Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Utta's Journal Entry 2 - Summer 2004

 Utta’s Journal entry 2 – Summer 2004


It's funny how some friendships are not based on time or space.  Such is my friendship with her.  I come every two years, and even though I come so infrequently to the Mandaveli house, when she is around, it always feels so natural to just pick up where we left off.  Now this time we only spoke at length twice, but it felt so spontaneous. I find it difficult to understand why people make so many demands off her - basically to sub for her older sister, who has broken her leg.  Over and above work at other houses, she comes to work at our house for two hours on top of doing her BA.  It all seems so unfair.  What kind of life is that?  She makes Rs. 400 a month.  Recently thathappa decided to keep attendance and I confronted him about that. This seemed mean since she does not get paid enough.  After that day he doesn't do it anymore.  Perhaps he listened to me. Here she comes now sweeping the floor.  Oh my, we collect so much dirt. I like the way she goes about her work, sweeping the floor, using Sabina to wash dishes and neatly washing clothes and rolling out the wet clothes in such a way as to make it easy to dry.  I almost feel tempted to do the work, watching her do it.  Of course, I know it will not be so much fun if it was a job.  When she was younger she would accompany her mom and sister, who did all the work, and we would play hopscotch and this other game where we tried to pick up as many stones as we could as our palm hit the ground.  I remember her teaching me Tamil and I tried teaching her English.  We also played pallankuzhi upstairs in the dark. I remember her calling Rohan "Loganth" and him hating it.  When the cat had kittens we would all carry them.  Such good times - now looking back.  I wouldn't trade them. I hope she doesn't leave us for a better job as selfish as that sounds, I promised to go to her home again this year, as I used to in past years.  I remember people being so fascinated with me.  They offered me chilled water, which I didn't drink, but it was a nice gesture. Now, the truth is I was self- conscious, but I will say yes the next time.

Visitors and guests

Just now, a man came to our door and said he was going to Tirupati and wanted some money.   Jayamma gave him about two to three rupees but he wanted more. She shouted at him telling him he was ungrateful, and then he nodded and left.  Just now another man came and asked if he could pick some flowers.  I initially misunderstood thinking he was here for our upstairs tenants and then called Jayamma.  She sent him on his way.  It is amazing how many people come by asking for something.   Pretty soon this old man will come in to ask for food.  I want to give because I've been given so much in this world, but I don't know how much of this I would be able to take. I complain sometimes that my grandparents are cheap, not the most philanthropic sort, unless it has to do with us, but the truth is they are much more giving than any of us, the way they have taken care of Rajam athai.  Even though they scold her sometimes, they are so patient considering she has been with them for the last 10 years.  She is now 98.  Also they deal with these people that come to our house every day. It is great, really.  Jayamma often talks a lot about her problems.  How she has been serving her family members ever since she was 16 and how she has taken care of sick and some sickly people all her life.  Some don't feel sorry for her because she's constantly voicing it.


Music and miscellany

And for the last time, I don't want to go to your neurotherapy class, Jayamma!  Today I have to sing for Dhanalakshmi mami. She's very nice and it is a tradition that I go and see her on every trip. She has been living alone for years now. I haven't practiced  my music in a year and I'm not optimistic about the outcome.   Jayamma reasons with me saying, I can sing. But how does she know?!  It's going to really suck.

I'm in Mandaveli once again and I am bored.  Why do I stay here, this long?  Guilt? Some guilt and just to spend time with the grandparents, even though there is nothing (literally) to do.   Today I sang for the first time. Jayamma busted out the tape player of course  and give me pointers, as usual, which I mostly ignored. However, given that I haven't practiced for a year, I was good.  Damn good.  Thathappa even said so. They want me to come here for a year to learn music.  Hell no. Haha, I can imagine the boredom already. I can also imagine no friends, parents, TV, internet.  Man, that would be painful!

So, I'm in an irritable mood right now, I just came home from the parlour.  Thankfully alive, all the hair pulled out of my arms and legs, eyebrows and upper lip.  And the most painful was waxing my underarms -  which I rec

My friend - an extraordinary woman (I tell her story with her consent so you can also be inspired)

On Dec 2017, I visited a young six year old at SickKids, one of the world’s foremost children’s hospitals. His mother had just received news that her child had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The doctors gave him 11 months. I could not believe how graceful and poised she was. When we had a moment alone, she asked me in a calm voice, not laden with self pity or “why me” sentiment, if she had been bestowed this as punishment for not being the best she could be in her treatment of others. She then said she was blessed that she had had six good years of amazing memories, no matter what the future held. I held her tightly, to my chest, tears streaming down my eyes and said in response the following. “I believe in karma and since I have known you to be a deeply spiritual and poised human, over the 20 years I have known you, I can only say that you are exhausting any negative karma you have accumulated over lifetimes. I have no doubt you will experience the highest truth and the fullness of your true being right here. Your child was born in a sacred womb to exhaust his. I know of no other way to explain this”. I realize that her poise is testament to her being present and accepting everything in the most open way without resistance or the clutter of emotional reactions. This is giving her the clarity to do everything right by everyone in the here and now. This is evident in her manner which is infused with boundless compassion and respect for all, even at a time when she could get away with being her most self indulgent and self absorbed self. For eg, she asked after my husband and kid!
Fast forward to the present. Her child has defied all odds and has survived to this day. She has made every day count filling it with marvellous experiences through sun and snow. She wakes up every day at 4 am and after 2 hours of self care, meditation, exercise (so she has strength to carry him and tend to him) and makeup, she tackles the day. She usually has an elaborate plan and takes public transport everywhere. She makes a day out of every trip to the hospital. He has just had a stroke and undergone 12 rounds of radiation for the third time. He cannot walk anymore and so she pushes him around in his wagon, while she holds her daughter with her other hand. She is joyful and present filling his life with laughter and fun. I have never met anyone like her. She is my role model and inspiration. When we ask her if she wants any help, she just says “Thank you, but I think I will just wear my big girl panties and get it done and, don’t worry, if I really need help I will ask!”. She never does. I cannot even begin to recount the tragedies in her early life..a terminal father who died when she was a teenager, a sibling with mental health struggles, a mother with health challenges and her own health issues. She just picks herself up, never complains and gets things done. She teaches me how to live. Whatever the outcome, I know she will scale this challenge also in a most exemplary way! Here she is at Toronto’s Harbourfront with her kids after a radiation sit, making a picnic out of it.
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Saturday, August 15, 2020

Utta Journal Entry - Part 1

Utta's Journal Entry – Part 1 

2004 Summer 

Alas, it is the start of the last week I will be in Madras and I have not yet obliged my mother by writing in this journal. So I will now. 

Being less of a burden… 

Quite possibly the longest month of my life and I don't say this in vain. It is simply a fact. When you wake up every day at 6 am, and have absolutely no agenda, the day seems like it will never end. Right now it is 3:10pm. I feel like it is seven pm. Oh well. Lesson number one. When you have nothing to do the best thing is to observe. It gives you a way to have a nice stay with family and friends and to pick up on the simple things which are actually humorous (maybe not!). 

This journal will not be a conventional daily account of my life rather be about that, which I feel like ranting and raving this year. I came to India with a different mindset than previous years, mainly because I'm 18, attending university and I should start acting that way. Believe me it's difficult. Self sufficiency is thrown out the window. According to grandparents I will always be 10. My goal was to be as less a burden as possible to my grandparents, by washing after myself, my plate, not complaining about the food which is given to me and basically not asking for anything, save this notebook. Also their not having to nag me to wake me up in the morning. However, the plan backfires because I haven't taken into account what to say when I DON'T WANT ANYTHING. See in India, when a day is planned around meals, refusing to eat something is not tolerated. Jayamma and paati don't understand that when I don't want something, I also don't want any of the 10 alternatives there are. For example, if I don't want tea and don't ask for something else, then that also means no coffee, Horlicks, Milo or any other drink they may have! If you don't eat you make them feel exhausted, as if they simply can't help you -when you don't need any help?!! 

Tamil Serials and Seniors 

This present moment? Right now, I'm sitting in Mandaveli in the main room. It is 8:40 and I'm in my nightie. I'm in the corner, where athai paati used to sit, but she does less now since my previous visit. A Tamil serial is playing on Raj TV.  Jayamma and Nagalakshmi mami are commenting on how I don't sing. I decline to make a comment. Thathappa peers to see the notebook. I pull it away not indulging his curiosity. Oh now things are so different here. I observe so many differences. The retired community does not (and wishes not to) change with the times. I see Jayamma and NM flinching when they see a scantily clad woman on TV exclaiming, "asingam". (However, I do share Jayamma's hatred for the Tamil actor Vijay. . He's so nasty. Why do girls have such bad taste. First Sivaji, then this man. But anyhow, I don't fancy Indian actors except Arjun Rampal, Rahul Khanna and perhaps Aamir Khan. The first just for pure looks of course, as his repertoire is not much at all). But let me proceed on the topic of Tamil serials. Believe me, I have tried to accept these and watch but I simply can't. They suck, for lack of a better word. Be it Ahalya, Anandham, Sorgam, Metti Oli, Annamalai, Kolangal, they are all the same boring domestic issues. Someone is broke, bad marriages, sympathetic, good, yet naive old people, nonstop crying, love birds, marriage confirmations - so old, so beaten to death. Every five minutes, someone is eating or drinking something. What makes it all worse is that the same people act in five different serials about the same subject matter, but in different roles. This is not the movies people, this is a show!! Whatever their logic watching these, confuses the hell out of me. However, the popularity of these serials here cannot go unnoticed. Senior citizens, especially live on this stuff- as like on a drug. TV serials and meals, that's all they care about. At any house you go to at 7pm, Kolangal will be playing no matter where you are. Mind you, Tamilnadu has more people than the whole of Canada! It is a craze and I just can't understand it. Call me - every other outsider! I continue to write as the mosquitoes bite the hell out of me. Time to pull out the odomos. Tonight we had tomato soup for dinner. It was some of the best soup we ever had. Jayamma makes the most awesome croutons. 

My Tamil! 

Lately this month. I've been struggling with my Tamil. Words don't come out as fluidly and smoothly as I would wish. I understand the language completely and read well, but I will explain why this speech deficiency is a real problem for me. Just as any family member, my grandparents do get on my nerves sometimes. Their possessiveness, overprotectiveness and Jayamma's advice about various matters. I consciously decide not to hold back this time. However, it is so difficult to express oneself here. They don't understand my English and not only do I have to speak slower, I have to modify how I speak. I'am also not good at assertive Tamil, to express and convey what I would like to. Finally, after all that trouble, I'm the one who sounds stupid, so I must stay quiet, because I don't convey what I want to say. 

Today is a different day. I sit here at about, 9:30am in Besant Nagar and am relaxed. I have already had my one hour morning walk with thatha, had my glass of chilled water, then sathukudijuice, lay down for half an hour finishing my book "The Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri, surfed the net, showered and now I sit here. If I had been in Canada I wouldn't have gotten up yet. But things are changing, and I am becoming more disciplined. It will be the same, when I get back as well. Similar routine, less doting than I get here. 

Set Up Box

When I came to India this year, the one thing that frustrated me is that all the English channels are now unavailable! So a set up box had to be purchased for Rs. 7000. And then on top of that, a monthly fee to be made. After much complaint on my part we decided to rent it for a month in Besant Nagar. But the rental scheme no longer exists. So, Suja, with a contact, helped us fix it illegally, four days after I landed. Yes, I could watch the last two games of the French Open with thatha. This year, the consensus was that the French Open sucked. But it was fun to watch it with thatha because we would both shout at the screen when we were frustrated because of an unforced error or a double fault. As always paati picked Myksina to win and thatha Dementeva. But for the first time, I sided with thatha. For the Sampras Agassi finals, I had sided with paati and against thatha. Too bad this wasn't that exciting. The men's was a little more interesting with the unseated Gaudio coming out of a two set loss to win in five sets, but the game lacked flare. Me and thatha couldn't stop shouting at the TV, haha. Finally, Gaudio pulled it off, 8/6 because of a fifth set tie break. Poor Coria.  Paati kept saying Coria's wife looked like she was going to divorce him. Thatha thought she was pretty. 

Something me and paati both enjoyed watching was the National Spelling Bee. We were both so happy that the white boy won. Paati reasoned it as follows. The Indian was moody, and his brother won two years ago. Also because his Indian parents probably forced it on him and coached him. The white boy had three siblings, and had to learn in the midst of all the commotion. Paati was also impressed by the compassion of the mother, as she had adopted a Chinese girl. She kept telling Suja this.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Utta's Journal - Morning walks with thatha

Out of all the things I enjoy here, a memory to cherish would be the morning walks with my thatha. Ever since I have been coming here as a child thatha has been going for these walks, but I have often been too lazy to join him. I made a resolution this year to go for the exercise yes, but that was merely a bonus. It was my time to spend bonding with thatha, especially because I don't know if I'm coming back next year or not. In the beginning, waking up was easy because of jet lag. I would be awake by 5:45. However, as the days have passed, and I stayed up later to watch CSI or some movie it became more and more difficult. (Just as I write paati has arrived with a bowl of cut vegetables and a banana, as is the routine at about this time, minus the banana). She does so much. Back on track. There are always those five to 10 minutes thatha gives me to wake up. After that, for 5 minutes, I seriously contemplate skipping the walk for the day. But I have always ended up going to give thatha company. We go to the Besant Nagar beach and walk up and down the boardwalk. Twice thatha showed me different walking routes, but he has since realized that the beach is what I like best. The sun's rays peaking through the water, deep blue mini waves crashing through, people playing volleyball horribly (I could play better), people stretching, thinking that they are working out when they are not, people doing yoga and the senior citizens of Besant Nagar, simply sitting on the ledge, chatting. There are locals staring at you, and many walkers wearing large t-shirts, which say USC, University of Michigan Mom/Dad, and talking about going to America. It's wonderful. There is nothing like it. Our walks are one hour, no less no more. Thatha is very particular about that. If we are three minutes early at the end of the walk, thatha would insist we go up and down a nearby street till we make up the time. Today we were three minutes over and the other day we went to the auditors before starting our walk. Thatha insisted on 1 hour of continuous walking saying the time before we took our detour did not count! It’s actually very funny walking with him. Also, he always reminds me to stay clear of the road and traffic and always walks against the traffic. He says, "in this place, you never know where these two wheelers will come from. They come from all directions. So you have to take care". He tells me this daily. He also grabs my arm, when a car approaches, whether it's traveling at 30 km/hour or 3 km/hour. He insists on walking along the sandy part of the boardwalk and not the paved part, because there is less traffic. He walks perfectly well, but has a cane. I ask him why and he says it's for comfort and to shoo stray dogs that come near. Before setting out, he counts 7 items in Tamil ...onru, rendu...ezhu. This so he remembers to take everything. Glasses, keys, kerchief, cane, watch, purse and so on. And every time when we come back, he reminds me not to ring the doorbell because he has the keys. I anticipate that today and say, "I will not ring the doorbell". And he laughs saying, "I was just thinking yesterday that you must think, what is this guy telling me the same thing over and over". Haha. I love our walks. If a stranger followed us, he/she would find it interesting. It is funny walking with thatha because he can only hear well from one ear. Whenever we make a turn, I have to keep switching sides so I speak into his good ear. Or else he will make me do so. I'm usually quiet during our walks partly because I'm half asleep until we hit the beach and partly because I have nothing of importance to say, and saying anything is difficult, because it must be said in words that thatha understands. These people are different. You see, just today thatha told me he didn't know what ASAP was until very recently. However, the silence is an easy one. It is a very pleasant one - calming, making it easy for me to speak at any time. Thatha usually has a story of his own, in the beginning. He always first checks with me if it will bore me or not. It never does. I love listening. On the first walk he went through our family tree mapping out his brothers and sisters, their families and kids, and what they are all up to. Now occasionally he asks me questions about them, almost as if it were a quiz, to keep me engaged. Our talks then evolved. We have now been talking about the letters he has been writing to the Hindu on issues that have affected him dearly, such as the high water bill for companies, no matter what their size, the fact that our representative in Parliament for Tamil Nadu doesn't necessarily have to be there because he does nothing. He's very thorough, opinionated and interesting. My favorite topic is tennis and how there are no more star players and how over the past 10 years, it has lost it flare. I will always remember these walks and I'm glad I went on them with thatha.

Updated - My thoughts on Meditation blog

My thoughts on Meditation

We all hear about the benefits of meditation. I thought I would share my own lived experience practicing for several years.

Let me start with what the common myths regarding meditation are.

Meditation is concentration
Meditation is thought control
Meditation is to be done in a certain posture and for hours
Meditation running away from problems
Meditation is a religious practice

a) But is meditation any of the above? Nor really. If not, then what is it, why should we meditate and what are its benefits?

While growing up in India, I had a lot of anxiety and a preoccupation with thoughts about death. It became more intense into my twenties after my daughter was born. I did not have a name for it then. Postpartum depression maybe? Or just the enormity of having responsibility for a baby at 23 years? To cope, I read the few self-help books I could lay my hands on, and they all said “there is no greater fear than fear itself”. I could not understand what this meant then. All I knew was that my fear was a direct result of my thoughts. And this fear was interfering with my ability to be happy. I was always going from one moment of anxiety to another. I could not appreciate anything in my life and enjoy it. I was anxious what the next moment would bring and in that state I had breathlessness and palpitations, I was spiraling downwards and out of control because I was anxious about being anxious. A book, “Why fear?” by the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, offered me the panacea. I read there that I should observe my thoughts. Not try to shut them out. Not try to escape from them. Not try to dull the mind with medication such as anti-depressants or numb it with prayers, mantras and chants. I had been praying desperately and every-time I stopped, the anxiety would return with even greater vengeance. Desperate, I decided to heed his advice and to observe my thoughts. It was very hard to face my fear producing thoughts every minute. My throat became dry and I had unpleasant sensations throughout my body. But I persisted through it with tremendous discipline. It was the instinct to survive that kept me going.

Slowly and miraculously over just a year, my anxiety producing thoughts began receding and my reaction to them did not include excruciatingly painful sensations. Not just that. I had mastered a technique and had an experiential understanding that I was not my thoughts. Without even knowing it I had begun to practice mindfulness. Many years later, I found out that this was the very essence of meditation.

As my mind became quieter I grew more interested in yoga and meditation and these became part of my daily routine. When I moved to Canada I experienced a lot of struggles as a newcomer. My practice helped me cope, and gave me the clarity of mind and confidence to complete law school and to pursue a professional career.

So coming back to mindfulness… If that is what meditation is, then what is it? Meditation is simply being in the present moment and observing everything as it is without interpretation. A recent study done by Harvard University found that on average, a human’s mind wanders 47% of the time. This amounts to half our waking lives. So if we are not present then where are we? We are thinking about the past or about the future. We are not focused on where we are and what we are engaged in at any given time? This means that we are attached to something that has happened or is about to happen. This attachment influences how we react to our present. We do not see the present for what it is and therefore do not react to life’s happenings with an open mind and heart and without judgement.

Let me give you an example. If I was worried about something that happened at work today and my husband asked me a simple question “did you remember to buy milk”? If I am lingering in the past I may snap back with “No I did not. Do you know what a terrible day I had at work? For a change you could have bought it etc”. This would have escalated the issue and resulted in an unwanted argument bringing him and me additional stress. If on the other hand, I was present, I would not be influenced by thoughts about the day’s events or interpret his question as being interrogatory, and would have just responded with a simple — “I did not. I forgot.”

So meditation is about living every moment present to our thoughts and to everyone around us without judgement. With attention to the present, we become intensely aware of our conditioned responses, in the form of our conduct, the changes to our breathing and our bodily sensations, as we encounter life’s situations.

b. So what are some of meditation’s benefits?

We all take care of our body, our clothes, our hair, our appearance. And yet we do not care enough for that part of us that helps us do everything. Our mind helps us learn, express emotions and manage every aspect of our lives. Every day we allow our mind to be bombarded with thoughts. Our cluttered mind inhibits us from thinking clearly and from solving problems in an open and honest way. Why? Thoughts give expression to our insecurities and selfish desires. These in turn trigger emotions that cloud our judgement and prevent us from seeing the impact of our behaviour on others, which in turn triggers their reaction to our conduct and so on. We are entangled in a vicious cycle.

When we meditate as a practice, besides living each moment mindfully, as in setting aside a few minutes to practice silence and observation we allow the agitation to settle so the mind is still and clear. We allow it to find some peace and quiet. Soon something miraculous begins to happen. We start breaking free of our conscious and unconscious habit patterns. Slowly, we respond to all experiences with a freshness of perspective and equanimity. Since we no longer crave pleasure and avoid pain, we are much more spontaneous. Our decisions are more enlightened without the barrier and fog of our habit patterns dictated by our insecurities and desires. We have greater control over our mind and emotions. All this comes about because we recognize that we are not our egos and that our desires are temporal and will pass.

Meditation helps us cope with stress. However, that makes it sound like a cure for stress. But let us look at this another way? What would happen if we meditated for just 15 minutes every day? Take it from me, our experience of stress will be much less. With fewer thoughts we will not feel rushed. We will not feel a loss of control. We will have all the time to respond in a way that is not reactive. So meditation actually prevents stress. A daily yoga practice that is done mindfully will do the same. Ultimately though, meditation and its benefits are best experienced than explained.

c) Where and how do I start?

There are many meditation courses offered by numerous teachers and several of them are now available online. I will tell you about one practice that I learnt about twelve years ago. Vipassana, is the practice of meditation brought to us by Gautama Buddha. I was searching for a structured practice that would commit me to a routine and would offer me opportunities to reinvigorate myself every year. Briefly, Vipassana is meditation as practised by the Buddha that involves observing the breath and bodily sensations in complete silence. I had to go to a 10 day silent retreat to be initiated to it. Its impact on me has been dramatic. This 10 day residential course is offered completely free of charge through centres located all over the world. The closest centre to Toronto is in Alliston. Due to Covid the centres are currently closed but will reopen as soon as it is safe.

Following are three significant changes that I have noticed in me with my Vipassana practice.

i. First change, I react less

Reaction is when we respond without thinking — usually with emotion. When someone says something that is critical of us, we tend to take it personally and say something that is hurtful. For eg, when my daughter says “mom stop telling me how to live my life” I experience a sharp emotional pain which usually manifests as a physical reaction in the body. With Vipassana, I find that I am able to see the source of the pain as not being her, but as being my own reaction. The more I see that the more I am able to have an open and honest relationship with my daughter. So rather than act defensive and say “I am not” or “I am your mother I have every right”, I find myself staying curious and asking “Why do you think/say that? What would you have me do differently?”

ii. Second change, I embrace change more easily

I too find change painful. But as I observe, without judgement, the painful sensations that any prospect of change produces, I also notice that it passes and that everything in life is in a constant state of flux. This makes me bounce back much faster from painful sensations brought on by change. I am more creative and welcoming of new opportunities. When I resist change, wanting to control how things turn out, I am limited, unimaginative, repeating habit patterns and causing myself and others pain.

ii. Third change, I am authentic

We all create an image of who we are for the world and constantly try to live up to it. When I started to be present to my sensations through my practice, it became really important to remain true and authentic. So I stopped trying to do things just because they made me look good and instead began to do things because they were truthful, right and selfless rather than selfish.

I would be delighted to hear about your meditation or yoga practice or about any other techniques that you use to quieten your mind.

To find out more about Vipassana, please go to www.dhamma.org