Specular Reflections
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Thoughts on Life, Science, Writing and the Universe at Large

Saturday, July 30, 2005
Notes From India: Floods in Mumbai, Working Out, Mangoes.

Iíve sadly neglected this blog for several days now, mainly because Iíve been so busy. Here are some ramblings that attempt to make up for the gap. Subsequent ramblings will cover visits to bookstores and a most interesting play-reading that I attended.

Floods in Mumbai:
The monsoons unleashed their fury on Mumbai several days ago. Too much water can be pure hell. Already the fatalities in Mumbai alone are barely short of 300. Watching on TV we see and hear of trains stranded, streets with water as high as your knees. Worrying about a cousin-brother who lives there, we learn that he waded through water for 5 km before reaching high ground, where he found a taxi to take him the rest of the way (15 km) home. Thankfully they live on higher ground. Thereís a stampede, fueled by rumors of a dam collapse and a tsunami, and more people die, including children. Fear stalks the water-logged streets as well. Today I heard that they arrested 20 people for spreading rumors that led to the stampede (including 2 eunuchs and 3 bar girls, says the report in unnecessary detail). I wonder how people can be so callous.

Mumbaiís woes seem endless: an off-shore oil rig catches fire. Human foolishness.

Here in Delhi the heat is relentless, the humidity hard to bear, and the clouds mock. It has not rained since I arrived. Except once. While Mumbai half-drowns, we wish for rain. It fell just once while I was in a shop in Khan market --- a short and violent rain-storm, pock-marking the summer dust. But it was just a teaser. When it stopped we went out under laden skies, smelling wet earth, with rain dripping from the awnings, hoping it would continue as soon as we were in the car, and cool things down a bit. But the clouds were silent.

Working Out
Among other things Iíve started going to the gym where my sister and brother-in-law and father go (and now my mother as well). We mostly walk since it isnít far. Hereís what itís like:

Step out into the heat, the moisture in the air so tangible that you can feel it like a blanket around you; pariah dog wags tail from refuge under stairs, sun is cruel but everything is green, the riotous green that comes only in the monsoons, although we have not had rain for a week now. Walk through the apartment complex, narrow road, lurching cars, little market near gate with vegetables wilting in the heat. Iíd forgotten what pests the flies can be in the summer; negotiating the edge of the busy main road, loud with traffic and horns; my feet remember how to avoid piles of dog-shit Ė amazing! Walking past shops and the guy selling green coconuts off a cart, past the green entrance to the medieval Jahanpanah city forest, which is like the entrance to fairyland; walking, gym shoes all dusty, sweat congealing on my skin, unable to evaporate; smells everywhere, hereís jasmine, thereís something that smells like drains, and noise, noise, noise. My body remembers how to edge around cars and bicycles, all senses alert to the mad traffic; thereís a spring in my step and I am happy. Thereís the gym, just a tall residential building, uniformed doorkeeper holding the door open for us. Into the cool interior (not so cool despite the AC because of all the bodies in here) and it takes a moment to adjust to the light. The trainers are small, slim young women who look about twelve, dressed in orange and black, hair in ponytail. Some guys too, also small and slim, and a chap with a tray of filtered water with lemon juice and salt. The owner is this quiet, trim guy; someoneís asking for him but heís not done with his puja as yet. In the early morning you mostly see young people who have to go to work, most of them slim and fit-looking, eyes glued to the little TV monitors in front of the machines. Later the clientele is mixed: fat ladies in salwar kameez, thumping away on the treadmills, elderly men, a sprinkling of young people. Musicís loud and compelling, changing from Western to Hindi-pop. Sweat trickles, muscles ache, blood thunders in the ears; water is a benediction. At the end one of the small and absurdly pretty trainers helps with the cool-down stretch. Then itís over, except for the euphoria. The walk back. Sister and brother-in-law stop at the cart of the chap selling green coconuts. Heís got a huge, dangerous cleaver with which he hacks off the top, puts a straw in each coconut and hands it over. I watch in envy as they drink. I have to protect my stomach, whose immunity has been weakened by my years away.


There are things that resemble mangoes in the U.S. But if you want real mangoes, you have to come here to India. There is speculation (only half in jest, I think) that the reason why the Persians and Mongols, the Turks and the Brits came to India was not only the wealth we once had but the mangoes. They came for the mangoes. Since this is my first summer trip home since 1993, I havenít had real mangoes in 12 years.

There are dozens of varieties of mangoes, each with a distinctive flavor. You have the dashehri, with its deep orange flesh, that melts in the mouth. Its mellow, mature sweetness contrasts with that of the yellow-fleshed chausa, which is sweet in a brighter way. And others such as the King of them all, the Digha malda, grown only in a few groves in Bihar. There are no adjectives in the English language to describe the individual flavors.

We bought Dashehris from a man pushing a laden cart on the main road. Got them home, washed them, cut and sliced them. That moment when I put the first slice into my mouth was nothing less than religious. Positively transcendental.

Since then Iíve had the chausa as well. No hope of getting the Digha malda in Delhi.

Mangoes are like tasting my childhood again. Each bite releases floods of memories of old friends: the trees I climbed to get the fruit, often not waiting until it was ripe. Watching my mother and grandmother cut and pickle the unripe young mangoes --- first drying them on cots in the courtyard. Sitting around the table with siblings and cousins, big bowl filled with mangoes set on top, our chins sticky with juice. Mangoes. Summer. Childhood. Heaven.

posted by Vandana 2:57 AM
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Monday, July 25, 2005
Notes from India: On Canines and Music

One of the pariah dogs in our neighborhood is called Tipsy. My sister named her. Tipsy is the matriarch of the local pariah dogs --- she rules over her noisy pack, drives off strange dogs and upholds the canine standards around here. The dogs live in the parking area below my parentsí flat, apparently equally comfortable with the wilderness sounds of the medieval Jahanpanah forest across the wall, and the very urban, over-crowded, car-filled apartment complex. Tipsy is, by all accounts, an exacting matriarch, but with human beings she acts happily drunk. Hence, of course, the name.

She is always trying to come into my parentsí flat. The moment the door is open long enough, she sidles in and goes and eats Montyís food (Monty being the family dog). Weíve spent ages saying goodbye to friends on the stairs, hardly noticing the lithe, dark gold shadow slipping in, and then weíve come in to find her sitting on the sofa, wagging her tail and smiling. Try to push her out and sheíll loll against you, batting her eyelashes, going completely limp, like Marilyn Monroe when sheís had one too many. She knows how beautiful she is, and wants to make sure you do too.

The other thing she does has to do with the water boy. The water supply comes for a couple of hours every morning and evening, so in that interim people must frantically turn on their pumps and fill their tanks so that theyíll have enough water for use during the day or night. When the water is turned on by the water supply people, a boy goes riding out into the neighborhood on a full-sized bicycle, blowing on a horn, so that people will know it is time to fill their tanks. When the horn starts its awful squawking, Tipsy begins to howl. Youíve never heard a howl like that. Enormously loud, sonorous as a bell, perfect tone --- she holds the note with such exactness as to make Maria Callas weep in envy. The singing lasts as long as the boy is blowing his raucous little horn.

Sheís jealous of Monty. My sister tells me that Tipsy would never make a pet dog --- she has her kingdom to rule, after all. A few days of incarceration would drive her crazy. But I wonder what Tipsyís canine imagination makes of Montyís life. Perhaps she thinks it rains chicken bits here, that there are rivers of milk, that we spend all day tickling his tummy.

The other day my sister was out with Monty. Tipsy was watching them closely. Monty lifted his leg and marked a tree or a post. To my sisterís surprise, so did Tipsy! Well, she lifted her leg anyway, as though to make the point that she could do this just as well.

Thatís Tipsy for you. I will take a picture of this canine goddess tomorrow.

posted by Vandana 10:44 AM
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The View From Half-way Across the World (Incoherent Ramblings from India)

Yes, I'm here, I'm home in New Delhi, very jet-lagged. It is a sleepy, hazy day, the kind that occurs in the monsoons between rain-showers --- humid and hot. I haven't been out since I got here some time in the middle of last night. It still feels surreal --- my sister and brother-in-law and I stayed up all night, talking, so I'm seriously sleep-deprived on top of the jet-lag. But each time I come home I find myself relaxing, fiber by fiber, into another person. Whether that other person is the "me" that was, or some non-linear combination of time-separated "me's" is a matter I'm too sleepy to settle. This time it is a little different, because I have come here on my own, without husband and kid, and I can almost feel the metaphorical umbilical cord stretching across the globe --- ouch!

So apart from sleeping and providing blood to the local mosquitoes, I've been reading. Specifically, historian Romila Thapar's book on ancient India --- most interesting. I learned that the vast period of time known as a mahayuga is defined as precisely 4,320,000 years, and that it is divided, via mathematical rules, into four lesser yugas. We are caught, of course, in Kali yuga, the age of the Downfall. Headlines everywhere seem to corroborate this notion of the ancients.

There are pigeons nesting on the ledge outside the kitchen window. The babies make very human, heart-rending cries, presumably the avian equivalent of 'feed me!" but the first time I heard them I thought there was a child hurt. I've seen old friends --- the pariah dogs that live in the parking lot --- and heard the mynahs outside, and talked on the phone to fond aunts and one old college friend. There will be family gatherings, with food and singing (we seem to have more than our fair share of musically talented relatives) and maybe if it doesn't rain we'll sing songs in raag malhar and bring it down. There will be trips to publishers and maybe some schools. I think I'll go check out my old school and present them with a copy of each of my books. I expect to get some writing done as well --- hopefully Saraswati will smile upon me.

Inthe meantime I'm about to take up arms against Sleep by drinking a vat or two of tea...

posted by Vandana 8:47 AM
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Wednesday, July 13, 2005
Some thoughts upon reading Crowley's "Little, Big."

Many people, most recently Dora Goss, have been telling me to read this book. So this time at Readercon I picked up a copy --- it was a paperback that had seen better days and I was quite embarrassed at the notion of getting it autographed, so I didn't. I just finished the book today and am trying to figure out my reaction to it, hence this post.

It is a complex work, so my reaction to it is also complex. Do I like it? Well, some parts of it, a lot. Others I had to skim over, partly because I have been very busy and was afraid I wouldn't be able to finish the book at all --- so I read it stirring something on the stove, for instance. Am I glad I read it? Enormously so. Did it make sense to me? Yes and no. There are parts that were unclear to me --- some were unclear simply because I had to read protions of the book in a hurry, and others were unclear --- I suspect, I hope --- because the book is too profound to comprehend in the first read. The books I like best are the ones that you have to read and re-read to uncover meanings that you never suspected were there before, meanings that perhaps the author himself did not intend. I am hoping this is one of those books. I am hoping this is one of the books I will feel compelled to go back to, to discover or recognize things only hinted at after the first reading. But the way things are, these days, I am not sure.

The story is an intermeshing of various lives, told by different viewpoint characters who are members of or associated with a certain large and eccentric family. The family house is in the woods somewhere in modern-day America, and what a house it is! It is many houses at once; you could get lost there, and rooms that are small from the outside may be quite spacious within. This peculiar topology occurs in other ways in the book, for instance in a private park in the City. The house is one of my favorite parts of the book.

As are the people who inhabit it. The view from Edgewood is an unusual one, not least because of the presence (subtle, often hinted upon) of fairies, and talking animals (that are definitely not cute, thank goodness). It is a loving description of an alternate culture or subculture that exists almost isolated, in the deep woods. The plot, such as it is, involves the outer world, or worlds, as well, in interaction with this inner one. The ending.... well, I can't write about it yet. Maybe it will take another read...

When I finished this book it was like comng out of a place of great intricacy --- a three-dimensional spider's web, perhaps, into a world which, for all its familiarity, seemed changed. I pondered this for a while, while the dog slept and my daughter played noisy games with her friend. I realized this: our world is as intricate and complicated and strange as the world of the book, in its own way. This is something that I already know, but books like these bring you back, after all, to things you already know. It is like getting lost in the woods with a charming, if eccentric guide, wandering down strange paths from one wonder to another, and finding, at the end of the journey, the familiar house in the glade, the place you have known before.

I feel this way about Ursula Le Guin's books too, although they are very different. They are simpler, in that there are not too many viewpoint characters, but their simplicity is a profound one. (Perhaps they are simple in the way that the ancient Chinese game Go is simple --- the rules are so easy, but the possibilities nearly infinite). So great is the joy of arriving, at the end of the book, to the place you have been before (but never as fully) that I read and re-read the book, like a child who packs and unpacks a treasure chest so as to have (again and again) the pleasure of that discovery.

So here I am, feeling cobwebby and sleepy, as though after a long trip, and not much good for anything, especially washing dishes. I feel as though I m not much more than an Ear, listening, an Eye, watching, content, for the moment, to sit back and let the world sink in. Try doing housekeeping in such a state!

posted by Vandana 1:34 PM
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Wednesday, July 06, 2005
A Tale Of Two Trees

There was a pine tree growing at the edge of our property, a small tree hardly as tall as my daughter, who was probably about 6 at the time. We liked this tree because it was her size, and because there was something brave and innocent in its stance, existing as it did on the invisible boundary between two plots of land, and right against the sidewalk. We saw it put new pine-needles out, shiny and pale, and we watched it grow little by little.

Then a terrible winter came. Through much of that winter the tree was completely covered in four feet of snow. We had so much trouble that winter, with the unrelenting cold, the endless falls of snow, and the afflictions that the season brings --- that I am sorry to say we almost forgot about the tree. Later, when the snow began to melt, I was half-afraid to see what lay beneath. The poor tree was bent almost double, its once-green pine-needles yellow from lack of sun and air. "It's dead," I told my grieving daughter.

But that spring an amazing thing happened. The tree remained yellow and bent over for several weeks; then one day we noticed a patch of green. And surely it was not as bent as before? A miracle was happening right before our eyes.

Over the next seven or eight months the tree painstakingly straightened itself. It became green again, and straight, and grew several inches taller than my daughter, who watched its progress with pride and cheered it. To us the tree became a symbol of persistence, of the audacity and energy of life itself.

Then came the day when we looked out of the window and saw it was no longer there.

We ran outside. It had been cut close to the ground; we could see the smooth, freshly cut trunk. We stood there, my daughter and I, speechless. I looked around; there was nobody to be seen but the neighbor's yard was freshly mown and the flower beds had new mulch on them. Who else would have cut the tree? Our neighbors were a nice family, quiet and private as you'd expect in American suburbia --- every once in a while we would exchange hellos and politenesses about the weather. The tree was probably on their property, and was perhaps a nuisance, in the way of some gardening project or other.

My daughter, unused to the sudden death of friends, cried inconsolably for days.

Something similar happened last spring in about the same spot where the tree had been. A wild thistle began to grow there, but instead of keeping to a respectable height it grew taller and taller until it was towering even over my 6' husband. From amid its prickly leaves emerged fat powder puffs of purple flowers. It was a weed by the world's reckoning, but to us it was beautiful. The flowers attracted hordes of tiny, irridescent birds, and the plant itself held its prickly green arms out as though in mid-dance. Like the pine tree, it made us happy just to look at it.

Eventually, though, it withered and died. My husband cleared out the remains.

If we wanted to make a lesson of it, we could have. We could have said, that is life. You are born, you flower, and then you wither and die. Why? Because. But I did not bring it up. Instead I reflected on the luck of trees that stand on that border.

And we mourned.

As we took walks in our neighborhood, I began to notice trees, lawns, shrubs, weeds. Sadly, we found lawn upon lawn marked with the little tags that warn you "Pesticide Application: Keep Away." Most such lawns were green and smooth as carpets, but were apparently too poisonous for children and animals. I wondered what the people in the houses were thinking. Or if they were thinking at all...

My own garden is rather wild. Every once in a while we get a neighbor (not the same one!) to mow, trim and weed a bit, but we keep most plants who choose to make a home on our land. For one thing, they are interesting --- most of all, the weeds. And if the bushes and shrubs overgrow a little, so what? This spring we had wild baby rabbits in our front yard, as well as a family of voles. In the back the grass is interspersed with wild flowers and patches of velvety moss (at least three kinds). Let a child loose with a magnifying glass in a moss forest, and you will keep her occupied for quite a while.

Our garden is indicative of a very different relationship with nature. I feel as though we don't do enough --- we spend fossil fuels for heating the house and for driving, and we'd like to make do with much less than what we have. It's a process. In the hurly-burly of our lives it it so easy to forget, so easy to live blindly, as others do. Through the imperfect life we live, it is the wild things that come uninvited to the garden --- pine trees and thistles, rabbits and turkeys --- that remind us that there are other ways to be in this world.

posted by Vandana 3:38 PM
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