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
pleasurable 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.
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.
My Amma at the well
Winner 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 https://shakuraj.com
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.
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.
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.
BUY YOUR COPY at www.shakuraj.com
“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
June 14, 2015
A cloudy summer day today. The rains in the last two days have beat up my peonies. The flowers have shed their million petals and the resulting tricolor tapestry of pink, magenta and crimson design decorate the green grass below the plants. I know the next wind will erase the design that Mother Nature created. Replacing the colorful peonies, yellow primrose, white and pink penstimmon and purple and pink columbines have raised their stalks with glorious flowers. On and on the flower show continues.
Every year when the weeding gets to me, or the rabbits eat all my petunias, I wow to stop planting any more petunias or eggplants. But summer comes and the colors in my garden make me forget the labor that goes into maintaining it.
The flip side is that the labor in my gardens keeps my body and my mind healthy. In my younger days I had many more roses because that is the only flower bush that blooms all summer long.
I will include my Vegetable garden philosophy here. Food for thought!
My Vegetable Garden Philosophy
My vegetable garden symbolizes my philosophy in life.
Life need not be ordinary.
Hard work and ordinary chores are the necessary backbone of survival.
Yet, to limit ourselves into shaggy vegetable gardens is not needed.
The ordinary activities of life, even as the naturally unruly vegetable growth
can and should be glorified
by the beauty of paths that take you to nowhere—
but into our own selves.
Need a fountain or two keep our eyes upwards to
divert us from any tired and dead plants at end of autumn.
Need some rising colors of sunflowers and zinnias
to contrast with the browns of the aging spinach or the graying cucumber vines.
All this we need to help uplift the rising spirit of our souls
even as our aging bodies claim rest from our labors.
The beauty created by me in my vegetable garden
echos the beauty that I create in my life.
Amongst the mundane in our lives and amongst pain we cannot avoid,
we still cherish the smiling face of a sunflower or of a special smiling boy,
Enjoy a bear hug from a girl child
like hugs of a morning glory vine around a wooden post.
Cascading marigolds suggest the loud laughter of a tickled child
Red tomatoes on vines warm me the same as chubby red baby cheeks
Purple eggplants bring royalty to my stone throne
the beauty of life reflected, elevate me out of painful chores
Albeit, the chores are the backbone of survival
And oh so necessary for living!
Me as a Memoirist.
I am fortunate in that I often dream of people from my past. I dream of the life I shared with them, and I dream I am doing the things I wish I had done with them.
In my last dream Daddy was here in Chicago, walking with me and my grandson in Millennium Park. In my dream we laughed and talked, and he and his long white beard were the same as when I left him and India 48 years ago. I could only see wisps of my own hair, and my 12 year old grandson was vivid in the picture, skipping along beside me, talking to Sivaraam Appoo, that is what he would have called his great grandfather, my dad, if he was here now.
My Dad has been gone for forty years. My dream evoked memories of the time he and I walked the Botanical Gardens and Zoo in Trivandrum, South India, where I lived until I was twenty three. I close my eyes, and I can hear his rich, vibrant voice telling me I could be, and could do anything I wished in life, if I believed in myself. More so, he instilled in me the belief that the divine power of God is within each of us.
This dream not only triggered memories of Dad, but made me look up other stories from my past I had already written.
I plan to share them, soon.