Category Archives: Memoir

TRANSPLANTED From 110 degrees in the shade to 10 degrees in the Sun

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Chapter Two                      My First day in this country                  The New World

On January 30th, 1964, I landed in New York City, where the welcoming torch of the Statue of Liberty glistened in the evening light as my TWA flight descended from the skies.

My husband came to greet me, his bride of one year.  He flew in from Chicago the previous day and had stayed with his friend George, an intern at a State Hospital in Upper New York.  George was kind enough to bring him to the airport.  I walked out of the Customs area, approached my Balu Chettan, that is what I called Raj, and reached down and touched his feet, to honor him as my husband and my elder.  My greeting evoked laughter from Balu Chettan and George, because as two young modern physicians in America, they felt the custom was quite antiquated.  But not me.  Although many miles separated us from our motherland, my heart and my points of reference about everyday civilities of life remained the same as when I left, just two days previously.

We said goodbye to George, and went around to the airport restaurant where my husband bought us donuts and coffee.  With the donuts and coffee we walked to the boarding gate for the plane to Chicago.  My first bite of the donut surprised me with the sugary taste.  In Kerala, we make a salty snack called Vada, which has a central hole and is deep fried.  Although the donut resembled the Vada, the taste was entirely different without the usual onions green peppers and black peppercorns that are present in the Vada.  Despite the total difference from the Vada, I liked the donut.

Seated comfortably at the gate, we held hands and spoke of how we had missed each other, and filled in the news of how we had fared without each other in those long months apart.  Time passed quicker than we had imagined, and suddenly we realized we were the only ones left in the waiting area.

We stopped an airline crew member and inquired why they had not called for boarding.  We were told that all passengers had boarded, and that the aircraft was ready to take off.  We had missed the calls, totally engrossed in each other.  The doors were closed, and the accordion-ramp had been retracted.  We begged him to reopen the door for us to board.  He said his hands were tied.  We needed to get to Chicago, Balu Chettan had to report to duty at the hospital the next morning, and I too was scheduled to start a new job the next morning.  Seeing my tears and the despair in our eyes, he was kind enough to have an airport officer telephone into the plane, and have the crew reopen the door, which had been locked already.  They had to recall the staff to roll the ramp back, so that we could enter the plane.  I am sure the other passengers got a big kick out of a young red-faced couple scrambling to their seats.  As soon as we buckled our seat-belts the plane rolled off to take its place in line for takeoff to Chicago.

Thus we barely made the flight to Chicago that January night.  We were greatly relieved we did not miss the flight, or both of us would have needed to make excuses for being absent from work.  As fate would have it, I did start my Pathology Residency on time the next day.

Shakuntala Rajagopal

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Summer breeze

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Shaku, sister Shanti and Ammoomma (Grandma)

Summer Breeze  

Summer breeze
warm and wet, from the seas
waving, moving, my hair set abreeze
running running
sand in my eyes
sand in my toes

sandals thrown , lost in the sand
echoes of my ammoomma’s voice
leave your sandals in the car, lost in the wind
too late too late, they are
gone in the sand
sand everywhere

winter breeze
dry and cold from the snow
boots dig deep
heavy steps dragging dragging
chills my bones and bogs me down
tries to stomp my spirit

pick up your feet, go on go on
life’s to be lived, and love’s awaiting
I call on the summer breeze
come blow, and blow
and fan the fire within me
warm up my soul, my body and mind

million miles from summer
million miles from sands
is it too far for the summer breeze to flow?
will it blow, will I grow?
I know I will, ‘cause
the summer breeze lies within

Shakuntala Rajagopal

My Journey Part 4 of 4

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My Journey    Part 4 of 4 parts

Forty eight years later, I still remember how heavy my heart felt, to leave my ammoomma and everyone else, but how the parcel of blessings that I carried with me acted as an umbrella that raised me in the wind to waft me over the waters, a parachute that assured my smooth landing, on new ground.

On my last night at home I sobbed on my Mom’s shoulder.  “I can’t leave all of you.”  She replied with dry eyes and a firm voice, “karayathe ponnu-molé, don’t cry my golden daughter, you will see your dear husband Balu soon.  Your place is with him.  We will be all right.”

All blessings come with strings attached.  When loved ones bless you, your father, mother, ammoomma, maami, they also transfer their power and their past on to you.  In accepting their blessings, you feel it essential to carry on the legacy and the work bestowed upon you by the broad, but often tired, shoulders that carried the burdens before you.

But, despite the blessings and despite the empowerment, I felt totally lost and totally alone in a new country.  As much as you are happy to see your husband after such a long time, you miss the many that surrounded you every day, and the loneliness seemed almost insurmountable, at the time.

The purpose of the journey will always color the experiences of the traveler.  Being that my one and only aim was to join my love at the other side of the world, love colored all my experiences as the traveler.

 

What I did not know then was that a journey is not a trip.  A trip starts from the point of departure and ends at the point of arrival.  In my journey, the point of departure was not a clean break, because the sum of all that had happened in my life up to then came along for the ride.  It was with me when I reached my ‘destination.’

My journey had just begun.

part 4 of 4

Shakuntala Rajagopal

My Journey Part 3 of 4

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My Journey     Part 3 of 4 parts

If each showered a hundred blessings, I am certain that I collected at least a thousand blessings.  Then of course there were blessings showered by my immediate family.  Starting with Mom and Dad, and my maternal aunt, I called her Ammachi, who had a bigger role in raising me than my own mom did.  That is another story to come.  My Valiyachan, Ammachi’s husband, gave me five hundred blessings, I am sure.  He really really did not want me to go so far away.

My doctor ammoomma’s, my grandma was a doctor; blessings should count for at least a thousand.  As I bent down to receive her blessing, she added.  “Remember all what I have taught you.  Even as you reach for the skies, keep your feet solidly on the ground.”  She knew that I had the streak of ‘come-what-may’ attitude from my Dad.

My mom’s brother, ‘Denti-maaman,’ he was a dentist and my maaman, or uncle, gave me another five hundred blessings.  His wife, my ammavi, was only six years my senior, and she, not being a true ‘elder’ could only be counted for a hundred.

My mother-in-law, Thankom-maami, showered more than a thousand blessings, I am certain.  “Ente cherukkane nokkikonam,” watch over my boy, she pronounced.  She was happy and relieved that finally I would go over and take care of her son, her first-born.  Along with the blessings, she showered on me her unconditional love, love enough to last for a lifetime, for both of us and for our progeny to come.

Thus it was that I carried all of ten thousand, and maybe more, of blessings that were bestowed upon me as I left my home to come over and set up house with my husband from whom I was separated by the seven seas for just over seven months.
Once all the packets of prasadams were packed, the clothes, the books, and above all my cachet of spices were placed in the box.  The cardamom pods, cumin seeds, cloves, nutmeg and fennel would ensure the authenticity of my South Indian cooking that I was hoping to do.

If I knew then that I would not step into a temple ground for over seven and a half years, and that I would be all alone for my evening prayers for most of my life, would I have left the safe haven that I had known?  It is good that I did not know.  For, even if I protested, my destiny was beyond my control.

Part 4 to follow

Shakuntala Rajagopal

My Journey. Part 2 of 4part

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My Journey   Part 2 of 4 parts

So, it was only natural that we packed the ashes from the Ganesha homam, a prayer ritual where pieces of coconuts with the shell on, various fruits and flowers, and ghee, clarified butter, were offered in a wood burning fire in front of Lord Ganesha.  While the blazing fire consumed the various offerings, we chanted special prayers to Lord Ganesha to propitiate him. He was the deity who removed all obstacles when one set out on a trip, took an exam or started a new endeavour.  Of course I needed his blessings for my new life in the States.

One week before I set out for Chicago, in January 1964, I did another prayer ritual of Ponkala, to please Goddess Lekshmi, the goddess of health, wealth and happiness.  This, I did at my Maami’s house.  I called my mother-in-law Maami, meaning Aunt in Malayalam, my native tongue.  After my marriage, my Maami’s house was also my home.  I had stayed on with her even after my husband had left for Chicago.

For the Ponkala prayer, I cooked rice in milk and water, in our front-yard, on a makeshift fireplace made up of three piles of bricks.  The distance between the three piles, each about five bricks high, was determined by the size of the glazed ceramic pot that I was using.  A fire was made in the center with dry coconut-palm-leaves and some firewood.  While the rice cooked, I chanted prayers to Goddess Lekshmi.  The blazing fire consumed any bad vibes or spirits that hovered over me.  In time, the wood-burning fire got doused by the milk and rice boiling over from the cooking pot.  Symbolically, even as my wishes boiled over, this was also a gesture of food offering to the Bhoomi Devi, Goddess Earth.  The bonus was that I collected double blessings from the Goddesses, Lekshmi Devi and Bhoomi Devi, to carry with me over the oceans that I had to cross on my trip to Chicago.

We Hindus know that there is but one God, but each time the Lord appears on earth to help the ‘good’ triumph over ‘evil,’ the form in which the Lord appeared is revered, temples are built in his or her name, and each deity blesses us to make different facets of a person strong.

Then came the goodbyes.  In the last week that I was home, I bid farewell to many uncles and aunts, cousins and second cousins of my parents, all with vested interest in my success in America.  I was the first one from our extended family to travel so far from home, especially to the new world.  I bent down and touched the feet of each family elder.  The act of touching the feet of an elder signifies a show of respect for the age, maturity and divinity in them, and at the same time it was to seek their blessing for my upcoming trip, but more so for my journey into a new life.  When you touch the feet of an elder person and then place the fingers in blessing to your own forehead, you are paying reverence to the God-power within that being, and evoking that power for your own benefit.  Each of them in turn placed both palms on my shoulders to confer their blessings on me.  Some smiled, and some cried, and one great-aunt, Thankamoni Maami, sobbed so hard, she could not complete her act of blessing me.

To voluntarily pay homage to another is to empower that God-power in both parties.  To be compelled to do so, if you were one of those who questioned this practice, would be ineffective, and unthinkable.

Part 3 to follow

Shakuntala Rajagopal

My Journey, Part 1of 4 parts

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My journey

My journey of ten-thousand miles began with ten-thousand blessings.

In October 1963, I went on a pilgrimage with my mother and father to the temples they had frequented, throughout our state of Kerala in South India.  I was to gather the blessings of deities they believed in, before I set out on my journey nine weeks later, to join my new husband, in far away Chicago.

When you are 23 years old and the farthest you have gone alone in your life is a bus trip to the tennis club two and a half miles away, ten thousand miles from home is an awfully long way to go.

I could not go any farther from my home, anywhere on this earth, if I wanted to.  My hometown Trivandrum, India, and Chicago, Illinois are on the opposite sides of the earth.  If I bored a tunnel straight through from Trivandrum, I would land less than a half inch to the west and barely three inches due south of Chicago, according to my world globe.

Packing for my trip to Chicago, the very first items that my mother and I placed at the bottom of my suitcase were sachets of prasadams, blessed offerings of dried sandalwood paste, from the temple at Guruvayoor, dedicated to Lord Krishna.  This was one of the twelve temples we visited as part of my pilgrimage.  When my father, mother and I, along with my sister and her baby boy arrived at Guruvayoor, about three or four hundred devotees were already pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of the idol of Lord Krishna.  Waiting in line for over an hour, we finally made it to the sanctum sanctorum.  I chanted my Krishna prayers as I watched the priest decorate the idol of Lord Krishna for the pooja services at noon.  He covered the idol from head to toe in a thick layer of sandalwood paste.  To make the paste, sticks of sandalwood were laboriously, unhurriedly ground on the surface of a stone mortar, andcollected into bowls with reverence by the priest’s helpers.  I saw that it was a true labor of love and devotion.

Then, floral garlands made from white jasmines, bright red hibiscus petals, green Tulsi leaves and orange-red ixora blossoms were reverently hung over his chest.  Vibrant gold ornaments were added to adorn him from the crown on his head, large studs on his ears, four or five long chains hanging from his neck, bangles on both forearms, an arinjanam or waist links, complete with gold anklets on both legs.  The adornments stayed on Lord Krishna until after the evening pooja services.

The flickering flames of over a hundred oil lamps cast a surreal aura in the sanctum.  The aroma of incense sticks, the chanting of the thousand names of Lord Krishna by the priests, and the ringing of about a dozen brass bells, transported me to a place where I felt the blessings emanate from the idol of Lord Krishna, thus dissipating any timorousness in my leaving home for the first time.

After the evening services, the sandalwood paste was removed and distributed to devotees as blessed offerings called prasadams. Mom, Dad, and I received our shares.  We brought the sandalwood paste home and dried it in the sun into a light golden-yellow powder, for long-term preservation.  This was then packed into small sachets to travel with me to the United States.  Later, when I wished to invoke the blessings of Lord Krishna of Guruvayoor, all I would have to do is reconstitute a pinch of the sandalwood powder, using a drop of water, and then wear the paste on my forehead as a symbol of the Lord’s blessing.

In our Hindu household the religious fervor ranged from an occasional temple visit by my grandmother, to daily offerings of flowers to the nearest Devi Temple by my mother who said a prayer with every breath she took.  My father’s practice had an air of great sophistication as a devout follower of a Guru who guided him and us in the path towards the Knowledge of God.  I leaned more towards the ritualistic practice of my religion; the structured life suited me well.  I took comfort in my prayers yielding results, and yet when what I prayed for did not come true, the Gods were my comfort in handling my disappointment.

Part 2 to follow

 Shakuntala Rajagopal

Me as a Memoirist

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A family photo, 1956

Me as a Memoirist.

How I keep memories alive.

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.