Peregrine pasts


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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egg selfie

My dear Cherry Dumpling (to use oft-exchanged endearment in lieu of your real name),

Do you remember this photograph? I actually went looking for it today and despite it being some dozen years and two computers ago I found it! It was exactly where I thought it would be and even though I’d forgotten the name of the website I’d uploaded it on, a quick web search yielded the name. From there on in it was easy…

Anyway the reason I went looking for it, was a reaction to another photograph, more recent though even that’s nearly 2 summers old too, which I found on my phone.  There’s still another layer to this narrative.. the reason I was even looking for photos on my phone is related to a new year’s resolution I made after reading the first chapter of an interesting book full of writing exercises and prompts based on the senses! The first exercise was to find an old photograph and write to one of the people in it,  based on the prompt that is the title of this blog post: In this picture you were… The idea is to see what memories visual stimuli can evoke.

In the photograph/s that prompted the search for this one we were making funny faces at the camera sitting by a fountain in some square in Leon, France. It took me on a trip down memory lane to the numerous faces we’ve made in numerous places over the years. Of all the selfies we’ve taken though, this one remains my favorite because it was so clever! There we were, window-shopping Easter weekend in 2002 – can’t be sure if we were in Lucern or Bern since we visited both that weekend but I think it’s Bern – and our reflection in the egg-shaped mirror inspired you. This photo was take long before “selfies” were popular and it is the most natural composition, a photo of a reflection, Even the camera is in the photo though not too obvious. What I also like about it, and what makes it so appropriate for this write-up, is the slightly hazy edges of our images, much like a memory.. blurred but still very much there and alive.

So what were you (we) doing that long ago day? Gadding about enjoying spring, Easter, and all that. I remember talking to you a few days prior from Heidelberg and you asked if I wanted to come over and help you paint Easter eggs. So I took the train over. We never painted eggs or indeed anything else that time, though painting too had been an activity we’ve engaged in even further back in time. A Christmas break in Dusseldorf, armed with lipsticks rather than paints. And though that may be a story for another post, it too has it’s place here as a snapshot of a memory of good times we’ve had in all the years we’ve known each other since Edmonton, Alberta. More often than not you’ve been the person proffering hospitality though a few times (too few) I’ve had the chance to return the favor.

This letter is my toast to all our zany, nutty and egg-sactly perfect times .. may we brew many more in the years to come. Much love

     Neeraja

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A sudden impulse led me to go web surfing in search of my fellow banana slugs from the halcyon days (for me at least) of ’92/’93 and wow did I hit a gold mine! For those reader who may not know this, the banana slug is the mascot of the University of California, Santa Cruz (See logo on top). I became a slug because I went through a graduate certificate program in science writing there, which not only turned me into a writer but also gave me such a taste for the graduate school experience that I proceeded to become a tenure-track grad student for about a decade and a half after that. Even now with Ph.D. in hand I have embarked on yet another Masters – this time a distance learning one in museum studies, which also has its roots in slug land, since I’m doing it to extend my repertoire as a science writer. But that’s a tangent I’ll take off in a separate post – back to the slugs…

Virtually every one of my classmates from that batch has gone on to impressive achievements, and I can’t say I’m surprised, though am proud as Punch (to borrow a phrase I haven’t used since my Enid Blyton-reading days, er.. think teen, rather pre-teen years!) of the bunch of us. I am also somewhat lighter in the pocket but richer immeasurably in what I can safely believe will be good if not great reads.

In no particular order of favoritism, here’s where we are now…

Rusten Hogness – The guy to whom I owe the title of my blog. Peregrines are obviously not the only birds on Rusten’s brain as you can see from his website. He runs a cool radio station out of Santa Cruz where you can listen to all manner of birdsong among other things. Rusten is also the person who planted the first seeds of interest about the history of medicine/science in my brain.

Lisa Seachrist – Lisa’s background coming into the program was the one closest to my own and we were of an age besides. So I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised to find out that of all our cohort, it was the two of us wrote books on genes and such – and coincidentally within a year of each other – although her’s is  likely to be a more accessible and fun read than mine. Certainly it hooks you in by its very title: When a gene makes you smell like a fish… (ha ha bad pun, fully intended). And it is illustrated to boot.

Lisa Strong-Aufhauser – Go figure in a class of 10, we had two Lisas. Not there was the slightest chance of ever confusing them with each other! Each was too individual in her own right.  A tall red-head with cascades of hair the color of autumn and a personality as just as vibrant, this Lisa was the most animated and energetic of us all. She was a natural history photographer who had lived in Yosemite before moving to the Santa Cruz hills just before embarking on this course. She and her husband Kim (an honorary member of our class) were the hosts to many a party (Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving etc) at the Schloss Stronghauser where the whole lot of us would converge for a riotous time. In her quieter moments, Lisa loved to photograph oak trees. She makes movies now besides doing work for the Exploratorium and has traveled (more…)

Writing about Mylène and Sartre reminded me of my own brush with celebrity a few years ago, and I decided I’d indulge in a little first-hand name-dropping. Now, my friends often joke that whereas most people of the world are supposed to be connected  by no more than six degrees of separation, I am connected by just three! Of course that’s an exaggeration, but sometimes things do happen to me in such a way that I often seem to have more than my fair share of coincidences and links to unexpected people. Here’ what transpired in the particular event I’m thinking about.

I was visiting my parents over ’06-Christmas/’07 New Year break since I had a more than a month off and Hawaii, where Dad had his visiting appointment  (quick segue – those of you who think I’m the globe-trotting peregrine, know this – I come by the tendency very honestly,having inherited it  directly from my father), seemed a darn sight more attractive than Eau Claire – rhymes with Oh Where? – at that time of the year. Anyway, as they always do, my parents by then had made a lot of new friends. My mother had wanted me to meet one of them in particular and so she invited her over one evening for tea.

Maya came over with her little daughter warning us ahead of time that she could spend very little time, so we wouldn’t be offended if she had to leave early. But once she got there, 1 hour slipped away into two and then three as we chatted away merrily about all manner of things. Every half an hour or so, she would make a genuine if reluctant effort to leave, but then we’d begin talking again and she wouldn’t. Tea graduated into dinner and it was quite dark by the time she said something like I really need to go now. My brothers’ friends are in town and I need to meet them. We have to talk strategy…

I didn’t see the next sentence coming, not in a million years:  He’s thinking of running for President.

“President of what?” you may well ask. Guess what folks, two years later, this past January, said brother was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States.