Saturday, March 1, 2014

Life in Chennai and a Reading List

(Note: I am experimenting with font size, which has been giving me headaches.)

February has gone by very quickly here.  I have less than a month left in Chennai, and then a little over a month of travel around India before I head back to the US.  I've been enjoying my life here.  I typically start my day at 5 AM with 2 cups of strong, milky, sweet Tamil Nadu coffee.  Then I go out on my bike for a short ride.  Today I had a longer ride, 40 kms., with my new biking buddies, Kannan and Lalitha.  When I do shorter rides, I come back and do Yoga before breakfast, but not today.  I was hungry and ready to eat when we got back!  A little rest now, and then the next thing on the agenda for today is an oil bath.  

Lalitha and I taking a water break.

Seems that most people I know here do oil baths, at least once a week.  What is it?  Well, you douse your entire body in sesame oil.  I start by getting my hair good and oiled up and let that soak in for about a half hour.  Then I oil my entire body and again let it soak in for about a half hour.  Then I rinse off in a hot shower.  There is a special powder that I mix up to wash the oil out of my hair, and another special powder to wash my body.  The latter is made of turmeric and ground lentils, so I have to rinse it off really well or my clothes turn yellow!  Anyway, I find it very relaxing and plan to continue the practice when I get back home.  I think it would be especially helpful during cold months when one is in a heated house.

Most days after breakfast I spend a little time doing email or reading, and then Ravi and I study the Yoga Sutras.  This has nothing to do with the asanas, but rather is the philosophical, spiritual branch of Yoga.  We go line by line.  Ravi chants the line in Sanskrit, then we discuss it.  At the end of our session, usually about 2 hours, together we chant the sutras that we have studied so far.  Sanskrit has captured my fancy these days, and I am thinking about studying it.  I went to a discussion the other night and one of the people on the panel said that translations from Sanskrit to English are very difficult because Sanskrit is verb based and English is noun based.  I've spent a lot of time thinking about that, and have realized that verbs are much more interesting to me than nouns.  I try to live a verb-based life, not a noun-based life.  It seems much richer to me.

Afternoons and evenings are often spent reading, relaxing, blogging, doing email and walking with Ravi and Google.  But often there are other activities as well.  Last week I spent a very interesting day at Prasad Academy, a film school where my friend Uma is a professor.  One day I spent the afternoon gathering supplies for and then making quesadillas, salsa and chocolate chip cookies, three of my specialties, for dinner.  What fun!  Ravi and I went to a presentation of the Manipuri dance at Kalakshetra on Friday night.  And Saturday Sheela and I went to the Mylapore Temple then did some shopping at one of the new malls.  We finished with a Rajasthani feast at a restaurant there.

So you can see that my life here is full of rich experiences.  I'm not eager to leave!

I also read a lot, and I've always tried to read to support my travels.  So last fall when I decided I was going to spend some time in India, I asked Ravi for a reading list, which he graciously supplied.  Then friends started gifting me books about India, dscards from the library or bargain books from garage sales.  I was happy to get them all, and proceeded to read as much as I could.  I downloaded a whole bunch of books to my iPad, wanting to ensure I would not run out of books while I was here.  Most of them will await my return trip, since I've discovered very well stocked bookshelves in the Shankar household!  And - this won't be a surprise to those who know me - I've managed to buy quite a stack of books since I got here!  Looks like I may need to ship some of them back.  Anyway, I know some of you reading this are actually considering a visit to India, so I've included a reading list for those who might be interested.  The list was getting too long, so I've only included part here, and will include more later.

On a totally unrelated note - I saw an EMU running towards us on the streets of Chennai earlier this week.  Yes, an EMU!  Where was my camera?  Tucked neatly away in my bag.  Anyway, Ravi said he's seen them before, but more often out in the country.  I guess someone thought raising emus would be a great way to make money, but then no one wanted to eat them.  So it flopped, and now there are abandoned emus to keep the people, dogs, cows, goats and cats company in the street.

I've included random pictures because a blog without pictures is... Well, you can finish that sentence for yourself.  I won't be offended if you want to bypass the reading list and just skip to the pictures.

The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan, 2009
A wonderful novel about a family in Tamil Nadu, the state I am living in.  Sheela recommended this one, and said a lot of it reminded her of her own growing up.  The novel follows the life of Sivakami, and covers 70 years, from the end of the 19th century to mid 20th century.  This was a time of tremendous social change in India, and the novel does an excellent job of describing the conflict and pain that change causes within one family across three generations.  Long, but worth it.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, 2008
Another excellent novel.  A forbidden love story, a family saga, a turbulent political backdrop.  It really is a sad story, but told in the most beautiful language.  What I liked best about this book was how Roy played with language.

Swami and Friends by R. K. Narayan, 1935
A collection of episodes in the life of a young boy who hates school and is full of mischief.  Swami's family life mirrors the typical Hindu brahminical household.  Set in pre-independence India, Ravi recommended it as a way to understand what things used to be like.  I suspect he read it himself as a child, and might even have been as mischievous as Swami!  Narayan is a respected, even loved, classical author.

The Smile of Murugan:  A South Indian Journey by Michael Wood, 1995
I think this has been reissued under the title "South Indian Journey,". It is a travelogue set in Tamil Nadu, the state I am visiting.  It includes detailed descriptions of some of the many temples in this state, and also includes some interactions with some of the local people Wood comes to know.  Unfortunately, I found that after about the third temple description, they all started to sound alike. 

Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India by Gita Mehta, 1998
This is a collection of essays written by a woman from her own experience.  She is a very good writer and covers a variety of topics, from politics to art to personal anecdotes.  Easy reading and also quite informative.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, 2000
This collection of short stories won the Pultizer Prize for literature in 2000.  It is about people who are struggling as we all are, and those people happen to be Indian.  She shares a lot of the culture and beliefs of India, but always one first feels the humanness of her characters.  Lovely writing.

India Express: the Future of the New Superpower by Daniel Lak, 2008
Lak is a BBC reporter who spent 12 years reporting on India.  This book covers a wide range of topics, from economics to culture, from religion to women's issues.  It is very well written, easy to read, and full of information.  I highly recommend it!

A mural on the wall close to HeyMath!, where Sheela works.  Chennai recently had a week celebrating art.  There were many murals, all following the theme of trees and the sky.

It was fun to try on my sari.  Sheela helped me.  It will take some practice to do it on my own!

Sheela and I enjoyed our Rajasthani feast!

With Kannan, my other biking buddy.

A working class bicycle.  I'm sure the person who pedals this one doesn't wear spandex.

The Mylapore temple in Chennai.

Uma in her office, listening to a previous student pitch an idea she has for a film.  Very interesting.  Uma spent a semester at Kenyon as a visiting professor.  She focuses on films that empower women.

Speaking of women, these young women were hard at work helping to build the school just down the road from us.

More work on the new school building.  There is a lot of construction going on in this area.

The Manipuri dance.  No cameras were allowed, so this is not a picture I took.  I found it on the internet.  If you search images for the Manipuri dance, you can find many more.  It was an amazing event.

A street corner in Chennai.  Note the feet of the person who I assume is lying down just around the corner.

I think it's interesting that they sell protein, not chicken!

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