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!)