Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around


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Travelessence – Spain

spainI have a dream, a small wish really. To buy a world map. A large one. One that I can hang on a wall in my home. With little stickers, I want to mark the places I have visited. Red stickers for places I lived in – Bombay (before it became Mumbai), Washington DC, San Francisco, Hyderabad, Singapore. Green for places where I was a tourist – Rome, London, Sydney, Paris, Barcelona, Bali. Yellow for the ones that beckon – Turkey, Bhutan, Greece, New Zealand.

In this series, I would like to share with you, my thoughts on some of the places I have visited – exotic locations, religious pilgrimages, family holidays, business trips and outings with friends.

The first essay is one I wrote on a business trip cum holiday with my good friend, Anupama to Spain in 2012.

We were strolling along La Rambla, the most happening part of Barcelona, ice-cream cone in hand, passing shops selling souvenirs, juices and trinkets. We had arrived from Granada a few hours earlier. The large poster announcing a series of concerts at local basilicas displayed at a travel information kiosk caught our attention. A long list of performances were scheduled for the months of October and November at various spectacular locations within the city. There was only one that we could possibly attend, a Spanish guitar performance by Manuel Gonzalez that would begin in a couple of hours at a church that appeared to be located within walking distance of La Rambla. Did we have a list of places to see, things to do, eat, shop and admire in Barcelona? Of course we did. But the best experiences happen when there is a change in plan. We booked tickets for that evening’s performance.

We barely made it in time to the Basilica Santa Maria del Pi, a beautiful church built in the Gothic style of architecture. The seats were almost full with a low buzz as people waited for the artist to arrive. At exactly 9 p.m. Manuel Gonzalez, a distinguished looking man appeared on stage with the Spanish guitar and started playing. We had a program brochure in Spanish listing the pieces to be played. But it did not matter what was written or announced, the music enveloped everyone in that room.

The wonderful acoustics of the monument, the ambience of the location, the time of day and the mastery of the artist over his instrument, I am not sure if any one of this was responsible for the temporary bliss that overtook me as I found myself immersed in this wonderful music. If I closed my eyes, I could have sworn that the sounds emanating from the stage were from a piano, or was it the drums or a saxophone perhaps? The artist was highly accomplished in taking the instrument to its limits of creation.

Music, particularly instrumental music has the ability to transcend barriers of language fluency, accent and articulation to make a connection with the listener. As a person familiar with Indian music, I am always looking to connect with something I already know – the instrument itself, the raaga, the movie, composer, artist. I try to compare it with something I have heard previously, see if I remember the words. The pure joy of the moment gets diluted by tricks of memory. Here none of my past knowledge mattered, a simple melody, a succession of notes, a series of tunes registered in my consciousness. And filled me up.

Spain as a country seems immersed in music. Whether it was the banjo player outside Puerta de la Justica at Alhambra, or the guitarist in the sunny square near the Alcazar palace in Seville, or the unusual music created by a strange instrument called the “handpan” outside the cathedral in Granada, they all created haunting melodies, some sang words that I didn’t understand but could probably guess, while others just struck a chord in my heart, completely bypassing my bossy head.

As Mark Twain said, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”. With each day that I spent in beautiful Spain, struggling to communicate my need for vegetarian food or ask for directions to the toilets or enquire about train timings, I felt less uncomfortable at my “foreignness” and more connected to total strangers who showed the way or happily took photographs when asked. I read somewhere that it is important to “Travel more. Getting lost may help you find yourself”. Isn’t that the purpose of all journeys, if not all travel?

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Craving quiet

“Music is the space between the notes.”

                                                               – Claude Debussy

Children love to hear the story of their birth. And I was no exception. While the actual event of my birth was as momentous or uneventful as any other, the part that was of great interest to me, came a little later in the narration.

“People told me that giving birth to the second baby would be much easier” said my mother, “but for me all three of you took a long time to emerge. You specially. You were the chubbiest of the lot.” I was perhaps 10 years old when we talked about this the first time.  “Were you sad that I was a girl?” I asked, knowing the preference for sons that prevails in India. “I was not sad that you were a girl, but a girl’s life is a hard one. Looking at your smiling, innocent face, I felt a twinge that my little baby girl will also have to endure all that a woman has to bear in her life.” I didn’t really grasp the depth of that sentiment then, eager to proceed to the interesting part. “When I was a teenager, I once heard a neighbor sing a melodious song and I asked what raga it was. Ranjani, she replied. Even before I thought about marriage, I knew that if I ever had a daughter, I would name her Ranjani.”

I was named after a raga in Carnatic music. So was my mother. I loved this story because it made me feel special; the fact that I was in her mind long before I was in her arms, an inquisitive and demanding daughter. Growing up between two brothers in a society that favored boys, this fact built my self-esteem along with so many of my mother’s statements during my growing years.

 I didn’t particularly develop an interest in Indian classical music at a young age. But I heard a lot of it. First there was radio, then television. The cassette tapes made music more accessible to that generation. My mother sang often. Although not a trained musician, she had a lilting voice and was a quick learner. She was an encyclopedia of knowledge about Carnatic music. Each morning the chanting of the Vishnu Sahasranama or hymns sung in praise of the Hindu gods roused us from slumber. The day would then gradually fill with a cacophony of sounds of the busy metropolis that was Bombay.

 Many years after I left home, I turned to music at a time in my life when I did not find meaning in anything else. I found a suitable Carnatic music teacher in America, drove 20 miles for every lesson. I memorized the notes, repeated after my teacher and practiced. I talked about music to my mother. Much later, World Space radio came to India with its dedicated Carnatic music channel, much to the delight of my mother. Although we lived in different cities in India then, we discussed shows and artists, dissected the nuances of compositions, praised the melody and beauty of the words. We bonded over sound bytes. Our favorite game was “guess the raga”. She was much better than any app that could guess the tune from the first few bars as it played over the sound waves. My best memories in recent years include the two trips we made to Chennai during the December music season to attend music concerts that play daily all over the city, a veritable feast for music connoisseurs.

 While my mother and I bonded over many things, there were some things about her that didn’t make sense to me in my early years. We would travel by train during the summer holidays. The scenery would run by, dry and barren at places, lush fields at others. Occasionally a lonely house would be seen in the distance; a dim light in the middle of nowhere.

“I would like to live there,” my mother would say.

“Really? Why would you want to leave the comforts of city life to live all alone?”

“Sometimes I want to be quiet and be surrounded by quiet. It’s not possible with the three of you all around. Plus the noise of city life doesn’t give me a moments peace.”

I found it odd that the charm of living in a big city didn’t fascinate my mother. Why would you trade the glitz and speed of a metro for a place where you hear no sounds except perhaps the moo of a cow?

 Only later when the need for solitude arose as a nascent sigh within me did I empathize with my mother’s wish for some alone time. The parenting path is filled with activities, responsibilities and demands. Whether it is the tinkle of childish giggles, the laughter of kids horsing around or the clang of pots and pans in the kitchen, there is always noise. Sounds surround you, mark your day and clutter your thoughts. Getting away from it all seems to be the only way to experience quietness.

And in that solitude you find the energy that keeps you going, humming softly through the days that seem to never end, with errands that pile up just as you finish others.

Just as the cadence of music is made up of the notes and the spaces between them, life needs these periodic pauses to help us reflect and rejoice in just “being”.

Here’s to reveling in rejuvenating solitude, refreshing silence, revitalizing stillness. Image