All posts by Shakuntala Rajagopal

Authors Supporting Authors

Speaking of supporting each other, we authors attend book-release parties; edit each other’s works in workshops and writing groups and offer pep talks………..
I had the privilege of attending an Author event, “Wednesday’s Way With Words” in The Listening room at Lakeside Arts Park, in the Dole Mansion, Crystal Lake, Illinois.
This was the first session of new series of Literary events planned in The Listening Room.

At the opening session of this laudable event, six Authors read their works, and their published works were available for purchase.  Matt Brauer, Linda Heuring, Carrie McGuigan, Elizabeth Harmon, Douglas Elwell, and Kimberly Schumacher, under the able guidance of Gwen Koehler, the Program Manager, shared their writing, each treating us listeners with their unique stories, literary styles and some humor.

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!!!


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.

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


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



My Summer Garden

Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Working in my Summer garden I took note of the changes happening there.
The transformation of my landscape as the season changes and the warmth of the Sun in Summer affects the way each plant grows fails to amaze me. They resurrect from the deep freeze of Winter, grow and bloom and spread their seeds, all in a short span of the Summer season.
It got me thinking. And, it stopped me on my tracks and made me take stock.
My rose called Double Delight is in full bloom, the unusual deep reddish pink combined with a string cream color petals. The vision makes me want to ditch my dentist’s appointment and go get my easel and colors to record the pretty picture. Especially the way the Sweet Alyssums underfoot frame the rose in bloom. Inspiration indeed.
Then there are the masses of daylilies in four different corners. The bright yellow ones reflect the spirit of the Sun, while the bronze ones and the mauve (almost purple) ones pop up amidst the yellow lilies, beckoning my attention.
I turn the corner and two full rows, and few other groupings of Hostas greet my eyes. There are hostas with dark emerald green leaves, others with pale green color and white borders. Two groupings show even lighter green hue. Right now all of them tout hundreds of blue and white tubular flowers on tall green stalks waving welcome in the sun.
The dark red and brown stalks of Penstimmon’s carry brown seed-pods. Their floral glory is over for this summer season, however, the seeds promise a great return next year. Right next to the Penstimmons and behind the daylilies a tall clump of Monardas, or Bee Balm as they are called are showing off their pale violet feathery heads of flowers. Bees buzz around warning me not disturb them…or else…
My clump of Mint is waiting to see if I am making lemonade yet. A twig of mint in freshly made lemonade is the ultimate in summer drinks.
The Viburnums had vibrant white flowers in bunches just four weeks ago. Now the blooms are replaced by green berries. But watch out. Soon the berries will ripen to a deep dark purple. One fine day a whole army of sparrows will descend on the Viburnum bushes and feast on the berries, leaving clusters of bare stalks which held the blooms, and then the berries. It is a sight I try not to miss later in the summer.
The entire process makes me realize how our life-stages reflect the comings and goings of all the various plants and flowers. Knowing well they only bloom for a short while, they still put forth their best show each summer. I take a page from their lessons and decide to put out my best work out this Summer. For my next book.

My Summer Garden
My Summer Garden

My Summer Garden
My Summer Garden

More Double delight roses
More Double delight roses
Double delight roses
Double delight roses
my Double delight rose
my Double delight rose
Hostas, daylilies and monarda
Hostas, daylilies and monarda
My Bench
My Bench

Song of the Mountains Book Signing at Port Edwards

Blog, 2015
July 10th, 2015
Port Edwards Restaurant, Algonquin, Illinois has become my family’s favorite Restaurant.
It all started with my friend April M. Williams who brought my book to the attention of Edward Wolowiec, owner of Port Edward’s. Edward and I talked, I was referred to C.J. the manager, and I had my Song of the Mountains book-signing  for my memoir at the restaurant on July 9th, 2015.
It was a joyous occasion because my daughters Devi and Molly, Sons-in-law, Don and Suresh, grandson Travis, grand-niece Uma, niece Shanthi and her friend Mark all joined to celebrate the book-signing.
Old friends, Doctors Chinnamma and Joseph Thomas came, and we talked about how Chinnamma and I were students at Trivandrum Medical College, India in the late fifties, and years later Joseph and I took Creative Writing classes at University of Chicago.
Members of my writing group, Algonquin Area Writers Workshop, Kay, Joyce, Carolyn, and Richard were there also. It was fun talking about our writing accomplishments, and the publishing process.
The entire staff at Port Edward’s including Chef Keith and the manager C.J. treated us warmly. 
In the preceding weeks the members of my family had dinner at Port Edward’s on different occasions, and we each had our own favorites on the menu.
After my book-signing, we proceeded to order our favorite dishes and settled to enjoy dinner at our now favorite local restaurant.
Author Shakuntala Rajagopal with her book Song of the Mountains at Port Edward book signing
Author Shakuntala Rajagopal with her book Song of the Mountains at Port Edward book signing
Author and artist Shakuntala Rajagopal and Port Edward owner Ed Wolowiec
Author and artist Shakuntala Rajagopal and Port Edward owner Ed Wolowiec
Author Shakuntala Rajagopal and Chef Keith of Port Edward
Author Shakuntala Rajagopal and Chef Keith of Port Edward
Author Shakuntala Rajagopal and business owner April M. Williams
Author Shakuntala Rajagopal and business owner April M. Williams