Monday, October 03, 2016

My grandmother: A life

Have you heard the term ‘matriarch’? I am very familiar with it. Because I knew its embodiment - my grandmother who passed away yesterday at the age of 96. The word conjures up images of a strong woman, a strong-willed woman, presiding over an extended family. She was all of that. What she wasn’t, was a grandmother who was soft, and who cuddled you and told you stories from the epics. She did stuff you with the most delicious food, though.

Gomathy Kunjamma was just 17 years old when she was married to a man she had never met before. She came from a large family, with wealth in the form of large tracts of land, a ‘kalari’ and a ‘kaaranavar’, a family presided over by yet another matriarch. She had never seen the ‘city’ before - which in this case was Thiruvananthapuram (hardly a city by any standard but that of the village she had grown up in), she had only been home-schooled, and most of the men in her family stayed home to tend the land and property. And till the end of her days, I believe she wore the conflict - of the pride of a truly old and esteemed family she came from (her father started a newspaper; her grandfather was a distinguished man of letters, they were part of the Travancore Maharaja’s court), and the trepidation of going into one which was more ‘sophisticated’ - where education and jobs seemed to matter more than family heritage, where women had been to college, where the men were doctors and college professors, civil servants and engineers.

I believe it inspired in her a life-long respect for learning. She herself had never been to a formal school, let alone college. But her children and grandchildren had to do well in the education department - there were no two ways about it. She must have died proud of her grandchildren - all of whom, girls and boys, are well-educated and independent, able to stand on their own two feet, never having to face the apprehension she had, being under-prepared in the learning area.

There were some parts of her personality that could be very vexing - again, stemming from her past. She had rigid ideas about what was the correct thing to do, in any situation. Sometimes, irritatingly to me, the correctness was defined by, ‘what will people think.’ And her strong will ensured everyone followed those ideas, irrespective of the inconvenience it caused, even till her last days. And her sometimes-misplaced and blind pride in her ‘family heritage’ could be annoying.

But it was this same strong will and the same sense of pride that helped her work herself and her family through some very tough times - when the family went through awful financial troubles, when she had to care for her bedridden mother and brother, when my grandfather died.

Most of all, what I will remember her for, is her ability to transcend her upbringing, in so many ways. She had a lifelong regret that she never had a son - and her favourite grandchild remained her first grandson. But she never, ever treated her granddaughters as any less than her grandsons. There was no one prouder when her first granddaughter, became an engineer - the first woman engineer in our family. She was very encouraging of my younger cousin going abroad to study - again, a first for a girl in our family. She loved to see my girl cousins driving around Trivandrum on scooters, independent and free. And one of the last times I saw her, she proudly told me how her youngest granddaughter actually had to go out to ‘sites’, as a civil engineer, just like men. And she herself, was so very independent. She remained in charge of her house, alone sometimes, sometimes with grandchildren in it, till her eighties. For someone who had never been to a school, she was really very ‘modern’.

Rest in peace Amooma. You leave behind a rich legacy - a family that will remember you as strong and encouraging of independence, a woman who rose above tradition, a true ‘matriarch’, who prized family above anything else. There is so much of you in each of us.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

10 things I loved about the Amalfi Coast

Hiking the Path of the Gods
Walking towards Punta Campanella with Capri following you
View from atop Mt. Solaro
The Terrace of Infinity, Ravello
Pretty Positano
View from the top of Vesuvius
The limoncello chill

Seafood gluttony

Selfie paradise
Cooling off

Ceramics abound in Positano
Blue, blue waters, high cliffs hugging the shore, the narrowest roads, lovely little towns – what is not to love, you say? Quite a bit, to be honest. When you go in high summer, the unrelenting heat can get to even someone like me, who lives the Mumbai summers. And the crowds – everyone and their mother seems to descend on this strip of land in high season. Driving prices sky-high and jamming up the traffic on those narrow lanes.
Yet, this strip of coastal land from Sorrento to Salerno is pretty in a way that can’t stop your camera clicking away; so you end up with thousands of gorgeous pictures and you really struggle to choose the ones you want to share.
Here are some things I really couldn’t get enough of – in my 8-day vacation this July.

1.  Beating the heat with granita and gelato
When the heat gets to you, nothing beats walking into a gelataria (they are all around) and ordering a granita. It’s a coarser form of a sorbet – and our favourite was the lemon-flavoured one. And a super after-meal sweetener was the gelato. Raki was a great one in Sorrento.

2.     Hiking along the coast
There are tons of possibilities. You base yourself in one of the small towns and you can hike to other towns close by. We did a couple. The Path of the Gods was an obvious one. And another from Termini to Marina Del Cantone via Punta Campanella. The walk from Termini to Punta was absolutely stunning – we could see Capri through the walk and Punta Campanella had some great views. And all those calories burnt were a good excuse to gorge on even more great food.

3.     Visiting an island

We went to Capri. It’s a day trip from Sorrento and the ferry itself is a great experience. You take the funicular to Anacapri and then the chair car up to the top of Mount Solaro. The views are to die-for. Anacapri is sweet, with white-washed buildings set against the deep blue of the water. You take a ferry boat ride around Capri, check out all the grottos, pass under the arch of the Faraglioni rocks (legend has it that you kiss someone under that arch and you are bound for life!) and see all the famous-people houses up on the cliffs.

4.     Wandering around Villa Cimbrone in Ravello
Ravello is a delicious little town a bus ride away from Amalfi. You walk up to the Villa Cimbrone and wander around its gardens and terraces. The Terrace of Infinity begs for travel-magazine-worthy photographs; the views are so very photogenic. 

5.     Browsing the shops in Positano
Supposed to be the prettiest place on the Amalfi coast, Positano is overwhelmed with tourists. But it is striking. Set on a cliff, its pastel-shaded buildings rise above the coast and seem built on top of each other, rising vertically. Its streets are narrow and winding with shops selling linen clothing, leather footwear, painted crockery and other fine-looking things. A pretty town with pretty streets selling pretty things.

6.     Drinking limoncello
The coast is known for its lemon groves. And the lemons here are huge. Of course we had to try the limoncello. It’s very sweet (I love all things sweet) and the alcohol in it can hit you hard. But it’s a great chill-me-down after a hot and tiring day.

  7.    Enjoying the laid back vibe in Sorrento
It is one of the bigger towns. With some nice cafes, gelatarias and a cool night life, you can easily spend a couple of days relaxing and winding down for the start of a nice holiday. The Euro cup that was underway, ensured there were some boisterous scenes on the main streets. 

8.     Climbing Mt. Vesuvius
Its signature shape is constantly in your sights as you travel from Naples to Sorrento. History lessons in school remind you of how it destroyed a city – and when you realize you can actually climb a living volcano, you cannot wait to try it. It’s a pretty tame walk up to the crater – but just the feeling of having climbed something so historic gives you a thrill.

9. Eating rum baba in Naples
A Neapolitan specialty, we had it at the Gran Café Gambrinus, an elegant, turn-of-the-century coffee house, which boasts of heads-of-states, Popes and movie stars as patrons. The rum baba is exquisitely melt-in-the-mouth soft and when you have it with strong Italian coffee, you have a bit of Naples in your mouth.

10. Taking selfies against gorgeousness

Wherever you go, everything is so very pretty and photogenic, it makes sense to carry a selfie-stick. This was the first time we ever did –we have been traveling for years – and we were initially terribly self-conscious. But it is rather cool to have pictures of you against the most heavenly backgrounds. A selfie-stick sure comes handy.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Wisdom of Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge

By Elizabeth Strout

In my teens, when there was a chance to watch world cinema on television, I watched a Russian movie. I remember very little about it - except that it was in black and white and there was a boy and a girl, very much in love. The boy goes off to fight in World War II and does not return. But the last scene is something I can see clearly so many decades later. The girl is grieving, in a way that chokes you up as a viewer - and then she looks up at the sky. A flock of white geese is flying through and for that fleeting moment, the beauty of it makes her smile through her tears. It is almost like the world is telling her and us, that it’s all ok. That however hard are the punches life throws at you, it also throws you lifelines and hope and beauty. You can survive.I read Olive Kitteridge and it brought that scene back to me so very vividly.

Olive Kitteridge is a series of 13 interconnected stories, set in Crosby, Maine - a small seaside town where everyone seems to know everyone else. Olive Kitteridge, a crabby school teacher is the character that holds it all together. It really is her story - but we see her not just through her own eyes but also through others’ stories. Olive is not particularly nice - acerbic, unused to showing affection, a bit of a bully with her young son and accommodative husband. But she has a strong vein of love for her son and her husband running through her, even if that vein is wrapped up in something hard and harsh. It’s that same vein that allows her to deeply empathize with people around her -hurt people, damaged people. People like Kevin who cannot recover from his mother’s suicide; or Denise, the young girl who her husband is almost in love with, who loses her beloved husband in an accident; or Nina, an anorexic; or a criminal in a hostage situation.

Olive herself has her set of life’s challenges - her son, the love of her life, grows apart from her, and she cannot understand why. Her father’s suicide is a lifelong haunting. Her old age is marred by her husband’s invalidity.

And then there are the stories where Olive is not a central character. A piano player whose set life is upset by the return of an old love; a wife who finds out her husband’s infidelity the day of his funeral; a young girl who finds the courage to run away from an overbearing mother.

These are small lives, making just tiny dents in the universe. Very few people are truly likeable. Yet the magnificence of Strout’s characterization ensures we find the universality in every single one of them - each is trying to cope with what life is throwing at him or her, trying to make connections, big or small, trying to find that burst of hope or joy or comfort that makes everything seem bearable. That is the essence of what Strout is trying to say - life is hard, but all of us will find that flock of geese that lightens the soul.

It is a very wise book - the kind that shows how great fiction is really the best kind of teacher there is in the world.