Tag Archives: San Francisco Bay area

Reheat, Serve

30 Oct

This past month, I’ve been revisiting definitions of home. Specifically, how my notion of the word itself has changed, from an intensely familiar brick-and-mortar space bearing my history and tales of generations of family, to new lands: both geographical and synaptical, and finally to the person I come home to roost with each day. It’s a fascinating concept, this little word, but I have no bandwidth to say anything new about it presently. So here’s another reheated (read previously-published) piece from India Currents magazine about home, histories, and belonging. What do you think of when you think of home?

~

Three Fates

We sit at a table crowded with spiced, steaming tea cups, a study in diversity. One whose bronzed, gleaming skin carries tales of her ocean-framed ancestors. Another, pale, fair, with whispers of ancient Persia in her veins, and the third, of the same people, her bloodline mapping the landscape of two great nations.

Between us, live roots and displacement. Among us, rock movements and plane rides and boat journeys from 1200 years ago. We are of people who have shifted. Whose sensibilities and histories have shifted. People who once belonged, then belonged again, spun in cycles of precarious identity. Ripped from their homeland by threat, under duress and desire to build a life beyond living.

Around this table covered in cheap formica we sit, the Buddhist from Colombo, the Parsis from Karachi and Bombay, who have known other lands as rank strangers, then intimately, as a secret shared on a one night stand. We congregate our beings around disposable cups of chai and unleash our stories.

Time, it melts away. We jump off a cliff in the 10th century, swing past invasions, conversions, and long bloody, migrations, crash land into civil war and hurried overnight departures, past the smell of burning flesh and singed spirits, yank and sow roots stripped to rawness, touchdown in subcontinental cities where lineage marched to a temporary tune, then continent-hop over to Africa, to North America, the luckiest among us belonging only to two places,  now gathered here in these cities around the Bay, where a microclimate, a microculture, a microuniverse of one can safely exist.

Turning around in unison, we nod to our waiting ancestors. It’s alright, we say, you survived, and then revert to the vapors rising out of our drinks, to punctuate our sagas with a period.

Through the hollows of their eyes, Fate stands silently by, eraser in hand, knowing her day will come again.

 

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Spiritual Sundays

7 Apr

The Boy and I, by virtue of living in crunchy granola California, have turned increasingly spiritual and high-minded. Afloat on an ocean of good intentions and noblesse, we invite you to share this beautiful, light-radiant journey with us as we experience it each Sunday:

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Our first act of worship feeds the soul (and other assorted body parts). Gently-poached eggs rest calmly upon a pair of perfect crabcakes, drizzled with hollandaise and a smidgen of paprika. Completing the holy trinity is a side of herbed potatoes that can be best described as divine. The benediction virtually spills out of us and far in the distance, angels tune their harps.

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Consider it your fabulous fortune that you are about to be enlightened: Did you know Zoroastrians in India worship 3 grades of fire at 2 different kinds of fire temples? Agyaris, temples of the lesser fire, are places of worship where the fire consists of only 11 different varieties (from the homes of artisans, farmers, soldiers and civil servants, priests, etc.) Atash Behrams, temples of the greater fire, house a perenially-burning entity (as does an Agyari) that is the combination of 16 unique fires. Why am I sharing this today? Because the picture above is our version of an Agyari. Prostrating before Tiffany-blue platters and paying homage to lemon-print cushions, the Boy and I worship Our Lady of Immaculate Homesteads.

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Our next pilgrimage takes us to this vibrant green wood, a good indication of afterlife beauty. The hum of humanity falls away, and all at once, we are enveloped in A Great Calm. Here, we rest on this bench and ponder Questions of Significance. Like whether we should have ordered one pancake less that morning. Or whether almonds should be coated in dark chocolate or caramel. If our stomachs weren’t that loaded, we would feel our souls levitate.

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Turning our attention to more earthly pursuits, we gaze upon the wonder of this valley. Deer watch us from a distance, and so pious are we that not once do we discuss the venison cutlets at the Rendezvous in Pondicherry. Somewhere beyond those purple-hazed mountains lies an abbey that I would run into after trilling about hills and music and my heart wanting to sing every song it hears.

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At the entrance of our favorite forest, we take a moment to breathe. Heady from the oxygen-and-pine-needles high, we resemble whirling dervishes, spinning our sins away. Our veneration, friends, is about to get intense.

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The forest floor greets us, an emerald ocean of universal compassion, swathing us in its cool, unjudging love. It is the natural equivalent of the Hugging Amma, and we demonstrate obeisance by furiously capturing it for posterity. This is one deity that must grace our humble home.

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Presently, we chance upon a stream, and proceed to wash away our sins by wiggling toes and splashing each other’s sinful faces. Did you know we need to wash before we enter the inner sanctum of an Agyari or Atash Behram? For every cleanliness-obsessed Parsi, there are three rules on how to scrub behind the ears. Heaven seems just around the bend, as we are tempted to float on our backs and sail away to a parallel plane, where our spirit guides dole out personalized M&Ms in silvery gauze gift bags.

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But then, gentle reader, we chance upon this. And our wretched spirits soar to the tops of these cloud-cossetted trees, awed by this magical Land of Wishing Trees, and never mind the mixed Blyton references, have you ever seen a 5’9″ woman this dwarfed??? Even as our bodies shrink and our souls expand, we whisper gratitude into the ether and thank the universe for landing us plonk in the middle of this paradise.  Newly awash in this unique redwood incense, we turn homeward, blessed for being able to choose our definition of spirituality, and for this, the best of Sundays.

 

Under the Redwood Trees

5 Feb

There is no feeling in the world comparable to standing on a forest floor, surrounded by redwood trees as they quietly, mightily graze the sky. It wasn’t a feeling I was familiar with when we first moved to Northern California 3 years ago. An acutely urban creature, I am completely at ease amidst concrete and glass towers, maddening traffic, and the ceaseless buzz of humanity that characterizes metropolitan cities. Be it New York, Philadelphia, Boston, L.A., Paris, Washington D.C., Miami, London, Seattle, San Francisco, or my own Bombay, I have felt a sense of comfort in city air. I have never known nor craved the outdoors, or wanted a home with a sprawling garden like some folks dream of. The streets were to get to places. Who aimlessly rambled outside their home when there was so much fun to be had with indoor pursuits? So when I first walked into a redwood state park 40 minutes from our home, a never-before hush descended on me.

There, in patches of sunlight that struggled through dense treetops, I experienced an exquisite sense of aloneness. Not to be confused with loneliness, no, just a feeling of being the only human in that cool, scented universe, being watched by companionable flora and the creatures that call it home.

Occasionally, there were others who passed by respectfully, with a nod and genial smile, their sneakers crunching along the path, babies on their front or bottles of water on their hip. Then, I was alone again.

The silence pressed in on my eardrums. It is amazing how deafening a lack of sound can be. There was, quite literally, nothing. I strained to catch a distant chopper. I recognized the sound of my breath. And all the while, I was dwarfed by these magnificent natural marvels that have stood guard for several centuries.

I touched their tannin-tinted bark. Imagined what they have witnessed. Has their environment changed so much in the last 500 years? Some trunks lay horizontal, their gnarled roots exposed. Others formed a ring around their Mother Tree, a mammoth entity worthy of awe. A carpet of ferns sprawled around them, gleaming emerald-gold in the slanting light. Embarrassedly, I hugged one of the slimmer trees, my arms wrapped around its solid girth. Bloody Californian, I mocked myself inwardly. But there was wisdom in soaking up their energy, and I was conscious of doing just that as I loitered, no particular plan in mind, no agenda, just a wish to be.

Deeper in the woods is a river. Jumping across stones, I stripped my socks off and wiggled toes in an icy stream. I’ll never be Huck Finn, it’s true, but for someone for whom taking off footwear outside the home is a Parsi version of haraam, you’ve got to concede it was a beginning!

The sun traveled, ruling a cloudless sky. Such welcome warmth in its friendly rays! I inhaled the pungent, heady scent of our ancient friends one last time, then turned and walked toward ‘civilization’. And this worshipper of all things urban knew an unexplored part of her had awoken.

~

I leave you with pictures from an afternoon jaunt to Land of Medicine Buddha and the ‘Enchanted Forest’ in the Santa Cruz mountains, and hope you experience the peace I did. Click on any picture you wish to view larger.

[Credits: Instagram on my Google Nexus phone, and the charming Land of Medicine Buddha.]

Peas, Potatoes & Parsis

14 Oct

“Aye Mahnaz, ai joh, gilora!” came a voice wafting across the produce-lined aisles of my local Indian store, effortlessly conquering Kumar Sanu’s nostrils. The words crashed against my eardrums. My body continued to move on autopilot. An arm rose to open the door to the refrigerator case while the other grabbed a bunch of cilantro. Meanwhile, deep inside me, everything hushed and I strained to listen.

Gilora. The Parsi word for the vegetable the rest of the world calls “tindora”, among other names. That unmistakable accent that belongs only to my people. Here, in the sunny South Bay, thousands of miles away from our hub in South Bombay, were a full three Parsis of the 100,000 left in the world.

Being one of such a unique minority fosters a strong feeling of extended family. We are alarmingly identical (and near-uniformly mad as coots). It means that when there’s a Parsi in the vicinity, I will almost certainly feel the level of kinship the rest of the world feels for an aunt or cousin. As I turned to face the voices in question, my mental checklist fired through its boxes: short hair, cropped pants, hazel eyes. Check, check, and check. And the undeniable proof, the language we took from the well-meaning Gujaratis, mangled into a linguistic pretzel, and unleashed upon the world, sprinkled with the sugar we’re supposed to be.

There’s a solid reason why reality TV doesn’t cut it for me. Daily life offers infinitely better humor. Exclamations floated across the eggplants as the two merry women planned their menus, rechristened theplas “methi ni rotli“, sang along and thumped cucumbers to Bollywood songs from the ’60s, and yanked an entire roll of grocery bags off its holder, expressing loud surprise when bell peppers flew in four directions. As my body continued to pick out groceries independent of its brain, a smile broke out on my face, one I quickly hid amid the spinach leaves, whilst debating whether to let on that there was a clanswoman in their midst.

In the end, eyeing their increasingly amusing trot around the store and eavesdropping shamelessly on their conversation trumped any spirit of confession I may have harbored, and I remained content to spectate. Paying for my purchases, I turned back one last time, gave them a broad grin, and walked out to my car, chuckling all the way home.

My beloved community, may our foibles never stop and our capsicum always fly.

Play Review: Vande Mataram

19 Jun

When we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area two and a half years ago, our aunt introduced us to Naatak, a local theater and indie cinema company with a reputation for interesting productions, well-executed scripts, and great performances. Naatak’s plays, enacted in Hindi (mostly), English (sometimes), and Tamil (infrequently), with supertitles, have used the scripts—both original and adapted— of stalwarts such as Bhisham Sahni, Satyajit Ray, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad. The play in review, Vande Mataram, was written in 1997 by one of Naatak’s mainstays, Sujit Saraf. And if you’re wondering why I’m blathering on about the writing piece more than any other element, it is because this wonderful performance that we enjoyed this past weekend was the product of a strong, nuanced, beautifully written script that was satisfying and whetting in equal parts.

Vande Mataram opens the night before August 8, 1942. For those of you not familiar with the Indian freedom struggle, this date marks the launch of the Quit India movement. With Japan advancing rapidly and successfully through the countries east of India, and Britain’s increasing need for Indian military and resource support to fuel its WW II efforts, Indian leaders finally had a playing card and employed resistance and civil disobedience tactics to make the Empire take heed of their demands. It is here that the storyline departs from the black-and-white textbook version of history that would have us believe it was Gandhi vs. the British Raj, Independence vs. Colonialism, and Honor, Freedom and All Things Good vs. Exploitation, Repression and Popular Sub-continental Narratives.

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[Photo credit: My resident photographer, the one and wonlyderful Boy.]

Interestingly, the production whose byline reads “A play about greed, gunpowder and Gandhism” manages to skillfully remove Gandhi from center stage and relegate him to the footnotes. Based on the Keezhariyur bomb case in Kerala (erstwhile Malabar), it introduces us to a cast of characters that plot to blow up a bridge in Patna along the same lines and draws us into a web of their motivations, personal histories and politicking. Six men, each playing his part superbly, embody a motley crew of a Colorado-trained professor, a local Congress committee head, two Marwari businessmen (and feuding brothers), a restaurant owner and a former soldier-turned-bank-guard with “a chudail who dances in his head”. Together, they debate, squabble, negotiate, reminisce, manipulate, plot, re-plot and maneuver the circumstances to their individual viewpoints and advantage, and through their synergy, we are rapidly transported from a macro picture to a microcosm of their personal greed, ambition, humor, and failings. We relate. We associate. We recognize. Sitting in a darkened theater on a sunny California afternoon 70 years later, the audience identifies the common human denominators that bind us all, and it is to the scriptwriter and actors’ credit that they make it so easy.

Then there is the plot. Moving at a fair pace, this dialogue-heavy play never feels a minute too long, and with a well-timed interval, leaves one waiting for the second half. Will the plot succeed? Will they be caught? Will a difference be made to the freedom movement? In spite of knowing how it turned out, and witnessing the imperfections of its characters, Vande Mataram is a play that makes you root for them, their well-being, desires, and safety.

The Sanskritized Hindi is true to its period, which has us modern mortals glad for those English supertitles. The costumes are authentic, and the set is simple and effective. Not intended to be a high-cost endeavor, Naatak’s production is nonetheless neat, efficient and a job well done. This genre of theater is what they do best and would do well to focus on in the future.

The play leaves you pondering about the multiple layers of sentiment, motivation and issues that form a complex but never tedious package, and it is to the team’s credit that they do not aim to dumb down any of it. For so many of us fed a simplistic version of one true representative of the people versus the British Crown, it is a gentle reality check about the multiple voices and opinion streams of the period. It invites the audience to take from it what they will, at a level and depth they are comfortable with. For me, an idea that has me toying around with it in my head nearly a week down the line and likely to continue, is a worthy one.

Not your typical treatment of nationalism, this. Which, incidentally, is what makes it a winner.

Go watch it if you live in the Bay Area. I just got even gladder that I do. 🙂

Documentary Review: Family Album

24 Sep

I am delighted to have made Chabi Ghosh’s acquaintance. She died in 2008, at the age of 91, unaware of my existence, never having met nor heard of me. How then, do I know she played the piano, was part of her college basketball team after delivering 2 girls, and had a naughty sense of humor that belied her nonagenarian-ness? For this and other stories, portrayed with simplicity and charming reserve, I have Nishtha Jain’s ‘Family Album’ to thank.

A documentary that I watched yesterday as part of the San Francisco South Asian Film Festival, Family Album generously allows the intersection of photographs, memory and cross-generational stories rather than forcing their paths to collide, and what struck me long after I had finished watching, was how little the filmmaker injected herself or her agenda onto the frames, letting the subjects speak for their own histories. And that is precisely what photographs become, irrespective of what we wish them to be—chroniclers of history, crystallized pieces of time that hold individual yet shared versions of stories that become the truth, regardless of the fleeting reality of the moment.

Taking us back to Calcutta’s old families and ancient baris (and reducing me to a quivering mess at the sight of all that achingly beautiful history), Jain introduces the viewer to clans that traces their kinship back to 38 generations, interviews multiple generations of the same family, facilitates their reminiscing ever so gently and occasionally, and asks very relevant questions.  Do we become our photographic memories? How do frozen frames elicit stories, how do we hold on to and pass on these stories, and in becoming the repositories of familial myths, how do we perpetuate stories? With one brief view of a family tree that abruptly ends after records of double-digit generations, the camera silently contemplates the white sheet of paper and we feel the story seeping away.

You guys know I’m a sucker for history. The confluence of time, architecture and the human narrative intrigues me. But what you may not know is that photography holds a terribly special place in my heart, given that I was born to my first teacher of this beautiful art form and am married to someone who continues my education in the field. For this and the reasons listed above, ‘Family Album’, a companion piece of City of Photos, struck a deep, resonant chord, but even without the personal context, is a delicate and valuable contribution to the world of documentaries. Catch it if you can lay your hands on it sometime. I reckon you won’t forget Chabi Ghosh in a hurry.

~~~

Updated to add: I wrote to the director, sharing this review with her, and here is her response:

Dear OJ,

Thanks for taking out the time and sharing your thoughts about Family Album. A lovely review. Reading it means a lot to me as I couldn’t be there in SF to present my film.
Yes, Chobi Ghosh is so endearing and unforgettable. I loved her spirit. She was about 90 when we were shooting, she had a clear photographic memory of things from her distant past but her present memory was very short. She wouldn’t remember things we had talked about a few minutes ago. In a way she was in a happy state. She was a great storyteller, there are many more stories in the footage. Unfortunately I couldn’t put everything in the film.
You can buy the DVD of City of Photos by making a payment on www.paypal.com to raintreefilms@gmail.com. It costs USD 40 plus shipping cost USD 5. This DVD is for home use only.
Warmly,
Nishtha

And So I’m Back, From Outer Space

25 Mar

..and it’s been one wild ride. Now it’s time to tell you where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. But because it’s all so fresh, words, like paneer, can crumble if not given suitable time to simmer down. So we’ll do this in pictures, shall we? The little details will emerge when I’m readier.

Go on, guess the sequence of events aloud in the comments section. 🙂 Let’s see how right you get this. And those in the know, you can’t play!

[Click on the pictures if you’d like to view them larger.]

Ready? Set? Go!

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

Have a great weekend! 😀