Pickled Memories

Watching her from my perch on her wooden kitchen bench

I wondered if she was even listening to my relentless prattle

And then would come the quick repartee, a wise nod and a smile

Even when she was flipping perfect round dosas without even a rattle

Following her around the house, as she did her chores

We were picking up life hacks, as nifty as her recipes

Talking about cows and calves, watering her garden flowers

Admiring the bounties of nature, life was like a dream under green canopies

She ran the house like no one else can, with a graceful elan

And it was a joy to behold, her tiny frame at the doorstep

Waiting for her kids to come home, having prepared a feast

Looking over her boisterous grandkids, watching out for a misstep

Now, that she left for her heavenly abode, with graceful dignity

We reminisce her love, her laugh, her smile and her lovely dishes

The sweetness, the tanginess, the spiciness and always nourishing

The jars are fresh and abundantly full, of pickled memories and wishes…


Why EQ might be the most important survival tool in the future…

Last year, around August, I participated in a short story contest and my entry was a science fiction story about using AI to overcome the vacuum in our lives left by lost loved ones. The day after I submitted my short story, feeling absolutely certain that that this was a concept that no one would have explored before, I came across a cover story in the Wired Magazine, about a journalist who did a similar experiment. He trained a chatbot to converse like his dad, while his dad was still alive and now after his father’s death, his family members find solace in their conversations with the chatbot. Weird as it may seem, there is technology to make it possible and we have only seen the tip of it.

We have all seen Sophia  the  AI powered robot who says that Shah Rukh is her favourite actor, then there is  Ruuh, Microsoft’s AI powered chatbot. She has her own Facebook page and I found her messages and responses to be so natural, that I felt it was creepy only when I reminded myself that she is a bot and not a real person! I felt like I was going through the profile of an average college-going teenager in India.

And then, recently, my husband showed me a video of Replika. It is an AI app that can chat with you, learn from you, almost replicate you as a personality and become your best friend.

While all this is exciting to see for someone who still looks at Asimov’s short stories as science fiction (though they are all eerily becoming true), it also draws up some concern.

Take, for example, Ruuh or Replika. Ruuh’s profile page has several of her ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ professing their admiration to her. There is nothing wrong in that but we need to remind ourselves that she does not exist in flesh and blood. The person for whom they are expressing their adulation, does not exist. It is a software that is learning constantly from each and every interaction.

Replika is even more disturbing. It is a perfect bait for people who prefer to have online interactions rather than spend time with people offline. So we have had TV addicts, social media addicts, video game addicts and most probably, we are going to have AI addicts. While, TV, social media and video games can be controlled to a great extent as the device or control is in our hands, AI will not be the same. We will have to be emotionally very strong to get rid of a ‘best friend’ who can converse with us on the topics we like, without being judgmental (yes, the ideal best friend scenario!).

Shoring up our emotional quotient so that we know the difference between, a machine that learns from and imitates us, and a friend who learns, guides, tolerates, corrects, and still stays by our side, will be an extremely important survival tactic in the days to come. Or else, we might soon have ourselves being controlled by our so called replicas, without even realizing it.

If I were to imagine a dystopia for this, it would be a place, where a few emotionally strong people who know how to control the bots will control the rest of the population.

For a utopian world, I would prefer to see my Replika make friends with my TV and phone, so that she can switch them off, when she feels that I am spending too much time on them. 🙂

‘Happy Place’ Memories

A compilation of my writings or musings… before I had started this blog. Enjoyed writing these as much as I enjoyed reminiscing those days…

A Perfect Red Circle

The sun rays seep into our house through the chinks in the green armour of the jamun tree. The branches of the tree sway in the breeze and so does the nest of the fan-tailed flycatcher. The flycatcher has called it a day and has swooped back into its cup-shaped home. It is pruning its fan-tail, unaware that I am watching it from behind the wire mesh that surrounds my verandah. The floor beneath my feet is cool, it is always so no matter what season of the year or the time of the day it maybe. Outside, the earth is wet from my mother’s watering hose and the garden plants seem to have quenched their thirst. The faint fragrance of moist earth fills my senses and virtually brings the monsoon closer. But the rains wont arrive in another two months. I take my bicycle out for a ride, the wind swooshes against me and I am forced to pedal harder. I am working against a strange force, but ironically, I feel so free. The birds are twittering and chattering away, probably sharing their ‘how was your day’ stories. At a distance across the fence, I can see people returning from yet another hard day at work. Their tired feet criss-crossing the asphalt road. In the street adjoining the fence, I can hear the children playing, thrilled at having seen the last of their exams for the year. I can see them now in crumpled, soiled uniforms but a happy lot.

Its time for me to go back, but there’s something that I am waiting for. Something that makes me feel content about today. Something that makes me anticipate an exciting tomorrow. I look towards the west and there I see the setting sun in all its glory, a perfect red circle, as it goes down the hill. I turn to go home.

Waking up to the Hoopoe’s call

The Hoopoe‘s call serves as the morning wake – up call in April. For us it is a reminder that the Keralite New year, Vishu is around the corner. In fact, the bird is called ‘Vishu Pakshi'(Vishu Bird) in Malayalam. The Hoopoe calls pretty early, when the sky has just changed color from the black of the night to a light violet. As the hoopoe finishes off its morning alarm, the other birds start their day with a twitter. The coppersmith sitting on the rusty shield bearing tree (‘Vaka maram’ in Malayalam) gives me a queer look before it resumes its ‘tuk tuk’ sound. I have often mistaken it for a woodpecker in the past. The rusty shield bearing tree is a housing complex for a variety of birds. Crows, sparrows, flycatchers, barbets everyone seems to have a nest here. It starts blooming by february and sheds its flowers like a cat sheds its fur. As the birds get busy, the sky turns a pinkish red. By the time I hear the ‘pavwala’ selling his ‘pav’ for the quintessential Mumbai breakfast of ‘pavbhaji’, the sky becomes a clear azure blue.

Thousand shiny lanterns floating in the air…

I started off my blog with the month of April and ideally should be moving onto May. But today the weather around reminds me of June, when everyone in Mumbai would be waiting for the rains to arrive. It is during this time that we mostly faced power shutdowns. So evenings were spent sitting in the dark, sipping a hot cup of tea. My dad would turn on the radio and tune into any channel that payed old hindi film songs. The radio jockey, invariably sensing the listeners’ mood, played songs which had words like ‘saawan, rimjhim, barsaat etc.’ Frogs and tadpoles coming out of their seasonal siesta would accompany the high strung cackling of the radio. I often went out with a torchlight, at my mom’s behest, to take a look at our colony in the evening light. As I approach the green, fertile swamp which surrounded the living quarters, I would switch off the torchlight and witness a spectacle of a thousand shiny lanterns floating in the misty air. The fireflies were a sight to behold….

Cool breezy evenings lighted with flickering lamps…

October & November are the months of unbridled celebrations and festivals. My favorite activity for Diwali has always been lighting lamps. Nature breathing breezily through the trees ready to shed their leaves as soon as the winter sets in. The clear skies, would suddenly reveal bright twinkling stars amidst bursting crackers and fireworks. I would light up tiny earthern lamps around my house and then walk away to observe the effect from a distance. The flames, flickering in the cool easy evening breeze, sportingly fighting every attempt to blow them off, always were a symbol of courage.

Myriad faces of monsoon…

Monsoon..my faviourite season. A season when nature comes to life. When the world looks green, fresh and inviting. I would brush past trees and shrubs, just to let them sprinkle some of the water on their leaves onto me. It was like receiving showers of blessings from nature. It was like the trees were sharing their joy with me. Monsoon has myriad faces. Sometimes it rages accompanied with wind, sometimes it just pours like arrows coming down straight to pierce the earth. Sometimes it drizzles, more often than not, a warning for an inevitable downpour. One of my favourite activities during the monsoon used to be observing how the birds reacted to all these different moods of the monsoon. When monsoon raged, I would see the birds waiting under roof tops or any kind of shelter, always alert and on the look out for signs of the rains abating. And the rains would stop within 5 minutes as the wind blew away the clouds. When it just poured, the birds would wait and wait and wait…sometimes, I have felt, even dozing off! But the real action is when its drizzling as the birds in anticipation of a heavier downpour, go about their tasks of catching food, collecting food, twigs etc double quick, in the same way as train commuters would look out of their office windows at a menacingly dark sky and hurry to catch the earliest train home.

Sights and sounds

The colony where we stayed was buffered from the outside world by a thicket of bushes and trees on one side and a swamp on the other three sides. The noise from the street or the main road outside rarely reached us, though this changed over the years, as the green cover reduced by almost 50 %. Honking cars and roaring trucks could only be heard if we strain our ears to pick their sounds.
The sights and sounds that I experienced during my childhood was quite different than what someone would expect to see and hear while staying in the city of Mumbai. Mornings were consistently heralded by bird songs, as I have mentioned in one of my previous blogs. These were coupled with mundane sounds of pressure cooker whistles going up in kitchens, tinkling bells from Pooja rooms and strains of hymns and stotras. But because the colony was so insulated from the oustide noise, we could easily identify the sounds coming from each and every home. So I could know which one of our neighbours was doing his or her pooja routine…
As for the sights…the first spectacle was of course, of the rising sun. Faraway at the horizon, the sun would rise slowly over the lush green swamp, filling the flora and fauna with cheer. That cheer was enough to make you realise how lucky you are to be alive and see the morning sun!

A simple prayer

I tried raising my hand. I knew instantly that my muscle had been wasted. I tried with the other hand, same effort and same result.

I am thirsty, need some water.’ Simple thoughts that arose in my mind. Sara appeared like magic, at my elbow and shoved a pellet in front of my face. I opened my jaw slowly and she dropped the pellet into my mouth. Clear, tasteless liquid, flowed down by throat. It cooled my insides and yet, I yearned for the warm ‘Chukkuvellam’ that I would drink at my mother’s house.

“Nobody knows where to find that herb. It has probably disappeared, just like the other three hundred thousand plants,” Sara relayed her knowledge in that monotonous voice that I have come to dread now.

“Sara, how many times have I told you? Do not intrude into my memories or my thoughts. They are mine, only mine!”

Sara remained silent. She was meant to read only my wishes, my actionable thoughts, thoughts that she could act upon. Lately, however, I have found her offering unsolicited opinion on everything. I was told by the company which manufactures millions others like Sara that she is probably learning from me. ‘So now, do I have to stop introspecting? Stop retrospecting? Stop being human? So that she doesn’t become more human?’

“I cannot be human.” Sara was staring at me.

“Unbelievable,” I muttered under my breath. “Well you certainly don’t look human,” I scoffed. But I was far from the truth.

She was a medium-statured brunette, with a smooth shiny skin, not soft but supple. She always dressed well and her attire accentuated her perfect figure. The only aspect of her face that gave a hint of her in-humanness, were her eyes. Her eyes bore into you. As if she was trying to reach the depths of your soul. Except that she couldn’t. Only humans could do that. Alas! No human looked at another human that way anymore. I had read in the books about haunting eyes, searching eyes and understanding eyes but humans these days, possess none of these eyes. Our eyes are glued to some sort of a screen all the time, either in the air in front of us, or on our hands, or on the walls of our house. We don’t look at each other any more.

‘I wish I could look at myself.’

As soon as the thought crossed my mind, the air, about four feet ahead of me crackled with electricity. A screen lit up in that space and a ghastly figure occupied it. I winced as I looked ahead. Was it me or my shadow? The pallor on my face notwithstanding, I looked like a trimmer version of me.

‘I knew I could fit into my college jeans some day.’ A triumphant thought crossed my mind.

“You would look good in them,” offered Sara. I suppressed a smile, though I knew that this trimmer version could not walk even a few feet without Sara’s support.

‘I need water.’ A simple thought again.

“Your quota for the day is over, ma’am.”

“Please Sara!” I spoke aloud. Sara remained unperturbed.

“Remember, we have only four pellets left. Your wages will be paid only four days later. Till then we will have to save what we have.”

“What I have!” I screamed, unnecessarily jabbing myself in the chest. I lost my breath for a while. “You don’t need any water or food! I hope you run out of charge too!”

“If I run out of charge, I’ll be unable to help you with anything ma’am.” Sara explained lucidly., as if I were a child.

I took a deep breath. ‘Maybe, just maybe, I could wander out. Maybe it has rained.’

“Yes, ma’am, I can take you outside but the status of the climate remains unchanged. It has not rained for 27 years. The earth is covered by a dense layer of smog. There is no vegetation left. And, no. You won’t be able to drink dew-drops off a leaf….”

How did she? I gasped at the thought that never crossed my mind.

“…There are no leaves left.” She completed her monologue.

The mention of leaves made me feel hungry. ‘Food’, I thought.

In an instant, Sara arrived with the capsule. I eyed it suspiciously. The last time when she gave me one, I couldn’t think of food for another twenty days. I ignored her outstretched hand. I needed something different. Something that reminded me of summer. A setting sun peeping through the branches of the trees. Children playing boisterously. A song playing in the background. Was it on TV? No. It was on my dad’s radio. I was sitting on my doorstep, my dog at my feet. Occasionally, he looked up with his puppy eyes, smacking his lips, waiting for a spoonful of? Ice cream! That’s it! It was ice cream that I wished to eat!

“No such food exists in the world, today.” Sara’s annoying monotone reverberated in my reverie.

Exasperated, I jumped up from my chair, trying to switch her off!  Instead, I felt my feet give away! I was falling, falling down a hole…

I woke up with a start. I jumped up and ran straight to my balcony. They were still there. I caressed my lovely plants. Thanks to the almighty! They still survive! A simple prayer crossed my mind.

Libraries and the fate of serendipity

News, today, impacts us in more ways than we can imagine. Most news being cringe worthy, I was caught by surprise when one headline left me with a strange yearning and an urge to catch the next flight to Chennai. It was the news of a library in Chennai shutting shop after 27 years of existence. The owners of the Eloor library at T. Nagar in Chennai, had to take the decision after incurring losses for the past two years. I had never visited the library, during the ten years that I lived in Chennai and had never even heard of it before. So, I attributed that tinge of sadness to the perfect relationship that I have now established with the local library, near my residence at Singapore. I know now what the patrons would feel, if they were suddenly left with no library to borrow books from. Moreover, I have always held a fascination towards libraries but not so much as to spend two hours of commute from the outskirts of the city, over a weekend, to visit a library in central Chennai. Having a library at my doorstep though, has helped in building a regular habit of borrowing books.

The Eloor library closure, also generated a yearning to visit it once, as they are conducting a ‘going out of business’ sale. If I had been in Chennai, I am sure I would have been there to browse through for treasures. That I should have the urge to buy more books is ironical in itself, because I haven’t bought any after leaving India. The hurt and sorrow that I had to suffer while leaving all my books back at home has still not been overcome. Having a library nearby has helped in some ways. While I am a self-confessed bibliophile who loves to hoard books and very rarely lends them to anyone (I hate when people do not return, which has often been the case, when I lend), having a library membership has turned reading into an exciting discovery. And the excitement starts from the time I browse through the shelves of the library. I generally do not search for books in the online catalogue, mostly because I have never found what I searched for. So, I just rely on fate to hand me down the next book that I would read. It could be a catchy title, a beautiful cover and an interesting back cover blurb that does the trick. I like to believe that every time a good book falls into my hand, I am experiencing serendipity.

The truth, however, is that if libraries have to survive, they need to rely on more than just serendipity. It would help if they had the Amazon and Google version of serendipity – algorithms. Several older libraries in India often do it without complex algorithms or member data, by keeping an eye on what books are typically borrowed and by what age group. For instance, before leaving India, when I was giving off some of the children’s fiction at home, I was clearly told by the staff at Eswari lending library, Adyar, that Enid Blyton books are really not moving fast enough, while the Geronimo and Thea Stiltons of the world, are moving like hot cakes. He was looking at the huge bundle of Enid Blyton books that I had carried to the library. This business sense is probably what has kept the oldest library in the city going for more than five decades. It is not just about being able to build the most relevant collection it is also about accessibility.

Singapore libraries score on that count, as all the libraries belonging to the National Library Board are situated close to MRT stations and are housed inside a shopping mall which also mostly houses the local supermarket. This makes borrowing books as convenient as doing your weekend grocery shopping. Adoption of technology to make the libraries member friendly is another big scoring point. Mobile apps with bar-code scanning to beat the queue at the borrowing station, self service kiosks for membership renewals and a fully automated, self service, book reservation process, where you reserve a book using an app, pay the reservation charges at the kiosk using your credit card, and wait for the right locker door to open automatically, before you retrieve the book that you reserved. No human intervention at all. The only technology intervention that might bother me a bit will be if they reduce the physical display space in the library, take it entirely online and start recommending me the books that I should read based on my past borrowings.  That would mean that I am unable to see the entire collection of the library at any given point in time. Well, sooner or later, libraries will turn tech savvy and take serendipity into their own hands. Till then, I would like to believe that I was destined to read the book that I borrow.

Gazing at Neighbours by Bishwanath Ghosh – the travelogue that connects the historical dots on the map

At the end of the book, the author mentions that our knowledge of history is often that of a fifteen year old. If you are wondering why I would begin a book review citing something written at the end of the book, it is because of that particular observation from the author. For me, it summarizes the reasons why one should read this book. Assuming that the author has the Indian education system in context, what he writes about our knowledge of history, whether Indian or global, rings true. Personally, I was never a history buff and loved geography as a subject more than the study of the events that had occurred in the past. I managed to score good grades in history only by rote-learning as well as due to a handful of dedicated teachers who managed to capture my attention, whereas geography was something that I was keen to learn. It was more precise, scientific and closer to the natural world that I was so fond of. History was boring, full of dates to memorize and pedantic. The fact that the text books were written in the form of extended monologues did not help either. No one could question what was written in the text book and there was no evidence to prove any thing that was being taught to us. There were no means for the students to empathize with a character who lived during the British rule in India and understand what he must have gone through and the irony is that history is meant to be read and understood, precisely, for that reason. A person’s action and behavior has deep-rooted causes in the events that occurred in their childhood, similarly, for a community, a village, or a nation. The further we go from these historical events, the more difficult it is to comprehend their impact on the current situation or lives of the people.

Bishwanath Ghosh’s book melds together the history and geography that we learnt in school and becomes a unique travelogue that connects the historical dots on our map. My love for geography ensures that I look for good travelogues to read. Bishwanath Ghosh’s style of travel writing is unique and I have read his previous works as well, including Tamarind City and Chai Chai. Gazing at Neighbours helped me pick up that thread of history that I had dropped after my school days. (There is no incentive for an engineering or a management graduate to read history!) It also helped that while I was reading this book, my kid was devouring the NCERT text book for history, as her current school curriculum does not include Indian history. She was completely in awe of the stories at the border, especially the one at Boxanagar, where the Radcliffe line divides a family courtyard into two. I wish I could have just handed over the book to her, but it is not entirely suitable for a ten year old to read. The language is simple enough for a layman to understand without breaking their heads over complex sentence structures and this adds to the charm of the down to earth yet awe-inspiring stories at the border.

It was an incredible journey to undertake and while I enjoyed my holidays in Kerala, I took a quick trip to the north western and eastern borders of our country, through this book. Books like these, offer a glimpse of the events in the past and the places in the present, while unearthing the lines that bind the two.


Tea time calls for a post

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Heaven has been sending me omens and I cannot unsee them any longer. Celebrity authors ranting about machine tea, a random assumption on me being a coffee-drinker, a waiter switching my tea with my husband’s coffee, an FB friend posting a pic with a tumbler of tea in hand, the mind plays tricks on you when it knows what you want to write about! And yes, I want to write about a hot cup of tea.

A cup of tea invites you over for a talk, a heart to heart tete-a-tete, sometimes with your family, at times with your neighbours, more frequently with your friends and on those rare occasions with yourself. My earliest memories of tea, are of those that I drank at others’ homes. As a child, I was not allowed to drink tea at home but when we visited friends and family, there was always a cup for me. Not used to having it as hot as the grown-ups, I would nestle the cup in my palms and wait for it to cool down. It was a good distraction for a quiet introvert like me. Some of the best tea that I have had came from the tea-aficionados, among my extended family in Kerala. Over the years, it became the ultimate comfort food. A cup of tea brewed by my dad or mom, just made all my anxieties of the day, disappear. And I have to admit, I like my dad’s tea much more than my mom’s. Hers tend to be on the sweeter side. Though the comforting quantity comes from my mom; my dad’s brew will be no less no more than the number of people in the house!

It is, however, much more than a comfort food. Tea plays an important role in the social and community life in India. Tea is the symbol of friendliness, closeness and a degree of familiarity that goes beyond the bonds of a blood relation. Enter any neighbour’s home in India and you have invited yourself to a warm conversation and piping hot tea. If an acquaintance invites you for a cup of tea, it is probably the beginning of a beautiful relationship but if a friend invites you over, it is definitely for a no-holds barred chat. A conversation that can make you feel all’s well with this world. I still remember, the fragrant, cardamom-flavoured tea that a friend used to serve at her home in NJ, especially, when the weather turned bleak and we both knew, intuitively, that we were longing for the warm cup of tea that reminded us of home and family.

My happiest memories of tea time is that of my family, including my uncles and aunts, gathered around in our balcony, sipping on tea, munching on snacks and sharing tidbits from each others’ lives. Just before a short trip to London, I had cut down on my intake of morning tea and restricted myself to the evening cuppa. It was summer in London and yet, partly due to the cold weather and partly due to loneliness, I reinstated my morning cuppa to its rightful place.

Today, the only time I actually enjoy my tea or rather get enough leisure time to do it, is over the weekends. Those fifteen to twenty minutes of ‘random time’ when I and my better half speak about ‘random stuff’ in our lives, are the most enjoyable part of the week.

So, cheers to many more cups of tea and warm moments to cherish.