Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Joy is Now.

~ For me. ~

I remember that it was raining. 

We drove through puddles. Water hit against the window, and my head jolted back from the glass each time; an impulsive reaction to the thought that I would get splashed.

A building came up on the left, unoccupied. Between the road and the front steps, a lake of rainwater. The unsightly kind. The kind that summons dirt and dust and mixes it into a brown concoction, garnished with coloured plastics swimming giddily. The kind that makes you think of waterborne disease. 

But this in India, and one treads with faith.

The bus slowed down.

Necks craned upwards, looking over the seats in front of them. Small chatter, questions. What’s going on? To the left, Lake Cholera. To the right, Death Highway (or so it seemed to us foreigners, whose stomachs were unaccustomed to the great nerve that Indian roads demand).

Vijay Bhaiya explained: checkpoint.

Checkpoint?! A beach umbrella, a school table, a three-legged stool, a man in a nondescript khaki shirt, and a clipboard.

Yes, checkpoint.

The road was about to head into the mountains, and vehicles were inspected to check that they could make the journey.

Well. That was reassuring. I think.

I was curious as to what a check actually meant. There were no tools, no additional personnel apart from the Khaki Man. Vijay Bhaiya held a few sheets of paper, probably documentation certifying the vehicle’s safety. He got down from the bus and the checking began.

We stayed put due to the drizzle, and I soon lost interest in the inspection. Looking for other distractions, my attention diverted to a food stall pitched a few feet away from the beach umbrella.

It was one of those mobile trolleys, four-wheeled. A tarp covered the frame, and on it sat a stove with two hobs. The first was uncovered, and He was making rotis bloom directly on the flame. The second held a pateelah, and there was no doubt that cha was brewing.

I watched the roti-making with bated-breath, given my troubled relationship with the roti-making process (see earlier post). Junior tended the cha. Probably His son, I thought.

Another man walked past our bus and reached the stall. They sipped out of the steel cups, and talked. Of what? I hazarded guesses. The latest Bollywood blockbuster (Ek Tha Tiger was on every billboard between Delhi and the moon). The going rates for bribes (no doubt He had first-hand knowledge given the stall’s proximity to the checkpoint). A daughter’s marriage (or the curse of, what with dowries and mothers-in-law of the Zee TV variety). Or maybe the weather (safest really, when all else fails).

The fascination was mutual. They turned to look at the bus, and caught me staring at them, camera in hand, as I tried to take a photo through the raindrops. Knowing that they were being photographed, their backs straightened, smiles widened. I smiled back. Another 5 minutes of this and we would have become Facebook friends, fo sho.

And here it is.

That was when She appeared.

There was nothing memorable about this woman. This is not a judgement, but a mere statement of fact given that even as I recall this memory today, descriptions fail me. I was already suffering from the usual sensory overload that the Indian experience offers, and the rain further numbed my senses and blurred my vision. 

Yes, that’s it. It was raining, you see.

She offered a plate with a bowl in it to Her son (an imagined relationship; keep up, please), who placed a few fresh rotis atop the bowl and took the plate away. Lunch for Gran. Yes, another assumption.

Apparently this was the last order of the day. He gathered a rag and wiped His cart clean. Hmm.. clean really is a relative word, isn’t it? The white specks of atta disappeared and His teeth shone back at Him from the reflective metal of the stove. Or so I imagined, through my rain-streaked window.

She put all the utensils together and carried them… to a bucket a few feet away, placed next to puddle. Rain water in the bucket, rain water in the puddle. Rain water in her hair and on the bus and rain water everywhere.

The washing began. Hmm… washing is another relative word. The utensils went into the puddle, then were rinsed in the bucket. Rainy, dirty, muddy. From muck into muck.

Here there is a pause in my notes, where I’d written 12.30 p.m. I don’t know what this means. It must have seemed important enough for me to jot down, so here I write it again.

12.30 p.m.

As She sat by the pail (ah, yes, She wore a saree; She had gathered it around Her knees as She squatted), He walked up to Her side. He pulled His trousers up by a few inches, and squatted beside Her.

He placed His hands on Her shoulders, and shook them. In a loving, playful, it’s-the-end-of-the-day kind of way, He shook them.

She tilted Her head towards Him, and They laughed.

And laughed, and laughed, and laughed. 

I was trapped in the bus, but I heard Them laughing with my eyes. It was a teeth-showing, belly-shaking, head-thrown-back, eyes-crinkling kind of laugh. 

I had no idea what the joke was, I had no guesses left. But watching Them like that, soaked, squatting by a disgusting puddle, next to what were probably Their only utensils, and just simply laughing at nothing more than a shoulder shake...


What was Their secret joke, what could there possibly be to laugh about, I thought condescendingly. This entire episode had been nothing short of a rude glimspe into the crudity that some lived in.

And yet, there They were, laughing.

It was over in a few seconds. He walked away to tend to the stall, and She continued on with the washing.

But those laugh lines, they would not fade. I heard Their echo, with my eyes, through the blurred, wet window.

That burst of emotion is so vividly etched in my mind. 

One word came to mind: Joy.

I love this word. It is so big. Big, and deep, and whole. It has nothing to do with what you own, who you are, or where you are headed. It is in the small things, and the big things, and the non-things. It grows inside a person, in the quiet storm, in the busy calm. 

It is an attitude that you nurture tirelessly so that the seeds will bloom when you need light around you. And when those roots grow strong, then it is a choice, to look in the face of everything you have, and everything you don’t, and to still say, I choose you, Joy, right here and now. 

Soon the inspection (!) was completed and we continued on our way. I scribbled the passing thoughts from those moments as best I could. I wanted to remember Her uninhibited laugh, to remember that in those few seconds, while I was caught up in everything that wasn’t there, She made a choice that I didn’t even remember I had.

So many things we know, but without knowing.

My pilgrimage to Hemkunt began at that spot. It was my first checkpoint, and my first lesson. 

That happiness is a choice. And Joy?

Joy is Now.

Enough hiding. Run out of the shadows, my dear girl, and live.

~ notes from my road, Hemkunt 2012 ~

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Sisterhood of Round Rotis

Being a normal (!) human being, I am not fearless. 

This I have accepted; and I believe most of my fears are common enough and shared by many, if not most.

From phobias, however, I thought myself free. I recognise serious phobias that require diagnosis and counselling or treatment, but a few short minutes with Lord Google and I found some really irrational ones, such as the fear of being tickled by feathers (pteronophobia), or of being pursued by timber wolves around a kitchen table while wearing socks on a newly waxed floor (luposlipaphobia), or of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth (arachibutyrophobia), or of ducks watching you (anatidaephobia), or of long words (hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia; although having tried to pronounce that I think I have now also developed hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia).


We were at Gurdwara one day for cooking seva, and I remembered. I remembered.

I have a phobia of making rotis at the Gurdwara.

Let's be clear here; I don't fear making rotis, and I don't fear the Gurdwara. I fear making rotis AT the Gurdwara (it is imperative that you read it like that).

Don't laugh!! I am being serious, wholly serious.

For those unfamiliar with Sikh culture, all our places of worship, known as Gurdwaras, also run free kitchens, where all, all, are welcome to join and partake what we call langgar. This means that any devotional activity that takes place at the Gurdwara is automatically followed by food being served to the congregation and visitors. 

As a result, the kitchen usually swings open several hours before prayer, with numerous Grandmamas and Grandpapas and Aunty Jis and Uncle Jis busying themselves with making oh-the-most yummalicious food. More often than not, this includes the subject of my phobia: round rotis.

I can trace this irrational phobia back to its origin. Ulu Yam Gurdwara, age between 9-12 years, at prayers held for the annual celebration of Bhai Vir Singh. My little cousin Sukhsharan and I, roused from our little sleeping places early in the morning, walk across the road to the Gurdwara to help with the roti-making for the hundreds of people that would arrive later in the day.

We go to the all-familiar cooking area, and everyone takes up a spot. Roti-making has several stages and the ladies automatically form clusters. Speaking is not necessary; everyone knows where what takes place and who fits where - it is just a matter of settling into your spot and rolling up your sleeves.

And what are the options?

STAGE 1. Kneading dough
Texture, texture, texture.

STAGE 2. Making perrey (dough balls)
Global Punjabi Standards of shape and size to be adhered to.

STAGE 3. Rolling perrey into round rotis (uh-oh, trouble starts) and tossing them unto the tava (pan)
A Perfect Roti is a Blooming Roti.

STAGE 4. Flipping rotis
A Master only requires two flips, no more, no less. That's all, kthxbai.

STAGE 5. Spreading ghee
A dying practice - health awareness to be blamed for the gradual demise of the ghee-fied roti.

Obviously, it is your seniority/ experience/ number of inner circle contacts (ooo touchy subject) that determines which category you will fall into.

Dough-kneading is supervised and carried out by the orang kuat (i.e. the main force) of the kitchen; the ones who know how many people are expected and how this translates into quantities of flour and water (which is the crux of a perfect roti). It is generally wise to not disagree with this group, simply because they really do know what they are doing, and are divinely bound to get it right, period. Exclusive rights are reserved and entry is by invitation only.

The Perrey-Makers I consider to be apprentices, on their way to Stage 3. Usually these are doe-eyed young girls, and generally just grateful to be elevated from Stage 5 with promises of Blooming Rotis dangling in front of them. This is a critical transitionary level indeed - it is like being initiated into a sorority. Here is the first door into the most secret enclave of the community of Punjabi women. They are now on the path to making their mothers deliriously happy. Look here, they say, my daughter, the roti-debutante, has arrived. 

Stage 3, oh Stage 3. Rolling rotis is an art in itself. And rolling them round, that is a gift. But rolling them round, while under pressure to churn them out at a rate of 3 per minute, while having eyes bore down on you to see if you deserve to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Stage 3 crowd, while trying to estimate if you have too much/ too little dry flour on your roti and whether that will improve/ hinder your rolling activity? I fall at the feet of those who achieve this.

If you're flipping rotis this probably means that you are nearing the end of your roti-making life-cycle (with a potential promotion to Stage 1 should any vacancies arise). You have worked your way up, from Stage 5, to Stage 2 and then to Stage 3, to arrive at this comfortable position that says: yes my child, I have walked the Path of the Roti-Maker, and have earned my place here. Your reward is the long roti-flipper that adorns your fist - it is a dream, a dream I tell you, to be able to wield this instrument of beauty and wave it around like a medal. To use a Roman reference, this would equal to having a Triumph, and a Roti Triumph is the true test of a Punjaban. It is a home run.

Finally, in the corner, far away from the rest of the prestigious roti activity, sit a a handful of little girls. Spoons in one hand, hot rotis in the other, spreading ghee onto every other roti. Don't look down on these girls; the rotis that they work with are fresh off the tava, and with their burning fingers they have to pick the right side for spreading (of course there is a right side!!), and gauge how much needs to be applied on the edges so that the white cloth that wraps the rotis doesn't become totally stained. Moderate staining is, of course, permissible. We are reasonable beings afterall.

And that, in a nutshell, is an overly generalised, intensely exaggerated, and substantially fantasised view of the process of making a (round) roti.

So back to little Sukhsharan and I, standing in the kitchen at the Ulu Yam langgar area, figuring out where we fit in with this confusing clockwork of The Sisterhood of Round Rotis.

I have no idea what to do. Eyes still a little hazy from insufficient sleep, I try (fail!) to underderstand this unspoken arrangement while also trying to decide which cluster I was least likely to embarrass myself in. I had watched my mum and grandmothers making rotis many times before, and had had a hand in making them too, but nothing on this terrifying scale of Gurdwara-level round rotis. My rotis thus far had been oddly-shaped, uneven, unbloomed, and would probably have been better served as poppadoms (remember the age group: 9-12 years old - have a heart!). And from that, I was being thrown into this.

And to make matters worse, just a little whole lot worse, 9-12 year old Sukhsharan, seeing an open space for a Roti-Roller (STAGE 3! STAGE 3! STAGE 3!), starts to walk over.

Oh my, oh oh my.

Imagine my reaction, in bullet time. Eyes going wide, hands reaching out to pull her back, mouth opening to make way for the silent shout that is rising in my throat.

Imagine what happens, in real time. She reaches the open space, grabs the rolling pin, and starts rolling.

Yes, she obviously could not roll 3 rotis per minute.

Yes, she didn't have eyes boring down on her to pick on her mistakes - when you're that young they are more inclined to praise you than chide you (yes, I'm bitter, deal with it).

Yes, there was perhaps a little too much/ too little dry flour on her rotis that hindered her rolling activity.

BUT. Oh, the crucial BUT.

They were ROUND.

As round as a merry-go-round, as round as a Gurdwara bowl, as round as Po the Panda.

I won't even say as round as the Earth because apparently that's an oblate spheroid, and no, Sukhsharan's rotis were most certainly NOT oblate.

Here, a realisation.

I knew I could not make rotis like that

And without round rotis under my veylna (rolling pin), how-oh-how was I going to add the Roti-Triumph feather to my chunni?

I was being dragged off the track of my home run, that same track that generations before me had run on and Triumphed on, and I was helpless. Oh the shame I would bring to my family! 

And thus, in this dramatic, curtain-parting, floodlights-shining, earth-rumbling way, out of the womb of insecurity and fed on fear of watchful eyes, a phobia was born. Roundrotiphobia.

Would the ground just open up and swallow the 9-12 year old me now, please.

~ to be continued (time needed resurface from ground-swallowing) ~

Note to reader: I draw your attention again to an earlier sentence: "And that, in a nutshell, is an overly generalised, intensely exaggerated, and substantially fantasised view of the process of making a roti." Emphasis on "overly", "intensely", and "substantially". Please do not take my breakdown of this seva literally. Please instead, laugh. At me, if you will. Thank you.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Something worth celebrating.

For my spirit, I laughed out loud, sang a childhood favourite, and added to my bucket list.

For my soul, I touched my Guru's feet, meditated on grace, and said thank you for the morning stars and fallen leaves.

For my body, I took my vitamins, did my BSE, ate my 5-a-day, and ran with Zafar.

For my mind, I read from a beloved book, talked with a child, and listened to a wise man. 

And at the end of the day, I found something wonderful worth celebrating: me.

Happy Women's Day, all.