We have this talk in our family once every two years when one of the cousins working in the U.S.A. comes down for a customary 4 week trip to india. (They use every alternate year's leave to visit "home" and the other years to take a vacation in Europe or some tourist destination). They do miss home,the food, the people, the festivals, the language, the concerts but when asked if they want to return for good they are not sure. They worry about the "Quality of life" - the work culture, the discriminations,the traffic, the power cuts, difficulties in dealing with government, lack of respect for others' rights, struggle to get law enforced, the pollution and the lack of recognition of merit. Once we have this conversation, it makes you wonder how you are actually surviving in this jungle and managing to be happy most of the time.
Well, I do not blame them. they have a choice and certainly the grass is greener on the other side. Their daily life is easier there and their children have better chances there. I suppose they should just stop discussing their vague ideas of returning for such discussions only end up highlighting the difficulties of living in India which we do not seem to notice so much and take in our stride and adjust ourselves to until they are pointed out to us.

"Clive Avenue" by T.S.Tirumurthi is a very interesting portrayal of the issues that educated, upper middle class Indians families face. The characters, their beliefs, the issues confronting them, the dilemmas they face are all very very familiar. You recognise them and relate to them so well including the language used that it could be one's own family that he is talking about. Parents clinging to their roots trying to preserve their lifestyle and principles but still having their life invaded by a fast growing culture of corruption, blackmail and violence.The younger generation disillusioned and defeated by the system and trying to opt out. Amusing and interesting conversations, their superstitions, the regional quirks and idiosyncrasies, the changes that the city of chennai has faced during the life of 2 generations in which it has transformed from a quiet, orthodox city to a flamboyant, noisy,cosmopolitan metropolis. The narration is very interesting and absorbing. The conversations and usages are totally familiar to someone from the same background as the milieu in which the novel is set. Very interesting read and raises some very pertinent questions on the current plight, the choices before them and the future of Tamil brahmins in Tamilnadu- perhaps not just the brahmins but most forward classes.

The author is a counsellor at the Embassy of India in Washington DC. While reading the book it felt similar to the feeling that one gets while reading "Malgudi days" and some other books by R.K.Narayan - the delineation of true to life characters, the language the characters speak and the unfolding of the story through normal day to day incidents and the subtle humour that runs through the narrative through the simple contradictions in human nature. After finishing the book I read the acknowledgements and it seems that the author is the nephew of the great R.K. Narayan.
As a five year old if he had been asked what he would have wanted to do on his 25th birthday, he would have said " I want to be in some cricketing nation like west Indies, preferably spending time with some cricketer." And that is precisely what Siddhartha was doing yesterday on his 25th birthday - spending the day in Antigua being driven around, treated to good food and taken to a few of the 365 beaches in the country - his escort was Winston Benjamin, ex-player on the W.Indies team. And Benjamin did not even know that it was his birthday!
Siddhartha is having a great time in the West Indies for the past fortnight and he is recording his impressions in the tour diary.
And then comes another birthday surprise. Another journalist from Midday, Sanjeev Samyal, is struck by the number of visitors who come to meet siddhartha and the calls he receives from cricket fans and he decides to make a news item of it thoroughly embarassing him. I invoke a mother's privelege to be shameless when it comes to bragging about her children and here I go:

Happy birthday Siddhu! Hope all your dreams come true in the years to come!!
Last month when I spoke to her parents, we spoke of her as the "little one".
-"How's the little one?" I asked
-"oh as playful as ever. We still do not know when she will get serious about her studies or anything" replied her mother.
- "It is alright" I said indulgently, for this is a child I had known from birth and loved like my own. I said, "let her take her time to grow up. There is always the time to take life seriously."
And you can imagine the scene among her family and friends when the "child" decided to get married at 19 to someone who seemed to be entirely different from everything her family believed in.
Her parents cannot figure out where they went "wrong". From their birth the children have been handled as projects and every detail worked out meticulously, the best environment provided in every way and nurtured with sensitivity and care. The parents practised every value they wanted imparted to the kids. Nothing was wanting, in love or materially. And yet, the child-woman chose to do something like this.They cannot explain it. they do not know how to set the wrong right because they do not know what went wrong from their side. Enquiries revealed that there was nothing striking or spectacular about the boy - he is just an "ordinary, mediocre 28 year old from an ordinary, mediocre family". And yet he could motivate her to severe ties with everything and everyone she had known and loved in these past 19 years? Or was the ordinariness itself the motivation - having felt suffocated among "super-achievers" that was the norm in the parental house?
The parents simply cannot stop looking for the "why" of it and feeling somehow that they have failed.
I feel it is time the parents stopped trying to find the possible causes for her behaviour and blaming themselves. Every child is an individual and not just a product of upbringing. Give them love and a good environment to grow in - beyond that what they make of their life is their own choice. There is no point trying to control it nor seing their life as extension of your own.Every parent knows how tough it is to develop such a detachment towards their child particularly when they go through pain. But I guess life is something each one has to live on their own and learn and cannot be done through a manual of instructions developed by someone else!

Spent the weekend in Pondicherry. Could not help being charmed by the architecture and the odd blend of French and Tamil culture and the peace that one felt as soon as one was inside the Ashram. All this in spite of the merciles heat against which the sea breeze was powerless.And yet no one seemed to notice it except us. Made one wonder if the heat was just a state of mind or was it really that hot?

Another thing that I always find in coastal places and islands is the attitude to time. On the day we arrived, when we tried to draw up the schedule for the day Priyamvada, who is from Pondicherry, told us that the motto in pondicherry is to "take your time with time" and not to hurry about the day. I have seen the same in Goa, Mauritius, Maldives and Srilanka too. They seem to ignore the clock and go more by the calendar.Perhaps they go by the bigger picture that Life is too large to be split into minutes and seconds and worried about.Generally they are happy with what they have, do not fret too much and exhibit a great resilience to hardship and suffering.They do not brood too much and bounce back quite easily. Does the sea teach them that?

On another note, how come the same is not true of places like Chennai or Mumbai which are bordered by the sea too?
Are you,like me, put off by the sheer number of implements placed on a dinner table at formal parties or high class restaurants? Do you lose your appetite when you are forbidden to eat with your fingers? Are you from a culture that believes in tasting food and expressing appreciation of it audibly and visibly? Do you crave to lick your fingers after a nice spicy meal?

Then you will love this delicious piece from "The importance of Living by Lin Yutang:

"The Chinese idea of happiness is,as I have noted elsewhere, being "warm, well filled, dark and sweet"- referring to the condition of going to bed after a good supper. It is for this reason that a Chinese poet says, "A well filled stomach is indeed a great thing; all else is luxury." With this philosophy.therefore, the Chinese have no prudery about food, or about eating with gusto. When a chinese drinks a mouthful of good soup, he gives a hearty smack. Of course, that would be bad table manners in the West. on the other hand, I strongly suspect that Western table manners, compelling us to sip our soup noiselessly and eat our food quietly with the least expression of enjoyment, are the true reason for the arrested development of the art of cuisine. Why do the Westerners talk so softly and look so miserable and decent and respectable at their meals? Most Americans haven't got the good sense to take a chicken drumstick in their hand and chew it clean, b ut continue to pretend to play at it with a knife and fork, feeling utterly miserable and afraid to say a thing about it. This is criminal when the chicken is really good. As for the so-called table manners, I feel sure that the child gets his first initiation into the sorrows of this life when his mother forbids him to smack his lips. Such is humn psychology that if we don't express our joy, we soon cease to feel it even, and then follow dyspepsia, melancholia, neurasthenia and all the mental ailments peculiar to the adult life. One ought to imitate the French and sigh an "Ah!" when the waiter brings a good veal cutlet, and makes a sheer animal grunt like "Ummm!" after tasting the first mouthful. What shame is there in enjoying one's food, what shame in having a normal, healthy appetite? No, the chinese are different. They have bad table manners, but great enjoyment of a feast."

The Chinese seem to have their priorities right much like the members of the clan I come from. The enjoyment of the meal begins in our household even before the meal is cooked. The women discuss the menu and the right accompaniments to each dish . (Paruppu usili has to have morkozhambu and not any other sambar) and then the preparation is done with great care. After serving the meal, the person tasting the food is carefully watched for spontaneous reactions and then the women feel elated. They must be High-fiving each other in the kitchen out of excitement. On the contrary, if the food is eaten in total silence that is taken as a failure and the women folk spend the rest of the day depressed. And greater and greater care goes into the cooking until some visible , audible appreciation is elicited and then they feel that their existence is justified! I guess this is a value that one no longer associates with current generations who are more into fast food and spoon and tissue culture. What a colossal loss!
When I list the values and principles that are most important to me even today, I realise that most of them were formed in my adoloscence. These were not given as abstract ideals to be followed but one saw them in the personality of people one interacted with - mostly the teachers and friends in high school and close family members. I look around and find that today schools have become more like very efficient training grounds in the various fields of knowledge;Caught in this hectic process,overloaded teachers have no time to concentrate on character building. This void is clearly seen when one comes across phenomenal blunders of high performers - to quote a recent example, Kavya Vishwanathan.
Parents are equally to blame as their expectation from the school is to make their child worthy of IITs and IIMs or any highly paid profession. Perhaps it is time every parent read the mail that Abraham Lincoln sent to his son's headmaster and see if their child is being given an environment where he can imbibe these timeless values:

"He will have to learn. I know that all men are not just and all men are not true. But teach him also that for every scoundrel there is a hero; that for every selfish politician there is a dedicated leader. Teach him that for every enemy there is a friend. It will take him, I know, but teach him, if you can, that a dollar earned is of far more value than five found. Teach him to learn to lose and also to enjoy winning, steer him away from envy, if you can; teach him the secret of quiet laughter.

"Let him learn early that the bullies are the easiest to lick; Teach him, if you can the wonder of books but also give him quiet time to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun and flowers on a green hillside. In school, teach him it is far more honorable to fail than to cheat. Teach him to have faith in his own ideas, even if everyone tells him he is wrong. Teach him to be gentle with gentle people, and tough with the tough.

"Try to give my son the strength not to follow the crowd when everyone is getting on the band wagon. Teach him to listen to all men, but teach him also to filter all he hears on a screen of truth, and take only the good that comes through.

"Teach him, if you can, how to laugh when he is sad. Teach him there is no shame in tears. Teach him to scoff at cynics and to beware of too much sweetness. Teach him to sell his brawn and brain to the highest bidder, but never to put a price tag on his heart and soul. Teach him to close his ears to a howling mob and to stand and fight if he thinks he's right.

"Treat him gently, but do not cuddle him, because only the test of fire makes fine steel. Let him have the courage to be impatient; let him have the patience to be brave. Teach him always to have sublime faith in himself, because then he will always have sublime faith in mankind.
"This is a big order, but see what you can do. He is such a fine little fellow, my son."

All children are such fine little creatures - let us show them not just the goals but also the right way to get there.
(Thanks Shalini, your mail provided the thought for this post!)