As I continue to draw in my COVID Journal it is changing along with the times and becoming something new. So I have decided to call it The Beautiful Horrific to reflect our horrifying time, and look for the beauty that comes with it. The following are some new pages from the month of June. It has been overwhelming and eye opening.
After seeing the apartment we went downstairs for a traditional South Indian Meal. We begin by washing our banana leaf with water and wiping it off with our hands. There are no utensils given for this meal and it is thought that both the banana leaf and eating with your hands enhances the flavor of the food. I don’t profess to know all about the ins and outs of the South Indian Meal, and it varies from region to region, but I do know that there is a prescribed variety of foods that are placed in precise areas of the leaf. My meal began with a small mound of salt on the upper left and a sweet tapioca paysam on the lower right. Then across the top is a row of pickle, chutney, salad and some vegetable. We we given papdum crunchier on the left side and in this case we were served a baby mango curry. The main course is served in the center beginning with a heap of white rice and some sambar. In this case were were also given bisi beli bath on the left side. Once the sambar is finished we are given rice and rasam and then mosuru, or curd rice. Then desseSome people fold their leaf when they are finished eating, but I was told by my sister in law that this can have various meanings for different occasions. Best to follow what those around you are doing.
Did I mention that the meals are served by many shirtless men wearing lungi (South Indian wrapped skirt)? How could I forget? They move up and down the aisles with their stainless steel buckets of food, ladling out each variety before you can say ‘bus’ (enough)! It is only after all the guests are served that the hosting family will sit down to eat.We are sent home with two bags. One has a coconut in it and we are given banana. The second one has a prescribed set of gifts that vary little. Below, the green package at the top is a blouse piece, to be stitched at a tailor to go with your sari. Underneath is a 10 rupee note that was given by a family member during the meal and an envelope with 200R. On the right is a sweet block of jaggery and betel leaves, and on the left are bags of crunchy snacks and ladu sweets. At the bottom is a packet of betel nut powder to be eaten with the betel leaves, and red and yellow kum kum (to dot your forehead). I couldn’t resist including this beautiful Laurie Baker style home with that was next door. Venkatesh has been a big fan of his designs, built with brick open work patterns, for years.
Well I’m back home in Evanston but there are some things I never managed to post, so I will continue for a bit. It’s chilly and rainy and a bit too quiet for me here. I am missing my second home – Bangalore. Ashwin said to me, ‘ Aren’t we lucky Mummy? We have two homes.’ and indeed we do – and we are.This guy presented himself to us one morning and just look what he can do!
He flattens himself out and draws his front legs together in front to look like a leaf and stem. We found him in the living room and it looked like a leaf had just stuck to the wall. I spent my morning taking some pictures of the ground floor apartment where my in-laws live. I want to capture some of these vignettes of home before they change. When I think back to my first visit to India in 2002, so much has changed and is now lost.
This 24 hour journey begins in the afternoon of a fairly ordinary day, when we take an auto to 13th Cross in Malleswaram to pick up Ashwin’s clothes at Modern Tailors. We began with a short walk on Sampige Road where there are lots of local shops.
I found these beauties in the morning. The beetle is dead but the spider is very much alive. I didn’t want to get too close! I have never seen a spider make these heavy zigzag lines before. There was one for each leg position.
I had time to do a little drawing, so I drew some of Tata’s treasures. It felt good to sit and look at something closely.
This 24 hour day ended with a nice afternoon, enjoying a meal with friends of the family and mangoes for dessert. They are so sweet, they taste like candy.
We stopped for tea at the edge of Bandipur Tiger Preserve, on our way to Tranquil. Tranquil was such a beautiful spot. The food was fantastic and I felt a lot of the day was spent eating. Everyone at the resort was so gracious and made sure that we were comfortable and having a nice holiday.
We took a train to Mysore and spent the night with Venkatesh’s, sister’s, in-laws for the night. While there we went to see the Mysore Maharaja’s Palace. The King of Mysore (Wodyar dynasty) lived in this palace and even continued to rule during British control of India until 1950. His family continues to live in a portion of it, and the rest is controlled by the State of Karnataka.
While there it began raining, so we decided to go inside the palace, but everyone else had the same idea and it became quite crowded. When we realized we had to remove our shoes and check our bags to go in, we lost interest and left. We waited on the sidewalk for Venkatesh to call an Uber to go home, when a black and white cow started heading straight for us. It stopped right behind V to eat some garbage under a tree and I thought we were fine, but then it decided to move on. I began telling Venkatesh to move but I wasn’t quick enough. The cow budged him to the side and people near us started saying ‘EXCUSE ME, EXCUSE ME’ to get us to move, but we couldn’t move fast enough. I had Ashwin and my niece with me, so I grabbed their arms to yank them aside as the cow passed within an inch of us. Sila fell over and she thought the whole thing was very funny. She couldn’t stop giggling and talking about it. ‘What that cow do Mardy Auntie?’
The next day we hired a taxi to take us to Tranquil Resort, on a coffee plantation in Wayanad, Kerala. We drove through Bandipur Tiger Preserve on the way and were very lucky to see an elephant family, as well as spotted deer, peacock and rhesus monkeys.
We stayed in a beautiful treehouse and were woken up on the first morning by a curious monkey who was trying to peek into our room. He jumped on a deck chair and nearly knocked it over, then when he couldn’t see well enough through the sheer curtains, he climbed up to look through a small window above our slider. We just checked each other out for a bit until he ran over our roof and disappeared.
After breakfast we took a long walk through the estate. During the monsoon season we were told to watch out for leeches, so we wore socks and sneakers. When Ashwin heard his Auntie Vinuta talking about the leeches, he absolutely refused to go hiking, until Uncle Ram offered to carry him on his back. We walked through intermittent rain and sun, looking for wildlife and saw many birds, including a beautiful Greater Racket Tailed Drongo. Of course, right about that time I felt a slight itch on my calf and when I lifted my pant leg, there was a leech attached. Luckily, Vinuta was prepared with a bag of salt and she got the leech to release from my leg.
We took the long trail through puddles and muck and when we finally reached the end, we realized the trail wasn’t a loop and we had to turn around and go all the way back. The trail was truly beautiful, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful for this experience, but I also don’t want to gloss over the reality and paint a perfectly enviable picture. When I found out that we had to retrace our steps and risk picking up another leech, not to mention the fact that Ashwin was now walking and I was worried for him, I was not feeling happy. So when Ashwin said ‘ When are we going to leave this fucking forest’ – I cracked up laughing because he was speaking my exact thoughts. Anyway, he did end up finding a leech on his leg too, and he handled it in a very calm manner. I was very proud of him. We also saw a peacock on the way back, that we had only heard on the first leg of the journey. We even saw him take off in flight, with a surprising flash of orange on his back. It was truly beautiful.
Happy 50th Birthday Venkatesh – this trip was his gift.
I have thought about this almost every time I visit India, how death is so close to the surface here, and yet India is so full of life. In the West I feel that we gloss over so many things that are difficult to deal with; from where we get our meat, to illness, and death. We want to package things up neatly and we don’t want to discuss our true feelings. But India is not neatly packaged. Perhaps this is a stretch, but I think this can be compared to our sense of smell. These are the tropics, and with heat and humidity everything smells more pungent.I began writing this two days ago, but as I sit on the porch of a tree house at Tranquil, a coffee plantation resort, I am continuing to think about it. How do I put this into words without insulting anyone? I don’t think it’s very polite to discuss the way someone’s home or country smells, yet I want to be honest and record my impressions.
It’s monsoon season and I am listening to a rushing stream down below as I sit on our deck in the tree canopy. It continues to rain this morning but I am enjoying the storm. I woke up to a rhesus monkey peering in our window and everything smells lush and green. How much better does it get? This is life and I feel lucky to be able to experience it. But underneath the freshness of life is danger, decay and death. My son fears snakes, but it’s the leeches we have to look out for as we walk the trails. India is messy. We actually took a walk today. Ashwin and I both got leeches but Vinuta Auntie was prepared with salt and they came off easily. See? Not so bad after all. They are also just trying to survive.
Thinking back to Bangalore, when we landed in the early morning in the dark and quiet, there was the telltale smell of damp and spice. Gopal, at 84, is there to meet us as usual. We drive through the streets which are already busy at 3 a.m. and smell early morning fires and exhaust from vehicles. The streets already have a fair amount of traffic. Upon entering the ground floor I’m faced with the smell of dog, Bubble has become old and smelly. We walk up the stairs to the Cloudhouse for a nap and as we walk by the door to the apartment on the first floor I smell cats. While eating breakfast there is the smell of death on the breeze. There it is – death, never far away. An animal is decaying somewhere on the property next door. We know that Saras Auntie died in the room off the living room. That room also had a pungent smell when she was alive, and Ashwin is still nervous to enter. Then there is the smell of compost. It’s all vegetable matter breaking down, but it smells like the manure that’s spread in the fields of Indiana when Gopal turns it over. It wafts through the living room. Then suddenly, a strong smell of ripe mango as the breeze blows across the fruit basket on the window sill, or jasmine growing outside the kitchen window. The strong smell of incense is suddenly on par with everything else, not overpowering as it is at home. Does any of this make sense? I’m not sure. They are just my thoughts and this little corner of the India I know.
Yesterday afternoon, Ashwin’s grandfather wanted to buy a gift for him, so they made a visit to Modern Tailors. If you know Ashwin, you know he has style, and loves to dress in a shirt and tie. This is his first time being fitted for some hand stitched shirts and pants.
First, the tailor takes your measurements and estimates how much fabric to buy. Then you must go to the fabric shop to buy yardage and take it back to the tailor for stitching. Having clothes stitched by a tailor is still pretty commonplace in India, but there are many more readymade clothes available than there used to be. I think many younger Indians are wearing store bought clothes, especially in the city. Surprisingly, they tend to be more expensive than custom tailored clothes.
Just when I think I’m over jetlag and I have been sleeping through the night, I’m up at 1:30 in the morning and unable to go back to sleep. Time to write a blog. Today is Venkatesh’s birthday and will probably be busy, but yesterday the day began quietly with coffee. We didn’t have to go anywhere and I wandered through the house taking some pictures.
Venkatesh and I took a small walk to the stationery shop around the corner. He wanted to buy an inexpensive Hero fountain pen. They are made in China but were used by school children when they started fifth standard in India. We bought the last one with the old body design and were told they won’t be getting any more. No one asks for them.
We walked past shops and stopped for a coffee at a small breakfast place. Coffee is piping hot and served in a 2 ounce glass with milk and sugar. You stand and drink it on the sidewalk then put the dirty glass in a tub. The price is 10 rupees or approximately one and one half cents. That’s the first time I’ve calculated the cost in dollars and the price is crazy! Goodbye Starbucks! Strangely enough, Starbucks does exist in India and the coffee is just as expensive as it is in the U.S. How can these two options exist in the same market, on the same block?
While traveling to India this time, we flew Emirates through Dubai Airport. The first leg of the journey was over 13 hours but it worked out well. Once the dinner was over and the lights dimmed, we still had plenty of time left to sleep for the night, and it didn’t feel like we were jolted awake at 3 in the morning. I was very excited to see Dubai from the plane and although we didn’t have window seats, our plane had cameras that we could access on our movie screens. One view pointed directly down to the ground and one showed the pilots view. We watched as our plane went over the downtown area with all the skyscrapers, and we watched the buildings dwindle in height as we flew toward the airport. Eventually random squares were dispersed in the desert, some filling with wind driven sand. Most areas were sandy with scrubby brush, then a bright green rectangle would appear, or one filled with trees and plants in a line. The highways from above looked very orderly and geometric, with many roundabouts.
As we entered Dubai Airport, the first thing we noticed was the quiet – this is a no announcement airport. It is a very sleek , modern airport and we had to take several elevators and a tram to get to our terminal. As we went up an escalator suddenly we heard a soft Namaz, call to prayer, it was soothing and ethereal. I still feel this is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world. This airport was a dream – not crowded or noisy, no lines, and we didn’t have to go through yet another security check. We could go from terminal to terminal freely. I feel that this is the way to travel in future.
One easy four hour flight and we were in Bangalore. Gopal, my 84 year old father in law, was there to meet us as usual at 3 a.m. Bangalore time. He is truly amazing. So we are now SOD in Bangalore and battling jetlag.