…from the senses


Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 8.32.10 PMDescribe the tone of a loved one who is deceased. Or about the inability to hear it.

I’d completely forgotten that I’d noted this prompt down from my book Writing from the Senses, and came about it sort of accidentally today. I really cannot remember whose voice I wanted to write about at the time the prompt caught my eye, but encountering it today made me think of my two grandmothers and their voices and speech mannerisms and thought perhaps I should try and record those memories.

First, my paternal grandmother Kamakshi Patti, who died a long time ago in 1982. The first thing that comes to mind with her is a visual, but I do have some vivid memories of her habits or speech and her sayings, and since this post is about the memory of sounds, tones and voices, I’ll stick with that. The thing I remember most of all is her whisper. The adjective “sibilant’ might have been coined with hers in mind, so onomatopoeically perfectly does it suit. Her whisper was not the type one associated with secrets, far from it. It was a carrying sound in which every syllable could be heard with crystal clarity. Probably because, oddly enough it was guttural too, in tone. I remember how my cousin Kappu once fondly said that while she often strained her ears in vain to hear gossipy conversations between her Mom and Patti (after the lights went out at night and everyone including the women were in bed) when they spoke in normal voices, she could relax and hear everything once my grandmom resorted to whispering. And since Patti saved that voice for the juiciest bits, my cousin never missed an important detail — can’t say I remember any details myself, but yes, I too share fond memories of listening to those whispers.

Two more specific sound related memories: My grandmother never spoke English but she would always talk about a song that she learned during her brief years of school, and sing (sort of) the opening line to us. “Welcome welcome, hearty welcome” it went in a Tamil accent, whose tune I couldn’t for the life of me reproduce. But I always remember (and hope I always will) the pride and joy with which she told us about the song. Then there was the way she said the words “beans”–always mispronouncing it as “beems.” For some reason this infuriated, or at least irritated, my obnoxiously snobbish brought-up-on-English self at 7 or so and equally all-of-those-things younger brother. We would try and try to make her say it right and she would patiently repeat it after us but get it wrong every time. Poor thing–she never got upset with us kids despite our atrocious rudeness.

One last memory of her that I’d like to record in this post is not exactly about her voice, but related, which is her remarkable facility for communication with all and sundry, despite not sharing a common language. As far as know Kamakshi Patti never spoke anything but Tamil, but she was the quintessential intrepid soul who could with gestures and a lot of hand waving, she could make herself understood when needed. I particularly remember the way she got a visiting American boy called Raji Thron (who may or may not be the same person who has a yoga website) to perform all sorts of chores like grinding dosa batter on the old fashioned stone or  fetching water to clean said stone, which she certainly could not get myself or my brother too. She was widowed relatively young and still made her way to on her own by trains and buses (and changing them) all the way to the Hindi-dominated North India where we lived, on her own several times. Like I said, intrepid soul.

Intrepid is not the first characteristic, I associate with my other–ie .maternal–grandmother, Chuppu Patti, who might have been the kindest person I can think of in many ways. I would have said gentle, but while her soul was gentle–perhaps the gentlest of anyone I’ve ever encountered–her voice was not. It was strong, slightly hoarse (as was my K Patti’s too). She had a great facility for various Indian languages and could speak some half a dozen of them to my knowledge. I particularly remember visiting her in Sringeri in the state of Karnatka, just a few months after they’d moved there, and being amazed at how easily she seemed to speaking to all the local shopkeepers in their language. Not so my grand-dad who’d moved there the same time, although he being of a more scholarly bent of mind (more on that below), when he got around to it also learned to read and write the language.

I have many more memories of this grandmother since she was with us until 2013, but I don’t have the kind of specific anecdotes about her voice  as I do about my K Patti. This last is just a tiny bit ironic because this grandmother actually shared her name–Subalakshmi–with one of the most famous Carnatic music singers ever, down to the initials M.S. that preface the given name. What I remember most about C Patti is her gentle but consistent nagging of my grandfather to do whatever he was supposed to rather than read whichever book he happened to get his hands on on any given day. Actually come to think of it I just remembered something after all–an exasperated remark, in Tamil naturally, to the effect of “As if he’s going to do a PhD with all that reading!”

On that note this sleepy person who did go on to get a PhD by reading (and writing other things besides blogs), during said Patti’s lifetime–though regrettably not until after Thatha, the non-PhD avid reader passed away–will end this post, which may have actually caught me up on my blog-once-a-week resolution made on June 10 (#40).

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Now that I think about it, there are many ways that this prompt might be taken–in my colleague/co-author, Ton van Helvoort’s words, it has a lot of “interpretive flexibility.” And sometimes, that flexibility is not necessarily a good thing. Because not all interpretations are benign or even innocuous, even though many are.

Let me explain… Musical instruments have always fascinated me, in part because I can’t play any with any degree of facility. That may be the reason this prompt caught my eye. Well, that and the fact that it reminded me of a scene in an episode of the T.V. show Sex and the City, where the protagonist Carrie Bradshaw (SJP) in pursuit of the eponymous goal, is “played” like a cello–by a cellist (I think) or in any rate, a musician. The way it was played, the scene was mostly amusing, in a smile- rather than laugh-inducing way, not particularly romantic or erotic, but (or perhaps thus?) memorable for all that. There was another, genuinely romantic scene in one of the later seasons, where the Mikhail Baryshnikov character plays her a song he’s written for her on the piano (another another piano-related romantic moment suddenly popped to mind: the fabulous Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges “makin whoopie” on the piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys… but I digress). The point I guess I’m trying to make is illustrated in the difference between what happened to Carrie in the two episodes–whereas she was played in the one, she was played to (or for) in the other–and that makes all the difference.

Being played has another far more negative connotation, which is what came to mind when I looked at the prompt today. It means being taken for a fool or being conned. And for me, personally, that is the worst thing someone can do to me. I can remember virtually every time I’ve been played (which is not the same as being played a joke on or teased etc etc) and I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven the folks who’ve played me either at a personal or professional level. I think it’s because more than them, it’s myself I can’t forgive for having been so gullible, to have been taken in and being played. And so there is transference of the anger. Which is not to say that I sit around plotting dastardly revenge (although I will admit to some fantasies of me fabulously snubbing these people) but I do gradually distance myself from those who played me. Eventually,  in the first case, I think indifference is the best revenge. And living well is always a good revenge as well, in any circumstance…

Gosh, this turned into a weird and sort of cathartic, self psycho-analysis rather than a fun write up about how I would like to be a violin or Cello or piano or something. But that’s the thing about writing to these prompts– they really unlock unexpected memories, feeling etc. And the write-up emerges quite different. Oh well,  until next time. For now the answer is still… (42).

Select a cooking implement to use as a prompt…anything that triggers a story/memory. Write for 10 minutes (or more…)

This prompt in Writing from the Senses appealed to my sense of whimsy, which is why I copied it into a draft, two or three years ago. But somehow I haven’t been able to to home in on an utensil. Today though as I’m up at 4:30 A.M. the image of a tea strainer, the type made of stainless steel floats, to mind. Why I can’t think, although perhaps it is my subconscious desire for a cup of tea, a usual companion when I sit with my computer in the wee, predawn hours.

Tea rather than tea strainers are what I have more memories around, though not any specific cup or type of tea. Drinking tea was perhaps the first habit I acquired, as a five year old whose mother brought her a warm cuppa early in the morning. Canny woman my Mom, by doing so she ensured that neither my brother nor myself were ever grumpy to be woken up. How so? you might wonder. Well,  you see, the warm libation in the morning had the immediate effect of getting our innards going. Once out of bed and in the bathroom, we were wakeful enough and there was no going back to bed. We’d get ready for school, mostly in good time. Whether or not this routing instilled a sense of punctuality in us (I mean to be on time but have many lapses) it did instill the habit of morning tea, or bed-tea as we called it then.

The anecdote brings up another tea-related memory, a story or parable really, that I forever associate with Governor Jai Shuklal Hathi* of Panjab, a man who often presided over various cultural programs for August 15 and 26 January (Indian Independence and Republic Day respectively) that I participated in–as in danced at with other friends–as a kid. He was talking about the forming of habits and trying to wean ourselves of them, using tea as an example.  It was a clever sort of word play that appealed, to my even-then nerdy self. A habit became a bit, further weaned to bit, and even with the b got “it” still remained. And then the kicker–even after removing the “i”  (some subversive teaching of Hindu philosophy there what?) were were still left with our T.

I am not sure if this parable was intended as a warning about forming habits, or about the dangers in gradual weaning, or about tea drinking (which would have not been credible given most of us had a cup in our hands). None of those lessons, intended or otherwise, stuck. But the story and the habit did, and unlocked by the prompt, I offer it to my readers.

Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 10.47.25 PMTo return to the impetus for this post–the stainless steel tea strainer–and trips down memory lane, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a particular one that is probably right now lying in storage  packed up along with all my other kitchen goods. It was a gift from my friend Aman during our days in New Haven. She brought me one after a visit to India, perhaps after hearing me grumble on too many times about the flimsy plastic rimmed ones, and I’ll always be grateful for it. The steel one has traveled with me the world over, from Yale to Eau Claire, Egypt, Korea and back its country of origin in India. Where to next I wonder? I wish I knew… but that’s a subject for a different (and whinier) post. Meanwhile I’ll sign off to go get my first cuppa habit this July morn (#47)

Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 10.51.45 PM*A footnote on Gov. Hathi’s name, which might conjure up images from the Jungle Book of the elephant brigade led by a Colonel of the same name, which in fact, means elephant in Hindi. The name at the time seemed very appropriate at the time for to my pre-teen self he seemed elephantine in his bearing and gait.

The image of streets full of once-beautiful buildings now with crumbling facades overlaid with layers and layers of grime, usually within a hop skip and jump from a river that wends it way placidly northward, ought to make the identification of this city a no-brainer for anyone who has spent more than a day here. But if it doesn’t, might help to recall sounds rather than sight. The cacophony of car horns blaring with scarce thought to the need or usefulness thereof, punctuated by the plaintive tones of the call to prayer some five times a day should be a giveaway. Walk to the banks of the aforementioned river – the Corniche as any road running by it or any other body of water (e.g. the sea) is called – and pay the gray-gowned man for a ride on one of his wind-and-oar powered sailboats and within seconds the sounds of those cars recede. If you happen to have taken the boat from the area that functions as the city’s downtown then across the river you can see the geometrically-shaped domes of the Opera House silhouetted to the west. Depending on the time of day (or night) those domes may appear yellowish or starkly bright…

Of course, anyone who has read pages from this site would recognize the “where” of the above paragraph: Egypt, specifically Cairo, where I happened to at the time of the first Tahrir square uprising of 2011. In this case too it was a writing exercise based on Writing from the Senses, the sense in this case being that of hearing. Although re-reading the passage I find that despite the supposed focus on sounds,  there is more there about the sights. Which just goes to show what visual creatures we humans are for the most part.

But here’s another memory of sound: Imagine it beginning as murmur from a sea of people, gradually growing in volume and fervor as you draw nearer to the source. It had a definite rhythm too, one I can still hear in my head, but only try to replicate in spacing out the syllables (think of it, :in a ba-boom ((1) ba-boom (2) ba boom, (3)ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom

El-sha’ab

Yo-ried

Iskat el ni-zam

I am not fluent enough in Arabic to break the meaning down by individual words, but the overall meaning, loud and clear to anyone hearing them, was crystal clear. “The regime needs to go!”  As indeed it did on the night of February 11, 2011. It was a heady experience to bear witness to this piece of Egyptian history, and, as I have likely said in an earlier post, profoundly moving. For me personally, the signature moment was when a guy in Tahrir Square who was part of a contingent bearing a poster with Mahatma Gandhi’s picture. “Where are you from?” he asked me and when I told him I was Indian he beamed, shook my hand,  directed my attention to the poster and told me: “See that? We want what you have, and one day we’ll be there too.” I nearly wept with the combination of hope, pride and joy–in him, in Egypt and of course in Gandhi.

Well, it’s now nearly 7 years since that “Arab Spring” and pride and joy do not figure high in my list of sentiments right now on much (except when it concerns my darling nieces, but this post is not about them). Certainly  when I felt like weeping on the matter of Egypt, the tears are not of joy. For as everyone knows–the promise of the uprising gave away to chaos and piling problems. But I still have hope, only in tiny sparks mind you but its there. Because I know from history that 7 years is a minuscule drop of time against the backdrop of Egypt’s history. No country has got democracy “right.”–not India which has been at it since the middle of the previous century, and certainly not the good old USA. But at some level, I believe that is the point. Democracy is not static or definable, and really the only truly successful democracy is one that adapts and changes according to need, much like evolution.

But I digress… Am sleepy and losing steam and so will sign off now on this my belated entry for week 5 of my resolution (#48).

An alternative title (or a subtitle) to this blog entry might well have been My Adventures in Anosmia. Anosmia for those who might not know is the lack of ability to smell. It might be caused due to trauma, a bad infection (I’ve heard) and may be temporary or permanent. In my case it was congenital, that is to say I’ve been anosmic since birth, and therefore the condition is permanent. It has something to do with the way the olfactory grooves in the brain were formed or not formed, I believe. I just didn’t or couldn’t get into the groove, one might say.

Despite being born anosmic, neither I nor indeed anyone around me cottoned on to the fact for many years. Even now, even folks closest to me, including my Mom forget and will hold out something to me and say something like “isn’t this lovely?” or “smell this,” and I’ll obligingly sniff. The habit is deeply ingrained because it wasn’t until I was past twenty-one when a doctor pointedly asked me about my sense of smell and I thought about it, that I finally learned for a fact that I actually couldn’t smell. The fact was confirmed by a series of medical tests…

Now that I think about it, there had always been hints, but only in retrospect do I recognize them as such. For instance, I remember reading about an experiment  in which a blindfolded person was asked to identify a piece of fruit–apple or pear–fed to them while the other one was held to their nose. According the to book most people would identify the fruit by smell not taste, but no, not I. At the time I was puzzled because I always unerringly identified the fruit I was eating, whereas most others gave mixed responses. I was evidently relying on other clues such as texture to make my guess. Then there was the fact that I always needed to do a taste test (or sometimes a curdle-in-hot-water test) to figure out if  milk had turned. And my enthusiasm as a teenager for the perfume Chanel No. 5 was a mere peer imitation. Fact of the matter is that no matter which perfume was held to my nose, all I got from taking a whiff was a cold rush of air through my nostrils! More often than not, it was the color of the liquid or the design of the bottle that determined my choices.

Unlike blindness, which is to sight or vision what anosmia is to the sense of smell or olfaction, anosmia is not easy for most people to understand or identify with. Indeed, more often than not people have not heard of the word, and when I tell them I can’t smell, their reaction, after perhaps the assumption that I have or have just had a cold, is  one of puzzlement combined with a vague sense of disbelief. Then when I explain, the first question almost is always is “How do you taste?” And aside from occasionally being unable to resist a comeback along the lines of “Delicious” or holding out my hand with a “want to find out?” (Only if I’m fond of the person), I try to  explain that my sense of taste is not impaired. Or at least it is not diminished in the sense of the range of foods I can discern and enjoy. I think this ability might be attributed to the fact that I learned to taste  in a different way than do most others, My nerdy/geeky scientific self thinks it might be a compensation by the trigeminal nerve for the inactive olfactory nerves/groove.  But back to the question: not only can I taste, but as friends will attest, I love variety in my meals, and am a pretty good cook… who can often re-create or at least simulate dishes based on taste alone!

It was in fact my ability in the kitchen that led certain musically savvy roomies of mine to give me the nickname that prompted the title of this post. Beethoven the composer famously started to loose his hearing sometime in his twenties and was almost completely deaf for the last decade or so of his life.  (A quick aside… All this biographical information incidentally was checked out on Wikipedia). As I said before, I didn’t lose my sense, never having possessed it in the first place, but the analogy was apt in any case, and the compliment much appreciated. That my activity in the kitchen was often accompanied by strains of a four-handed arrangement of Beethoven’s Seventh played by my roomies adds an additional layer of sweetness to both the nickname and the memory of it. (#51).

Most of all I think the food I cook reflects my sense of adventure, my willingness to try (almost) anything, my love for novelty and variety, and I fondly hope, creativity and innovation, although those last two might be derived from my cooking. Over the years it – my cooking – has also come to reflect my peregrine nature, as I’ve picked up knowledge about ingredients, cooking techniques and tastes from different parts of world. A recent example that comes to mind is the use of shiso (shisu?) aka sesame leaves – which I’ve only really seen used in Korean and Japanese food – as an ingredient in tadka (finishing a dish with a couple of teaspoons of oil heated with spiced and herbs) for daal.

It’s strange that I can’t think of more to write here.. at least about the main topic at hand. After all, the subject matter of the prompt (from a later chapter in Deutsch’s book) touches on the two things I write about the most: myself and food. So why then have I drawn a blank after that first paragraph, which flowed quite naturally from my finger-tips? Maybe because at some level my cooking is an expression in and of itself. It just is, the way I just am. Writing about the relationship between the two feels like the way I’d imagine cooking for a restaurant would feel like. It takes the joy out of the act, imposing rules and forcing into boxes, what is for me a flight of fancy – whatever I fancy – using the ingredients I can find in the fridge, freezer or pantry cupboard. A long-ago creation I was reminded of last weekend when I visited New Haven and the kitchen I created it in, was a low-&-slow baked Swedish meatballs (from IKEA) in a Kashmiri-inspired gravy of yogurt, ginger, fennel powder spiked with red chilli (cayenne) powder… And another memory that just sparked was of a salad  I conceted while visiting my friends Shomik and Renu during their stint in China, in response to their request for something that was not Chinese: Norwegian pickled herring dressed with Indian mustard oil and fresh cucumbers.

I suppose these reminisces also bring to light another way in which my cooking reflects who I am.. my being a people’s person, for so often the food I have cooked has been for more than just myself. I like to cook for others, an audience if you will, though not always as a demo. but then don’t most people?

Okay.. the verdict is in.. bored enough to get distracted to look at other things, I better put this post to bed and potential readers out of their misery.

The place I most associate with a semipatetic (as compared to outright peripatetic?) childhood is Chandigarh having lived there from when I was 5-1/2, and the home (and the bedroom as a subset) within this city would be the upstairs of 85, Sector 16, where we lived in three separate installments as I wound my way through childhood into my late teens. The bedroom in question, was not really a bedroom in the conventional sense of the word, but it was the space where my bed was as well as a small Godrej almira, that exists to this day in my parents home in Bangalore. Talk about indestructible furniture! I remember a Rudolf-like sticker of a reindeer or deer that I pasted on the door of said almira, remnants of which linger even now.

To give one a sense of space of my bedroom that wasn’t really a bedroom, it was part of a long, covered veranda area (at least that’s what I’d be prone to think it was) at one of which there was a door that led into the Master bedroom. The other end – was not really an end – consisted of indentations separating it from another like-sized space (my brother’s room) which then had a door to a wrap-around terrace, which on warm summer nights also served as the family bedroom come to think of it. The bed lay lengthwise against the inside wall, which not a full wall but separated from the living room by a mesh window. I can remember going to bed at night listening to the strains of music from BBC (nightly news I think it must have been) that my father would listen to every night, sucking on a little oval-shaped tablet of edible Vitamin C, trying in vain to make it last, but almost always giving in to the desire to also bite down on it. On nights when I was ill with tonsilitis or other infections that left me with a hacking cough (something I never outgrew I’m afraid) Daddy (the title of Appa became more frequent only as I got older) would dose me with a combination of warm water, brandy and honey. I would go out like a light, which might be the reason my parents swore by it’s curative effects. Occasionally another concoction – to my child’s tongue even yummier – of honey, raisins and ginger would also be given – our version of the spoonful of sugar that could make the medicine go down, not that I was a fussy child in that regard.

Funny where starting to write this trip down memory lane has taken me. I have actually been composing versions of this exercise ever since I read the prompt – only in my head mind – but each time has pulled up different memories and the cold-remedies were part of none of those mental versions. And it’s also funny how something else I had thought I would write about has not yet made her appearance. This her would be my doll, a beautiful 2.5-3 foot doll that Dad brought home for me from Italy – Naples seems to ring a bell – on his summer visit when I was 6 or 7. She had golden hair, blue eyes, and the cutest white shoes and socks ever. Her dress was a marvel to behold, white netting with panels of deep green satin, a green which in retrospect would have also made for a beautiful eye colour except for the fact that the eyes were, as I said, blue. Oddly enough, I neither named the doll – though I have had others, stuffed toys, well into my adulthood or at least the Tolkein-invented tweens, which I have named: A Canadian goodbye gift named Beaver Dom for obvious-to-some-of-us reasons, a bear who was spontaneously named Nantucket and a monkey called Choga for no real reasons I can thing of except that they seemed to fit…

But back to the doll and the room of my childhood. She didn’t have a name, but her presence was all important. For someone who has generally been careless of possessions – I have a vague memory of giving away a rather beautiful bottle of perfume resembling a Disney Castle much to my mother’s dismay (at the time neither of knew I was anosmic – lacking a sense of smell – that revelation was more than a decade in the future then) – I was very possessive of my nameless doll. I remember kicking up quite the fuss when my parents wanted me to give her to a young (much younger cousin) when I was well past the age of paying any real attention to her. I still regret that I didn’t keep her… I think said cousin tore her lovely golden locks off .. though one of the photo albums [my father was a prolific photographer when we were young] surely has a photo. Maybe the next time I visit my parents, I’ll scan her and put her here.

The Godrej almira as I said, is still with us. But as memories of the stickers return, I think the reindeer might have been stuck on my parents larger his-and-her-unit, which also remains in their possession. Like I said, indestructible metallic furniture. Mine had/has a toothpaste add I think where two kids are sitting on a tube made to look like an airplane. I have a memory of procuring that sticker along with my friend Dolly (a real person not a doll and in no way resembling my doll either) at an event which was likely something to do with dental hygiene. Easy enough to check the accuracy of these memories, just look for the residual sticker marks on the almiras…

To those who might be interested, the title of this and other posts are part, the whole or spin-offs of the prompts from Writing from the Senses which I’m using in an my experimental my-year-of-blogging-a la-Laura Deutsch experiment. I’m not sure if the prompts from the book serve as an aid to good writing, but certainly they are keys to unlocking memories from so long ago. Things I haven’t consciously thought about for years and years, suddenly came back to me as I was writing. There are other memories as well though I don’t have time to write about them.

I wonder what that room/space looks like today. The home is still owned by the family of the people from whom we rented it and who lived downstairs from us, so maybe I’ll go and check it out the next time I visit Chandigarh. Which ought to be much easier now that I live but a few hours away. I also wonder what kind of writing that visit will prompt! If and when it does,  I daresay it will show up as a sequel on this site. And on that note (imagine the fading strains of the BBC radio tune) Good night.

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