The island of crows

It was March 2017; I was planning a holiday with the family. We would fly to Kerala and surprise my mother-in-law on her 60th birthday and book a villa for a celebratory weekend. During my research, I chanced upon Kayal (backwaters) Island retreat. I wrote to the owner, Maneesha and she promptly responded. We exchanged some lively emails but sadly I decided not to book the cottage then because I wasn’t sure I could cart a four month baby from a car, flight, car and finally a boat. I promised Maneesha I’d be back, so I did.

I’m not sure what I can say about Kayal that’s not already been said before, but I’ll try. Holidays during a pandemic are more vital than ever as you’re literally risking your life for a getaway. Careful planning, checking, and re-checking the travel restrictions and ensuring that all protocols are followed. Holidays are now more deliberate and less spontaneous. We were anxious and full of trepidation about flying, about Neev (now 4.5 years) getting an RT PCR test and heading to a state that is reporting the highest number of Covid cases every day. The key word here is reporting as compared to some other states, but I won’t explain any further.

My in-laws met us outside the Kochi airport, and we took a boat to the tiny island of Kakkathuruthu (island of crows) named after its avian inhabitants The island is only 4 km long and 1 km wide. To our right, perched on the banks of lake Vembanad was our charming resort. Four little cottages that were both austere and luxurious. A deeply intimate setting for a family get-together. My photos and videos have chronicled the exclusive experience but will do no justice to the beauty and serenity.

The sound of crickets, birdsong, the chorus of the bullfrogs, the Hindu devotional songs heard in the mornings and at dusk, the muezzin’s call to prayer, all in harmony and sync with nature.  One evening, we sat to listen to a ferryman’s daughter, Anaha. A shy girl who has excelled in her studies and sings with equal aplomb.

The surround sound experience of nature. The smell of fried fish in coconut oil. The remarkably effective and earthy fragrance of the incense sticks that were lit each evening to ward off the mosquitoes. The sound of rain. Woodsmoke. The cormorants drying their wings on tree stumps. The Brahmini kites circling over the lake. The beautiful Kingfishers skimming the surface. The fireflies greeting us as the skies changed from inky blue to black.

The food, my goodness, the food. Fresh ingredients combined with age-old recipes. There are no menus. You just show up at the table (like how it was while growing up) and be prepared to be wowed by the local fare.

There was no screen time for the child that week and he had a ball. Throwing pebbles in the lake, laughing at spiders that could be mistaken for wall hooks, the darting dragonflies, the turtle in the well that appeared to sun itself. Life was at its animated best. We got time to read, connect with each other and ourselves and make memories. It felt like a journey inward. Meaningful.

It was time to leave. The sun came out to greet me as the clouds parted. The flotillas of water hyacinths sidle up to my boat, their purple flowers glisten in the morning light. They gently merge to form temporary islands as if Maneesha, Saiju, Sheeba and Vijaylakshmi were joining hands and accompanying me to the ferry point. Like me, the drifting currents will eventually carry them away. I promised Maneesha I’d return soon. And I will.

The religious rookie

Yet another year of celebrating Diwali alone.
Hearing about the festivities back home I can’t help but feel forlorn.
Remembering the softly glowing lamps and fireworks dotting the night sky.
Feeling very feminine in our traditional clothes, I wonder why.
Boxes of calorie-laden sweets laid along with my favourite savouries.
Rooting for friends trying their luck at card parties.

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At dusk we used to gather for the Laxmi Puja as silence fell.
The money on the plate was for us, we could tell.
I’d help my father arrange the offerings of fruits and holy water.
The nip in the air heralding winter as the days got shorter.

Now in my apartment in Hong Kong feeling absurd and solitary.
Banishing all thoughts of being a little phoney.
I decided to venture into this uncharted territory.
Starting with an abridged version of praying to the goddess of wealth.
Not because I don’t need to pray for wealth, god-knows it’s quite the contrary.

I don’t go to temples. I don’t fast.
If there was a competition for devout, pious girls, I’d come last.
Keen on trying, yet, embarrassed of failing.
I told myself it would be smooth sailing.
The only one judging would be the lord himself,
So even if others accuse me of not being very traditional.
His love is thankfully unconditional.

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Dressed in my new Salwar Kameez I stood in front of my temple.
Nothing grand but a simple shelf of an IKEA cupboard.
I stood there in silence wondering what’s next?
No chants, verses that can roll off my lips.
I wondered if I should ring my mother for tips.

The self-recrimination! Stop worrying I wanted to shout.
Seeming inadequate and shallow, I urged myself to just pray.
The way I usually do. Have a conversation.
Pour your heart out. All the fears and the doubts.

But then this was no ordinary day, it was Diwali.
I was advised to search Youtube for artis.
That seems fake. It’s not a performance but a prayer.Don’t you agree?
So I lit some incense sticks which filled my apartment with their assuring scents.
Jasmine and Cinnamon, these were money well spent.
Sadly I can’t read Sanskrit and can’t carry a tune if my life depended on it.
I closed my eyes for the task and urged my mind to commit.

Om Jai Jagdish I started feebly, but at least I was trying.
The words flowing, like muscle memory, somewhat shakily I started to sing.
Maybe not in the correct order.
But miraculously one word followed the other.

My hands circling the small idols and some gold jewelry, my only treasure.
I could feel the Gods smiling. I had made the effort even if it was half-measure.
When I finished I could feel a presence and a sense of wonder.
I opened my eyes with a sense of disbelief to what had just transpired.
I felt calm, at peace and inspired.

We don’t need faith that binds us but blinds us.
To an extent that we forget to love, help and heal.
We lay too much importance on traditions and customs.
Instead let’s try to make someone smile and provide a meal.

Majority or minority. Sectarian conflicts. The constant strife.
Rioting over land to build a mosque or a temple.
Don’t all religions teach us to respect and be gentle?
God, in my expatriate experience, can have a space-saving shelf life.

Let’s keep it simple. To right the wrong.
End the evil in us and try something new.
Believe. Be good. Be true .

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Nostalgia

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I’m reading a book but my mind is drifting to other places instead.
A lilting music drifts up to my window, some where there’s a piano being played.
Making me miss someone or something.
Triggers that lead to this reminiscing.

Music
My dad’s unwavering interest in radio, AIR belting out 1960’s songs
I wonder how my parents make-up for that lost sound?
My sister who introduced me to cassettes.
Kishore Kumar, RD Burman, Apache Indian and Take That.
The first dance with a boy, childishly romantic, except…
I was so graceless and inept.
I feel a melancholy steal upon me when I hear music coming from a distance.
As if there’s a party being held or dancing couples sighted.
And somehow I wasn’t invited.

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Mangoes
Raw, spicy and laced with salt, I love them to a fault.
Huddled together, skinny legs dangling from the ledge of a wall.
Scraped knees and bruised hands, legendary were our falls.
Dusting ourselves after plucking them from a tree.
In those days, best things in life were indeed free.
Escaping our neighbours watchful eye we made sure we didn’t get caught.
Devouring them in small tangy bites and the rest to be pickled just like we were taught.

Monsoons – I have a love-hate relationship with this season. Love the rains because the memories are irreplaceable.

Playing outdoors with my friends but ‘get in NOW’ my mom would hiss.
Walking on wet sand as the cute guy I had a crush on took my hand in his.
Watching raindrops chase each other on window panes.
The warmth of friends over a cup of tea and now with a more sophisticated drink.
Rains will never lose their magic I think.

Hate the rains because the memories are unforgettable.

New pencil box and satchels, shiny text books and crisp paper.
Ironing the uniform and sharpening of pencils, as the shavings, like rain, collected into little pools.
But none of the newness could wash away the fact.
It was the end of holidays and the beginning of school.

Riding my bike aimlessly on my birthday, my sister had left for Bombay.
Blinking my tears and masking my pain.
The gods cried with me I thought, in the form of rain.
The teenage heartache while breaking up with the guy I’d dated and kissed.
My first love, my friend, you will always be missed.

Trains
The slightly tense atmosphere on the arrival of the ticket collector.
The bored announcements on the PA system and the negotiations with the coolies.
Vendors selling wooden birds, bright and colourful, to kids covered in woollies.
Station master, jumbo junctions and waiting rooms used during some malfunction.
The mad dash to re- fill water bottles and greasy savouries at every major station.
Sharing food and stories, trains are a true symbol of an integrated nation.
The fight for the lower berth, usually beaten by my sister, I’d perch on the top with a sigh.
Bryan Adams crooning in my walkman while I remained mesmerized by fireflies.
Snaking its way into an unknown terrain, the interminable journeys driving you insane.
In this jet-setting life, how I long for the alchemy in a journey by train.

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Nostalgia leaves me with a sense of loss.
Daydreaming about a future, filled with hope.
Memory and hope both time bound and equally dangerous.
Too much of either can be a curse.
But how do we decide what’s worse?

Who knows, 5 years from now I’ll hear another piano.
I’ll remember a younger me typing on this couch.
Memories, old and new.
So many and yet so few.
You might ask why I write my private memories here.
I fear if I don’t record these today, they’d disappear.

Homecoming

267972_10150230921302257_2715160_nI woke up uncharacteristically at 6.30am today
Jet-lag? I don’t think so
Excitement of being home perhaps

There is a familiar feeling of early mornings in India which I have missed in all the years I’ve been away
The sound of birds, the sweet chirping kind
The rhythmic fan whirring on what promises to be a hot summer day

We don’t have ceiling fans nor enough birds in the city of Hong Kong
Is this the life of a Non-Resident Indian?
The dichotomy and the constant comparisons
Whether leaving home was right or wrong

The tinkling of glass bangles, my mom’s up I can tell she moves in an assured way
She’ll put on a brew and make the best tea
The annoying pressure cooker whistle
Boiled potatoes for breakfast maybe
I don’t care, willful ignorance I’d say

I’m on holiday. I don’t have to wake up to the shrill of an alarm
This could be my childhood in Goa with its quiet lanes. To be roused with the rustling of the morning papers
This could be Bombay. There’s music in the cacophony if you strain to listen
This could be my parents place in Poona where I sleep the best
Feeling safe, like the world can do no harm

I’ll pretend to be asleep
Let these sounds and smells envelop me
The uniformity of being home
Wherever that might be