Balancing yin and yang in Coyoacan

First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday

It’s the third day of our visit to Mexico City – also the first working day since we landed here. I’ve yet to recover from a severe case of food poisoning, but don’t want to spoil our plans to visit Frida Kahlo’s and Leon Trotsky’s houses in Coyoacan – situated practically at the other end of the city. We decide to take a cab, our first on this trip. The cab driver exudes the friendliness characteristic of his ilk and offers us candy and bottled water. And he brings us to La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s Blue House – now a museum.

Only when we reach the gate do we realize our cabbie friend probably chose not to mention that the museum remains closed on Mondays. I’m too exhausted from the stomach bug but lurch on to follow my husband to Trotsky House, some six minutes away. Same luck there – a closed gate greets us. Having skipped breakfast, I’m as dizzy and disoriented as I’m disappointed at the wasted taxi ride. By now I’m so famished, I fear I might faint. We walk a few paces and notice a cafe and step inside. It’s a small place with no more than four tables. At one table, three ladies – all in their sixties — appear to be the only other customers.

One of them gets up and says to us, “Welcome, come on in. Please have a seat.”

As we make ourselves comfortable, she asks us what we would like to eat. “Tea, coffee?”

My husband glances at me and says, “Tea for you?”

I’m still a bit dizzy to respond, but the word, ‘tea’, stimulates me — this is the first time I’ve heard it uttered in a restaurant in Mexico City. I nod yes and manage to mutter, “And toast.”

“Tea and toast for you,” the lady says. “And for you?” she asks my husband.

“Cafe Americano,” he says.

His choice lights up her face. “Aha! Americano – that’s how we drink our coffee here!”

Even as black coffee forges that initial bond, the other two ladies convince my husband to have scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions with black beans on the side – the Mexican way.

The lady who took our order moves to the kitchen to guide a young man managing the cooking. One of her two friends asks us where we are from.

“India,” my husband says and goes on to tell them how similar he finds India and Mexico to be, despite the two countries being situated on the opposite sides of the globe. The houses, markets, the trees and the people all remind us of home, we tell them.

The lady nods and says smilingly, “Yes, countries with beautiful people. Beautiful like women.” She winks at my husband and adds, “And like men, too.”

I notice some of my disappointment stemming from missing the museums is wearing off. The young man emerges from the kitchen with my tea. The bag of tea steeping in a cup of hot water is one I’m not familiar with but find refreshing, especially as I sip it with bites of the biscuit the ladies have shared with us – tasting exactly like Marie biscuits sold in India.

The motherly lady arrives with a plate containing my order. The two pieces of crisp, well-done toast, along with the black tea, are just what the doctor ordered for me.

She settles down with her friends as they ask us where all we’ve been so far.

“The Centro Historio (historical district), Zocalo, the National Palace to see Diego Rivera’s murals, La de Ciudadela – the artisan market…,” my husband rolls off.

The women suggest other places like the museums of popular art and anthropology.

We mention our plan to visit the Teotihuacan pyramids the next day.

“Oh yes, you must go there,” one of them says, adding, “be sure to keep your wallets safe, though.”

“Oh, we know that,” my husband says. “It’s the same way in India.”

“It is,” the lady who took our order confirms with a smile. She should know, for she visited India three years ago – Delhi and Rajasthan.

As we eat our breakfast, one of the ladies informs us the three of them are part of a tai-chi group. The maternal lady, who, by now we’ve figured out to be the cafe owner, happens to be their teacher.

“You have yin and yang,” says her chatty friend, pointing to my earrings.

“I do,” I say, pondering on the strange balances of the morning – the sickness and the comfort of the taxi ride, the closed museums and the restorative breakfast, missing Frida and getting acquainted with such an interesting sisterhood of Mexican women.


“And I have this, too,” I lift my shawl to reveal Che Guevara’s face on my t-shirt.

“I saw that,” our chatty friend responds, her face suddenly grim. “I don’t like him,” she mutters.

I pull my shawl back up immediately and say, “That’s why I’m hiding him.”

Her grin returns.

This is the first conversation, a real conversation we’ve had since coming to this city of lovely Hispanic people. And been fed breakfast in true home style, complete with the right balance of humour, hospitality and Mexican warmth.

As we get ready to take our leave, the tai-chi teacher says, “You have to return to Coyoacan. You can’t leave without meeting Frida.”

“We will,” we promise.

The third friend, the quietest of them all, stops us as we move towards the exit. She insists on giving us a ride in her car to the central spot in Coyoacan.

Photo-credit: Bhaswati Ghosh

After the Party

First published in The Ham Free Press


The lips of the bald man, as he speaks of the “Indians and Pakistanis” he sees at the tennis court, curves into a sly smile. My racism detector picks up the snigger that sneaks through his lament on the status of those work-visa immigrants whose kids get Canadian citizenship by virtue of their birth. After the party, I recall how he tried to herd folks from the subcontinent into “all those IT workers.”

As he keeps probing my husband on his career track, the soft September evening makes me gravitate towards the late-arriving “immigrant.” The Muslim lady from Delhi. We relay hometown bonhomie with hugs and she tells me about her Bengali family — the one from Noakhali she married into. Her geologist husband had shifted base to teach at Aligarh Muslim University. She followed his trail from Delhi to Dubai, where he worked. Later she would migrate to Ontario as a widow with her two children. After the party, I think how, like her husband, she, too learned to measure the worth of soil as she brought up her son and the daughter–now an engineer and a doctor–by cleaning and decorating the finger and toe nails of customers at a salon.

The evening lulls us with its whispers, broken only by the whistle of the kettle the hostess is boiling tea in. Most of the guests have left after ingesting the aromatic lamb curry and saffron rice. We are left, along with the mildly immigrant-allergic man and his wife–beekeepers outside their corporate lives. The over-milked, boiled-to-death tea arrives. The host talks about how the British left behind a legacy of high-tea in the Indian subcontinent. The beekeeper woman shares her knowledge of the same, gleaned off a British historical novel. Her husband asks me and my husband about the type of English we were taught in schools in India. I talk about how it was much different from the American English the internet would later expose me to. After the party, the incredulous, near horrified look on the woman’s face as I told her about a generation of Pakistani writers using the English language with a subcontinental flourish, flashes before me.

Remembering U. R. Ananthamurthy

URAM-portrait@800The year, 1997. Me, a freshly-pressed journalism graduate, itching to join the Indian print media. A dream that wouldn’t come to fruition. But I would get to scribble a few odd stories as a freelance writer. Ratnottama Sengupta, Times of India’s arts editor, would assign me stories on culture and literature–a “soft” beat I happily lapped up.

One of those stories was on Sahitya Akademi’s translation awards. U.R. Ananthamurthy was the Akademi’s chairperson at that time. What follows next is as hazy as the darkness of that early (or was it late) winter evening that swept the outside once the award ceremony was over. But not without light following it.

I don’t remember if it was part of my brief to interview him following the awards or if that was something I wanted to do. Nor do I remember how that interview was set up–did I ask him personally on the awards evening? Did I make a phone call to fix the appointment?

All I remember is I got some time to speak to him the next morning–he invited me to join him for breakfast at IIC–the awards venue and also his place of stay in Delhi. As I sat across him at the breakfast table, URA had enlisted his latest admirer. Given his stature, his manner of speaking–soft, respectful, involved–moved me at once. A light breakfast fare–idlys, coconut chutney, small uttapams, diced papaya–lay in the small table between us. He insisted I have some, despite my polite resistance. Introductions and breakfast over, we moved to his room for the interview. I had no recorder with me so longhand note-taking would have to do.

My knowledge of translations then was as limited as my knowledge of languages is now. As indicated above, my memory of our conversation is blurry. I do remember, however, the lambent beam of light streaming in through the window and the lush cover of green beyond it. When URA started speaking, his words seemed engulfed in a similar beam–gentle, yet radiant with insights and committed interest.

I remember him lamenting the fact that a lot of translation of Indian language works have to happen through a link language like English or Hindi. He wished there were more direct translations–from Kannada to Bengali, Marathi to Kashmiri and so on. His eyes lit up when he shared his vision of a day when school-going children in one region would learn a language from another region. And I wondered why wasn’t this happening already? Why could I not learn Malayalam or Assamese in school? And even then I understood, this wouldn’t just be about learning a new language, but also about making friends with a new culture and its people, if only through the solitary medium of books.

At the end of our conversation, I touched his feet (a mark of deference I  extend with considered discretion). He smiled and said, “We need more bright people like you.Thank you so much.” Even though I didn’t believe that about myself, the warmth and sincerity of his tone, the genuine spark of hope in his eyes made those words credible to me.

So long then, Sir.

Image source:

An Award and some Revelations

The lovely and humorous Gargi hononoured me with the Honest Scrap Award sometime back. As the recipient, I must tell you all ten things about myself.Disclaimer:

The author shall not be deemed responsible for any boredom this post may cause.

1) The first prize I ever won was for a recitation competition. I was in class (grade) I and bagged a consolation prize for reciting a poem by Swami Vivekananda.

2) In class VI when I had to give up one of the two extracurricular activities of dance and music, I let go of dance. Music has stayed with me, ever since.

3) It was in class VI only that any recognition of my writing came about. The perpetrator of this act was an essay I wrote about a trip to Appu Ghar, an amusement park in Delhi. Our English teacher, with whom I am still in touch, wrote “Good” at the end of it.

4) As a Bengali, I am crazy about fish–possibly in any and all forms. Unlike many Bengalis, I am not so crazy about sweets. There, I said it.

5) I wrote my first short story at age 14. It was in Bangla and was lucky enough to meet the approval of my immensely talented (and accomplished) author Grandma.

6) A place I return to (and must keep returning to) again and again is Santiniketan. I wasn’t born or raised there, but it’s a heart’s connection I haven’t been able to explain or eliminate.

7) The first trip I ever made outside my hometown was to the historic city of Agra. Fatehpur Sikri enchanted me even more than the world wonder, Taj Mahal.

8) My technologically challenged brain causes me eternal frustration…Sigh.

9) My first foreign trip happened in 2009, courtesy a translation Fellowship I won for my translation of a remarkable book on legendary sculptor-painter, Ramkinkar Baij. I was in the lovely city of Norwich, UK, for two months.

10) I met my husband through this very blog. He is even there on my blogroll. 🙂