Wednesday, August 31, 2011

My High School Reunion

I remember travelling with my parents on the train in South India once , and noticed this lady sitting opposite us looking keenly at my mother. After about a minute or so, and with no hesitation or doubt whatsoever, the lady exclaimed, "Mercy, oh my God, is that you!?!" My mother seemed taken aback for a second, but recovered quickly enough to respond, "Kamala, how wonderful to see you again!" We discovered that not only had they been classmates fifty years back, but also roommates at their boarding school run by the British missionaries in the Madras of yesteryears. My Dad and I, and the lady's husband as well, looked on with bemusement as the two friends caught up on the 50 years that had lapsed since they had left high school. The incident left an indelible impression on my mind, as I witnessed firsthand the nostalgia and the joy that only two friends are capable of on reuniting after a considerable absence.

Well, it has been my turn this month to experience the same emotional highs of seeing many of my teachers and classmates and other schoolmates after a period of 35 years. I was a mere child of 14 when I graduated high school and had completely lost touch with many of my school friends, so when the idea of the SDA School Alumni Meet was floated around as a possibility about six months ago, I jumped on to the bandwagon with all the eagerness and enthusiasm I could muster, and decided that I would make it this time for sure, and fly across the continents and oceans just to see all those dear faces again. Call me a sentimental fool if you must, but this trip to India has been monumental to me in that it has been truly nostalgic, and to put it plainly as Shakespeare did, a pleasant "remembrance of all things past."

I'm back home after a short, but worthwhile trip that was packed with people, events, and memories. I'm not sure if I will see all these wonderful people again, but I'm eternally grateful to Sampath Kumar who mooted out the whole idea of the reunion, and also to Nizam and all the boys (?!?) who made this happen. It was fascinating to see how everyone had aged and matured, and it was particularly engaging for me to associate those baby faces I'd had in my head to the adult faces I was seeing now. I was overjoyed to see my friends' families, and their children coming up to me and addressing me as "Aunty!" Seeing all my beloved teachers under one roof and paying tribute to them was a privilege I had never before thought was possible, and for my family to have witnessed it all on live stream from Vancouver (thanks to Ashok!) just made my day.

I had been in touch with my classmate Padmakumar all along down the years, but it was very special indeed to see my other classmates Priya, Sankar, Rajkumar, and Ezhil after 35 long years. We met for dinner after the reunion, and those fun moments of laughter and camaraderie and shared memories made me regress into my childhood and relive my school days again. My friends' families looked on with the same bemusement that I'd had watching my mother see her long lost friend, and it was with mixed feelings of happiness and pain that I bid goodbye to my friends that night. Nostalgia is a very powerful and curious emotion that serves us all well amidst the sweeping rush that characterizes our lives. Back home in Vancouver, I savor and treasure each moment and memory, and couldn't agree more with the words of Jack London, " Darn the wheel of the world! Why must it continually turn over? Where is the reverse gear?" SIGH!!!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Vignettes from Madurai And Around

If a picture says a thousand words, here then are a few thousands of them. My international students almost always don't believe me when I tell them how we share the roads in India with our canine, feline, bovine, and porcine friends. Living in a country where pets enjoy a pampered status in society, and where pet supplies are a multi-billion dollar industry, it is inconceivable to them that dogs and cows would just roam the roads in India, and that it is not an uncommon sight to see a stray cat cross your path (and a black one doing that being a sign of bad luck!) or see pigs looking for litter on the streets, at least in some small towns, if not in the big cities. Another thing I've told them about are the vegetable vendors hawking their wares in baskets on their heads, and going from street to street shouting aloud what they are selling, and stopping at regular customers' houses to ask if they needed any particular vegetable. It is as if you have your very own mobile farmer's market coming to your doorstep or front gate. Here are a few vignettes that I captured:

A vegetable vendor at my mother-in-law's compound gate. The lady in blue is Irullayee, the domestic help from the neighboring village, seen here haggling over prices with the vendor.

A cornucopia of goodness, straight from the farms and fields! The greens and veggies are oh so fresh!

I asked Amma (my mother-in-law, in the brown sari) to buy some fresh "arai keerai" (a kind of spinach) that I love cooked in a mashed form and eaten with rice. Ever the foodie, ain't I?!?

Encountered this herd of buffaloes enroute to Fatima College, my alma mater, on one of the back roads. The chauffeur had to wait patiently till he had some space to manoeuvre the car and drive forward.

The cowherd showed no sign of letting us pass! :)

A cow standing lazily next to an autorickshaw, on the streets of Sivaganga, my husband's ancestral place

Some pigs loitering on the streets, scavenging for food among the litter and trash

More sights to follow ...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

My Trip To Madurai - I

My British Airways Flight 87 taxis down the runway to a smooth landing in Chennai in the unearthly hours of the morning, at 3.30 AM. As I look out the windows of the plane and see the lights of "Singara (beautiful) Chennai", I'm overwhelmed by emotions untold. The temperature outside is a balmy 27 degrees Celsius, as announced by the pilot. "That's not too bad," I reassure myself. In order not to inconvenience anyone, I have convinced family and friends not to rouse themselves from their deep slumber, but to continue their sleep uninterrupted. I have managed to reassure everyone that I'm a big girl now and can find my own way to the domestic airport from the international terminal, so I can catch the plane to Madurai, my hometown, first thing in the morning. As I walk towards Customs and Immigration, I am fully in agreement with Sir Walter Scott and recite his lines to myself:

"Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand! ..."

The Customs officer on duty is sleepy, glum and morose, and waves me through with nary a question. I have an hour or so to kill before I wind my way to the domestic airport. I find a row of three seats closer to the exit, but choose not to sit on the awfully dirty upholstery, and sit on a low window ledge instead, as I fish out my cell phone and activate it. A missed call to husband dearest is in order and he calls me back right away and tells me that he's been tracking down the plane's flight path online. He seems greatly relieved that I have landed in one piece! My son then calls me to tell me how he misses me already, and as I keep talking to him, I commit my first murder on home soil, of a pesky mosquito that had found its way into the air conditioned hallway. The murder weapon is my plastic hand fan that is going to be my most needed accessory for the next two weeks!

My flight to Madurai is very pleasant, but I notice that refreshments of any kind have to be paid for on the flight - quite a change from fifteen years ago when we were served a full gourmet meal on a 50-minute flight! As I bound down the steps on landing, I simply can't believe my eyes - there's a brand new terminal gleaming on the other side of the tarmac, one that screams "International Airport" in the not too distant future! Escalators, high tech screening equipment and top notch baggage carousels spell it all, as I collect my suitcases and walk into the embrace of my beloved family and friends waiting outside. The skies are overcast, the temperature bearable, and no sign of the sweat yet that I was really dreading, in all honesty. This is SO not the hot and humid Madurai that I know so well, I think! My drive home reinforces my initial impression of Madurai after a considerable absence, that it has improved by leaps and bounds from its small-town proportions of a decade ago! Madurai's economic development is staggering indeed, and this is obvious in the number of houses, businesses, cars, malls, mobile phones, and general affluence and buying power of its people. Its ever expanding urban sprawl stands testimony to its colossal growth, as I drive into a neighborhood that is virtually unrecognizable.

Let it be known that I absolutely love my hometown, heat, dust, mosquitoes and all! Madurai is in my blood, and consumes me like a raging fever, if you can excuse my pathetic cliches. Its sights and sounds and smells and tastes and life experiences characterize who I am, and like a desperate drug addict seeking a quick fix, I come to Madurai every now and then to get an emotional fix that will keep me going for the next few years or so. This is my fourth trip in fifteen years, and I have come here now for my high school reunion, a trip that is epic in scope and in magnitude, allowing me to take stock of my roots, revisit familiar haunts, and relive the halcyon days of my youth. I now live and teach in Vancouver, in beautiful British Columbia, one of the most beautiful places on the planet, but in my opinion, nothing can compare or hold a candle to my hometown, Madurai. I reach home, sweet home, for a few hours of rest, before I meet with some of my juniors from school to discuss the next day's reunion. I close my eyes for a short nap in the air-conditioned comfort of my bedroom in Shangri-la, the house that we so lovingly built before we moved to California, and as I drift off into a gentle, pleasant sleep, my grey cells come alive with all my wonderful memories of Madurai!

More to follow ...

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Travel Fever

Now that the summer break is coming up shortly and my trip to India is more of a reality, with tickets in hand and all travel arrangements in place, I must confess that it still hasn't sunk in because of all the zillion things that need to be done before I take off. I'm winding down at work with my last week of classes and all the nitty gritty details that have to be taken care of before my 3-week break, and on the home front, not a single thing has been done yet. I always think of myself as a travel junkie utterly enamored by the romance of undertaking long trips away from home, but when it comes to preparing for the trip itself, I am not a big fan, I must acknowledge.

For starters, there's the gift-buying spree that's still pending. I have a whole cartload of relatives and friends for whom I need to buy a gift or souvenir of some sort, and doing the shopping thing is not exactly my cup of tea. Unlike other women who revel in shopping sorties, I cringe at the very thought and tire easily after just an hour of walking around the mall. It boggles my mind how exactly I'm going to accomplish buying gifts for thirty thousand assorted family members and friends back home. And after the shopping comes the packing part that is equally mindboggling and makes me swear off travelling every single time. With all the weight restrictions imposed by the airlines and the endless list of do's and don'ts of international travel, I sometimes question myself why one ever bothers with travelling at all in the first place.

Throw in a handful of doctors' visits till the very last minute amidst my crazy schedule and you get the idea of all this travel fever that's escalating into a delirium of sorts. Compounding my already existing medical woes is finding sweatproof makeup that will go with my compounded sunscreen that I need to wear 24/7. My dermatologist has delivered dire warnings about being reckless and foolhardy in forgetting to wear the sunscreen while I'm in hot and humid India. The warnings have been well-taken, leading to countless hours of searching for the right makeup that will hold my sunscreen to some extent and not unravel completely. I leave the rest to the Sun God, hoping he'll be kind and save my excessively sensitive skin from the onslaught of ultraviolet radiation.

My travel fever shows no signs of coming down, and I have a feeling it will stay that way till I hop on to that blessed plane that will carry me across the continents and the vast expanses of the seas. I am going to India for my high school reunion and am willing to go through endless bouts of travel fever just to see those dear faces of my friends from a long time ago. The pain of preparing for this sentimental trip is a small price to pay, and I will take it, any time. The excitement is starting to build within, and combined with the fever and the delirium of it all, it's a pleasurable experience, I must say!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Domestic Violence

It is appalling indeed that many women die at the hands of their husbands, so brutally felled down by the very spouses who are supposed to hold them and cherish them for the rest of their lives. On July 28, Vancouver was aghast and stunned by the shocking killing of 24-year-old Ravinder Kaur Bhangu who was axed to death by her 26-year-old husband, Manmeet Singh, and this, not at home, but at her workplace, the offices of the Punjabi newspaper Sach Di Awaaz in Surrey, on the outskirts of Vancouver. The callous slaying of the administrative assistant took place in broad daylight, and when a colleague rushed to her aid, he too was attacked with a meat cleaver, suffering injuries that had him hospitalized. In a classic case of domestic violence that extended outside the home to the workplace in this case, the murder is yet another addition to the long list of fatalities where abused women become hapless victims.

Young Ravinder is said to have had a love marriage and not an arranged one, as is common in her community. When marriages go sour, it is quite shocking to see the escalating level of acrimony and animosity in the relationship. Where did all the initial love disappear, one might ask, and in arranged marriages as in India, there is not even the buffer of love and understanding in the first place to protect the woman even a wee bit. Ravinder is said to have moved out of her marital home into her aunt's, a few months before the killing, something that might have triggered off the uncontrollable rage in her husband. Sadly enough, the young woman had not confided in anyone what was happening to her at home, which is very important for abused women to do. A colleague of hers seemed to have asked her why she had moved into her aunt's, but all Ravinder had done was to have cried in response and not to have said anything at all, thus leaving the friend in the dark about her real situation.

The Canadian Women's Foundation says that on average, every six days a Canadian woman is murdered by her intimate partner, that is, by her current or former spouse or boyfriend. It is imperative for women to recognize that they are being abused and see how best they can get out of the situation and seek help. There is no shame or stigma about sharing one's plight with friends or trusted colleagues, so there is a support system for the abused woman outside her home. The following URL is a very valuable link that answers questions about violence against women and provides information in understanding the causes and kinds of violence, and why women stay on in abusive relationships: . I strongly recommend all my immigrant students and friends to read this without fail.

While men are also abused by their partners in some cases, it cannot be denied that more women die at the hands of their husbands than men do at their wives'. I wish young Ravinder had lived on into her sunset years, and not been murdered so heinously by her husband. It is my fervent desire that all women have the strength and confidence to get out of abusive relationships, and not become yet another number added to the long list of domestic violence casualties.