Wednesday, December 25, 2013

December reflections and a long harsh winter

This has been a December of many firsts for me or feels that way at least. Being in Toronto all through December. Then, experiencing an ice storm with a protracted power outage which forced shut half the city, it's shops and restaurants included, during the busiest time of the year for all retailers. Another first is working through the holidays with an oddly busy work schedule marked with deadlines and little time to clean and get caught up before the onset of New Year. Probably also one of my first Decembers away from Uttara who either visited or saw me visit her at this time every year.

Also for the very first time I am taking the malevolence of winter in stride. Forbearing and reflecting on the devastation it has left in its wake. We have birch and maple trees split in half and several other trees bent over under the weight of the ice in formations, ready to snap at any moment. The icy cold temperatures are threatening to drop to a -30 degree low. With no let up we will be gazing at glistening trees, like the ones on Christmas greeting cards, for several days to come, and a lot of stumps in the spring. After all this is only just the official start of winter.

The power outage was not catastrophic for us. We had hot water, stoves and fireplaces all fired by gas. Also the hush around the house with no TV or devices was merciful. I had 3G on phone and iPad to indulge an online craving or two, send and receive text messages and make emergency phone calls. I set out to make hot chayote stew (Poricha kozhambu) and when I realized I could not grind coconut for it in my blender, substituted with coconut milk, cumin and pepper. I ended up with a fantastic hot soup which we had with quinoa and dhal and it was wonderfully comforting. In fact, I thought we had all we needed. Really electricity was an indulgence we could do very well without. We had flashlights to find our stuff in dark corners and enough bright sunshine to do all that we needed to during the day - reading, cooking, decluttering. I even thought that we should endeavour to live without power 1 day a month to do our bit for energy savings and wean ourselves off our dependence. The day without power was marked by a simplicity that came with having no choice! It felt like we could have gone on for days replicating the lives of our grandmothers, starting with filter coffee in the morning. We got power the same night and so did not have to find out! Also our food could remain in our fridges and freezers (far too much of it, I realized, and have vowed to clear everything out and not buy for a few weeks!)

When I got to work I was less insular and felt quite uncomfortable for having been so smug and even mocking of our need for electric power. My colleagues related experiences of hardship they faced living in high rises where the water was turned off to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting, leaving them with no water as well. With no elevators, their Christmas turkeys and all other frozen food had to be rescued, carried down flights of stairs to friends' fridges and freezers. People with pregnant spouses and aging parents spoke of their challenges caring for loved ones who could not themselves walk down flights of stairs. On the news, we heard stories of trees falling over homes, fires and carbon monoxide poisoning from burning charcoal inside to stay warm and other such desperate tales. There are people still without power and after one day the novelty must have worn off.

Given harsh weather conditions, our lives here are generally constructed around the availability of power so much so that we cannot imagine living without it. We are gorging on it like at a buffet table because no one is telling us to consume less. Our gas and hydro are still not prized at their real cost. For eg, we are looking at tapping the oil sands now, at the cost of polluting our vast water resources by fracking. Even subliminally, we are not getting the messages that we should use less. We live today with the mentality that the availability of power will continue ad infinitum - until an ice catastrophe strikes and we wake up to our dependence. The wonderful thing about us humans, though, is that we quickly adapt. We can take on a lot and find work- arounds. So I guess we will, when power is not so abundant!

We also show our best selves under great hardship. I witnessed peace and calm and acts of kindness everywhere. Several of our friends offered us their homes and plied us with food. Others opened up their fridges for friends to store perishables. The busy intersections with no traffic lights flowed through smoothly even without cops in attendance. And the spirit of the season was visible everywhere in human acts of compassion.

I wish everyone a warm and happy Christmas with loved ones. I wish us all the strength to get through our challenges including the ones brought on by a long harsh winter.

Here are a list of 13 things mentally strong people do not do! Do you agree?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Travel blog - 2 - A trip to Cairo

A few years ago, Utta and I went on a short but memorable trip to Cairo. It was a couple of years before the uprising in Tahrir square. Hosni Mubarak was still comfortably ensconced in power and the city was eerily tranquil with the muted signs of militia everywhere.

I loved Cairo because it was so much like India. The sunshine, greenery, palms and old architecture were very much like Chennai and burbs, and the pervasive tall and mid sized flats with clothes drying in the balconies, very much like Mumbai. Also like in India, there were ample signs of life and living everywhere - from young nubile couples in clandestine encounters by the Nile, funerals in the cemeteries, children playing in the dirt in the crowded back alley souks, men balancimg trays of tea as they negotiated the pressing crowds in all places of commerce, to flirtatious young men sitting around street corners on Roxy Square serenading the beautiful young women walking down that street. The magnificent ancient pyramids and mosques, with courtyards the size of football fields, were almost incidental. In fact, when we were in Old Cairo, it came up to their noon hour prayer and the mosques opened up to welcome all Muslim worshippers. The trip to the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx was quite like arriving at the Shore Temples in Mammalapuram, smack in the middle of a crowded town, where people went about their lives, apparently unaffected by the five thousand year history of one of the world's architectural marvels in their backyard.

Cairo is a holy place with a confluence of religions and cultures. Islam, of course, is the dominant religion today. However, predating the arrival of the Arabs, over the last two millennia, Egypt experienced Greco Roman influences with the Ptolemaic period and before that the rich dynastic tradition of the Pharaoh kingdoms going back to 3000 BC. Legend has it that Cairo is the birthplace of Judaism, the location of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo the place where a Pharaoh's wife found Moses after he had crossed the Red Sea. The synagogue is surrounded by the Babylon fortress and a hanging church. Among other firsts, Egypt boasts the first monastery dating back to 300 AD under the Coptics, a sect of Christianity which still flourishes, their art a blend of pagan traditions and expressive Christianity. More recently, Egypt was also a French colony and there is some of that influence evident in its peoples and food. In short, a veritable pot pourrie of eastern and European cultures, Egypt is a country of beautiful mixed race people, varied cuisines and diverse architecture. The language, however, is predominantly Arabic, with a few French speakers. English is practically non existent.

What’s a trip to Egypt without a pilgrimage to the pyramids. Particularly memorable was my 10 metre climb into one pyramid's funerary chamber, down a very narrow passage. The tombs are equally astounding and the preoccupation with death, dying and tomb architecture quite fascinating. King Tut knew not just how to live and but also how to die, so elaborate were his plans for his afterlife. The Nile, the only enduring witness to these thousands of years of history, tamed in recent times with the Aswan dam, has influenced every aspect of life in this historic place as is evident from the art and elaborate sailboat sculptures in the tomb architecture. Today, she is there a benevolent and bountiful goddess in the middle of the Sahara.

Our gap toothed taxi driver, Nabil took us around everywhere in his 20 year old Peugeot. He spoke broken English but showed us all the sights and bid us a tearful farewell. Amidst all those crooks who prey on tourists, we had found a gem.

It was wonderful to hang out with an adult daughter sipping tea in cafes, experimenting with the sheesha (water pipes), haggling at the Khan Al Khalili markets and trying out different cuisines at the restaurants. The trip left me with wonderful memories and a fresher perspective on the world and our present state of being.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday reflections - vol 3 - Fever dreams

Amazon’s Jeff Bazos is known for his “fever dreams”. His ideas are so outrageous they are born in his delirium. I don’t blame him. Running a very small enterprise myself, I know the preoccupation that comes with wanting to improve quality, responsiveness and cut costs. In his case, it’s the “last mile” problem. In an e-commerce business where a consumer orders one CD how do you get it across to them at their doorstep in the most cost efficient way? His fever dreams even included having bike couriers store them in their apartments before the last mile. Of course, there was the cost of pilferage by the dishonest ones, which had to be factored in. So soon there will be drones and robot couriers. It’s going to be a mad scramble to get the consumer the product. Is e-Commerce more efficient? It sounds like it is more dangerous and is fraught with many unknowns on what could happen if our product crazy world goes on LSD ordering things online setting off a spiral of credit card debts, drones, people madly rushing around on bikes, and robots working the warehouses which are housed in unsafe and unsanitary locations, maybe. What happens after Jeff Bazos when there is no one to have his fevered dreams? Anyway, I am sure I dramatise. There will be a start-up that comes up with ways to rationalise and optimise delivery, I am sure, so e-Commerce can continue, to grow, thrive and fascinate!

As you can tell, I love reading, writing and thinking wild thoughts on Sunday mornings. I think I am entitled to my own delirious dreams. So here is what I keep thinking of as a solution to our housing problem. In Toronto, for eg, we have a housing bubble. No one can afford to buy a house and, rents being so high, accumulate the equity to buy. So how do we optimise the space and energy we use to allow people the breathing room to save up and buy? With all this reading about exchanges – Obamacare and the 250 recently spawned financial exchanges nipping at the heels of the newly acquired NYSE by ICE (Intercontinental Exchange), I am thinking why not we build a housing exchange. It would have on it, people who are looking to buy, people who want to sell or improve their properties, mortgagors who would like to lend more safe cash for collateral and insurance companies that secure the loans. Of course you would need dealer networks on it too. Potential buyers and sellers could do any combination of things. Those who are borderline and are fearful of losing their shirt on their investment, could buy short, ie hedge their exposure by shorting futures on the index – ie betting on their decline in value. If prices fell, short will gain in value reducing the homeowner’s loss. They could further shore it up with insurance that uses the futures market. Those who cannot afford to buy but may qualify for a small mortgage could pay to improve homes of existing homeowners (ie basement apartments for eg) in exchange for staying there for just the cost of utilities to allow them a window to save for their purchase after paying interest on the cost of the home improvement. This may not seem like a fair exchange to the homeowner. However think about the “paying it forward” equity and the reduction in carbon footprint it means. Also think of the growing divide between rich and poor and the dire consequences for the economy of this growing inequity? For heaven’s sake I have a 1000 square feet basement, which we do not use, which walks onto the backyard and is a beautiful space. I would gladly enter into such an agreement if it means it will also help someone save up for their home?

The woman of the hill

The woman of the hill

Our house is situated on a hill. The road, lined with beautiful tall Christmas and other trees, undulates up and down in a gentle slope. However, going up and down that hill on foot involves triumphing over the naysaying body! Especially when the weather is a bitter cold -10 degrees C as it was today. However, on any given day, I just have to peek out at 6:30 am, when it is still dark, and I will see a familiar figure in a burgundy coat, fully covered from head to toe, taking strong determined strides. In the summer, she is a skinny figure in shorts. I like to call her Sophia the woman of the hill. In her 60s she has relentlessly scaled that hill everyday for 29 years. She does 10 hills on an average day at 12 minutes per hill but could keep at it for about 20. I have never been able to do more than 6.

I met Sophia three years ago when she approached me on the hill as we were crossing paths with "are you a yoga teacher?" I admitted that I did lead yoga sessions. We got into conversation about all things spiritual and esoteric. Born in Greece and a resident of Canada for over 40 years, Sophia still speaks with her accent. She is a healer. She is a Master Reiki practitioner, a Bowen therapist, a counselor and teacher who holds free success groups and non religious prayer sessions at her home every Friday night for the willing and the down and out. She can quote from any religious or spiritual text, from the Gita to the Bible, Osho or the Dalai Lama and her knowledge of human anatomy and physiology is astonishing. A karma yogi, she counsels and treats people all day and does it out of love and a desire to make them feel and live better. She has vowed to lower my blood pressure with Bowen and has never charged me for the one hour sessions. Healing is her calling, spirituality her state of being. She eats fruits and vegetables and very little of it. She responds to all emails from people in distress every day and prays for them. She lives with her husband in a house on 2 acres of land growing her own organic vegetables in a magnificent greenhouse. She has a heavenly orchard with apple and pear trees brimming over with their bounty in the fall and donates them to friends and anyone in need. She works hard in the house and garden and tending to people in distress, with no outside help. She maintains an immaculate house cleaned with soda bicarbonate, vinegar and steam, keeping all noxious chemicals out.

But most inspirational of all is her habit of walking up and down the hill every morning of the year, no matter the weather, while inspiring others to do the same. She has gathered a crowd of faithfuls around her, walking away depression and loneliness from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). She goes over to our homes sometimes to draw us out. She then regales us with wonderful stories as we walk with her, of her trips to Corfu, her hometown in Greece, a book she has been inspired by, a healing remedy she has found, a condition she has treated or even the recipe of a gluten free apple crisp she has baked for her prayer group. She greets everyone who joins her walk with a warm and tight hug and stays till the last one leaves the hill. She speaks with passion of the hill's magical powers to heal, the special magnetic field around it and we believe her.

I feel blessed to have Sophia as my neighbour and of course to be living on such a daunting but holy hill. It truly only takes one person, to transform a village.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Additional thoughts - on how the book came to be!

People have asked me how the book came to be...

The idea was to bring out the multicultural fabric of this city. We wanted to make it more visible with stories about people’s food experiences from back home and have them sharing their favourite recipes from home with all of us. We found out through this process how food is a great unifier that transcends language barriers. For newcomers who are struggling it is probably the best way they know to connect back to their roots so they can bring comfort to their mind, body and soul. Through their stories they enchant with the exoticism of their experiences, while also ringing within us a familiar chord.

The book is also meant as a fundraiser to revive a Community Kitchen program for ex/residents from the Sandgate Women’s Shelter, which provides refuge to women fleeing abuse. Food heals and communal cooking revives the convivial experiences that women had in kitchens back home, with their mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Communal kitchens help people share, network and offer an excuse for people to congregate. They also help save $$ in food and cooking costs for those whose lives are financially precarious when they are on social assistance or at risk of homelessness.

Interestingly, the idea was conceived at MCIS but the stories were recorded by journalists from Brazil, newcomers volunteering with us, whose English is somewhat limited. They captured the narratives interviewing the storytellers – interpreters from MCIS, and staff from both MCIS and the shelters. They took pictures, sometimes even made the recipes on behalf of the contributors. A number of our staff volunteered their time or freelanced for a nominal fee during their off time. We had one staff devote some of her working hours to coordinating this effort. It was done on a shoestring and so we are quite proud of it in its present form and also the potential it offers for future initiatives. An idea I have germinating is to partner with agencies working with people who have mental health issues and having them do something similar with us. It will bring humanity to the experiences of people who suffer from stigma or ostracism because of their illness. This may be conceived as a documentary.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Travel blog - Volume 1 - Cambodia memories

Recently someone asked me about my trip to Siem Reap. So I decided to look up my writings and locate them in one place. So here goes:

We flew in from Singapore into this gem of a town called Siem Reap. This holiest of holy cities, with lush green vegetation, including the tallest teak trees I have ever seen is home to the most magnificent temple architecture known to human kind. This gentle land with its doe eyed beautiful people is predominantly agricultural and is only now recovering from the carnage of the Killing Fields which took place between 1975 and 1979, when the Khmer Rouge took the lives of 3 million of its cultural elite. During this time, monuments and rare archival documents were destroyed forever making the task of heritage site restoration even more difficult.

We stayed at a beautiful French boutique hotel with verandahs overlooking greenery and the pool, and a scrumptious breakfast spread complete with french croissants, melon jam, delicious chocolate and banana cake (decadent indeed!), fresh tropical fruit and juices, beverages and freshly baked bread. The dollar goes a long way and a nice meal with wine and spirits sets one back only about $7. So we did it all. Massages everyday, high tea at the Raffles Hotel, out on the town in Pub Street every night, the Night Market and Old Market to shop to our heart's content.

By day, we visited the temples and the ancient monuments both Hindu and Buddhist. Hinduism was the reigning religion for about 700 years between 800 and 1500 AD and the priests at the King's palace, to this day, trace their origins back to Tanjore, India. After Hinduism came Buddhism, which flourishes to this day.

At 5 a.m., the day after we landed, we caught the sunrise at the Angkor Wat, a magnificent Vishnu Temple based on Cambodian and South Indian temple architecture. The same evening we caught the sunset at the Bakheng Mountain Shiva Temple. The next day we took the pilgrimage up to Kbal Sbean and drank from the holy spring that emanates from what the Campucheans believe is the mythical "Mount Meru". This holy place has the trinity, with a thousand lingas carved in stone on top of a hill 1500 metres high, has Vishnu in repose and Brahma seated on a Lotus. The water flows over this holy trinity into a rectangular pool also dating back a thousand years, as those rock carvings. I drank this water, considered no less holy than that of the Ganges and paid homage to the dancing Shiva in a place considered as sacred as Mount Kailas. The trek up was challenging over small and large boulders, several of which were quite steep and slippery. The climb down was a breeze. Shaded from the sun and flanked by tall tropical jungle this trek was the closest I had come to nature in a very long time. Our guide informed me that tigers and other wild animals in this jungle had fallen prey to the Khmer Rouge. He pointed to the places where these soldiers had sought refuge even as they had carried out their carnage. The trinity on the hill had borne silent witness to their violent acts.

After Kbal Sbean and wonderful cold coffee at the base of the hill, we visited the Crown Jewel of the temples we had seen in this trip, Bantey Krei. A Shiva temple in shades of pink and yellow, it still bears the most exquisite carvings of Shiva and Parvathy and stories from the Ramyana and Mahabharatha epics, rivalling those at the Angkor Wat. Built by a Brahmin, not a reigning monarch as with the other temples, and even older than the Angkor Wat, this has a sophisticated structure with rest-houses and a meditation hall, flanking the altars of Shiva and his consort Parvathy. At the entrance, there is a dismembered bull, the remnant of a Nandi.

Besides the magnificent temples, the Angkor Tham, the beautiful temple town with its 4 magnificient gateways leading into what must have been a thriving cultural centre, I was moved by the many monasteries, the orange clad monks who stand patiently outside homes waiting for their daily bhiksha and the rural poor and the simplicity of their lives. We went everywhere by Tuk tuk and passed through villages where people lived in homes on stilts built with wood or mud and coconut palm, with no electricity or running water. We stopped to watch the village folk process cane sugar in huge basins on firewood stoves. In these villages children run about scantily clad, dirty and malnourished and people peddle wares including bare essentials in food and drink, firewood, handmade bamboo and cane products and even gasoline in bottles or cans for tuk tuks and scooters. A simple sustainable life off the land and its bounty.

Siem Reap is sleepy, hot, muggy and lush. The City takes great pride in its World Heritage Sites and so it is easy to navigate, very safe and clean. The children who peddle wares outside each of these sites, evoke one's sympathy and are the only real sign that this is a tourist destination. The economic downturn worldwide has had its impact on the flow of tourists and so there were no crowds or waits or line ups anywhere. I urge everyone to make the trip..!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Of life and book launches

We had our book launch on Friday. Jehan Chaudhry, the Executive Director of Sandgate Women's Shelter spoke about our enduring partnership helping immigrant women. Several contributors read from the book "Food for Language" an MCIS Cookbook Collective.

I spoke about my serendipitous entry into a world where I would support victims of domestic violence. That time in the distant past when I started working out of a storefront which housed our little nonprofit which then had two hundred thousand dollars in revenue and 2.5 staff, including myself. We were passionate about what we did reaching out to everyone who would listen to us, the Police and private bar alike, to educate them about our interpretation services for victims of violence. We knew immigrant women who endured assaults everyday would not come out and seek help unless they could operate within the sphere of comfort offered by their own language. In those days I never invited anyone to my office - so ashamed was I of those shabby digs. I was not convinced I had made the right decision straddling two careers when I could have plunged headlong into law full-time.

Then one day an interpreter came to my office and talked to me about her vicarious trauma from helping a woman at a shelter. In order to respect the woman's confidentiality, I did not delve deep. A few months later I read about a case where an Ontario Superior Court judge had adjourned the sentencing hearing, emotionally overcome and weeping after listening to a woman's victim impact statement, where she described assault and neglect of her toddler and herself that bordered on torture. Her accused husband was sentenced to 6 years in prison. (Yes-only 6 years)! Anyway, I found out then that it was the same case our interpreter had worked on and was lauded for. She had been pivotal in ensuring the woman's case was vigorously prosecuted, based on powerful evidence the woman had given in her mother tongue. Well this case changed everything for me. I began to value my work and to take great pride in it. Since those early days, somewhat sadly, we have grown to help thousands. Parallel to this, we have grown our revenue generating arm expanding it to provide a full suite of language services to the public and private sectors.

Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of your roots, purpose and beginnings when you are caught in the daily grind. This book, entirely a volunteer effort on the part of our staff, will anchor us back. Rich with stories, people have narrated, and food histories of the recipes shared, it is a wonderful reminder of our diversity. It also abounds with compassion which is often lost when we are "competing" to win bids. For me personally, it was a much needed breath of fresh air. Rather than donate money to our shelter partner we offered something enduring and enchanting that would snowball into a "fund-raiser" for their community kitchen. The book is on Amazon and is already being given away as Christmas/holiday presents. We will hold a town hall with the staff to think of ways to sustain this initiative. It's by no means perfect but is not meant to be. Like a life full of crags and crannies, it has grammar issues and design flaws. But it is heartfelt, soulful and a wonderful use of technology to bring back memories of times when women bonded in the kitchen creating wonderful recipes while chatting and sharing! Find us on Amazon or this holiday season do something personal like putting together a family recipe book of your own!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sunday morning reflections - 2

The silence that comes with death – remembering Appa

When Appa was diagnosed with a terminal illness 9 years ago, he set about planning life after him. He paid all his bills and ensured the money they had saved up was in secure places, garnering sufficient interest to pay my mother's keep. Then one night, while he was still mobile, he handed me a long checklist, neatly written on the back of recycled paper, which he used for everything except important correspondence, with all items on the list checked off. There clearly was nothing left for us kids to do. He had taken care of everything in meticulous detail, as was his nature. He then neatly put away all his files and stationery never to touch them again, or so he may have realised. The next morning he fainted as he was brushing his teeth, and when he came to, we took him to the hospital. He left his beloved house without a second glance and never to return. When he regained strength at the hospital, he read the paper, even attempted to write a letter to the editor, signed some cheques and enquired after some medical reimbursement claims he had made. Two weeks in, as though sensing his end was near, he was still alert but no longer interested in anything. He became quieter, more inner focussed and calm. He even stopped signing documents because his hand was unsteady and his writing squiggly. When I spoke to him about income I had generated for the company for which I had appointed him Director, he did not crack a smile as he would have done in the past. He just solemnly told me to “always keep my word”. When I told him that I was renovating the flat that he had so lovingly scoped out and purchased on my behalf, promising him he would be well enough to see it, he just nodded. This was the man who had brimmed over with excitement and pride, when he had taken me to see this flat that he had picked for me. He had been ecstatic when I had finally seen it and told him how happy I was with this great “find”. This was also the man who had taken great interest in life and lived it with gusto. He had enjoyed his flat by the beach, his long morning walks in his borough and the food my mother lovingly cooked him; he had admired and appreciated all things beautiful in nuanced detail and had been passionate in his support of the underdog. When he fell quiet I understood what it meant to die. If such a man did not care about anything as death neared, there really must be nothing at all, to our everyday clamour, I realized. What I had known intellectually all along, I knew experientially, then. He would have been gone 9 years this 4th of December and his absence has left a deafening silence for us all - but he left it all quiet peacefully.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Morning Reflections - 1

We are driving around the massive parking lot, the size of two football fields, and still do not find single spot. There are a few others like us. We look like vultures circling a carcass as we wait to drive into one that frees up. Then our car is blocked by one guy as he stakes his claim on a potential opening. We exchange a few curse words and hand gestures with him. Yes, we are reduced to surfacing the nasty in us. I mentally step back for a moment and examine the scene that I am in the midst of. A car park full of SUVs carrying gallons of gas driving around fat cat drivers like us - while we store all the food that we have eaten as body fat, our limbs protesting to take even a few extra steps from parking a little further away. I see myself as a protagonist in one of those futuristic movies that portray the demise of the universe that is North America. Have you seen "Wally", for eg? Clearly, I am equally to blame aiding and abetting an unsustainable lifestyle. We eventually park, horror of horror, more than 50 feet away and trudge the distance mumbling our displeasure over the Chinese malls, and their overflowing parking lots. Obviously we, like the rest, were there because there were interesting deals to be had and great food to be eaten at the hawker centres. I take photos for my citizenship renewal, feast on spring rolls, mee goreng and tom yam soup and return to the car, smug and contented as a Cheshire cat, all those noble thoughts about sustainability forgotten in the temporary amnesia brought on by the wonderful food.

Then I wake up this morning to a winter wonderland. I don my warm clothes and take a walk. The beauty of this gentle land simply takes my breath away. I even forget that my socks are not warm enough. My daughter is on the phone from chilly London saying "we are going out for dim sum". I know there is no Chinese eatery close to her so there will be lots of walking and public transit involved in getting her to her destination. And I suddenly turn melancholy. I cannot get to a dim sum place by walk or reasonable transit. Correction: I am not incented to. You could turn around and ask "why the hell do you not live closer to public transit and why the big house?" Because I love living among trees (a Canadian luxury) and, more to the point, I am not punished for sustaining my current lifestyle. The leaders of this nation had great foresight when they built our Trans Canada railway line. But they stopped with that. They gave in to an aggressive automobile lobby. Or else they would have incorporated trains as an essential component of zoning - just as they have zoned for hospitals and schools? Then as cities grew so would the railway lines have, aka London. Then we would all be milling about active, communing, experiencing this great land as it should be? Why, at the risk of being somewhat simplistic, we would not be pouring that money into the black hole that is our healthcare system, treating disease, if we had more active, fit people and cleaner air? The car lobby really had nothing to fear and we could have placated them with impassioned homilies about the vastness of our nation and places to discover by car? When driving is for pleasure, we would probably have planned more road trips and taken fewer plane rides?

At the end of the day, we all have to start somewhere and need to collectively reflect on where and how. We have the attention of our residents, who see examples of sustainable living when they travel overseas. Is it any surprise that Citibike, that bike-share program in New York City, fully sponsored by Citigroup, even has "Occupy Wall Street" member subscribers? Policy makers and politicians cannot dither anymore and must take the bull by the horns. Short of changes to the law, I don't see ways to bring about changes in our collective behaviour! Ok, ok I will begin to modify mine!!

I have decided to introduce common themes for my blogs so this is the first of my Sunday morning reflections - usually the time when I am inspired to write - after my morning yoga!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Blog before leaving India

Today I attended the evening Aarthi at the Ramakrishna Mutt after lighting ghee lamps, earlier in the afternoon, before goddess Durga at an ancient temple near by. They were both enchanting but contrasting experiences. They brought out some deep- seated emotions.

The Mutt had been my refugee some 26 years ago, when, following the birth of my child, I had experienced a spiritual crisis triggered by post partum depression. I knew then that spiritual awareness and the sensation of falling into an abyss, are two sides to a coin. At that time, nothing worldly could lift my spirits and I needed to find the meaning and purpose of my existence. I chanted feverishly, meditated and prayed to lighten my dark mood. I had often found myself sobbing at the altar of Ramakrishna in that quiet temple located smack in the middle of a bustling Mylapore. The Aarthi has always been performed to the same soothing verses everyday and in the same hushed monotone, it's cadence familiar and other worldly. So many years ago I had envied the lives of the orange clad monks - for having resolved their conflicts and surrendered to some higher calling. Today as I listened to those very same verses, I felt a sense of triumph for having climbed out of dark tunnel through years of mindfulness practice. I am now present in all my experiences.

At the Durga temple earlier in the afternoon the experience was much more visceral. The ancient Vallieaswarar temple is right next to its more famous compatriot the Kapali temple. Lesser known but over a 1000 years old, it shows marked signs of overuse and neglect. However, the word that came to mind as I stepped in was "authenticity". During the auspicious 90 minute period on Tuesdays between 3 and 4:30 p.m. Goddess Durga is said to bestow her munificence on women young and old who light ghee lamps made from lime peel cups. I purchased four freshly made lamps filled to the brim with ghee and lit them before the altar. The dark sooty walls glowed from the light of a thousand lamps that symbolized the collective aspirations of all of us women gathered there.

These wonderful contrasts reinforce for me the diversity and span of the Indian experience. As another stay here draws to a close, I pray for the well being of my elders who have set such a shining example in my life with their caring, generosity and unconditional love of us all. I look up to them awe, for their spirit to celebrate every milestone with great pomp, notwithstanding chronic pain in their limbs. I promise myself that I will be such a light to those who follow me, fostering in each the ability to experience the joy of being present in every moment.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Facing language barriers

It's wonderful to have a daughter who is a Management Consultant and something of a world traveller! I arrived in London and was pretty relaxed about my Berlin sojourn, where I am presenting at a conference, when she rattled off 10 questions to all of which my answer was an embarrassing "no". Have you checked in? Have you printed your boarding pass? Have you booked a cab to pick you up? Have you confirmed your hotel reservation?, etc. I then received a primer on travelling budget in Europe, where everything is automated and where language barriers can still be pretty daunting. I followed her instructions but still had to resort to hand and foot gestures when directing the cabbie to my hotel in Berlin, based on a prior knowledge of my route with an iMaps download on my phone (per her advice), and when paying the right fare.

We live in a global world and in Berlin, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, I had faced head-on the frightening prospect of not being understood. I have faith in their law and order here and yet felt utterly vulnerable. Nothing I knew or had learned, mattered given my inability to express myself to the cab driver at that late hour.

Interestingly, our staff team is currently working on a proposal to help homeless limited English speakers access City Shelters in Canada supported by language interpreters. The importance of this proposal and the desperate plight of homeless experiencing language barriers has dawned on me with even greater poignancy now. I am determined more than ever to convey my deep concern that the City not fail them given its preoccupation with cost savings based on utilitarian theories! Even one homeless person is one too many. Fresh from my trip to India where the numbers of marginalized and homeless are mounting with rising housing costs, I simply cannot bury my head in the sand anymore.

But I digress. Language barriers are real and helping people overcome them is pretty exciting work. My presentation at InDialog, which is part of the larger Expo Lingua global conference for language schools, is along the theme of John Kotter's "Our Iceberg is Melting". It explores how disruptive technologies and the digitisation of all professions, including language professions, is making our world increasingly complex and presenting both challenges and opportunities. The immense potential of technology became evident in one session yesterday, where a deaf presenter signed in German, the Sign Language Interpreter verbalized in English and his topic was on the use of two geography agnostic services to overcome all language barriers, Video Remote Interpreting and Video Relay Service. The deaf person and interpreter just happened to be in the same room but could have been communing from different parts of the globe.

Now if only someone can help me read! To get to the airport in London, I boarded the first class compartment of the Gatwick Express, with an economy ticket. What a relief I could explain to her that I had been incredibly stupid! Imagine if that had happened in Berlin. I would have just played dumb! Not much different, I guess!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Idu Cutchery Illai

Idu Cutchery Illai

I landed this morning in Singaara Chennai (beautiful Chennai) and was informed I would be attending a T.M. Krishna concert at a hall close to my in-laws' home that evening. They live in the cultural centre of the City and today's concert was to take place at Dakshinamoorthy Hall on the near century old P.S. High School campus. The ambience was "pristine Chennai". Muggy, with fans overhead, plastic chairs, the open sides letting in the evening breeze with the ever present pesky mosquitoes which circled aiming for exposed arms and legs. The smell of jasmine suffused the air and large diamonds flashed on women's ears and noses. People of all ages gleaming with the characteristic Chennai tan, from weathering the city's intense summer heat year after year, filled the hall. These were hard core Carnatic Music fans who scoped the newspaper and showed up at concerts around Chennai, undeterred by the traffic congestion or weather. Predictably, I met a few of our relatives there.

These days T.M. Krishna has gained a reputation for deviating from the norm and I mused that this crowd be hard to crack. Any off the cuff singing that deviated from traditional concert protocol would be frowned upon, commented about and criticized by them. The concert began "normally" enough with an invocation of Lord Ganesha in Hamsadhwani rendered through a languorous Vathapi. Following this, he elaborated a raga aalapana in Saveri and following the violinist's exposition, did the same with Kamas. Then he confused us all when he began to do the same with Behaag, eventually ending up in the krithi SAramanai mAta. We were one hour into the concert and it was 8 p.m. He then said rather self consciously, to the somewhat bemused crowd, "Idu Cutchery Illai" and gave the violinist a cue to play Thodi raagam and followed it with a thaanam. When he abandoned Thodi after the thaanam to go into Kedaara gowlai and Saraguna Palimpa there was a shuffle of feet around the hall as one third of the audience left. Now that he had managed their expectations somewhat, the rest were willing to stay on his terms. At this point, taking cue that this was a "free for all" several shouted out their requests, as he continued at the same deliberate pace with a virtuttam in Sindu Bhairavi followed by the krithi Venkatachalanilayam. He then sang two requests Aramo In Mand and Krishna nee begane before concluding with a Mangalam at 9:30 p.m.

My mother in law very grudgingly said "he sings well, but ..." Our brains being so attuned to a format, we craved it and did not know what to make of this! We were busy trying to find structure, failing to fully immerse ourselves in the experience. As I left the hall dazed by the lushness of the music I had experienced, listening to an undoubted genius, I remembered this saying from Eckhart Tolle which keeps coming back to me time and again, as I meander through life...

"Non acceptance is resistance to what is.....the resistance is some form of judgement ...the intensity of our suffering is correlated to our own non - acceptance of the present moment..."

At that point, my judgement turned to gratitude...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

So Inspired by this

Often we lose perspective and fret about the little stuff. I was wallowing in one of those "if I had a million dollar" moments when I received this email- I have removed identifying information but kept the content because it is sooo inspiring...she is young, extremely wealthy and gifted with a lot to live for is all I can say....

"The events of last 2 weeks have resulted in a change of direction for me.
As mentioned in the previous update the clinical trial treatment was stopped after the report of the MRI brain scan showed that there were four new lesions in the brain.The MRI Brain Gamma Knife Surgery, a non-invasive radiation treatment was carried out last Tuesday. This treatment is very precise and works directly on the lesions. I will be followed up in 3 -6 months.

This week I met with all my doctors to review and discuss the results from other CT Scans and MRI's. The reports showed further growth and spread in lesions in both the liver and the lungs and confirmed that the clinical trial treatment did not work. There was spread and growth in the cancer and the treatment was stopped.

We had decided on the clinical trials when after discussions with Dr.xx about the types of treatments possible and honestly after having 5 lines of treatments since the metastasis know that existing treatments are not going to be very effective and would most likely not work; and if at all, the doctor would take a couple of existing treatments and try out some mixes, but it would be like picking apples from an orchard. The difference is my body's ability to manage the side effects- a difficult ordeal. As mentioned earlier I have not done very well with the clinical trial treatment- lost a lot of weight, there is muscle wastage and the side effects are still lingering 3 weeks after treatment has been stopped. Dr Xxalso mentioned that the new treatments that are being tested are may be 3+ years away. The discussion was a frank discussion and at the end of the day it was a choice about quality of life.

After a lot of reflection over the past few weeks, we have come to a decision that I would move towards stopping all my treatments, and the discussion with the doctors facilitated this and we have now communicated this to Dr xx as our decision, which means no more chemo treatments.

I will now be in the care of the palliative care team who will help me deal with my symptoms and give me whatever support I need. In the last few weeks that I worked with them, my experience has been very good. I have a very good nurse who I can call during hospital hours and the doctor on call is available for 24 hours.

I am very happy with this decision and don’t feel it is a risk I am taking nor a fatalist attitude. I feel that it is a healthier option for us, the quality of life will improve, and mostly it will allow me to recover well from the onslaught of the treatments of the past few years.

I will work closely with Palliative care to manage all the symptoms and will find positive ways to work with my time, travel, work on the xx research projects and many other ideas that are germinating in me. More so get into some normalcy in life that became less and then non-existent since 2008.

Thanks again to all of you for keeping me in your thoughts and prayers. It was because of this that I have this positive and healing energy that has made what could have been a most difficult decision feel easy and right for me.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Me and Balaji Shankar

Last Friday we were at a friend's, sipping wine, listening to Carnatic music and discussing his massive collection of songs and concerts. Suddenly, I requested that he play a Balaji Shankar concert. I had not remembered how good it was. I sat there completely spellbound. I beseeched my friend to record all Balaji Shankar recordings in his possession on an MP 3 for me. Over the past week, I have listened to nothing else in my car, driving sometimes with the top open the strains of music escaping to fall on strangers' ears.

Who is this guy? Better yet, where is he now? I don't know the answer to the second question, which adds to his mystique. He is a Carnatic vocalist whose prodigious talent was discovered at an early age, so he could learn under the tutelage of the great D.K. Jayaraman. He took to the stage early, first accompanying his teacher and then later by himself. Pleasant looking and earnest, he had everything going for him musically -magnificent voice at once majestic and tender, with precise adherence to the convention of a raga, purity of tone and accuracy of beat. It is also rare for such an artist to become one with the song, submerged, egoless and spontaneous. And he became all that. This brought a heady quality to his music drawing the audience into a world where everything begins and ends with the music. A fan of radio and news I have been loath to switch over to the radio so immersed as I am in my own private concert in the car. His bilahari is the finest I have heard as also his abhogi and karaharapriya. He takes us on this surfboard that dips and rises always landing perfectly on a note, confident and assured. He sits on the shoulders of his guru and that great musical tradition of a disciplined rendition infused with devotion. These must have been his finest hours since what followed was an abdication of this gift as he disappeared into obscurity. It is rumoured he had a nervous breakdown from the pressures and politics of being a first rate artist. Others say he lost the love of his life and a few others that he gave it all up for a career in IT. He has not been heard from or seen since the early 2000s, when he was in his mid to late twenties. For now we are having to stay content with YouTube postings where other fans like me have bemoaned his departure. Musicians are dime a dozen these days and there is no dearth of talent in a vast country like India. And yet nothing has quite moved and enthralled me like this young man's music. Can someone please locate him and bring him back on stage?,

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Noble Silence

On a gorgeous summer afternoon I arrived at a picture perfect locale where I was about to be housed, fed and initiated, over a ten day period, into the subtle art of meditation. Nestled on rolling hillocks in a small area cleared amidst a wooded paradise in Quebec were the residences which would shelter me and 45 other enthusiastic meditators over that time. I wondered how all of us could be accommodated in such snug quarters. While shelter was not an issue in the summer, with the possibility of camping in the great outdoors, I pondered over how we would all survive the long haul with just 5 toilets one of which had a shower, putting it off bounds when someone was having a bath. I soon found that the answer to this and many other questions, existential and prosaic, was “noble silence”.

On arrival I was escorted to a little attic. In that tiny space, where the roof came sloping down, the ceiling was not high enough for cots. My guide urged me to pick out one of the spots of the floor where 4 mattresses had been neatly laid out. I immediately took territorial possession of my little rectangular space and arranged my things on the shelf provided beside my bed. Soon my three roommates arrived and one of them greeted me with a distinct grimace, obviously a little taken aback by the humble setting. This did not bode very well for us to live in such close proximity for 10 days. The one toilet and shower that 8 of us would share was also so tiny that I realized I would need creative acrobatics to change inside. So modesty had to go out of the window first. Soon after, I embraced humility when I handed over all worldly possessions to the course managers. I was only allowed the bare minimum – simple clothing and basic toiletries.

Once this ritual was completed, we were served a light evening meal. Within that 300 square feet dining room, the cacophony was loud enough to make my ears pop. Then at 8 p.m., the announcement was made. As we were each assigned a spot in the solemn meditation hall, we were informed that we would observe noble silence from that moment on, for the 10 days that followed. This meant no speech or even eye contact with anyone. We would basically be exploring the “within” devoid of any distractions. No books, no writing materials, no music and absolutely no contact with the outside world except in a dire emergency. Men were segregated from women and we each had boundaries within which we were confined.

The next day began early with a 4 a.m. wake up call. This was followed by 12 hours of meditation with intermittent breaks and just 2 meals, breakfast and lunch. All we did that day and for the next 2 days was observe our breath. The first three days were excruciatingly painful on many levels. The forced silence and the consequent inability to respond to sensory stimuli, the physical ache from sitting cross-legged on the floor, back and neck straight, and the sheer boredom of doing nothing other than observing one’s breath. I looked forward to mealtimes, where at least I could savour food and see who ate what and how much of it.

I felt physically weak and emotionally very fragile on day 3. Just when I was ready to give up, day 4 happened. On this day we were actually initiated into Vipassana, an ancient Indian meditation technique rediscovered by Buddha about 2500 years ago. We were taught to observe our physical sensations. The isolated setting, 4 days of intense mediation and noble silence later, a magical transformation began to occur, which completely altered my perspective.

Three things happened. First, the mind having slowly begun to divest itself of its habit patterns, no longer craved sensory stimulation with intensity. It did not shirk unpleasant sensations with feelings of aversion, either. It also did not clamour with the need to feel important and to project the “I”. The thick fog of conditioned responses in the mind gave way to reveal a gorgeous pantomime full of possibilities. The hills came alive, the sunset caught my attention, the flowers beckoned to be admired and the ants to be observed. There was time to ponder without the baggage of “things to do” and “oh I wish this moment could last”. There was just a zen existence, of remaining in a state of being. Second, and on a very practical level, silence and self observation fostered order, accommodation and empathy. For eg, I did not hog the shower since I knew my roommates would not be able to knock on the door to tell me my time was up. I went to great lengths to avoid interfering with another’s space since I knew if someone did that to me I would have to forbear without protest and did not wish that on my neighbour. But for the silence we could not have managed such a harmonious existence within that small space with its limited facilities. Third, it was impossible to stand in judgement of people. Without the clutter of thoughts brought on by conversations, one had time to ponder over one’s reactions. One gained insight into how the mind conjures up images that suit it and, how with no way of confirming if those perceptions are true, these images do not last. Here, silence was a great unifier. No one was better or worse than another. On the last day, when the silence was broken, I found out how my initial perceptions of people deviated from what they were once I had spoken to them.

My twenty year quest had culminated in a technique which, with regular practice, presented the possibility of equanimity. Whatever your persuasion in life or your motivation, you will agree that our world would do well with a little silence. To quote one enlightened soul, Ramani Maharishi “Silence is unceasing Eloquence...It is the best Language".

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Memories of Apple Thokku

As an immigrant you learn to adapt in all ways including with recipes. When I first arrived in Toronto, Canada, most dinner party conversations at Indian homes were around cooking innovations using local substitutes to make famous street foods and delicacies. These days we are re-learning to cook with the real thing, because you can get everything that is available in all parts of India in our fair City. The downside is you no longer have the thrill of experimenting in the kitchen and wowing your friends with your latest discovery of an apt substitute for an ingredient, to get that authentic taste.

I had long since suppressed that desire for creative cooking and was going about my routine, when recently something changed that. I realized I needed to give my life a kick-start with new experiences and one thing led to another. This newly discovered sense of adventure took me apple picking last weekend. I loved being outdoors and enjoyed watching young families stomping around picking, tasting and playing, and wistfully wondered why I had never shared such experiences with my daughter when she was young and open to these experiences. In those initial years as an immigrant, I was keen on educating myself and getting ahead in my career. This left me little time for leisure. More than that, I was so steeped in my longing for India and my family back home, that I could not dredge up any interest in the pleasures of Canadian life and living. It has taken me many years to truly enjoy Canada, and now I plan to make up for lost time. I picked the apples with great gusto and brought them home with plans to bake and innovate making pickles, chutney and pakoras with them. I remembered then with great fondness my aunt’s cooking. She and her husband were our only relatives when we arrived here, and we lived together for a year, while we struggled to settle. My aunt taught me everything I know about cooking today. She was the one who showed me how to substitute a traditional mango recipe with green apples to come up with apple thokku. Even though you could not tell them apart, I used to mock the apple thokku then, saying it symbolised Canada, which substituted for the place where my soul continued to reside, India. Today, as I made the thokku I realised that the symbolism had changed. It represented innovation and the opening up of my mind to new possibilities in every sphere of my life. Canada, which has been a catalyst for my personal and professional growth, has definitely secured a permanent place in my heart.

Peel six tart apples medium and grate them
heat half cup of sesame oil and add apple with salt, turmeric powder,asaefotida and chilly powder to taste
let it cook nicely till oil separates
Now add a teaspoon of cumin powder (my addition) and about half teaspoon of fenugreek powder
mix nicely - let it cool
I roasted and added some curry leaves just to kick it up
Enjoy with rotis, crackers (as a dip) and with curd rice (if you like sweet and sour pickle with it - some people like my husband do not!)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wistful no more…

I go through life often wistful about books I have piled up to read and have not gotten to, movies I have not watched, places in my local town I have not explored. I decided to change everything with an experience I had last Thursday.

I had two great gals over for dinner and decided to treat them to Indian fare at home. I made Masala dosa, Sambar, Idlis, Ragada patties and bought, Pakoras, Samosas and Rasmalai from the store. I had an array of chutneys and pickles to accompany said dishes. For the Iranian woman the experience was akin to one in the movie Babette’s feast. She had never tasted any of these dishes before, but loved the dance on her palate from this new culinary experience. The other woman, Jewish from Russia, was steeped in nostalgia given the time she had spent living and studying in India.

Over dinner, we discovered we were all foodies. I also learnt that I knew much less about the food experiences in the City than them, even though I have lived here 25 years and they, for a fraction of that time. I learnt two things from these venturesome women that relates to the theme of this blog. That you can live life, grabbing it in fistfuls, no matter the limitation of your surroundings. You can go a step further and actually use your lifestyle to explore the glories of what your surroundings have to offer.

These women walk or use public transit. On foot they have discovered hidden gems in the City’s nooks and crannies. Be it, Masala Chai at Kabul Express for a dollar, or Firni at Afghan Village. I learnt where you get the best Iranian dried fruits, halvas and baklava and the list just went on. I sat and listened in amazement, knowing how unimaginative I was when it came to eating out. My vegetarianism did not have to limit me I realised, there was so much out there to explore. Same went for the books I read and the movies I watched. While I yearned for many textured experiences, I took the path of least resistance with a bland approach, reading popular fiction, watching formulaic movies and eating at the same three places when we ventured out.

I realised that a little effort could go a long way to enhance my experiences. I have decided to make a ritual of exploring one new and different sensory experience every week. Yesterday, I watched an amazing Malayalam movie. I recalled the language from my days spent in Kerala and just revelled in the nostalgia of those wonderful experiences. It was artsy with a tragic end, but I realised I could take it, even though it was a departure from the Hollywood/Bollywood fare I had grown accustomed to watching.

This week I plan to explore Kensington Market and next week, South East Asian cuisines in the food court at Markham Village. I am also making a reading list of books from around the world and of world cinema, besides checking out literary events, book readings, film festivals and screenings.

At MCIS we are launching a book called Food for Language – on the theme of food and how people from diverse and multilingual backgrounds leverage its power to heal. Recognising the City’s diversity to explore cultural experiences may be the next logical step for an interesting project that would mean so much to people like me who live in their little silos?! And of course, this is true of any place in the world? That we just need a little effort and imagination to move outside our beaten paths...

Masala dosa – Indian savoury pancakes with potato filling
Sambar - lentil soup
Idlis - steamed rice savoury cakes
Ragada patties - Potato Patties with Chana (chick peas) masala
Pakoras – deep fried onion and flour savory
Rasmalai - milk sweet with cottage cheese

On death and dying

Today my thoughts were on death and dying. Dr. Donald Low died recently. The news channels are all agog with discussions about a video his family has posthumously released where he has advocated Assisted Suicide for people hurtling towards an inevitable and often painful death. In his case a debilitating terminal brain tumour.

Then, there was the news that Fairfax Financial's (FF) Prem Watsa, hitherto newly resigned Blackberry board member, had put in a bid for FF to take Blackberry private, ostensibly to retain its Canadian ownership, but in my mind, heralding its imminent death.

Both news items struck a chord for similar and vastly different reasons. Both enjoyed their glory days. They were rock stars on Canada's stage, one the voice of reason amidst the frightening SARS epidemic and the other the digital device of the world's elite. But all rock stars have their end and sometimes tragic ones as in the lives of these two. Canada's laws would not allow Dr. Low to end his life painlessly as he had wanted to, surrounded by his family, after his favourite meal and a glass of scotch, his wife said. Instead, his end came gasping for breath in her arms, mercifully a mere ten days after the taping of that video. Blackberry too, chronically ill for two years, may be spared protracted dying. However it is hard to imagine its clean finish once it goes private, when its 2 billion in cash reserves and hundreds of patents are prime sources of attraction for its the prospective buyer – sadly, not the future revival of a Canadian icon.

It is always a source of amazement to me, as has been echoed by Hindu sages and philosophers of yore, that we live feeling so disconnected from death and the process of dying. We honestly do not believe it could happen to us anytime soon. Even when we rationally know it will, we do not stop to think how it will come. Therefore, most of us are unable or unwilling to sympathize with Dr. Low's plea. Not surprising then that we would do the same with Blackberry even as we watched its share value go from 80 billion dollars 2 years ago, to its present 4 billion, the asking price.

Is it that we live somewhat deluded, with a false sense of hope and comfort cocooned in platitudes which have no substance? We could remove these false security traps and be more actively present, actually listening. In the case of Blackberry this would have meant its management owning up to its fate 2 years ago and reinventing itself more aggressively to take on the firmament populated by Android and Apple devices, or selling it, thereby bringing a dignified end to Blackberry as we have come to know and love it. Having said this, it is no surprise to me that we approach the externalities of life just as we approach the relationship to our bodies, its inevitable death, and the process of dying!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thoughts of an empty nester

I met Ann today after 12 years. At that time she had just graduated with a Masters in Social Work and had come to work at MCIS on a project. She had always been interested in issues of equity and access for vulnerable newcomer populations and so we worked well together. Ann continues to be soft spoken, humble, understated and thoughtful, notwithstanding a PhD from Brown, an Associate Professorship, twins and a good life with her lawyer husband who is a partner at one of Canada's largest law firms. Ann and her husband are shining examples of kids born to immigrant parents, who knew the struggle and the hardship of surviving without English and who continue to live within their ethnic communities, their only contact with the mainstream through their highly successful children.

Over a lunch of sandwiches from Panera Bread, Ann told me that her most recent work is on the condition of immigrant seniors - their social isolation and their preponderance in the ranks of the poor. This is particularly true of widowed or single seniors, she said. I had a moment of pause imagining life in a "silent world", the result of isolation and language barriers, where income security is sometimes not a guarantee.

The immigrant senior’s story goes something like this. Parents leave their home countries to be with their adult children. They help them out with babysitting. When the grandchildren no longer need their caregiving, they experience a loss of identity from not being “relevant” anymore in an alien culture. Their well- meaning children are preoccupied with the stresses of a competitive work environment which makes ever increasing demands on them. Within this new economy, these children are perpetually adapting and proving themselves to be assets. Due to mechanization and the need for up -skilling, they fear becoming obsolescent. (Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism (2006)). Within this reality, the uncertainty and inability to conceive of a life narrative is further compounded for immigrant seniors.

My thoughts turned to me. Having hit fifty, I am not too far off from becoming a senior. However, my story has a slightly different trajectory. I am an educated professional with a fulfilling career. My experiences are as an empty nester now and god knows what in the future. I already feel that emotional void from not mothering as I would like to. Ironically, with social media there is less meaningful contact with our children than in the past. I remember when I got married I spent several hours writing long letters to my family back home, relaying in detail what I ate, saw or cooked. I wanted them to witness my life and to share my experiences, notwithstanding the thousands of miles between us. Now with the barrage of information, the paradigm has shifted. Our youth are preoccupied sharing with thousands of people in online communities. We don’t enjoy the privilege of living vicariously through them and of sharing in most of their experiences. We cannot make demands on them for that would mean overcrowding their cyber world interactions. It would also mean laying on the guilt which we do not want to be accused of doing?! We cannot even get them to acknowledge our stories sometimes. And yet we want to be relevant in their lives and wonder how or if we should even strive to? Above all, if today’s seniors are unable to script their lives’ narratives, what on earth will our lot be? We can probably read tea leaves before we know what will become of us in a decade or so, in a world where technology makes us more isolated as we age? Or else, will we be leveraging it to our advantage? We will make our online communities real ones, supplanting our face to face interactions with facebook “likes”? Really?

My mind was spinning out of control, when Ann’s calm voice brought me back to the present. “Our studies have found that immigrant seniors are extremely resilient…” her reassuring voice trailed.

After Ann left I was still moping wondering how I was going to build my resilience for this uncertain future, when I saw an email from my daughter. She was filling me in on everything that was going on in her life. She also said " I enjoy your emails and chat notes so keep them coming". Well, that changed everything...

Friday, September 6, 2013

My dad’s passing

My Journal on the day of my father’s passing

December 4, 2004 – Appa passes away

I type these words on my laptop as I maintain vigil in the hospital room beside my father, who struggles with what may be his last breaths. These are moments of sheer agony, of not knowing when his end will come and how. His kidneys stopped functioning the night before last. The doctors confirmed our worst fears yesterday, when they pointed out that he had no output at all i.e. no urine had collected in the bag attached to his catheter. I left the laptop now for a few moments to be beside him when he woke up with a shudder. I reassured him that I was right beside him, that I loved him and was there for him. He has heard me utter those words so often these past few days that he acknowledges them each time with a barely perceptible nod. His right eye is closed as he lies there, the oxygen mask fitted to his face, his right cheek resting on the pillow. It is 4 p.m. and time for his soup, which Amma will lovingly prepare and the special duty nurse feed through the Riles Tube that is attached to his right nostril. He receives a feed every 2 hours between 6 a.m. and 12 midnight. The doctor has asked us to continue with the feeds, even though his kidneys have stopped eliminating waste and the toxins are building up in his body. We still hope his kidneys will miraculously start functioning with the diuretics and saline solutions that are intravenously entering his body. Even from 5 feet away I can see that his half opened left eye is one of a pair of the kindest eyes known to man. I choke up when I think that in a few hours those beautiful eyes and that fragrant body would have left our side and been reduced to ashes. While we have been steeling ourselves for this moment and have shed all the tears we could possibly shed, Appa struggles valiantly with the ominous rattle in his throat, his breathing getting heavier by the minute.


Appa breathed his last that night at exactly 8:50 p.m. His end did not happen as we had anticipated. As a last ditch effort, we gave Appa his nebulizer and a couple of broncho dilators with his 6:00 p.m. feed of rice congee and yoghurt. His lung capacity measured at just 70%. His pressure dropped from 130/90 to 100/50 and his pulse rate was over 130 per minute. Family and friends gathered around, as though preparing for the worst. At 7:30 p.m. Amma and I saw the last of our relatives off. We settled down nervously to what we thought would be a very long night. We sat beside him and held his hand to soothe him, murmuring words of comfort and love as we had done over the past 45 days in that very same hospital room. Appa had endured a lifetime of suffering over that time. While the radiation had reduced the tumours, they had weakened his lungs. In addition, his inability to swallow had resulted in aspiration into his lungs which had then become clogged with secretions. After 4 bouts of chronic bronchitis treated each time with antibiotics and broncho dilators and alarming fluctuations in his sugar levels, as a result of a diabetic condition that had remained nascent till the cancer reared its head, his toiling kidneys had finally given up.

Suddenly, Appa’s special duty nurse pointed out that the oxygen supply that came through the pipeline had diminished and that we should alert the hospital to replenish the cylinder at source. I ran out into the corridor. The night duty nurse at the hospital got on the phone with the ward boys and yelled to them to replace the cylinder at the central oxygen repository. Barely, 2 minutes had passed, but for one who was hysterical with worry, it seemed like an aeon. Amma came running into the corridor. Wanting to check on Appa, I ran back into the room, and after one look at the special duty nurse, I knew all was not well. His pressure was coming down, his pulse erratic, his breathing ragged, laboured and then slowly giving way. The pauses between breaths were interminable and I suddenly saw Appa’s body heave, his eyes open wide, as he raised his head and his arms before collapsing onto the bed. I held his hand and knew his end had come. I ran out found Amma and in a calm voice said to her “its all over”. However, when we rushed back into the room, there was still some mild cardiac activity. By now the oxygen supply had resumed and the mask was once again fitted back on his nose. The duty doctor who arrived on the scene some 30 seconds later asked if we wished to revive Appa. Even in that dazed state, I realized that the question was an academic one. Appa was gone and the mild beating of his heart, while it may have spelt life to some, was just a mechanical movement in a body and brain that were already inert. I am still upset with the hospital for its negligence in delaying replacing the oxygen tank. But in some ways that event resulted in a merciful end to untold suffering.

I mourn my father. The day he died, Amma had a vision of a huge lion with a wide mane, curling its tail and bolting out of our home to never return. I share her vision.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Hopelessly fascinated..

England evokes in me a yearning which will remain unrequited. The sense of longing emanates from a composite of impressions formed reading, all my life, books by English authors which are replete with its rich and varied history. There is also the vestige of colonialism that I saw in India as a cheap imitation of the real thing - the English way in England. Goodness knows I abhor the English for their imperialist ways. And yet there is this perverse fascination with the country and what transpired here over thousands of years! As I walk through Chelsea and South Kensington, where the old is preserved with the new, I peak into those bay windows to catch a glimpse of the oh so glamorous lives of its well healed denizens who include members of the royalty. They have pedigree that can date their ancestors back centuries and are steeped in the tradition that I have longingly read about. Its hard to explain why wafer thin cucumber sandwiches, high tea or even gentlemen's clubs and the depraved lives of Wodehousian characters evoke such a sense of deja vu! Talking about traditions, yesterday we were at evensong at Westminister Abbey and stood enthralled as the voices of choral singers echoed through its gothic beauty. The experience was made richer by the knowledge that I was now part of a thousand year unbroken practice that those silent walls ( or the original parts of it that survived London's many fires) have witnessed.

And yet at the back of my mind lingers this understanding that the thought is never the thing described; the impressions that etch themselves in memory are just fleeting like picture frames, mostly two dimensional, and not available for absorption by the soul. That sentiment has been captured in wonderful drawings of the everyday and banal by Dawn Clements in her art which hangs at the Saatchi gallery that we visited today! It's still fun to create a composite of one's experiences, being selective about what we choose to recall and to share stories? Am I richer from these experiences? In a limited way- maybe. But not because of what it does to my soul. In the end everything is relative and, ultimately, the "dance of the universe" with no apparent purpose. Given this then, the possibilities for enrichment from what I heard and saw, how I managed my emotions, navigated through difference and learnt things about myself are indeed extremely limited. So just for fun then I will list those things about England that I have learnt from and that tickles my temporal fancy. Ranking up there, the importance of a safe, comfortable and reliable public transit system and its impact on the planning of cities and citizens' lifestyles. Then, the government's policy not to charge entrance fees to any of the wonderful museums it operates. The architecture of churches and their evensong services which are held true to well preserved centuries' old traditions. I also like the country's fervent attempt to retain reminders of its historic roots be it through its monarchy, it's museums, its churches, architecture or socio-political structures in its guild halls, it's local governing bodies and community associations. I like its people's commitment to remembering their past, with pride and horror, especially as they recall the lives of their poor, those who fell prey to black plague and cholera, wars and carnage and colonisation. They have learnt from it as is abundantly obvious from their commitment to creating an equitable multicultural society. They are also cashing in on it with their well oiled tourism industry that does a fantastic job of peddling their past! They risk mock and ridicule with so much self reflection, but only as they laugh their way to the bank! Yes England and the English are fascinating!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

London is amazing. A city which optimizes energy use and ensures low healthcare costs and longevity just because of what it makes attractive and accessible has to be! At the centre of it all is a stupendous public transport system. Hopping on and off a bus or train is easier than manoeuvring a car around. So everyone from 0 to 90 years hops on and off. They are much the better for it - since this involves mind- work, planning one's route ahead of time, physical exercise, walking here and there in between train and bus rides, and constant mingling. Folks here, get to constantly rub shoulders with each other in public spaces, and are therefore quite gregarious. Needless to say, all this fosters liveliness in this City and self confidence and independence among its citizens! It enables folks in their 80s to get out and spend time browsing in the City's wonderful libraries and museums. The result - an informed, educated and healthy public, cleaner air, a less burdened healthcare system and a more equitable society.

Two days here and with all the exercise hopping on and off, I am eating less and reaching for fruit. How great if you can get your public to snack on fruit as I see Londoners do. Come to think of it, eating in public spaces may be regarded as rude behaviour in the English book of Manners, except in those trains where tables are provided for dining purposes. On the train from Victoria to Bromley, part of Britain's National Rail, I saw folks eat their takeways at those tables in a very civilised manner.

I also learnt what customer service should be about from the London Underground ( aka Transport for London (TFL) ) staff today. They always warn you to "mind the gap" when hopping on or off a train. Yesterday, in my haste to catch a train I did a shoddy job and lost a sandal to the gap. I was already on the train and proceeded to Victoria where I splurged on a pair of shoes to avoid walking barefoot. Reaching home I said why not go back and ask someone to retrieve it? It seemed like a ridiculous idea. But not to the Station Supervisor who came down to the platform with me, helped me locate the shoe and promised to have the night Supervisor retrieve it, given the rush hour traffic. The sandal was intact when I picked it up today and I happily walked all over town wearing the pair. Such instant action, friendly responses and a willingness to help! The TFL staff are everywhere, all smiles, willingly helping strangers find thir way.

In London, smart business benefits from transit, given they partner with TFL for tons of cross promotional activities and for tourism! After all a city with affordable transit is welcoming to the itinerant traveller under all weather conditions, no? 150 years of the tube makes them a century ahead of the rest of the world. Lets get with the program Toronto!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I loved Seattle..

Seattle is eerily like Toronto. The downtown Public Market on Pike mimicks St Lawrence Market, the ferry port, our own and the Space Needle our CN Tower. The highway going downtown is tree lined like the Don Valley Parkway. I have to admit though that the scenery is more lush, the trees taller, the estuary more expansive, and connected to the Pacific Ocean, and the burbs more affluent. The weather here can be a damper I am told, but we had glorious sunshine over our 4 day stay earlier this month. We were at the Snoqualmie waterfall, just half an hour outside the city, and the vegetation surrounding those 500 metre high falls just took our breath away. We made a day trip to Mount St. Helens, three hours away, the site of that volcano which erupted on a fateful morning in May 1980, destroying in its wake centuries old forests over 264 square miles. Here, the signs of renewal, 3 decades later, with plants, insects, small animals and birds milling about, symbolizing the rise of nature from the ashes, moved me to tears. We were in Bellevue and Redmond, world headquarters of Microsoft, a block away from the first ever iconic Starbucks store and within vicinity of global companies old and new, Boeing, Amazon and Expedia to name just a few. The Boeing plant which is located over the single largest factory space in the world reminded me of the grandiosity that made America the super power it has been. Its interesting how these large companies have managed to draw an entire world of talent to the city more than the bounty of nature - hiking trails, mountains and the ocean. A hub for start ups and upstarts alike, this city has a cool vibe that neighbouring Tacoma lacks. There is a buzz of a breakthrough about to happen, a promise of creative disruption to the world as we know it. I did not take the ferry ride on its famed waterways, go up to the Space needle or even pick up coffee at the first ever Starbucks. But I sensed this is a place young people will enjoy living in. This fact was corroborated by my daughter who generally prefers all things European. Several of her bright young friends are making their careers here!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Curd rice

Nothing makes me happier than a perfect pot of yoghurt set to the right consistency and taste. And nothing makes me happier on a hot summer day than thayir saadam aka curd rice. That prompted me to write this nostalgic piece!

I am so happy I grew up in a Tam Brahm household surrounded by people who extolled the virtues of curd rice- Thayir saadam. I ate it I am sure before my teeth cut through my gums and grew up believing that "thachi mammam" (an endearing way of referring to it) was the next best thing to mother's milk. It was etched in my brain that I could only achieve my full potential if I ate it with every meal. I carried it my lunch box every day along with all other tam brahm kids, often envious of kids who brought jam sandwiches or spicy delicacies with rice or roti. Oh and we never stepped onto a train, when setting out on long journeys, without a big vessel filled with thayir saadam to go with our idlis and spicy powder. When we went for our summer holidays to our village in the deep South, the older folks' only means to quieten the house, so they could take their afternoon naps, was thayir saadam. We would be made to sit in a circle holding out our hands as curd rice was ladled onto our palms. We would slurp it in with a spicy side strategically placed on each mouthful. Favourite sides were, sambar (lentil stew) and pickles.

Before the availability of the range of foods we have today, thayir saadam was the householder's dream food because of its versatility. It was easy to make and added volume as the delicious closer to every meal. It also served as a sole operator, that essential filler, the emergency dish that people conjured up in a jiffy to quell hunger, cool, comfort, heal the body or quieten restless kids on hot summer afternoons. Never mind dinner at a fancy Punjabi Restaurant, we always came home to a bowl of curd rice. We would otherwise have to wake up for a drink of water since any other food would dehydrate our bodies, or so we believed. Every respectable tam brahm household I knew in India carried a supply of curd or buttermilk and enough culture to make the next pot. If people did not have curds at home, well they were sorely lacking. In fact, you often decided if you wanted to eat at someone's house, depending on the quality of their curd. If it was thick, fresh and creamy - well their culinary skills could be relied upon when it came to everything else. If not, you had to wonder. As a kid I used to love lunch at those hotels where they served chilled yoghurt which was individually set in small steel cups. We mixed this in with the rice and ate it with great relish. This for us was better than dessert and the highlight of our meal! Even at age 4, I was discerning enough to label a cousin who did not eat curd rice a wierdo. In short, a love of thayir saadam was part of our DNA. Even Utta who grew up in North America and who shuns all other forms of Indian food experiences, satiates her thayir saadam cravings every once in a while.

However, we thayir saadam eaters were often labelled lily livered cowards who did not have the physical fortitude or endurance of our non thayir saadam eating compatriots. We fit the nerd culture of the weak kneed who were only fit to solve Math problems and do little else. And yet we have remained loyal, even addicted to all the wonderful sensations this ultimate comfort food engenders. We still believe we owe our smarts, our calm demeanour and our sound sleep to it. We can all vouch for its soothing qualities when all other foods are anathema to us on an upset stomach.

Today, dressed up in finery including grapes and other such delicacies, our humble friend masquerades as Bagala baath at weddings and parties. Despite its many incarnations, it will always be Thayir Saadam to me.

Given this, you can appreciate what it meant for me to make the perfect bowl of curd. I carried my mother's culture all the way from India and have now perfected yoghurt making to a fine art! Following is a description of my process and a recipe for a respectable version of Thayir saadam that you can serve to your venturesome guests who dont have a clue what it is.

To make a perfect pot of curd

Boil about a litre and a quarter of milk for 14 minutes in the microwave. Let it cool till it is still warm to the touch. Add a 2 tablespoons of culture and place in the oven with the light on. Alternatively, preheat the oven and place it in a warm oven. The trick is to keep it airtight. So I cover it with a plate and then place a heavy pan on it. In about 4 - 5 hours your yoghurt is ready. It is important to place it in the fridge soon after it is set. If the water is beginning to separate out then its been out too long and it will begin to sour. A few tries and a fervent intention to get the perfect pot is all you need. Store bought yoghurt is not great culture - maybe the probiotic variety is. It is best to start with culture from someone who has it! Enjoy

A recipe

A scene at the neighbour's

Today I witnessed a sight that no one should see and remain silent about. I had the morning off and Utta and I were going to the MTO office to have her car transferred to me. As I came out of the shower I heard screaming and loud cursing outside my bedroom window. The next door neighbour was about 200 feet away and I was startled that his voice had carried so far. It was unnatural screaming by a man who was angry to the point of being deranged. It emanated from his lower belly and echoed through our quiet neighbourhood. I could not see anyone because of tree cover. We were getting late so we hurried out just slowing our car to catch a glimpse of the scene at the neighbours. A short squat young man was standing outside continuing to scream. A slight female body disappeared out of sight inside the house. I have seen two young children and old folks in that house before, but they appeared not to be around or were cowering in mortal dread - somewhere. My husband knew the screamer because he owned a large auto repair business in the neighbourhood, to which we had brought our cars. When the angry rants reached a crescendo, Utta said " this man needs anger management treatment". We could not make out his accusations but he appeared extremely disturbed, spewing profanity and making wild, broad and general accusations that appeared to be directed at his spouse. What is shocking to me is that I as a neighbour did not think that my immediate priority was to call the police. I was lulled into a sense of apathy by the apparent "civility" of the surroundings - a high end neighbourhood where people are generally polite with each other when they take their dogs out for a walk or tend to their neatly manicured lawns and yards. Nothing untoward could happen here on a beautiful summer day. I also did not think it was my place to intervene. I treated it as a family matter. This realisation came as a shock to me, later in the day when we returned home to find two police cars parked outside. The house had become a crime scene and the police photographers were in gathering evidence. There is no one in the house now. We could not speak to the officers to find out what had happened because they were busy and we were rushing between errands. But I sleep now with a heavy heart not knowing what transpired. I did not know them and do not know anyone who knows them. I may have averted or minimised a disaster. But even if it had occurred to me to do something - would I not have placed our family at risk turning this violent man's attention onto us? There is no telling what he could do when he lost control like that. I work in the area of domestic violence and yet my actions belied all my awareness and training !

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Playing Politics without Principles

This quote from Gandhi prompted me to write this piece:

"The things that will destroy us are:
politics without principle;
pleasure without conscience;
wealth without work;
knowledge without character;
business without morality;
science without humanity; and
worship without sacrifice."

Mahatma Gandhi

Edward Snowden has brought America on its chin. A delicate looking young man who suffers from epilepsy has the mighty nation of America scrambling. Was it really asleep when he left Hong Kong for Moscow? Or could it just not make up it's mind how to respond to a man who has come to symbolize the citizen's right to know in a democracy? In a somewhat delayed reaction, after revoking his citizenship, they are now hunting him down publicly with unprecedented zeal.

I don't know what my views are about Snowden's judgement. He may have been somewhat misguided in his idealistic view of American democracy. I have seen more years than him and know that a country like America cannot propagate notions of freedom, liberty and equality or grandstand as a world super power, with that power being quickly eroded, unless they are also engaged in covert espionage over countries that are closing in on them with opposing ideologies and notions of how countries and citizens should be governed and managed. China is a case in point. So what exactly is America the mighty trying to prove going after this slight young man who betrayed his previous employer, the National Security Agency by blowing the whistle on their surveillance of Americans and other nations? Making an example of him for the rest of America, lest this should set a trend? Flexing their muscle at nations that dare challenge their right to bring down the heavy hand of reprisal on him? Or using this as a litmus test to gauge their stature and bargaining power on the world stage? It may be all of the above. Sadly, what it is not doing, is demonstrating how their actions uphold the lofty principles enshrined in their constitution.

America is reacting not from a place of principles but of fear. When a nation plays politics without principles and lacks clarity of conviction, then it loses the public relations battle, its stature as a leader and the trust of its citizens. Needless to say, such actions do not engender patriotism - quite the reverse. This occurrence could have been handled with dignity and grace. As things stand it will go down in history as that watershed moment when America lost face on the world stage, lost the trust of its citizens and lacked the leadership to play politics with principles.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Living without judgement

I would much rather be scheming disruptive technologies that merit consideration by Google X or plotting the next big iPhone app (ok I am getting ahead of myself! But I got your attention didn't I?!) Instead, I waste time judging myself and others. I have therefore decided to save time for intellectual pursuits by living life without judgement. The idea has always appealed to me, but practise it, I have not. When I recently decided to do something about it, I began by noticing my tendency to make flippant remarks, laden with judgement of myself and others, which were intended to be funny but where the humour was completely lost on the audience and words hung in dead air.

I also realized that I engaged in small talk to fill awkward silences. And I filled them with criticisms of all things minor or major, albeit impersonal. "The weather is lousy.. that restaurant was great but the service was slow.. I love City x but hate City y". I purposely searched out themes that people would agree with me on. I scored on the approval front, but let the conversation degrade with the other person playing along in the same vein.

The worst kind of judgement I have indulged in, is of others, as dull, incompetent, conniving, selfish, fat, controlling etc. I am by no means unique because in most company such remarks are open season. As a society , we thrive on such behaviour because it makes us feel superior and better, strokes our ego and vitiates our need to do anything deserving of high honours or praise. After all, are we not perfect already with no room for improvement, while everyone around us is flawed, inadequate and lacking?

Judgement not only stunts our personal growth, it stunts the growth of others- most of whom are not strong or mature enough to challenge others' view of themselves. They actually live up to others' judgement of them - maybe as a self-fulfilling prophecy? Also, it limits how we interact with one another given the assumptions and stereotypes our conversations emanate from. Would it not be great if all our lives were lived with no judgement but with pure intellectual curiosity? Where, we came into and left situations with no expectations, just compassion and attentiveness? Where we were scrupulously aware of what we said to one another and of our body language and cues as we observed each other? Where we could all be unselfconscious, safe and at home around each other?

How then do I plan to achieve this?

For starters, I have been receiving solicited and unsolicited advice on what I have done, its impact on others and what I need to change. Second, I have observed my compulsion to talk for the sake of talking and practised the Zen art of listening instead. Last but not least, I am cultivating open minded, honest and courageous living where I do not consciously expect anything , judge anyone or seek the approval of others!