Anatomy of a pilgrimage (Sringeri edition)

[Editor’s Note: My mother is a late adopter of the Internet. In the pre-Internet era, she used to write the loveliest of letters to her children. The letters stopped after I returned to India. In the past year, after she got comfortable with connectivity and gmail, the letters resumed as emails to her children. This is email #3, the earlier ones were A marriage in the winter of 1962 and Ravi Varma in a Vijayawada home.]

Foreword

A good friend and ex-colleague is a certified atheist with a problem. What is his problem, pray? When he travels to places involving religious excursions, he’s utterly fascinated by the devoutness of pilgrims. I suppose he’s not unique in his fascination (or curiosity) about what goes on in the mind and heart of a true believer on a pilgrimage. Since none of us are blessed with the powers of Asimov’s mentalists (circa Foundation Trilogy), all we have is a pilgrim’s body language and the look of piety and peace on her face. My mother’s letter below, where she writes in some detail about her pilgrimage to Sringeri and beyond, is the closest I’ve come to understanding that which I have not experienced. My comments/translations are within “[ ]” and her comments are within traditional “( )”. All Telugu/Sanskrit words are italicized.

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Dear ones,

This is about our Sringeri yatra. It was either in 2003 or 2006 [the year was confirmed to be 2003 because my parents only got a cell phone in 2004]. We originally planned to go to Srisailam and Mantralayam and return to Vijayawada in the month of September. On our way back we wanted to visit my cousin (Sarma bava) at Vinukonda.

Sringeri Temple

Temple in Sringeri

Srisailam is 5-6 hours bus journey from Vijayawada. Also known as dakshina Kashi (Kashi of the South), Srisailam is famous for the ancient temple of Siva (Bramarambha, Mallickarjuna) which is situated on a hill amidst Nallamalai forest. We started at 8 am and reached around 2 pm. We got decent accommodation. People are not permitted to travel in the night hours. All the vehicles are stopped at the foot of the hills for several reasons – the ghat road makes it unsafe, the dense Nallamalai forest is the abode of naxalites and wild animals.

We had a brief evening darshan the day we landed. Next morning we did abhishekam [a devotional activity/special worship usually performed by a priest] to the Lord and kumkum pooja [special worship] to the goddess.  In the evening we went around to see important places. Near devasthanam bus stand we visited Sakshi Ganapati who (as the legend goes) will take note of the devotees and report to his parents. We climbed up the tall sikharam (tower). The faithful believe that once you are there you will not have punarjanma [no more rebirths]. We climbed down the steep steps to see the patalaganga, the waterfall, and finally the Srisailam dam – the main water source to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Adi Sankaracharya did penance on this hill. They say even now saints perform tapas [penance] in the area. We of course didn’t come across any such saints.

Next morning we started for Mantralaya, home to the famous madhwa saint [saints from the sect started by Swami Madhwacharya who started one of three dominant Hindu belief systems – Visishta Advaita] Sri Raghavendra Swamy in the 15th-16th century. His samadhi [in Yoga, state of intense concentration achieved through meditation at which union with the divine is reached before/at death; tomb of Hindu saints] is on the bank of river Tungabhadra bordering Andhra and Karnataka. Annual birthday celebrations for the Swamy were underway and we stayed in Mantralaya that night. It is believed that one who stays there overnight will be blessed with good and positive vibrations.

It proved to be very true in our case. The long cherished desire to visit Sringeri was fulfilled by HIS grace – we were almost pushed to our dream place. It happened this way. We were waiting at the bus stand to return to Vijayawada as per our original plan. Nanna [my dad] was walking up and down and he learned that there was a direct bus to Sringeri at the same time. We were so happy. We checked for 2 M’s (money and medicines). They were sufficient so we called Srinivas [my older brother] and informed him about our changed programme.  We got into the bus to Sringeri. It was a 16 hour journey but we never thought about the strain.

As usual I occupied the window seat. The landscape was not interesting – dry land with no greenery.  I remember a few places that we passed through – Bellary, Chikmagaluru, and Shimoga. I was still wondering about our present trip – why this much urge and desire to visit this place?

Nanna wanted to go there since 1993 when Srinivas was in Bangalore. Since his health didn’t permit, we just went to Nandi hills and Mysore. His bent of mind is different. Frankly speaking I didn’t know anything about Sringeri till 1998. Some of my Chinmaya Mission friends had been there for 10 days sadhana camp [penance/devotional camp]. When I heard their experiences I was very much impressed and developed a strong desire.

Let me tell you some things about Sringeri which I know. Adi Sankaracharya established 4 spiritual peetams [spiritual seats] for the spiritual welfare of mankind. Four peetams in four directions: Badrinath in the north, Puri  in the east, Dwaraka in the west, and Sringeri in the south. Adi Shankara chose suitable gurus to head each peetam. The guru parampara [tradition] is continuing without any break till now.

Sri Bharati Tirtha maha swamiji is the present guru and head of the peetam which covers four south Indian states.

We reached Sringeri early in the morning. After much difficulty we could get  accommodation. After taking bath etc, we went to the temple (Sharada devi is the goddess). After that we went to see the Swamiji. His ashram is on the other side of Tungabhadra river and we crossed by a small bridge. The place was simply beautiful; we passed through an arbor of paan [betel leaf] creepers and finally we met guruji. Nanna introduced himself as Narasimha Yogi garu’s disciple [Narasimha Yogi was my father’s spiritual guru for over 30 years] and also mentioned his maternal uncle’s name. Since it was ekadasi, Swamiji was observing mounavratam [maintaining silence]. [Ekadasi is the 11th day after the full moon and is widely believed by Hindus to be cosmically favorable for spiritual rejuvenation. Fasting on that day is supposed to help spiritual seekers. Advanced souls like the swamiji apparently raise the penance a few notches higher.]

The temple area was reverberating with lalita sahsranamam [considered as one of the more powerful hymns to the feminine principle]. Homams [rituals involving offering to fire] were being performed by Vedic pundits on one side and suwasini poojas [special prayers] were being done on the other side. We both were feeling very good.

We came out of the temple to have lunch. Surprisingly all the hotels were closed – as it was ekadasi most of them were keeping fast. One couple in a house agreed to cook for us. They served simple delicious food on a banana leaf. After lunch we proceeded towards Udupi. It is an unique experience to travel in the Western Ghats. We had darshan [seeing God and.. God seeing you] of cute Udipi Krishna through a window.  I very much wanted to taste udipi food… unfortunately it was an odd time. We saw the big Geeta Bhavan where all the 700 slokas [verses] of Bhagawat Geeta were engraved with pictures. Our next halt was Kollur Mookambika. We passed through Manipal (little did we know that our grandson would be studying in that prestigious institute a decade later).

We stayed in Kollur (the town borders Kerala) that night. The water was cold! Sooo cold! It was ok for nanna though. I couldn’t get hot water – no amount of begging or bribing worked. Finally I closed my eyes and jumped with a cry “Jai mookambica!” I took bath. Till today I pour the first mug of water with jai mookambica’s name.

Dharmastala is the Siva temple. It was very peaceful and quiet. We were travelling towards Hornad (our last place in the list). It was the best! The landscape was so beautiful. Each one of you should visit. If you are not interested in temples you can devote less time to temples and more time to sightseeing. Nature also is God.

We passed through coffee plantations and paan [betel nut] creepers. I could see bunch of coffee seeds hanging. I enjoyed to the brim. We had comfortable and happy time in the temples. We could get decent accommodation for just 100 rupees per day with attached bath room, two beds and a fan. Actually they serve free food to all the pilgrims; there were big dining halls with marble floors and all well maintained. We didn’t take food because the timings were not suitable to us. We never used to have breakfast before temple darshan so by the time we were done we were too hungry to wait for temple food. Wherever we halted for the night we tied a rope to 2 windows and dried our clothes. There was no pushing in the temples. On the whole Karnataka people were soft, friendly and polite.

Let me conclude by relating the best and last experience – Annapoorna temple of Hornadu. The temple housed a beautiful four feet tall idol and we spent 6 hours from 4 pm to 10 pm. I wanted to eat dinner in the temple at any cost. Nanna waited outside. The food was simple yet it was such a thrilling experience I almost cried. I felt as if I was directly being fed by goddess Annapoorna. The concluding item for the day  was lighting the lamps followed by arati [Hindu worship in which light from wicks soaked in ghee or camphor is offered to deities]. The entire premises were full of lights. We were also allowed to light lamps. The whole town was present – shopkeepers, drivers and others. A lifetime memory.

We got into the Bangalore bus and were back to Vijayawada. Our Sringeri trip was memorable. That’s it.

Your loving amma,

 

The Salmon Experiments

How do they DO this?

How do they DO this?

Among marine life, salmon probably lead the most interesting lives. Born in freshwater rivers, they migrate to the ocean where they live most of their adult lives and, when it’s time to spawn, they start the reverse migration process swimming upstream all the way to their natal river, often to the exact riverbed area where they were born. They use chemical cues and magnetoreception to pull off this incredible feat.

The tragedy is that the reverse migration takes so much out of them that they die soon after spawning.

Or maybe it’s a tragedy to us human folk who look at their life cycle and say “Oh! What a crying shame!”

They could be fulfilling their life’s purpose exactly per plan: the salmon run and the spawning ritual capping a life well lived.

But why couldn’t the salmon live an easier life? Why does every salmon, when confronted with the R Frost choice, choose the direction less traveled?

Something to do with free will I bet.. what that they don’t possess but we humans do.

For strange and largely inexplicable reasons, I’ve been making salmon like decisions in the past decade. Rather deliberately of course.

I’m calling these decisions as my own personal salmon experiments. Some have lasted a few years, others have become pseudo-permanent, and still others are a bit like a sustained quit smoking campaign.

Here’s the list so far:

  • Why take a hot bath when one can take a cold water bath?
  • Why take an Ibuprofen when you can just wing it and ride the pain waves?
  • Why eat more when you can eat less?
  • Why remain vegetarian when you can be vegan?
  • Why eat cooked food when one can eat raw? (Treading this path gingerly as marital and progeny threats are being brandished)
  • Why drink coffee?
  • Why take the elevator when one can take the stairs? (I’m blessed to have a son who shows the way whenever I weaken)

The good biwi has come up with the expression ‘joyless life’ to describe my gastronomic idiosyncrasies.

In my defense, I don’t feel like I’m missing out. Really.

Every experiment is a new challenge that brings with it the satisfaction of continuous summiting. Who said there’s only one type of mountain?

 

The Real Indistructibles

Editor’s Note: There were middle class values in the 60’s/70’s/80’s and there are middle class values now. Big big difference. The old adage used to be “if it’s not broken, why fix it”. And if something does break, well.. repair (don’t replace) it. My parents have taken these adages to heart.. for 50 something years. I present to you an important subset of the Real Indistructibles from my parents’ home. If you are wondering about the blog title, it’s sorta related to this one.]

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Center table (circa 1971-72). It earned a fresh lamination top sometime in the late 90’s


 

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1968 vintage. Black spot at 4’o clock? A candle left unextinguished when the family went for a post-prandial walk.

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1964 vintage. Upholstery probably changed once and multiple seat cover changes but the timber stands proud. I recall one coat of varnishing that we kids fought over.

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Usha sewing machine purchased for Rs. 300 in 1971. Mom wanted the foot operated model (which would release later) but that didn’t stop her from churning out masterpieces over the ages. Delightful designs for infants & toddlers her specialty. Still going strong.

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Purchased in 1964. This stool’s twin (click omission) required some props.

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Godrej almirah (1975). Did anyone from that era NOT own this?

A proposal in Lincoln Park, Chicago

I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. – Algernon: The importance of being earnest

My friend Vikrant shared this on Facebook and it triggered a 20 year old memory.

First of all, I don’t entirely agree with Algernon. I’m in vehement agreement with his last sentence for sure. Nothing romantic about proposing? Now that’s a bit unfair.

American men have a fine tradition of proposing to (and often surprising the living daylights outta) their better halves. I happen to know two such proposals.

My ex-colleague and friend Laurie was ambushed at the finish line of her first marathon. Soon after her fiancé hugged and congratulated her, he quietly muttered “Are you ready?” to his buddy and, upon getting confirmation, went down on his knees and proposed. Laurie, already flush with post-race endorphins, would have one more memory attached to an already momentous day. And there was no need for a payment to Marathon Photos.

Our friends Jason and Julie had a long relationship before they tied the knot. Along the way, Jason did a 6-month teaching-English-in-China gig. Along the way, they did TWO around-the-world backpacking vacations. During their second soirée (chronicled beautifully here), against a picturesque backdrop in some exotic island, Jason proposed to Julie. There were no selfie sticks back then and no friend in tow but I’m sure that moment is forever etched in their memories.

My story is a bit different.

How I recall Lincoln Park ‘hood

Met this gorgeous girl on Jun 15 at a networking event in an art gallery in Chicago. I was deeply smitten. By the end of the evening I had made enough of an impression for her to acquiesce when I casually closed with “Hey,  I enjoyed talking to you. Could you share your email address so we can catch up sometime?”

Six weeks later we were on our first date. Later that month (after date #10 or so), I was announcing to my Evanston friend “she is the ONE and I would propose to her one of these days”.

My friend predictably responded with “What’s the hurry? Take some time before you pop the question.”

Of course I ignored him. Which is not to say I proposed to her on date #11.

Dinner at Copper Chimney. Nicholas Payton concert at the Jazz Showcase. Dinner at Shrees in Downers Grove. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan concert in Downtown. Dinner at the Indian Monsoon. Fareed Haq and Rudresh Mahattappa concerts at the Green Mill. Bike rides down Lake Shore Drive on the GS-700ES. Walk from Grant Park to Field Museum of Natural History to catch R. Carlos Nakai in action. Chicago city orchestra. Dave Brubeck with Bobby Militello. An all-night road trip to Wisconsin punctuated by a 4 am stop at Denny’s.

At some point the biweekly trysts turned into daily sojourns. We couldn’t spend enough time with each other apparently.

Having a 700cc Suzuki bike as the sole form of transportation added to my courtship cool quotient (I reckon). My Evanston friend’s Saturn and my Park Ridge friend’s Accord came in handy for some planned dates. Chicago’s public transit network bailed us out rest of the time.

But winter was approaching and I wanted 4 wheels.

Oct 11 dawned. I bought a Saturn SL2.

That was the evening I would propose to my girlfriend but even I didn’t know it until the precise moment.

It was a Friday evening and we were watching an 80’s era Hindi movie in my apartment.

I wish I remembered at which point in the movie it happened. All I recall was that there was some kind of whitespace (it was a VHS tape so couldn’t have been a commercial). A rare flash of deep certitude overcame me and I knew it was time.

I popped the question.

The beautiful face with perfect eyes and exquisite nose became suffused with incredulity and spoke.

“Oh my God! Are you sure?”

“Yes”

“Can you give me some time to think about it?”

“Of course. Take your time.”

(A few minutes later)

“Yes!”

Bingo Little had found his Rosie M Banks.

P.S. For the next few days, she’d keep asking me “Are you sure you meant it? Because if you aren’t.. or have any second thoughts, I won’t hold it against you.”

To which I’d keep replying “I couldn’t be surer.”

P.S (2). So there you have it Vikrant.

Ravi Varma in a Vijayawada home

{Editor’s Note: My mother is a late adopter of the Internet. In the pre-Internet era, she used to write the loveliest of long letters to her children. The letters stopped after I returned to India. In the past year, after she got comfortable with connectivity and gmail, the letters resumed as emails to her children. She’s harvesting from the oldest tendrils of her memory which is making the reading so so enjoyable. In this email (Sep 29, 2016), she’s relating a chance encounter with an art connoisseur rich lady during her Vijayawada walking years. The email has gone through a minor editing lens without changing my mom’s tone and voice. I’ve italicized the Telugu names – fewer references compared to the first story – A marriage in the winter of 1962. My mom’s sub-text/commentary is “italicized within quotes.” My comments are within “[ ]”}

Dear ones,
    Some time back I saw portraits of famous painters on TV. I thought about Ravi Varma’s paintings. By now you know that I take a long time to come to the actual point. I don’t do Précis writing.
    I started walking as a mere excercise, probably in 1992. Slowly it became enjoyable, a habit, and part of my daily routine. I needed no other entertainment or company. Walking along the Vizag beach from from our Kirlampudi house, 6 am to 7 am, was the best.  It was continued in Vijayawada. In those days Nannagaru [dad] was not tensed up, he started worrying after Lakshmi’s accident. [Years ago, my dad’s sister (Lakshmi attaya) died on her way to a neighborhood store when a rash auto rickshaw driver ran her over in Hyderabad.]
        Walking  was like eating gulab jamuns (an Indian dessert). I surveyed all the places. Once I walked to Kanakadurga temple [a distance of 5km that undertaken as a mokku (aka mannat in Hindi) – a sacred pledge]. Anandamayee and Siah garu moved to Abhilash in 1999 [retired couple who became our parents’ neighbor]. Both Anandamayee and I started walked together. She was not in favour of freelance walking [freelance as in, changing the route every day at will]. So Siddhartha college ground became our new walking venue. She was a good conversationist. They had lived in many places like us – Calcutta, Bombay, Jamshedpur and and even Srilanka. We knew a lot of common people – Seeta pinni, Rama of Calcutta Kasturi garu (Anand’s attaya) and KCP Reddy garu. Very strangely she knew my mavayya [uncle] when he was in Samalakota [a town in East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh] many years ago. Moreover their Susarla [a Telugu surname] family was very big and she had enough material to share with me [my marathon friends will relate to material]. It went on smoothly for quite some time. One day we decided to wear salwar kameez [North Indian dress that rivals the sari in popularity] as our new walking dress code. A latent desire previously expressed meant I already had Prashanti’s [mom’s niece] dress. Anandamayee had to buy.
Shakuntala in the forest - a famous Ravi Varma painting

Shakuntala in the forest – a famous Ravi Varma painting

We stepped out in our new attire [you’ve got to imagine how big a deal this is for two South Indian women in their 50’s wearing a new outfit for the first time in their lives in public]. For the first 100 feet I concentrated on the road only. After crossing 2-3 buildings I could notice raised eye brows and slight smiles. We reached the ground. Some walked away without any expression [Indians can rival Jeeves’ stiff upper lip]. Lolla Sarma (my cousin) opened his mouth but immediately closed and walked away. We finished our walk, re-entered our building with a sigh of relief – first day was over. Next time when we visited  Lolla Sarma’s house he told his wife “Mythily Akkayya [i.e. the protagonist] and her friend vesham vesukuni [translates to costume or disguise] walking ki osthunaru.” [translates to coming.]

    Somehow our relationship got spoiled and we stopped walking together. She started walked on the terrace and I walked in the colony [back to freelance walking]. I walked up and down the street parallel to ours. It was a chukki walk – just like a bull goes round and round a chukki (ganuga) to crush til into oil, so was I walking. Now the topic story starts.
    A woman of my age stepped out from a palatial house. She was in walking shoes and all. She said she will join me in walking. [Note the use of “said she will join” as opposed to “may I join”] She introduced herself as Siris Rajugaru’s daughter, Annapurna. Siris Raju was one of the richest men of Vijayawada – sucessful industrialist, owner of Siris pharma company, Raju of Bhimavaram (which is the most fertile land of West Godavari). So my new walking companion was seriously rich lady.
Shakuntala and Dushyanta in the forest - another Ravi Varma painting

Shakuntala and Dushyanta in the forest – another Ravi Varma painting

In the first round of our walking, she told everything about herself and her family, then she narrated stories of the other bungalow owners. She suddenly stopped in front of a new apartment and said “I will show you something.” It was a 3 bedroom apartment on the 5th floor. When she opened the front door, I can’t express the sight that beheld me. An apartment with very minimal furniture but otherwise it was an absolute feast to my eyes. Room after room was filled with paintings – some original Ravi Varmas paintings bought by her from different places and exhibitions, portraits of Rama, Krishna, Yashoda Krishna, Nala Damayanti, Shakuntala Dushyant bought in various auctions. There were some statues as well. I was so happy, so happy, I wanted to share with others — Anandamayee, Udaka [my mother’s sister], and Seenu [my older brother]. She said I can bring anybody – to give them a similar tour. She gave me her phone number. I was so much thrilled. I took 2-3 rounds. She showed me the difference between original and others (as if I understood]. It was like drinking rasagulla juice [can you tell my mother has a sweet tooth?] It was an unplanned trip..  Nanna [my father] would be anxious as it was past my usual walking duration.. so I returned home. I thought to myself “will come again and do detailed survey” but opportunity comes only once.

    Next day she was waiting for me near her house. After one round of walking she invited to her house. She showed her well decorated and well kept house – turned out to be one more museum. However, I was not that much impressed… it was ok with all crystal and marble things, the kind one sees in airports and malls in USA. She had a separate studio where she paints and employs others to paint for her. After a cup of tea I left.
    Next day onwards she was not to be seen. When I asked her maid servant, she said she was sleeping. Later, when I happened to meet her she refused to recognize me. Anyway my childhood desire to see original Ravi Varma paintings was fulfilled.
    Rasagulla freelance walking came down to walking in the school ground then to chakki walk and finally to corridor and drawng room walking. Eventually I stopped it completely after I started and became regular with the Art of Living routine. Thank you for reading my thoughts.
    Yours loving Amma
[Closing note: the apparent amnesia displayed by the lady reminded me of a Vikramaditya/Raja Bhoja story. If your childhood reading involved a healthy diet of Amar Chitra Katha, you probably recall that story too?]

Let the ass kicking begin…

squash_player_quoteSanta Cruz squash club (circa 1999)
It was my second year of playing squash seriously. ‘Seriously‘ doesn’t mean I was any good yet. I was at that rookie stage of a squasher’s evolution when I was constantly looking for easy winners (read “low percentage drop shots or optimistic boasts”). I had signed up for a squash tourney at the Santa Cruz squash club.

I have little recollection of the two games I played – quick embarrassing losses I’m sure.

On the bright side, I got to watch several great games. The standout memory (and the trigger for this post) was the matchup between the club pro (Alex) and a sturdily built bloke (let’s call him Blake since I don’t know him).

There was no danger of Blake being picked from a which one of these is a squash player lineup. This is not to say that he was unfit.

As the players warmed up with rails and crosses (and the occasional boast), it was evident that Blake had talent. There was an elegance and efficiency to his on-court movements that belied one’s cursory examination of his physical profile. But my money was still on the athletic squash pro Alex.

Game 1 score: 9-5

The game was close for the first 2-3 minutes. Blake had gotten Alex’s measure by then and started putting him through his paces. An array of accurately deep rails laced with a perfect blend of drop and boast winners. This was a pattern he oft repeated. And as though to remind Alex that this wasn’t his full armoury, he’d throw in a clinically precise edge smash winner… seemingly at will.

I watched Blake as he nonchalantly took his break, changed to a new tee and entered the court before Alex.

“Let the ass kicking begin”

This was the message on the back of his game#2 tee!!

The programmer in me wondered whether he had different tee shirts ready based on whether he won the first game.

I concluded that this was the perfectly appropriate”mind games” message to an opponent in both scenarios.

If it was a close first game that he had lost, the taunt could have inserted a doubt in his opponent’s mind. 

In this case, however, Blake was openly taunting Alex.. just getting warmed up buddy. I’ll now wipe the floor with you.

Blake then proceeded to do just that. Game 2 score was either 9-2 or 9-3.

Beyond the cheekiness and mind game evoked by Blake’s tee that day, the message stayed in my consciousness. 

Strangely my runner persona can relate to that message.

Like many amateur runners who will never be podium finishes (in the open category), my ‘opponent’ is me. The current me is constantly competing with the previous me. 

If I ran an FM in 3:48, great. Let the ass kicking begin.. to get to the 3:30 to 3:45 quadrant.

If I’ve run 75k multiple times, great. Let the ass kicking begin for a hilly 80k or a 24 hour ultra.

If Dr. George Sheehan can get his PB at 60 years, surely I can try my darnedest in my late 40’s.

A marriage in the winter of 1962

[Editor’s Note: My mother is a late adopter of the Internet. In the pre-Internet era, she used to write the loveliest of long letters to her children. The letters stopped after I returned to India. In the past year, after she got comfortable with connectivity and gmail, the letters resumed as emails to her children. She’s harvesting from the oldest tendrils of her memory which is making the reading so so enjoyable. In this email (Aug 4), she’s relating the story of her marriage in the winter of 1962. If I were to design the wedding brochure, I’d title it as Ooty ki kali weds a Guntur boy. The email has gone through a minor editing lens without changing my mom’s tone and voice. I’ve italicized all the Telugu names (and there are MANY). My mom’s sub-text/commentary is “italicized within quotes.” Editor’s comments are within “[ ]”. The bare boned Telugu cheat sheet is here: Tatayya (grandfather), ammumma (maternal grandmother), mamma (paternal grandmother), Kakki (mom’s younger sister), pellichoopulu (seeing the bride), akkaya (elder sister), Nanna (father – my father in this case), guruvagaru (my father’s spiritual guru), mavayya (uncle). Rest of the glossary is at the end.]

My dear loving ones,

Some interesting flashback. I just finished my final B.A. exams. My ammakkayya, her daughter (Satyavati akkayya), and her family visited us for vacation in Jun 1962. Ammakkayya stayed back and others went back to Guntur. Satyavati akkayya sent Nanna’s match on Savitri ammumma’s suggestion. Communication went on between both the tatayyas. It was decided that pellichoopulu will take place in Tenali where my grandfather was staying with Viswapati babai. The three of us (Tatayya, Ammumma & I) along with ammakkayya started for Tenali. Kakki had to stay back with our neighbours as her 11th standard classes had started.

Post-marriage studio pic in Guntur

Post-marriage studio pic in Guntur

We halted in Madras at my mavayya’s house. All five elders discussed the match. My father was not that happy about Nanna’s complexion. My athayya expressed her view that if both the couple are short, children also will be short. My mavayya and ammakkayya had made the final decision: All the other things (raised by people) are petty, the boy is qualified and buddhimantudu, family is well known etc etc. I think my mind was set without knowing myself. We three proceeded to Tenali.

The day came. Ambu kakki and Satyam kakka came from Kolluru on my father’s request. They made me wear pinni’s blue pattu sari with big border (“I don’t like big borders”). Ambu kakki made my jada – I was not satisfied that much. I was used to ammumma’s  jada (I used to take papidi and hold the hair and  she would braid). Moreover I missed Kakki very much. On top of it there was no big mirror. [mirror in the Ooty house is a story for a different day]

Mamma and Nanna arrived. Tatayya suddenly called me to come out. I didn’t know what to do next so I went to my grandfather, bowed down and touched his feet. He made me sit by his side. This gesture made a great impression on Nanna. I liked his face (“if you like somebody’s face other things will not come in the way”). Neither of the two (Nanna or Mamma) asked me any questions. Ambu kakki sat near Nanna and conversed comfortably. We were just listening. I don’t remember about the snacks but something was given. Finally I went inside. The event was over.

Next day myself and tatayya had planned to go to Guntur. On finding out Nanna requested tatayya to drop mamma in Savitri ammumma’s house so that he could proceed to his work place (Rourkela). I travelled with mamma to Guntur. I was comfortable in my checked sari. Most of the time she spoke about the time spent with her cousins in her childhood, what songs she learnt from ammumma (Ammumma and she were cousins).

She asked me 2 personal questions. First one was very funny, second one not exactly.

  • “Do you eat rice thrice daily?” I nodded.
  • “Do you have 2 pairs of gold bangles?” I nodded this way and that way. [The great Indian head shake]

We didn’t have gold bangles till then. On the previous day drama, either pinni or Ambu kakki had given me 2 pairs of bangles, which meant that she had noticed them.

We came back to Ooty. It took quite some time to say “yes” because Nanna had to show my horoscope to guruvugaru and get his consent. The two tatayyas were not particular about jatakams. Ammakkayya expressed her doubt about guruvugaru but my father okayed it saying “what is wrong? I too have Baba (Sathya Sai Baba) as guru.” So marriage day was fixed for 18th Oct with a muhurtam time of 4 am. Two months time for preparations – it was quite a tough time for my father as he had not made any plans till then. He had to gather 10,000 Rupees – a very big amount in those days – somehow he managed with my grandfather’s help whose chief complaint against my father was how much money he spent on travels.

Our marriage shopping was very simple – one pattu sari (parrot green) for ammumma, one pattu sari (sky blue) for me, parikini onis (not pattu) for Kakki. We usually bought our clothes from a brahmin’s shop called Seed Depot. His main business was selling seeds. Because of my foolish criss-cross nodding [aka “Great Indian head shake”], my parents had to make two pairs of bangles (instead of one). One should be very careful before nodding.

I was chosen by Kuruganti family 70% on account of ammumma.  I was Ratnamala’s [same as ammumma] daughter! Nobody thought much about her eyesight [Ratnamala was nearly blind when she got married]. My mother-in-law gave points to my complexion and roundness (“I was not this fat then”). My father-in-law was impressed by our lineage – my grandfather and great grandfather were both great scholars in their times. The latter was called yerra panditudu [red complexioned pandit] in Bandar. Moreover, he was impressed by my B.A. degree. My husband was happy because my jatakam was approved by his guruvugaru. [The stars had all aligned.]

Sometime after the muhurtam

Sometime after the muhurtam

Marriage was to take place in my grandfather’s house in Guntur. We four (Tatayya, Ammumma, Kakki, self) started with Tirupati visit – there was heavy rush due to brahmotsavams. Our next halt was at Puttaparti – due to dasara there was a large crowd.  Luckily (and because of Tatayya’s strong will and faith), we got interview and blessings [interview refers to personal audience]. Sai Baba (Baba) asked us to come after marriage. We reached Guntur where my ammakkayya had already arrived (having travelled from Kolluru).  In those days there were neither kalyanamandapams  (marriage halls) nor catering services so everything had to be arranged on our own. Ammakkayya brought gongura, kandipodi, appadalu, odiyalu, and other pickles prepared by her with Ambu Kakki‘s  help. My tatayya was the local support. Anantalaxmi pinni and Nagalakshmi were the other people. We have to really appreciate our pinni – she believed it was her duty and responsibility to help her bavagaru so she left (Viswapati) babai and her two children to manage by themselves for 15 days. My ammakkayya and pinni were two strong pillars who supported my father. Marriage took place in front of the house. Pandiri was laid out, a raised stage was also constructed, and all the decorations were done by aunties and cousins. Cooking was done in the back of the house. My Vishwapati babai’s childhood friend and all-round reliable person took charge of the storeroom.

Our house was in the 18th Cross road. Savitri ammumma fixed an accommodation in the 14th Cross road for Kurugantis. They had planned for Satyanarayana vratam in Guntur itself. Cook also was arranged as they stayed for 10 days.

Baba’s big portrait was kept on a decorated chair. Guests started coming from 16th onwards. There was 100% attendance on both sides of the family. After the muhurtam was over we went inside. Ammumma broke down all of a sudden. We had never seen this before. All these years she never complained or grumbled about her defect [she was fully blind within a few years after her marriage to Tatayya]. She held my husband’s hand and cried like anything. She said “I can’t see anything. I don’t know anything. Look after my daughter.” It was too heavy a scene for everybody.

I changed my sari & wore the white sari for mangalyadharanam.  I came out and saw my father standing under the bogada tree in our compound. Now that kanyadanam was over he was quite relaxed. On seeing me he was SO happy! Till today I remember those sparkling eyes full of contentment and appreciation. He was my mother too.

Our guruvugaru purposely didn’t attend the marriage. He was staying in a nearby peetham. Instead Guruprasad (his elder son) represented him and was well taken care of by Bhaskar babai (my brother-in-law). Later, with my father’s permission, Nanna took me to the peetham. We got his blessings. (Laughing) he said “Kurugantis don’t need tube-light anymore.” [referring to her white complexion]

By god’s grace everything went off well. We started for Puttaparthi. My ammakkayya and Sudheer babai accompanied us. We got interview with Baba – he materialized a locket and gave to Nanna and asked us to return with the baby child [the one who would be my older brother]. We proceeded to Secunderabad. Guntur Tatayya (Nanna’s father) was still in service (with Central bank). The house was near general bazaar. We celebrated first diwali amidst athayyas, babais, pedananna, and doddamma. Mamma very happily took us to Kali temple, to her brother’s place, sister’s place, and other relatives.

Our marriage was given good report, notable quote being “bride’s sister is more good looking than the bride!” Proposals came for Kakki but Tatayya brushed them aside. Our next destination was guruvugarus place – it was a very small village Narendrapuram in East Godavari district. Mamma came with us. After getting down at Rajahmundry we had a dip in the Godavari river on mamma’s wish. We crossed the river by boat, then took a bus and finally reached their house on a bullock cart via a kacha muddy road. We were given a warm welcome. Since it was a village, all the people gathered. Next day was 16th day so they prepared special items (kandabachali koora was a must for newly married couple it seems). Seetamma (guruvagaru’s eldest daughter) was very friendly and lively, others were too young.

By the end of Nov 1962 we were in Rourkela. I was impressed by neat well laid roads and similar looking houses. Mamma used to cook for us. Nanna took us to his friends’ houses. Mamma knew a friend’s daughter in Rourkela. Mamma and I used to go to the nearby market – it was so strange walking without holding her hand. [Context: my mother or her sister would always hold their mother’s hand while walking since she was blind]

On receiving first letter from Tatayya I read it out to Mamma and immediately cried. She consoled me by stroking my back – those were the innocent days.

Three of us went to Calcutta where Ramudu babai was staying in shared accommodation. He took us to Ramakrishna Mutt, Birla Planetarium, New market, and other well-known places. Babai found it very funny when I started crying on Mamma’s return journey. She also advised Nanna on so many things.

That’s it. [See note below]

Marriages are made in heaven it is already planned by HIM. Happiness and success depends on one’s partner. It is one’s own luck and destiny. I thank GOD for everything.

A gift to my parents on their 28th marriage anniversary

A gift to my parents on their 28th marriage anniversary

[Note on “That’s it”]: this is my mom’s signature two words to indicate that the long story just related has finally come to an end. When we were young (before we had started reading classics), I have memories of her storytelling Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Every night she would relate the content of whatever she had read that day. She’d always end those episodes with “That’s it!” On my parents’ 28th wedding anniversary, I presented them with a copy of the same book.

Dear Amma and Nanna, HAPPY 54th Anniversary from your dear loving ones (Srinivas, Janaki & Vishwanath)!!!!

Glossary of Telugu words

  • Buddhimantudu – intelligent
  • pedananna – father’s elder brother
  • dodamma – father’s elder brother’s wife
  • attaya – father’s sister
  • pinni – father’s brother’s wife
  • Pattu sari – fancy brocaded sari
  • parikini oni – aka “half sari” worn by young unmarried girls
  • jatakam – horoscope
  • jada – braided hair; papidi – hair partition and a key preparatory step before braiding
  • pandiri – trellis structure used for marriage ceremonies
  • Satyanarayana vratam – an important religious puja in conjunction with most life change Hindu events
  • mangalyadharanam – tying of the sacred mangala sutra around bride’s neck
  • kanyadanam – marriage ritual (donating the bride to the groom)
  • peetham – ashram
  • gongura, kandipodi, appadalu, odiyalu – yummy Telugu savories

Been there seen that

vedanta_treatise_bookcoverA common thread running across all Indian/Eastern spiritual traditions is some form of meditation.

The variations come in the form of how one meditates, whether it is the sole instrument for spiritual advancement or step 12 of 12, use or non-use of an internal mantra, generic or personalized mantra, addition of a group meditation session every now and then.

Are there more variations? Possibly.

The above is a reasonable representation of the traditions I’ve encountered in my search over the past few decades. A search that could be described as oscillating between the dilettante’ic and the serious.
A few traditions that are conspicuously different from the aforementioned patterns are Jiddu Krishnamurti (JK), Swamy Parthasarathy of The Vedanta Academy (SP), and Michael Singer (MS).

JK is the most widely known among the trio. MS, I reckon, is well-known and heard in the US.

My wife and I had the good fortune of having listened to SP’s lectures on the Bhagawat Gita in the Bay Area – 3 years in a row at that! His book Vedanta Treatise is a fine fine read. I cannot recommend it enough.

One of SP’s peeves against the long list of meditation prescribing gurus is that not everyone is ready (read “prepared”) for it. Perhaps not different from the Gita’s teachings where Krishna outlines four different types of yogas. Different strokes for different folks.

Furthermore, for the ones suited for meditation and putting in (let’s say) a daily hourly session, SP asks “How do you stay peaceful for the rest of your waking hours?”

How does one observe one’s thoughts in the din and roar of the marketplace?

JK’s prescription is simple. And frustrating.

Just observe your thoughts, he keeps saying. That’s the ONLY thing you can/must do. No guru required.

JK’s probably most vociferous in making the case for “no guru required” but that’s fodder for another post.

My wife once asked SP, “What should we parents do for our children?”

His answer: “Just be good role models. Kids watch what you DO more than what you SAY.”

When pressed on what kind of daily practice kids might benefit from, he suggested the following (also described in Vedanta Treatise):

As part of the bedtime routine, have the child do a slow action replay of the events of the day. We followed this for some time with our older son and it went something like this “I got up in the morning. Went to the bathroom. Brushed my teeth. Changed my clothes..<blur of activity updates at school>.. had my dinner. Brushed my teeth.”

Lot of chuckling in the preamble. Unpredictable duration of rambling in the middle when my wife and I had to resist the urge to ask questions.

This was a delayed watch-your-thoughts exercise. Without ‘judging’ the thoughts. Imperfect and incomplete recollection for sure. But it was something.

I was introduced to MS through his book The Untethered Soul, a thoughtful gift from an old school friend I recently met after 30+ years.

The prevailing theme in MS’s book is closest to JK but he presents the observation process in the form of blocking (“holding on” to thoughts/memories) vs releasing (letting the thoughts”pass through”). Repetitive at times but not frustrating at all. While expounding on his theme, he invokes Ramana Maharishi the most (among the Indian masters).

Back to JK.

This time through the lens of KR, a faithfully focused practitioner of JK’s teachings. Over the years we’ve had numerous conversations on the JK Method – with him predominantly sharing, me listening and questioning.

The JK Method is really all about patterns, KR says.

Patterns come naturally to him. You see, he is a software geek, an avid (former) blindfold chess player and a wonderful human being.

What is memory but a unique thought pattern stored away in our memory banks.

By way of a simplistic classification, all our memories are either “pleasure evoking” or “pain evoking”.

We hold on and feel the need to keep “replaying” our pleasant memories and, by the same token, suppress the unpleasant memories although, at times, we replay the painful ones in a masochistic way.

What about the fresh deluge of thoughts? Every waking moment. Day after day after day?

Barring those rare moments of “performing action while completely immersed”, every new thought bears a pattern/signature not very different from the multitude born in the past.

Observing these thoughts at the birth allows us to see the seemingly automatic sequence of “Oh! that was good. Hey, that reminded me of <blah blah>…. Hmm.. that’s not a nice thing he said, makes me look bad… hey, that’s totally unfair, I don’t like this person at all.. she’s insufferable and I’m getting… ANGRY!”

I can’t claim to be anything but a tyro in these matters of the thoughts and beyond. The only ‘progress’ (if I may say so) is that each time I see a recurring pattern (of my ego getting bruised or the antipodal massaged ego) I get amused. Amused at the sheer predictability of it.

I’m told that if I observe these patterns often enough, then I’ll be a changed person.

Changed in a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle way.

MS would say I’d be blocking a lot less thoughts and releasing a heck of a lot more.

What then? The great quietude?

Somebody once remarked “there is nothing new under the sun”.

One Google search later, a Biblical reference found:

What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun.

So it is with thoughts.

Been there. Seen that.

**************************

Closing note: this post happens to be #300. Yea! I hit a triple century! It took me only 8 years and a few months but still.

The Indistructibles

When I bought the Palm Pilot 5000, I could legitimately call myself one of the “early adopters”. I still remember the excitement with which I drove to the Circuit City (somewhere near Park Ridge, Illinois). And I couldn’t wait to return to the office and lay my hands on the beauty.

Some years later, I was buying a new device every year. And I was probably in the bottom half of the Silicon Valley early adopters.

But that was a long time ago.

I resisted the wiles of a slew of sexy iPhone models.

My first Android phone (Samsung Galaxy S2) was bought in late 2012. And I only upgraded to my second Android (OnePlusX) 3.5 years later.

But this post wasn’t meant to be about devices 🙂

Some of my accouterments have approached (or approaching) end-of-life and I wanted to grant them emeritus status with fond memories on my blog. I present to you six exhibits, in reverse chronological order.

indis_nike_shorts_2002_IMG_20160828_121329#1 Nike running shorts (two pairs): Acquired within a week of each other in 2002 (most likely in May) after a decision to train for my first ever marathon in Oct 2002. The shorts saw four months of intense use over all manners of tempo, interval, treadmill, and long run workouts. They unexpectedly got a six year reprieve – until our move to Bangalore. Where, things really started to happen for me as a runner. After a steadily escalating running volume (circa 2009 to 2011), the shorts conveyed sufficient warnings that they be excused from long run deployments (yeah! those inner elastics do have a finite life) so they eventually became my workhorse shorts for tempo and interval runs. A few years ago, seams started to give way but the neighborhood tailor fixed them alright. I looked at them again recently and realized that it was finally time.

indis_ultimax_socks_2002_IMG_20160828_121212#2 Ultimax running socks (two pairs): Acquired a few weeks after the aforementioned Nike shorts, these were bought from Ryan’s Sports Shop – the same Santa Clara running store where I got my first running shoes (Brooks Adrenaline GTS6). The socks were heavily used for 4 months in 2002. After the six year hiatus, they experienced heavy usage again for 3.5 years in Bangalore.. until I discovered barefoot running. After a four year hiatus, I used them again for an ultra race and, I must admit, they are still good as new.

#3 Rockport shoes: My previous pair of Rockport shoes was a lot more indis_rockport_shoes_2001_IMG_20160901_223610interesting. This one is as boring and vanilla as dress shoes get. I probably bought them in 2001. The insole needed to be replaced a few years ago but at 15+ years, this pair is as close to indistructible as I know. A few days ago, I finally bought my first pair of vegan shoes so the Rockports shall be dispatched to a Goonj location real soon.

indis_gy_tee_jun26_2000_IMG_20160901_224143#4 Company Swag Tee (Jun 26, 2000): Larry Page came to Yahoo to give a tech talk about Google’s fault tolerant infrastructure.. in conjunction with the Google-Yahoo partnership party. The first 200 Yahoos who made it to URLs (name for our cafeteria) got the tee shirt.

#5 Healdsburg Jazz Festival (May 31 – Jun 3, 2000): What anindis_healdsburg_2000_IMG_20160828_122205 incredible lineup of jazz musicians we were SO fortunate to hear over two days – Charles Lloyd, Pharaoh Sanders, Billy Higgins, Von and Chico Freeman. So when I saw this tank top shwag (see right), I grabbed it instantly. My favorite night time wear. At least for a few more years.

indis_bluetee_1993_IMG_20160828_122302#6 Tank top from Mervyns (1993-94): How can I Carbon-14-date this faded blue tank top? Well, watching your home team winning its first NBA Championship sorta etched things in. The seams are giving way in a few places but it (and I) aren’t giving up without a fight.

 

Legend of Kukut Rishi

rishi14[Editor’s note: Amar Chitra Katha – a collection of 300-something picture books taught my generation all they needed to know about Hindu itihasa – rishis, kings, queens, heroes… they had them all. I recollected the contours of this story from Amar Chitra Katha but Google helped with filling out some details. This post first hit the Drafts folder in Mar 2013. so after a gestational period of three years and five months, its time had come 🙂 ]

Many centuries ago, Devotee Pundalik went on a pilgrimage in north India and camped near the hermitage of Kukut Rishi. At the auspicious Brahma muhurt time, he saw three dark (and slightly ugly) women headed towards the hermitage. He wondered who the women were and what they intended. Upon spying them, he saw them engaged in an exhaustive process of sweeping and cleaning the hermitage. In a few hours, they completed and left the hermitage. As they stepped out of the hermitage, they were transformed into beautiful women. Fascinated with what he saw, Pundalik observed them thus for a few more days. On the third day, as the women were leaving the hermitage, Pundalik threw himself at their feet and humbly asked, “Mothers, who are you? I have been watching you for three days. You come in ugliness and are transformed into beautiful beings.”

They replied, “We are the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. All day long, people expiate their sins and leave behind the ugliness and dirt. Now where can WE wash away all the sin, ugliness, dirt from our bodies?”

They continued, “Thousands of peoples visit Kukut Rishi every day. The Rishi shows them the way of Karmayoga. The entire hermitage became sacred by the touch of the lotus feet of Kukut Rishi. When we sweep the hermitage, the sacred dust falls on our body and we get transformed into beautiful beings again. THAT is the power and piety in the dust of saints’ feet.” [This Hindu-blog post covers the interesting aftermath of Pundalik’s encounter with the three sacred rivers.]

I was reminded of Pundalik’s story at one of the The Ugly Indian  spotfixes. After the volunteer group applied the finishing painting touches and prepared to leave, one of the leaders said “Don’t leave just yet. Chai pee-ke jao ji! Mandir jaane ke baad bina prasaad liye koi jaata hai? [Translation for non-Hindi readers: Please have tea and go. After a temple visit, does anyone leave without partaking of the offerings (prasaad)?]

This message, of a selfless activity serving to cleanse accumulated dirt/impurities/negativity, really resonated with me.