Sunday, September 10, 2017

Paddy Homestay is my kind of paradise.

"People think of heaven as a paradise garden, a place where they can float on clouds and laze in rivers and mountains. But scenery without solace is meaningless."
says Mitch Albom in his book:
the five people you meet in Heaven

Swinging in a hammock which is tied to two tall and curvy coconut trees, under the canopy of dappled sunshine and lush green palm leaves, I re-read the last line. Something about solace strikes a chord. I underline it and read it again. Dipping in and out of slumber and wakefulness to the rhythm of the hammock and the balmy breeze, I ponder on the line with my eyes closed. The book rests on my belly; its covers closing slowly, almost in slow motion over the pink pencil I had used to underline solace, like heavy eyelids, simultaneously open and shut, awake and asleep, rising and falling, keeping pace with my breathing.

I am in paradise. Paddy paradise. Imagine a  place where:
A lush green field of paddy stretches as far as the eye can see. Fresh coffee is made with milk that is milked on site, by hand, in a bucket, by the farm hand while the happy cow munches on fodder in an open spot outside the kitchen. Warm fluffy rice is served with hot sambhar and vegetables. Yes, the rice is from the paddy field I'm currently in and the raw banana subzi I've asked a second helping of has come from the banana tree I was taking pictures of just this morning.
The banana that became subzi.
This is Heaven. But is it because I've found my solace or has the scenery around me put me in this state?

I guess it's like night and day, like light and shadow, this business of solace and scenery. One is needed to notice the other. A beautiful scene has no meaning if one's drowning in one's inner turmoil. A hungry belly needs food, not scenery. I get it.
But, is solace possible without scenery?
Can a peaceful mind find its paradise in a noisy, busy, dirty place? I'm sure some people who've found their zen can. But I'm not there yet. I need peace and quiet before I can sit and meditate or do yoga or read a book or cook or even do the dishes. I often listen to music while doing the chores. Even the walls of the house seem to relax when the notes start to float. Am I escaping the reality of dirty dishes in Sufi-land or am I orchestrating the notes of my scenery to arrange my solace?

Is this a form of escapism? Or is it a simple act of marrying the mundane with music so that if in the middle of the washing, one spots a rainbow, one dips into it first and then carries on with what needs to be done. To me, it's being in the moment, every moment: noticing it, accepting it, living it. If a few notes sung by Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan make the soap suds in my kitchen sink sparkle with colour, then why not?

Moments are the atoms memories are made up of.

And memories are the cells that make up life. Some parts of us remember love, our mother's cooking, the feel of that first kiss. Other parts remember the road back home, the bills that need to be paid. And then there's the part (the heart or the soul or whatever you want to call it) that remembers that this is a journey, that we are all finding our way--inching towards the destination that is our origin.
A simple act of making the bed in the morning or stepping out into the garden, or even looking out of the kitchen window and watching a bird flit from one branch to another, can make a big difference.
"Beauty surrounds us; but usually we need to be walking in a garden to know it."
Maybe, one day, while tending my plants I will dig into Rumi's words and loose all that I think I am. Maybe then I won't need to walk on green grass. But until then, I will continue to listen to music, stare at flowers for too long, hug my friends and kiss my family and cuddle in bed with a delicious book and create my own pool of paradise. And every now and then, I shall travel and seek out scenery that soothes for the world is beautiful and bountiful and I have finite number of days on this planet.
I open my eyes, hold the edge of the hammock to hoist myself up, swing my legs down to get up. The pink pencil escapes the book and drops softly on the red earth below. I pick it up and make my way to our room at Paddy Homestay--a slice of paradise in fields of paddy, cocooned in a grove of coconut palm trees.
Paddy Homestay came up on my screen when I was googling for a 'place to stay in Tanjavore'.  I clicked the link to its website. One look and a few review readings later,  I knew I'd found something special. 

What Ambika and I experienced while we stayed there was beyond any holiday experience. It was like visiting family (a loving and caring family). Thiru, Arul and their beautiful family made our three days in Tanjavore a precious memory to hold and to cherish. Their hospitality is that rare mix of efficiency, homeliness and love for their land that when you return home, you want to make plans to visit them again--soon.

One of the highlights of the stay was a bullock cart ride from the homestay to a village of potters and a popular temple nearby. 

Are you ready for some scenery? For a bumpy ride down a beautiful road in Tamil Nadu?

The sun is on its way to set.

Come on then. Climb up, hold on to the side rails--careful there!

All set? Let's go.
Children coming back from school and some going for evening classes.

The pots get a knocking with a wooden spoon to beat them into shape.
Patterns and prints are added with carved wooden bits.

The potter's children had come from school and were about to settle down to do their homework.
The two pots the smiley potter is holding came all the way with me to Doha:)
"You ride." says the bullock cart rider to me.
I obey.
I'm absolutely thrilled that he's offering me to take over and absolutely petrified when I do take over and feel the power of the animals travel from them to me via the reins I'm holding gingerly.
The bulls don't look too impressed, right?
Photo courtesy: Ambika
We park at the temple.
My legs are shaking a tiny bit but I'm grinning like a teenager who's just had his first taste of driving a car!

Setting sun. Stretching shadows.

Thank you Thiru and Arul for everything:)
Looking at all the pictures above, you may think that such a place exists only in the lens of a camera held by a photographer who chooses to see what pleases the eye and ignores the 'reality' of life. Yes, I'd agree with you. 

There are serious problems that the farmers and potters of this region face. Almost all of their problems (economic and ecological) are the direct result of indiscriminate exploitation of land for farming, deforestation and ignorance of the people who make policies or even the ones who don't but who despite getting an education, prefer to ignore how big an impact big and small decisions made by individuals and governments have on the day to day lives of rural Indians.

"Oh! how sad that they've started using plastic here." I comment perched on my green urban high horse.

"Chinese stuff!" adds Ambika.

"Why?" she asks the potters.

"The wells nearby have dried up. We have to travel six to ten kilometers to fetch water. Plastic is lighter. It's easier." comes the matter-of-fact reply.

Our city- dwelling -preaching -green- to- the -farmers selves nod our understanding.
Plastic vessels have replaced traditional brass and terracotta ones because the villagers have to travel longer distances to fetch water. Pipes are being drilled deeper and deeper every year to try and reach the depleting water levels.

Men continue to beat their wives and scavenge off them to feed their alcoholism. And women continue to work as labourers on fields and construction sites to feed and educate their children. Ambika and I came across such stories in the three days we were there. 

Yes, I choose to capture the light, for the dark was, is and will continue to exist along side the light.

Solace is personal. Scenery is public. Scenery is our responsibility, a debt we owe our planet, a promise we must keep for our children and their children.

Can there be solace without scenery?

Commenting on the idea of heaven, Sadhguru, in one of his videos, asked, "How do you know you're not in Heaven already and you're spoiling it?"

This trip to rural Tamil Nadu couldn't have come at a better time. #RallyforRivers is the wake up call we all need to remind ourselves that if we want our children and their children to listen to birdsong, swing in hammocks in coconut groves or drink coffee made with fresh milk or simply eat fresh food and drink clean water, then we must do what needs to be done--NOW!

Back in Doha, I unpack the tangible memories I've brought home with me. The terracotta pot I'd so lovingly carried as cabin baggage has succumbed to the stresses of air travel. A hole gapes back at me from the bottom when I unwrap it.

"Where there's a will, there's a way." my mother used to say:)

It's been given a new role. We may not store water in it (as was planned when I bought it) but its earthy fragrance (saundhi khushboo) will remind me of the beautiful people of Tanjavore and their warmth whenever I water the plant that sits in it.
Have a lovely weekend.
And please support the farmers who feed us.

Friday, August 25, 2017

A Chennai full of stories.

Can you recall the first stories you were told? Did they come from books or from hearts? Were you tucked in bed or sat on a lap? Was it on cold winter nights or on warm summer days?
Almost all of my first stories spring from my grandparents: Beji and Papaji and a couple from my father. A mismatched collection of Krishna's antics, Rama's principles, the  horrors of 1947 partition, the sweetness of the fruit that grew in their garden in Shinkiari in North West Frontier (which was now in Pakistan) mixed with faint memories of Beji when as a little girl, she visited the tall Buddhas of Bamiyan (which are no more) when someone in her family either took her with them or told her stories of the tall Buddhas. She couldn't remember but spoke as if she'd been there herself. Maybe she'd travelled in the descriptions she'd heard.

Stories hold that power: the power to transport you in time and space, in memory and in sense, in smell and in taste, in touch and and in feelings. Stories are like the threads of a tassel that bind us together as a family, a community, a country, a people, a history, a nation, a race and humanity. Stories trickle down traditions, read across pages of epics and race down memories. They escape lips and sound out what we know has always existed within us as carriers of this cosmos, but love to be reminded of our place, our destinies, our heritage and our aspirations anyhow.

The distance between birth and death is as long as a story.

But don't be fooled into thinking that your story is separate from mine or that each one of us can package our own individual story in a neat little box and tuck it away. No, sir. Our stories are all tangled together, entwined and connected. We may be bouncing in our own private orbits and we may think that what we see and experience is unique to us and doesn't effect others, or vice versa, but in the end the trampoline of cosmos we're bouncing on is the same for all of us. Our actions send out ripples that go on and on--so it is important that we pay close attention to how we conduct our lives.

I digress. Sorry. So to Chennai...
Last month, on an early morning walk in Doha, Ambika mentioned that she'd be travelling to Chennai for work. 

She's a friend and a surgeon and she'd been asked to lecture/conduct workshops etc. at Chennai, Madurai and Tanjavore.

"Can I tag along?" I asked shamelessly. The cities she had just mentioned have been on my ever growing bucket list and I couldn't resist this opportunity.

"Of course."

The flights looked okay. That was that. I plunged into research to ensure my Tamil Nadu adventure would be a fruitful one.

Friends who live locally were contacted. Google was put in top gear.

I kept Dr. A informed of  the itinerary that was taking shape. She's a busy surgeon with just enough time to sleep at night. I'm a self professed traveller living off of my husband's salary, who can even take afternoon naps. 

"It sounds like Thelma and Loiuse." texted Ambika one day after I'd found a great home-stay off the beaten track.

"I like Ambika and Arti better." I texted back.

"Besides, I'm not planning to end like Thelma and Louise--not done with my travelling yet." I thought to myself. I didn't type that.

Instead, smiley emojis were exchanged. Bags were packed, flight boarded and we were off.

Thanks to a recommendation sent by Shefalii of Photoconcierge, we started our Chennai adventure with a walking tour conducted by Akila Raman of Story Trails

Trust me, you've got to experience it to know how amazing it is. We started at 4 pm and ended at 7.  I can honestly say that those were the best 3 hours of magic I've ever experienced. Akila's passion for the place, her knowledge and her melodious voice all came together to take us on a journey that started on a hot July afternoon is bustling Mylapore in 2017 and after meandering through stories of Shiva, Parvati and their two sons and the one about the treaty signed by the Muslim kings who own the land on which sits the temple tank as well as the one about the pink saree that Mother Mary is adorned with at Mylapore Church, it ended with a strong cup of filter coffee and dosa. If I ever have a chance to visit Chennai again, any tour by Akila will be the first thing I'll put on my itinerary.

I'll let the story tellers do what they do best, tell stories with words. And I'll do what I like to do-- share pictures of an afternoon bursting with so many wonderful stories told with such skill that I didn't feel like an audience. I felt like I used to when as a little girl I would sit by my Beji on her clean kitchen floor and listen. I used to enter the portal of time and space opened by her and watch Kanha steal butter. As if by magic, I'd become a character in them--albeit a silent one. That's exactly how I felt that afternoon in Chennai. Thank you Akila and thank you Shefalii.
Spiritual pondering inside Kapaleeshwara temple:

Why did the chicken cross the road?
To enter the temple.
 Preparing for a festival. Story telling through dance and drama and all the colourful props.

Shakti worships Shiva. Yes, she's the all links back to ancient texts and legends--stories as old as humanity.
Parvati and Shiva temples are adorned with red and white stripes. 
Perhaps, like the lingams, the colours hint at  the feminine and masculine energies of the universe.
Why do people whisper in Nandi's ear? 
Because he has the power to reach Shiva even if the latter is in the deepest meditative state.
And I thought secretaries are a modern invention!
Legends and beliefs aside, I whispered a little prayer of my own. 
If and when it comes true, I will let you know.
Akila with her audience:)
By the time we stepped out of the temple, the hot sun had decided to descend. 
The temple tank
The setting sun lights up the houses opposite the tank.
We had the privilege of entering the temple priest's house with Akila.
The shots that follow are from inside his home.
9 yards of silk and brocade hangs in the courtyard:

Earth can yield--lamps, bricks, pillars and slabs--same source but such different lives.
 Street food: served with love.
 The beautiful church in Mylapore.
It was built on the tomb of Saint Thomas and is known as San Thome Basilica.
It is a Roman Catholic minor basilica
Mary in pink.
I saw this rose on the floor of the temple priest's house and wondered how it got there?
Was it in a garland?
Was a woman wearing it in her hair?
Did someone leave it there on purpose?
And just like that, a story started taking shape.
That's how easy they are--these stories of our lives.
But remember this: we are the authors of our stories--no one else. It's only us. Always us.
And if we choose to play the victim, then it's our choice.
For my part, I choose to be the hero of my story--every time--
no matter what drama is unfolding around me.

What about you?
What's your story looking like this morning?

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Amman: a morning

Taxi ride from Amman airport to the city
December morning
a terrace
in Amman
by the lemon tree
no lemons to see or even a tree
only a  stump -- evidence that there was once a lemon tree here.

Chimneys high and low
swirl out puffs of smoke
in patterns of their choice--
circles, eggs or just wispy threads.

An English Breakfast teabag sits in the cup I hold and wonders why it's not been taken out yet.
I like my tea strong.
The bag doesn't know this yet but
it will be plastered to the side of the cup and squeezed with the back of the spoon till the very last dribs dribble out.
For now, it swims in hot water and watches vapour rise above the rim and vanish into the blue sky above.

Impermanence of existence:
Every moment is a reminder.

White smoke of chimneys climbs up and turns transparent.
Sky is smoke or is smoke the new sky?
I wonder--
who's cooking today?
A mum?
A dad?
or a hired hand?
Will it be eggs or pancakes for breakfast?
It's been a while since I've written or blogged. My days have been beating to a rhythm of their own lately. Reading books and articles, checking out pinterest pics for designs of saree blouses has been seeping into my ordinary. I've just got back from a short trip to Bangalore. A beautiful pink cotton and a sky blue silk saree came along in my handbag. Yes, I do tend to pack my new purchases in my handbag -- much to my family's amusement -- because I feel that in case of a misplaced or lost baggage situation, at least I'll have my newbies with me. Logic and saree lovers don't see eye to eye. Period.

Summer and politics has kept TV screens and news channels busy in this part of the world. True to my nature, I've switched myself off and escaped to the land of books and a tiny bit of travel and walks and meditation and sitting with eyes open and day dreaming--like I used to when I was 5 or 6 or even 10. That part of my inner child or childhood is growing inside in leaps and bounds and taking me along on so many lucid journeys that I forget to visit my laptop to write.

I woke up early today. Old rumblings of a desire to write and share were knocking my insides, so I crept out of bed, looked at my phone and knew I had a couple of hours of absolute quiet before the husband and son would wake up. A glass of lemon water and a cup of adrak wali chai later, I started to pour out my post at the kitchen table.

Amman came up--a memory, a feeling, a wispy cold breeze I'd love to feel now (when the sun is glowering at us in his 50 degree suit).

I'd spent a total of five, maybe ten minutes when the husband walked in with his noisy slippers--phacchaaak, phachaaak, phachaaak...

I tried to ignore and carry on but failed.

"I've only just started...and your slippers are so noisy..." I complain without looking up.

He knows. He knows how I get when a post needs to be knocked out of me. He grabs a banana from the counter top.

"Want a bite?" he asks "it's the last one."

Love for his generosity mixes with regret at being so short with him--his slippers have always been noisy. I decline with a nod and go back to my screen.

"There's no milk in the fridge and no fruit left." he mentions as a parting shot just as he exits the kitchen.

 We'd planned to go grocery shopping today. But my fingers want to type and the heart is filling up with the usual blogging excitement, so I'm gonna write, share and then cater to the needs of our empty fridge.

"Let them eat toast." I think to myself and keep going on my laptop. 

Back to Amman, a city worth a stop. I was there in December of 2016. I spent a solo sunny day of exploring and a rainy half day with Angela. The people, the food, the art, the history, the local crafts--I loved it all. Here's a collection of photos I took.

Streets of Amman ...
Peeping inside gardens visible from the street -- treasures to behold and cherish

The missing 'U' in laundry service: Apt, I think as 'they' do the dirty work not 'U'!
I think I get the message:)
The husband has always maintained this philosophy but when one sees it on a billboard, one gets it!

Awash and empty... post rains.

 We stepped inside to escape the rain, and found a treasure trove of local crafts beautifully displayed and Jordan River Foundation.

The rain stopped me from taking my camera out but if you're in Amman, DO NOT miss out visiting:
1. Wild Jordan
2. Jacaranda Images
You can get all the information you need on
Pick up or download (from above website) the Map of Downtown, Luweibdeh and Jabal Amman.
It's the best guide to explore the city in a short time--with easy to follow layout showing 
art galleries, studios, markets and restaurants.
 I ended my Amman tour with a cup of coffee at Books@Cafe-- loved it.
His smile says it all: Jordan is full of smiles and helpful, kind souls.
Hope to see you soon.
Smile--it's Sunday:)