Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Inhaling

Memory is a funny thing. Some are relatively clear as though the events themselves transpired not all that long ago. Others are hazy, yellowed with age, frayed and faded. Some are held close to the heart, nurtured and cared for,  like a path well worn by time and use, traveled often, embellished along the way, joy and warmth in every step. Others, are kept at a comfortable distance, often fading away to nothingness.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are wrapped around our visits to India, the land of my heritage, my parents birth place, and home to a great majority of my family.  My DNA inextricably woven through the coconut trees and palm leaves of places named Vazhoor, Kottayam, Kollad, Cheppad and Edathua. This is the land my ancestors walked and settled. The sands of Cheppad, where my mother learned to read and write the malayalam language, and where I remember walking with my gentle grandfather amidst the rice paddies. The back waters of Edathua, my mother's first swimming pool, and where I saw my mother's characteristic vivacity and fun multiplied and echoed manyfold, within the personalities of various family members. The dirt roads of Vazhoor and Kollad were the stomping grounds of my father, his siblings, and their many cousins, travelled often, without an iota of fear, loving family all along the way. The twinkle in my father's eye, his smile, delight and mischief echo throughout both of these much loved places. For my mother and my father these places were vast playgrounds of homes amid tropical forests rich with coconut, rubber, banana and palm trees.  They weren't man made playgrounds of metal, plastic or steel, like the ones we and our children have known growing up. These playgrounds were made of the land, the trees, plants, streams and rivers,  These were their swings, slides, climbing  equipment and water parks. Imagination and camaraderie their vehicles of expression.

Every other year, my family had the extraordinary privilege of traveling back to India, on what was termed "home leave", one of the benefits of my father's employment contract. The final destination was always Kerela, but on the way, or on our return, we would make stops in Mumbai, Belgaum and Bangalore, spending time with aunts, uncles and cousins. These visits back to India were special times of connecting and catching up, coming to terms with the physical changes that time had wrought since the last visit. Hearing the highlights of life transpired in between. These were times where old stories were pulled out of memories albums, and where new stories were birthed. Listening to the humorous escapades from my parents past, would often give a fuller breadth to these people we knew and loved as our parents. And the laughter, oh the laughter! There was so much laughter, joy and fun. Even now, as I write this, a smile breaks on my face, as visions of family dance in my eyes.

India always greeted us in it's exuberant, vibrant and sense altering way. Our very first steps out of the cool dry comfort of the airplane, would tell us that we were not in New Jersey anymore! A blanket of humidity would envelope us, suffocating us in it's warmth, until we learned to adapt and breathe different breaths in this new place. And once we did, we would inhale the scents and fragrances of jasmine, spices, sweat, sweets, aromatic oils and exhaust fumes, all coupled together to taunt and overwhelm our senses, until they began the processes of differentiating and cataloguing. Meanwhile our eyes were being tantalized with the swirling, moving, breathing, living color spectrum, as nature's every hue danced around us in silks, cottons, rayon, and chiffon, draped over bodies of every shape, size, and color of brown. Not to be diminished was the orchestra of life that filled our ears. Loud speakers blaring annoncements and speeches, harmonized and conflicted with the joyful beats and sounds of music  playing from shop speakers, punctuated often by the constant touting of horns, underlaid with hundreds of voices in conversation. Our senses, once living in a quiescent state of being, would scramble to full attention,  understanding, that while in India, their full depth and range would be challenged and used to  a level of capacity not experienced since their last visit. India's welcome mat, greeting us in all it's richness and vibrancy. Even now, inhaling deeply, the smell of the monsoon rains linger in my senses.

Arriving in Cochin airport, our eyes would search out the crowds for familiar faces, often landing on the beaming smiles of Prasadchayan and Valsammama, who would make the long trip to pick us up and take us to Vazhoor. Seeing those smiles, as well as those of all the family members who have lovingly come over the years to greet us at India's airports, our hearts and eyes would be full, as we waited to walk into the welcoming embrace of loving family, and in their hugs, be welcomed home.  Closing my eyes now, I can still recall that spike in my heartbeat as a fondly familiar face was found in the crowd.

The drive from the airport would be that time of reacquaintance, often squished together, any distance that time might have created quickly fading  away in the face of our close proximity. This form of loving closeness, would become a familiar image in our visits to India. At that time, seat belts were rarely if ever   used accessories! As the kilometers flew by, staring out the window at the passing landscape, a melody of welcome would be sung and found in the little villages, colorful homes, rice paddies, and swaying coconut trees. The song of India coaxing forth my identity's refrain. This place, known to us also as home, would slowly begin seeping into our beings. And then there was always that final stretch, as we made our way to my grandmother's home in Vazhoor, familiar landmarks would be accompanied by growing excitement, as we passed Koodanoor Junction, passed the cross, took a right, and on the left, the gate of Thoppil house would announce our arrival home. Anticipation would build as the gate was opened and we would drive the short distance to the house, our tires crunching the red gravel beneath our car. Disembarking the close quarters of the car, we would climb the stairs often to the rhythm of the click of locks being unlocked one by one, nervous anticipation growing with every click. The doors would open wide, and there would stand our diminutive grandmother, with a huge smile on her face. One by one we would wait for our hugs. Her arms would enfold us tightly, as she inhaled our essence and wiped the tears from her eyes. We were home.

The inhaling hugs were what I equated with love's greeting. They would be repeated over and over in our time spent in India, by aunts and uncles, my other precious grandmother, and numerous grand aunts and uncles. It would bridge the distance that years and miles created, flowing from my heart's chambers to theirs, back and forth, the connection of love and family warming every artery and capillary with a melody of joy, acceptance and reunion. It was a song of love.

Inhaling deeply now, a rush of memories stream to the foreground of my mind, India's love song to me. My younger brother playing my cousin Miriamchechi, dressed in a dress and doing a one man monologue that had us all in stitches. Afternoon nap times filled with laughter and shared stories. Evening prayers. Cousins dressed in pristine uniforms, headed to school. Badminton, Rummy and Caroms competitions. Teasing. Laughter. Love. Sailing paper boats in monsoon puddles. Playing hide and seek. Singing. Visiting the park with the elephant statue. Riding on the back of my uncle Titenchayan's motorbike from the airport. Weaving through the chaos of India's traffic. Riding in the back of my uncle Prasadchayan's army Jeep; peering through the flaps on rainy days. My mother's brother, Mohanchayan, sharing the nature and uses of the plants surrounding us. Travelling with him to Trivandrum by bus. My aunt Sallyamie's wonderful coffee and beautiful smile. My cousin Suman's vivaciousness and her brother Kirren's humor and laughter. The scent of ayruvedic oils accompanied by the boisterous and quiet laughs of my two granduncles. Water being heated in a large black urn, over a wood and palm leaf fire; hot water for our baths. Grandmothers and aunts cooking over a fire made with palm leaves. Visiting the beach near Cheppad and watching the fishermen bring in their catches. Watching my grandparents play Bridge. My granduncle Eapenappacha's quiet dignity; making rice for us. Seeing an elephant at the Kozzencherry house, and watching the fish. The parrot. Laughing with my cousins Delipe, Unup and Deepu. Humidity like a suffocating blanket. ceiling fans for cooling. Quenching thirst with boiled water, coconut water, Thumbs Up, Fanta or Limka. Watching clothes being washed in the stream, their rhythmic slapping against the stream's stones and rocks. Reading Phantom comics, Enid Blyton and the classics. My cousin Marina singing "Killing Me Softly." Her older sister's painting titled Rock Of Ages. A day at Jothi Nevas college with my cousin Sue.  Shopping with my Mumbai cousins, where I  learned that money for shopping always comes before money for food! Chai time. My cousin Joey hiding Nestle's mini chocolates from his grandmother. Watching and teasing back and forth and quietly marveling as my cousin Reggie ironed my aunt Ammalkochamma's sari blouses to perfection. Family trips. My uncle Anianchayan's laughing voice. My aunt Ammalkochamma's warmth and sweetness. The chair swing. A family wedding and practical jokes played on unsuspecting newlyweds! My beautiful and sweet cousin Vavadi. Rubber chappels slapping against our feet. Washing the caked on dust from our feet before entering the house. The satisfying feeling of mushing a banana together with uppama, squeezing it out in between my fingers. Eating with my hands. Kneeling in prayer. Listening to the radio. My aunt Lulukochamma singing Cliff Richard songs. Eating milk powder in Cumbanath. Hiding behind an adult as they scared away the cockroaches and hairy spiders in the bathroom before I would use it. Watching as rice was sifted, and the grinding of the rice into powder. My grandmother, Vazhoor Ammachy's home made ice cream. Mmmm. Best Hotel's parathas and mutton curry. Finger bowls with lemons. Banana leaf dishes. Monsoon rains. Teasing. Laughter. Love. Badminton games with "kaili / munda  breaks."  My aunt Lulukochamma's entertaining and winning badminton doubles strategy, accompanied by my uncle Jochachen's commentary on the sideline! Puri eating competitions with my cousin Manoj, he always made us laugh!  My cousin Sue and I on a train bound for Belgaum. The call of the chai wallah's at the stops. My uncle Jochachen's teasing smile and humor. Family nicknames, and names given to family; My uncle Titenchayan's handlebar mustache, which earned him the title of Moustache uncle for many years. My aunt and uncle Elsie kochamma and Titenchayan walking, one looking at the ground the other up at the stars. My mother's sister Valsaammama, sweetly and patiently trying to teach me how to sew;  leaving little notes for her husband Prasadchayan. Stories of days and years past. Family history. Walking from family home to family home in Kollad and Edithau, and laughing all the way. My Mumbai uncle Ebbychayan watching cricket. Relaxing and spending time with my aunty Annamakochamma and cousins Meera, Sara and Gina. Lovely food. Height competitions with my aunt Elsiekochamma! Finding out howmany Fenn family members we could fit in one Ambassador car! Frogs leaping. the music of rain falling on roofs and trees. Swinging hands with my cousins as we walked down the street. Flare pants! My brother Jiku in flare pants! Playing catch. Trying to learn how to make a car with palm leaves and coconut shells. The fun times with all our Koshy cousins in Vazhoor. Looking out for snakes as we walked from one family home to the other. Packed like sardines in a bus. Umbrellas. Scents. Noise. Exhaust smoke.  Glass house and Cheenie house. Houses with names. Traveling by canoe or house boat in Edathua. The boat races. Shopping on MG Road. Sari stores. Fabrics flying gracefully, a waterfall of colors. Jewelry stores. Sweet stores. Watching the art of bargaining. Ambassador cars. Marathis. Paper Dosas. Geckoes. Baths with buckets of water heated by geezers. Squatting toilets. Rails in windows. Spending time as a family. Visiting my future sister-in-law Bina at Ramaya college. Ponds powder. My grandmother poring over her Bible in the wee hours of the morning or kneeling in prayer.  Prayer meetings and Church. Women on one side and men on the other. Incense and the passing of the peace. Family gatherings. My grandfather, Vazhoor Appacha's chair and picture. Chickens milling around. Lush greenery. The Indian Ocean. Sleeping mummified in a sheet, afraid a geckoe would fall on me during the night. Music blaring from radios. Strikes. Granduncles and aunts and numerous second and third cousins. The best aunts & uncles and first cousins a person could ever have. Communicating over language barriers. Visiting. Weddings. Auto Rickshas filled to the brim with children going to school. Going to the movie theatre and watching english and bollywood films. People laughing, singing, and commenting during the movie. Intermissions. The all purpose Indian head shake. Mangoes and Guavas. Mini bananas. Rubber flowing down the cuts along the bark of a tree. Houses with names. Family names. Lineage. Stories. Family. Teasing. Laughter, Prayer. Love. India.

Memory is a wonderful gift, holding treasures from the past. It's a lingering and familiar scent. It is both my grandmother's enfolding arms, hugging us close to them and inhaling our essence, as if to mark it in their beings, to remember and capture our scents. Memory, it's the great inhaling. It is marking every moment deep within our consciousness.  Precious. Treasured. The echoes of life and love.