Tag Archives: novel

Pongalo Pongal

Today on the occasion of Makara Sankranthi I was reliving the time I wrote an entire chapter in my book “When the Lotus Blooms,” about the festival of Pongal.

Pongal is a harvest festival, very important for farmers. For Tamils, it is a big occasion, with lots of preparation and festivity. Initially a celebration of the winter harvest, for farmers who toiled all year in the fields, Pongal celebrates the bounty of nature with great fanfare.

Many people believe it is Tamil New Year but that comes later in the year. I have very fond memories of Pongal which we thoroughly enjoyed especially if my grandmother Rajam was with us, as she was an outstanding cook. That was the only day in the year my mother allowed us to chew on sugar cane which she bought and washed thoroughly with soap and boiled water before serving us. Even though I grew up in Bombay I was never allowed to drink the notorious, diarrhea inducing sugarcane juice on the streets.

What was even more enjoyable was ‘Kanu” the next day. The colorful rice always attracted me and I loved watching the crows and sparrows vie with each other to get at the banana leaf laden with colored rice balls. I also remember how mad my mother got one time when our dog Raja decided to polish off the food! I didn’t realize we must be selective about our offerings.

The scene in the book shows the family gathered around the pongal pot which boils over, signifying prosperity in the future. Velandi the parayan watches the food being cooked, while hunger pangs in his belly distract him. Celebration in one household becomes the reason for envy in another.  The scene exemplifies opposites which continually rule our lives. Hunger and harvest, prosperity and desperation, bounty and death are all juxtaposed, mirroring the duality of perspective. Here is an excerpt from the book.

Nagamma had already put the rice and lentils into the pongal paanai and Sushila added the jaggery. The fire beneath the pot was flaming, burning bright and strong as the men kept adding more firewood so the pongal could boil faster. Balu had his brass plate and spoon ready and waited impatiently for the pongal to boil over. The water simmered as Nagamma added the milk. She turned to the family. “Pray all of you that as this pot of pongal boils over, so does our life boil over with good events and happiness.” She barely finished speaking when Balu noticed the pongal rapidly rising to the top of the clay pot.

“Pongalo pongal!” he yelled gleefully, hammering his spoon against the brass plate. Everyone shouted in unison, “Pongalo pongal!” clapping their hands and shouting as loudly as they could. Rajam stuck her tongue half out of her mouth, rapidly moving it from side to side in a warble louder than Sushila’s. Balu looked at her and tried to mimic her, but no one could hear his soft voice amidst the din. Rapidly removing some sticks of the firewood from under the pot, Nagamma reduced the intensity of the flame. The evil spirits hovering around the house were sure to have been frightened away with the racket they made. Rajam closed her eyes and prayed for all bad events to end and for new happy moments to surround their lives. In her mind she knew she was only praying for that one elusive event to take place.

When the Lotus Blooms has won two awards, one at the Great Southeast Book Festival and the other at the New England Book Festival.

My Childhood Friend Ranjo Writes a Review in the Financial Times

I met Ranjo when I moved to Bombay at the age of nine and we hit it off immediately. While the others played Hide and Seek, we discussed the world’s problems and our philosophy on life. Our family’s were close friends and growing up with her and her baby sister Mona, was so much fun. She was an “intellectual” even at the age of ten and I knew she would take up writing as a profession. With an incisive and critical eye she took a stand for what she believed in. This is how I remember her.

What I didnt envision was my writing a book and her reviewing it. All the characters Rajam and Muumy, she knew well growing up, yet her review is balanced and very complimentary. Our soul connection will never go and I hope I can return the favor to her some day.

Here is a sample of her review.

The skill that has been displayed in dipping into all these issues without losing the human stories of both Rajam and Dharmu is remarkable. The author does not fail to make the point that women were forced to live subservient lives in a patriarchal society, no matter how strong or powerful they may be. Even Nagamma, who controls her family with an iron fist and no perceptible velvet glove, is limited to being a domineering householder. There is no outside role for a woman of her capabilities.

To read the full review go to my blog. Ranjona Banerji currently resides in Mumbai and works as a freelance journalist. This was our last meeting in Bombay. 

I enjoyed this post which Ranjo wrote featured in the Mid Day on the Guwahati molestation.

New Jersey Book Reading

March 25th my dear friend Rajeswari arranged a Book Reading at her neighborhood Community Center in New Jersey.

I met Rajeswari in ’98 when I moved to New York from Argentina. I started music classes with her and our children Lavanya and Shyamala were buddies. We hit it off really well and the connection was deep enough for our friendship to mature over the years. What can I say about Rajeswari? She has the voice of a nightingale and is the gentlest and sweetest person I have met. There was really no reason for her to go out of her way to arrange the readings in New Long Island and New Jersey. She could have been like a lot of my acquaintances who encourage and support me verbally. Yet for no apparent reason, she decided to undertake this special event to promote my book and for that I am truly grateful.

We were around 7 ladies that met that morning. Rajeswari was a little disappointed, but it turned out to be an extremely animated and gratifying reading. The guard at the Center did everything he could to make us miserable including forcing Rajeswari to pick out her trash from the garbage and take it with her. I applaud her for remaining calm. I know I was ready to explode. Instead, taking my cue from her, I focused my energies on greeting the group of ladies that had honored me by taking the time to be present. Almost all of them had read the book and I had no need to introduce or promote the novel. They picked up on the characters and were generous with their compliments. One of them had tears in her eyes as she spoke about Velandi the untouchable and his wretched condition.

One lady remarked about how she was fed up of reading about immigrant “desis” who mix chutney in their cereal and are awestruck by the cars and technology in the US. ” We are not villagers from some remote corner of India. I have lived a very comfortable life in India and I’m tired of reading about the desolate, stereotypical Indian immigrant. This book touched my heart because it brought back memories of my own grandparents. The stories were familiar and the characters so vibrant I felt I knew them and had met them before in my life. The nostalgia was overpowering.”

When the lotus Blooms will probably appeal to that generation of Indians who spent their childhood in India. Although the book is set in Tamil Nadu and East Bengal the situations of the protagonists apply across the board to that generation of Indians.