Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Buttered toast and Betelgeuse

The slices pop up from the toaster with a ding! My tentative fingers pick them up, one at a time, and drop them on the plate before the heat signal can travel from my skin to my brain. They need to cool, just a bit, just enough to acquire a hardness that won't give when the butter is spread over the surface. Golden, salty butter. Kept out of the fridge just long enough for the knife to cut through the smooth yet firm rectangle.

I move the knife horizontally across the fat brick of butter, gathering a thin layer that curls over the finely serrated blade to form a small ribbed cylinder, like the ones in the silver dishes in fancy hotels. Impressed by my unexpected artistry, I place it carefully on a slice and watch as it yields to the warmth, its butteriness oozing slowly over the golden brown surface, sinking into the pores. I quickly spread the rest, realizing that I haven't waited long enough and that the butter will soon disappear into the bread, visible only as a dull shine.

"I want to see the butter," he'd say, as he waited for the toast to cool before spreading a thick layer. Sometimes he'd add a dollop of ketchup.

Buttered toast and tea was a 4 o' clock routine that my father rarely missed, when at home. He took pleasure in making the tea himself, milky and thick, topped with an extra spoon of malai. I'd watch him, faintly disgusted by the malai (I was obsessive about straining every bit of it out of my tea and coffee) and remonstrating with him about the amount of butter on the toast. He paid no attention, focusing instead on enjoying the moment and all it contained.

January brings with it the bittersweetness of remembrance. One smiles at memories, grateful for their abundant presence, but sadness at the absence of those that played a role in generating them.

Orion and his belt. Image: Wikipedia
Like walking on the terrace at night. A keen star gazer, my father mapped the skies for me, pointing to Rohini--"that's Betelgeuse, the reddish one," he'd explain--at the far end of the long constellation of Orion, and then showing me the Belt, three stars strung across Orion's middle. Later my daughters were made familiar with the same stars and shared his excitement over expected meteor showers, lugging mats to sleep on the terrace and keep their eyes open for falling stardust. Never mind that most nights the clouds and the diffuse city lights masked whatever showers there may have been. The sense of anticipation was infectious.

Like going to the station to pick up arriving relatives. I do it out of habit fed by expectation but for him, it was an extension of his own fascination for travel. He would walk the length of the platform waiting for the arrival of a usually-late train, stopping to buy the latest South Central Railway timetable and a newspaper, as if the book tucked under his arm wasn't enough reading material.

It's coming on ten years now. The loss has lost its sharp edge, its contours now diffuse and soft, evoking gratitude rather than regret.

Thursday, December 28, 2017


Last year when I met a dear school mate after close to three decades, she remarked that just before she reached the cafĂ© of our assignment, she encountered two instances that seemed to strongly resonate—in a prescient way—with our long association. “I was browsing the CD rack at the book store next door, and I spotted a collection of Tamil songs!” This was surprising why? Because this was a tiny store in the preppy part of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I am one of the few Tamil-speaking friends. “And then a little while later my eye fell on this mathematics book, in the popular non-fiction section.” The reason for remarking on this? My father was a mathematics professor, and this was a subject she had always connected with me (although I have little to do with it and even less affinity for it!).

“Everything seemed to be telling me I was going to meet you!”

We all get these earworm infestations from time to time, right? A song worms its way into our head and refuses to find a way out, taking up residence with endless replays. So it was with this song by Passenger that I first heard covered by a group of pre-teens at a music festival, which stayed with me for weeks, and then, just as suddenly as it had entered, it quit. Like, totally and completely, vacated my conscious mind. Several months later, I was trying hard to think about this song, remembering only that I had liked it, but with no more than a vague sense of the sound. Try as I might, the notes wouldn’t come back to me. In the evening of that same day, as I walked down the stairs of a subway station, I heard the strains of a platform band—playing my song!

My father was born in the month of January and died in the month of April. My father in law was born in the month of April and died in the month of January. They were very good friends, sharing a deep, almost spiritual connection. There’s even a strange symmetry of sorts in the dates: my father’s birthday is January 1, while my father in law’s death anniversary is January 11. My father in law’s birthday is April 26 and my father passed away on April 21. The months therefore bring bittersweet memories for me, but in a way they also serve to remind one that birth, death, and everything in between…it’s all part of the game of life.

You have a dream about someone and happen to meet them the following day. You have a dream about someone and they call you with some important news soon after. You have a dream about someone and it turns out to be surprisingly premonitory. You think a thought and you find it echoed in the newspaper the next day.

Life is full of such apparently surprising coincidences. Or perhaps we see them as coincidences because we are constantly on the lookout for patterns, for ways to read meaning into our otherwise untidy lives.

The idea of synchronicity—the apparent connection between acausal psychic and physical phenomena--is most famously associated with Carl Jung, who is best known for his work on psychoanalytic theory. The writer Paul Levy describes it as “meaningful coincidence” when “our internal, subjective state appears, as if materialized in, as and through the outside world”.

While many rationalists might dismiss the idea as fanciful mumbo-jumbo, something that springs from our innate desire to make sense and bring order to the randomness of life, our wish to believe that there is some grand design to existence. Putting meaning into synchronous events allows us to see our lives as a narrative. And whether one reads meaning into such events, or whether the occurrence of such events is inherently meaningful, depends on which side of the mysticism-rationalism divide one stands.

I myself am a skeptical rationalist—if there is such a thing. I believe there are scientific (or rule-based) explanations for most things, but I also allow that there may be phenomena that are beyond our current understanding, and therefore am hesitant to discount the beliefs of those who argue for a mystical explanation for acausal coincidences.

After all, the most innovative theories in science have come from the willingness to make a conceptual leap to connect disparate bits of evidence in an explanatory framework. And the greatest literature has come from drawing a design into the apparent randomness of human existence.

For now, I’m going to take refuge in another song that had been relegated to the shadows of memory…here’s Synchronicity of a different kind!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Ghosts of Christmas past

Call it the market, call it the Hallmark effect, but there's no denying that every year around this time something gets into the air. No amount of cynicism--or realism--has been able to take away that sense of specialness brought on by images of snow-laden fir trees and green-and-red ribbons and gingerbread and rich plum cake. No matter that I live in a climate where there is neither snow nor fir tree and nicely laced eggnog is hard to come by. And no matter what my postcolonial consciousness knows about the constructed nature of history and the mediated nature of contemporary culture.

Come December, the strains of The Nutcracker and Jim Reeves' Christmas carols courtesy YouTube mingle in my home with the evening telecasts of the Marghazhi kutcheris from Chennai. It's been a few years since we pulled down our little artificial tree and the handmade ornaments made when the kids were in preschool and kindergarten, sit with it in the loft, packed away in tissue paper, along with so many memories. It's been only a couple of years since I last baked sugar cookies in the shapes of the season--a recently discovered gluten intolerance lowered the motivation somewhat.

But spooling backwards. Last year, my daughter and I were with my brother's family and spent Christmas Eve in New York City, doing the tourist circuit, beginning with lunch at the Ellen's Stardust Diner to watching the skaters at Rockefeller Center past the dressed-up Macy's windows to the winter market at Bryant Park, complete with hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts. We drank the feel-good kool-aid and smiled along with everyone else, enjoying the warm cosy feeling and ignoring the little voice that said this was not forever. A few days before, we had watched Langston Hughes' Nativity play in a traditional black theatre in downtown Boston and sung along with a jubilant chorus. And that morning, we helped pack cookies and cupcakes for a holiday fundraiser for a healthcare charity.

It's the lights and the music and the cold. And even without the cold, the memory of lights (and of course, the pictures on social media) and the presence of music brings back the spirit. Listening to the simple sounds of the Little Drummer Boy (listen to this lovely version by Pentatonix) or Silent Night also reminds me that it's not all commerce, there is a magic that we need to believe in, something that has little to do with religion and everything to do with faith--in people and the possibility of goodness.

The end of the year is as much about nostalgia as it is about hope. But as I get older, it seems more and more about remembering rather than doing. I scour old photo albums for pictures of winters past and smile at the smiles recorded in those frames.

When the children were little, we bought into the excitement of Christmas morning with gifts ferreted away that magically appeared on the day, even going so far as to hide outside the window jingling what were supposed to be sleigh bells! The anticipation and the delight on the children's faces were well worth the subterfuge and the pretence.

Another precious Christmas memory relates to Achala's elementary school, which had a lovely tradition of having all the children write a story, and two children from each grade were selected to go choose the school tree and read their stories on the bus ride to the tree farm. When in the second grade, Achala's story was selected and what a joy it was to ride the bus with the kids and listen to their varied tales!

But Christmas also brings with it, for me, a sense of "awayness". I first encountered the festive season in all its "winterness" when I was a child in cold, cold, Canada, and then again as a young adult and again as an older adult, each time away from home. There was always the sense of being an outsider looking in, of trying to make one's own something that was essentially foreign--of standing in the driveway of a suburban home looking into a window where a Norman Rockwell family sat unpacking presents around a decorated tree. One is always trying to recreate that warm feeling in its fireside framing, a sense of perfection that is as foreign as those snowy winters. To think of it, once the market appropriates a holiday, it sells us images that make the experience completely unattainable--and in the process, takes away the possibility of perfection that resides in our own spaces, framed in our own colours.

Yet, yet. In Hyderabad, Christmas too--like Deepawali, or Navaratri, or Pongal--brings with it certain traditions that I have come to cherish. The mingling of Tchaikovsky and Thyagaraja in my domestic soundscape. The city's own Festival Choristers and their offering of holiday songs. My friend Sarika's at-home on Christmas day. The rich plum cake, soaked in rum, from Secunderabad Club and rose cookies from Karachi Bakery. And when I can rouse myself from my inertia, buttery sugar cookies from my own kitchen.