All posts by Sena Gopal

Of Heathens and Believers

I began dying a long time ago. I can’t tell you the exact date, time or year as I didn’t notice it at first. But it has been long. Painful. Bloody. Hope-filled. Dreaded.

My name is Acceptance.

I was once the queen of a kingdom spanning the earth. Things were peaceful, my subjects simple. They survived off the land, the forests, the rivers and oceans. They built stone temples to worship nature. Sometimes they painted on walls with vegetable dye; beautiful pictures of animals, plants and life. They were one with everything around them and I was proud as they were enlightened.

I bore four daughters – Sivaa, Salma, Sara, and Eva. I raised them to be independent-minded, but close. I encouraged their different ideas and views. I allowed them to debate for hours, sometimes even days and their personalities grew, blossomed, became distinct and yet complemented each other’s.

All the people of the earth had their eyes on my children; they were princesses after all. Some liked Sivaa more, others Salma, Sara or Eva. On crisp, sunny days when birdsong filled the palace and the air was so clear you could see the distant ocean, I would find my daughters sitting on the fresh grass in deep, sometimes heated, discussion. Their hair was braided with wildflowers, their delicate hands flying around like excited sparrows. Sometimes, they would sit surrounded by the people who loved them, laughing gaily. “My people don’t like to eat animals,” Sivaa would say of those who sought her company. “Mine won’t eat pork,” Salma replied. I smiled at how they bonded with everyone on this planet.

Looking back, I should have been careful in giving my daughters so much freedom. But how was I to know that their independent minds and fearless hearts would not unite, but divide, human beings? My daughters strove hard to not be the cause of the world’s disruption. They helped each other, they cried when fights broke between their people. Long after I’ve given up they are still trying to maintain their identities in harmony.

My eldest, Sivaa, was the hardest to fathom. She spoke of such things as self-realization, life after death, the infinite soul. Even as a child she sat still for hours, her eyes closed, her face peaceful. I don’t know what passed through her mind and when I asked she said she couldn’t explain it. It was only years later, as a grow woman, that she came to me and described what she often experienced.

“The force that drives the universe,” she told me.

“What is it like?” I asked, curious.

“I cannot explain it Ma,” she said. “But you will know it when you experience it.”

My Sivaa sat still for days, sometimes weeks, contemplating this force. At such times she didn’t eat or sleep. Nothing disturbed her and no one could touch her. She was there but she wasn’t really there if you know what I mean?

“We begin dying the second we are born,” she told her sisters. “But that is only the body. Our spirits, our souls, are invincible.”

Salma, Sara, and Eva, light of spirit and happy of heart, wondered at the finality of those words. It made them a little sad and they begged their older sister to tell them happier things. I, too, wondered at the somber ideas of my oldest child. Even Sivaa’s followers were a strange bunch, uninterested in tangible things but greedy for knowledge. Food didn’t please them, comfort didn’t calm them, darkness didn’t frighten them. They were the same in joy and sorrow and closest to the earliest people who worshipped nature.

Sivaa’s followers called the force that drove the universe God and believed it manifested in everything. They had gods for all kinds of things – the sun, the skies, the earth, even the sperm and ovum whose union determines the constitution, the soul. Thus, were created Shiva, Nut, and Ra. Nanook, Sedna, and Saraswati. Vishnu, Sedna and Yaya.

My other three daughters did not like the idea of so many avatars of god. People were beginning to worship the avatars rather than the one true god, they said, and they were right. So they all came up with their own idea of how the universe worked and who was in charge. They described Sivaa’s inexplicable force as God and said it was everywhere, in every person. They created the idea of prophets, humans, chosen by God to spread his word. The prophets’ message was written in books people could follow. It was a guideline of how to live a life of good intention. Salma, Sara and Eva went a step further and invented the idea of heaven and hell. If you sinned you went to hell. If you led a sin-free life you went to heaven.

Sivaa, at first, was appalled at this simplistic view of the universe. She said god existed everywhere, not just in human beings but in every animal, stone, and air particle. She said human beings were the only ones gifted with conscience and consciousness and it was their responsibility to care for this earth. Animals and plants were not put on this earth to be killed and used by humans, she said. Some laughed when she bowed her head before a plant and asked its permission before she plucked the fruit.

When Sivaa heard of heaven and hell, she became very sad. She insisted we have to be born again and again to atone for our sins. Life wasn’t the ultimate aim, nor was it a gift. It was given to us as a chance to atone for the sins of past lives. The ultimate goal wasn’t to live but to become one with the universe. Sivaa called it salvation. Her ideas didn’t appeal to the young people who wanted more and more from life.

My four daughters, all of them strong and beautiful and kind, agreed that whatever their paths they led to one god. They had different names for this god but it meant the same thing.

They didn’t know, then, that their gods, prophets, and books would slowly give rise to hostility between their groups of followers. Each of them had, unwittingly, created the idea of religion. The followers of a religion killed to protect their gods and prophets. Wars would be fought to spread religions. The conquered were forced to convert to the religion of the conquerors. Rivers of blood flowed through the streets of the great cities of the world.

When Sivaa found some of her followers worshipping gold idols of gods in marble temples she fled and disappeared into the forests with the people closest to her.

It wasn’t long before Salma, Sara and Eva’s followers, too, began worshipping god in confined spaces they called temples, mosques and churches. They grew alarmed when people referred to the nature worshippers, who came before them, as heathens. The idea that the world’s oldest beliefs were unevolved, unsophisticated and barbaric took hold even as modern religions mounted their own hateful wars on each other to establish their superiority.

That was when Salma, Sara and Eva sent their most trusted followers in search of Sivaa in the remotest, untouched places of this planet. They are beginning to believe that Sivaa’s nature worshipping is far the better choice. It inspires respect for everything, living and non-living. Sivaa hasn’t been found yet but my children are sure she is still alive, somewhere, and will reveal herself when the time is right.

Meanwhile some kind souls try desperately to keep me from taking my last sweet breath decorating my dry, broken body, shouting slogans in my name.

“Secular,”

“One people.”

“One God.”

“Acceptance.”

And, finally, the most insulting word of this world.

“Tolerance.”

Such a condescending term used by those convinced of the superiority of their belief and kindness of their heart as they put up with those who are not them.

My daughters, no longer young or beautiful, regret that they allowed people to follow them. They were just playing with different ideas, they tell me. They are weary, they tell me. Sometimes I can hear them crying in the dark nights that are becoming longer and longer.

I, their mother, long unable to speak or console hover over them sometimes flying high in ecstasy and sometimes sinking low to the earth’s bowels.

The green grass and sparrows are gone. The vast ocean now hides behind a thick, black fog. Sometimes, when it becomes very silent in the palace I close my eyes and imagine I can hear the sparrows and the roar of the ocean. I believe I can see those people who bow to the sun, the moon, the stars. Those who kiss every rock and hug every tree are alive somewhere, I am certain.

 

Adrift

I want to thank everyone at Vaidyagrama for making it a magical place. You, truly, made the waters part when it comes to demonstrating how peace should be created and maintained. Each one of you, from my doctor to the woman who cleaned my room, was an inspiration for this blog.

Coimbatore, India – Twenty-five-year-old Hari meets me at the airport on a dry, sweltering monsoon afternoon in July. He will drive me 50 kilometers southwest to Vaidyagrama, an Ayurvedic healing center in South India’s heartland.

I am spending two weeks there because, clichéd and cheesey as it may sound, I want to find myself. Lately, I look around and think, “Is this it? Is this all there is to life?” Some call it midlife crisis but I know it isn’t that; it is that my life has been reduced to deadlines, milestones, and goals and happiness has become an external thing dependent on material and emotional acquisition rather than spiritual progression. I am going to spend two weeks detoxing – body, mind, and spirit – with Ayurveda, a native science documented in 5,000 B.C.E.

Asphalt smoke rises from the city’s sidewalks but we soon leave it behind, entering an arid landscape. The pictures of Vaidyagrama show a lush, green place and I wonder if they were photo-shopped to attract a lost, vulnerable clientele that will buy spirituality in a bottle if presented with the option. My eyes move upwards to the monsoon cloud-capped peaks of the gigantic Western Ghats; I see their vibrant, flourishing beauty and, smiling, settle back into my seat.

The Western Ghats
The Western Ghats

I open my eyes only when we start bumping along on a dirt road. It turned green outside as I dozed; from the deepest recesses of my mind I summon the plant names I learned in my undergraduate botany class. The pink and white blossoms of nerium, the red of hibiscus, the yellow of marigold, the polished green leaves of rubber. A color collage that distracts me from my apprehensions about the place I am headed to.

Hari drops me off at the Vaidyagrama’s front door – an archway guarded on either side by the monkey deity, Hanuman. I hesitate, turning around frantically to make sure the taxi driver, I have known for all of two hours, is still there if I need to escape. But he has disappeared leaving my bags in the foyer.

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Vaidyagrama’s entrance

And I take a small step in, right foot first as my grandmother taught me.

Turns out it is the biggest step I have taken in my life, yet. I am transported from chaos to peace and stand like a fool, stunned, until two young women hustle me to a chair.

“Are you tired?” one asks.

“Herbal tea,” the other one says shoving a cup of warm, dark liquid into my hands. I sip it; the sharpness of ginger, peppercorn and basil is muted by the subtle aroma of cumin and coriander, the sweetness of jaggery.

I complete my registration and the two women walk me along several wide, covered pathways flanked by thick vegetation, to my room. There are 36 rooms in the ashram divided into nine blocks of four grouped around a central courtyard.

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Shaded pathways connecting blocks of rooms

 

We pass other guests wearing long pants, their upper torsos covered in thin shawls. No one meets my gaze. I’ve read people come here for many reasons – from allergies to cancer to detox and de-stress. I understand silence is important to begin my journey into myself and believe I am prepared for it.

I am not.

My room is in an especially quiet block assigned to me, perhaps, because I asked for silence. I look longingly at the closed door after my two junior and one senior Ayurvedic doctors leave, instructing me to relax, remain in solitude.

First I unpack all my clothes into the single cupboard. Then I rearrange my clothes. I go and sit on my porch where bamboo shades keep the sun and the people out. I gaze at the plants outside. I look at my cell phone. There is no reception. I pick up the landline to call my children; it is dead.

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My quiet porch

I am jetlagged but I can’t sleep. I walk up and down my suite, from my small sitting area to my room and porch, then back again. The silence is deafening and I can’t do this for two more minutes let alone two whole weeks. I would like to leave but that would mean failure and I don’t like to fail.

It was my ego that prevented me from leaving the ashram right away and I thank it now because if it had not been for my egoistic self I would never have started on my journey to self-realization.

It occurs to me that I live in a world where everyone tells me to love myself and I think I do but I actually don’t because if I did I wouldn’t hate my own company so much. I would embrace solitude. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, forcing myself to sit in silence.

It is the first time I hear the ticking of my six-year-old wristwatch. It is the first time I hear the music of rustling leaves as a distant storm approaches. It is the first time I smell the earth that went into making the soil stabilized bricks the ashram is built with. When I open my eyes I see fleeting images in the candle flame burning in my room.

A gentleness drifts into me, settles in.

Within two hours of entering the ashram I wanted to flee; within three hours, I know I am in the right place. The perfect space.

The silence and solitude of the first few days taught me to watch with my ears, see with my nose, smell with my eyes. I can summon any memory, image and story at will but I can’t let it go and I am here to learn how. People think I am super-driven but I am not; I keep myself busy so I don’t have to think, analyze, ponder the past.

My life here is austere. My room is simple with no air conditioning, television or fridge, but clean and very well ventilated. My food, my schedule, even my solitude are simple. No one wears make-up, fancy clothes or jewelry. We don’t play music or watch movies. I wake up at 5.30 a.m. and go to bed at 9 p.m. I eat by myself and spend most of the day alone. Everyone is here to heal in some way or the other.

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A block of rooms around a central courtyard

Ayurveda believes that all problems can be treated by cleansing the body, mind, and spirit. Cleansing the body is easy; all I have to do is surrender it to the three doctors and three therapists who will monitor my food, my medicinal herb-intake and treatments (there are dozens including herbal baths and oil massages). They will direct all the toxins to my alimentary canal, then purge them out.

But what about cleansing my mind and spirit so I can find the force that drives the universe, find out who I am and where I fit? There are no instructions for that. We call this force different things and fight over names but it isn’t Jesus, Allah, Krishna, or Jehovah. This force doesn’t divide, it unites. It is a positive force that requires no belief in god or religion. It exists unconditionally.

Life, I am told, is a journey finding this force, the one truth, but I don’t know how to start. Practices like meditation help and I have done it for years without much success. I don’t feel lighter, cleaner and my mind buzzes with questions. No one seems to have answers to these questions. Certainly no one in the United States, but it was built after destroying a native culture that contained more wisdom and philosophy than the present country ever will. My questions aren’t answered in the cities of India, either, where chaos, corruption and money rule. That is why I am here; and I am still lost.

Day three my feet carry me to a discourse underway in the ashram’s central hall. A man sits cross-legged on the floor answering questions posed by those on chairs. I walk in out of curiosity, doubtful this young-looking person has the wisdom to answer my substantial, esoteric queries. I leave amazed at his depth of knowledge and wisdom, the humor that sneaks in unexpectedly. Later, I discover he is Dr. Ramkumar Kutty, the founder of the ashram. I go back the next day armed with a notebook, pen, and ten questions.

For everything I ask he has an answer that invites ten more questions. To him I owe the insights that have gone into writing this story. I’ve taken his knowledge and made sense of it with my words. My understanding may not be right but my intentions are.

My life, I realize, has been largely purposeless, a ship adrift. On the surface it seems I have achieved everything. A great education, a successful marriage, a fulfilling career, wonderful children, a beautiful home and the means to do what I love most – travel. But all my achievements have been about me. An “I” that almost never was a “We.” Even when I gave, I did it to feel good about myself.

Which means I am not that much more evolved than an animal. I have a list of needs that I go about fulfilling. Except I am neither content nor happy when I tick another thing off my “To-Do” list. I want more. More work, more travel, more love. Is that all I am? A product of all my achievements.

I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend. I am a reporter, a writer, a thinker, a challenger. I am flesh, bones, blood. I am brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes. I am Indian, Anglicized Indian, US-American. I am loving, angry, hateful, kind. I am all this and much more but without all of this am I nothing?

It occurs to me in that solitude that I can be nothing despite all these labels and I can be everything without any labels. I still don’t know who I am but I have begun the journey. Dr. Ramkumar tells me I will find out when I focus on the journey and forget the goal. When I stop playing victim and take responsibility for everything from burnt toast to Trump’s presidency. When every act is from good intent, irrespective of the result.

Hard to do in a result-oriented society where success is measured not by who you are but what you are. But it is good intent that will make healers of doctors, saints of preachers, philanthropists of businessmen, saviors of lawyers and truth-seekers of reporters. Something utterly lacking in today’s world where we simply put one foot after another, always thinking practically and only of ourselves. (A good attitude to have if you live in drudgery but few people I know are).

So I strive on. I have no answers, just a few tools to work with and, finally, a sense of how small “I” am and how vast “We” are. My decision to enter the ashram was a subconscious one, my resolution to carry it within me is a conscious one. I will always think of myself as, “Me before Vaidyagrama,” and “Me after Vaidyagrama.”

Now when the selfishness, narrow-mindedness and injustice of the world angers and confuses me, I can close my eyes and think of a happy place where I can hear my wristwatch ticking. Where peacocks wake me and cicadas chirp me to sleep and people walk barefoot so they can feel the soil beneath their feet.

 

 

 

 

Life’s Labyrinth

At Kripalu, the holistic healing center in Stockbridge, MA, I use Qigong to harness nature’s energy for nourishing my soul; I discover Metta Meditation; I learn to say Om the correct way; I understand the basics of Ayurveda. Yet, no matter what class I take and how much I love it, my feet always carry me to the Meditation Labyrinth, a twisted, circular path flanked by daises, lupins and conifers, leading to a central stone alter.

I first did the Meditation Labyrinth as a group exercise with a teacher. “Release,” as you walk towards the altar, the teacher said. Let go, become open. Be ready to “Receive” at the altar. “Return” back to your lives unburdened, open, free.

That didn’t happen to me. The labyrinth led me down a path I hadn’t expected, making me acutely aware of the imbalance in my life. I refer to it now as Life’s Labyrinth.

My eyes never left the altar on that first group-walk. I wanted to get there as fast as I could believing that was where my happiness lay. I passed others walking more slowly, singularly focused on the three stone slabs in the center, two vertical and the third resting horizontally forming a table. Two Bodhisattva statues held guard with their laughing faces. I hurried but just as I began thinking I was almost at the altar, a twist in the path led me away from it. This happened several times and I grew increasingly frustrated.

Kripalu - Labyrinth central altar Continue reading Life’s Labyrinth

The Walls That Cannot Separate US

 

I shouldn’t think about 11-year-old lame Ramaa as much as I do; after all I got to know her only after she died. But I think of her, constantly these days, because she was the first person I could have helped and didn’t. In fact, if I hadn’t seen her funeral procession pass by our house that summer afternoon when I was seven, I fear I would have remained oblivious to her existence.

Our lives were intertwined, Ramaa’s and mine, simply because we inhabited the same piece of earth. We lived next to each other – she in a shack on an unclaimed piece of barren land and me in a large house with a high compound wall. The pomegranate, almond, cashew, guava, and mango trees lining the inside of the wall kept the outside world outside, hiding the shack from view. I had to climb all the way to our terrace and look down to see the shack and, even then, I could only see its roof – a blue tarpaulin sheet fluttering in the breeze, something I would have used to build a make-believe house to play in with my friends.

I went to our roof terrace often, not to see the shack but, to gaze at the noisy, colorful, bustling city below and the boats on the large blue lake where the rolling plains met the horizon. People often stopped to admire our beautiful stone house with its numerous balconies and impeccable gardens and no one noticed the shack with the blue roof set back from the road.

We lived next to each other but a lot separated Ramaa and me and I learned all this only after she died. She was born lame; I was born whole. Her father was a drunk and her mother took on odd jobs to support the family; my parents were educated and I was sheltered by their love (and that of my grandparents who lived with us). Ramaa attended the decrepit local school; I went to a posh, competitive, private school.

Yet, there was also a lot we had in common if only I had bothered to pay attention. We were both children. We both had our dreams and disappointments. We both wanted extraordinary careers (she wanted to become a doctor and I wanted to become India’s Prime Minister by 40). We both wanted to make our parents proud. We both loved blue. All this, too, I discovered after Ramaa was gone.

The fault wasn’t completely mine because shacks like Ramaa’s were a common sight in the city and no one seemed to give them a second thought. That is, until the day my grandmother noticed that her holy basil was dying. The gardener scratched his head and wondered how a thriving plant could suddenly die. My grandmother considered this a highly inauspicious sign and called upon the astrologer who told her the soil by the holy basil was impure, filthy, and nothing could live in it. Of logical and scientific mind, she then consulted the soil scientist who got to the bottom of the problem within minutes.

The basil plant was close to the compound, right across from where the shack stood, and toxic chemicals were seeping into our garden soil from the barren land next door, the scientist said. Where were the toxins coming from, my grandmother wanted to know. A factory, a few kilometers away, was using the land as a waste dump yard, was the answer. Soon, the soil scientist said rather gleefully, all the trees in our garden would die.

My grandmother was devastated but there was nothing to be done as the factory belonged to a powerful politician who did as he pleased. (He didn’t realize that the toxic waste from his factory would one day reach his own palatial house on the city’s outskirts). We all sighed and became preoccupied with the garden, watching for the slightest signs of wilt and wither.

Our garden preoccupation ended when the gardener came running to my parents one seething summer afternoon, out of breath.

“The girl next door is dying,” the man panted. “We have to find the mother. The drunk doesn’t know where she is working today.”

The gardener had taken some food over for the family after lunch and found the girl on the floor of the shack, unconscious and bleeding profusely, her drunk father sobbing at her feet. She had been beaten on her way back from school by a gang of thugs her father had borrowed money from.

My father rushed to call the physician and the household scoured the neighborhood looking for the mother. They found her cleaning a house in a nearby neighborhood and brought her home. Minutes later Ramaa died. I knew the exact moment she breathed her last because her mother’s agonizing screams rented the still, hot, air causing the squirrels in our garden to scurry away in fright.

I went to the roof terrace to watch the funeral procession later that afternoon even though I had been forbidden from doing so.

It was the first funeral I had seen and I will never forget it. A small body covered in a dirty white sheet was being carried on a hastily-made, crude, wood stretcher. I tried to imagine the lame, maimed body underneath and couldn’t. It was a scant procession, befitting a poor, lame girl. I couldn’t take my eyes off a woman sobbing uncontrollably, trying to drag the white sheet away. I knew she was the mother. After a while all I could hear were her sobs. It was so quiet, not even the stray dogs barked and the flies seemed to have quit buzzing.

That is when my interest in Ramaa began. I questioned everyone around me and if they dodged my interrogation, I threatened to go to the shack and talk to the drunk and his wife. I learned so much about Ramaa, my neighbor, after she passed.

I discovered that the entire household knew about Ramaa and her parents. My parents had been sending food and even money whenever they could. Yet, they had subconsciously shielded me from the desperation in the shack; Ramaa had never been invited over to our house to play. I was angry and it made me want to go out and see every horror there is in the world.

There were no pictures of Ramaa, of course, so I tried to imagine what she must have looked like. I recreated her days, her nights, her life. I tried imagining the pain of the beating that killed her. I wondered what she felt as she breathed her last. Ramaa haunted me those first few weeks. I wanted to come to terms with her death. I couldn’t.

Life goes on.

A few months later the drunk and his broken wife packed their shack and moved away. They couldn’t bear to live in the place where their daughter had died, my mother explained. After that I couldn’t bear to look at the barren piece of land. Ramaa had been murdered there by the thugs that beat her, an alcoholic parent who couldn’t protect her, a society that looked the other way. Perhaps I was to blame as well. If I had noticed her, befriended her, would it have helped in some way?

I will never know.

The politician using the land as a waste dump yard was ultimately held accountable and an environmental group undertook the task of its reclamation. A glorious park was planted there. I watched the trees grow, the marigold, bougainvillea and roses bloom. I watched children congregate there every evening to play and fly their kites. But even though the park thrived nothing grew in the spot where the holy basil had been. I was grateful – I wanted it to stay that way so I never forgot the Ramaas of the world.

Over the years, I pushed Ramaa to the back of my mind and she became a missed heartbeat, a sigh, a flicker of an incomplete life.

Except I now think about Ramaa all the time. I remember how the high compound walls of my house kept her out. As an adult I feel certain that as long as I share this planet with people like Ramaa, there is no keeping their sorrows, their toxins and “filth” out of my life. The toxins will seep into the soil and kill my garden; the grievances of the unfortunate will touch me no matter what.

So far, I believed the United States was a benevolent country, or at least one that doesn’t proactively seek to be cruel. I believed it was a society where equality wasn’t just a pretty word, a nice concept to think about. I believed I was in a place where humans were treated with dignity.

I was wrong.

The walls we are building today will run between countries. They will keep out entire continents. They will control who enters and on what terms. They will prevent us from leaving and exploring the world completely (think about all the countries we can’t visit now because they have banned us just as we have banned them). We will take xenophobia to a new level, become the most hated and hateful nation on the planet.

And while we are trying so hard to protect ourselves, the filth will keep seeping into our garden. No walls, however tall, can keep the world out. Someday, when it is all over, when our garden is dead, we will realize how wrong we were in not embracing the world and its problems.

So, please, LET THEM IN. Or we will have to watch the funerals of millions pass by our gates. Little beaten-to-death lame girls covered in dirty sheets that we could have saved.

 

 

To-die-for recipes from Peru

 

In a small, off-the-beaten-track hotel in Peru I made friends with chef Jorge Cuadros. He taught me a few dishes and I tested them several times in my kitchen so they were close to what Jorge had created. You won’t be disappointed. Enjoy!

Ocopa sauce

Makes two cups

This yellow-green sauce works well as a dip and also as a side especially with baked potatoes. The ingredients are available in Latin American grocery stores.

1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

2 salt-free crackers

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon black mint (huacatay)

2 teaspoons Aji Amarillo paste

1 tablespoon onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup whole milk

2 teaspoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Blend ingredients together in food processor and serve chilled or at room temperature.

Chicha Morado

Serves 8

This gorgeous sweet dessert soup with chunks of pineapple and apple is sure to woo kids and adults.

2 ears purple corn, kernels removed from cobs

1/2 pineapple

2 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

6 cups water

2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup sugar

2 apples, cut into 1-inch cubes

  1. Peel the pineapple and keep the skin aside. Cut the rest of the fruit into 1-inch cubes and refrigerate.
  2. Soak the corn with the pineapple skin, cloves, and cinnamon overnight in the water.
  3. The next morning place the soaked corn with the pineapple skin and spices in a large flameproof casserole with a lid. Remove the lid and bring the mixture to a boil on high heat. Lower the heat to medium and simmer, covered, for 45 minutes. Allow to cool slightly.
  4. Work the mixture through a strainer to remove the corn, pineapple skin, cloves and cinnamon.
  5. Return the liquid to the casserole, add the diced pineapple, apple, sugar, and lemon juice. Simmer for another 8-10 minutes. Serve hot or cold.

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Finding Home

Finding Home

A brown, immigrant woman’s fears, insecurities, and musings on the eve of an election that will decide the future of not just the United States of America but the entire world.

It is an evening like any other in our suburban U.S. home. Yet it is different. The Fall wind screeches through the trees, Halloween cobwebs lie in the yard crumpled by the rain, and the front door-path is buried in leaves and overgrown plants.

“It looks like a haunted house,” my son notes at dinner. I am irritable, third day into writers’ block, and snap a reply. The children are startled, my husband tactfully suggests, “Why not go to Bela’s house? Take a break, have a drink, sleep there if you want.”

My friend Bela, Indian-born and raised like me, lives down the street. An UN economist who travels all the time, she still manages to keep an immaculate house while raising two lovely children. I could show up at her place, unannounced, demanding a drink and a bed.

I am tempted to go but I don’t and, instead, go to my own bed and dream I go over to Bela’s house that night.

When I wake up in the morning I am not in my house or Bela’s. The walls of the spacious room I am in are whitewashed. The windows are open letting in the morning October sun and the sound of twittering sparrows. The teak door and window frames are elaborately carved. I know I am in an upper-class Indian home. Panicking, I run downstairs towards the kitchen where I hear voices. I see Bela there but she isn’t the Bela I know. This woman is dressed in an orange silk sari, diamonds flash in her ears and nose, her neat bun is decorated with jasmine flowers. She is supervising breakfast for her husband, children, and in-laws. I call to her but she doesn’t hear. Neither does anyone else in the kitchen. It occurs to me, then, that I have become invisible, a ghost from the future – I have landed in 1920s India.

Desperate to get home I run out the open front door almost knocking over a servant girl coming in. She looks down angrily at the high wood threshold.

Outside, I expect to see Indians in saris, dhotis and turbans but the streets are crowded with white people in coats walking under a cold, steady drizzle. It is dark though the steeple clock reads only four in the afternoon. I recognize this place, too. It is 1920’s London and I have no idea how I have traveled, within a few hours, from a 21st century U.S. suburb to a 1920s India and England. I need to get home to my children, I despair. I spot a young Indian man, dressed in a smart dark suit, hurrying along the pavement and I follow him through an unlocked door into a modest two-storied house.

“Any hot curry for dinner,” he calls and a man’s voice from the living room, in Indian-accented English, replies, “Yes, Miss Patterson has made us potato curry. Not as good as home, I assure you, but it is vegetarian.”

“It had better be,” the man I have followed says as he walks into the living room. “We are in one of the few “Vegetarian Boarding Houses” in London that will have Indians.”

He sits down on a sofa opposite the man he’s been talking to and, for the first time, I look at them both closely. Chills run up my spine when I recognize them. They are my two grandfathers-in-law who have traveled by ship from India to come to England to study. They will die before I meet their grandson and marry him, but I already know their future. One will return to India with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. The other will become a chartered accountant and set up successful practices in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India. They will get married, father happy, worldly, smart children.

Now, I am excited to be here and live my version of, “Back Into The Future,” even if it might all be a dream. So I stay and watch the two men with curiosity and grateful love.

They both work hard ignoring prejudices, subtle and obvious. Britain’s humanity, then, stank in its ranks. People look at them from afar often with disdain. They think my grandfathers-in-law smell of coconut oil and curry powder (curry powder, incidentally, is a British invention https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/food-dining/2014/07/08/once-hard-find-curries-are-now-menus-everywhere/8CsBnAkvlefjQfM6KWAyZL/story.html). Few British know that Indians bathe every day and smell of sandalwood and incense. Or that their teeth, because of their vegetarian diet, are sparkling white.

One day I see my grandfathers-in-law walking down the street with another young Indian friend, his new bride by his side. A drunk sailor leers at the young woman and I notice her lowering her eyes, holding her husband’s arm tight. It doesn’t matter that she is married, she is brown and it is acceptable to ogle her. I rush towards the sailor but a whisper in my ear stops me.

“But wait and see what we will do, my darling,” a familiar, tender woman’s voice says. Is it my great grandmother, a widow in the 1920s, who ruled a small kingdom in India? I’ve seen her holding court, passing sentences on men, keeping her authority intact in a male-dominated society until she died (I was five then). Or is it the voice one of my grandmothers (one is still alive)? They always told me it was irrelevant whether I married, had kids, made money. It is important to swim upstream, they always said, and change things that are wrong.

I don’t know but I am, by now, used to being shuttled from country to country, century to century and hardly surprised when I end up in 1970s India.

Grim games have overtaken India. The British left in 1947 “uniting” all of the subcontinent’s kingdoms, each with its own language and culture, into one country forcing people to live together as “India.” (Would Britain ever dare to unite all the countries of Europe, I wonder?).

India’s kingdoms, its “states,” are at odds with each other. Hindu-majority India is at odds with Muslim-majority Pakistan (also created by the colonists). Within India, liberalists are trying to abolish the caste system by reserving seats for the lower castes in schools and universities and helping them monetarily. The upper-caste Brahmins responsible for keeping the caste system alive begin leaving the country but that doesn’t really change anything. The next highest caste comes into power and the caste system is simply re-established on different terms.

I am born then, when India’s politics and policies are changing furiously. My life is sheltered, filled with high ideals and thoughts. But I am not happy because I want to experience the world and go to England in the 1990s. How different England is then! Seventy years ago, a sailor felt free to ogle a woman because she was brown. Now, an Indian woman is revered as something exotic, a remnant of the British Raj. Men want to be seen with Indian girls on their arms and I get asked out often. At first I am flattered and wondrous – men are asking me out? The scrawny, flat-chested, short-haired ME? Then anger and indignation set in. I don’t want to be asked out because of my race or culture. I want to blend in, not be suppressed nor revered.

England’s classism disillusions me and I pack my bags, once again, to come to the United States. I am told it is a land of “equal opportunity.” I discover, however, that things are equal only superficially. There is an underlying xenophobia that prevents most people from embracing foreign things – culture, food, ideas. I am glad I am in the Boston-area which has many world-traveled, intellectual people and I become friends with them.

I meet my future husband, an Indian-American, whose parents imigrated here in the 1960s. I discover that my husband’s aunts, uncles, cousins when they first came here were allowed to only use restrooms for “colored” people. Certain jobs were out of their reach – finance, law, real estate – because that required relentless networking and people-pleasing and they found it hard to do that with their perfect, Indian-accented English smelling of sandalwood and incense. (With their sparkling teeth, don’t forget). They were all highly qualified – engineers, doctors, scientists, and academicians and it was those professions they pushed their children towards. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_the_United_States)

While you, the immigrants who were “settled” here by then, felt it right to create separate restrooms and public places for us, maintain your all-white clubs, my lot struggled to succeed in a prejudiced society. While you, my friends, were taking vacations, doing and watching sports, my lot were pushing their children academically because they understood that only education would make them indispensable to society. They were done being slaves and underlings.

So we excelled as researchers, doctors, entrepreneurs and thinkers. It gave us some ownership of our future. Often Indians are criticized for pushing their children, making them work hard. But we do it because we know that knowledge is power and a sound knowledge of the world will give us an advantage. (I also want to point out that the Indians who came here in the 1960s were from affluent, highly-educated families and were simply getting away from India that was ruined by 150 years of British rule and plunder).

At that point, even in my surreal dream, I began to appreciate all the work it has taken for generations so I can now have a comfortable life in an U.S. suburb. My children can attend the same school as the white kids, use the same restrooms, eat at the same table (though there have been incidents where my brown children have been racially discriminated against. My first reaction was anger; my second was to arm with enough knowledge so they could talk their abuser down). I begin feeling ashamed at having been irritable in my cozy, happy life.

Even as regret overtakes me, I find I am back on my street. I run towards my house, throw the door open and find a family gathering underway – siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews gathered in my living room. Most of the children in that room are mixed race. I hug my beautiful, smart, mongrel nieces and nephews knowing they are the future, a testimony of people evolved enough to cross color and culture boundaries and intermarry. The future is one race.

“You forgot the ice,” my husband accuses me.

“Yes, I did, didn’t I?” I say cheerfully. “But I am home.”

These elections, though, have shaken my faith in the United States. Trump may lose but he has still given voice and validation to racism and prejudice and that isn’t going away in a hurry. I don’t know where we will go from here but we have worked very hard, all of us, to make this an equal country. This isn’t just my story; it is the story of all those people who came here and succeeded, especially political refugees. Please don’t forget that most countries in turmoil now are those colonized and manipulated by the west. The future lies with us – immigrants who have crossed racial boundaries, adopted Christmas and July 4th, and created mongrel children who will own the future.

I hope you all find it in your hearts to forget your race and culture and vote for a peaceful future.

Recipe foEditedr pumpkin-chickpea soup (with an Indian twist)

Serves 8-10
EditedThe chickpeas in this soup make it thick, creamy and healthful. The Indian spices, available at any Indian grocery store, give it a subtle complexity of flavor. Save the pumpkin seeds for garnish.

 

For the soup

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, roughly chopped

2 teaspoons brown sugar

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2 dried red chiles

2 teaspoons garam masala

2 tablespoons basil leaves, finely chopped

5 cups pumpkin, diced into 1-inch cubes

8 cups vegetable stock

1 15-ounce can chickpeas

Salt to taste

 

For the pumpkin seed garnish (optional)

Pumpkin seeds

Paprika

Salt

Olive oil

  1. In a soup pot over medium heat, add the oil. When oil is slightly hot add the onions and saute until they become soft and begin to change color.
  2. Add the brown sugar, stir in quickly. Then add the garlic and mix in. Stir constantly until garlic starts turning slightly brown.
  3. Put in the dried red chiles, garam masala, and basil. Stir for 1-2 minutes.
  4. Add the pumpkin and mix thoroughly. Add the vegetable stock, and bring to a boil on high heat. Turn down heat, put the lid on the soup pot and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the pumpkin is soft.
  5. Add the chickpeas and simmer for another 4-5 minutes.
  6. Allow the soup to cool, then blend it in a food processor until it is smooth.
  7. Transfer back to the soup pot, add salt and heat before serving.

 

For the pumpkin seed garnish

  1. Wash the pumpkin seeds thoroughly and dry them on a paper towel.
  2. Set the oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Spread out the pumpkin seeds on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with paprika and salt and drizzle some olive oil. Bake for 10 minutes or until slightly brown. Ladle the soup in bowls and garnish with pumpkin seeds.