Thursday, September 29, 2011

Farewell September

"September: it was the most beautiful of words, he'd always felt, evoking orange flowers, swallows and regret."

~ Alexander Theroux

Come October and it will all be about spreading the joy - puja and its colourful air, glittering diyas and aromatic sweetsfat pumpkins and lovely pies. 

And yes, bucket-loads of bright chrysanthemums and smiles galore.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sandstone diaries

It had been quite a while since the ardent mountain lover in me craved for a place very unlike the blinding green, dewy fresh and effortlessly charming state of Washington. I longed for some place dramatically different, one where nature has taken surprising turns, one that would sooth my eyes and quench the thirst of my soul. In short, a place that had a distinct character and oodles of it. We looked no further since it had been sitting stubbornly on the top of our must-do list from a long time - the American Old West. Rough and tough, and mesmerizing like no other. Stay with me, dear readers, for I must ramble on for quite a length, whichever way I can, to bring to you my sandstone diaries.

Though we visited a handful of the scores of canyons and cliffs that the old, wild West boasts of, I shall restrain my narration with the two highlights of our trip. Our caravan started in the Bryce Canyon National Park of Utah, the spectacular home of the legendary hoodoos that date back to the prehistoric times. Sculpted from sedimentary rocks by the perfect harmony between air, water and wind, they stand with a fixed and aimless gaze as if stupefied by magic, just like their legend goes. The Native Americans believe the hoodoos were people who were stunned to stone by a wicked Coyote. One can almost see this story come alive in their vacant expressions and mystifying orderliness as if actually punished by a cruel taskmaster. A very striking allusion that scurried past my thoughts were spells from Harry Potter - 'Petrificus Totalus' and 'Stupefy' - which when used correctly, petrifies or stuns the opponent. One just needs the proper wand of course!

The rocks that redden here, whiten there and are orange elsewhere are a sheer delight to comprehend. The unique hollows and arches, bridges and hammers, are just a handful of the popular rock formations of the Bryce Canyon. The natural bridge is probably the most majestic spot in the entire park where an arched hollow of sparkling orange gapes at you with a colour coordinated background of dark green pines. Its cave-like structure reminded me of the "cave of swimmers" from Michael Ondaatje's much acclaimed novel, The English Patient. A weaving of part reality and part fiction, it is a historic and spiritual journey of finding oneself - in life and love, as well as in the abysmal vastness of the Sahara desert. It all came back in flashes to me - the red sand, the arid topography and above all the enigmatic rock paintings. I could not help but compare the novel (particularly its brilliant, must-watch movie adaptation) to my experiences. Like its lost hero Almassy, I too, could feel reality loosening its tight hold of me. Or was it I who lost sight of it amid all that hypnotic beauty?  

Before I digress any further, there was more amazement in store for us. When the last rays of the setting sun kissed the hoodoos, they turned a magical pink. Under a stretch of lavender sky and with their bride-like blush, the landscape oozed drama and grandeur. Of course I couldn't have enough of the camera and behaved like an unruly child to the hilt. And of course the husband had a hard time managing me!

The Antelope Canyon in Arizona comprises the second half of my sandstone stories. Glued to my thoughts ever since we had been to the Grand Canyon three years back, we did not consider it worth paying a visit due to a fatal combination of ignorance and lack of time. Like the traveller who broods over an incomplete journey, I lamented our decision when I later saw some breathtaking photographs of what happens to be the most visited slot canyon of the American Southwest. Therefore it had to happen, one day or the other, come what may!
Located on Navajo land, a trip to the Antelope canyon is always a guided tour where the guide is a Navajo local. Since we opted for the photography tour, which is also an hour longer than the normal one, the guide was just the man we needed to show us the best nooks and crannies. After a fifteen minutes ride in the back of a rickety mini truck, through a desert of red sands and being thoroughly sand-washed, there we were - the upper Antelope Canyon, which the Navajo call 'Tse bighanilini' meaning the place where water runs through rocks. What looked like an ordinary cave from outside, turned out to be the most astonishing experience once we entered it. That something this spellbinding actually exists was beyond our comprehension. The wavy patterns on the walls created by flash floods looked as if a thousand magical fingers, in one fleeting moment, have run along them. A curve here, a twist there and the countless illusions the moody patterns create made us forget the muggy suffocation from the collective effect of the sand, the crowd and the outside temperature of a good 100 degree F.

The most prized moment for which everyone waited with skipped heartbeats was the appearance of the entrancing light beam through the openings on the ceiling of the canyon. That was a moment of lifetime, surreal and fragile, and to some extent divine too. Yes, all at the same time. Enveloped in a rapturous murmur of sighs, time and space froze into eternity. There was a strange and haunting silence, when one could hear only nature speak. A thousand shimmering grains of sand danced in that ray of light, as if once it is gone the trance would break.
Sandstone of every possible earthy tone - orange, rust, brown, chocolate and sometimes even a faint purple - greeted us from every inch and corner. In actuality the elusive beams of light play this colour trick but when surrounded by all that splendor and nature's glory, does it really matter? The brochure we got while purchasing the tour ticket read, "It was and still is a spiritual experience". It couldn't have been more true.

It has been a fortnight since our return home but the stories keep coming back, in images and sounds. How a palimpsest of worlds dance in front of my besotted eyes and how I keep shuttling between the past and the present. Just like that! I might have just left a piece of my heart etched on the canyon walls and my head wandering in the dreary, dusty desert paths.
Now that I've actually said much more that I had planned to, I must end this rumination with a befitting quote from The English Patient.

"I have spent weeks in the desert, forgetting to look at the moon, he says, as a married man may spend days never looking into the face of his wife. These are not sins of omission, but signs of pre-occupation."

And for those of you wanderers who are wondering how the roads look like, here is a fine glimpse -

Friday, September 23, 2011

No more walls

"I am an excitable person who only understands life lyrically, musically, in whom feelings are much stronger as reason. I am so thirsty for the marvelous that only the marvelous has power over me. Anything I can not transform into something marvelous, I let go. Reality doesn't impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. No more walls."

~ Anais Nin

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ilishi love

Finally. After what felt like ages and a desperation that matched the calls of "O ilishi, ilishi! Wherefore art thou ilishi?", I found it. The fish hilsa or ilishi/ilish as we east Indians call it, is an essential part of many a tales of growing up and one of the many reasons of why we are such staunch foodies. Part seafood lover and part geographical genes, the Bay of Bengal to be precise, I don't need to establish my love affair with fish. More so when it is the prized ilishi, aka the King of Fish.
After our move to the States, after four good years of living across all over the length and breadth of this ridiculously vast country, and after bouts of craving so acute that I had almost forgotten what it tastes like, where do I find it? Seattle. The city that has given me umpteen reasons to celebrate life, always. Stacked neatly in a tiny corner of the refrigerator section of an international grocery store, there it was labelled 'Chandpuri Hilsa'. It didn't take me long to crack that code - it was from the Chandpur district of Bangladesh which holds the reputation of exporting the best ilishi in the world. Now, I could not have been more happy had I discovered a gold mine!

Once back from the store I got busy in no time. With ready help from an equally ilishi-deprived husband, the whole fish was descaled and cleaned promptly for that ritualistic rub of salt and turmeric. Since our fish was a monsoon catch which happens to be the breeding time, it also had eggs in its belly. Just like the fish, its eggs too are fried to a golden crunchy perfection and are considered a regional delicacy back home.
As they say, all good times begin with a great meal, and ours was just perfect - a classic Odiya fare of white rice with dal, steamed ilishi in mustard paste, ilishi fry, and boiled potatoes mashed together with raw onions, green chilies and mustard oil. The drone of my incessant cries of homesickness were hushed with the silken, buttery wonder of the King of Fish. But to get there one must really wage a war with the countless obstructing bones. There are just way too many of them!
We did well though, from finding ilishi to revisiting a carefully preserved time and age that is etched fondly and forever in our hearts called childhood.

And yes, yet another quintessential 'foreigner' moment conquered!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Of signs and tempting fate

God's exclamation mark! Will my day be funny?!

I am a believer of signs. Well, somewhat. The other day when sitting by the window, I was brooding over how supremely grey and monotonous a Monday morning feels, a flock of geese flew right across the patch of sky that I call my own. Arranged in their typical symmetrical V, they darted across like a beautiful feathery arrow. Just a flash, yet it did take some bite away from my sombre mood, thus leaving me dazed and in another world for a moment or two. That was a sign to me. That life is certainly much more than Monday morning blues, and that this too shall pass and make way for the weekend soon. Another frequent occurrence that is a sure cure for sore eyes and frayed nerves is the curious bunny who makes regular rounds of our yard. So potent are these beautiful distractions, or 'divine interventions' as one friend calls it, that the hovering worries feel half conquered by the time I rearrange my head to brave them. Haven't you felt like that on similar occasions?

Then there are moments that I call tempting the fate. When like a temptress I chase and flirt with fate for a flicker of a moment, when I feel immensely invincible. I play little bets with myself, both serious and ridiculous at once. Short-lived and punctuated with impatience, they go something like this - if the tea gets done by 3.15 pm, then the call won't come; or, if the neighbour's cat is still sitting by the hedge when I stare out of the window next, then something good will happen; or, if I reach the signal before it turns green then....
While on this topic, I am reminded of two French movies that I watched recently (yes, all a part of my bourgeoning Francophilia!). The Girl on the Bridge, through the relationship between a middle aged knife thrower and his zesty young target, explores the fragile link between luck and togetherness. Luck is an absent concept and therefore the human urge to build it through signs, love and life. In A Very Long Engagement one comes across such nonchalant bets with oneself by a young woman who is in search of her missing fiance during the World War I. At once hopeful and miserable, she trades with time, place and situations that would lead her to him.

Before I digress further, is gambling with fate more or less a woman thing? As far as I know, men generally don't entertain such follies. At least the ones I know, don't. We women do it all the time in our heads, this eerie permutation and combination of situations and their possible outcomes. Or am I the only one out here?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Grapes are sour

But most aren't. Or are they?

How does one live in pretense and not peep inside one's self, for once?
For how long could one continue wearing that tempting, deceitful blindfold?

Sure, that is the less complicated way to live. But till when?
Is it really that difficult to bare all to oneself? The flaws and the failures.

I'm no practitioner of denial. It is what it is. Life.
May be I'm no clever fox.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A leaf and another birthday

I have turned, and how!

Vein by vein, pore by pore
You've coloured
and changed me so
I sure have bloomed
Oh my, just how!

There was once a time so green
Precious childhood, that waxy sheen
Then came along the Sun,
the Rain and a few strange signs
I tossed and turned
blushed and burned
And I never was the same again.

Drunk with light, neck-deep in life
Dressed in such shooting rainbows dear
Do I care for that gust of wind
That bullies me so?

The autumn woman celebrates another birthday today, and what better than a colour-kissed geranium leaf (that too from her own plant!) to mark the day.

Autumn, sure, is in the air. Welcome back trendy sweaters, scurrying squirrels, smiling chrysanthemums, fat pumpkins and apples galore.
And yes, may be a little wisdom too.

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