Monday, March 31, 2008

03/29/2008

Never has a date looked so inviting. Never have I waited with bated breath for something so much. Perhaps Chip’s arrival would be the only other thing I can think of. On the little fabric board next to my desk at work is a piece of paper. A calendar actually. With some dates blacked out. Mostly weekends, some whole weeks. For almost two years I have stared at this bit of paper, my eyes transfixed on this one date. March 29, 2008. And not just because it was the day BigGeek turned 34 (Happy Birthday, honey). But because he’s done. With his MBA classes. All done. Finished. Finito. I had saved writing this post for the day he actually graduated. Which is the middle of May. But I can’t contain myself. I am happy and relieved and teary and many other things.

What started as a 22 month executive program in one of the nation’s top Universities was not unsurprisingly, a grueling boot camp with a workload demanding enough to make the most dedicated student break out in sweat. With a demanding job, a demanding toddler, a demanding health and a wife who was not exactly an understanding one, not 24/7 at any rate, and other demanding issues too personal to mention here, he did it. I have always called him fondly as my Rock of Gibraltar, never thinking or rather never hoping his mettle would be tested thusly as it has been in the past two years. And for that he deserves more than an MBA degree.

When BigGeek was accepted at this school and started his classes on June 21, 2006, Chip had barely started to walk. Two years seemed like a long way ahead. “By the time BigGeek graduates, Chip would have started to talk.” I would often say to myself in awe. It seemed like such a long two years then. And in some ways, they were. What started as a minor inconveniences – loosing BigGeek on some weekends and then slowly on most weekday evenings, became one trying game of jugglery. It’s hard to sandwich a life and a job between study group meetings, zillions of cases to read, assignments, online lessons, on grounds sessions day after day without a break. It was hard work. Really, really hard work and while he enjoyed the classes and shared the camaraderie of his classmates, he had no respite. He is relieved now, as his weekday evenings and weekends look enticingly empty, but there is going to be a part of him that misses the carefree time he had when he was on-grounds at school.

The last month had been a fitting finale to our crazy lives. BigGeek left for India on a business trip on Feb.14, got back on Feb 26, went to school Feb 29 to March 1. Chip and I left for India on March 1, BigGeek left for China on March 4, he got back home on March 15, Chip and I got back home on March 19, he went back to school from March 23-29. I am sure I lost you all somewhere in mid-March. But all that is history and thankfully so. As I made breakfast this morning, I felt a sense of lightness and relief I haven’t felt in a long time. I don’t know if good tidings will come our way this year, I certainly pray and wish they do, but we have one happy graduate-to-be amongst us. And that is good enough for me.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Chalta Hain

Despite trying hard to have some sort of a family reunion dinner, my father dashed away to London the day after we landed. Chip and me and my freshly root-canalled brother and my mother and my uncle all drove him to the airport for a quick good-bye and most importantly some family pictures. But this post is not about reunions but about umm.. for the lack of a delicate word, well, it is about, err, pee-pees. Consider yourself warned. Now is the time to stop reading if you do not want to hear supremely funny tales of a young lad’s momentous journey as he battles his conscience and his body. Bolt now, if you must.

No? OK. Read on, oh, brave ones. As our car negotiated the orange cones at the CSI airport, Chip announced he had to go pee-pee. We were almost out of the airport, headed on our way to go eat dinner. “Chip”, I said. “There are no restrooms here. Would you like to do pee-pee by the road side?” Chip shook his head vigorously. “No. I want to do pee-pee in a restroom with a commode. No road side pee-pee, Aie.” “That will have to wait.” I warned him. “Will you wait until we get to a restaurant?” Chip nodded a yes, not for a minute doubting his will to hold on to his pee-pee for 30 minutes. Thirty minutes breezed by and we were still nowhere close to the restaurant. We were sitting in traffic. “Aie, I want to go do pee-pee now.” My uncle was alarmed. “Chip, let me pull the car over and you can do it by the roadside, OK?” Chip shook his head. He was not letting go of his visions of restrooms with commodes and toilet seat protectors. “It’s OK Chip, really. This is an emergency. There is no restroom here. So it is OK to do it by the roadside. Not always, mind you, but only because this is an emergency.” Chip looked doubtful. We were 10 minutes away from the restaurant. “I’ll go in the restaurant. “ He declared. I doubted Chip’s ability to hold for so long but two year olds often amaze you with phenomenal miracles. But not this time. No miracles were forthcoming and Chip had an accident. His tiny bladder just gave away. He was dumbfounded and embarrassed and angry and frustrated. He just wept and apologized and screamed. I changed him in the car and wiped the seats but he was gloomy until we got to the restaurant.

Fast forward to a few days later. We were at my in-laws home and Chip and I took a little walk to the local market to get me a cell phone card. The trip, I thought would also be illustrative to Chip about open air markets , tiny shops, real money, crowds and suchlike. We walked for about 10 minutes, recharged my cell phone, drank the sweet water from a fresh coconut , which he unbelievably hated. A few minutes later, Chip announced his desire to answer nature’s call. “Chip” I said again, a little sternly. “There are no restrooms here. Will you do pee-pee by the roadside?” This time Chip did not waste a minute thinking. “Yes” came the quick reply. A secluded spot under a tree was soon found and Chip answered the call with utter fascination. “Where is the flush Aie?”He asked trying to look over on the other side to see if a flush lever was lurking there. “There is no flush here.” I was embarrassed. “Is it an automatic flush then?” “Sort of” I said hurrying him away.

Fast forward yet again. These events were narrated to me by my sister in law. She had taken him down to the tot lot in the front of my in-laws’ home. After Chip had played on the slide and the swing and jumped and hopped on the little steps that held the pole for the annual flag hoisting, Chip had to go do pee-pee. “Come on, let’s go up, do pee-pee and come back down again.” My sister in law urged. Chip would have nothing of it. What if this were a conspiracy hatched by his aunt to take him upstairs? What if his own mother saw him go home and decided now was the time to give him a bath? “No!” yelled Chip. “I want to do pee-pee here.” He pointed to the flag pole. My sister in law was understandably aghast. “Nooooo, noooo. We have to upstairs and do it at home. ” Chip would have none of that. She pleaded again with him and he shook his head. “We don’t do pee-pee here, we do it in the bathroom and we will come down again. I promise. We’ll go upstairs and come back in a minute OK?” Chip thought about the proposition for a second and decided to educate his Aatya. “It’s OK to do pee-pee here, aatya. This is India. Ithe chalta (yahan chalta hain)”.

At which point, I, who was talking to a neighbor was summoned. With sister in law's help Chip was promptly frisked away upstairs not just for pee-pee but a bath and dinner as well.

On a slightly more serious note, a big kudos to all mothers of small children in India. I don’t know why we don’t have such basic facilities yet. Barring high end restaurants, I had a hard time finding a place for my son to pee. Why do we ignore such basic bodily functions? How do you all cope?

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Goddess and the Demon

“It’s bigger than I imagined.” I said, looking down the window as the plane started its noisy descent into Jammu. From the air, hundreds of feet above the ground, it looked like your typical B-class Indian town. Neither big nor small. No visible character, not from that distance anyway. A few minutes later, we touched down, deplaned and walked into a small, dreary airport. My mother-in-law, my brother-in-law, my sister-in-law and me. We were here for the Vaishnodevi Darshan, of course (read this, if you forgot why). We got into a rental car and began our journey to Katra from where we would start the famed arduous walk to the shrine.

We were Vaishnodevi illiterates so to speak. We had small pieces of disconnected information: from the shrine websites and Google and friends who had made the trip years ago. But no real plan. We did not know what to expect really, except perhaps for a 6+ hour walk up the steep slopes of the Trikuta Mountain. We checked into a hotel in Katra, showered, came down to the lobby to ask the front desk about logistics. A rickshaw could put us by the base of the mountain in Banganga after which we just had to follow the signs. Food, water, blankets, everything was available on the way. We would not have to carry any supplies. I was only half listening to the desk manager, my attention diverted by thoughts of what I would expect to happen to me in the next few hours. “But you are lucky. Very lucky.” The desk manager was saying. “Purani gufa has been opened. After 21 years.” I wanted to know what Purani gufa was. “It’s the original path Mataji took. It is small and you have to crawl through it and there is water in it. You are very lucky it has opened today. After 21 years.” My mother-in-law was delighted. Surely, this was an auspicious sign.

And thus began our journey. On the Mahashivratri day. We bought chunari and chattras and some prasad and set about the climb. My mother in law decided she wanted to climb as much as she could. After which she would get a horse. We started the climb. The path was flanked by shops selling devotional music, dried fruit, walking sticks, pooja stuff, trinkets, clothes, blankets, photos in Kashmiri outfits and of course food. We window shopped, bought some water and walked and walked. My sister in law and I walked a little rapidly, anxious we might get tired sooner if we walked leisurely. We tried taking steps instead of the paved ramp to see if that worked out better. After climbing one such flight of five hundred stairs, my sister in law sat down on the low wall and decided to take a break while I climbed on. I could see her sitting down talking to a fellow pilgrim beside her. I thought nothing of it then and it was only later that my sister in law narrated what the woman had told her. Many years ago the woman had asked for a son to Vaishnodevi promising she would visit the shrine. A son had been born to her but she did not keep her end of the promise. A few years later, her parents passed away, then her husband, then her brother and her sister. She lost her entire family. A few weeks ago, her daughter had dreamt that if the woman did not visit the shrine, her daughter would die too. The daughter had implored her mother and they were both making the trip.



It was close to five in the evening. We had been walking for four hours and we had reached Adhkuwari. We convinced my mother in law to get a horse while we walked up the mountain. The unkind rays of the afternoon sun had given its way to a gentle evening light and a soft breeze had begun to blow. I felt no hunger or exhaustion. As we climbed up from Adhkuwari, the shops and food shacks grew fewer and fewer and I could finally feel my mind uncluttering. As the three of us walked at our own pace, I often found myself all alone with just my thoughts and the steady rhythm of my step. I was trying to make sense of it all. The weird quasi-dream that had driven me here, the purpose of such pilgrimages, the clich├ęd metaphors of life that they generally are. Here was my own metaphor for it. At the base of the mountain I was like a small child. Full of excitement and promise, not really knowing what lay ahead. A few kilometers down the line I was a teenager – the excitement was still there and along with it a fearless, can do attitude. I had a glimpse of what the climb would be like, and I was ready for it. And here, just a little over half way I found myself exactly where I was in my life right now. In my thirties. The can-do attitude had vanished. Doubt about my own abilities had crept in. I was unsure. But what choice did I really have than to go forward? I had reached a point where there we no horses available even if I wanted to ride one. I just had to walk on. Strangely though, my own silly metaphor comforted me. Because, if the climb represented the stages of my life, then I was going to get a glimpse of my future when I reached the top. What would it feel like to grow old and what would it feel like to shed this body?

My thoughts were interrupted by my brother in law. He wanted something to eat. A few minutes later we reached a small shack that sold rajma and rice and we ate some. I wasn’t really hungry but I thought the protein would do me good. Dusk was slowly creeping in on us. The air had turned cooler as we started to walk again. I could see the path we had taken and the shops and the town we had left behind. There was a sense of a quiet pride in the accomplishment. We had been walking for over six hours. We could see the top. I still didn’t feel tired. A strained muscle bothered me now and then, but it was not enough to slow me down.

As we walked on, my thoughts turned to the legend of the goddess. I had googled it. Mata Vaishodevi, climbed the Trikuta Mountain as she tried to flee from the tantric demon Bhaironath. She hid the in cave at Adhkuwari for nine months, was enlightened and finally slayed Bhaironath. As the dying demon repented, she blessed him saying that devotees who came to her shrine would also have to come to his shrine for the pilgrimage to be considered complete. The demon was as important as the goddess. Because, without him how could she have ever attained godhood? She had conquered the demon and he had stopped bothering her. He was dead. How had she done it? She had tried to flee from him, but he had pursued. It was only at Adhkuwari, after nine months, had she been born again – with knowledge and perhaps with vigor to demolish her pursuant. She had been enlightened and perhaps it was at that moment the demon had been really killed. In that one moment of true knowledge.

As we climbed to the top of the mountain, we got gorgeous views. It seemed so easy – looking down like this. It had been a good ride. And despite the doubts, I had done it. It was getting dark, and a refreshing chill had set in as we approached Bhawan. We found my mother in law who almost went to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. The horse ride had been bumpy for her. The horse was too big for her petite frame and her back ached. We took a little break and then went on to put our stuff in the lockers and stand in line for the darshan. My back was stiff and I longed to do the marjarasan (cat pose) I had been taught in Yoga classes to ease the stiffness. But to break out in a yoga pose here would look very odd and I decided to save that for the privacy of my hotel room. After three hours, the long line of people showed some promise of ending. I felt a slight sense of excitement and anxiety, but soon my thoughts which had been drifting away, turned to more immediate concerns. Hitching up my salwar to make sure it stayed dry in the icy waters. Plans to manage the yellow plastic bag with my chunari and chhatras and prasad as I prepared to contort my body to fit the jagged walls of the dark cave. My mother in law was having a difficult time navigating the cave but she soon found a way and I followed her. As I entered the shrine, I was surprised initially at how austere is really was. And then a sense of void washed over me. I felt utterly empty. As if everything inside me had simply vanished or better still had been neutralized (does this even make sense). It was a brief moment of utter calm and emptiness. There really is no word in English to denote what I felt. It was a nothing-ness. Shoonyata. I finally felt what that word really meant. It must have been only a few seconds and I had no idea what the priest was saying. I offered my plastic yellow bag and my mother in law asked for one chhatra and the chunari to be returned as prasad. I collected the things and walked out behind my mother in law.

I walked out into the open air and more confusion. That’s it? This is what it came down to? The simplicity of it all felt ridiculous. Surely there must be more to it. That now familiar voice of the old teacher was certain to reveal more. Somehow. As I walked on the cobbled stone to the lockers, the voice did return, but it was only with a single line. “I am glad you came and visited me.” Nothing more. I prodded inside my head for more but no other information was forthcoming. This was really it. Later, way past midnight, after we had eaten a simple dinner and rented horses for us to go back down the mountain, I had a chance to go back and think about my encounter. What startled me was the fact that it had been such a personal experience. BigGeek and Chip and my other family were not a part of it. It was something between me and her. There was no one else in the picture. This seemed it was my path alone and no one else could walk it but me.

Looking back, I am unsure if I should be putting a logical spin on the events that occured. I have tried to, but the attempt has been nothing but futile. Perhaps as the years go by, the answers to some of my questions will be revealed, or perhaps the answers will wait for me in another lifetime. The only thing I can say with certainty is this. I definitely haven’t seen the last of her. She will come again. And I will wait. And one day, when the time comes again, I shall pay her a visit.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Am Back

Just got back after a 2 week vacation to India. How was it? In one word - short. I wanted to write so much about my experiences - I hadn't visited India in more than five years, but my crazy schedule kept me away from the laptop. But I am back and no, I haven't stopped blogging. Dear me, no. The tales will come as I slowly piece everything together; sometimes as posts, sometimes as memories woven in other thoughts. And yeah, it was nice to know I was missed. I didn't get a chance to open my reader in more than 2 weeks and I missed you guys too. It's good to be back!