A Childhood in Malabar by Kamala Das – Book Review

I didn’t know much about Kamala Das when I started reading this book. I don’t remember how it ended up on my list. I might have read a poem of hers somewhere. I decided not to look her up until after I’m done reading the book. I wanted to form an unbiased opinion of her book and writing.
Visiting grandma, when I was younger, meant bedtime stories among other things. I loved listening to her telling us tales of Kakku mam (crows) and gubbachi (sparrows), stories of great kings, and stories from Indian mythology. I don’t remember all the stories now. But reading this book reminded me of story time with grandma. It was like listening to her talk about life when she was ten.
The book is set in Kerala, a state that is very close to home, physically and culturally. Kamala Das narrates incidents from her childhood spent at her maternal grandmother’s house. She speaks about her relationships with her family, the house-helps, cooks, friends, relatives etc. The amount of detail in each incident that she narrates is astonishing. The dialogues, the description of her surroundings – I find it hard to believe that she remembers it all. But she mentions in her notes that going to a psychoanalyst helped her extract those early memories. I don’t know a lot about psychoanalysis, but I do know that our memories aren’t facts. All our memories are a little bit of what actually happened combined with the emotions that we felt/remember, our prejudices, our biases, and our imaginations.
My reading usually slows down while on a vacation. But this time I was able to start and complete reading the book during my vacation. Achievement unlocked! It helped a lot that this was a fairly easy read and that it was set in Kerala. It also helped that I was reminiscing about my own childhood in Mangalore during this vacation.
I remember someone suggesting that I pick vacation reads that set in my vacation destination. After reading A Childhood in Malabar while in Mangalore, I completely agree with that suggestion. It is such a unique, immersive experience to read descriptions of the same landscapes, food, practices, culture while experiencing it all yourself. It is like traveling back in time into the book and being an invisible bystander watching it all unfold. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed reading the book just as much if I wasn’t in India. I got really excited to read the words Mangalapuram (the Malayalam name for Mangalore) and Mangalapuram bangles (which I’m assuming are red coral bangles) in the book. I was a tad bit disappointed when I was done reading the book because I wanted that journey to continue. I wanted to dive deeper and deeper into life in Kerala in the 1940s.

The original Malayalam version of the book is probably better if know the language. But this was a really good translation, I think. Overall, I recommend this book. 4/5 stars.

Shoebox – II

5000 years of religion in 90 seconds. History of Religion

Also, found this article to be very interesting: Cyclic universe and similar ideas in Indic history

A quote on evolution on earth from the Yoga Vasishtha (6.1.21)[15]: I remember that once upon a time there was nothing on this Earth, neither trees and plants, nor even mountains. For a period of eleven thousand years (4 million Earth years) the Earth was under lava… [Later] apart from the polar region, the rest of the Earth was covered by water. And then forests enveloped the Earth, and great asuras (demons) ruled. Then there arose great mountains, but without any human inhabitants. For a period of ten thousand years (almost 4 million Earth years) the Earth was covered with the corpses of the asuras (daityas).”

Shoebox – I

*dusts cobwebs*

I wanted to share a few articles that I’ve read recently. Mostly because I wanted to put them in one place (shoebox) and treasure them.

Some random thoughts and articles on feminism
America Made Me a Feminist: I had told a friend once, maybe 8 years ago, that I considered myself to be a feminist. I believed in equal opportunities for all. I strongly believed that women should not be denied education or jobs solely on the basis of their gender. I did not agree with stereotypes about women being better caregivers and homemakers. But I had not realized then that feminism had come to mean something ugly. The word feminist had become an insult. A loud, screaming woman who hated men. My friend shook his head and seemed disappointed in me.
I am confident now about who a feminist is and what feminism means. I know where I stand now, but for a few years after that incident, I was confused and hesitant about feminism and calling myself a feminist. One of Sonam Kapoor’s articles talks about something similar here.

“Feminism is not simply a ‘viral phenomenon’ and equal rights and opportunity in all spheres of life is NOT a ‘fad’!”

I guess what I’m trying to do, really desperately, and especially because it’s Women’s Day, is to demystify and un-romanticize the specter that feminism has become. Feminism is not a movement, and a Feminist is not a tree-hugging, jhola-wearing, bespectacled, short-haired, man-hating, bra-burning individual. A feminist is simply someone who respects the choice of an individual to lead her/his life the way she/he sees fit. And when you see it for the simple philosophy that it is, it’s hard to understand why anyone would choose to be anything other than a feminist!

Importance of Dust
Another interesting article I’ve read recently describes how dust is transported from Sahara deserts in Africa to the Amazon jungle. I just find this amazing.

The data show that wind and weather pick up on average 182 million tons of dust each year and carry it past the western edge of the Sahara at longitude 15W. This volume is the equivalent of 689,290 semi trucks filled with dust. The dust then travels 1,600 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, though some drops to the surface or is flushed from the sky by rain. Near the eastern coast of South America, at longitude 35W, 132 million tons remain in the air, and 27.7 million tons – enough to fill 104,908 semi trucks – fall to the surface over the Amazon basin. About 43 million tons of dust travel farther to settle out over the Caribbean Sea, past longitude 75W.

Carrie Brownstein
If you’ve watched Portlandia, then you probably know who Carrie Brownstein is. I read an excerpt from her memoir here. I loved her writing style and decided to read her memoir. The book begins well but has been disappointing so far. Yet to complete reading.

On Turning Thirty

When I was ten, I couldn’t wait to be in high school. I wouldn’t have to wear pinafores. I could wear a skirt. I would be a teen. Older, independent.

When I was in fifteen and in high school, I couldn’t wait to leave. I wanted to grow my nails and paint them. I wanted to dress up, wear colourful outfits, carry stylish handbags and walk to college. I wanted to be older, independent.

When I was in pre-university, I couldn’t wait to be done.

Two years of hard work, get a good rank, get into a good college and you are set for life.

So they said. I couldn’t wait for the struggle to be over. Board exams and multiple choice questions. A huge milestone. Engineering vs Medicine. Am I in the right coaching centre? I wanted to reclaim my summer vacations. I was almost eighteen. I couldn’t wait to be in college. I wanted to be twenty-one. Older, independent.

When I was in college, I couldn’t wait till I had a job. Money, independence. I didn’t want to sit through the lectures. Scoring marks that didn’t make a difference. I wanted to find a job. I would be an adult. I couldn’t wait to be twenty-five. Older, independent.

Once I had a job, I couldn’t wait till I had a place of my own. I didn’t want to deal with roommates and shared apartments. I wanted to have the entire apartment to myself, cook my own food, do my own groceries, pick my furniture. I just wanted to be independent. I wanted to be twenty-eight.

At each stage in my life, I couldn’t wait to move to the next stage.

In a month, I turn thirty.

But this time, I want to wait.

Long Distance with Amma (Mom)

I wish I could call my mom at 11 AM her time. I can picture her sitting on the couch, reading the newspaper, or maybe a magazine. Or maybe checking Whatsapp or Facebook on her phone. But I know that by 11 AM she would have completed most of her household chores. As long as she didn’t get delayed by a phone call. Or because it was time to wash the bedsheets and the curtains. On most days, by 11 AM, my mom will be free. And I would love to call her then.

I wish I could call my mom at 2 pm my time. Once lunch has settled in and I am beginning to get drowsy, I would love to pick the phone and call my mom. Ask her what she ate for lunch and tell her what I ate. And discuss other trivial things. Such as who said what and why. Or ask her why my tendle talasana does not taste as good as hers.

But now I have to call her during these fixed intervals when time there overlaps time here and we are all awake at the same time. It is always someone’s bedtime. Or someone’s breakfast time. You have to squeeze in information in that slot. Try and remember what they missed since the last call. But I never do. I never try. I say nothing. There is no news here, I say. Each time. Because I like conversations that flow naturally. Like the kind I could have had at 2 pm my time. Or 11 AM her time. Or like when I pick up the phone and call because I have something to say. Whenever I want. Without waiting for a decent hour on both sides.

Later, during the day I remember something. I could have told her about this book I am reading. Or this new friend I made. Or the movie I watched. I wish then that I could pick up the phone and tell her all that I had to say. Without waiting for the next call. And then having to remember all that I wanted to say. Something I randomly remembered while doing the dishes. Or when I listened to a song.

I wish there wasn’t this distance between us. If there had to be, I wish it was shorter. I wish I could decide to fly there on a whim. Not worrying about ticket prices and customs and immigration. I wish I could go there on a Saturday afternoon just to enjoy a cup of coffee with her. And maybe some snacks. I would stay for dinner too if I didn’t live so far away from it all.

I wish I could call her now and share this article with her. I know she will tear up. Just like I did, writing this. But I can’t share it with her now. Because she is asleep. And I don’t want her to read this first thing in the morning. I don’t want her to begin her day in tears. I have to decide when the right time to share this article is. Or if I should share it at all.


My speaker plays a song
From the ‘Heart in the Rainbow’ playlist
Silver Lining slowly permeates
Through the silence surrounding me.

I stare out the window
Evaluating all my bad choices
The sun glaring down at me
The trees shaking their head, disappointed.

There is a quick fix
To take my mind off this
All I need to do is press
That colourful, square icon on my phone.

I open the app with all the pictures
Of beautifully captured moments and
Carefully curated snapshots
Of our otherwise imperfect lives.

An endless collection of eye candy
The scrolling never stops
When I have exhausted all that is in my feed
I can click Explore.

I pause, looking away
Staring out the window again
The sun is still out, the trees are swaying about
I try to remember what it was I was thinking before.

I can’t remember
But there remains a dull ache
A slight sadness
In the back of my head as I go back to my phone.

Comfort Food

Is it taste that’s important each time we savor our favorite dishes? What do we look for in every bite? Is it the right concoction of spices and meat or vegetables? Should it be cooked and served in traditional vessels? Is it the texture and the color? Or is there something more?

I have come to realize over the last few years that there is something more than just taste. We crave the strong wave of nostalgia that brushes our mind, body, and soul like the evening breeze. If made right, that first bite brings back fondest memories of the dish. And these memories, they come with such force. Hitting you gently at first, then rushing through you, making you feel warm all over. You close your eyes and begin to travel back to that time. Disconnected from reality, you float away into your past. You chew carefully so that all senses and taste buds in your mouth are awake and active. You savor every flavor, every element in that bite as you relive a distinct memory. You take slow deep breaths while you let the taste linger in your mouth. Your eyes still closed, you spend a few seconds meditating on the taste in your mouth before you take the next bite.

Taste is not what makes it perfect. You remember a certain smell, a certain color, a certain ingredient. There is also the location, the people and the setting you ate it in. Like the red-orange of Panna Upkari made in an earthen pot. The smell of Sukkal Sungat  (dried prawns) wafting through the house. The hing (asafoetida) in the Dalitoy. Kori Rotti eaten on those white Corelle plates. Most of the dishes I prefer to make it my mom’s way but there are exceptions. Again, it is not their recipe that makes it perfect. It is the people themselves and the memories that I want to relive. Like Mamama’s (maternal grandma) Vison (seer fish) fry, my aunt’s prawns hing curry with white rice, Amma’s prawn pulao, buns from Mohini Vilas, Devastana (temple) Saaru, etc. There is a picture connected with each meal in my brain. A vivid image of the scene in which I enjoyed the meal. The round steel plate, the afternoon sunlight, the wooden dining table. There are a few traditions associated with others. Like the morning after an overnight bus journey from Bangalore, breakfast always meant food from Mohini Vilas. Idli/Dosa and buns all wrapped in banana leaves and newspapers, and then tied with a string.

One can recreate every item from Thera Jevan (Annual Car Festival celebrated in Mangalore), use the same recipe even but it won’t taste the same. Because it is not just the taste that makes it right. It is the atmosphere, the mahol (ambiance in Hindi). Women in saris and jewelry, the conversations, the sticky floors, sitting cross-legged, volunteers running around with hot, heavy vessels, screaming/asking to make way.

When I was younger, I wondered why older people always reminisced about the past. “Oh, the fun we had in our days. Things have changed. Those were the good old days”, they would say. I never understood it then. I decided that these people are just stuck in the past and don’t want to accept change. Because the new days, the present seemed fun to me. I was younger, naive. Now here I am, cooking my favorite dishes just so I can taste the 90s again. Simpler times, when electronic gadgets had not yet taken over our lives and time. When I try to recreate these dishes in my little kitchen, I try to add the right spices and ingredients. I look through recipe books, ask my mom for tips. I taste test as I cook. I try to make it just right, just the way I remember it. Even after all that if I feel it is lacking a little something, I add a sprinkling of fond memories.

And that seems to make all the difference.

On Pragati – My favorite online magazine

Sunday evening here corresponds to Monday morning in India. Every Sunday evening, in spite of the Monday blues kicking in, I get a little excited. This is because Pragati (which is currently my favorite online magazine) publishes a slew of articles every Monday. And so, on Sunday I begin to look forward to reading these new articles during the week. Since The Return of Pragati, I have voraciously consumed everything they have published. The editor of Pragati,

The editor of Pragati, Amit Varma, also hosts a podcast called The Seen and The Unseen. This is an excellent podcast and I have listened to all the episodes so far. What I like about both the magazine and the podcast is that they are simple and minimal in design. Your reading or listening experience is not crowded by unnecessary noise. Noise such as clutter and pop-ups in the case of the website, terrible recordings in the case of audio.

In every episode of the podcast, the host talks to a guest about a certain topic. Most of the topics are about policy changes and reforms in India. The duration of the podcast is short, about 30 minutes or so. The discussion itself is civil and well-defined. They don’t stray away from the topic and the entire conversation is easy on your ears. Compare this with another podcast I listen to, Cyrus Says. Cyrus Says is entertaining and humorous. But the host interrupts the guests several times during the conversation. It gets frustrating especially when the guest is in the middle of narrating an interesting anecdote. The interruption causes them to derail to a different topic and the anecdote is forgotten. I am left wondering about what happens in the end and usually just make up a conclusion.  This repeats during the entire episode. I learn the first half of a lot of stories and the mysterious second halves are forgotten and never brought up again. On multiple occasions, I could not bear listening to the entire episode because the conversation feels like a bumpy ride in peak hour traffic. You think it’s going great, you pick up speed and then you get stuck at a light and nothing moves for five minutes.

The Seen and The Unseen is a meaningful conversation between two individuals. The audio is clear and the information provided is excellent. At the end of the episode, I don’t feel stressed out. I can easily listen to the podcast while commuting. The volume levels are perfect and it almost feels like informative meditation.

The articles on their website also seem to be written in a similar vein. The website design is minimal and easy on the eyes. The articles are simple, informative, well edited, clear and easy to read. I haven’t come across any other website (about India and Indian affairs) that is such a pleasure to read. Please do recommend if you know any.

So, if you haven’t done it already, go subscribe to both the magazine and the podcast. I highly recommend it!

Disconnected – A Poem

Celebrating world poetry day with something I wrote this morning. There was an outage in our neighborhood and as a result, we had no WiFi for 3 entire days. I actually ended up reading a really good book, but life is hard with no Internet. Life is hard…
Anyway, here is the poem.
I stare at my router
Trying to make sense
Of the LEDs
Some flashing, others
Solid on or
The service LED remains off
Indicating it has given up
On getting an IP address
Leaving me disconnected
To the world outside.
IOT devices
At home
Dead without this service
No streaming, no social media
no voice assistant
No life.
I restart
I reset
Even though it makes no difference
“It’s an outage
May take awhile”
– They say
I continue
Disconnected and isolated
I remain unaware
Of all that is happening
And all that is trending