Tag Archives: family

Birthday Day

The day started with a hearty mutton fry made by Sellappan’s mam, and I gave Sellappan his cookbook gift I had kept secret since arriving. We went for the bus early and I enjoyed travelling back on the 3.33 Electronic City Express in the daylight, watching the scenery change as we left the hills of Salem and went back to Bangalore. We got a phone call from Sellappan’s building manager in Bangalore to say that Holi was being celebrated downstairs – where were we? I had stayed some extra time in Bangalore especially for Sellappan’s birthday and Holi, so I knew what was ahead, but this was a day early, and we certainly weren’t dressed to be covered in powder paint and coloured water!

We got back to Bangalore and took a rickshaw back to the flat, where we saw all kinds of coloured carnage unfolding! The building manager grinned through his colours and approached menacingly – only Sellappan’s cry of “New shirt! New shirt!” saved us from a full on attack! We did, however, receive some green colour on our faces, with cries of “Happy Holi!” We went for the lift before anyone changed their minds!

We unpacked, changed into more suitable clothes and went back out to get supplies for Sellappan’s birthday party. I was pleased I’d brought a backpack for all the snacks and sweets we ended up with! Eventually the shopping was done, and we got back to find another group of about ten people all celebrating Holi. We just managed to put down our bags and take phones out of pockets before all hell broke loose! Between all the different colours of powder, the super soakers and the silver and gold face paint, we were all thoroughly covered in short order!

We must have been playing for a while, as Sellappan’s friends began to arrive – I say began to arrive…three of them walked towards the apartment block and when they saw what was going on they walked slower and slower… clearly not wanting to get too messy! They escaped with some silver paint to the face, and we all headed upstairs, carefully not touching anything.

Sellappan graciously allowed me the first shower, and it took forever to get the colours out of my hair – I couldn’t even tell if they were off my face or not. The soap and shampoo ran magenta into the drain, and I finally managed to come out with some semblance of normality. Poor Sellappan was still standing not touching anything and trying to avoid dropping more powder everywhere. Once he was cleaned up, more people started to arrive and we spent a lovely evening wishing Sellappan many happy returns – with the help of two cakes! Plenty of people managed to squeeze into the flat, and the evening was a great success!

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Horizontal Living/Are we on fire?

Horizontal living in the very, very literal sense happened today, at least for Sellappan. I sat up on the sofa while he lay on the living room floor. Another day of relaxation with home cooking and films was very welcome.

We took Casper up to the roof and Sellappan tired him out with fetch as the bucket filled. Once Casper was just about worn out, he submitted to the dog shampoo, dousings with water and scrubbing quite happily, thoroughly enjoying the attention and rarely soaking us with a shake. He smelled loads better after his bath!

We headed to the bus station late in the evening, and Sellappan bumped into a schoolfriend who had booked the seat behind us. We settled in for our standard commute back to Bangalore. Just as I was wondering if the air conditioning was sucking in fumes from the bus in front, someone came from the back of the bus to speak to the driver, and asked him to stop.

The smell was getting stronger, and the driver eventually pulled over and we turned around to see the back of the bus beginning to fill up with blue-grey smoke. We all got off the bus, and looked around the back where smoke was pouring out. Initially it was thought that the AC unit was malfunctioning, but it turned out that the engine was overheating!

The driver and conductor started making phone calls to the bus company, and sure enough, a couple more buses stopped to help. After a while standing under the stars and speculating what was happening, yet another half-full bus turned up and there was space for some passengers to jump on and continue their journey, which Sellappan and I did. We ended up on the conductor’s hard sideways seat at the front of the bus.

I watched out of the front for the rest of the journey, denied the joy of reclining by having to sit on the strange seat. Sellappan got some sleep (of highly dubious quality) before we arrived at around 4am in Bangalore. After the usual rickshaw ride home we did our standard catch up nap.

Wash It

While I have had the luxury of some quiet times in Bangalore between trips, Sellappan has been working those hours to ensure he has enough leave to travel with me – and to keep his manager on side! This weekend being just over halfway through my visit it seemed reasonable to have a more chilled out weekend at home. That, and he really needed to wash the dog. And his clothes.

We woke up at Ashwini and Naveen’s place at 6 and caught a rickshaw to where the buses stop. This was at a flower market, and we stood on the corner as people were laying out their metres and metres of garlands behind us. The combination of the thick jasmine scent and the diesel of the buses was very odd indeed!

Plenty of buses sailed past until Sellappan chose the one he wanted to flag down, the 3.33, so numbered because that’s how long it takes the bus to get from Electronic City back to Salem. Sellappan caught some extra sleep while I watched the world go by outside, which was interesting as it was only the second daylight trip I’ve taken by bus in India.

We arrived to the house late in the morning, and had a lazy day to top all lazy days. Sellappan washed the bikes with minimal interference from me, and I made a call home while he polished them. Sellappan ran some errands in the evening.

Auroville, Mangroves and the Loud DJ

We started the day nice and early, leaving the house to get into a guided tour of Auroville. Balu had obtained passes for Sellappan, Jay and I to go on the tour. Children aren’t allowed to go on the tour, so Shalini looked after the bairn. Once we arrived we went into a small auditorium set up for videos. The 15 minute video explained the history and ideology behind the site. After the video we were herded onto minibuses and driven to the centre of the community, the Matrimandir.

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The Matrimandir was only completed fairly recently, and had been designed over thirty years ago by a French architect, working to the specifications of Mother. We handed over our bags at the kiosk and then joined the rest of the group and listened to the correct procedures for going inside, what to do when inside and when and where to come out. Even the area leading up to the entrance was a designated quiet zone.

We took off our shoes and headed down between two of the brick ‘petals’ to the West entrance. Inside the light was very dim, and two spiral walkways starting at opposite sides of the circle curved up to the meditation hall. There were also four skinny sluices with water running down a golden channels to the lotus pool far below. The architecture here was white carpets, with walls of white granite or marble, and the walkways were lined by glass panels. The overall effect was certainly impressive. We were given white socks to cover our feet and the progressed up the spiral walkway to the main hall.

The main hall is huge, and all of the surfaces are white marble, except the floor which is carpeted in white. Twelve slim pillars hold up the ceiling, and in the centre of the room there is a big crystal ball, probably about twice the size of my head. Everyone sits facing this ball. This crystal ball serves as a focusing point – somewhere to put your eyes as you contemplate. This crystal ball is also the source of all the light in the room. When available, sunlight is focused down into as narrow ray and through the roof into the ball. This ray continues through the ball and down into a smaller ball placed in the centre of a white marble lotus flower with water running down the petals to the centre. After spending some time in the upper hall, we came down to the lotus pool and spent some time there.

On the way out, we passed one of the twelve smaller meditation rooms, each housed in one of the petals. As Balu had explained yesterday, each room has a theme such as power or bliss, different coloured lighting to promote that feeling and is egg-shaped inside. These themes were the extended to the gardens coming out from each petal. The gardens are still under construction.

When we came out we headed back to the bus and to the visitor centre to meet Shalini and the little one, and went for breakfast. We went to a Starbucks-style cafe with sandwiches and cakes, and got a veggie sandwich and chocolate brownie for breakfast. All that contemplation had been hard work after all.

Back at home, we waited for Balu to come back from his excursion to say goodbye to him and his family, then headed off in the car towards Picharvaram, a mangrove forest. On the way we stopped for lunch at an outdoor restaurant which conveniently had a playground right next to it! Around the playground there were some fallen unripe coconuts, so we played a few games of catch and there was juggling, of course. Turns out they’re the perfect size and weight for that!

The road to Picharvaram took us though lots of small, rural villages, past plenty of bright green rice fields, goats and cows. We got to Picharvaram at about 4pm, and were lucky enough to get a boat ride almost straight away. We went out in a row boat with a guide who looked like he’d spent his whole life rowing tourists around the place. From the boathouse on the shore it was about ten minutes to cross to the mangroves, and from there you could take any trail through the vegetation which grew straight out of the salty water. The water itself was only a couple of feet deep and at the bottom there was muddy silt, which occasionally sucked at the oars of the boat.

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As we went up and down the green lanes, wading birds flapped away, and kingfisher type birds stayed motionless on the roots. Tiny bright silver fish leapt out of the water in sunny patches, and little gangs of silt brown crabs clambered over the roots and each other, hunting for food. In a quiet spot we came a cross a woman fishing by hand for these crabs, moving silently up to her neck in the water, with her catch net between her teeth, busily grabbing the crabs from the roots. I wonder how many nips she got as thanks!

Our ride lasted around an hour, and we got back to dry land and into the car, bound for Pondicherry. The sun set as we drive back through the rice fields and Sellappan and I said goodbye to Jay, Shalini and little Krishita outside the Hotel Accord in Pondicherry. We had a couple of hours to kill before our night bus left at ten, so we passed some time in the bar with plenty of snacks to replace dinner.

We had arrived fairly early and there was only us and another group in the bar. Nevertheless when the DJ turned up he switched on all the psychedelic lights and cranked up the dance music. The other group left, and Sellappan and I shouted at each other for a few minutes before realising the place was empty, so we asked the very attentive barman if the music could be turned down to a slightly less deafening level. He replied apologetically that unfortunately the DJ was hired to bring the party, so he wouldn’t be able to turn down the music. Sellappan and I both found this pretty funny, but didn’t press the issue!

We got to the bus station by rickshaw and boarded the bus, this one didn’t have air conditioning but it did have windows and you get a good breeze going on the highway! After chatting until about midnight I managed to get at least four hours sleep and a great deal more dozing besides. As usual, Sellappan did an excellent job of sleeping through the bounciest and noisiest sections of the drive. We arrived at Bangalore at around 6am and got a rickshaw back to the flat for a bit of proper sleep.

Mahabalipuram , Pondicherry, ELEPHANT!, Auroville

We got up and piled in the car for the drive to (eventually) Pondicherry. There were a few stops to be made on the way, though…

We headed first to Mahabalipuram, and stopped at a hotel for breakfast. For a change, I had poori, which are sort of like balloons made from chappatti. I’m not really sure how else to describe them! They come with some chutneys and sambar, and you pop them first to let the steam out before mopping up the gravy. In the street there were gap year people aplenty, all skinny, sunburnt and dreadlocked. The unusual hairstyle led to questions from Jay, who wasn’t really impressed when I let him know how it is achieved!

We continued to the Shore Temple, a world heritage site on the coast. We got tickets (10 rupees for Indians, 250 rupees for foreigners, again Jay was not impressed). This small ancient temple has certainly suffered from its placement on the sea, with the wind and salty air constantly eroding the carvings, but people are working to preserve it. The temple itself is small, and you can only just squeeze in and walk around the tower. There were ancient Tamil inscriptions in the surrounding rocks, as well as many statues. The sun here was unforgiving, and most of the foreigners were starting to slowly boil. Naturally this was an opportunity for lots of pictures of ourselves standing in front of the famous thing!

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On the way out there were ice creams and mango sticks (basically a mango flavoured mivvy, yum) and then we took a very short drive to the Five Rathas, another ancient site, with spectacular statues. The central attraction is the huge stone elephant, and of course there were many pictures to be taken here too. I also caught a bit of shade in the pillared buildings while watching the families queueing up for their stone elephant picture.

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We escaped from the crowds back to the car and headed for Pondicherry, where a (more modern) temple visit was in the plan, but we went for dinner first in a hotel, which was quite western to my eyes. The menu contained a mix of south Indian food and European dishes. Krishita had some chips with her food while the rest of us went for rice and nan with our curry – no one could resist pinching a few chips though.

We got into Pondi proper and the first thing to strike me was the Frenchness of the place. It was very strange to see the blue street signs with rue de la something and the Tamil script above.

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There were lots of European tourists/ex pats about, and the usual bothering to buy souvenirs switched subtly from “madam” to “madame”. There were also a lot of cafes and restaurants with French sounding names, although I wasn’t convinced by the one offering Indian, French, Chinese, Vietnamese and Italian cuisine. Seemed like a bit of a stretch to do all of those things well! We left our shoes in the car and walked to the temple on the hot road.

We waited in the busy street for the temple to open, while market traders sold flowers, souvenirs and food behind us. When the temple opened we bowled in with the crowd and filed through the railings to visit Ganesh. Somehow we got stuck in the slow lane again, but eventually got through and made the rest of our visit.

We came out of the temple and headed to Sri Aurobindo ashram, but what should Sellappan spot but an elephant lumbering through the market. I don’t think much prepares you for the sight of a huge elephant striding through a busy street, with only passing interest from the crowd! The elephant was painted and was on her way to the temple to give blessings, so we decided to visit her after the ashram.

I didn’t know at the time but this ashram is linked with Auroville which we visited later. Upon entering the ashram, silence is mandatory so I didn’t have the chance to ask any questions! The ashram had gardens full of flowers, and then a central table filled with picked flowered arranged in intricate designs. We sat there for a while, and then exited through the gift shop as is traditional. The large shop sold works by the founder in many, many languages, as well as texts on meditation and spirituality.

Of course, all I wanted to do was meet the elephant, so off we all went to where she was standing outside the temple. Sellappan gave me a two rupee coin and told me to give it to the elephant and she would bless me by bopping me on the head with her trunk. I considered this for a moment (how do you give an elephant a tiny coin?) but he went first to give an example. The coin goes in the crook of her trunk, and then vanishes. Then, she lifts up her trunk, and touches you on the head with it – it feels like getting hit on the head gently with a heavy cushion.

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The elephant trainer was a slim man with a tiny stick, and he kept the elephant supplied with water and food, as well as collecting the silver coins sprayed out of her trunk. He also fed Lakshimi (the elephant’s name) football-sized balls of rice straight to her mouth. She wore two silver anklets that jungled as she shifted around.

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Just then we had a call from Balu who was passing through Pondicherry to pick us up and show the way to his house. We left Lakshimi behind and followed him to his place outside the town. After meeting the family and freshening up we went to Auroville, his and his mother’s hometown. Auroville isn’t just any old place though. I think the closest word I have in my vocabulary is a commune, but it describes itself as an International Community.

Auroville was founded by a Frenchwoman “Mother” and started its life as a red soil desert. What is there now is a town of about 2500 people, which is fairly self-sufficient and run on green power, with lots of organic farming. Aurovillians are all paid the same amount regardless of their job in the community, and everyone is expected to work 9-5, Monday to Friday at whatever job they do. Auroville looks after you in return, including housing and healthcare, you also have access to its education programme and evening activities which teach a huge range of skills.

Balu grew up in Auroville with his mam in a house periodically visited by snakes in the woods. Auroville accepts citizens from all over the world, and membership is not easy to achieve, Thorough background checks, questions bout ideology and trial runs in the community are just three of the hurdles to jump. There is a great sense of peace and tranquillity¬† inside the town, and the whole place is beautifully maintained and manicured. It was only through Bali’s invitation that we were able to come in at all.

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It was sunset as we walked around the grounds towards the Matrimandir, the enormous meditation hall. This hall is covered with huge mosaicked concave discs, made from tiles of glass and gold leaf. The Matrimandir is almost in the centre of the community, but the actual centre is an enormous tree which grew from one trunk, and then put down roots from its branches to form the 33 trunks it now has. It is a single-organism mini forest!

Next, Balu took us to the house he grew up in in the middle of the woods. There was no lighting, so we went by the light of phone screens and Baku’s sense of direction until we reached his place. On the way there he told us about how his mam used to find snake skins in cupboards. Sitting in his second home we chatted, and a little orange lizard ran under the door to investigate, it quickly changed its mind and zipped back outside again!

We returned to Balu’s house outside Auroville for a family dinner cooked by his mam and his wife. They filled our plates until we could take no more! Balu’s house is a new build, and has only recently been finished. There are three storeys above ground and a basement which has space for lots of guests, lucky for us! The air conditioning in the room was a real blessing too and after such a busy day sleep was very welcome.

Paying Visits in Chennai

Chennai is the capital city of Tamil Nadu, and is on the coast. The climate is hotter and more humid than Bangalore.

We woke up to breakfast by Shalini, and soon Krishita, Jay and Shalini’s daughter, was home from nursery. She immediately wanted to tell me all of her rhymes – she has a book of them and recites lots of them for English practice at nursery. She reeled off about a hundred of these before Shalini managed to get her to have some lunch.

Sellappan and I went on the grand tour of Chennai, and the first stop was Madras University, which we reached via a road going along the beach where Sellappan, Alka and the gang passed many a spare hour. We walked around the campus and Sellappan introduced me to a few of his teachers.

Next on the list was present shopping for the friends and relatives Sellappan has in the area, or more accurately, for their kids. We spent some time in a department store and picked up toys and clothes for a variety of ages and then headed downstairs again to get them giftwrapped. Meanwhile, I made a quick phone call to a patchworker to wish her many happy returns.

Our next stop was Loyola, another beautiful set of buildings which we weren’t allowed to photograph. Sellappan reminisced with his teachers and told me stories of his time there. We stopped for milk (I had mango milk, Sellappan had blackcurrant) to rehydrate and then it was time for the next visit.

Sellappan’s sister-in-law Renuka lives on the other side of Chennai with his nephew, Raghav. They were just coming back from school and we went to their place for a quick visit and passed on Raghav’s birthday gift to him. He was very excited to see Sellappan and showed him all of his toys, lining up dinosaurs and elephants for inspection.

After a little while we headed home to meet Shalini, Jay and Krishita to go out for dinner. We went to a restaurant specialising in middle eastern food, and had a mixed grill with hummus to start, and then Indian food to finish off. The restaurant was busy as it was Friday as well as being Valentine’s day. We ended the evening by going to the beach, and played in the sand with Krishita, much to her delight! She really loves playing in the sand, almost as much as she loves copying Shalini cooking with her toys.

Back at the flat we gave Krishita her gift of mini stainless steel pots and pans and cooking utensils. She cooked us up a mean invisible chicken biriyani before we went to bed.

Eat, Pray, Shop (Not in that order)

Another quiet start to the day was followed by a trip out with Saranya and Sudha. Sellappan’sparentsr e went to a temple, where the gods were under a large tree outside. The main god was inside the temple, which wasn’t yet open. We sat for a while under the tree as lots of people made offerings to the gods, lit lamps and walked around the tree.

We went to a restaurant and had a quick snack – I had Bombay kulfi which was kulfi with some stuff in it. It was saffron yellow. The final stop on the quick tour was a fabric shop, which was a special mission for a certain patchworker. I was after patterned cotton, and there was a big selection to choose from! There were also plain cottons in every colour imaginable, and the long, narrow shop stretched back impossibly far from the street. Then assistants were very helpful as I looked at lots and lots of different materials and stacked up the ones I wanted, and asked for a metre or two of each one.

When we got home, there was some time to relax, before Sudha went home and Sranya’s pupils arrived. After they had gone, Saranya prepared dinner (chapattis) and soon Sellappan’s parents were home from their function. As Sellappan was arriving at 3am, I went for an early night.