Category Archives: Memoir

The Chenthitta House, November 1945

November, 1945

I was a five year old girl at the time.

I was startled awake from a deep sleep by the hustle and bustle of unusual activity, doors opening and closing, and many footsteps back and forth outside my Ammoomma’s, grandmother’s room, where I slept alongside my three year old sister, Shanthi. Footsteps hurried across the floor. Listening closely I heard more footsteps that paced back and forth outside my bedroom.

The clock said 2, O’clock. I was glad that somebody remembered to leave the blue night light ‘on.’

Suddenly a new sound pierced the night. A wailing sound of a baby crying. I got up and walked out of the bedroom and straight into the arms of my maternal aunt, Ammachi.  She explained what I heard was a baby’s first announcement of its arrival, a demanding cry which was a craving for attention.  The craving was quite evident-(a craving I have come to believe ends only with our last breaths) – and I knew we had a baby in the house. I ran towards the room where the sound came from. I could not wait any longer to be called. (An obedient child never interrupted adults unless expressly summoned!) Thank God everyone was too busy;  too happy to be strict at that point. I barely heard my Ammachi’s voice, something about a new sister. And then I saw her- a squiggly baby, shining wet after her first bath, still screaming, and oh so small.

So, this was my new baby sister. I pushed forward to see her face. I was sure she looked straight at me. My five year old heart swelled with love for her instantly.

The adults were still bustling around preparing an official welcome for the new addition to the family. As was our custom in South India, the oldest member of the family present, my Ammoomma, was going to feed the little one three sips of honey and gold. I saw Ammachi rub a piece of gold, my mother’s wedding ring, into a few drops of honey placed in a little white marble boat. I recognized it as the  marble mortar in which our medicine pills were ground up to feed us medicines. The sweetest food of all, honey, and the most precious metal of all, gold; a mixture that is a symbolic offering of the best in life to new and smallest member of our family, by the senior-most family member, Ammoomma.

But- not this time. I was vehement; she was “my” sister. I wanted to officially welcome her, and boy I wasn’t going to settle for a nay answer, and, I must have won my point. Because this time they waived tradition. Soon I had the squirming little sister in my lap. My small hands needed help to keep her there. I held the bundle of joy while grandma had to lean down to feed her the gold and honey. Everybody smiled. Dad shook his head in disbelief.  My Ammoomma was not one to give in to anyone. But she did for me, her special kochu-mol, grand-daughter.

The sweet stuff must have made an impression on the little one- for she soon settled quietly in her big sister’s arms as I sighed in relief and sat back basking in the sunshine of all the attention I was sharing with my own baby sister.

That was the very special place, where my two sisters and I grew up with my parents, and my Ammachi, my maternal aunt, when I was five years old.

Seventy one years later, I really believe that the sense of belonging, the sense of unconditional love and the sense of ultimate trust in placing a live human being in my hands—-all these add up to what I became when I grew up from my five year old self.

 Shakuntala
Shaku and her siblings
Shaku, Jayee and Shanthi

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A bird called Uppan

 

A balmy morning in South India, trying to escape the cold cold Chicago winter, even if it is for a few days.
A fleeting color of dusky copper brown alerted me and I got up from the porch chair. It was an Uppan bird with distinct chestnut wings and long dark blue-black tail. He brought back memories of being awoken by the classic hooting sound of the Uppan, a common bird in Kerala, but one which did not come too often to our home in the city where I lived  as a child.
Nimmi grabbed her camera and low and behold an Uppan was sitting comfortably, swinging on a low palm branch of a coconut tree. He was quiet. A few seconds later he took to the air and we saw another one, possibly his mate, rise up from the next tree. That was a mango tree. We both were excited about the sighting and the good luck of capturing his short flight.
The Uppan is a Greater Coucal.  It is also called a Crow pheasant.
What I remember was as a child I heard him often, but living in a busy central part of Trivandrum town, the sightings were rare. So, this visit was very special…. a very special blessing in the sun.
Shakuntala

Scenes from my Past

When I plan on moving forward in my life, scenes from the past run through the screen of memories. To move forward in life, you cannot live in the past.
By the same token, it is definitely your past experiences that guide your future action. If there is a traumatic experience in my past or yours, it would be well worthwhile to go deep into your memories to see what part of those can help with your future decisions. Similarly, any victorious or joyful occurance can guide you forward on the actual future you are planning for yourself.
Six years ago when my dear husband Raj passed away, I had a hard time figuring out what to do with all the strong feelings within me. While I mourned his absence, I knew I had too much pent up energy that if not spent productively would explode. It was not easy because the last ten years of my life revolved around the physical caring of Raj, helping him manage his Diabetes and other medical conditions. I had to build up energy, physical and mental to do that. I also knew I had to honor his strength and his love of our family.
Thinking back, I remembered how strong my mother-in-law, Thankom-Maami was when she lost her husband at the young age of thirty nine. Her youngest child was only ten months old. Three years later her oldest son, Raj, my husband, decided that coming to America for his post-graduate training would afford him the best opportunity to take care of his mother and siblings. Knowing it was the right move for him, Maami stood stoic as she hugged him goodbye, even though her heart was breaking to let her first-born travel so far away.
Raj and I with his mother in the center and his siblings, 1963
My mother lost my Dad when she was close to fifty years old. She immersed herself in caring for her children and grandchildren, never once complaining about how she missed him or blaming God for her loss.
Following the footsteps of strong women in the family, I too acted courageously.
Raj and I with my Ammoomma,Grandmother in the center and an extended family, 1963.
I was “Transplanted from 110 degrees in the shade to 10 degrees below zero,” when I decided to live in Chicagoland. I felt it was crucial that my progeny grow up knowing my heritage and knowing what I lost in leaving my land of origin, and gaining so very much in this land I call my own. Hence my writing about my past, my childhood, my challenges in life, my religious beliefs, my philosophy in life….I need to share all these facets to illustrate how you can gain strength from your past and not let your past drag you down. My stories will help all readers understand that the differences in culture are easily transcended by the recognition that all people have the same needs as foodsafety, peace, and above all, being loved.
And in sharing my experiences, I am certain many can draw strength to manage challenges in their own lives.

When you have lived a very active, productive life for seventy-six years on this Earth, you form opinions and philosophy based on what you were taught as a child growing up, based upon your religious beliefs, and on your life-experiences.

In sharing what I have learned, I hope to help others going through similar experiences, both
2014-07-05-shaku-at-fokanapleasurable and not so enjoyable, to use the knowledge I can share and still come out smiling, loving and enjoying life and the people around me.

In this Fall season when the ebullient Summer songs of Nature start to change and Winter breezes put a chill on the flowing of sap in the core of all trees, it is time for mankind to think of how we can all band together for making this world a better place.

 

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