Category Archives: Indian culture

The Cotton Tree

Last month, on my way to a hospital in Thiruvananthapuram I saw a tall cotton tree carrying brown pods about 4” to 6” long, some open and spewing white cotton into the wind.

As a young girl in my Ammoomma’s home, I, alongside my sisters and cousins, extracted the fluffy white stuff that transformed into cotton.

That tree that gave us cotton for our mattresses was called the ‘Elavu.’

In the beginning of Summer, end of February to early March, dry brown pods from the flowers of the Elavu trees, also called Silk-cotton trees, were delivered to my Ammoomma’s house. Three to four bags almost as tall as me, and I was about three or four feet tall then, making a crinkling noise as they were moved, intrigued me. As I saw one opened, oval shaped brown pods, some cracked open were spewing white cotton puffs into the air. I remember the first time I caught one. It felt soft and fluffy.

I was told they came from our own trees that grew in one of the properties Ammoomma owned in the suburbs of Trivandrum.

After the morning chores, the cook, the outside maid and we the children gathered around the pods, and sitting in a wide circle handled them. An adult cracked the pods with a round stick, and passed them to the next in line. My sister, cousin and I opened the pod, released the white cottony stuff, and put it into a barrel placed in the center of our circle.

The oldest among us, (usually my Kitchen Ammoomma,) told us stories of where our doctor Ammoomma grew up. She also told us about different pieces of property that Ammoomma had purchased, and how some of it got leased to other people for farming. The Elavu trees were one such crop, and how every summer we got a share of the crop for our family.

When the barrel was about two-thirds full we stood up, and using a wooden lathe, similar to the ones used to churn butter, churned the cotton. The fluffy stuff rose to the top and the brownish-black seeds fell to the bottom. The tallest in the group then picked up the cotton and stuffed them into jute bags.

As I remember, this was sent to a seamstress who made pillows and mattresses. When the mattresses we were using lost their fluffiness, they were emptied of the old cotton and refilled with the new fluffy stuff. Same thing was done to our pillows also.

Now–a-days I don’t see anyone fluffing the cotton. They probably have small factories that do this.

I am wondering how the young ones are learning stories of yore, if they are not gathering together to do chores like getting out the cotton, or helping to grind and other grains….. Now, that is another story yet to be told!!!

Shakuntala

The Bee hives stood sentinel while the young ones played

The Bee Hives stood sentinel where the young ones played.

 

A courtyard where two beehives stood attention between a fig tree and a breezeway that led from a kitchen work area to a bathroom with a window that opened to a well, was the center of my existence at the time.

I was five years old, I remember, because it was the year my mother presented me with one more sister, and it was also the year I started kindergarten.

On the far end, this gardened area was bounded by a brick wall, five feet tall, and this separated the hustle and bustle of a road that went from the center of Trivandrum town to the Chalai market, and on to the main highway which took you all the way to the southern tip of India, Kanya Kumari, also known as Cape Coumarin.

The opposite end of this garden was defined by the above mentioned breezeway.  Parapet walls on both sides of this breezeway provided welcome seating. My three year old sister Shanthi and I sat on these low walls, and watched my Amma, my mother, and her sister, my ammachi, tend their garden. We saw all sorts of flowers, touting a variety of colors from the sparkling white jasmines to the pale lavender cosmos, and the smooth petals of the pink roses that contrasted with the prickly thorns which effectively kept them safe from two busy little girls who could not keep their hands off of any blooming thing.  The pleasant bouquet of jasmines and roses blended with the strong scents of chrysanthemums.  The pink oleanders were excluded from this area because their pungent odor was not welcome here.  They were planted in the front yard where their huge bushes rubbed shoulders with the mighty hibiscus plants.

To the left of us, as we perched on the low parapet walls, were two long steps leading to a door of my Doctor ammoomma’s bedroom, and beside her bed and dresser was a table where her stethoscope rested when she was home.   Shanthi and I slept in her room too, on mattresses that were spread out on the floor at bedtime, and were rolled and put away during the day.  Also on the floor, our Adukkala ammoomma, Kitchen grandmother, slept beside us.  Although I was aware she oversaw the kitchen ladies at their tasks, (hence the name kitchen grandmother), and managed the chores of the errand boy who went to the market for fish every day, I felt that she was my own guardian angel who looked after me.  She made sure I ate the last ball of rice and curds on my plate that my Amma made for me.  She urged me to finish my daily alphabet-writing-practice before I got into trouble with my Ammachi when she returned from the University where she worked.  I digress.

The bathroom wall formed the fourth boundary for this delightful corner of my world at five.  Entering the bathroom from the breezeway, you saw a window in the wall to the right. This window opened to a well, all complete with a bucket on a rope and pulley, used to draw water on to a huge clay pot set atop a wood-burning stove to heat the water for bathing. When the window was closed for privacy, the rope and bucket were swung out to the outer half of the water-well, where the amenities included separate areas for washing clothes, and for washing kitchen pots and utensils.  There was a spot here as well for cleaning the fresh fish from the market, sometimes twice in one day.

I was fascinated by the way the wood-burning stove used for heating the bathwater was set half inside and half outside the bathroom wall, and the wood was fed from outside the bathroom.  A chimney setup above this stove took the smoke out of the bathroom itself.  Looking back, the ingenuity and the engineering were marvels that I was of course too young to appreciate.

Back to the bee hives.  Every three months or so, the theineechakaran, honey-man, came.  He wore a khaki colored pant-suit and muddy boots covering his entire body.  He placed a large rimmed hat on his head, and pulled down the protective netting around his face and neck.  Long gloves completed his work habit.

We had to watch him from Doctor Ammoomma’s bedroom window while he expertly smoked the bees into a box he carried.  Once the queen bee was in his trap, he waved to us.  We were then allowed to go out and see how he gingerly picked up honey combs, placed them in his barrel with a handle on the outside that he cranked. It was a manual centrifuge of sorts, and it extracted the honey into dripping pans, through cotton-lined sieves.  When one hive was done, he would give us pieces of the honeycomb to suck out drops of sticky golden-brown honey from the crannies.  Then he waved his big hands to chase us back in, and proceeded to retrieve the honey from the second one.  Once we had some honey to savor, we lost interest in the proceedings.

But, to finish our lesson, Ammachi called us back to see the honey-man place the queen bee back into the center of the bee hive. We were surprised how the remaining bees swarmed back in without further ado.  Ammachi did not waste any occasion to feed our brain, even as our tummies were fed.

And then she picked off the tiny wax particles which got stuck on our teeth from the honeycombs.

The fig tree only gave fruit occasionally, probably once or twice a year.  I am not quite certain.  But each time it did, the anticipation on ammachi’s face as she awaited their ripening was a family joke.  When the fruit reached a certain size, she wrapped them with gauze to protect them from the crows.  Each ripe fruit was tenderly sliced, and she ruefully shared them with us.  I still remember my amma declining her share, so that ammachi, her sister could have more.  They were close, then.

My Gardens in this part of the continent, with its harsh winters, could not sustain the tropical blooms nor a fig tree. They thrive in my heart and mind, always. 

At times, in the deep freeze of January, when grey skies cloud over me and all of Chicago-land is blanketed by miles and miles of white snow, when even the green tops of tall evergreens have turned snow-white, the chill seeps into my heart and drags me down.  I close my eyes and see the patch of sunlight upon the beehives, and hear my ammachi calling, “Pāāpa –, thein veno?” (Pāāpa, that’s me, do you want some honey?), and my whole being warms up with the love from that sunny corner of the earth decades ago.2012-09-12, India pics scanned #2.jpeg

My Amma at the well

Shaku Rajagopal

Song of the Mountains, news and events

Song of the Mountains book           Winner EVVY Bronze award2015-08-24, CIPA EVVY Bronze award

SONG OF THE MOUNTAINS – My Pilgrimage to Maa Ganga
A memoir by
Shakuntala Rajagopal, M.D.

Shakuntala Rajagopal was born in Kerala, South India, and came to the United States in her early twenties. She settled in the Chicagoland area with her husband Raj and they both followed successful careers in Medicine, starting in1970.

Book Review:                                     by M.P. Ravindra Nathan MD, FACC

In November 2010, the devastating loss of her husband of forty-seven years brought Shakuntala to a crossroads in her life.

“Unable to contain the grief over the loss of her husband of forty-seven years, Raj – her soul-mate and best friend, the author ‘Shaku’ (to her friends) decided to go on a pilgrimage to the holy river Ganga. As she points out:New beginnings need empowerment from within. I decided to seek help from above to attain this. I felt a pilgrimage to The Holy River Ganges – Ma Ganga – would be a chance for a rebirth, and a new beginning.’

In her book, Song of the Mountains, Shaku takes us on an unforgettable journey, albeit a perilous one, to the ‘Char Dham’ (four sacred sites revered by Hindus) nestled in the majestic Himalayan Ranges. As we travel along with her, we get to see the many splendors of nature like glowing glaciers and alpine meadows, listen to the song of the mountains, and worship at the holiest of Hindu shrines. “I have never felt so close to heaven in my life,” says the author. Entwined within this beautiful travelogue is Shaku’s own love story, an enduring testament to the only man in her life – her husband Raj, which is at once moving and inspirational.

In Shaku’s own words, ‘As my life and psyche evolved into survival mode, the reader sharing my journey will also be changed in the way he or she approaches major changes in life. My story empowers the reader to take action and go forward in their own life, whatever the circumstances they are facing.’ Written in beautiful prose that often reads like poetry, this is a love story and a spiritual tome, a must read for everybody.

M.P. Ravindra Nathan, MD, FACC, Editor in Chief, AAPI Journal

Song of the Mountains Reading and Book Signings    Join Shaku at the following public appearances:
September 5, 2015, 3:00 PM

              AKMG Literary Session, Association of Kerala Medical Graduates,
Marriott Philadelphia Downtown, 1201 Market St., Philadelphia, PA

September 26, 2015, 7:00 PM,

                 Chicago Writers Conference 2015
University Center, 525 South State St., Chicago, IL 60605

October 10, 2015, 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM.       Reading and book signing.

                 Mandile’s Italian Restorante
2160 Lake Cook Rd. Algonquin, IL 60102     Phone: 847-458-4000

 To contact Shaku go to website and blog at  http://shakuraj.com

 

August 15th, Indian Independence day

In 1947, when India gained Independence from Great Britain, Mahatma Gandhi was against splitting the country into two Nations, Pakistan, and India.India-flag
In support of Gandhiji’s views, My father had

these photographs printed in the local papers. I am wearing a Nehru Cap and carrying the Indian Flag. My sister Shanthi is wearing a Muslim outfit, and carrying a Pakistani flag. We are standing, united as partners, side by side over a relief of the combined India- Pakistan Map. The accompanying article carried Gandhij’s message pleading the leaders not to split us up.

As history has shown, they did not listen to him.

1947 Shaku holding Indian flag and Shanthi the Pakistan flag
1947 Shaku holding Indian flag and Shanthi the Pakistan flag

 

 

Book signing at Port Edwards Restaurant

mudslides cutting up the face of the mountain
SONY DSC

 

 

Shaku doing Ganga Aarti
Shaku doing Ganga Aarti

Rudraprayag. Confluence of Alaknanda and Mandakini tributaries of Ganges
Rudraprayag. Confluence of Alaknanda and Mandakini tributaries of Ganges
SONY DSC
Shaku descending from Kedarnath

 

 

 

 

 

 

SONG OF THE MOUNTAINS – My Pilgrimage to Maa Ganga
Shakuntala Rajagopal, MD
If you like to read about adventure…
If you want to be inspired to move beyond heartbreak, read on…
Unable to contain the grief from the loss of her husband of forty years, Raj—her soul- mate and best friend, the author ‘Shaku’ (to her friends) decided to go on a pilgrimage to the holy river Ganga carrying the ashes of Raj. As she points out, “New beginnings need empowerment from within. I decided to seek help from above to attain this. I felt a pilgrimage to The Holy River Ganges—Maa Ganga—would be a chance for a rebirth, and a new beginning.”
“In her second book, Shaku takes us on an unforgettable journey, albeit a perilous one at that, to the ‘Char Dham’ (the four sacred sites revered by Hindus) nestled in the majestic Himalayas. As we travel along with her, we get to see the many splendors of nature like glowing glaciers and alpine meadows, listen to the songs of the mountains, worship at the holiest of Hindu shrines and get the blessings of the Gods. I have never felt so close to heaven in my life.” M. P.Ravindra Nathan, MD, FACCEditor in Chief, AAPI Journal

Packed with emotion, Shaku allows you to experience with her the range of sensation and emotion as she travels through the Char Dham, from the blissful sensation of dipping in the cold rushing waters of the Bhagirathi Ganga at Gangotri, 10,000 feet above sea level to the scorching dip in the hot springs of Alaknanda Ganga at Badrinath at 10,500 feet. Entwined within this beautiful travelogue is Shaku’s own love story, an enduring monument to the only man in her life, her husband Raj, which is at once moving and inspiring.

Find out what in the pilgrimage gives her a sense of rebirth and how she is able to finally find peace without her beloved Raj.

For as Shaku says, “As my life and psyche evolved into survival mode, the reader sharing my journey will also be changed in the way he or she approaches major changes in life. My story will definitely empower the reader to take action and go forward in their own life, whatever the circumstance they are facing.” Written in beautiful prose that reads often like poetry, this is a love story and a spiritual tome. A must read for everybody.
http://shakuraj.com

BUY YOUR COPY at www.shakuraj.com

Book signing

“Song of the Mountains, My pilgrimage to Maa Ganga.”
By Shakuntala Rajagopal, local author and artist

Port Edwards Restaurant, 20 W. Algonquin Rd, Algonquin, 60102.
July 9th, 2015, 5 -9 PM

Good Friends

June 3rd, 2015
A week ago I had the good fortune to spend some time with my classmate from Kindergarten and High School, Ambika Sukumaran. She was an actress, a renowned movie star in Malayalam movies, (Malayalam is Mother tongue). Ambika acted in many award winning movies and was heroine to some famous actors in the sixties and seventies.
We reminisced of our time at the Holy Angels’ Convent High School and laughed at how naïve we were when we came to the U.S.A. We talked about all the years in between when we did not see each other for forty two years, yet we were comfortable sharing stories of our life, of our children and best of all about our grandchildren. We promised to do this again, soon.
I have been told not to be stuck in the past.For the memoirist that I am the past stories did not get me stuck in any place, rather gave me one more stepping stone to write about a few more characters from my past.
A double bonus from a rekindled friendship.
Shakuntala.

A Writer Writes

A Writer writes.

As an Author, I need to write my story.

Every one of us has our own unique story to tell the world.

I feel it is important to tell the young members of my family growing up here, the experiences of a first generation Indian from Thiruananthapuram, Kerala, India, who settled here in the sixties.

Where Raj and I came from, our given name is usually our ‘surname’ or ‘last name’ and is often used as the official name in business and documents.

So, when our progeny looks up ancestory.com, the search will end with the first person who came here.  Unless the entire family sticks to a common last name, or follows the family name, no previous history will be found.

Hence, it is necessary that we put down in words all about where and who we came from.

It is important that they know not only of the growing pains of young immigrants in this land where the language, the food, the clothes and the customs are different, but also of the joy and the spirit of comradery among us newcomers that enabled us to get accustomed to the place we made our home.

Above all, they need to know why it is important to remember people who helped us survive the tough winters and show them why we need to pay forward  to those who come after us.

I personally have this need to tell them how our Indian element became an integral part of the melting pot that is the United States of America.

I have been telling my story to anyone who wishes to listen, and am determined to put together my next book of how I was:  Transplanted  from 100°F in the shade to 10°F in the sun, in a twenty four hour period. I will also tell how our love for each other kept me and my husband Raj going, despite all odds.