Where is Home?

20151126_025621Although I returned from home #1 (India) some 7 weeks ago, I have only recently begun to feel settled in home #2 (my much-loved city, Baltimore, USA.) This time the trip felt longer and far, far more tiring, which makes little sense since I last went there just 2 ½ years ago. Perhaps, there’s been a speedy continental drift, I told myself, and home #1 had floated further into the Pacific Ocean.

And then it occurred to me. Get real, I told myself. You’re older! Travel takes a toll.

But isn’t age just a number? I’ve heard that so often it’s almost a cliché. In any event, I googled the saying and found a zillion. I chose three to contemplate upon.

Age is just a number and young is an attitude.

Age is just a number. It should never hinder you from accomplishing your goals.

Age is just a number and weed is just a plant.

Well yes, over these many weeks, I’ve amassed plenty of attitude that has not hindered me from being asleep or half asleep both day and night, if that was my goal.

And of course, I know weed is a plant! After all, I have a B.Sc. in Botany for heaven’s sake, which should count for something! My father, a botanist, used to say a weed is a plant that grows where it’s not welcome. If a rose grew in a cornfield, it would be a weed, he would say. Little did my father know that weed also grows where it is warmly welcomed.

With that out-of-the-way, let me write about one of my best friends in India. I visit him whenever I go home. If you’ve read “How Far Away is Far Away?” (scroll down) you’ve met him too. He had travelled to the far end of the street and now he was back “home” tucked in his little shop at the corner where he has worked since I was a teenager.20151126_025621

I was delighted and relieved to see him. As always, I’d taken all my sandals that needed repair to India so my mochi could work his magic. They are too beautiful and unique to discard. I buy them from roadside vendors, who may be here today and gone tomorrow. So, my sandals are irreplaceable. Shoe repair in America essentially involves glue, whereas my mochi sews right through the leather, stitch by stitch, using his coarse well-worn hands and a long, thick needle. No machines, no glue. He uses his feet as a clamp. In fact, whenever I buy pretty sandals in India, he fortifies them for me even though they are brand new. Only then do they nestle in my suitcase en route to America.

I was with my brother when I met him this time. As usual his head 20151126_025946was bent, working, while people walked around him on the side-walk. When he looked up, I smiled and asked him if he remembered me. And his eyes just lit up! He smiled his warm toothless smile, nodded, and simply said “Hahn ji” (Hahn means yes. Ji is a form of respect as in Gandhiji.) Then he said in Hindi, “So many days, you didn’t come.”

I was deeply moved. I didn’t expect this old man, who sees hundreds of people walk by everyday to remember me. My brother, who is also his customer, was equally shocked at his memory.

“I didn’t know you were brother and sister,” our mochi said.

There is a Hindi proverb that says, “the heart at rest sees a feast in everything.”  Over the five years that I lived in Bombay before making the U.S. my home #2, and all the years thereafter whenever I returned to India for brief visits, this poor gentle man, who works everyday as if it’s his first day, has been an inspiring example of what life is truly about. He has given me many fold more than I could ever pay him for repairing my shoes. He is as faithful as the sun and the moon. In this transient fickle world he has been a rock! My family aside, he is what home #1 means to me. And why I must keep returning, no matter how far India drifts away.

Below is a poem entitled “From Bombay to Baltimore” taken from my book, Her Skin Phyllo-thin.

FROM BOMBAY TO BALTIMORE

                                  

The Arabian Sea still flecks with fishing boats

like paper toys my father taught me to fold

and float in streams behind our home.

 

My plane, a silver scythe knows no ache,

splices clouds in half like cotton scarves,

shreds and tosses wispy threads afar.

 

Dim one-bulb huts recede, pinpoints of fire flies,

five star hotels shrink to match-box size,

coconut fronds to dainty fans.

 

This time, my heart, quiet and stilled,

leaves behind a billion people, maybe more,

who say their destinies are written on their foreheads.

 

And still I search between continents,

between sky and sky,

between then and now

 

for home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Thing Called Love

The birth of a new star in my firmament (see earlier post, A New Star) ─ my first grandchild ─ has taught me that I’m a dummy when it comes to love. This little baby was my screen saver, and I used to talk to her, even kiss my computer,  as her sweet pictures faded in and out.

But when I took the train up to see her, I noticed something different. I started to gaze at my son ─ how he held his child’s tiny frame, one hand cupping her little bottom, the other like a cap over her head while she rested against his chest. He’d bow his head, almost in prayer. I watched him change diapers, hold the bottle as she drank her mother’s milk. I listened to his tender voice when she belted out high decibels of unhappiness. And his own helpless face, as he whispered, “you’re okay, you’re okay,” like a chant.

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One especially frustrating day, he turned to me, and said, “She doesn’t know how to soothe herself, Mom.”

I nodded. I looked away.  And do you know to soothe yourself, son? I wanted to ask, but didn’t.

Sometimes, his face went through a plethora of transfigurations ─ helplessness, frustration, anxiety, despair ─ until something no one could decipher, would happen and she’d stop! Then, his eyes would light up like the North Star, his laugh rattled the eaves, and the wind rushed in through open windows.

Let me say I was no good at soothing myself when my children were babies. And now, I’m worse when I watch my child and grandchild unhappy. But, in one sense, it’s comforting to not even try. I’d seen my mother pace the hallway at 2 a.m. while I was trying to nurse her grand son. Life is simple that way. It’s either feast or famine. It’s either a new moon or a full moon.

Sometimes, my heart does cart wheels watching this new father, my son, become a father. Sometimes, my heart is stilled.

Watching him watch her ─ it’s scary ─ this thing called love ─ that stretches beyond the edge of the earth, and is reborn over and over.

 

 

 

How Far Away is Far Away?

Although I was born in Bombay, now renamed Mumbai, the city was never my home. I grew up in small towns along India’s west coast. But it was home to my grandmothers, uncles and aunts, and my parents would take us to India’s Big Apple for holidays.

As a young girl, I would walk past a rain-washed salmon-colored cottage, past the culvert, and past a field where cows grazed on over-grazed grass, and buffaloes stared with big vacant eyes, unperturbed by flies or children running around. Left-over rain water lay in puddles, riddled with mosquito larvae hatching beneath the surface. Occasionally, the government would spray a film of kerosene oil to kill them and prevent malaria outbreaks, but during the monsoons, the mosquitoes won the battle.

Now, when I visit India, nothing is familiar. The stone culvert has been ground down to dust, the streets widened and tarred, the houses, cottages, gardens and trees gone. Instead, tall ten-storied buildings with iron-rimmed balconies, symmetrically spaced and stacked, reach up to the sky. Gardens have been reduced to strips of land with a few coconut trees, flowers and potted plants, bordered with cement bricks. Barking dogs have replaced the silence of napping buffaloes and lolling cows.

But a little ways down the road, there is one thing that doesn’t change—my visit to my mochi, who still mends shoes and sandals by hand, and unapologetically tells his customers to come tomorrow because he will not hurry, not if they want good work, and if they don’t, they should go elsewhere.

My mochi, the cobbler before he moved far away!
My mochi, the cobbler before he moved far away!

I start down Almeida Road where I expect him to be, but he isn’t there. So I walk a little further down the road scanning the pavements on either side, and there he is — in his new digs! It’s a thin plywood board contraption, water proofed with discarded rain coats, strips of gum boot mackintosh, a black umbrella minus the handle, and irregular patches of water proof pliable plastic. It’s very colorful. And there he sits in a space so low that he must bend to enter it, and when he crouches down and crosses his legs to align the soles of his feet, his head almost touches the ceiling. His feet are like a podium for his customer’s shoes; sometimes they are a clamp as he wields a large needle through the leather—-stitch by stitch, as if he has all the time in the world.

“Namaste,” I say, delighted to have found him. “How are you? Do you remember me?”
He nods, joins his hands, smiles a tooth less smile, his deep eyes filled with kindness. But of course, he doesn’t remember. How could he? My hair is short and curly, my face more lined; a few hundred people walk past him everyday. And it has been three years since I came “home.”

“May I take your photo?” I ask him.
He shakes his head, yes, with pure delight. “Can you wait a little?”
“Of course.”
He almost bumps his head against the ceiling as he emerges, and reaches on a tree branch behind him for a blue cotton shirt to cover the vest he wears while working. He uses his palms as if they were an iron, and presses down, on his shirt, over and over, then adjusts his collar, and shakes his head side-to-side to indicate he’s ready.

I take several pictures and show them to him on the LCD display. He smiles, pleased with what he sees. And that seems to trigger a memory, because I’ve taken his picture numerous times—-essentially every time I go home.

“Ah, you don’t live here,” he says. “Where did you go so long?”
I wave my hand toward the sky. “Bahut dhoor,” I say. “Far away.”
“Me, too,” he says. “ Bahut dhoor.”
“Really? Where?” I asked, happy that he could afford to close shop and travel somewhere, perhaps to see the Taj Mahal. It is after all, one of the seven wonders of the world in his (our) country.
He points up the road. “Oodhur,” he says, “There!”
I look to where he points.
“So many years, my shop was there,” he says. “Under a mango tree. Then, they cut down the mango tree. So, now I’m here.”

I feel my eyes filling up with tears. He had travelled far away too, and set down new roots, like I had done when I came to America.

 

Poetry, Science, Art

In the winter of this year, I was honored to serve as the guest editor for the Science issue of Little Patuxent Review.  Until I became a poet and writer, I hadn’t thought much about how similar the process of writing is to conducting scientific research.

Below is an excerpt of prose and poetry I wrote for this remarkable journal.

The poet is to the human condition as the telescope and the microscope are to the scientist.
-V.V. Raman

To this day, I remember the elation on my botany professor’s face when he peered into the microscope at my double stained section of a dicot stem and burst out saying– “Look, here is where art lies. No painter can paint something so beautiful. No words can describe it.” I was fifteen, a freshman in college. What did I know of science or art? I’ve forgotten my professor’s name and his exact words, but never that one moment we shared.

Science has always been an integral part of my life, not only because I love it, but because it was my financial gateway to America.  Without scholarships and grants, the little V-shaped Indian peninsula on which I was born was as far from America as the furthest planet. At home, however, science and literature were, as Thomas Huxley says, two sides of the same coin.

My father was a botany professor; my mother was a geography and social studies teacher. As educators, they simply insisted that my siblings and I “learn” —at first, anything, and later, preferably something that would earn us a living. Asked to choose between science and arts, I chose science, of course, and botany as my major. No surprise there!

Since then, I have worked with viruses, bacteria, cells, tissues, and animals in academic research institutions and in the biopharmaceutical industry, and with young women as a high school science teacher. It was only then, when my summers were free, that I began writing. And that felt natural and complete.

Unfortunately, science seems to be more at odds with poetry than with other literary genres. Sometimes, poems invoke science-based images as metaphors that are incorrect, simplified descriptions of the science itself. Counterclaims that science robs the wonder of the natural world and of life itself, with its cold, formal, scientific methodology are equally rampant. In fact, poetry and science have always had a symbiotic relationship. Consider Erasmus Darwin’s long two-part poem The Botanic Garden (1789) which together total some 3260 lines structured in rhyming couplets with footnotes addressing, among other scientific issues, the beginning of his theory of evolution that his grandson, Charles Darwin, would later amplify.

Ultimately, scientific research and creative writing both seek to understand the mysteries of life (and death) on our own planet and beyond, and certainly in our imagination.

Here is my “science” poem first published in Persimmon Tree, 2012. http://www.persimmontree.org/v2/fall-2012/international-poets/

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A Poet’s Calculations
By Lalita Noronha

Paired in vials of cobalt blue media,
they mate, metamorphose in ten days,
specks of eggs hatch squirming larvae,
rice-grain pupae, adult fruit flies.
My students chart sex ratios and the inheritance of traits,
black, round-bodied males, spiny oblong females,
sepia eyes, vestigial wings.
They record data, analyze, calculate gene frequencies.
It’s all done in a month.
My calculations: Should I live to be, say eighty,
a respectable age in these times,
that month of teaching, a thousandth of my life-span,
flew by before I stopped to count butterflies,
or wrote the last line of this poem.

A NEW STAR

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 On January 28, 2012, I was in Auckland, New Zealand, walking along Manukau Bay (please scroll down to see pictures.) The fiery Pohutakawa Christmas trees, drunk on red wine, were beginning to sober up. A month past Christmas, and they looked dim, cooling down much like stars do. The pied pipers tip toed across jagged black rocks, dipping deep with their slender beaks to fish out delicacies swimming in their orbits. The oyster catchers were standing in formation ready to take off.

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That day in 2012 was ethereal. For almost five months, I’d been writing my novel, the third draft, for many hours a day, sitting like a hermit crab in my sister’s basement.  Rarely, did I emerge to take a nice walk along Manukau Bay. My life as a writer felt much like a black hole eating light and turning blacker with each passing day, ripping from their orbits, the planets of my own sanity . Everything I had to give went into this black hole, deep into the caverns of this  project. Yet at the end of the day apparently nothing came out, or at least nothing that an agent has picked up so far (though in all fairness I’ve only recently begun the arduous task of finding one.)

Fast forward to exactly two years later, January 28, 2014. I was at home in Baltimore, Maryland. There was an arctic front marching toward us, wind chill alerts, temperatures in the low 20s, an “iced inner harbor.” Nothing in anybody’s garden dared to bloom. Even the ever greens were re-thinking their determination to stay forever green. Honestly, they whispered, there’s only so much snow any living thing can endure.

And then, from Stamford, Connecticut, my son called to say he and his wife were at the hospital and they would be first time parents before the day was done. Although it wasn’t the predicted day, it was going to be The Day. And please, could I not expect constant updates? Hmm, I thought, would 10 minute breaks in time constitute constancy? It wasn’t a good time to ask.

Whenever I feel helpless, I light candles. It begins with a tea light before the six inch Pieta on my mantel piece and then I move to some block candles around the house. The scent drops my high blood pressure and softens the what-if-what-if voices that send me spiraling toward a black hole. This day in 2014, most certainly, was violating the laws governing the rotation of the earth, as it had thirty-some years ago, when I brought a baby boy, now about to become a Dad, into my own orbit.  Imagining this whole scene from Maryland was traumatic. Being in labor myself would have been preferable, I thought, foolishly. (And no, I couldn’t hop on a train and just show up in Connecticut, lest I be blasted off into space.)

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And then, finally, a tiny new star spiraled into orbit. She was  nineteen inches long and weighed 6lb.11oz. She was heartbreakingly delicate.  In the last almost-four months, she’s been gaining speed, mass and volume. She now emits dazzling white light that breaks into colors of the rainbow, and sounds so sweet, she could be a song bird, or a New Zealand tui. But when the sounds change register, the roof of the house almost sails away as Dorothy’s roof did in Kansas.

It is too soon to show her New Zealand’s fiery Pohutakawa trees in December, too soon for her to chase oyster catchers, too soon to see constellations in the Southern Sky, too soon for so much to come. But one January 28, 20–something–we’re going there to Manukau Bay.

(And just between us, her Dad and Mom better not expect constant updates.)

A poignant Mother’s Day

I have been an absentee blogger for almost two years–ever since I left New Zealand. Much has happened since then. I went to India for a couple of months (more about that later,) returned to the US for my son’s wedding, became a first-time grandmother, got a chapbook of poetry published (Finishing Line Press) and re-wrote the novel I’d been working on in New Zealand.

This blog is about my poetry chapbook–appropriate for Mother’s Day. The title of this work, Her Skin Phyllo-Thin is a line taken from a poem entitled “Sponge Bath.”

My mother first came to America at the age of 59 to take care of her first grandchild, the one who just gave me my first grand child. She was 86 when she died in India. As she grew older, the distance between our two countries grew too, especially after she had a stroke on the heels of her last flight from the US back home to India. Flight times between Bombay and Baltimore range from a minimum of 18-22 hours depending on the route and stop-overs. My mother was 83 when she came to America for the last time. She was the family historian; her memory was razor-sharp with details Time couldn’t blunt; she was a much loved, dedicated teacher. She was also a perceptive critic, using her magic pen to edit my short story collection, Where Monsoons Cry, even after I was certain it was perfect.

Her Skin Phyllo-thin is in her honor. I can best describe my mother in words Maya Angelou wrote of her own mother.”To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power.”

This book also contains other poems of separation–immigration, divorce, youth, Time–things we lose and must learn to live without.

There are links to some of these poems on this website (under Publications and Media) so you can read and/or listen to a few poems at your leisure. You can also buy a copy of my book directly from Amazon, or Finishing Line Press, or if you want me to sign and address a copy for you, please visit the book’s page. Happy Mother’s Day Everyone.

Reblog: Proof that science and law can mix with creativity: an interview

Lalita, on incorporating Indian culture into her stories:

“I was born and raised in small towns in India, and only came to the US in my early twenties, so India runs in my blood, and seeps naturally into narratives. It’s easy because I have authentic experiences of the basic elements of fiction–setting, characters, plot, and so on. But I feel the same way now that America is my home. My novel (in the agent-seeking stage) is set in Bombay and Baltimore. My short stories and poems often deal with separation, dislocation and cross-cultural issues. I feel blessed that my readers relate to my work because ultimately these are human issues. After all, home isn’t a physical space and in that sense everyone leaves home.”

Read more of the interview of Lalita Noronha and Doritt Carroll on the BrickHouse Books blog

Manukau Harbor–A stone’s throw away!

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The problem with going to New Zealand to write a novel, my goal for 2012, was that I had to mentally go where my characters were, think like they think, and submerge myself in their fictitious drama, of my own making! My characters were in India and in the US, countries that are approximately equidistant from each other and from New Zealand. Little wonder I was in a state of permanent disorientation.

I asked myself why I write, what was the lure, why not walk along the esplanade, or sit on a bench and watch the birds, instead of gaping at a computer screen, doing something that might never see the light of day. Such are the questions that writers ask, and to which I have no sane answer, other than to say I’d go insane if I didn’t write. But did it have to be a novel?

Well, I didn’t go to Manukau Harbor in 2012. But I did go in the summer of 2008, New Zealand’s winter, and here is a glimpse of the many walks I took. (Note: In all my blogs, the pictures are mine.)

Mangrove and tussock grasses, kowhai and pohutakawa trees (see earlier blogs) flax plants and all manner of beautiful foliage line the walkways.  When the tide comes in, those magnificent black boulders and rocks are submerged, but as the tide goes out Manukau Harbor turns into a feast for birds and bird lovers.  The land curves gently along the bay culminating in a bird sanctuary and the Ambury Regional Park.

The Pokeko

Pressed to choose a favorite avian, I’d have to pick the Pied Oyster Catchers, even though they aren’t the prettiest girls in town. Their plumage is all black with a splash of white, but they have strong, orange-red bills to—well catch oysters—of course, (and other mouth-watering molluscs) and pry them open.  At dusk, I’d watch them fill the sky and blow in like scarves of  black silk as they came on shore, and descended in perfect order.Hundreds of them. Each wave settled on the lawn at the rear, row by row, never colliding or arguing, until the lawn itself was a black and orange blanket. And when they took off, they did so in the same order patiently inching forward as if there was an invisible “go” line. I found that fascinating. No one rear ended, or broke rank, or took the back roads. And I read that oyster catchers are monogamous; they have a no-frills nest on land; they share the job of incubating eggs, and in general, are model citizens worth emulating.

But to be fair, I admit they engage in “egg-dumping.” Much like the cuckoo, they sometimes misbehave, lay their eggs in other nests, especially the unsuspecting sea gulls, and expect someone else to raise their young. But that doesn’t happen often, I’m sure. I know because I asked them.

There are other beautiful visitors too— Pied Stilts, Sandpipers, Pokekos, Kingfishers and others. The mottled brown Bar-tailed Godwits and the Red Knots (with their short, green legs) fascinated me because they nest in the Tundras and migrate some 12,000 Km to this beautiful island when their homes freeze. I almost asked them why they’d ever return home to such an unforgiving land.  But then—don’t we all?

http://www.teara.gov.nz