Oct 28, 2011

Meenakshi Pattinam

For all those who didn't know and were not astute enough to guess, I grew up in the 'Temple City' of Madurai. Raised amidst the temples in the temples city, I once believed that there is no world outside this city and its Gods (and its eternally reigning Goddess). That was when I had barely seen ten winters (For the astute reader: this is a Classical English style of declaring your age, notwithstanding the fact that Madurai does not have a marked winter). As I continued to see more winters, I could not help but accrue a different set of perceptions about the place. Honestly, the city (or pattinam as it is called in Tamil) did not morph much, but I metamorphosed.

If you pick a few random Maduraites who live or live not in Madurai now, (but have spent atleast a couple of years in the place in a bygone era) and inquire for any three spotlights of the city,  and compute the statistical modes of the answers, you are likely to get - Meenakshi Amman temple, Malligai (Jasmine flowers - All women in Madurai love flowers), Azhagar Aathu thiruvizha (the festival where Lord Kazhagar (a form of Lord Vishnu) is brought from a neigboring village to witness the celestial wedding of his sister, Goddess Meenakshi, a day late on purpose, and consequently immersed into the Madurai river in disappointment and despair).  If it is not evident, Madurai is replete with Pandyan history  and the 'thiruvilaiyadal' (Roughly translated as the celestial games played by the Gods) of Lord Shiva. The movie Thiruvilaiyadal has not left much to imagination.

If you ask me to pick "my spotlights" of the city, I would simply refuse, for the city and what it offers is too close to my heart to be partisan to a select few. The city is associated with childhood innocence (read as ignorance), a largely uncomplicated life, exam-fearing school days, petty girlie squabbles with girls and tomboyish battles with the boys, mom's vengaya sambar, the continual common colds, family doctor visits, the Vaigai super-fast(?) train,  town buses like 73A, manned tea-stalls, fresh milk and vegetables, and .... As the astute reader can guess, the list is pretty much bottomless. The top of the list is however - Meenakshi Amman and Her marvelous abode. It is said that every question about life , Universe and everything gets answered in a quiet few minutes inside her praharam.

Life in a city like Madurai is blissful as long as one stays put in the same place - probably a state of unconscious bliss. When one steps out to see the larger world outside, the pedestal of expectations, anticipations augments and eventually despondency ensues - a state of conscious perturbation?. It is also likely that one might fall out of love with their roots in a quest to branch out to the sky.  Seldom does one realize that one can attain a soulfully successful state, one should stay in frequent touch (at the least) with one's homeground. Visiting the place I grew up in after some stints of the "outside world", was what I would call a "religious experience" in the true sense of the word. I beheld Meenakshi amman with a new sense of wisdom, held the people of Madurai closer to my heart and appreciated the purer air and fresher vegetables, better.

The "outside world" makes one expand horizontally, face brittler rocks, and surge ahead materialistically while I believe that one's homeground makes  one grow deeper within onself. I had many an emotional moment when I was visiting the  school where I first learned the alphabet, the  house where I spent my innocuous years or the  Pillayar temple at the corner of the road which I used to frequent. That the old school bus drivers could recognize me even after a two decades and enquire my wellbeing with the same childlike enthusiasm, made me humbler. I had a newfound respect for the "outside world" which I believe made me endorse my roots more.

 As I strode across the Meenakshi amman temple corridor, reflecting on many little somethings that I had demanded from Her then and the few big nothings that I pray from Her now, it occurred to me that I had aged across the years, but not the Goddess, nor the city.

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety"

How true!

Sep 13, 2011

A Passage to China..

As the astute reader of this blog would astutely guess, this blog is not replete with travelogues. Not that I don't get to travel, but I was afraid I would not be able to provide a comprehensive recount of the details of all things under the sun (things-to-do, things-to-eat, things-to-see, things-to-travel-by). However a recent trip to this mystic land (China) incited me to narrate my emoted experiences during my journey into this another part of the Orient.Another reason why I decided to key down my experiences is that I realized that China, in spite being an immediate neighbor of India is not as frequently frequented by Indians as the North America or Europe is. We must afterall 'love, atleast check-out thy neighbor' before falling in love with a stranger.

As a kid, I had conjured up a few things about China in my mind's eye - yellow skinned thin-waisted ladies with thinning eyelids wearing long highly intricate silk dresses and sporting a nice hand-fan, a very difficult-to-decipher, but easy-to-recognize script, some very different names, the Great Wall, the martial arts, Communism, statistics like the largest population in the world, some rank for the biggest area in the world, cute looking kids and good athletes. As I grew up, I also had a privilege of working with some Chinese folks as well. But what really expanded my knowledge about this Oriental  land was my  marriage to  my dear husband, who had spent a good couple of years in China, managed to stay vegetarian, shape up a better character and fall in love with the Chinese people. When he was traveling to his first-visited-country again, it was pre-destined that I join him for a  vacation. 

As I was preparing to travel, I've to admit that I had slight apprehensions about the language and the availability of vegetarian food. But the urge to see another man-made wonder of the world and more generally a country as ancient as my motherland is, took over, as I boarded the flight to Beijing. The flight journey was unfortunately uneventful (it wasn't a long flight from Delhi to Beijing), save a lone incident, when I chose to have the Chinese tea for a drink, instead of  the American coffee or the Indian masala chai (having been inspired by the green-tea-fads in India and having been fascinated by the tea-tasting culture in China). The air-host gave me a second look, before she gave me a yellow liquid which I could not ingest beyond a sip, inspite of self-assurances about its anti-oxidant benefits. It dawned upon me later that the Chinese drink the Chinese tea (with a lot of herbs) sans sugar and sans milk, instead of plain water to hydrate themselves. And that was one of the first secrets of their good health and youth !

As I landed in China and boarded the Airport express to reach my hotel,  I tried to reconfirm my route (and stops) with the local Chinese co-passengers (inspite of detailed instructions from my husband, lest I meander  along a different tributary). It seemed to me that the Chinese had difficulty in 'parsing' English, as my Japanese friend would often phrase, and yet when any of them is approached with a query, one can be rest assured that it is answered either in parts of English or through more direct means of communication like hand-gestures and smiles. If needed, people flocked together to help each other to help us out. The Chinese are a benevolent kind of people , and could cross over the language barrier to go the extra mile to make their guests feel at home. It was only when we flipped through a book of Beginner's Chinese, that we realized that the Chinese language, pictographic that it is, does not have a direct correspondence with the alphabet. It is a more effective communicating medium, and that the Chinese people are constantly decoding and encoding while cross-communicating in another alphabet based language like English. Take a bow, people!

The best part of the China trip was the looks of admiration that we gathered as we tread along the streets. I was truly glorified when a woman sitting next to me in a local train complimented me with a perfect smile "You're so beautiful" :) and this was when I had just landed from a nocturnal flight and had managed to drag myself and my luggage into a coach. I had a inimitable emotion that I was being appreciated for what I was, not for what I wore or how made up I was. A lot of young girls wanted to take pictures with us, that was when the girls tried to cling on to my husband to get a picture of a lifetime and I was also invited to the party, as a gesture of true good-will.  I didn't mind a bit, the Chinese were making us feel like ourselves (superstars that we are :) ). 

No trip to China is complete without a visit to the Great Wall. There are a few places in the world that leave you admiring, a few places that leave you gasping, but there are only very few places that take your breath away. The Great Wall is one of them. It seemed to me like the Wall was a bit like Lord Shiva - there didn't seem to be a beginning or an end to the Wall (these cannot be found in a day, apparently). The Wall is a testimony to the fact that the Chinese used a simple, yet persevering and resilient technique to defend their homeland, so much like them. What make the Wall even more attractive are  the scintillating mountain ranges and fresh-breaths of pure air that one gets to inhale while on a trek across the Wall.  The writing is clear on the Wall - It is a man-made master-piece cutting through some  majestic mountains masterly crafted by Nature.

A few other nice things in China -  I learnt to sharpen my  bargaining skills (not that I had any while in India) in the Chinese markets (Silk market, Pearl Market in Beijing). We were also treated to a gracious vegetarian dinner in an ancient Chinese restaurant by my husband's  colleagues. And we loved the Chinese kids (not to mention, the beautiful ladies), bubbly, blemishlessly skinned, ever smiling and hanging around with their grandparents. It was good to see another country that preserved the grandparent-parent-child tradition.The ancient Chinese temples, dress, food and culture were all enthralling to us. It was also heart-warming to realize that we did share some of the culture - like Buddha, the prince-saint from India who had spread the the spiritual knowledge amongst the vast Chinese and Indian population alike.

So my dear Chinese brethren, this post is dedicated to you all. Thanks for being truly yourselves! 

Jul 18, 2011

A Train to India

         I was born in an Independent India, so the astute reader can decipher that I am not too old. I was born in an India whose economy was still Nehruvian. Now, my dear astute reader can  deduce that I am neither too young. I was born in an India when Indian Airlines was the only airline operator covering the "major cities" of this country and when the Indian Railways covered the length and breadth of this land through one of the largest rail networks of the world. Now, a couple of decades later, Indian Airlines might not be the only airline operator in the country (thankfully), but Indian Railways is statistically the fourth largest rail network in the world, which my dear astute reader, has many implications and explications.

           This post is not about the analyzing the track records of  the politics and economics of the Indian rail, it's more about cherishing a few romantic dates with it. True, the first railroads of the country were laid by the 'developed' rulers, in an attempt to travel  the country in the same blue-blooded comfort that they enjoyed in their motherland. Not unexpectedly, this is one legacy that has been fostered and held high  by every Indian even after the friendly foes departed. Every villager loved the passenger train that passed by the railway 'station' in his remote hamlet, even if it did not care to stop by. Every middle-class Indian knew the 'railway time tables' of all the major 'Express' trains that departed and arrived in their city , truly 'by heart'. Every high-class 'government servant' wanted to travel first-class in a train, just like his saheb putting his LTC allowance to good use. The rail was an integral part of many an Indian's life.

        The railway-crossing (manned or unmanned) in a village was always a rustic Keats sight. Picture this: bullocks and the carts, men and the tricycles, womenfolk with their burden( of all kinds), half-naked kids with their fun-games, all waiting eagerly to steal a glance at the all-powerful passenger train that passes by. If it was in a city, trains seemed to enjoy retrogressive popularity at the crossings.  One can see the impatient busy office-mongers trying to kill time looking at each others' frustrated faces. Some mathematically-inclined ones try to count the number of coaches in the train (especially if it was a goods train and had nothing better to offer than a few mundane-looking coaches). Kids spent their time at the crossings either preparing for some surprise quizzes or making some eleventh-hour attempts to finish a pending homework.

        A lot of India still lives in its villages.If you would like to discover the country, get onto the trains. Get onto the second or third class of a long-distance train, if you want to experience the "real India". You would experience a lot of unpleasant and unethical occupation of your berths or seats, chances are that you  might be pushed out of the  window by a  dirty looking woman and her two "healthy-looking" daughters-in-law. It is also highly likely that you might never want to answer any of nature's calls in your life again , after having taken a bio-break in a loo in the compartment. You might also have to forsake a couple of nights sleep, either because of an uncle in the upper berth who didn't stop snoring or because a few cranky kids who didn't stop crying or because a couple of couples who didn't stop bantering.

          And yet, my astute reader, if you observe, you are completely entertained.  As the train moves across the states, the transition in the languages, the attires of the local population, the complexions of the kids, the manners and demeanor of the people might befuddle you, and yet, everyone ethical gets the same kind of ticket to board the specific class in the train. Isn't it a startling case of Unity in Diversity ? Not only does a train journey give you enough time with yourself to ponder over your mundaneness, but it also shows you a rich heuristic display of colors that make you realize that the country is much bigger and much more stronger (strength coming from its diversity and adaptability) than you had ever imagined.

          The Indian rail might not be on time, might have unfriendly staff , might have not-so-healthy food to offer, might even collapse or burn  once in a while, and yet, it brings out the best in you! A train in India is certainly a train that takes you through the journey to the heart of India!