Thursday, October 20, 2016

Karwachauth: tradition, superstition or kitty party?

picture courtesy: Google images.
Superstition runs deep in my veins. I can't help it. Call it conditioning, or just plain sanskar (values) passed on by my grandmother and mother.

Beji, my grandmother, was superstitious about everything: from not using soap to bathe on Thursdays to not eating onions on Tuesdays to not drinking water just before she stepped out to go anywhere. The list goes on and on. My mother, however, was slightly more liberal and chose to let only a few superstitions creep into her daily life.

I hated them all. Even now, you will find me relishing eggs on Tuesdays. There's a rebel clock inside me that makes me crave eggs on the one day you are not supposed to eat them if you are a Khatri (Punjabi). And before you enlist all the cholesterol driven health benefits of abstaining from eggs, let me put your protest to bed-- I don't even like eggs that much.

At 45, I'm a concoction of my grandmother's compulsive kitchen cleaning, some of her superstitions, almost all of my mother's housekeeping standards and a lot of family traditions that look suspiciously like superstition to me.

Take Karwachauth for example. This is a very North Indian price one has to pay to remain suhagan (married). It's a killer fast observed by married women for the long life and prosperity of their husbands. It falls on the fourth day after Full Moon around this time of the year.
(in the Hindu lunisolar calendar month of Kartik, according to wikipedia)

Karwachauth  Rules in 4 simple steps :
1. Wake up before sunrise, get dressed and eat a beautiful feast prepared by you or your minions, as the case may be.
2. DO NOT consume any food or water till you've spotted the moon.
3. Sit with other fasters and do the pooja (prayers) before sunset and generally rejoice as a group, patiently waiting for the moon.
4. Spot the moon, feel grateful that your husband is there to bless you with love and financial stability and break your fast.
the end

The Reality of Karwachauth in my household (especially when I was working and living in London)
1. Set the alarm for 10 minutes before sunrise. Get out of bed half asleep. Wash face. Brush teeth. Put the kettle on. Drink gallons of water. Watch the lightening sky while sipping second cup of tea. Eat a banana and munch on some nuts. Set the alarm for usual wake up time and hit the bed.
2. No food-- no problem. No water --- will manage. No tea -- DO NOT mess with me! You've been warned!
3. Working and married and fasting? Turn on one of the million whatsap videos of the pooja while driving back home because the sun's gonna set before you reach that front door. Somehow reach the sofa in your living room and plop.
4. Keep sending husband, son, daughter (in turns) out to check the status of the moon while getting more and more irritated with that pesky headache because you haven't had your fix of tea ALL day.
When the moon does show up, after the sieve ritual, take that first sip of water! Go aah! Put the kettle on. Sip the tea. Watch the headache dissolve and become human again.

Why do I do it? Why do I put myself through it?
Three reasons:
1. I'm just too scared not to. This belies logic, I know. But it's my truth. Yes, I can see it's entangled in the web of superstition woven by my ancestors, but I'm too chicken to break free, just yet. You see, the popular belief is that messing up this fast can have a direct impact on the husband's health and well being
2. To check my will power and by default to hopefully lose 200 - 500 grams in one day!
3. I get to dress up.

The first time I Karwachauthed, I wasn't yet married to him, just newly engaged. I think that was the only time I truly believed in it. It was my coming of age ritual. I'd seen all my married aunts, my grandmother and my mother observe it. So when I took my first steps towards marital life, this fast marked being accepted into the 'married women's' club. It felt special.

Then followed a decade or so of fasting on an auto pilot. Busy with job and young children, I never pondered on why I fasted. I just did.

The story of the fast is like any other legend that has become so deep rooted in the everyday life of a community or the people that it has morphed into superstition disguised as tradition. I know it sounds silly but I don't want my husband to get a tummy ache just because I couldn't go without food for one day. There, I've said it. The only reason I fast is because I'm a superstitious coward.

These days even husbands fast to show their solidarity or I guess it's just easier this way; they don't have to worry about fixing their own dinner.

Jokes aside, why do we (liberal, educated, progressive) women continue to practise these rituals?

I've been  feeling  all churned up since the Full Moon. Why should I do this? No one's forcing me to. I almost feel like a fraud feminist. How can I talk about gender equality if I continue to shackle myself in these rituals? A ritual that reeks of women's dependence on their husbands to provide for them. Hence, fasting for the husband to ensure he lives a long and prosperous life seems crucial for the woman to enjoy financial security and stability. It sounds like a good business practice for an era when women didn't go out to earn their livelihood. So why continue with an archaic practice?

Then two things happened and I found the answer to my whys:

First, I went for a mehendi (henna) party where the host had put in a huge amount of effort to recreate India in Doha. The food, the henna, the chatter, the laughter-- her house resonated with wonderful sounds of womanhood -- bindaas (carefree) and beautiful. It was a 'women only' affair: single, married, divorced, widowed, henna lovers, henna haters, big eaters, small eaters, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Turkish, Syrian, Indian and British-- yes, it was party time. Why not? I thought. Why not?

The second moment of awareness came during the pooja (prayers): sitting in a circle with twelve other women dressed in red, pink, purple, gold, maroon and coral -- beautiful hues worn in traditional outfits from different parts of India, some friends and some strangers, some newly-wed, some married for more than thirty years, some shy, some bold, some early and some late to the venue, but all sitting around in a circle in a veranda under the late afternoon sky, listening to an ancient story played on an I-phone. The words of the song that accompany the katha (tale) tell you that on the day of Karwachauth you don't cook, clean, sew or do any chores whatsoever.

Scenes of my aunts and grandmother and mother flash before my eyes. Before Mother's day invaded India, this was the day when they were treated like royalty. No chores and no cooking. The focus of the day was getting ready for the pooja.

That's pretty much what I did. I didn't have to go to work, so I rested, made and applied my yohgurt and turmeric face mask, chose which saree and jewellery I'd wear, got dressed, took a few selfies and climbed into a friend's car to reach the pooja venue. Why not?

And once the pooja was over, and the prayers had been sung enlisting the virtues of  goddesses, our collective voices ringing out into a blushing sky, we went around hugging and congratulating each other. Why not? I thought. How beautiful and unassuming is this celebration of the female form?

Some of the fasters had a cup of tea after the pooja while others posed for more pictures, exchanged compliments and fashion/shopping tips, shared stories about how the rituals are done in their part of India-- all slightly different and all immensely interesting.

I'm aware of all the 'eat the patriarchy' stuff that's hot at the moment. By all means, STOP the forced fasting. No one should be made to feel guilty or harassed to do anything, least of all go hungry and thirsty. And if this practice is another stick to beat women with, then I'm totally against it.

You know why I do it, right? Because I'm a coward and I've established that fact early on.

But the reason I enjoy this day is because being away from my country of birth, I get to feel a part of it when I sit in a circle and pass my thali (plate) to the mother/daughter/wife sitting next to me. At times like these, I think of my mother who always made an effort to dress up no matter how ill she was. She's no more but the gota in her red dupatta sparkles with me when I sit in a circle and listen to the katha while my Beji's pink pure chiffon one says, 'Jyonde raho puttar, sada suhagan raho.' live a long and happily married life.

In this world of war and hatred, is it such a bad thing to keep some of these traditions alive? Why Not? I say. Why the hell not? 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Theodora Sofronia: I saw the goddess in her.

Unplanned and unprepared, I stood besotted in her dark workshop, facing her demure frame. Yes, I saw the goddess in her.

It was our last day in Cyprus. The flight back to Doha was late in the evening. I woke up early and poured myself a cup of black coffee prepared with hot water and a single Nescafe sachet. We hadn't bothered to buy any milk. Beams of sun were already bursting through the green slatted shutters and landing warmly on the round dining table in the tiny kitchen of our apartment, where I sat peering through my reading glasses at the map. I get greedy on last days of holidays (long and short). I like to see a new place or explore a new corner before boarding the home bound  train, bus or plane.  And that is why, I prefer late evening departures back home.

Cross-referencing the map with the local guidebook, I realised that we could drive through a village called Foini after breakfast and still have ample time to drive back to Larnaca airport.

The narrow streets of Foini were deserted when we drove through around mid-day.
This sign  bribed me. It held promise of an unexplored gem. Not altogether thrilled at the prospect of stopping so soon after leaving Omodos, the husband stopped the car and parked it under a tree.  None of the other occupants of the car budged.  It was agreed, silently, that I'd do the exploring alone. So, I stepped out or rather, bundled out with my bag, camera, map, hat and sunglasses.
The further I walked in the direction of the 'woman potter', the less promising the prospect of finding 'her' seemed. Large tin sheets that looked like a shack of some sort covered up a corner. It wore a deserted look--like someone had forgotten to open shop for many years. I was tempted to turn back, but I held my faith in the sign I'd spotted at the bottom of the hill and continued clambering.

Another sign.

'Let's go for it.' I goaded myself. The sun shone sharply.
Just like that, the path purged into stone steps that led up to a garden flanked by green pumpkin vines on the left and luscious grape vines on the right.
The promise unfolded, step by step.
'Hello...' I called out, sounding parched and hoarse.
'Hello! Is anyone there?'
Siesta silence filled the stillness around me.

Passing through an old door next to this kiln, I hesitated before stepping into a dark room. My eyes took time to adjust to the coolness inside. The room was large and felt like it had been used to create pieces of pottery for a very long time.

Chucking hesitant hellos into the workshop that was developing around me like a photograph from a negative, I ventured further in. I could make out shelves and corners and beautiful hand crafted pieces on display, some lay drying on the floor.

I clicked and almost as soon as I had, I felt like an intruder.

I left.
The steps back to the path were heavy with regret and what ifs:

What if I'd come in a bit early?
What if the rest of the family had come with me? I wouldn't be in a rush to head back now.

I'd reached the end of the steps when I heard a faint sound like a metal pan hitting a stove or a hob-- a metallic, everyday kitchen sound that announces tea/coffee/lunch/dinner is being prepared.
A soft whimper of a dog (or was it a cat) followed.
I turned to check.

No one.

Almost at the end of the deserted path, I turned round. And decided to clamber back up the hill.

I may never come back to Foini or find this sign pointing to a 'woman potter' again. I had to try one more time.

The husband and the children will have to wait.

A small figure draped in blue appears from the door to the right of the workshop as I make it to the last step. She looks up and smiles.

'Is this your work?' I speak slowly and use my hands like I'm  acting out a nursery rhyme. I'm not sure if she understands English.

'Yes, this is my work.' she states clearly and steps inside. Before my eyes have had time to readjust to the dark, she has reached the end of the room and is flicking old fashioned light switches on. The room reveals like a temple and I stand facing the woman potter.

Ma Saraswati.

I see the goddess in her, in her hands, in the way she says how 'special' the piece I'm looking at is because she's put flowers on it.
I'm awestruck.
She talks.
I listen.
'Can I take a picture?' I ask.
She straightens her shoulders and poses next to the completed pieces.
I see the goddess in her.
And want to buy more than the two pieces I've chosen, but airline luggage limitations have to be respected and I'm planning to take my treasures in my handbag.
We get stuck on numbers.
The how-much- do- I -pay creates a total break in communication.
I have no idea if she's saying five or fifty or fifteen.
Clueless, I face her stretched palm and five fingers and nod obediently.
Suddenly, the idea to use the calculator on my phone strikes me and I dig it out of my bag to show her.
She's already busy wrapping the pots in wads of old newspaper when I look up. The phone and I watch her engrossed.
I can stand here all day and just be in her presence, witness her sculpt those pots, those flowers, those embellishments -- the way her grandmother and her mother had done before her--all by hand;
Yes, the primitive way.

I extend fifty euros.
She empties out her pouch and counts out fifteen euros in change.
I'm gobsmacked at the bargain price.
On the table lies a laminated photograph of hers with an article. I click a few quick shots on my way out and thank her.
She smiles.
I feel blessed.

This reads:"She works as her mother and grandmother did on the vine shadowed porch of her home."
Sadly, I didn't note the name of the author of this article.
The vines, heavy with ripe fruit cast a cooling shadow as I look back from the hot deserted street, making my way halfheartedly towards the parked car.
If only they'd come with me.
If only my phone was working, I'd call and say I'll take longer.
If only we weren't leaving tonight, I'd come back and 
absorb this primitive practice of pottery making.
Back in Doha, every now and again, I turn the pot upside down to get a glimpse of the goddess I'd seen in Cyprus.

Feeling forever grateful to the very special 'ordinary' moment of my life when I met 
Theodora Sofronia.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Summer woes get a green fix -- in Cyprus and in Doha

Photo coutesy: Archana Bahukhandi
Blades of grass
tickled my naked feet
this morning.

The expanse of green
at the local park
was too luscious to resist.
I yanked my shoes off without untying the laces.
Socks followed shoes
as I stepped on the grass
and let the swords of green
to the grey weight of my dark thoughts.

Yes, summer in Doha
gets to me.
I feel trapped
in the oppressive heat of forty seven degrees.

Soaring mercury
humans in air-conditioned cages of homes and offices.
Cold and lonely
feels summer.

I rise before the sun
to go out,
to breath,
to walk,
to think
and to feel alive again,
despite the seventy percent humidity.

The green rapiers
rip through the web of negativity I've entangled myself in.
A smile escapes.

"Thank you, dear grass."
I say.
"I trample and yet you give.
You are awesome!"

"Spare a thought for the dew drop."
grass replies.
"She touched you too, you know.
I'm here, but she's no more.
Did you feel her cool embrace?"
There are people around us who are like those drops of dew-- people who do their 'jobs' without ever being noticed or appreciated. 

Today. I want to thank all the people who tend to the public parks and gardens in Doha-- all those hard working souls who work, despite the heat, so that people like me can enjoy a morning stroll. Thank you tree-pruners, water sprinkler-operators, grass-shearers, rubbish-pickers, park keepers--thank you all for making the summer bearable.

If this scorcher of a poem has made you hot and bothered...let me cool you down with some green pictures from Cyprus.

Natural shade makes all the difference.
Car park: Omodos
Destination: Lefkara
Road-side refreshments. 
No vendors -- a sign, a tin can and bags of oranges from nearby orchards...

We brought a few back home with us--the juiciest, sweetest oranges I've eaten in a long time.

Nature's bounty is common to spot;
 driving down a highway or meandering through a village.

Blooming Rosemary
The sun beats down on green doors

 Bougainvillea strikes a pose 
Lefkara is famous for its lace and silver, but it was this quaint backyard garden at the back of the shop that pulled me in. 
I wasn't planning to buy any more lace, but the lady who owns the business was so kind and her love for her garden brought out the sucker in me. (it's not that tricky, let me tell you:)
While the husband paid and waited, I explored this little gem.

A note for all those who garden in hot and arid places: 
Most of the plants in this little garden are drought resistant. I love the way they've been grouped together for impact.
The terracotta pots are sublime. More about Cypriot pottery in my next post. 

"It's not the best time to visit, you know. It's so hot." said another smiling lacer, sitting under the shade of a fig tree, on the street outside her house.
She wanted us to come in but I had just bought lace and I know me -- I cannot resist handmade gorgeousness.
So, I declined politely and nodded.
"You should visit in spring. It's beautiful."
Perspective, I thought.
The 47 degrees we had left behind was hot. 30 degrees in Lefkara was balmy.
But, not a soul (except us) was out at mid-day.
Except the Bougainvillea, of course.
Crunchy and tangy Greek salad and scrumptious doner kabaabs were relished under the shade here, before we bid Lefkara adieu.
I have to thank my friend Monica, a Cypriot whose grandfather comes from Lefkara, for her priceless travel tips. We managed to explore so many aspects of Cyprus in just four days --thanks to her.
I know I will be heading back someday, hopefully in spring.
It's a beautiful country.

Till we meet again:)
Leaving you with a beautiful prayer by Rupert M. Loydell


Teach me the value
of what I own,
of what I eat,
of this earth
and of its people.

Help me to remember
whose world it is
why you created it
and why you created 

Rupert M. Loydell


Friday, September 2, 2016

A trip to Cyprus and post holiday BLUES.

What's the hardest thing to do when you come back from a holiday -- a family holiday?



Getting on the weighing scales?

Getting up the next morning to go to school, work or to drop children off to school?

I'd say all of the above, but NONE of the above are as hard as the one I struggle with the most. It's
picking the perfect picture to post on facebook. A picture that shows all of us looking our best at the same time, in the same shot. It's almost impossible.

So long and arduous has been this quest that I recently updated my fb cover photo( with a family shot) after more than two years.

It's all my fault. Really. I make the most fuss about how I look in photos. My family and friends know this.

You see, my idea of what I look like and the camera's idea of what I look like do not coincide.

For a good decade, I hid behind my Vitiligo patches to avoid being clicked sans camouflage. This could be make-up, long sleeves, turtle necks or scarves or night shots in dark corners. Now that I'm out of my closet, I create the fuss before and during and after the photo has been clicked on account of my prosperous physique (hum khatee peete ghar se hain bhai, kya karen?) My body subscribes to the Punjabi notion of being 'healthy'.

This is what goes on inside my brain when I'm about to be shot: the bossy little voice takes over...

Don't grin too wide-- it shows your creases. Suck in that lower belly, suck it IN I say...suck it in till you can't breathe. Oh! shoot! that makes you look like a rooster who's about to cock-a -doodle-doo. Okay, let out a bit of that air but hold onto that udyana bandha for your sake. Oh! And turn, stand at an angle...remember that's how all the women you know stand in all the group shots these days? And what about that chin? Should it be up or down? What did that article say? And look at the camera...not the sky. Oh! I give up...hang on, pop those shades know they're a God send. 

'I tried.' whimpers my bossy little voice. 'I give up!'

While this battle is raging inside my head, my children are informing me that the camera is NOT in the direction I'm trying to half-grin at. Aaaahhh!!! At moments like these, I feel that models deserve every penny they get for posing.

BUT, hang on...there are non-model friends of mine who can pull off a pose or a selfie before you can say 'cl' of click with such ease and aplomb that I can't help but admire their grace and poise.

How do they do it?

'It's easy.' said Sukku (a pro at getting clicked) while we were camping in Bedni in June . 'Turn your shoulder like this, jut out a hip like this, throw your head back and pose. simple.'

You have to see how quickly and effortlessly she strikes a pose-- every time!

A dear friend tried to follow her advice recently. The result made us all roll on the floor with laughter,

My conclusion, therefore, is that some of us are just born with it. I'm not one of them.

That is why, being behind the camera is so much more fun and fulfilling for me than being in front of it.

A quick and short escape to Cyprus a few days ago gave us that elusive family photo-- yes, I have my shades on! Laugh, if you must. I'm a vain Jain.

Doors, walls and windows have no such vanity issues. They are perfect subjects and when the light is Mediterranean, the blues blow you away with their brilliance. And the doors don't shy away from extreme close-ups, either.

Doors and streets of Omodos.

The blue walls of Lefkara Museum (in Pano Lefkara) made a hot afternoon cool.
The entrance

Going upstairs
The sun peeks through shutters, lace,
and windows.

Blue -- inside and out.

Where does the wall finish?
And the sky begin?

Why are all the walls blue? 

If you are planning a trip to Cyprus, a visit to this beautifully curated museum will make you very happy.
For more details, click on:

Cyprus is beautiful, no doubt. But, the MOST precious part of Cyprus is its people and their hospitality. More about them and their warm hearts and their delicious food in the next post.

Have a wonderful weekend.
And admire the blue around you.