The tiny bulb burned itself out. And so did her friends. But the night was far darker than all of them combined.
“Oh what’s the point?” they sighed.
“But that IS the point,” said the divine light.
“Darkness will always exist. In the skies above and in lost souls below. It is your duty to burn as brightly as you can, so that even in darkness, the world can navigate.”
The night is long and bitter and it has only begun.
Shine. Shine as bright as you can. Till darkness gives up.
Sometimes life can be frustrating: Perhaps a loved one is unwell. Perhaps your own health is troubling you. Perhaps you miss old friends. Perhaps your manager spoke in an unjust manner… The list of things that can rattle us is endless.
It had been one such frustrating evening, not long ago. Being the night of Kaarthigai Deepam, I tried to put the day behind and hastily set out to make a kolam. It didn’t turn out too well, making me feel even worse. And then I lit a beautiful wax candle. Suddenly, everything seemed to be alright.
There’s something about a flickering flame — be it from an oil lamp, a wax candle, and to certain extent, fairy lights — that brings us happiness. Perhaps that’s why we light lamps at places of worship.
This post is inspired by two posts on Instagram, separated by time and context, and yet connected by light.
One of the strongest memories of my childhood is that of AM Radio. It would begin playing on the ancient transistor even before I woke up. Sanskrit mantras recited by M.S. Subbulakshmi, followed by the railway timetable, and finally, news in Sanskrit that would end with a few beeps. The last of the beeps would be longer than the first few — the clock had struck 7 AM.
I’m not sure if the order of the programs is right. There’s no way for me to verify either. We don’t listen to radio anymore, unless we’re in a car — and even in a car, it’s FM, or a USB stick, or internet radio that’s streaming from a smartphone — not AM.
Back then, on Sundays, the radio played Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram — the thousand names of Lord Vishnu. Towards the end of the half-hour long recitation, is a conversation between Goddess Parvati and Lord Vishnu. The Goddess asks, dear Lord, what might a lay person do, in order to pray to you. Not everyone can possibly recite all the thousand names every day. Is there a shortcut to this? And the Lord obliges. He says, repeat this one verse three times, and it is equivalent to reciting all the names. I am paraphrasing, of course.
I learnt this one specific verse very early in my life — long before I learnt about its significance. I learnt it because every single Sunday, at precisely the moment that this verse was recited, I would wake up. One could say, I learnt it by accident, or divine intervention, or coincidence — I leave it to you, to decide, which of these is more accurate.
I don’t think I am very religious — certainly not to the extent my parents or grandparents are. I don’t perform the elaborate pujas that my mother performs. Nor can I recite any of the Sahasranamams the way my grandparents can. But religion does interest me.
True to the stereotypes of TamBrahms, as children, our summer vacations were spent touring temples. We were taught Sanskrit shlokas (couplets / verses), that I can still recall. I was also taught how to perform a basic neyvedyam (sacred offering). I pride myself in knowing what little I do. And I wish to learn the proper neyvedyam that my mom performs on special occasions. Hopefully, one day, I will be able to perform one of those with the camphor flame… But I digress.
What I am trying to say is, I am religious enough to take the shortcut of reciting one verse three times, as opposed to 108 verses.
Over the past few years, I have realised that being religious and being spiritual are not the same thing. Religion, is the path towards spirituality. And spirituality, is the path towards peace of mind. I came to this realisation when, a year into our marriage, Atul began playing a playlist of bhajans.
Knowing him for as long as I did — he who who wasn’t particularly interested in going to temples or explicitly praying — he was playing bhajans.
He wasn’t listening to the lyrics of these songs, he said. The melody just made him feel relaxed. It gave him the peace of mind that is so essential in today’s rage-infused society.
This inclination towards peace of mind, came up again, when he insisted that we visit the temple I frequented. It wasn’t that he did not like visiting temples at all, he said; he just had not found such peace of mind in the ones he had visited before.
Atul is not an atheist. He is spiritual. I began appreciating his world-view, when he said this: I don’t need to go to a temple, or speak a certain language, to speak with my God. And that was also the essence of the verse in Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram — you don’t have to say all the 108 verses. Just one, repeated thrice, was enough. The Lord himself, was giving a shortcut.
Over the past few months, I have begun my own morning ritual — somewhat similar to what my parents did back then. What used to play as clock-work, every morning on AM radio, now plays on an online streaming service, as soon as I wake up (let’s just say, the morning is a spectrum).
As one wise man said to me, language and form shouldn’t come in the way of spirituality and peace of mind. Hence, I will not share my morning invocation playlist with you.
What I will share, though, is another feel-good playlist that focuses on spirituality and peace. Here it goes:
1. Ma Rewa
Band: Indian Ocean Album: Kandisa Year: 2000 Language: Local dialect of Hindi
It was during last year’s Indian Ocean Concert (in picture) that I first heard Ma Rewa. I swayed and clapped and danced on this number. It was only later, that I saw the lyrics.
Rewa is another name for the river Narmada. And life-sustaining, as all rivers are, Rewa is called Ma – mother. This song praises the holy river, and apparently, was used as a protest song by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (save the river Narmada). There is enough feminism and rebellion in this to become my week-day alarm.
Growing up, this song, and all the songs by the duo (Leslie Lewis and Hariharan) hit the sweet spot for us, bringing together classical music and English pop. We were such big fans, our parents bought two cassettes(!) of their albums — the only band accorded that multi-cassette honour.
Band: Indian Ocean Album: Kandisa Year: 2000 Language: Aramaic-East Syriac
This song is familiar. I’ve heard this, yes… Alam Alam Alam… I fished out my memories. “It’s Kandisa,” said Eeshta. And just like that, I rediscovered Indian Ocean. There’s a chance you’ve heard it before too. You can thank me later. Also, this my week-end alarm.
Band: Faridkot Album: Ek Year: 2011 Language: Local dialect of Hindi
“You now owe me some songs!” This was the message Sunaina sent, after sharing the album by Faridkot. If it weren’t for her, I probably wouldn’t have known about this beautiful album.
From where I sat in the office, I was within earshot of everyone in the office (and yes, I could see folks, before they could see me). I’d asked her for the songs after hearing them on her work-station — on loop. Haal-e-dil and Banjaare were her favourites, I think. I liked them too. Eventually, though, my favourite became, Madho. The song is about a devotee, who wants Krishna to come and help her cross the river on her boat.
Singer: Atif Aslam Album: Coke Studio Season 8 Year: 2015 Language: Urdu
Because no playlist of melodious music can be complete without Coke Studio. I’ll admit, I am no fan of Atif Aslam’s music (based on the songs sung for Hindi Cinema / Bollywood). But this one is an absolute gem!
6. Gurus of Peace
Singers: A.R. Rahman, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Album: Vande Mataram Year: 1997 Language: Hindi, Urdu, English
The stage is set at the school assembly ground. On the left side of the ground is the administrative block. On the right are classrooms for primary students. Connecting these two blocks are two bridges on the first and second floor levels, running behind the centre stage. The music begins playing, and the performers enter. As they begin performing their choreographed moves in perfect sync, more dancers enter in front, and below the main stage. Others stream in from behind the audience. And more fill in the bridges above the stage. This was the first block-buster musical I had seen — long before Kingdom of Dreams was even dreamt of.
The song, Gurus of Peace; the dancers, students handpicked from the primary, middle and senior secondary classes; the occasion, the school annual day; and the audience, an awe-struck set of students, and some very proud parents.
I was in school when this song was released, and it became an instant hit. Perhaps, because it cut across all faiths and cultures; or maybe, because it shattered stereotypes of Sikh musicians, the topics that rock music could cover and the format in which Sufi could be performed; or maybe, just maybe, it resonated with teenagers trying to figure out their identity. “Bulla, ki jaana, mai kaun hoon” (Bulla! I know not, who I am).
It is fitting, that this is the only song that I could not locate on the music-streaming site Gaana. Because this is one of very few songs that I remember seeing. Apart from its deep philosophy, what has endured through all these years is the visualisation of the song.
There are a number of versions of this song on YouTube. The official version is live in concert. There is another version with better audio quality and lyrics. But I’d rather show you the original music video (you can check out the better audio later).
PS: I know there are only male singers in the playlist. I’d love to hear more female voices in this space — if you know any, I’d love to listen to them. In the meanwhile, I have my morning invocation, dominated by M.S…
PPS: Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Here’s wishing for a peaceful dinner, and world 🙂
Featured Image: The stage for Indian Ocean’s concert on 23 November 2018. Here’s the story about that concert: Behind the Sounds.
For over three years now, we’ve tried to keep certain items out of our kitchen — refined flour and refined sugar. Refined flour was easy to keep out. Sugar, is a different matter — because we occasionally make sweet dishes, and guests shouldn’t be forced to drink sugarless tea or coffee. And so, we buy sugar, in the least possible quantity at such times, letting the stock remain in the kitchen cupboard.
A little over a year ago, we added another item to the no-stock list — refined oil. And I’m happy to report, I haven’t missed it at all. We now have a range of oils — mustard, sesame and coconut — to add richness to different dishes. And yes, there is white unsalted butter and homemade ghee.
Now, I love cake. And it seemed difficult to make cake without these three ingredients. I also didn’t have an oven, or a cake tin. My pressure cooker wasn’t big enough for a decent size bowl.
So, I did what everyone these days does — ask the internet. I found some makeshift alternatives for the baking apparatus and tried out a wholewheat recipe for my mother’s 60th birthday. It turned out decent.
There has been a pattern to some of my Instagram food posts — with friends asking for the recipe. And so, going forward, I’m going to start posting some recipes that I’ve tried out — for my friends, and my own future reference — with due credit to the original chefs, of course.
The credit roll
A big part of this recipe is borrowed from a recipe on YouTube by Piya’s Kitchen. I replaced some ingredients and the result was not so bad! I recommend going through the video for the original recipe.
Step 1: Going nuts
Chopped dry fruits of your choice (I used cashew, almonds, pecans, raisins and assorted berries)
1/2 tbsp wheat flour
Coat the dry fruits lightly with flour to prevent them from sinking to the bottom and keep aside.
Step 2: Just beat it
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup jaggery (I used honey — turns out, it gives the cake a richer colour)
1/4 cup curd
Beat the ingredients till they form a smooth mixture and keep aside.
Step 3: Shaken, not stirred
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon powder (or cardamom powder) for flavouring (skip this if using vanilla)
Sieve the dry ingredients together two times to ensure there are no lumps and they are nicely mixed.
Step 4: All mixed up
1/2 cup milk
Fold the dry (step 3) and wet mixture (step 2) and add half of the milk.
If you’re using vanilla for flavouring, add 1 tsp in at this stage.
Add the chopped nut mixture (step 1) and the remaining milk.
Note: When mixing, make sure you stick with one direction; clock-wise or anti-clockwise, your pick — don’t ask me why.
Step 5: Time to bake!
Pre-heat the baking apparatus of your choice as you would normally do for any other cake: oven / pressure cooker / heavy-bottomed pan with lid. I heated a tawa on high flame for ten minutes.
Grease the baking tin (in my case, a saucepan) with butter and dust the greased tin with a little flour.
Pour the batter and tap gently to level the cake.
Garnish with more more nuts.
Place in baking apparatus (I placed the saucepan on the tawa and covered it with a glass lid so that I could see what was going on; and cooked it on low flame)
Cook for 45-50 minutes (or till you get the sweet scent of heaven)
Check if it’s done by inserting toothpick / knife – if it comes out clean, it’s cooked.
Baking fascinates me — especially when the aroma of fresh cookies and cakes fills up the home.
Growing up, birthdays were made extra special with home-baked cake. I’d eagerly wait for my mother to whip up the cake batter. When she transferred the batter to the greased cake tin, I’d grow impatient. ‘Why are you being so thorough! Let me have the joy of cleaning that up!” As soon as the mixing bowl left her hands, I’d dip my finger to scrape out every last drop!
Unlike my mother, I have zero knowledge of what goes into baking. It’s the end result that truly matters (and the batter, yes!).
I find it hard to remember the chemicals involved in the process — is that baking soda or cooking powder — what proportion are they to be used and when should they be added, most importantly, what are the chances that the mixture will explode?
Most recipes are handed down generations, and when in doubt, I simply pick up the phone and ask, either my mother, or my mother-in-law; sometimes asking the same questions over and over. Thanks to the internet, I now also have advisors who don’t mind my asking the same questions repeatedly.
With the help of the food blogging community, I have got answers to some questions, such as, “what if I want to bake a cake without eggs… and without refined flour?” and “what if I don’t have an oven, and what if I’m off refined sugar too?” And I think to myself, how did people remember recipes before the internet?
I posted a few pictures of my experiments with different types of cake and some friends asked me for the recipes. This gave me an opportunity to document my own scribbled notes for future reference.
But first, the credit roll
The original recipe for this cake is by the food blogger / YouTuber ‘Hebbar’s Kitchen’. I replaced some of the ingredients with what was available with me, and it worked out just fine!
If you’d like to see a detailed step-by-step process, I recommend visiting the website, or better yet, check out the YouTube video.
And now, here’s my version:
Step 1: Soak ’em up
2 cups of dates, without the seeds
1 cup hot milk
Soak the dates in hot milk for half an hour. In the meanwhile, read ahead, gather up the rest of the ingredients and then soak yourself up under the winter sun.
After half an hour, blend the soaked dates and milk into a fine paste.
Step 2: Going nuts
Handful of your favourite dry fruits
1/2 tbsp wheat flour
Coat the dry fruits lightly with flour to prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the batter
Step 3: Just beat it
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup curd
Beat the ingredients till they form a smooth mixture
Combine with the date paste from step 1 and mix well
Step 4: Shaken, not stirred
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cooking / baking soda
1 pinch salt
Sieve all the dry ingredients together
Step 5: All mixed up
1/2 cup milk
Mix the date paste (step 3) with the flour mixture (step 4)
Add milk, mix well
Add the chopped dry fruits (step 2) and mix lightly
Step 6: Time to bake!
Pre-heat the baking apparatus of your choice as you would normally do for any other cake for ten minutes.
Grease the baking tin with butter and dust the greased tin with a little flour.
Pour the batter and tap gently to level the cake.
Garnish with more more nuts, as per taste.
Place in baking apparatus.
Cook for 45-50 minutes (or till you get the sweet scent of heaven).
Check if it’s done by inserting toothpick / knife – if it comes out clean, it’s cooked.
Patience, my friend – let it cool.
Transfer to a plate, and then, dig in!
Coming up in the next post, the very first cake I baked, without an oven or pressure cooker.
Four GOATs, three days, two titles, one glorious sport
It feels like the summer of 2014. The same anticipation. The same hopes. The same fears. And the same feeling of gratitude. What a wonderful era of tennis.
Today, three of the greatest champions of men’s tennis take centre stage.
As in 2014, the fan in me will wish Roger Federer to win. He’s playing as beautifully as we’ve come to expect of him. But it seems likely that this may be his last match on the grass courts of Wimbledon. That it comes against the great Rafael Nadal, who, eleven years ago beat him in a match widely considered an ‘epic’, and who, less than a month ago, swatted him aside like a fly on the clay of Roland Garros, makes this a nerve-wracking match.
As in 2014, I know deep within that he may not make it further in the tournament, and yet, I will hope, and let myself be heartbroken. I’d rather watch him lose to another great tennis player, than to close the screens and miss a great match.
It’s been a privilege to watch him play, and I am proud to have seen most of his 100 wins on the screen, live.
Federer Vs Nadal episode 40 awaits. Would you rather watch the replay or let the drama unfold before your eyes in real time?
In case you are wondering, here’s what I wrote in the summer of 2014: The Last Hurrah?
Also, in the unlikely event that he does get through, the likely finalist Novak Djokovic will pose a much, much stiffer competition.
Tomorrow, Serena Williams will be playing to own yet another page in the history books. Her achievements in a society and sport that is steeped in patriarchy — am I not guilty of it as well, by writing about her after the others? — are awe-inspiring.
Perhaps it is the one-sided nature of the matches that disappoint fans of the sport, and do not evoke the same passion as the other side of the sport — I recall looking forward to her matches against Justin Henin, and lately, Angelique Kerber with similar anticipation.
I have admired Simona Halep’s game for a while, and hope she will give Serena a run for the money (and glory) tomorrow. Had it been any other player, I would have said that it may be her last shot at number 24, but with the US open left this year, she may well make it 25.
These three days, I’m rooting for the underdogs. In the end, two players will add one title to their kitty. The biggest winner, though, will be the sport of tennis, and it’s crazy fans.
Picture any coming-of-age movie with bratty teenagers making life miserable for their teacher. That was math class in my school.
My math teacher in senior high school was a brilliant teacher. Gentle, patient, knowledgeable, and effortlessly simplified complex concepts for those of us who were terrible in mathematics. His only flaw, was that he was a Tamilian, with a dark complexion, and a very thick accent. For a majority of my classmates, he was great fodder for bullying. They openly mocked his accent, and laughed in class. There weren’t any repercussions on their education — they had tuitions after school to make up for that.
Being a fellow Tamilian, I could understand his frustration. And that motivated me to be that one person in class that he could call a student. The other teachers were treated with more respect (or perhaps, fear), but student disinterest in studies, was blatantly clear.
In college, the atmosphere was completely opposite. Unlike school, the students had their independence. And the teachers — highly accomplished academics — were indifferent to them. Students didn’t dare disturb classes. But if they were disinterested, they’d just leave. Here too, private tuitions were the safety net.
In both my school and college, I stubbornly refused to take these supplementary classes. Some of the reasons included: my firm belief that extra tuitions were for ‘dumbos’ who couldn’t study on their own; my stubbornness in sticking to that judgement even as the ‘intelligent’ ones folded in; and my unwillingness in spending exorbitant amounts in fees when the same (sometimes better) education was already being paid for (that too at a subsidised rate).
It was these beliefs, that pushed me to ask questions in class, to seek clarifications on things I struggled to grasp. At first, I felt stupid. But my egotistical self that refused outside help, gave me no choice. Between feeling publicly stupid, and privately admitting I needed help, apparently, I preferred the former.
And so I asked questions. Even as I felt I was being stupid.
It was after one Accounts class in school. One of my classmates came up to me to seek clarification on a topic that had been introduced that day. I had asked the same question in class, just moments earlier.
It was then, that I realised, that by asking questions, I wasn’t being stupid. I was asking the questions everyone wanted to ask, but for some reason didn’t.
Ego, stubbornness, being judgemental, aren’t traits I, or anyone, would be proud of. By no means am I advocating it. These very traits have hurt me very badly. In the years since, I have tried to let go of my ego — it’s a work-in-progress, and I think I have made a fair amount of progress.
I have learnt that there is no shame in asking for help. It is wrong to label people as ‘dumb’. And it is naive (even, dangerous) to judge people based on my unfounded notions.
But for compelling me learn to teach myself, and brazenly ask questions in uncomfortable environments — abilities that have helped me immensely in my work as a user experience designer — I am thankful to that adolescent, egotistical, judgemental self.
Scrolling though the draws in this year’s Wimbledon, I couldn’t help notice the stark difference between the ladies and gentlemen’s section of the draws. While there was diversity and an open playing field on one side, the other had very predictable favourites (FYI – mine are the Swiss ones). While there is a significant amount of diversity at one end, the other lacks any succession plan.
With so many inspirational players in the gentlemen’s draw belonging to one generation, I wonder how long this can be sustained. When they all retire en mass, I often doubt if I would take an interest in tennis.
The ladies, though, give me much hope. The story of Wimbledon so far is definitely about a certain fifteen year old, Cori Gauff who played her idol, Venus Williams on Court No.1 on her very first Grand Slam. From her shot making, to how she handled the big stage, and her humility thereafter — thanking Venus after the match — is awe-inspiring.
I hope she goes on to achieve many more wins (she plays later today) and retains her focus, grace and composure.
Earlier today, I learnt about the number of moms (Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams, Evgeniya Rodina, Maria Martínez Sánchez & Mandy Minella) playing on the circuit. It amazes me how these players continue to compete at the highest level, digging up reserves, beating not just physical strains but also fighting a patriarchal system. There are far more fathers on the tour, as compared to mothers, who are forced to quit due to lack of child-care facilities at most courts around the world (barring the four grand slams).
Mother’s Day may have gone by several weeks ago, but these heroes do not need a specific day to celebrate them.
Thank you, ladies, for inspiring us with your grit and determination.
Everyday, while performing mundane tasks, such as doing the dishes, I open the YouTube App on my phone, and allow it it show me videos that it has learned to curate for me. For the most part, the app gets it right — US-based late-night political comedies and TED talks.
Today, this talk popped up in my feed: “How to gain control of your free time.” I had watched this video before, but because my hands were engaged (and because this is a great talk), I allowed the smartphone to remind me of how wasteful I have been of my time.
Time management expert Laura Vanderkam says that when people say they don’t have time for something, what they mean is, that it’s not their priority.
When something is a priority for us, we make time for it, no matter how busy our lives are.
I have experienced this first hand, several times. Including, as recently as, last month, when I got around to digitise my mother’s art, in time for her 60th birthday. My previous attempt was way back in 2015. And after four years, with enough motivation to drive me, I finally opened shop on Society6 (This announcement should, and will be, a separate post) .
Under virtual dust
At the end of last year, one of my regrets was not having maintained this blog much. Two posts in a year was a dismal number, considering that the previous year saw me celebrate my 300th post during the NaBloPoMo.
I have several unfinished drafts and ideas — some that are many years old, and some only in want of a ‘featured image’ to go live.
As this video reminds me, somewhat harshly, blogging isn’t my priority anymore. And that is an unhappy thought. Why did I stop doing that which I absolutely loved?
The answer: The decline in my writing on the blog has coincided with my use of Instagram.
Most of my blog posts go through multiple iterations, with me reading, and re-reading them, to make sure it is something worth reading. There is this burden of responsibility, to do justice to the reader’s time. On Instagram, however, there is lesser pressure to write.
I do realise that this pressure about ‘quality of writing’ is pretentious. Clearly, I blog for very selfish reasons.
Another reason, is the decline in community participation — or more appropriately, the narcissism factor. Back when WordPress had ‘featured posts’ on its homepage, and ran Weekly Photo Challenges, there seemed to be a greater incentive to post (read, greater likelihood of ‘likes’). Blogging was chance to discover, and be discovered. (The Discover tab on WordPress now is rather uninspiring)
I found Instagram to be more engaging. Words are less appealing than pictures. Those who couldn’t be bothered to read, are happy seeing pictures (and that includes me). Today, Instagram is what WordPress used to be — fun.
And so, since that NaBloPoMo in 2017, when I gingerly opened my Instagram account, writing has moved to another platform.
Finding a way back
Over the past two years there have been so many exciting things I should have written about here — in my safe space — but didn’t get around to. (I published on four different platforms, travelled to new places, let go of toxic relationships and put myself on a path to heal myself).
Most nights, I lay awake simply because there are so many ideas jumping in my head, waiting to explode (here’s why).
This, rather impulsive post, is my attempt at making a comeback to blogging. Will it succeed? Only time will tell.
I watched my father-in-law poke a few holes into the bag with the screwdriver. He left it in the corner, and turned around to find me in a happy daze.
Here I was fretting about the lack of an actual ground. ‘One can’t possibly compost without a hole in the ground,’ I thought to myself. And there he was, coolly collecting all the kitchen waste into a plastic bag to make a compost bag in our tiny apartment balcony.
After my in-laws returned to their home, we continued to add kitchen waste to this make-shift compost bag, excited about harvesting compost.
But something wasn’t quite right.
For starters, it smelt bad. Very, very bad.
And it was super soggy – dripping brown smelly liquid wherever we kept it.
And then there were the maggots. Lots of them.
I was sure that I wanted to compost waste, and was determined to do so. But was it to be as yucky as this? Neither of us had any idea. And so we shot the question out into the electrical void – the internet.
The internet informed us what was going wrong. The short answer: our compost was out of ‘balance’ and had too much moisture*.
To solve our immediate composting crisis, we added shredded newspaper, and left the bag slightly open, in the furthest corner of our balcony. Next step: we decided to get a proper composter.
Fast-forward a couple of months, and we welcomed our Kambha.
The Kambha is a terracotta composter made by a Bengaluru based NGO, Daily Dump. There really isn’t much to it: three earthen pots with holes on the sides. While the top two had a rope mesh at the bottom, the third one was closed at the bottom. They stacked up neatly. I marvelled at the simplicity of its design.
We watched the instructional video and transferred our (now utterly disgusting) waste and added some of the ‘remix’ material supplied by the organisation. The ‘remix’ material and the terracotta absorbed the excess moisture, and within a couple of days the compost stopped smelling.
As I learnt soon enough, the compost pile is as much a living organism as you and me. Needing a well balanced diet, breathing in oxygen, and exhaling carbon dioxide. And if it is malnourished or there is something wrong with its digestion, it emits a foul smell.
As for the maggots, they stopped bothering me. The composter was now a self enclosed eco-system. The compost pile was its earth. And a host of creatures grazed on its lands. With the plastic bag out of the way, the air around the compost became more breathable, and the fruit flies joined the maggots. Soon the land sprung shoots of large fungi, and even a sapling here and there. And the fungus gnats appeared. The maggots slowly reduced in number, as the competition for food grew. And then came the spiders – the top of the food chain, preying upon the insects.
All the while the kitchen waste continued to reduce. What was first green, yellow and purple slowly turned a rich, dark brown colour, and it smelt sweet – like Mother Nature.
Minha stood in front of me. Surrounded by her parents, and standing close to her baby brother’s pram, she waited in anticipation for the writer who had written her favourite story. In her arms was a colourful hard-bound book, eagerly waiting for Mussourie’s most famous resident to sign it for her. She held it close to her, as if she wanted to hug every word within its pages.
She wasn’t alone.
When we arrived at the book shop, an hour ahead of scheduled time, the queue was already 15 people long. It was the Saturday before Easter, and the hill-town was brimming with tourists from all over the country, and the world.
“We were planning to return to Delhi by 10 this morning,” said Minha’s mother. “But this little one was quite insistent upon meeting Ruskin Bond. And so, here we are.”
“If we wouldn’t have lingered on at the restaurant for the second parantha, we’d have been at the beginning of the queue,” Minha’s father playfully teased her.
“Minha read this story, The Cherry Tree. And in it, she read that Ruskin Bond lives in Mussourie. She’s been wanting to meet him ever since.”
Ruskin Bond planted his Cherry Tree several decades ago. As it grew, it delighted him. He shared his delight with his readers, and they loved every word of it. His words delighted me. And they continue to delight young readers like Minha.
In that little girl standing in front of me, I saw a reflection of myself. I must have been about her age too, when I harboured the dream of meeting Mr. Bond, because of those lines in every book I read, “He now lives with his adopted family in Landour, Mussourie.”
But my reflection ended at precisely 3:30 pm, just as a vehicle pulled up beside us. Even as Minha’s mother excitedly pulled out her phone to snap a close-up picture of the writer now amidst us, I stood dumbstruck.
He waved and acknowledged his fans and then disappeared into the bookshop. Minha had the biggest smile on her face, as she peered into her mother’s phone. Her mother, in turn looked at me with excitement, and then exclaimed, “Oh come on! Don’t cry, yaar!”
Tears rolling down my cheeks, I tried to hide my face from the young girl. “Keep it together, there’s a little girl in front of you – what will she think,” I repeatedly told myself. Minha smiled innocently, but something told me she wasn’t judging me. And I silently thanked her for it.
Within a few short minutes, my twenty-year old wait ended.
“I remember this… It’s one of the earlier covers.”
In Mr. Bond’s hands was my favourite book – which had been in our house ever since I can remember.
For over twenty years, it has been my dream to meet Mr. Ruskin Bond, to tell him how much his writing has meant to me; how I read and reread the stories in the book “The night train at Deoli”.
And yet, when the time came to express my sheer joy and excitement at meeting my hero, I struggled to contain my tears. I simultaneously smiled and choked. Eventually I stammered the words, “this book is as old as I am.”
Mr. Bond held the book; my book; my family’s book; his book. He recognised the old cover and said, “You have preserved it well.”
After he had signed the book, I meekly placed the other old book I had brought with me: The Children’s Omnibus. It was one of the first books I asked my parents to buy for me, when I was about 10 years old. And I remember the sequence of events surrounding that purchase: the Scholastic mail order form, choosing the books, the anticipation, and receiving the books in class.
Mr. Bond pointed to his portrait on the yellowing cover of the book and said, “I was much slimmer then!” And then we burst out laughing. I felt a little bit at ease.
There was a long queue of fans waiting to get their turn. I couldn’t hog his time for long. Mr. Bond returned the signed books and said, “I can’t initial or write messages…” I would like to believe he wanted to write me a comforting message. I’ll never know.
That night I cried my heart out. And continue to cry every time I think about it – even now. I cannot explain these fits of crying – except perhaps as an indication of immeasurable joy, that is too much to comprehend without being overwhelmed.
But I also wonder, are these tears of regret? The things I wish I had spoken about – how much I adored his stories; how much his style of writing influenced me; how, like him, I loved nature, and walking, and collecting feathers and stones and coins and seashells… instead I stammered and stuttered.
Today, as Mr. Bond turns eighty five years young, he is launching yet another book. The whole town will, no doubt, be there to wish him. I wonder, if I were there today, would I be able express my gratitude to him? Highly unlikely.