Farid’s dilemma

ਚਲਾ ਤ ਭਿਜੈ ਕੰਬਲੀ ਰਹਾਂ ਤ ਤੁਟੈ ਨੇਹੁ ॥੨੪॥
Chalaa Th Bhijai Kambalee Rehaan Th Thuttai Naehu ||24||
If I go out, my blanket will get soaked, but if I remain at home, then my heart will be broken. ||24||

So, Said Farid – when it was time to meet his beloved in the jungle. This was my father’s favorite line, he liked to repeat all the time. Then, darkness descended while I sat rocking on my favorite bamboo cane chair in the balcony. Baba Farid’s stories and hymns were an eternal part of my story time, as my father narrated one story after another, I learned a lot about Baba Farid’s journey in life.

My favorite story is about a woman looking at herself in the mirror rather haughtily, while her servant/slave was applying her eye makeup. He mistakenly poked her in the eye and she was livid, she started insulting him and lashing him with a whip. Farid felt sad! He came upon the same beautiful woman, only a couple decades later ,she was lying on the bed, much older, feeble and helpless. She wasn’t even able to ward off the flies  and birds that hovered around her eyes, the very same eyes that once had been adorned by mascara. “Treat everybody with kindness”, was the message I got from this story.

Farid intrigued my father, no end. It amused him that Farid could hang himself upside down in a well, just to see if he would be rescued, and so he hung there for three whole days. When the crows hovered around him, he very generously offered himself to them, saying,

“You can peck away at my body all you want …but…”

ਏ ਦੁਇ ਨੈਨਾ ਮਤਿ ਛੁਹਉ ਪਿਰ ਦੇਖਨ ਕੀ ਆਸ ॥੯੧॥

Eh ḏuay naina maṯ chu o pir ḏekẖan kī ās. ||91||

“But please do not touch these eyes; I hope to see my beloved. ||91||”

As for Farid’s dilemma of getting drenched in the rain, here’s how it was resolved – 

ਭਿਜਉ ਸਿਜਉ ਕੰਬਲੀ ਅਲਹ ਵਰਸਉ ਮੇਹੁ ॥

Bẖijo sijo kamblee alah varso mehu.

“My blanket is soaked, drenched with the downpour of the Lord’s Rain.”

ਜਾਇ ਮਿਲਾ ਤਿਨਾ ਸਜਣਾ ਤੁਟਉ ਨਾਹੀ ਨੇਹੁ ॥੨੫॥

Bẖijo sijo kamblee alah varso mehu.Jae mila tina sajṇa tuto nahee nehu. ||25||

“I am going out to meet my beloved, so that my heart will not be broken. ||25||”

While my father was reveling on the beauty of Farid’s hymns, I was wondering if Farid had caught a cold by getting drenched in the rain or why did he have to go the jungle? Also why couldn’t his beloved wait for the rain to stop and then come. Well! As always, my questions were not answered!

I am wonderstruck at the thought of the networking that must have occurred  500 years ago!  There are shloks (verses) rendered by 17 other mystical saints, along with the shloks of the six sikh gurus in the Guru Granth Sahib. These saints were from different regions, religions, backgrounds and even spoke different languages. Baba Farid shloks are originally in Punjabi, but all of the other (saints’) shloks have been translated to Punjabi, though the flavor of the regional dialect remains intact. How did they find each other and implicitly understand each other is a mystery to me. But wasn’t it simple? They all resonated with same intense love and desire for just a glance of their creator.

 

A life well lived!

So many weeks went by in a daze. I couldn’t even attempt writing anything about my father, Sohan Singh. As I was flooded with his memories flashing before me one after another, I realized, he had been like my shadow every step of the way. And wasn’t he supposed to live forever? After all the emotions and sadness of him being gone and the guilt of not being there for him, perhaps the only time in his life when he needed nurturing the most, what can I say? Suddenly I feel numb.

As, I walk into his house; it is hard for me to walk in without being greeted by him at the gate with his customary smile. The joy he felt at receiving people in his house was immeasurable. The last time I had visited him, about six weeks ago, he had barely been able to walk up to the door and yet he had ensured that the house had been cleaned and a decent meal of Chana – Bhatura had been provided for us (my husband and son) upon our arrival from the airport.

He had never looked this distraught and weak ever before, the three months of antibiotics for Typhoid and Pulmonary infection and no teeth had made him very weak. Yet, I believed he would recover be his energetic self again, walking a few kilometers everyday like he normally did, greeting everybody along the way like he normally did.

I now look at the files gathering dust in his study. His precious files that captured every single facet of his life rather meticulously. For someone as hardworking, organized and disciplined as he was, I must have been a disappointment but he tried his best to look at the good in me and rejoice in the achievements of his grand children, be it  my niece’s  entry into world of fashion design, my younger son’s involvement in Robotics or my older son’s writings.

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A 10 mile hike to see the Elephant Seals in the wild in California

I feel so grateful that he visited us in the USA and spent time traveling with us. The last one being, about three years ago, the big 25 day road trip across USA to see colleges along the way. I found a little diary that held a record of all the little details of the universities, we had visited. Another time I remember his excitement at visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. He bought a book of his speeches. Lincoln was his role model. He had walked through the museums, especially the Science museum with great curiosity. Actually the first time, he had come along with me to USA was in California, it was to take care of my one-year-old when I went to work.

Education was sacred to him; I am a computer engineer today because of him. Dropping me to school especially when I had exams was very important to him. The sight of him walking in with two tender coconuts for me in-between my career defining final exams remains imprinted in memory. I had a fever and he was there to check on me and make me feel better. Although, I never reached the perfection he desired of knowing all possible formulae and being able to solve all possible Math/Physics & Chemistry problems in a hurry. “It should be at the tip of your fingers”, he would say. He never gave up as he bought books upon books to make it simpler for me, explaining the concepts and solving the tougher problems for me, that continued to go over my head.

My father’s childhood was spent in the village with no electricity or running water. He always claimed to have had the best childhood ever, running the two miles to school and back, carrying the books, little slate and lunch on his head, be it a hot day in summer or a cold day in winter. He ran bare foot, sometimes using the slate as a footrest, for respite from the hot sand that practically burnt his feet. At times he stopped at a stream to drink water, he used the loose end of his turban to filter the water, as he could see little insects crawling in the water.

Babaji, his grandfather was an exceptional farmer, renowned in the village for his generosity and helpful nature. So naturally, everything in the house came from the harvest. If it was bountiful it took care of the needs of the family. As for money, it was a scarcity, who had it then? But all they ever bought was salt.

Papa left the village after fifteen years, for greener pastures to pursue his higher studies and later on a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He no longer had to study in the dim light of a diya (oil lamp – made of clay), he no longer had to use the hand-pump to get the water, although he still clenched his stomach that hurt almost all the time or struggled with chronic earache followed by loss of hearing in one ear, while studying.

Then, his first job was at Bhakra dam, followed by his next job at Mecon in 1959 that lasted him a lifetime. He was a proud Meconian who loved to work till 2:00 AM in the night almost every day at home, with the files – his most prized possessions spread all over the dining table. He appreciated hardworking, efficient workers just as much as he had disdain for the sloppy workers, and he was vocal about it. I often heard him praising Vijaysarthy, Sridhar & LaxmiNarayan among many others. A trip to his office was a treat for me, as I watched the animated discussions in his elaborate room in the office along with watching everyone consume innumerable cups of chai, while doing my homework.

What a wonderful adventure of a life he had, as I look at the wide spectrum of his travels starting from Russia in 1960 to USA in 2006. His business travels also took him to London, South Korea, Indonesia, Hamburg in Germany, Lagos in Nigeria & Singapore. Whenever he came back from travels, his suitcase was filled with goodies for us and nothing for him. His postcards and keepsakes from various countries enriched our lives; Books on paintings from Moscow were a huge part of my childhood. I also got to know about face scarring among warriors in Nigeria, Legos from Germany, a soldier standing at the Tower of London and a cassette with Indonesian songs. He never forgot to bring gifts like pens, chocolates and scarves for his friends and colleagues. He liked good pens though, as he wrote a lot.

In his early twenties, when he came back from his nine-month stint in Russia his beliefs in equality of people and simplicity in life were further strengthened. The thought of the under privileged was always on his mind. My mother told me that my brother’s first five birthdays were celebrated by feeding the families of the “not-well-to-do” in his life: gardener, watchman, sweeper and the maid. He rarely walked out of a building without acknowledging the sweeper or the watchman with a smile and a tip.

He loved talking about his days in Russia, while Indonesia was his most favorite country that he had visited and yet his heart yearned for the simple life in the village. To him it was still home. He kept going back as often as he could, usually taking us along. His Maaji (grandma) and Puaji (Aunt) were always so happy to see him. They were the most hardworking women he had seen in his life and he continued to hold them in high esteem.

Despite being busy he always found time to walk. Walking and talking to people, he met along the way, were his two favorite pastimes. I remember walking with him almost everywhere in Bangalore, St Marks road, Brigade Road, Nrupathunga Road, Jayanagar 9th block and 4th block. While he made it fun for me by buying me chocolates, flavored milk and Chana-Bhatura, all he needed were two bananas or two idlis to keep him nourished.

Every morning he dropped me to the bus stop, as he carried my lunch bag along and bought me butter biscuits from the bakery. Every evening was story time. He introduced me to many exciting stories, but it was clear who were his favorites. Be it freedom fighters of India, whose sacrifice – he insisted I never foget, or the mighty Bheem who could spin Elephants in Mahabharatha or Bharat from Ramayana who refused to sit on his brother’s throne for 14 years, or Baba Farid, who wandered his entire life in a quest for reunion with the divine and of course or Guru Gobind Singh’s whose compassion, courage and sacrifice is unparalled in the history of mankind.

I look at his files lying there neatly lined up and realize how each file neatly written and neatly organized tells an episode in his life. His degrees, his precious life in Mecon, his knowledge, his attempt at maximizing his meager savings, his seeking of spirituality, obsession with a healthy diet, his certificates, his employment papers, our ( brother’s & mine) certificates, my marriage expenditure, my employment papers, tax papers, public provident fund, rental contracts and maintenance details of our properties. Every detail meticulously filed.

Later on, he learned to take care of the house and my mother when she couldn’t do it anymore. He continued to arrange get-togethers; parties and people were always welcome at his house. He enjoyed giving a lot, a lot more than taking, even when he was not doing well. About two months ago, he was concerned about not being able to go for a walk, I encouraged him to try harder. He was strong-willed wasn’t he?

But his health continued to decline, then as if all of a sudden, he was gone! It was hard for me to believe it was final. I would never see him again! I would never talk to him on the phone again, no matter how many times I dialed his phone number. In retrospect, it feels like a blessing that he was living with Harmit, my brother – during his last month on this earth. And that he always had my brother’s support be it financial or medical.

And still, he wasn’t done giving – I saw his body one last time, preserved at the medical College. It had been set aside to be used for medical research, just as he had desired. Eighty-one years of a live well lived, but then he could have easily lived till a hundred or more….

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At Yellow stone National Park in Montana,  …. three years ago….

 

 

Sticking my head in the sand?

rajkumar“I don’t watch news on TV”, I say proudly. Then, internet is never faraway, even if you are not surfing the internet, just being logged into Facebook is enough to be aware of what is going on around us. It saddens me to see a lot of hate. I just a read a piece by a woman of mixed heritage being asked to leave the bus, the country because she is somehow responsible for the crimes and the shootings. There is was another story of a Sikh gentleman – Darsh Singh, mistaken for muslim and being ridiculed for playing basketball with his turban on. Yet another story of one being stabbed, another being beaten and yet another being mocked.

I wasn’t born here, but I am beginning to question why I came here? I have met many wonderful people here, a couple odd ones who insisted on knowing why I came here and how long I would stay? After 19 years, it still feels odd to have to answer so many questions at the immigration counter. Do I belong here? or do I belong in India? I wish it was an easy answer… with one foot here and one foot there it is hard to explain. Do I really have to belong to either or? can’t I belong to both? Or will I always be an outsider or a suspect because of my accent, skin color and husband & boys who wear turbans?

Much as we loved traveling, I now feel hesitant, traveling to bigger cities, I sense the suspicion in the air, is it just for me or everybody treats each other that way, I don’t know. Yet the last 19 years in different states, we have always met wonderful people. My boys have never been bullied in the different states that we have lived in or in the different schools they have gone to. They have never asked me why their skin color was brown or why they had to wear turbans, they accepted it as a part of their heritage and their religion. It has helped them have a sense of belonging, a sense of grounding – staying rooted as they soar into the clouds with their wings wide open.

Well! for better or worse, I think I am able to appreciate people who have overcome monumental challenges in their lives – be they physical and/or mental. Thanks to the alternative media that believes in “good” news, we have access to uplifting news as well. The other day, I read about Rajkumar Tiwari, a poor, challenged guy who learned how to ice-skate on his own and well enough to win a medal in the Olympics. Jagwinder Singh, a nationally acclaimed bicyclist has no arms but that doesn’t stop him from aspiring to go international. And I  always get a lump in my throat when I watch this guy giving a cricket commentary in perfect English with all the background noise of the stadium. When in reality, he can’t speak English or see anything. And yet, with a smile on his face he continues to make the most he possibly can of life. The list goes on, of people who never give up despite all odds. So what exactly was my problem again?

Of Kindergartners and Exhaustion!!

Just barely read a long spiel on kindergarteners and first graders coming back home from school utterly exhausted. The class size is a problem, the bus journey is a problem, the emphasis on test scores is a problem and the list goes on. As somebody comments, “The class size needs to be capped at 12.” “There isn’t enough help for the teachers with 30+ kids in the classroom” says another. Again, there is a flurry of similar comments. Of Course it is easy for you and me to simply talk or type away on a funky laptop.

As, I think of my elementary school days, 60+ kids sitting in a classroom on rows and rows of benches with a desk bench in the front being an utter luxury, as it could mysteriously disappear on certain days. About 7 – 8 of us, kids sat on a bench, where showing-off, petty squabbles and accusations were commonplace. One routinely heard “Look at my new pencil-sharpener!” “See! I have a new book cover” followed by cries of “new pinch” or “You stole my pencil box.” Somebody would get accused of rocking the bench or having body odor. Yes, feelings were hurt, but then your choices were: defend yourself, attack the other person or keep quiet.

My days as a five-year-old in first grade were filled with 3 language classes – English, Hindi, Kannada., along with Math, Science, Social Studies and couple other classes. We had about 7 to 8 classes a day with a lunch break in between. Saturdays were fun, as we went to school for only half-a- day with most of it spent outdoors for PE. One day, I decided to sit on a different bench, as it looked spacious and inviting. Actually, Surya who sat there had been absent for a while. I liked it so much, that I sat there the next day and the day after. On the fourth day, Surya showed up during lunch recess. She saw me sitting at her spot and screamed, “That is my place!” The girl sitting next to me whispered “Now it is yours”. So I refused to move. Surya was in tears. Egged on by the girl next to me, I laughed at her predicament. At first she pleaded, “I was so sick, I was in the hospital for five days.” When that didn’t have the desired effect, she yelled out a “warning,“ My father is in police, if I tell him, he will put you in jail.” The jail part made me uneasy but I laughed because the girl next to me was laughing.

After lunch, Miss Neeta, our Hindi teacher entered the classroom, she saw half of us dozing away and Surya sobbing away. She was my favorite teacher, after all she was young, wore her hair in two long braids, just like me, and she could speak in Hindi, just like me. Sobbing Surya caught Miss Neeta’s attention rightaway, so she got to tell her story. According to her, I had thrown her bag and pushed her out of the bench before forcefully claiming her precious spot on the bench. Needless to say, the teacher gave me a stern look. I understood…I had to leave. So I humbly walked back with my bag to my previous spot on the crowded bench. Miss Neeta scolded me for my bad behavior, following it up with a lecture on how we should treat each other with kindness, just when I thought it was over, she said, “ I will send a note to your mother about your bad behavior in the class room.” I was worried about that note, I spent the entire class thinking about the note and how it would reach my mother. Would Miss Neeta give it to me? Would she give it to the bus driver? Or would she mail it? If it reached my mother, I would be in trouble. So, I was thinking of ways, I could apprehend the note before it reached her. Thankfully, by the end of class Miss Neeta had forgotten about me and the note.

Another time, I remember the English teacher, an older lady with glasses and hair rolled in a bun, hitting me on the head with her huge attendance book, because I had dared to say “absent”, when that person was present. My desire to say absent, just once in my life-time had caused me such embarrassment. Oh well! At least, it was better than last time, when I was caught sharpening my pencil with a blade in the middle of a spelling test. She had quietly, walked up to me, grabbed the blade from my hand and scraped my wrist with it. It had hurt! But I had kept quiet, after all who could I complain to about a teacher? Perhaps that is how the teachers managed 60+ kids in their classroom, along with correction of all the classwork and homework notebooks every single day. Whenever it got too noisy in the classroom, the teacher would say, “Pindrop silence! Pindrop silence.” When that didn’t work she would scare us by saying, “The principal will come anytime, she knows everything, she comes like a cat.”

The school bus took an hour to reach home, at times longer. It seemed even longer when I sat next to Prema, who talked about her Aunt’s house the whole time. It was always the same story, “ You know her house was touching the clouds, so they had to cut it at the top… you know! I promise! God promise! I am telling the truth! The other girls seemed impressed as they gushed over her Aunt’s house, while I looked out the window, envious of kids who had already reached home and were already playing outside . Once I remember sitting huddled with other kids in a class room, waiting for the school bus to take us home. The caretaker was talking in Kannada – a language I did not understand then. While, I wondered what had happened to the bus. How would I get home? Who even had a phone at home back then? I was scared. After all, I had heard plenty of stories about naughty boys and girls and being locked up in the bathroom, after school, by the principal and then dying of hunger and thirst. I never went near the bathroom.

Was I exhausted at the end of the day? I don’t know. But I do remember that whenever I came home from school, I talked non-stop, and my mother would say, “Kaafi ho gaya, hun mainu saah le lan de!” [Enough! I need a breather now]. Then I would go out and play with my friends on the footpath (sidewalk) for hours, until it got dark or my father got home.

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My son playing with his friends during recess, when he was in Kindergarten

 

Embroidery

“I have a something for you, I hope you like it”, she said with a bright smile, as she handed me a red packet. Dodie, my son’s piano teacher and a friend looked so happy. Her eyes sparkled with joy, truly the joy of giving is in a league of it’s own. And I couldn’t wait to open it. It was a kitchen towel with some beautiful hand embroidery. “ I love it!” I said, giving her a hug. She was delighted but her quiet expression, implicitly told me “I hope you are not exaggerating, it is only a kitchen towel.” So I reiterated how much I liked it as it took me right back to my childhood.

When I as a nine-year-old skipped to the store to buy embroidery threads. I had to choose from a spectrum of bright, vivid colors that the shop keeper laid out in front of me. Each colored bunch cost 35 paisa and I had to be careful on how I spent the few rupees that I held in my hand. Could I pick only the basic red and green, that I almost always needed or could I splurge a little? It was one of the only things that I actually chose, other than which bus I took to school, and that would be a whole another story on how complicated that was.

Otherwise, when I was sent to the bakery or the grocery store it was always with specific instructions on what to buy and how much. “Make sure it is fresh”, my mother would always say. I remember being sent back to the bakery to return stale cookies (butter biscuits as they were called). It was embarrassing! Let alone taking them back, the baker refused to even acknowledge his butter biscuits could ever be stale. He completely ignored my presence, as he moved on to other customers. I quietly left them on the counter and went home. Needless to say, my mother was not pleased with my “lack of courage.”

Every summer, Mummy would have an embroidery project waiting for me. The first one, that I can remember was – making little handkerchiefs that I had to tack and hem before embroidering a little flower in chain stitch, the stalk in stem stitch and the leaves in satin stitch. The next summer, it was time for simple cross-stitch patterns on a couple magenta colored napkins. Mummy and me would sit together, going through her precious book of cross-stitch patterns and decide on one, mostly based on the level of complexity. The next project was cross-stitch patterns, more complex (this time) on the sofa cushions. The pale yellow tablecloth on the coffee table had a vase full of colorful flowers embroidered on it, a pattern we had both really liked. She never got over a missing tablecloth that had some intricate beadwork and colorful bunnies hopping around in aprons, that I had made for a handwork class in fifth grade. Ms Kumar, the teacher never returned it, even after grading it. “She must have spread it on her table in her house”, my mother would say, “it was so beautiful!” It continued to bother her, while I happily learned how to knit socks and crochet little squares under her guidance.

Then one year, Mummy and me decided that we would splurge and spend my prize money that I had earned as a merit scholar in seventh grade on, embroidery books, Precious 50 rupees were spent on two books with “patchwork patterns”. Soon enough the showcase in the living room was filled with my amateurish patchwork. Her favorite one was a scenery of sorts, a patchwork bear and Snoopy sitting under a fake patchwork tree with a bird perched on it, while a castle filled with different shades of blue satin stitch stood at the other corner on a meadow surrounded with bullion stitch flowers of various hues. It was put on display right next to her precious craft work a rather scary woolen doll, and a lone Dahlia made out of crepe paper and felt.

As I got older, I never felt the need for needlework. Now, thanks to Dodie, I have started embroidering kitchen towels. Although, the one she gave me, appears to have disappeared. It feels so relaxing, like I am a ten-year-old again, sitting on my favorite bamboo cane chair in the balcony and rocking back and forth, It takes me home. I can see my mother sitting and reading the newspaper, looking at my embroidered work approvingly with a smile, which has always been rather rare. As a child, there were very few things I did right, and this was one of them. I feel that connection to her and it feels beautiful, so I keep embroidering to keep that connection with her. It is precious, especially now, when it is hard to understand her or even have a proper conversation with her, as she sometimes struggles to form words that once tumbled out of her mouth with ease.

 

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Pitcairn Island and three fools!

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Pitcairn Island

It is Geography club time again at the elementary school. Even though we are focusing on the prominent countries of Asia, the islands continue to be my absolute favorite. My sons and me have spent many a night savoring the stories. Each island has a unique story. Our favorite ones are from Fiji and Pitcairn. Fiji had cannibals at one point, and back then, the most respectful way of greeting each other was “Eat me!” Pitcairn, a tiny speck of an island, only 3000 miles from New Zealand was populated by mutineers of a ship named, HMS Bounty, which soon grew over populated with 200 people. So, some people volunteered to move to another island called the Norfolk, knowing fully well that the Norfolk island was a penal colony.

Continue reading “Pitcairn Island and three fools!”

Oh! my Arranged marriage –

A typical matrimonial column

“ Did you have an arranged marriage?” this has been the most often asked question everywhere I have lived, be it California, Michigan North Dakota, South Carolina or Montana. It has been 19 years since I left India, but the question persists. Here is my story on prospective grooms that came into my life before I got married.Continue reading “Oh! my Arranged marriage –”

Some things never change or do they?

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In their dorm room

Here is my son with his roommates in the dorm, a picture of happiness! It was such a joy to see them the other day. It seems like he has found his niche and is comfortable. He went to college not knowing anybody and now it is obvious he feels at home. Watching him and his team on the soccer field was a treat too. No he did not make any of his signature spectacular saves, nor did his team win the not-so-important intramural soccer game, but I was impressed by how dignified and poised they looked, despite the loss.Continue reading “Some things never change or do they?”

Barbed wire Fence…and Kannada

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We were watching the movie, “Boy in the striped Pajamas,” where Bruno meets Shmuel. Bruno is a privileged nine-year-old while Shmuel, is in striped pajamas. What separates them is the barbed wire fence.  Bruno envies Shmuel, as he imagines him playing with other kids his own age behind the fence, in the comfort of his Pajamas, while he is all alone in the open world outside the fence. Bruno is unable to comprehend the horrors of living in a camp, as he offers simplistic solutions to Shmuel’s problems. When Shmuel talks about being hungry all the time, Bruno gets him food from home.

Continue reading “Barbed wire Fence…and Kannada”

Dancing like Sapna

“Talangu Tadigina thom tha thae thae thath… Kitta thaga tham dit thaam- Dit thaam kitta thaga thayi thath thae…

The opening sequence of Allarippu  – a Bharthanatyam dance remains embedded in my memory. It is a beautiful dance symbolizing the offering of respect to both God and the audience.

Being, the tallest in a dance group of 10 -12 girls, I would be shunted to the last row, where my hands and feet wrestled within the confines of the walls. It was small room, barely 8 X 10 feet, with so many of us jostling for space it was an art to be able to avoid hitting each other or the walls. I was apparently in-adept at that.

However, I had my Sapna – dream of becoming an exceptional dancer someday just like the best dancer named – Sapna. She was the privileged one, who performed solos in the 8 X 10 foot room, while the dance master burst into a song. Usually it was a song for the baby lord Krishna. He would sing as Yashoda – Krishna’s mom.  “Krishna nee begaane baaro” – “ Krishna come to me… hastily” I would watch transfixed as Sapna danced with grace, poise and complete perfection with expressions her face changing from a mother’s pleading to love to mock anger to sulking and back to pleading again in matter of seconds.

I dreamt of dancing like her someday, as I waited for my turn to dance with the other beginners – “low-brows.” Sometimes Aruna – my playmate and neighbor would talk about how her mother had beaten her that day, for getting only a 98% in her Math test. Another favorite topic of hers was “The Sharmas”, a couple that frequented her house. “ “You know, they were holding hands… and looking into each other’s eyes” She would whisper softly, and we would look at each other in disbelief. We hadn’t seen our parents or any other Uncle and Aunty, for that matter do anything like that.  Why my parents addressed each other as “Gal suno!” – listen, while her parents said “emmandee” – (What is it) . Couples held hands only in the movies.  These Sharmas were truly Besharmas “Shameless”!

After about a year Aruna was gone, I would while away my time –watching the agarbatti – incense stick (stuck in front of a poster of goddess Saraswati, as a sign of respect) droop to nothingness and wander into my little Sapnaland. One day, Bhavna was writhing on the floor like a snake, with her arms and legs twirling synchronously with her body, as the dance master very enthusiastically sang “ Aadoo pambe” – playful snake. He abruptly stopped singing and hit her left arm with the baton, that he used for counting the dance steps. She was upset and tearful for a few minutes, then continued dancing. It was implicitly understood that the respect for the dance master, meant any form of punishment was acceptable. One wrong step or expression entitled him to give anyone a sound slap, scolding or a pretend slap. No questions asked.

Three years into dance lessons, I was only performing simple dances like Pooja dance and folk dance on stage, while  still learning Allaripu. Almost every other girl had started performing solos, except for me. Whenever the teacher got mad at me he would yell “ Ishaandaar” and threaten to beat me with his baton, while the other girls giggled. I was a misfit –  in the class a Punjabi Sikh in Jayanagar, Bangalore – the hub of classical south Indian culture. My name, did not even have the customary vowel “a” in it… (even though my dance teacher chose to add it), and my limited understanding of kannada – the language everyone spoke, and a limited understanding of the rituals and nuances that were behind certain dance movements and poses  – did not help my situation. At least it seemed like, every other dancer understood everything, while I pretended to understand by imitating the other dancers in front of me. Now when I think back, I was fooling no one, but who wanted to risk humiliation or ridicule by asking a question?So, I hopelessly clung on to a dream of dazzingly everybody by dancing like Sapna someday, because that would make everything OK. Nobody would laugh at me and then the teacher would also pronounce my name properly.

I started biking to  the dance lessons, on the way I had to bike through this chaotic area on the street that practically was a settlement of sorts, people playing carrom board on the pavement, children running around, women squatting on the street and selling vegetables. It was very difficult to bike through, because anything could come at you anytime. One day I was biking back from the dance lesson and a small kid came in my way and wouldn’t move, before I could apply the brakes, the tire had struck his foot and he had fallen down. I got down from my bike to make sure he was ok, by then a whole crowd of assorted people had surrounded me and they were yelling at me. One lady, a tomato seller came forward and slapped me, my cheek felt her rough skin. I had no idea what to do, then  the little boy ran way. The crowd was distracted and taking advantage of that moment, I quietly slipped through the crowds without being noticed. For months, I took a different route to the dance class. But, then…my dance lessons ended abruptly so did my Sapna.

Two years ago at the Butte Folk festival, my sons had the opportunity of watching the Krishna dance. I was thrilled to introduce it, nuances and all to my boys, who were intrigued and fascinated, by a dance that they were watching for the first time! In fact, being a Tabla ( Indian drums) player himself, my older son could relate to the Tabla beat and the varying notes associated with the movements – Kitta thaga Thaam. He has continued his journey of Tabla learning here in Maine, from a local teacher who has lived and learned Tabla in Bangalore. It makes him happy to have that connection – to a place where he started his own Tabla lessons as well at the age of ten – about the same age that I was dreaming of dancing like Sapna….

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