A Return to a Child’s Life

It is snowing outside as I begin this blog.  It is hard to imagine that just a few days ago I was in Chennai in India where the temperature was around 80 degrees Fahrenheit!

I never really completely adjusted to the change in time zones during this trip to India.  I was up well before the morning hours almost every day during my three weeks there.  I did not let this strange affliction bother me.  I found something or the other to do – spending time on the computer, or reading a book, or doing something else that did not require me to get out of bed and disturb everybody else.

This trip was a little different from my past visits. I actually had time to relax at home, even keeping visits with friends to a minimum towards the later part of the stay.  But the trip was also exhausting, and also a little emotional in some sense, since I made the visit to Kerala, the state where I was born, the place where our family is originally from. I have blogged in the past about the nostalgia associated with traveling to Kerala as a child, and also writen more recently about how my love of the mountains may have blossomed with one such trip.

The quick trip I made to Kerala this time was different from the journeys of my youth, when I used to stay there for the long summer holidays, but it was also about being taken back to the days of my youth.  I was going to visit relatives who lived there whom I had not seen for many years.

For starters, because I did not have time to do so, I did not go to Kerala by train.  Instead, I flew into Kochi airport.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy first stop was to see an aunt and uncle in Aluva whom I had last visited about 12 years ago.  Life has changed for them since then in ways both happy and sad.  The joy of the growing grandchildren in the family has been balanced by the impact of a devastating accident a few years ago that has changed their lives in a dramatic fashion.  After some conversation and lunch, I took the opportunity to go down to the Periyar river that flows next to their property.  They had been forced to evacuate their apartment just a few months earlier because of flooding of the river.P2110042.jpgA long taxi ride in the evening got me to my next stop in Irinjalakuda to see my cousin – whom I had also not seen for a long time. Along the way, it was interesting to see that they still paint the state’s public transport buses the same way they did as when I was a kid.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have very little recollection of having visited my cousin’s home (which was built in the 1980s) before, even though we have met a few times since then. Most likely, I have never been to this house.

The emotions welled up in me as I talked to my cousin about the days of her youth and her connection with my parents when they were young and had just got married.  (My cousin is significantly older than I am.)  I felt a sense of the passage of time, and a sense of how lives lived in the past lead into the future.  This was one of the nights that I woke up earlier than usual in the morning and lay in bed unable to sleep – this time simply thinking about the connections of the lifetimes.  I was somewhat of a wreck by the time day broke, but I did take the time to go out and take a picture or two after recovering my composure.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe bonus of my stay in Irinjalakuda was the opportunity to meet a high-school classmate whom I had not seen for 43 years!  I got to go to his home and also meet his wife.  It is interesting to to see how how circumstances in life can take you in very different directions, and to many different places, but that you can end up in the end at similar places of peace and happiness.  You can define success or failure in your way without allowing others to define it for you.P2120080.jpgThen it was off to the railway station to catch a train to Palakkad.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe train journey was an interesting experience, but I must move on without talking too much about it, since this blog is already getting longer than I would like it to be. The only thing I will note is that my experience of the train journey left me feeling that I was still in the 1970s!

The train journey was to take me to Dhoni, near the Palakkad railway station, where I was going to visit another aunt of mine.  I had not seen her for decades.  We have a little bit of a language barrier since I do not know the mother tongue well, but I need not have worried.  That did not stop our conversation.  My aunt has gone through the struggles of time since I last met her, having had a somewhat painful physical setback.  She manages.  She now cheerfully oversees the larger family, including her own children’s families, who have already set up, or are in the process of setting up, their own roots all around her.  During this visit she insisted that I needed to eat well (more than I am used to eating), to taste all the foods from my youth.  It was a treat!

Dhoni lies in the shadow of the Western Ghats.  I set out to explore the place at sunrise.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe village’s charm has not changed over the years.  While the population of Dhoni might have increased since the old days (there are more houses, and even a management college started by one of my cousins), it is still not crowded, at least in my eyes.  The roads are broad and also empty the time of morning that I was out.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe waking hours reveals the feel of the village, the only distraction being that of the trucks from the local rock quarry that kick up a dust and do not slow down as they speed down the road. The family house in Dhoni begins to catch the light of the rising sun in the morning.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe mountain of my youth (or maybe I should call it a hill) still remains, still looking a little formidable to the young child who has now become an older man.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I am not sure if the hill is as accessible as before.  New property lines lie between me and the peak that I can barely make out in the early morning light.  There was no marked trail for me to follow, although my cousin might have known a way had he been able to accompany me.

Habitation on the road that used go past my aunt’s place has extended towards the mountains these days.  There is a bus service, and I saw a couple of hotels when I looked on the map.  Kids climb into the back of the auto rickshaw to go to school in the morning, while the dog runs freely on the street,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand the roadside tea shop is open for business early.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are farms that did not exist a few decades ago.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of peacocks fly away from the field when I point my camera at them.  Somewhere, a cow grazes surrounded by egrets – probably cattle egrets.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI did also visit my cousins’ farms closer to the mountains.  You could see the Western Ghats in the distance as we walked past an open field, just before the entrance to the farms.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am told that elephants have come to roam this space these days, and there is an electric fence around the fields for protection.  One of my cousins takes care of all the properties and grows fruits and vegetables on them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe tells me the story of having been given seeds for what he was told was cabbage, and finding out that he now has tons of lettuce growing on the property!  That is the way it goes.  Life still seems to have a certain simplicity to it.  I could get used to it.  I wish I had learnt to speak the language better as a youth. There is a certain sense of loss.

I had to leave Dhoni even before noontime to catch a flight from Coimbatore (across the border in the state of Tamilnadu) to Chennai – but not before my aunt plied me with more food.  The short, intense, and tiring, trip was coming to an end.  Back in Chennai I went to bed early, and then slept like a rock, waking up a little later than usual.

And then, less than a week later, I was sitting in my room in Gaithersburg in Maryland watching the snow falling.P2200016.jpgIt is quite the change.  Life can be that way, I suppose!

 

The Vegetable Shop

This vegetable shop is also a new sight on the street in front of our house in Chennai.  They seem to be doing a tremendous amount of business.  I have noticed crowds at all times of the day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile their bright lighting serves them well when it comes to advertising their presence and their goods, it can be a nuisance just across the road  in the nighttime because they are open till somewhat late in the evening.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd the fact that some of their customers park their vehicles in front of the gate to our house is also a major annoyance.

All of that having been said, this storefront seems to be a step up from the kind of establishments that have tended to come up in front of our house in the past.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThings are constantly changing here in Madipakkam, a suburb on the outskirts of Chennai.

Crossing the Street

It depends on the time of day, but crossing the street in front of our house in Chennai can be an adventure in itself.  It goes without saying that traffic in these parts is completely disorganized. The flow is a random process, with vehicles of all shapes and sizes trying to find a way through the confusion. Four-wheelers in all sizes – buses, trucks, construction vehicles, smaller vans, cars, etc.., compete for space with three-wheelers and two wheelers, both motorized and foot powered.  (I am a little surprised I have not yet seen a bullock cart on this road.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The concept of staying on your side of the road will get you nowhere when you are trying to get someplace.   And if you are on a two-wheeler, you may even try to maneuver sideways between two vehicles if there is enough space to find your way around stopped traffic.

The pedestrian is a forgotten entity in the midst of  all of this, but, because of the nature of the place, people have to cross the road all the time to take care of daily business.  These folks are looking for the break in the traffic to start walking across the street, hoping that no other vehicle appears on the road while they are in the process.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf one such vehicle were to appear, it is more than likely not going to stop for you.  Rather, the driver, in all likelihood, is going to try to find a way around you, trying to avoid slowing down.  This will happen even while you are keep moving.  It is not clear what one is supposed to do.  Do you keep walking, do you halt in your tracks, or do you make a dash for it not knowing how the speeding vehicle will respond.  You take your life in your own hands.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I have seen people put out their hands while stepping in front of a slowly moving vehicle like a bus, instructing it to stop.  That seems to work.  After all, bus drivers probably do not wish to be lynched by an angry mob if something untoward happens.  I once had to wait about 15 minutes to try to cross a busy road. My friend, who was waiting patiently in a car on the other side, finally stepped out on to the road, put his hand out, and proceeded to cross over to my side.  It was the work of a master of the craft.

My initial experience with trying to cross the road in front of our house during this trip nearly led to disaster.  I had lost all the skills I thought I had acquired from previous visits.  I was probably fortunate to not get injured.  But I am getting better.  What is required is a ton of patience.  And sudden moves to make a dash for it across the road are ill-advised.   Also, never try your luck crossing the street when your vision is partially blocked, especially by a bus or some similar sized vehicle.

Folks who live in these parts have been crossing busy Chennai roads like this for years. They are taking a calculated risk when they do this, and probably feel that the chances of not being hit under the circumstances are somewhat reasonable from a statistical perspective. People have no other choice, and you have to have a certain sense of fatalism ingrained in you if you are to survive under these circumstances.

I could not resist posting the picture below. The family is on a two-wheeler, probably waiting for mom to reappear from her shopping at the local store.  She will get on the back of the motor-bike, behind dad, and off they will go!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Meditations at Daybreak

It is a good time to find a quiet space for the mind before the hustle and bustle of the busy day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe morning call of the awakening birds greets me as I head for the terrace of the house.  Sunrises in Chennai are a different experience from those that I am used to in my part of the world.  The tones are different, and the colors are more muted. The explosion of light and color that I am used to experiencing as the sun clears the horizon seems to be missing.  But it is a remarkable experience nonetheless.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is too bad that most of us are indoors, either asleep, or preoccupied with getting ready for the hassles of the day, when this phenomenon takes place. I can see myself on a beach or on a mountaintop just soaking it all in. The glory of a sunrise provides a good moment for meditation and contemplation of bigger things, and this is true regardless of where you are in the world.

Seeing The Himalayas

This was my first time taking a direct flight from USA to India without an intermediate transit stop somewhere in-between.  The flight path was close to the great circle route. Screenshot_2019-02-02 Great Circle MapperIt took us north over Greenland, the Scandinavian Peninsula, and Russia, and then south through Uzbekstan, perhaps Tajikstan, and then Afghanistan and Pakistan. The map above is a polar projection.  This is how the route looks on the more common map that uses the Mercator projectionScreenshot_2019-02-02 Great Circle MapBecause of the nature of the flight path, and because of the time of departure of the flight, we went through a sunset and sunrise over a short period of time.  The flight took off in the early part of the morning and within three to four hours the sun had begun to set somewhere over Greenland.  (The generally easterly direction of the flight shortens the duration of both daytime and nighttime, but the bigger impact on the daytime was because we were closer to the North Pole at that point, where days already are shorter in wintertime. (Time to open up a geography book!))  At sunset, as we were heading north, my seat on the right side of the aircraft was facing east, away from the direction for optimal viewing of sunsets. This is the kind of view I got.P1250029.jpgAs the aircraft headed south during the second half of the flight, I ended up facing west, away from the direction of sunrise. Nevertheless I got a few pictures that seemed interesting. Here is one engine of our Boeing 777 aircraft. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANotice that the nacelle of the engine is lit up by the rising sun from below and not above.  Because of the angle of the rays of light at sunrise, because of the aircraft’s altitude, and because of the size of the engine, the rays of light are able to reach out under the aircraft to the engine on its other side first before they are able to reach over the top.  Even though it may not be obvious from the picture, the engines on this aircraft are massive, and would even touch the ground once landed if it was not for the height of the landing gear.

Although I could not see the sun rise directly, I was able to see its impact on the ground indirectly as we flew over the far western end of the Himalayas.  Here are some pictures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is indeed an awesome sight. This may be the only time one gets to experience the thrill of the Himalayas.

The timing for this flight was the best I have experienced in all my travels from USA to India over the many years.  The return trip also promises to be advantageous in this regard.

A Spider’s Tale

It was the middle of December.  I was brushing my teeth, staring at myself in the mirror in the bathroom. It was then that I noticed the spider on the wall behind me. It was next to a picture that was hanging on the wall. It did not seem to be moving.  I noticed the spider in the same location the next day.  I nudged it gently to make sure it was alive.  It was. Over the next few days the spider moved to different locations on the wall.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe spider dropped out of sight shortly after that.  We then went on our Christmas vacation in Florida towards the end of December.   Shortly after we returned, a few days into the new year, I noticed a spider again.  This time it was while I was taking a bath. I was quite certain that it was the same spider I had seen previously.  It was inside a plastic protrusion in the soap-holder fixture that was attached to the wall of the shower stall.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was very little space for the spider to move in the piece of plastic. Once again I made sure it was alive – this time by tapping on the plastic.

I noticed the spider in the same location over the next few days.  It became obvious to me that it was trapped.  My feeling about the predicament of the spider created the perfect excuse for me to move into action. Perhaps I could free it while also replacing the soap-holder, something I had been thinking of doing for a while.  I installed a new fixture on the wallOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand pulled out the old one, releasing the spider (still alive!) from where it was stuck.  I could not figure out how it had gotten into the little space.

I released the spider on to the wall on which I had first seen it. It disappeared into a little space behind the door of the bathroom.  After that, I did not see it for a few days.  And then it reappeared on the bathroom counter. It was still alive!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few questions arose in my mind.

Where had the spider come from?  What kind of a spider was this, and how long could it live?  (I subsequently read that it was most likely a common house spider, a harmless creature that is capable of living a long time, even up to a year.)  What do spiders like this live on?  Also, are they able to live with minimum food intake?  Certainly, when it was trapped in the shower fixture, the spider had no access to food.  And the only open food in the bathroom was probably soap!  Curious!  I also read that if indeed it was a common house spider, if I had moved it outside the house (my first instinct!), it would most likely not have survived.

I have not seen the spider for a while since then.  I do not know what happened to it.  It could be dead for all I know, and I would not really feel bad about that.  Did I make any kind of difference in the life of the spider.  Hard to imagine.  Did I make any difference regarding life as a universal experience? Do we really care what happens to spiders? Was there any moral issue involved in what I did? This whole exercise, including my writing of this blog, could seem rather pointless to some.  But in the grand scheme of things,  there are a lot of things that we do, some things closer to home, even some things that are seemingly more consequential, that are ultimately pointless. But still we do these things, sometimes for our own reasons, sometimes for reasons that we may not even be able to explain properly to ourselves.  It may be one of the things that makes us human.