, its unusual setting (beginning in Ethiopia of the 1950s) which I recommend widely. There was writer and polemicist (isn’t that such a wonderful word?) Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things, and images of a small boy’s confusion in the sticky darkness of a cinema (the “talkies”) in south India, and an alluring dark body dancing by the river.

There were the many, many books I wanted to purchase that I didn’t. Not this time around. I was drawn to the cover of Polpo, a beautiful octopus splayed out on a cookbook from a Venetian restaurant by the same name. I thought of how much my children both love octopuses–one of them sleeps with a stuffed octopus, one of them is always keen to eat marinated octopus. There was Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, whom I admire greatly not only for her writing but for her success as a versatile writer, adept at many genres, and able to avoid being pigeon-holed. There was The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht whose name and background, and achievement at a young age, are intriguing (enviable?).

But my time was up. Ten minutes. I worked my way through the pleasing crowd to the cash register, paid my $49, and left.

I stepped out into the world, a dramatic sky overhead, part thundercloud and part dazzling blue, and it seemed everyone around me harbored an obsession. A wrought woman, all skin and bone, walked in the opposite direction, one hand clutching her phone to her ear, one arm wrapped around herself, as though to hold herself together. A group of seemingly homeless folk were gathered around a bench, one of them perhaps three hundred and fifty pounds, wedged into a electric wheelchair, the arm rests digging into the folds of flesh at his sides. The others were weathered, coarse, cigarettes dangling from their dry lips. A short man covered in tattoos held a beribboned little girl in his arms, her shoes, skirt, t-shirt, sunglasses and hair ribbons all varying shades of pink. In the coffee shop, an elderly woman so thin as to look two dimensional was hunched over a tall cup of coffee and drinking the entire thing with a tea spoon, occasionally looking up and around with wild and distrusting eyes. Stories everywhere.

When are my next ten minutes?

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Filed under: Monday Memoir

Remember these?

Remember these?

Dee-doo dee-doo!

“Let’s do dee-doo dee-doo!” This is Little One’s rallying cry to launch Skype and visit with the grandparents who reside in France.

“Oh, we’re doing a visit?” chimes in Big One. “I’m going to my room to get my flute to play for them.” She scoots up the stairs, and is back in an instant with an armful of items to share with them as I set up the laptop on the coffee table. Little One is rummaging through her toy bin to find her latest treasure, a rubbery blue frog with a disturbingly large tongue. She starts flapping it wildly in front of the computer even though no one is online yet.

We will Call Calcutta now

How different this all is from the days—always Saturdays—three decades ago when my parents, my brother and I would gather to Call Calcutta (it was always like that: “Children, we’re going to call Calcutta now”) to speak with my father’s mother. My heart would sink. I never knew what to say to my grandmother, a sweet but strong, soft but firm woman then in her 70s who lived so far away in distance and, it felt to me, in time. I loved her, and had many pleasant associations with her from our family visits to her home: the soothing odor of sandalwood and anise; the tickle of her hands rubbing my back ever so gently; the softness of her plain, widow’s saris and of her cheeks as I kissed her good night; the reassuring jangle of her massive ring of keys tied to the end of her sari; the unwavering love with which she indulged my every whim. But so far removed from her, ensconced in my Parisian childhood, with my parents hovering over me and my grandmother valiantly trying to engage me in conversation without knowing any of what mattered to me—my school, my friends—I wanted to shrink from the phone.

I keep getting engaged

It would start with all four of us in the living room, first around a rotary phone, then some years later around the first press button phones. For some reason, my recollection is strongest of the times when my brother had already left for college, and I, six years younger, was on my own with my parents. My father would pick up the receiver and dial whatever he needed in order to reach an Indian operator. This in itself could take several attempts. Once he got through, the volume of his already powerful phone voice automatically went up a few more decibels. I would worry that the neighbors would hear everything and be annoyed. He would put the phone on speaker and we would hear the distant, tinny voice of the operator with her lilting Indian accent. “I’m getting engaged,” she would say, indicating that the line was busy. “I keep getting engaged.” Or sometimes she would fail completely to make the connection. Or the call would get dropped. My mother would start to float away into the kitchen or pick up the newspaper. My father would pace around a few minutes. I’d slink back to my room, silently hoping we wouldn’t be able to make the connection, then thinking of my grandmother and feeling bad. My father would then start the whole rigmarole again.

How are you keeping?

Eventually, after what could be a couple of hours, we’d get a connection. “Pronob?” would come my grandmother’s hopeful voice, uttering her son’s name. “Hein!” my father would yell into the receiver. My mother would hurry back to join him, straining to hear her mother-in-law. I would drag my feet back down the hall to the living room. A conversation in Bengali would ensue, sprinkled with enough words in English that I could glean the basic gist: updates would be exchanged regarding health, doctors, relatives, house affairs, longtime servants (still referred as such back then).

Then the receiver would come to me, moist and warm. My parents would stay nearby, presumably in case the line got cut and we needed to restart the whole process. As though I wouldn’t know to call for them. I desperately wanted to turn off the speakerphone, not because there was anything to hide in my stilted conversation with my grandmother, but because their hearing both ends added to my anxiety about how to respond to her questions. She would do her best, asking me how school was going (fine) and how I was “keeping” (well.) I would ask about her health… and then I didn’t know what else to say. I could picture her well, and the house, the wall and heavy gate that separated it from Little Russell Street, the rows of lush potted plants along the walkway to the door. I could imagine the slightly off-kilter whir of the ceiling fan, the front edge of each blade caked in dark brown grime. I could hear the crows, the honking cars, the clatter and chatter coming from the kitchen. But I wondered what she could imagine of my life. She had traveled widely and visited us in France, in Switzerland, in the UK. But, I thought, what did she truly understand of a little girl’s life in the 70s and 80s in these places, when she’d grown up, married at age 9, in the Calcutta of the 1910s?

The corollary to these calls, to the distance between us, was the awkwardness with which I tended to greet my grandmother when we did see her, either (most frequently) in India, or in Europe. Her face would break into smiles as soon as she saw me, and she would pull me into the soft folds of her sari, holding me in her gentle way. “Anju-buri” she would croon repeatedly. Her delight in seeing me would feel overwhelming, mostly because in those first moments, I did not know how to relate to her.

No more disconnect

When my children greet my parents, often at the airport, or perhaps on arrival at our home or theirs, there are immediate hugs and kisses all around. Everyone starts chattering. Conversation picks up as though it had just ended a few minutes earlier. And that is almost the fact. Weekly video visits, interspersed with phone calls made on a whim, keep everyone apprised of all the details of daily life. My parents know the names of Big One’s friends, have seen the latest school report, have read books aloud to Little One via the screen, have sung songs with both of them and seen their latest favorite books or items of clothing. My children have commented on their grandmother’s haircut or new glasses, have joked around with their grandfather about some mannerism of his. So that when they are all put in a room together, the reunion is seamless.

I wonder what might have been possible had such technology been available to my family when I was a child. Looking back, I see how limited my knowledge and understanding of my grandparents was. Will my children look back in thirty or forty years and think the same thing, unable to fathom that there could ever have been a disconnect so much deeper than what they experienced?

Related posts: Calcutta Bangles, Charlotte, Storms Past and Present.

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Kanazawa street at sunset

Kanazawa street at sunset

(All photos by my husband. My hands were busy pushing a stroller.)

I returned recently from two weeks in Tokyo, Takayama, Kanazawa and Kyoto. The trip was sublime, even with a not-quite-three year old in tow. It is an experience that is remaining with me, impressions and images vivid in my mind even as I have been fully sucked back into the whirlwind and mundane aspects of regular life. And I can tell these will stay with me for a long time, with my self as an observer of the world, as a student of an art form, as a parent and as a writer.

Three things resonated with me the most, the first of which was the attention to detail, the thought put into the smallest of things. Everywhere were umbrellas available for borrowing, and bins for drippy ones post use. All restaurants we frequented, no matter how un-childish, immediately set out plastic utensils and bowls for the little one. All toilet seats were pre-warmed. (Well, that’s a whole other topic–the intricacies of the toilets or “washlets” and the many functions they can perform.) Every room we stayed in was equipped with a Zojirushi hot water maker, ready on demand with water for tea (with different settings for green and black). There is a focus on service, even outside the service industry. People came up to us to offer help, to give up their subway seats for the children. And I could wax rapturous about the ekiben, the bento box lunches made and sold specifically for train trips.

All this spoke to me of a people aware of their surroundings. A week after our return, I sat at the Muse & the Marketplace writing conference in Boston listening to acclaimed literary critic James Wood give a keynote talk in which he focused on the notion of the writer’s ability and mandate to “seriously notice” the world around her, and I thought about how much more the Japanese seem to seriously notice their surroundings, and care about them, than Americans overall. (Pardon the generalization, but I trust you understand what I mean.)

Takayama cherry blossoms

Takayama cherry blossoms

Which leads me to the second strongest impression I had in Japan: aesthetics reign. The emphasis on presentation–of spaces, of food, of nature, of objects, of oneself–and the importance of doing things right and getting to their essence was a delight. And I realized how much I value this. I may never have articulated as much to myself, but I understand now that a focus on aesthetics is something I have always appreciated, for better or for worse. From the way I used to set the table in my childhood home, folding the napkins into fans and arranging the tomatoes and cucumbers into designs on the lettuce, to the way I fear sharing some of my writing, even before writing it, because it won’t be sufficiently well-crafted. Sometimes I wonder in frustration why one should bother to make an extra effort, but now, having been to Japan, I see how such an effort, on a larger scale, can be transformative. The small, ten foot square gardens in front of the most modest of homes, with their thoughtfully arranged stones and moss and maple tree, are delightful enough, but then look at the Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa, and how everywhere the eye turns it is met with magnificent compositions, and one is almost overwhelmed by the magical aesthetics of it all.

Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa

Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa

The timing of this trip, along with these realizations, has segued most serendipitously into an exercise: crafting a writer’s mission statement. With a juggle of responsibilities and minimal time to write–the plight of most writers–I want to ensure that I deploy my resources on those activities that will get me closer to what I truly want to achieve as a writer, and that necessitates, unfortunately, that I figure it out and articulate that goal to myself. (Admittedly, this provides a good opportunity to put off actual work on one’s manuscript, under the guise of an otherwise productive and useful endeavor.) As soon as I was over the incapacitating jet lag of our trip, I sat down to think about what really drives me to write fiction, and adhering to a strong sense of aesthetics figures strongly there. The Kenroku-en garden is like an ideal to strive for, a magical place that engages the senses, where the sum of individual and carefully crafted parts adds up to a wholly immersive experience.

Garden at Denpo-in, Tokyo

Garden at Denpo-in, Tokyo

With current writing projects focused on India, people in unique societal positions, history and art, this third aspect of Japan grabbed at me and won’t let go: the very aliveness of and respect for history and tradition without any compromise to the advances of modernity. In the midst of high rises and neon (arguably not really advances) will be nestled a gorgeous shrine, set about with lovingly shaped trees, swinging lanterns, and incense sticks whose spirals of blue smoke are a testament to the attentions of living souls. In the bustling streets, in front of a convenience store, will be a trio of kimono-clad women going about their business of simply living. In the traditional townhouse, or machiya, that we rented in Kyoto, stunning in its simplicity, was a wooden soaking tub, a mainstay of Japanese cleansing rituals.

Kimonos in Kanazawa

Kimonos in Kanazawa

Kyoto machiya

Soaking tub, Kyoto 

Kyoto machiya

Last night, as I was singing to the little one before bed and after her own bath, I overheard a conversation between eight year old K and her father. After the usual prodding, K was going through the routine of cleaning up her belongings in the common areas–sweater flung across the armchair, sneakers tossed in the general direction of the closet, Scotch tape and paper scraps from her craft project involving a stuffed baby kangaroo on the counter–before retiring to her lair, I mean, bedroom.

K: Why do I always have to go around cleaning up every single little thing?
Father: Remember when we were in Japan, and things were so neat and simple and organized, and how much we all enjoyed that?
K: Yeah. (Her intonation rises, implying the unsaid: What’s your point?)
Father: Well, wouldn’t it be nice to bring a little bit of that into our own home?
K: But we’re in America!

I wonder if she meant that as in “We’re not in Japan” or whether it was more of an observation about America itself. Regardless, isn’t that why we travel? To experience and assimilate new ideas, new aesthetics, new perspectives? What experiences in other locales have had a long-lasting impact on your life or work?

Shirakawago

Shirakawago

 

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BookClub

Yesterday afternoon, as I prepped my home to host and run the first meeting of K’s book club, I felt an odd nervousness. What if the girls—the gaggle of eight year olds arriving straight from a birthday party—were just not interested? The book was The Secret Garden, which I knew for a fact some of them did not enjoy, and did not finish. K was among those. For the first couple of weeks of the month, I had reminded her repeatedly to read the book, until it became clear she just was not nearly as absorbed by it as she was by the Goosebumps series with which she’s recently become obsessed. I worried that the other girls would come grudgingly, that their lack of interest would be indicative of a failure on my part or, worse of society in general.

I used the precious time that the toddler was asleep and K was at the birthday party to make afternoon tea sandwiches (cuke and butter, cuke and cream cheese, salmon and cream cheese) and set out a bone china tea set, to dash out to buy a bouquet of roses (the main flower of the garden in the book) and set up a table of pencils and markers for the girls to draw their own secret garden. I created personalized binders, and book review sheets, and all the while I thought: I could be using this time to read, to write, to exercise, to do any number of things for myself which are always the first to fall by the wayside. I grumbled at myself for, once again, putting too much of myself into something that could yield disappointment, for caring too much.

At exactly five o’clock, they arrived, carpooling from the birthday party. I opened the door and let in a gush of cold air and a tumble of jabbering kids, one of whom immediately showed me the copy of the book she read and told me how “cool” it was that she was reading the selfsame copy her mother read 30 years ago. They flung their jackets on the newel post and disgorged their birthday loot (panda-themed bracelets, goodies, stuffed pandas) on the couch and chairs and floor. They set upon their binders, looking at the book review sheets, and coloring the stars to rate the book. Are there snacks? they asked. I told them there was tea, finger sandwiches and scones, and they squealed in delight and asked if they could have tea right away. (I spared them treacle and porridge and beef-tea, which would have been more true to the book. What is beef-tea anyway?) My worries dissolved.

What followed was the most enjoyable and satisfying 90 minutes I have ever spent with a bunch of 8 year olds. We fell into an animated, engaging, literary discussion of the language, plot and characters of The Secret Garden. We talked about the use of “broad Yorkshire” and how the choice of language, although at times difficult to decipher, added immeasurably to the sense of place. We discussed the ways in which the book is different from what the girls usually read, and they made astute observations about “the Harry Potter era” of books. We talked about attitude, how it can change, what made Mary a “sour” child, whether she helped Colin for himself or for her or for some other reason. The girls told me about which parts they “connected” with the most. We discussed the “magic” of the garden. We talked about what constitutes a “classic.” The girls were raising their hands, jumping up and down for a chance to express themselves. We could have gone on for much longer, but we had not budgeted enough time.

They all had tea, and downed the scones and sandwiches and berries. They drew elaborate secret gardens of their own, with tree houses and swimming pools. They discussed and negotiated the choice of the book for May (From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), and clamored for their copies of the April book (Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing), announcing they were going to start reading it right away. And then they all left in a whoosh like flock of twittering birds, gathering up their birthday goodies, riffling through the pile of clothes for their pink and purple and blue jackets, and clattering down the stairs to the cars of the three parents who were going to redistribute them to their respectful homes in the neighborhood.

They left behind scone crumbs on the rug, a coffee table strewn with teacups and plates, a water bottle, a plastic bag from a party favor, and a very pleased hostess. Among all the things I have volunteered to do, this one so far has yielded the highest satisfaction-to-effort ratio.

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First in a new series.

Trigger: 8 year old K informs me that she can hear me coming from the sound of my bracelets.

The summer I turned sixteen, I spent a month in my grandmother’s house in Calcutta, convinced I was going to die. As in, die right there, not make it home. I had traveled there on my own from Long Island, NY, where I had spent the previous month nearly dying of boredom in a musty, dark, pre-fab type house in a soggy and wooded depression near Brookhaven National Lab which suffered from its own miserable micro-climate. (I think I also visited some colleges then, but the dank house left much more of an impression on me.) But the “I’m dying” feeling I had in Calcutta the following month was much more real as it involved fevers, vivid and bizarre dreams, and endless trips to the bathroom.

The long journey began smoothly enough, insofar as departures from JFK International Airport are smooth. The overnight flight deposited me in Paris around 6 am, and as my next flight, to Delhi, wouldn’t leave until the evening, I had the time to take the commuter rail and subway into the city, stop in at our home to water the plants, sort through the mail and make sure all was well between the two month-long sublets, meet a family friend for lunch, and head back out to the airport.

The troubles began on the second flight, to Delhi. I’ll spare you details. Suffice it to say that I was exhausted, doubly jet-lagged, and feeling the beginnings of panic in the pit of my stomach by the time I landed in the smoggy humidity of Delhi. Thankfully, another family friend met me at the airport amidst the push and shove of the throng right outside the arrival doors, and ushered me, in his air conditioned car, to his serene home where I slept for a couple of hours before heading out, yes, to another flight. The final leg, to Calcutta.

Most of my month-long sojourn at 9A Little Russell Street that year is a blur, but a couple of memories are vivid, and one is the following: Lakshmi, faithful employee (still referred to as “servants” back then) of my grandmother for decades, sitting on the floor by the side of my grandmother’s bed to which I was confined, fanning me when the load-shedding caused the ceiling fan to come to a halt. No matter what time I awoke, no matter how many or how few times, she was always there, a quiet but reassuring presence in the dim room. Quiet, but not entirely: the jangle of her thin gold bangles up and down her arm when she moved was what told me that she was there. And it is what told me that I was not alone, and that perhaps, after all, I would not die during that visit.

Toward the end of my stay, when I began to recover from what was probably the double whammy of a bug of some kind combined with an unfortunate reaction to anti-malarials, my grandmother presented me with a blue velvet-covered jewelry box. The velvet was thinning in places, revealing the bald box below, and the clasp was a carefully wrought one, a silver latch that caught onto a very small knob. Inside was a set of three thin gold bangles, the middle one decorated with delicate pieces of ruby. It was the first of many such boxes of her jewelry that she gave me that summer, and probably the one of least monetary value, but when I slipped them on that day, I felt as though those bracelets were giving me an almost magical type of power, to one day bring the sound of reassurance to someone else. I’ve worn them every day since then.

A few days ago, when I entered K’s room to wake her for school, treading carefully so as not to impale my heal on a stray Playmobil personage, K rolled over sleepily and said: “I can always hear you coming by the sound of your bracelets.” I smiled in the dark, both surprised and not that she could hear their thin tinkle through her closed door. “Is that a good thing?” I asked her. She nodded. I brushed her forehead and gave her a kiss, glad that I’d been right, all those years ago. So when, a day later, she announced that from now on she wanted to use her alarm clock to wake her up every morning, I felt a sudden sadness. Ok, I told her, if you want. Because when your child wants such an easy piece of independence, you give it to her. I showed her how to set the alarm and turn it off.

Friday morning, after I slunk past her room without waking her, heading straight for the kitchen to pack lunch boxes and make breakfast, I heard her bedroom door open, the bathroom door close, and I knew she’d managed to get up on her own. The end of an era? But then she traipsed down the stairs, and the first words out of her mouth were: “That alarm clock is much more unpleasant than I expected.” I laughed. “Beep-beep, beep-beep!” I said. “No, don’t, it’s horrible! And it’s hard to turn off, and then I was worried I’d wake up S, and I didn’t like it one bit.” So I asked her if she’d rather go back to Mom waking her up, and she nodded. Whew!

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After just over four years of dance, K, who will turn turn eight in the summer, received her first set of bells on Sunday. These are the ghungroo*, the little brass bells that are woven (by the dancer, or in this case, the dancer’s mother) onto a length of thin rope. These are the bells worn by the kathak dancer around the ankles, wound tightly in coils over a protective layer of felt, the bells that turn the dancer into a musical instrument. The bells arrive via mail in a clump, purchased in bulk (from bellsonline.net, of course) and then we loop them (75 per leg in K’s case) onto the rope in a time-consuming but meditative process that involves a lot of jingling and is sure to wake a napping baby.

The conferring of ghungroo takes place through a traditional ceremony of the type we rarely take the time to slow down for these days. The hall we rented was decorated with Indian cloths and garlands of flowers, the little stage transformed into an altar of sorts, with pictures of the dance gurus (the lineage of teachers of  Chhandika, our dance school), a statuette of Nataraja, Lord of Dance, an incense holder. Each dancer brought an offering of a coin, an element of nature and sweets or fruits to share. The bundles of bells are neatly lined up, each one wrapped in red felt and tied with a ribbon. Our teacher, Gretchen Hayden, sat cross legged on the floor in front of the altar and called up each student in turn, taking his or her bundle of bells, holding it to her forehead to symbolize the mind, in front of her mouth to symbolize breath and speech, and to her heart before handing it to the student who did the same. Despite the thousands of bells in the room, the dozens of children and parents, the video cameras and cell phones, there was peaceful silence in the room as everyone appreciated the significance of what was taking place, the connection with an art form that is so ancient and beautiful, the commitment we each make to carrying it forward, the gratitude we have for our teachers, our students, our children.

It is ironic just how much planning, organizing and running around had to take place just so that K and I could be present for this moment of stillness, tradition and meaning. This was a particularly chaotic weekend during which my other half, J, was away teaching at a black belt martial arts camp, I was enrolled in a two-day writing conference with meetings set up with my agent and possible editors, and apparently both K and her two year old sister required care and feeding. I started planning for the weekend weeks in advance, lining up a series of friends and relatives to tag team to be with S (and K the rest of the weekend), typing out a glossary of her odd vocabulary so that when she started frantically pointing to the fridge and yelling “DEE!” the kind soul who was with her would understand she was asking for cheese, or so that when she touched her nose and said “dodo” it would be clear she wanted to sleep. (Yes, I do have a two year old who asks to sleep, and yes, I do realize how lucky I am.) I had lists and piles everywhere, of things to bring to the conference, of items to bring to the ghungroo ceremony, of things to pack for the little one’s stay with a friend. I had to remember who to leave the stroller with, who would need K’s carseat when, where to leave the present for the birthday party she was going to attend in my absence, when to buy the flowers for the ceremony so that they’d still be fresh for the event itself. I had to remember to leave a change of shoes in the car for when I went straight from the ceremony to the conference, to pick up the ceremony program from the printer before they closed at 5:00 on Friday, to pack tissues and DayQuil in my bag because yes, of course I had to have a cold, to find time to rehearse the elevator pitch for my book, to pre-pack K’s lunch for the break between the ceremony and the class with Pandit Chitresh Das that she was going to attend as well.

And was it worth it? A hundred times over. And not just because of what I experienced for myself, which was augmented by something the lovely author Julia Alvarez said later in the day at the conference keynote address and which I’ll address in a separate post, but because it showed K that this was a matter of importance. Now, of course, she had no idea of the level of mad logistics involved which enabled her to receive her bells that day. She did not see the lists, did not notice the piles, had no insight into the complex logistics.

And that is the way it should be. She is seven. The fact that her parents were overextended that weekend, the fact that we had so many things to juggle all at once, that we are constantly feeling like we have to give one thing up in order to do the other, that is our own doing. Perhaps when she grows up she will be better than we are at finding the right balance. But for the moment, having her think of her attendance at the ceremony as a matter of course, having her find it a normal and fully-integrated part of her life, that is what matters the most.

And now here is what that little asterisk next to “ghungroo” is all about: As I was making edits to the ceremony program before sending it to the printer, I consulted with my teacher as to how to spell the word for the bells. There are so many ways that it is transcribed—ghunghru, gungroo, ghunghroo, ghungroo—and we wanted to pick one and be consistent with it. Then my teacher sent me an email with the following subject line: Is it a g or a gh, an u or an oo?!! And something silly was triggered in my brain:

The question is how do
You spell the word “ghungroo?”
Does it end with a U?
Or do O’s make the oo?
Is there one H or two?
If I only knew
We could then say adieu
To this pesky issue.
It seems the circumstances
Under which one dances
May well affect the chances
Of different types of spelling.
But when someone will choose
To use the O’s or U’s
Or downright refuse
The H–there is no telling.
But some advice for you:
Don’t put them on askew
Or up to your genoux
(for the French among you)
Or tie them to a gnu
Or EVER wear them to the loo!

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Exhibit A:

Looks deceptively tranquil, no? Let me disillusion you:

It is February school vacation week. We are staying at a house on this very beach. Little S is napping happily indoors (after spiking a fever during our much-delayed and logistically infernal voyage and throwing up in the rental car at 10 pm after we have driven unwittingly through Carnaval traffic on what turns out to have been Mardi Gras) while her father unhappily does some work, and Big K is sitting with me moping on his paradise-like beach, complaining that there is too much sea-grass in the freakishly warm and dazzlingly clear water in which swim beautiful tropical fish that she’ll never see because she refuses to put her head under water despite the semi-professional mask and snorkel we bought her at her insistence that she just couldn’t wait to go snorkeling. (Sometimes a run-on sentence is a necessity to capture the mood.) I would like nothing better than to spend the next hour strolling along the beach by myself, splashing my toes at the water’s edge and letting my mind wander. I’d like to think about the characters of my next book, about the dance pieces I’m preparing for an upcoming show, about the book I’m reading (Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones). Or maybe – gasp – about nothing at all. But I have this 7 year old child with me, and apparently this is entirely my doing. So I try to engage her.

–       Hey, I have an idea. Let’s go for a stroll down the beach and see what we discover!

–       Oh, yeah, great idea! [She jumps up.] Oh, wait. I don’t want to carry this camera. Let’s go upstairs to drop it off.

–       Nah, I don’t want to risk waking S. Why don’t you just put it in your pocket. It’s small enough.

–       Nooo! It will fall out.

–       No it won’t, it’s really small.

–       But Mooommy!

–       You can handle it.

–       Fine then. [Shoves the absurdly small digital camera she was given by an overly generous uncle into her back pocket, where it fits perfectly. We walk five steps.]

–       Mommy, I think I need to go pee first.

–       What do you mean, you think you need to? Do you need to or not?

–       I need to go to the bathroom.

–       [Sigh.] Ok, go ahead, I’ll wait here.

–       No, come with me, please. I need my sunglasses and I don’t know where they are.

–       K, keeping track of your belongings is your responsibility.

–       But Mooommy! The sun hurts my eyes.

–       Good grief. Ok, let’s go. [We go upstairs. Find sunglasses. K uses the bathroom. The wind causes the door to slam and I cringe, expecting S to wake up. Thankfully she doesn’t. J still at his work computer. K emerges.]

–       Mommy, I’m hungry, can I have a snack first?

–       No.

–       Please?

–       No. You will not starve on our walk.

–       But Mooommeee!

–       Gah! Ok, choose something quickly and bring it with you.

–       [K chooses one of those chocolatey, sweetened cereal boxes from the multipack that we get her as a treat on vacations. Looks like chocolate rice crispies. She crinkles the bag excessively, right outside the door to the bedroom in which S sleeps, to open it.]

–       Here, give me that. I’ll open it downstairs. [We head back down, through the breezy outdoor lobby with its comfy couches on which I could be curled up with a book, down the jungly walkway back out to the beach.] Which way do you want to go?

–       That way. [We walk five steps.] The sand is hot and pokey.

–       Pokey?

–       Yes! It’s poking my feet.

–       Why don’t you walk in the water with me?

–       [She scrunches her nose disdainfully at the rim of seaweed that lines the water’s edge.] Nooo. [We walk five more steps.] Actually, let’s go the other way.

–       Huh? Ok, fine. [We switch directions. We’ve now walked back and forth the same 25 foot length three times.]

–       Even though I have my sunglasses, they’re still letting the sun bother my eyes. [Note the way she blames the sunglasses for actively allowing this egregious affront to her eyes. I ignore her. She snacks loudly on her cereal packet. Suddenly, she is hopping around madly.] Ow! Ow! Oweeee!

–       What now?

–       [She holds her toe dramatically but is nonetheless careful not to drop her snack.] Oweee! I hurt my toe on something sharp!

–       Something sharp, or something pokey?

–       Mooommeeee! Stop! It’s not funny!

–       Hey, look at that pelican! It just dove down from up high to catch a fish!

–       Oh, where? [She puts the massively injured foot back down in the hot, pokey sand. We walk ten feet. She loses interest in the pelican and feigns a limp. I point out a fish jumping out of the water, which she fails to see. We discuss the use of hammocks as sleeping furniture. We talk about what constitutes a bay versus a gulf. There is discussion of the Caribbean Sea versus the Gulf of Mexico versus the Atlantic Ocean. She forgets to limp. I start thinking this might work out after all.] Ok, let’s turn back.

–       Oy! Already? What do you mean, turn back? That was nothing!

–       Yes it was. That was a walk. [She points to the house fifty feet away.] Look how far we went. Let’s go back and you can play Boggle with me.

–       Why don’t we sit here first for a while. Here, you can finish your snack. [I pat the sand next to me.]

–       [She looks down dubiously.] But my camera is in my pocket. I can’t sit.

–       [I bite my tongue, force a pleasant voice.] Give me the camera, please, and sit down.

–       [She complies. Munch munch.] Thanks. Hey, this is nice! [Munch munch.] Ok, now can we go play Boggle?

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I am currently reading MM Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. Because it is close to 1,000 pages long, and because my reading time these days is relegated to the late evenings, when I’m so sleepy that sitting down to read inevitably leads to drooping eyes and a slipping book, “currently” has been going on for a while. The thick tome, with its cover curled upwards from being held open, has been an integral part of the living room landscape for weeks, alternately on the side table, the sofa, the kitchen counter, and the third step of the staircase up to the bedroom (the first two being within the reach of the pudgy paws of a one and a half year old).

During this time, I’ve had ample opportunity to remember seeing my own mother read the very same book, about 25 years ago. One image in particular stands out in mind: my mother in a low-slung, striped chaise longue on the rough and uneven terrace of a spare, stone house atop a hill in Corsica, France. Her hair is dark, her short sleeved top is brown, maybe reddish, she’s wearing cream-colored capris, and she’s sitting in the shade of the house near a the long wooden table at which we took most of our meals. The image is vivid because of all the other impressions associated with it. A long, timeless series of beach days stretching endlessly ahead of me in the way that summer days—back when they were blissfully unstructured—appeared to me as a child. The hot, dry aroma of thyme and rosemary growing wild on the scraggly Corsican hillsides. The moist coolness of the inside of the house with its sparse and rugged wooden furniture and occasional bats. The wild hogs and ambling donkeys who came to root about the house and knock at the shutters with their snouts and muzzles. The clammy-and-rough feeling of removing a one-piece, sand-filled bathing suit after the last dip of the day in the sea, and the way the bathing suit ends up all rolled up onto itself and inside out and unpleasantly cold against sun-warmed skin. The sparkling turquoise of the Mediterranean waters lapping at the strip of golden beach at the bottom of the hill. I knew nothing of the contents of The Far Pavilions at the time, and in fact they bear no relation to this setting since they take place in 19th century Northern India, but these are my memories of my mother reading this book.

Fast forward to now. Seven-year old K has noticed the book, given how long it’s been sitting around. She’s delighted in the fact that I am using a bookmark of her creation, a white and red laminated strip of paper with her name crookedly spelled out in crayon, affixed to which is a piece of twine strung with five brightly colored plastic beads. She’s asked me “So what is The Far Pavilions about anyway?” She’s noticed that the cover has become warped with use. We are not in a locale with a particularly striking set of sights or smells, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, upon seeing this same tome many years from now, she has a sudden memory of her sister at the age of 20 months, eagerly extending her chubby fingers to try to grasp at the beads that dangle so tantalizingly from the bookmark. Or if she recalls the peaceful quiet of Sunday afternoons with her father on his computer and her mother reading, spending companionable “quiet time” together while the baby naps, and then having tea time all together, with a proper set of china cups and of course some cookies.

Perhaps I’m romanticizing the whole thing, perhaps she won’t have a single memory of it, but there are other books from my past whose physicality brings me back to very specific times and places (for example my stained copy of Watership Down which I read at the age of 11 in a train cutting through the French countryside, and on which I spilled a bottle of apple juice), and because of this I suspect she’ll have similar memories.

But only for a while. For in the age of e-books, the collection of memories associated with a specific copy or edition of a specific title—not the memories of its contents but the memories of the time and place in which one read them, of the person one was at the time—will be moot. I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite here; I’m ready to embrace certain aspects of the whole e-book wave, and it’s entirely possible that my own book will come out as an e-publication. But no one can tell me there isn’t some nostalgia in which to indulge here.

What are some of your own memories associated with your reading of certain books? Do you still have those volumes on your shelves?

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A couple of years ago, a photojournalism graduate student from Boston University named Varsha Yeshwant approached Chhandika, the dance group with which I am closely affiliated, asking for permission to create a multi-media project around our dance. Specifically, she said: “I want this to serve as a small window into the world of Kathak and the culture of the dance outside India. I want it to show the involvement of the students and the teachers in order to pursue a form of dance that is not widely known by the society here.”

Below is the short result of this work. Take a moment (1:29 minutes, to be precise) to appreciate the simplicity of the scene, the peaceful atmosphere despite the pounding feet, the understated grace and integrity of the teacher, the sheer joy of simply being present that emanates from her and the students. There is nothing dazzling in the movements themselves, nor in the outfits—this was a series of informal practice sessions and classes with a mixed level group of students—but the overall effect is powerful. This is what our classes are all about, keeping something so special alive.

 

for the love of dance from Varsha Yeshwant on Vimeo.

The sunlight streaming onto the hardwood dance floor, the harmony of thousands of ankle bells in unison, the other-worldliness of the singing and movements, the red tassles of the bronze-colored hand cymbals, the warmth and dedication of the teacher, Gretchen Hayden, these images and feelings that Varsha captured are precisely what drew me in to class eleven years ago.

And yes, that’s me in one of the first shots. A side view of my pregnant self in 2010. Enough said.

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