Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dress Code

We are a people who are very partial to conformity – we love to recognize ‘others like us’, more often than not, through cultural backgrounds, dress, mannerisms, food habits, customs, residential location or our alma maters. There is that rush of excitement and recognition when we bump into those who share school and college memories even after years of no contact. And while there may be no special connect with the person you have met up with, there are common recollections of faculty, social functions and of course, the uniform – that unique badge of identity which every school flaunts.

Since I changed several schools through my Father’s army days, I also changed uniforms - some for the better and some for the worse.

My first and best was the uniform I donned at the Convent School in Chepstow Villas, London. Since England enjoys distinctly separate seasons – very cold and not so cold – we had two sets of uniforms, one for summer and one for winter. Summer saw us in cherry red striped frocks with brown shoes, white socks, cherry red blazers and straw bonnets with a ribbon band; winter wear was a woolen shirt topped by a pleated grey pinafore. Black shoes, grey socks, a thick grey coat and a grey felt brimmed hat completed the gear. We even had smocks to cover our uniform during art class or for anything that would cause us to get dirty!! I always felt dressed up and very ready to go to school. It also helped that I had friendly companions and a loving teacher!

When we returned to India, my school uniform was diverted for use as Sunday best, such was the quality, such was the look. And, yes, the winter wear came in mighty useful in India’s very cold north.

My next was a sky blue frock with white collar, cuffs and sash. There was no change for the seasons - come summer, winter or monsoon we wore the same cotton frocks. Since this was a co-ed school and skirts are apt to fly with the breeze, we were also encumbered by commodious bloomers elasticised at the waist and the knees. We could climb trees and indulge in less ladylike gymnastics without loss of dignity or so the nuns liked to believe. In the monsoon, we’d tuck our skirts into the waistband so that we could wade through knee deep puddles without our hems getting wet. We must have presented a pretty picture to the onlooker!! The local students who came from more orthodox families wore white salwars under their frocks and topped the whole off with a white dupatta. How we envied the boys their short shorts and tucked-in shirts.

From the north to the west, and my final school uniform. Here we had white blouses topped by a cream tunic and, since we had ‘houses’ to which we belonged, we also sported ties of the appropriate colour. Mine was blue. How I hated that uniform. The back was plain while the front had a heavy row of box pleats which made the tunic hang in front and ride up behind making it look very ungainly. Also, the cream colour showed up dirt and, in the time of leaky fountain pens and inadequate detergents, we tended to acquire ‘battle scars’ that were hard to erase. I had a strong desire to change schools only so that I could change my uniform! A very impractical and immature solution, but appearance is appearance even to the young, and more so to the teenager.

The most compelling reflection that comes to mind, fueled by glimpses of the current crop of school students, is that no matter how much the uniform attempts to make us conform to a common code of attire, the Good Lord made each of us unique with respect to shape and size and so the ‘uniform’ sits very distinctively on each schoolgirl frame!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Words so ancient, words so new…

My generation embraced a childhood without television and the internet. Our recreation time was usually divided between reading and the great outdoors, thanks to which we have explored almost limitless worlds both virtual and real.

Storybooks were fun reading and therefore preferred to the mandatory textbooks (except for the Eng. Lit. texts which included short stories, poems, excerpts from novels and were readily devoured to the full even before term commenced!) Other compulsory reading included religious texts and the Bible. Fortunately for me, I had a wise and knowledgeable old nun who taught Sunday School. Instead of telling us to be good and devout and read the Bible every day (sigh!), she sought to introduce the Holy Book in a very different way. She asked us if wanted to read about love and romance (Yes, of course!). Adventure and expeditions (Goes without saying!!). Politics and intrigue? (That too!). Sinful living, idolatry, adultery, the works? (Wow, this was getting interesting – at the risk of our immortal souls and our reputations, we quavered ‘Yessss?’). Well, there was one book that had it all – the Bible. We groaned. There just had to be a catch. But our curiosity was aroused and we poked our noses between the covers to discover the wonder and the reach of the greatest book ever compiled. And yes, we were hooked.

Years passed. The Bibles gathered dust. And I listened, instead, to the short excerpts read out at Mass, sometimes on weekdays but mostly on Sundays. Nothing enticed me to explore further. But then, I was roped in to do the reading which was followed by the Psalm of the day. And I discovered anew my joy in the good book.

The psalms are for me, the most evocative prayers ever written; their reach is tremendous. You will find joy and lamentation, praise and supplication, recognition of God’s bounty and even rebuke for his deafness, commendation for faith and chiding for doubt, a simple conversation or a paean of praise, assurance of mercy and consolation for sorrow, courage to face the unknown and grace for the day, perhaps even the morrow. Yes, the psalms have it all.

The most famous and favourite is the twenty-third: The Lord is My Shepherd. But there is a whole book full; each one a gem, each one appropriate to the need, the moment. And each one is fresh with every encounter.

Today, as thunder rents the vaulted skies and the rain makes fresh the earth, I turn to Psalm 19: The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the work of his hands. And if the rain should prove more than I can handle, there is Psalm 69: Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I have come into deep waters, swept and engulfed by the flood!

I wonder if the Psalmists expected their words to reverberate down the ages till the end of time. For myself, I am simply glad that they did – that they do.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

As windy as it can get

‘Where the wind comes from, where the wind goes,

Nobody knows, nobody knows.’

It’s a little over a year since I started my blog and the monsoons are here to remind me. There is nothing quite like the changeover between seasons to bring back memories. And as the wind blows furiously through the wide open windows, making the curtains billow in ever more manic choreography, I think about all those metaphorical winds that we encounter in our lives: the winds of change, ill winds, winds that pummel, sowing the wind (and reaping the whirlwind!), winds that clear the air, winds that blow away the cobwebs of the mind.

Today, when one hears the phrase ‘harnessing the wind’ one thinks of clean technology and alternatives to traditional methods of power generation. Those giants of folklore and the enemy of Don Quixote are coming into their own as they begin their march along the landscape, as we bid to blow breath by breath with nature.

There are also winds which generate a tremendous power within our own lives. Sometimes the winds are gentle, wafting us along in the comfortable phases where problems are small and the pleasures are many; sometimes the wind is buoyant, lifting us up so that we soar to heights beyond our wildest dreams; stronger winds, presaging stormy weather, buffet us about but do no real damage; sometimes the winds are a hurricane, spinning us around and out of control, creating havoc in mind and heart. Sometimes the wind dies down altogether and we are mindful of its absence wondering when it will return and how. Yes, the wind and its ways teach us to know the good from the bad, predict the storm, prepare for it and weather it through – a lesson that we sometimes ignore to our own peril, in nature and in life.

Winds blowing through the years also blow in our direction the friends we meet and make along the way. Some blow on, some stay providing the windbreak that we all need. Today, a message from such a friend blew into my box; it consoled and encouraged at a time when the gusts in my life have been strong and have left me struggling for balance. It is a poem by Howard Goodman:

I've dreamed many dreams that never came true,
I've seen them vanish at dawn.
But I've realized enough of my dreams, thank God,
To make me want to dream on.

I've prayed many prayers, when no answers came,
Though I waited so patient and long,
But answers came to enough of my prayers
To make me keep praying on.

I've trusted many a friend who failed
And left me to weep alone,
But I've found enough of my friends to be true
To make me keep trusting on.

I've sown many seeds that fell by the way
For the birds to feed upon,
But I've held enough golden sheaves in my hands
To make me keep sowing on.

I've drained the cup of disappointment and pain
And gone many days without song,
But I've sipped enough nectar from the roses of life
To make me want to live on.

And my favourite quotes with a ‘windy’ flavour? ‘The wind can fell an oak but it cannot break a reed’ and ‘We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails!’ Proverbs that inspire, proverbs that show us how we can live with and harness the wind!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Growl and Squeak

As I revive my very rusty keyboard skills, I am taken back in time to all those occasions when they were intermittently resurrected to accompany congregations and rag-tag choirs in two different parishes.

We had the loveliest little reed organ, in our parish church, with the sweetest sound. One needed to coordinate hands moving horizontally on the keyboard with feet pumping the pedals in vertical motion, but the resultant melody rewarded the most basic of skills with an almost professional output. Coaxed by the musician priest in our parish, I reluctantly graduated from bashing the school piano with the mandatory daily rendering of Chopsticks and the Devil’s March as we processed to class from assembly. He wrote the music, taught me the chords and the fingering and encouraged me to practice and, hopefully, improve. It also helped that he sang like an angel and while he led from the pulpit, I played confidently, comfortably hidden away behind a handy pillar and out of view of the congregation. The church used to be packed to the doorways in those days. These are some of my happiest memories. The priest is no more, but the music is still with me.

Then, I grew up, married and moved. A new home, a new parish, a new priest and the time of electronic keyboards – just plug in and play! The parish had been established for some time but the church structure was still in the making, so what we had was four walls topped with corrugated roofing. The congregations was somewhat rustic in comparison to my earlier parish, and I soon found myself playing to a tempo that galloped in contrast to the more sedate accompaniment that I had been schooled in. Buoyant and hearty would be an apt description! No matter how loud or slow the accompaniment, the congregation forged ahead in happy unison and full voice to the pace that they enjoyed. I was younger, my fingers more flexible and I soon learnt to keep up!! I was joined by a violinist and a guitarist and together with the lead vocalist, who thankfully also had a lovely voice, the music of the liturgy became an event we all looked forward to. Tucked away in memory are the Nativity and Easter vigil services, when voices soared to heaven under the stars, at the open air services. I also remember the monsoons when an umbrella had to be unfurled over the keyboard to save it from the rain coming through the holey roof. (Sorry, bad pun!) We enjoyed the sublime and the sometimes ridiculous and took it all in our stride.

Then, once again, a change of residence. This time, the parish had no need of my keyboard skills and they lay dormant for over twenty years. Other occupations and distractions kept me busy. Today, as I rediscover the keyboard in its newest avatar, with a variety of ‘bells and whistles’ at my disposal, and grope my way through key signatures, timing and tempo, I am reminded of how often I have had to adjust and readjust to the range enjoyed by the lead singer and congregation – too low and they growl, too high and they squeak. Singing is supposed to be all about the music and the melody, but one gets to encounter many unexpected sounds in the repertoire! Ultimately, it all comes right on the day. Nine times out of ten. Fingers crossed.

From all my experience, two things have remained with me: it is the splendid music of the liturgy that holds me in thrall to my faith – a tradition that has been handed down from generations and rises like incense to God. What a legacy! And the other is that, with encouragement, even a meagre talent can bloom!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Grass is Still Green

I am not a Facebook aficionado, but one has to keep up with the times and the news of family and friends, so I have joined the herd. I check in occasionally to see what is happening, but most times I forget that it is there until an email pops into my box reminding me of messages, birthdays and ‘friend requests’. The other day a more unusual message met the eye – my photo had been tagged. I followed the link, so helpfully provided, to find that a young friend had labeled me as being ‘very rich’. Annoyance gave way to humour. But then humour gave way to introspection. How do others really see us? How do we see ourselves?

When the majority of our people are without shelter, clothes, proper food, education and are denied much of their due and when I have all these then, by comparison, I am certainly well-off.

I have a loving and supportive family and a small but close and understanding group of friends whom I can turn to when in need and that is wealth indeed.

I have enjoyed the benefit of an excellent education which means that I am employable and can earn enough to put jam on the bread and butter. As the billboard outside the Anglican Church says: ‘When you know that you have enough, you are rich.’

I have also enjoyed my rights as a citizen of my country with freedom and without fear, albeit with some hassles which now appear insignificant when viewed against a comparative backdrop. This means that I am certainly better off than those who need to do interminable battle for what is their entitlement.

I have kicked off my senior citizen year with my health and faculties in good order (by my standard at least!). And that is an immeasurable blessing.

Though there is much I would like to change – I have known insecurity and I have known grief - at this point in time, it is obvious to me that the grass is still green on my side of the fence.

Therefore, I am not just rich, but very rich indeed. Thank you, my young friend, for reminding me.