Kharak chai, anyone?

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 Let me begin with one of my favorite fables.

Once upon a time, there was a King by the name Shahryār who ruled many parts of the mid-eastern world. Already distraught with the discovery of infidelity of his brother’s wife, he is enraged even more upon finding his own wife’s flagrancy. Deeply angry and vengeful, he has her killed and preempts his own possible dishonor by killing his future wives in succession. Scheherzade, a wise daughter of his minister marries him and preserves her own mortality by narrating a story every night. While she ends each tale she also tantalizes the King by beginning the next one and leaving it incomplete. The ever-curious King to find out the ending of these tales thus spares her execution each night. Continuing the routine for a thousand and one nights she succeeds to please the king, while remaining alive. So goes the narration of the legendary “One Thousand and One Nights” or “Arabian nights”. That mine did not include 1001 nights let alone a King hardly dilutes my own 12 nights of Arabic experience in Muscat, Oman.

Oman. A land that seldom sees rain but a loving Sun that shines on with pure dry bright sunlight. A land that is flanked by an ocean, yet swathed in desert sand that runs for miles on end. A land walled by colossal mountains in the backdrop. A land where expats outnumber the natives, calling it home away from their home. A land where Diwali is celebrated with pomp and splendor. A land where golfing under floodlights during the cooler nights, is a common pastime. A land where Bollywood movies are screened on multiple television stations and movie theaters. A land where the Royal Palace of the Sultan and the Grand Mosque compete with each other in their breathtaking splendor. A land where the massive ruined forts still remain as an evidence of major trade hubs of the 17th century. A land where native tribes still dwell in villages reminiscent of ancient times. A land where the labrynthesque Souq doused in the soft aromas of Frankincense still beckons with its little shops vending piles of dates, spices and jewelry.

I learned that Friday and Saturday is their weekend. I learned that most Omani men and women both wear their national traditional over-dress, the Dishdasha and the Abaya, neither of them showing their hairdos, forearms and legs above their ankles. I learned to speak some Arabic, a language that I felt mystified – all 15 phrases of it. To my own surprise, I learned to scribe my name in the exotic calligraphy, right to left and despite the absence of the consonant “P”. I learned to hail taxis sometimes even with a hint of bargaining over the fares. I learned to endure the heat of the daily afternoons by rightfully being rewarded with blissful afternoon naps.

Punctuating the streets are little cafes and restaurants where Omanis gather over their favorite eats and beverages after sunset. The mixed cuisine of Mediterranean and Indian grew on my palate. The Shawarma melting in the mouth, crispy and spicy samosas, Omani bread melding crepes with eggs and sweet honey, biryanis that brought in various mixtures of spice, meat and vegetables and the Laban, a thin runny yogurt infused with cumin all fed me my daily fuel. The sweet Omani Halwa rolled in a mixture of salty popcorn and roasted nuts got consumed with pure pleasure. Dates, sugary dates to be pitted with your fingers got delightfully washed down the gullet with sips of Qahwa, a dark coffee brewed and laced with cardamom, rosewater and saffron. Kharak Chai, a sweet tea simmered in ginger and cardamom undoubtedly accompanied as my inseparable potable throughout my sojourn and beyond.

As all good things come to an end, so did my visit. My backyard has now turned colorful announcing the onset of fall. As the sun sets at the far end, I take in the rainbow of ochre, red, yellow and green leaves that dot the trees wafting a cool breeze welcoming me home as I sip on a hot steaming cup of … yes, Kharak chai!

Ajji!

hampi elephant

Ajji. That’s who she was, my grandmother, a petite woman with round silver rimmed spectacles framing a pair of gentle sagacious eyes, set in an oval face aged with fine lines that told countless stories. Stories of mythology, of people, of places and of adages that never ever failed to get my little being into rapt attention. She always sat with her back propped against the wall, clad in a muted colored sari, legs outstretched with her two feet peeking out, crossed against each other. The sunlight that streaked in through the skylight over the tall ceiling hugged her equally with the warm sunshine she so loved.

That she was Ajji to family, friends, neighbors, visitors and what seemed the whole world did not least matter to me because I thought she was mine while my younger siblings openly squabbled over their sole ownership. I adored her with all the fierce and possessive love that a little child ever could. I asked for stories, all the time and the one that never failed to get my rapt attention comes back to me every year this time of the year: that of Ganesh.

Hindu mythology depicts three Gods of the universe – Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Shiva is on his way back from his duties elsewhere to his home Mt. Kailash, and his wife Parvati, the universal female power “Shakti”, decides to take a bath before his arrival. Cognizant of safety, she prepares an idol of a young man from a paste of turmeric and breathing life into him, places him at the doorway of her home, instructing him to not allow anyone inside while she is bathing, under any circumstances.   Shiva, in the meanwhile arrives only to be blocked entry into his own abode. Not tolerating the insubordination, by a stranger no less, he severs off the young man’s head and enters the home. An irate Parvati, upon learning that her conception has been destroyed, vows to annihilate the entire universe. Fully conscious of the extent of her power, Shiva pleads forgiveness and asks her what he can do to rectify the impending calamity.  Parvati, as a first asks that her son be brought back to life. Furthermore, she demands that he be celebrated all over the universe every year on a particular day.

Shiva sends his troops to find a head to affix to the slain body, supine and lifeless at the door. Nowhere can such a head of a young man be found under the specific conditions laid down by Shiva, except for an elephant. The elephant’s head hence is dutifully brought back to Shiva whereupon the young man is breathed back into life. Ganpati also known as Ganesh, a young man with an elephant head is hence born, accepted as the son of Shiva and Parvati.

Ajji ‘s stories never seemed to end and if they did, with a smile and a witty quip. Ganesh grows up with his brother Subramanya, webbed in the customary sibling rivalry. Once, the brothers present their dispute of who is older and wiser to their parents. The parents duly set a contest to their children to go around the world three times, with whomever finishing first would be proclaimed the winner. While Subramanya hops on his vehicle and sets off on his journey around the globe, Ganesh outwits him by simply circling his seated parents regarding them as none other than the universe. Ajji unfailingly pointed to the eternal triumph of wisdom over skill, after every single narration of this story.

Yet another time, Ganesh challenges the Sage Vyasa that he is willing to serve as scribe for the great epic Mahabharata only if it was uninterrupted during his dictation. The Sage, responds to Ganesh that he shall write only after understanding the full meaning of the verses. The Sage intersperses complex verses to provide himself moments of rest, while Ganesh takes the time to ponder over them: the two minds surmount the mutual conditions to complete the legendary epic. That the story of Ganesh, is beguiling in both realistic and metaphorical forms does not diminish the attributes Ajji always emphasized, that of loyalty, duty, love, humility, fun, intelligence and wit.

Ganesh Chaturthi, a time when fun and festivities meld into my day of celebration. A day when I adorn all the Ganpatis that I have lovingly collected over time – from a little alley in Venice, the noisy floating market in Bangkok, an artsy gallery in Paris, a remote village near Delhi, handed down from my mother and many gifted from my dear friends. Watching mesmerized, the gently waving little plumes of lights, I pray with all my heart to bring good and remove evil to all my near and dear ones. As the laddoos and delicacies sweeten my own palate with those of my family and friends, I wish the day would never end while I silently look forward for Ganpati the next year.

But most of all, it is always a day when I want to be an 8-year old again, running back exhausted after a full day of school and game after game with neighborhood kids, to rest my head on her lap feeling the wispiness of her softest cotton sari that feels like clouds and say, “tell me a story, Ajji”, and drift off to the magical land of her stories. A day I fondly think of my Ajji, a spiritual being who I remember seldom visited temples, but brought back all the Gods into her own soul and mine.

What’s the point?

FullSizeRenderWe rented a car after a short and sweet rendezvous with my son on his birthday weekend in LA, to drive over to Las Vegas to meet a group of couples, some familiar and some not. That this was not my first visit to the sin city, nevertheless seemed like a promising weekend to join a few other golfers, real ones unlike me who just completed the first set of lessons and looking to an opportunity to finally put my newly acquired golf skills into tactics. So, there we were, up early in the morning with the sun still in deep slumber, bundling our golf bags into the car and heading off in the direction of Las Vegas.

Over the next four hours, we watched the sun rise over between the mountains alongside sights of snow-capped mountains, driving our lonely vehicle, befriending the even lonelier snaking highway much in silence. The world seemed as lonely as it seemed with not a living creature in the vicinity. Eventually the sight of the strip beckoned us to the land of lights, show, sound and people. Hotels that seemed larger than their neighbor loomed everywhere looking exactly like the shots on the ever familiar silver screen.

People. People and people. From all over the world. Noise. Noise and noise. Sounds of many languages. Cuisines of all types. Served in hundreds of restaurants that seemed to be everywhere. Casinos buzzing and clanging bells of wins and losses. Felt covered tables of all shapes and sizes surrounded by players sprawled over the vast expanse of the casino floor. Scantily clad, petite little waitresses gliding through the flashing floors balancing the drinks. Gondolas replicating the Venetian canals with gondoliers singing alto to couples within – all under a make-believe sky with stars during broad daylight, inside the hotel. Every show that seemed to outdo the other in glitter and glamor making our choice of attendance even more difficult. So much going on with no day or night in sight. A universe that sleep had deserted altogether. What’s the point – I thought, of it all?

Spending hours together, golfing in sunshine that wrapped us in its warmth, eating meals – hungry or not, walking for miles to no end, resting our tired feet to watch the mammoth fountains that danced to the music behind, smiling at the thought of the housekeeper that put a special something every day, what seemed to be a nervous not-so-sure first meeting and after two days feeling you have known them forever and there it was – time to bid farewell. Where did the time go?

I could not stop the world and time which just sped by – together. But the warmth of being together, the incessant chatter, the laughs, the sounds of silence in between and the unforgettable taste of friendship is mine to keep – forever.

And that is, precisely the point!

Another year and onto my relentless pursuit of …

hair – perfect hair, that is. In this world of ours, which houses 7 billion humans each with an average of 1,000 hairs per inch over their 120 sq. inches of head, I am talking serious business here. As if this were not enough, the statistical claim of the non-occurrence of two people with the same identical hair elevates my fascination even more. That the human hair comes in all shapes, sizes and colors, does not diminish the occurrence of its total in-existence as well. I forever thank the heavens for not granting my hair a voice lest it would be sharing unbounded stories speaking volumes on its love and loath that would gush faster than water out of a broken fire hose.
It is fair to acknowledge that hair has, over time, evolved into a statement of beauty – which of us of the fairer sex (and perhaps even the other half) does not aspire for a full head of glossy flowing sheaths of hair? I confess to being no exception. My childhood years was threaded with watching the seven gorgeous kids of the movie “Sound of Music” sporting beautiful crowns; reading “Goldilocks” off a glossy comic book that prefaced the tale with an apt title that bespoke of her locks; gasping in horror as the flowing tresses got snipped off of Rapunzel by the evil enchantress; gazing untiringly with eternal fascination of the long haired voluptuous Hindu deities – all the while praying to an invisible Goddess to turn my hair into one similar to her own enviable silky mane. Evidently, I am yet to be bestowed with my long diligent prayer.
Hair was also my foe as I grew up. At my rather secular but strict school, hair was not to be let loose, rather cut very short into a bob or braided and tied up in a loop by your ears into the most unsightly style ever imaginable. There lay my childish conundrum – offer a plea to my parents to cut my hair against my own wishes or remain unfashionable: the latter always trumped, for many inexplicable reasons. However, braiding had its own hassles, and most painful of all, it took time and had me go through immense trauma. Since I did not know how to do it, I relied on my mother who with an unnatural strength that belied her tiny figure would braid the thick unruly mass into sheer discipline with a chock-full of help from copious amounts of hair gel. The never lying mirror beamed back a face with my eyes popping out of sheer tension of the hair braided with not a single hair straying out of its well-oiled nest.
As I journeyed through my teen years and rightfully out of the hold of my mother’s strong hands, it seemed like my hair ruled every one of my actions. My activities, my study schedules, my style for the day, my friends and everything in between seemed to be mandated by how I wanted my hair to look like, which seldom did. If it were a short bob described in the latest Mills and Boon teen novel that I fancied one week, it most likely would be the long straight hair of the new girl who walked into school that I craved several weeks later. Mother Nature never intended to encourage teenagers like me; my hair seemingly could never morph that quickly, adding to the discontent innate in my already impatient personality. So there I was, a teenager with a crown that was either incredibly groomed or was unkempt with unsightly bobby pins struggling to hold the hair in place with all the help they needed from the even more tight hair bands. An unrelenting and undesired headache kept me constant company and did not help in the least in quenching my thirst for beauty.
As I grew out of my teenage years and surprisingly, so did my desire for great hair– my own hair morphing into an unwanted but necessary accessory. The reality of a career, and hence the preceding warranted studies, ejected me out of the vain world of hair. A full two minute process would have me brush and pull up my hair into a ponytail high over my head in hair bands that seemed to be omnipresent – on the dressing table, under the sofa, under a chair and even on the kitchen table, all much to my mother’s constant chagrin. Incessant studies until the wee hours in the morning, accompanied by an ever greasy and unkempt mane that nobody had a chance to view, also became routine. Graduate school propelled me to gleefully progress as a bona fide professional into the world of monetary earnings alias disposable income. My fellow corporate denizens took little time to yank me back into the world of vanity of hairdos and hairstyles – again. I viewed with envy the perfect springy curly locks that framed the faces of my new friends. I plunged into spending a half day at a spa wrapped in little plastic rollers with an aromatic (unpleasant as it were) liquid dripping down to my ears and neck. I got a perm. The lengthy process over, my already dense hair showed off in thousands of curls with a face somewhere hidden in that mass of hair, that took me a while to recognize. I suddenly had an epiphany of the sheer number of hours and equally generous amounts of mousse it would now take to tame the mass of curls to presentable locks of hair. A simple math also alerted me to the fact that at the ambling rate of hair growth, it would now take years for me to grow my own natural hair to my desire and so it did.
The century then turned in all its glory, with glamour clearly favoring sleek straight hair with eye-catching signs of “permanent hair straightening” beckoning me from hair salons. I surrendered my head to the even longer process of getting drenched in chemicals that I uncomfortably noted that even the stylist was to wear a mask so as not breathe in the noxious fumes. After the completed ritual, I looked at my beautiful mane, with long, lustrous, “straight as a pin” tresses of gorgeous dark brown hair. My happiness would be evaporating soon when I realized that the permanence held true only for the treated hair. The new hair that grew out was as natural as me, but sadly looking disconnected from the rest, which hung down as straight as a dry noodle. Patience never being a virtue with me, I finally reluctantly succumbed to the shears to part with the beautiful shiny straight hair, now divorced and lying anxiously on the salon floor.
As I coasted speedily downhill into my 40s, one bright morning I noticed with mortification that knew no depths, the unavoidable and unmistakable of even brighter shiny grey hairs peeking joyfully out of my pate. I convinced myself that this was not something to be bothered about yet and pranced about with little concern for many months after. This was not to last long either, after several receipts of unsolicited suggestions of friends and self-proclaimed hair colorists, first subtly then blatantly especially after one, who even offered to do it herself, warranted my immediate action. The now dire situation dictated my next visit to the salon chair with a serious discussion on tones, colors and a swatch of hair clippings for the perfect match with my personality that promised to disguise all the unsightly grey members of my head. A couple hours later, I stepped into the world with new hair that belied nature. Reality again struck me a few months later that I would need to go through this coloring journey frequently in order to keep the annoying persistent raccoon streaks at bay.
Another year has rolled by. Another year of joys and sorrows. Another year of vicissitudes. Another year of visits to my haven that keeps me on my eternal pursuit of perfect hair. That there is no dearth of hair salons only ratifies my faith in gorgeous crowns from now to eternity. Here is to all yours and my lovely manes – curly, straight, wavy or just natural for many more years ahead.
Happy 2017!