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New Beginnings

Ugadi, one of India’s New Year festivals, falls on Saturday, March 21st, this year.

Here’s to novel experiences, shared moments, countless possibilities!

Originally posted on March 22, 2012

“Aren’t all beginnings new?” asks one character of another in a book I read recently.

I guess they are and they aren’t, depending on how you look at it.

What better season than spring to contemplate beginnings, old and new? Tuesday the 20th of March marked the Spring or Vernal Equinox in the northern hemisphere of the Earth: essentially, the first day of spring season.

All around me I see signs of new life: pale green leaves unfurling, bulbs pushing shoots out of rain-soaked earth, birds shedding downy winter coats, the skies newly scrubbed and polished.

Most cultures around the world celebrate the arrival of spring in different ways. Where I come from—the southeastern part of India, where people follow a lunar calendar for observing religious days—spring means a fresh start. We usher in the season with a New Year’s festival called Ugadi (the word translates to “Beginning of a new age/era”).

Hinduism believes that a human life is full only if it experiences the gamut of emotions in the right proportions. On Ugadi, everyone—child and adult alike—begins his/her day by eating a mixture or chutney made of six ingredients:

  • Jaggery, (similar to brown sugar, made from sugar cane) which is sweet, signifies happiness
  • Bitter neem flower petals stand in for sorrow
  • Thinly sliced hot, green peppers remind us of anger
  • Savory salt takes the place of fear
  • Tamarind paste (which is sour) marks revulsion or hatred
  • Tangy pieces of unripe mango emphasize surprises

This chutney—a delicious explosion of bold flavors and textures—essentially is a reminder that life is a fusion of experiences. This tradition encourages everyone to accept what is doled out to him/her in life with equanimity.

Tomorrow, which is whenUgadi is celebrated this year, I intend to begin my day with a few spoonfuls of this chutney.

Do you celebrate the beginning of spring or the end of winter? If yes, please share the details with us!

Point of View II

I recently watched two movies The King and I and Anna and the King back to back and then, for a lark, re-read the nonfiction book Anna and the King of Siam written by Margaret Landon.

This is my favorite snippet from The King and I. *** Louis (Anna’s six-year-old son): Doesn’t anything ever frighten you, Mother? Anna: Oh, yes, sometimes. Louis: What do you do? Anna: I whistle. Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect I’m afraid.                 *** Not a bad idea! I would love to adopt this trick myself, but then I’d have to learn to whistle first.

This is my favorite snippet from The King and I.
***
Louis (Anna’s six-year-old son): Doesn’t anything ever frighten you, Mother?
Anna: Oh, yes, sometimes.
Louis: What do you do?
Anna: I whistle. Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect I’m afraid.
***
Not a bad idea! I would love to adopt this trick myself, but then I’d have to learn to whistle first.

The two movies and the book are based on the real life events of Anna Leonowens (a British woman) who spent five years as a governess/teacher in the court of King Mongkut in the Thailand (Siam) of the 1860s. It was a turbulent time in Thailand’s history, with the British, French and Burmese sniffing at it from all sides.

King Mongkut hired Anna to lead his considerably large royal brood—including his heir apparent, Prince Chulalongkorn, who incidentally went on to become Thailand’s most popular and progressive ruler and accredited many of his principles to the foundation that Anna had laid through her teaching—into the modern world.

I like to compare books/movies based on the same subject matter but written/directed by different people. This fun activity always results in fresh revelations about objectivity and point of view. (Read my observations from another similar exercise here: Point of View.)

Margaret Landon, author of the book Anna and the King of Siam, writes of Anna’s first impression of the king: “How revolting to be dependent for one’s innocent desires upon the caprice of this withered grasshopper of a King!” However, as she works closely with the king in translating and writing his English and French correspondence, Anna begins to respect his extraordinary intelligence and keenness of mind.

Coming to the two movies, The King and I was released in 1956. As the name suggests, this movie solely focuses on the relationship between Anna and the king and relegates the rest of the rich tapestry of incidents to the backdrop. Perhaps as suited for the times, this movie shies away from depicting any ugliness, including the fickleness of the king’s character and the inhumane concubinage and slavery that was rampant in Siam.

Yul Brynner, actor and noted Broadway star, plays the king in the movie as if he’s still on stage. He’s loud and gimmicky to the point that he makes the king look like a caricature and sound like a fool. (Also, his king is no withered grasshopper; rather he is buffed up and athletic, and his costume makes sure we notice.) All the actors in the movie speak in loud overtones as if to make up for their lack of knowledge of the customs of Siam. Perhaps it has somewhat to do with the fact that it’s a musical. Still, Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (who plays Anna) make it work, and you come away from the movie with a light spirit, if not especially instructed in the culture of Siam.

The second movie Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, was released in 1999. This movie is on the opposite end of the spectrum in its sensibilities from The King and I. Far from being averse to harshness and brutality, this version seems to anchor the story in them. The movie begins with a gruesome scene with several dead bodies hanging from a tree—the director’s way of depicting the political unrest between Siam and a British-backed Burma.

Jodie Foster, with her stiff body language, makes Anna remote and aloof to me, while Chow Yun-Fat takes King Mongkut to the other extreme. With his characteristic genteel demeanor, Yun-Fat turns King Mongkut into a gentle giant of a man as opposed to the mercurial autocrat that he was. This movie, however, makes a better effort at explaining the Eastern philosophy and putting some of the spotlight on Anna’s relationship with the various royal children and concubines.

A single point the two movies share (and hence stray as far as possible from the real life events they’re based on) is: they are both love stories at their core. Say what? Nowhere in the book does Anna say that she has developed any feelings for the king but frustration, irritation and many times a grudging respect. So, why, oh, why should both the movies twist the plot into an unfulfilled love story? Because that’s what Hollywood does best. Sigh!

As the last frame rolled away, I was yet again reminded that how a movie shapes up is subject to the past and present life experiences of the director and the actors assaying the roles. When we watch a movie, we’re stepping for the duration of it into the director’s private chamber upon his/her invitation. And what each of us takes out of that visit, again, depends on our own point of view as a viewer.

I grew up in India immersing myself in the English language almost as much as I did my mother tongue. Although English was termed my second language in school, and later when I came to the US I was told I was a non-native speaker of English, the language never felt secondary or alien to me.

I’ve been told several times in the past two decades here in the US that I have a lilting cadence to my English speech that makes it exotic. I never heard my accent nor noticed the variations in the way I modulated certain sounds and syllables. I was too busy learning the American idioms and adding new vocabulary to my repertoire.

Until recently, that is. A few months ago, I observed a certain shift to my listening. It suddenly dawned on me why I say some words differently than a native English speaker in the US. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I learned speaking English in India, which although retains few traces of the British English after all these years, still favors the British turn of phrase and pronunciation.

It has everything to do with the fact that my mother tongue, Telugu, is a non-phonetic language. That means, unlike in English, what you see written on the page is exactly how you pronounce the words. There are no two ways of saying the same word. Telugu has over 50+ letters in its alphabet, so there’s no chance for confusion. The same is true with most Indian languages.

In an Indian language, not all words have emphatic syllables in them. If you need a particular syllable in a word to be stressed harder, then you write it a certain way that leaves no doubt of the pronunciation. Not so in English.

Each and every word in English has at least one syllable that is emphasized in speech, even if it’s a one-syllable word like “a.” The syllable you choose to emphasize, the way you articulate it, the inflection you place on the sound… all these figure into your accent.

I realized that, as a native speaker of Indian languages, I sometimes neglect to enunciate a certain syllable in an English word because I don’t see the stress highlighted in the written word. For instance, take the word banana. The middle syllable na is stressed harder and stretched longer than the rest but it looks in writing as do the rest of the syllables. The word is not spelled bannaana to focus the stress. No book or teacher can teach this; it’s a matter of listening and emulating.

After this epiphany, I’m listening to spoken English with keener ears. Words and sounds that were mundane before reveal new personalities and interesting facets to me at every turn.  My ears perk up at once-familiar words that now tease me with a host of possibilities.

Does this mean I’m going to work at losing my “accent?” No, because that modulation is part of who I am. Will I stop confusing the heck out of my children by pronouncing “year” as “ear” because I forget to accentuate the beginning “ya” sound? Probably not.

I am, however, very much looking forward to this phase of my relationship with the English language. A phase where I get to acquaint myself with it all over again.

Originally posted on May 31, 2010.

The one constant companion at every stage of our lives is: Change.

Very few things in our lives can resist change.

Of course, there are a few facts that come to mind, almost instantaneously, that are seemingly exempt from change. One such is:

The sun rises every morning in the east.

However, it is said that our beloved sun is a dying star. It will not die in our lifetime or in the next however many lifetimes of humans, but it is predicted that in 5 billion years from now the sun will run out of hydrogen and fall into itself.

So, in a way, even the sunrises are constantly undergoing transformation, though we cannot discern it.

My point?

Nothing, whether living or inanimate, escapes change.

(Yes, in honor of this topic, I have changed the picture in my blog’s header :).)

Here are some quotes about life and what role change plays in it:

  • God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

                                                 – Reinhold Niebuhr

  • Change is the essence of life. Be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.

                                               – Unknown

  • There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.

                                                 – Winston Churchill

  • You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

                                                  – Mahatma Gandhi

  • Life can either be accepted or changed. If it is not accepted, it must be changed. If it cannot be changed, then it must be accepted.

                                                – Unknown

  • Things do not change; we change.

                                                  – Henry David Thoreau

  • When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.

                                                 – Benjamin Franklin

  • Consider how hard it is to change yourself and you’ll understand what little chance you have in trying to change others.

                                                 – Unknown

  • All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.

                                                – Anatole France

And now, to end on a somewhat lighter note:

  • The world is changing so fast I’ve got societal vertigo. 

                                               – Terri Guillemets

Lastly, if Hazel Soares can earn a degree at 94, then isn’t making a sincere effort at embracing change (especially if it’s in the right direction) the least we can do?

Have you had memories that you wanted to hold onto longer, close to your heart, before you gave them wings and sent them out into the world?

I traveled to Uganda, Africa, a couple of years ago to visit family and gathered for myself some of the most valued memories. Here, I share some of them with you.

Wildlife is such an intrinsic and organic part of the (green, luscious) landscape in Uganda that it gladdens your heart to be immersed in it. You drive around a curved road in some of the more remote parts of the country and there you are, sharing the terrain with giraffes, baboons and buffaloes going about their business.

Giraffes-1

 

 

buffaloes

cows

cactus

 

 

baboons

deer

 

 

 

 

 

 

An open-air market in Jinja Town

market

 

 

 

 

pineapples

legumes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

River Nile

Did you know that the White Nile (one of the two major tributaries of River Nile—the other being the Blue Nile—that flows through North-Eastern Africa) originated in Uganda? Yes, the Nile leaves Lake Nyanza (Victoria) at Rippon Falls near Jinja town and becomes the Victoria Nile.

resort-1

 

resort-2

Nile

 

 

 

fields-Ugandalake-side

 

Any memories you’d like to share with us today?

My Year in Books

Another year has slid past and here we are in the brand new year of 2015. As each year draws to a close, we see several programs on TV and radio recounting what major events have taken place in the world in the past 12 months.

In keeping with this sentiment, I wondered … how would I like to look back at the last year? I wanted it to be a positive glance back. Then I got it. Through books, of course!My-year-in-books-1

The past year has been a gold mine for me in terms of the books I have read. They ranged from a true story of a war survivor to light-hearted mysteries to gut-twisting historicals to books on writing.

I present here the five books that most influenced my worldview, as a reader and a writer, the past 12 months.

  1. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. This book, which has women’s rights and abolition movements at its heart, is set in the early-nineteenth-century Charleston, NC. It follows the remarkable lives of its two protagonists—a slave named Handful and her owner, Sarah. The following two snippets from different parts of the book sum up the impetus behind the story:

    “You think there’s no detriment in a slave learning to read? There are sad truths in our world, and one is that slaves who read are a threat.”

    “The truth”, she said, “is that every girl must have ambition knocked out of her for own good.”

  1. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Set in the remote farmlands of northern Iceland of the early 1800s, this is one of the most atmospheric novels I’ve ever read. The protagonist, Agnes, is charged with murdering two men and is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. The book explores Agnes’s inner turmoil and how the relationships among the inhabitants of the farm change when they are forced to share the confined quarters of their croft with a convicted murderer. The author conveys much subtext and tension in the little ways the characters interact and the things they choose to share (or not) with each other. The author switches between several POVs (first-person for the protagonist and limited third for everyone else) and present and past tenses. Rather than detract from the story, this experiment seems to add to its stark narrative. What a feat! Here’s one powerful sentence from the book:

    The dream reminded me of what will happen, of how fast the days are passing me by, and now, lying awake in a room full of strangers, gazing at the patterns of sticks and peat in the ceiling, I feel my heart turn over and over and over until I feel twisted in my gut.
  1. Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass. This book is a must-read for anyone who’s trying to get published in the current market. Maass, an author and head of a successful literary agency, explains in simple terms the pulse of the current publishing industry and gives writers the tools necessary to write fiction that is bold and grabs the attention of the 21st century reader. Here’s an example:

    Find a quiet emotional moment. Is it artfully written, delicate, subtle, nuanced, and precise? Congrats. Make it enormous: a tidal wave, an attack, a life-altering earthquake.

  1. Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. This detailed odyssey of survival and self-preservation alternately made my heart swell with pride and ache from sadness for its sixteen-year-old protagonist Margo Crane. True, all that attention to guns, rifles and vivid—and at times superfluous—hunting scenes made me flinch in certain portions of the book, but I won’t forget the reticent but tenacious Margo Crane in a hurry.

    As July melted into August, Margo listened to gangs of newly fledged robins picking at the underbrush in such numbers that the woods floor seemed alive. She watched nuthatches spiral down trees headfirst to the ground and back up again. … And Margo still did not see police boats searching the river for her.

  1. Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Nelson Elizabeth. While struggling to decide between a first-person POV and a limited third-person for my current manuscript, I happened upon this book. Although at times too simplistic in its view and explanations, it helped me tremendously in going “deep” into my characters’ perspectives. The author says:

    Deep POV renders “telling” nearly impossible, because that annoying, invisible narrator has been given the boot!

From what angle would you like to look at your year past? Please share with us!

Originally posted on January 24, 2011.

Hyderabad. Just the name sums up many visual and gastronomical treats for me.

Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, which was the seat of power of the Qutub Shahis. This is the view of a section of the fort as viewed from the main entrance

Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, which was the seat of power of the Qutub Shahis. This is the view of a section of the fort as viewed from the main entrance

This busy, historic, and throbbing-with-life city was the first stop during my recent trip to India. It is the capital city of Andhra Pradesh — one of the southeastern states of India — and is a thorough mix of old-with-new and traditional-with-modern.

The original city of Hyderabad, now known as the Old City, was founded 500 years ago on the banks of Musi river. The founding of this city, not to mention its name, is steeped in romance and religious tolerance.

Legend has it that crown prince Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah (of the Qutub Shahi dynasty that ruled the area at the time), who belonged to the faith of Islam, fell in love with a Hindu girl called Bhagmati. This girl lived in a village on the opposite bank of the river from the prince’s fort.

The prince used to continually brave even the flooding waters of the river to go meet with his flame. His father Ibrahim Qutub Shah, the then ruling king, who heard of his son’s infatuation decided to lend his support to the courtship. He soon had a bridge built over the river so his son could cross the river safely in any season and woo his girl.

Now, if that is not the height of tolerance and understanding, then I don’t know what is.

Eventually, Mohammed Quli married Bhagmati, and then ascended the throne at the death of his father. He went on to found a city, which he named Bhagyanagaram after his wife. (Bhagya means “fortune” and nagaram translates to “city” in Telugu, which is the language spoken by the majority of the people in my state. The name in its entirety can be seen as “The Fortunate City” or “The City of Bhagya” as in Bhagmati’s city – pretty clever pun on words, if you ask me!) Later when Bhagmati was awarded the title of Hyder Mahal by her husbandthe name of the city was changed to Hyderabad to reflect her new moniker.

A view of Charminar – the historical monument that is the face of the city — from the street

The bridge, called Purana Pul (The Old Bridge), that Ibrahim Qutub Shah had commissioned over 500 years ago stands sturdy to this day. The arched bulwarks underneath the bridge, made of heavy stones, exhibit not only the fine craftsmanship of those times but also a keen eye for beauty.

Since the bridge is narrow and would not serve the present-day traffic needs, a broader bridge has been built parallel to it for everyday use. The day I visited this bridge happened to be the eve of Bakrid, one of the holy days for Muslims. The whole area was teeming with people, so unfortunately, I couldn’t get close enough to take good pictures of this beautiful, yet practical, monument for love.

On the old bridge, there now flourishes a walk-through bazaar where shopkeepers squatting under small awnings do brisk business in a variety of stuff  beginning with chappals (shoes) to fruits to pearls to clothing.

I was thoroughly heartened by this fitting use — rather than naming it a heritage monument and cordoning it off from public — for the vision of a father who had this bridge built to serve a practical purpose.

An aerial view of the monolithic statue of Lord Buddha in the middle of Lake Hussain Sagar in Hyderabad. Photo courtesy: Post card printed by the Department of Archaeology and Museums of Andhra Pradesh

Of course, as with most other legends in history that lack a recorded version, there are other theories to dispute this one about the origins of the name of the city of Hyderabad. However, I have always been fascinated by this story of love, romance, and understanding and have whole heartedly subscribed to this version of it. And I still do.

The current-day Hyderabad has outgrown the original city and has expanded northwards. As I mentioned earlier, this metropolis is a true amalgamation of new and old, modern and antique, and ethnic and technological (Hyderabad is one of the strongest hubs of the IT industry in India) now. There exists such harmony between one facet and the other that I cannot imagine Hyderabad without either.

The city is also a living and breathing monument to the coming together of two major religions in India: Hinduism and Islam (over 80% of Indians practice Hinduism, while Islam and Christianity are the next two major religions practiced in India). The two religions are so intertwined in this city that you would find it hard sometimes to tell where one begins and the other ends. The architecture of the several monuments in the city, along with local food and clothing (more details coming up in the next post :)), bear testimony to this very basic fact of this city.

Mecca Masjid, an example of history walking hand in hand with current life: People go about their everyday lives around the centuries-old mosque, which lies at the heart of the Old City

All one has to do is take a page from the history of the city — of the enormous leap of faith Ibrahim Qutub Shah took for his son, the religious tolerance he had adopted in the matter, and the empathy he had shown for the emotions of his son — to get some perspective. But, in today’s world, that looks like a really tall order.

When I mentioned the same to some of my friends – who were born and bred in the heart of Hyderabad, unlike me – they said I had too simplistic a view of the complicated matters that dictate the pulse of the city.

Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t. As with so many things in adult life, it depends on who’s asking and who’s  answering….

Night-time view of Birla Mandir, a temple for Lord Venkateswara, one of the deities of the Hindu pantheon, in Hyderabad. It’s made entirely of white marble and is famous for its serene beauty and architectural details. Photo courtesy: Post card printed by the Department of Archaeology and Museums of Andhra Pradesh

Night-time view of Birla Mandir, a temple for Lord Venkateswara, one of the deities of the Hindu pantheon, in Hyderabad. It’s made entirely of white marble and is famous for its serene beauty and architectural details. Photo courtesy: Post card printed by the Department of Archaeology and Museums of Andhra Pradesh

 

The majestic tomb of Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, the founder of Hyderabad

The majestic tomb of Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, the founder of Hyderabad

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