Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Apples, almonds and philosophy

It has been raining here, on and off, mostly a slow, soaking rain that makes most people crabby, and makes me think of Michigan, where I was born and where I went to college.

On Monday, claustrophobic from the rain and antsy from a grinding morning at my desk, I decided to run errands at lunch, rain be damned. My lunch that day was a salad -- delicious, but not road-friendly -- so I grabbed my coat, keys and an apple, and headed out.

In the car, the apple proved delicious, but not enough to keep my stomach happy, so I rummaged in the door pocket, where I found a baggie of almonds and raisins. As I started in on these, it occured to me that this was exactly the kind of lunch Henryk Skolimowski would have served me.

Henryk was the paramour of my work-study job boss, Joan, a kind, funny, soulful woman who paid me the maximum allowed by the university for my clerical position. Her professor beau could not type all that well, and she told me that if I wanted to, I could work for him on the weekends, essentially taking dictation into a computer. She also mentioned that he would feed me, and this being college, that appealed to me immensely.

On my first day, once we had worked for a few hours, me typing furiously and occasionally supplying the right word for something, Henryk announced that we would stop for some food and tea. We trundled downstairs and he brought out apples, cheese, bread, nuts and dried fruit.

I'd look forward to this kind of simple meal for as along as I worked for him, but it wasn't just the food I liked. We'd sit at a small table near a window in the snug kitchen, munching and sipping and talking, sometimes about his wartime childhood in Warwaw, sometimes about current events, sometimes about not much at all.

Looking back, and looking at the man's Wikipedia entry, I'm surprised that I wasn't intimidated by this man's intellect; he was a profssor of philosophy, in his late 50s and writing about really weighty stuff involving UNESCO. As far as I can figure out, I felt comfortable with him because he was Polish, as I am, and even though I had never been to Poland at that point, we had enough common cultural ground that he seemed more like an uncle than an employer.

The last I knew, Henryk and Joan were married and splitting their time between Poland and the U.S. I hope to see them again someday, and in the meantime, I'll think of them whenever I have a simple lunch on a rainy day.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Two Lists

Ways in Which We Are Just Like You

1. I am the one who smells food to determine whether it’s gone bad.
2. We talk about the thermostat. A lot.
3. I am the keeper of the social calendar.
4. He is the computer wrangler, faucet installer, and lifter of heavy things.
5. I am the buyer of greeting cards and sender of packages.
6. He does not cook.
7. I do not organize the garage.
8. After a bad day, nothing helps more than a hug from him.
9. We take classes together to keep things interesting.

Ways in Which We Are Different From You

1. Our budget includes trips to India.
2. Some of our misunderstandings revolve around language.
3. We own a rice cooker.
4. The time difference between us and his parents is 10.5 hours.
5. There are saris and churidars in my closet.
6. Some of our religious celebrations involve incense and fruit.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Stunning Moment of Monumental Stupidity

Yesterday at work, I received one of those rare e-mails that make you squeal: You have a package at the front desk. I didn’t even have to unwrap it to find out what it was; the heavy-duty shrink-wrap showed me it was the rice cooker we’d ordered last week.

If you’ve ever cooked rice on top of the stove, you know that while it is not rocket science, it can be tricky and tends to take a long time. With a rice cooker, the process is fast and the rice is perfect every time. The newer ones come with steaming baskets so you can do veggies or chicken or fish at the same time, and the bowls are nonstick. For households with South Asian residents, they’re an essential piece of equipment.

Our old one had an aluminum bowl that had to be soaked and scrubbed after every use. I was convinced we were eating Alzheimer’s-inducing particles along with our rice and dal. It did work perfectly though, right up until I killed it.

It was a Sunday, I think, and I was making lava cakes, which require a lot of butter. I had used all the refrigerated butter for the cakes themselves and needed one more hunk to grease the ramekins. I was also steaming broccoli in the microwave and assembling a salad for the next day’s lunch, so I was going at full speed, confident in my ability to monitor, stir and chop.

I grabbed a stick of butter from the freezer and picked up a knife. I put the butter on the counter, ran the knife under hot water, and cut through the butter, leaning forward to put more weight on the knife. Then there was a loud pop and a gasp from the living room.

“Did you just cut through the rice cooker cord?”


I wasn’t sure. I had been in such a hurry, I had to look. On the counter, a few inches from the stick of butter, I saw the two neatly severed ends of the cord. I held the knife up to get a better look at the blade. Here’s what I saw:

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I just did.”

My husband had been lying on the couch, watching TV, and had had to sit up and turn 180 degrees to see what I was doing. He had seen me going to cut the butter, had seen the flash. He still doesn’t know why he turned around at that precise moment.

For whatever reason, I was not even mildly shocked by the incident – not physically, anyway. And even though I had cut the cord before the end of the cycle, the rice was as perfect as ever. I'm still using the knife -- it's a good one, and it's a good reminder.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Last night at dinner, I was able to explain Diwali (pronounced “Divali,” and meaning “row of lamps”) to a tableful of people while my husband Mowgli (not his real name) was in another room. When he returned, he commented that I’m starting to know more about Hinduism than he does.

It’s not that I have the fervor of a convert; I don’t practice Hinduism, or any other religion, on a daily basis. But when he doesn’t know the answers to my questions, he’ll take down a book from a shelf, or go online, and then my love of research takes over.

So, though there’s a lot more to the holiday than this, here’s what I’ve learned about Diwali:

- The central theme is good triumphing over evil, and hence light over darkness. This springs from the festival being the anniversary of the death of a demon (see below) as well as a harvest festival.

- In Southern India, Diwali is celebrated as the death anniversary of the demon Narakasura, who had been terrorizing the earth and imprisoning women. There are two versions of how the demon was killed; one is that Krishna beheaded him with his discus, and the other is that his wife, Satyabhama, killed him when he knocked Krishna out. She was able to do this because the demon had received a boon from Brahma that he could only be killed by his mother – and Krishna’s wife happened to be a reincarnation of the demon’s mother.

- In Northern India, Diwali is celebrated as the homecoming of the god Rama following a 14-year exile and the defeat of the nasty king Ravana, who had kidnapped Rama’s wife, Sita. Clay lamps filled with oil are lit to welcome him.

- Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, light, prosperity, fertility and wisdom) is a central figure during Diwali; this has to do with the harvest aspect of the festival. To do a proper Diwali, you should clean your house thoroughly so that when Lakshmi visits, she will be pleased.

- Diwali is a time when you forgive transgressions and accept forgiveness. Accounts are settled, new accounts are opened, and people visit with each other and exchange sweets.

- Celebrations go on for days in India and vary according to religion (Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists also celebrate Diwali), and vary according to the region and individual traditions.

In our house, we poured water on the front walk and steps and lit sparklers, dabbed our heads with oil (probably related to Krishna taking an oil bath to cleanse himself of the demon’s blood), showered, put on new clothes, prayed in front of our house shrine, and then had some rock candy.

Mowgli might be right about my growing Hinduism knowledge in certain cases, but if there’s a pop quiz on gods and goddesses, he’ll beat me every time. And without his mother, we’d both be lost; Mowgli prepared the shrine and directed the ritual according to her directions.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Classified Ads

Not long ago, I picked up a copy of an Indian-American newspaper after dinner at one of our standby Indian restaurants (House of India). Back at home, I skimmed the articles about Indian diplomats visiting New York, read one about a 13-year-old environmental activist addressing the UN, and rolled my eyes at the Bollywood gossip column. All pretty standard stuff for a New York-based publication aimed at this audience.

And then I came to the classifieds. These are not about selling cars and looking for apartments; these are personal ads, desi-style. Here's a typical sample:

There was a section for males, too; I found the one at the top of this photo particularly interesting because of the age of the advertsier and the outright mention of divorce:

The one in the middle of this photo might be my favorite, because it makes me imagine the writing process. Were the parents huddled over a kitchen table, debating the veracity of their claim of "outstanding personality"? Was the guy there, insisting that he be referred to as "extremely handsome"?

The ads made me think of my brief, entertaining, unsuccessful foray into picking dates from ads. I tried to picture myself meeting those guys (who, by the way, did not comply with truth in advertising standards) for the sole purpose of seeing if I might want to marry them. I couldn't; it's too much of a leap for me, even though I understand and respect the traditions of arranged marriage and matrimony by classified ad.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Photopost: Soft Drink with Bonus Haiku

Japanese soda
So fizzy and so tasty
But what is that taste?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Photopost: Temple Rededication

On Sunday I wrote about the local Hindu temple's kumbhabhishekam, or rededication; later that morning we attended the conclusion of the four-day ceremony. I took loads of photos, and I have to tell you, I wasn't the only one, although most people were snapping away on cell phones.

The entrance to the temple grounds, coming from the parking lot next door. The grey object in the center is the head of Ganesh; he is the remover of obstacles and the lord of beginnings.

The entrance to the tent outside the temple, where there were pujas to purify and revivify the temple and its contents going on for days. Up until a certain point, the temple was completely closed.

This was a holy occasion, and thus, a shoeless affair.

I don't know what this pole's purpose is, but it's new. At the end of the ceremony, a priest came out and put things on its base, but by the time I got up to it, all I saw was a small bowl with a bit of water. People were dipping their fingers in it and dabbing their foreheads and throats.

There are seven of these golden spikes; they're new, too, and according to a priest we flagged down, they draw divine energy into the temple.

This lady is holding a kumbha (vessel), that's wrapped with thread. A group of people (who I believe paid for the privilege) were allowed to take the vessels, which were partially filled with holy water, and pour their contents on the main altar. This is known as abhishekam, or sprinkling, and it can also be done with milk, ghee, oil or milk curds. The garlands on the door behind her are made of fresh flowers.

The only place in St. Louis I've ever been able to lose my husband in a crowd.

And then the helicopter appeared, carrying one of the temple's priests. He was flown around the various parts of the temple so he could sprinkle holy water and rice on the building. Ordinarily, this is achieved with ladders and internal staircases, but the fire codes prevent this.

Then he did the same to the crowd in front of the temple; it was windy and gritty and joyous.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dwadasha Kumbhabhishekam

I know, it's a mouthful. Here's what it means: 12th anniversary celebrations at the Hindu Temple of St. Louis. It's both a rededication and a refreshing of sorts, involving water, fire, purification of the carvings of gods, chanting, and offerings. We were there yesterday, dropping off a 50-pound bag of rice to be used as prasadam (offering of food to the gods which is then distributed to the people), and we picked up an elaborate program that explains what's going on and why.

The temple has numerous vigrahas, or stone carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses. When they were installed 12 years ago they were purified, chanted over and generally prepared to serve as channels of the divine, and they're worshipped on a daily basis by resident priests as well as devotees. The ongoing worship is partially meant to keep the channel of divine love open, but that does not guarantee the proper level of spiritual maintenance. Here's an excerpt from the aforementioned program on this topic:

"The day-to-day rituals of temple worship act as a guide to keep the wayward mind focused. Nevertheless, the many errors of omission and commission in the daily conduct of the devotees and the comings and going of many who do not share the ethos of temple worship do diminish the spiritual intensity of the initial consecration over time."

The four days of rituals will also involve a purification of the building itself; I'm hoping we will see that later today. If we do, I'll write about it here. If we don't, I'll write about whatever we do see and experience here. As you can see from the schedule below, there's a lot going on today.