In pagan Europe, the longest day (and shortest night) of the year, associated with the summer solstice, was considered a sacred event. The actual date can fall anytime between 19 June and 25 June. In Southern France, and many other places, bonfires were lit on the hilltops, and healing herbs gathered before dawn were thought to be at the peak of their potency.
When Christianity was introduced, the Church – not yet divided into Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant – allowed some of the ancient traditions to continue, after sanctifying them with a layer of religious varnish.
Thus, the 24th of June became the feast day of St. John the Baptist, and the bonfires became “St. John’s fires” (Les feux de la St.Jean in France and Québec) on the eve of it.
In some areas, the gathering of healing plants also survived. This has been the case in French Catalonia, where part of my family lives.
The magic of herbs
I happened to be present for the occasion a few years back, and have a few pictures (very amateurish ones, I’m afraid) to share. My sister Clara, who is married to the mayor of Montauriol, a tiny village in the Roussillon-Languedoc, has always been concerned about the disappearance of old local traditions and the danger of them being supplanted by foreign imports, like trick-or-treating on “Halloween.” She and her husband continue to encourage the old ways.
And so it happened that, on the morning of June 24th, 2015, I found myself outside an ancient little chapel in a clearing of the woods, part of a small congregation celebrating la St. Jean, “comme il faut.” A white-robed priest pronounced the appropriate prayers to bless the “pagan” herbs, as well as the congregation, who were liberally sprinkled with holy water in the process. In conclusion, a hymn of praise was sung to Our Lady of the Canigou, an epithet of Mother Mary associated with a majestic local mountain peak.
The locals had gone out at the crack of dawn to gather wormwood, houseleek, ground ivy, daisy, yarrow, sage, and, of course, St. John’s wort. These would now be taken home to be dried and used throughout the year, individually or in combination. Clara had made little posies, to be given to relatives and friends. They would be fixed over the door in their houses as a decoration, but also to ward off illness and evil.
After the prayer service, the doors to the little chapel (too small to hold even this smallish crowd) were opened, so we could all have a look at the interior, decorated with flowers and candles for the occasion.
Let me know if you have enjoyed this short journey to the South of France!
May in Bhopal does not
signify spring, but high summer’s
dragon breath singeing the town.
This dragon slurps the water of our lakes,
exposing ancient ruins and loads
of recently discarded junk.
May is when the mangoes come
in their many varieties large and small,
sweet and tart, all fragrant and delicious.
It’s when you risk getting scalded
while taking a “cold” shower and when
the wash dries in minutes, not hours.
May is when I dart out of the house to buy
some vegetables kept cool under moist burlap
on one intrepid vendor’s cart
in the shade of a tree across the street.
Thank God I don’t have to make that trip
to the market just yet!
Some time in June the rains will come
and with them, mud and insects,
high humidity that causes moldy
odors in the wardrobe, mildew
growing in my shoes and, most of all,
relief from this infernal heat.
This morning I sat in the coffeeshop of our local Barnes & Noble with a writer friend, Walerian Domanski. He had many questions about my life in India. For one thing, he finds it hard to understand why I prefer India to the USA and to Europe, where both of us were born. I have only one answer: “I just love it there, don’t ask me to explain.”
“I can’t imagine what it’s like,” he said. “You don’t write your blog on a regular basis…”
He’s right about that. I am a lazy writer, and nowadays mostly active on medium.com, anyway. We started talking about his books and a movie script he’s working on. He mentioned that American readers seem to like dogs very much. Of the two collections of short stories he published, the one with the dog on the cover sells much better than the one that has the word “sex” in the title (although little of it between the covers). He made sure to include a storyline about a dog in his script. From there the conversation meandered to street dogs in Poland and in India. And how the stray dogs in our colony are regularly rounded up and “deported” but always come back. I said, “I don’t think there are shelters for abandoned dogs in Bhopal, and euthanising them is unthinkable. They won’t even kill the rats!”
Well yes, rat poison is for sale, as are different kinds of traps, but once a rat is caught in a trap, it’s hard to find someone willing to finish the job. I told him about my personal experience with this, and he was fascinated. “But you should write about it!” he said. So here goes.
For almost a decade, the city of Bhopal has been expanding in every direction to accommodate its growing population. New housing developments sit on areas that were scrubland or fields just a few years ago. Such is the case with the place where I live. Part of the original wildlife survives, including a population of rats that inhabit a warren of tunnels under lawns, streets, and houses. Houses here have no basements, the floors are laid directly on the soil. Due diligence in the form of reinforced-concrete subfloors is not always observed, as we discovered when our downstairs floors started rising in places and falling in others (see previous post). Gaps in the woodwork, as well as the plumbing, are an open invitation for these rodents to explore our habitat, and sometimes they like it so much that they decide to move right in.
After a prolonged absence, I noticed the signs. My husband’s caring relatives had cleaned the house before my arrival so the telltale droppings were gone, but for want of food (my pantry being almost airtight) the rat or rats had gnawed at everything. They had chewed up the dust sheets and burrowed into the sofa, left holes and tooth marks in and on multiple objects around the house, from cakes of soap to the handles of cooking pots, leaving me with a fine mess. You don’t want to use poison inside your house; there’s no saying where the rat will die. It could hide in or under the furniture and decompose there. My husband wouldn’t be arriving for a few weeks or months, and so it fell to my driver, Vijay, to select a sturdy trap in the bazaar. It was a metal cage with a spring mechanism that snapped shut as soon as the rodent pulled a morsel of food off a hook. Fail-proof, right? Wrong!
In Europe we lure rats and mice with cheese, but my rat spurned this delicacy. Vijay recommended a piece of roti. My rat was interested but somehow managed to steal the bread without setting off the mechanism. Vijay fine-tuned the spring and that night, no sooner had I gone to bed when I heard the cage snap shut. I went to inspect it: the rat, a fine specimen, was frantically trying to find a way out. Sorry, buddy, I thought. Expecting it to tire soon enough, I went back to bed.
In the morning the cage was empty – a few breadcrumbs and droppings the only proof I had not dreamed the episode. I marvelled at the rat’s strength. That evening I set the trap again with more roti. It worked again, and this time the rat’s tail had gotten caught in the flap as it closed, severely limiting its mobility. Still, it put up a mighty fight. Finding the struggle hard to witness, I decided to put the cage in the front yard so I could watch TV in peace. But as soon as my head hit the pillow, I heard yelping and barking and got up to see what the commotion was about. A few of our resident street dogs had jumped the fence and were dragging the trap, with the hapless creature in it, all over my flower bed. No amount of shooing could discourage them. I felt very bad, for the flowers, the rat, and myself (luckily, I had no next-door neighbors yet). As expected, the poor thing expired in the night – must have had a heart attack – and in the morning I buried it in the flower bed.
I wish I could say that was the end of the saga, but alas, I would have several more encounters with rats, in and around the house. The next time I had an unwanted housemate, I used a glue trap instead. They are sold in three sizes and I got the largest one. It worked like a charm, until the rat managed to extract itself, despite my folding the sticky cardboard across its body. So, back to the cage it was, and when the victim was caught once more, the hairless patch on its back showed it to be the selfsame individual. What strong, what clever animals rats are! What worthy adversaries!
I asked the gatekeeper to dispose of it. “How will you kill it?” I asked. “Oh no, madam,” he said, “I can’t do that! I will release it in the fields, far enough that it won’t come back.” I agreed on one condition: “I will give you 100 rupees now, but if I see this rat, with the bald patch, ever again, I will ask the money back from you.” He took the bill with a smile. “It won’t come back, I promise!”
Later, I had to deal with rats digging holes in my tiny front yard and pulling plants inside their tunnels. I dropped squares of rat poison into the entrances, but in the end, the cage proved to be my ultimate weapon, even outdoors.
As I’m preparing to leave for Bhopal after three months in the USA, I wonder what I’ll find there. I hope I won’t have to engage in this warfare again. Even as a child I had empathy for all mammals, keeping white mice as pets. And my experiences with rats left me with a healthy respect for their ingenuity and tenacity. “Never give up!” seems to be their motto. I actually learned something from them.
When we were first decorating our Bhopal house in 2013, I was frantically searching for tiles to finish my kitchen backsplash. And again, a few years later, when we had to redo all our downstairs floors due to a construction issue. Although tile shops abound in the city, I had a hard time finding something that I liked. I ended up going for a fairly neutral backsplash (in my favorite color, turquoise) and white, faux marble floors.
I love the result!
I have not regretted my choices, but I was disappointed at not being able to find something more authentically Indian. Yet, in certain restaurants in town I had seen vintage tiling that resembled old-style European and Vietnamese cement tiles. And on a recent visit to Pondicherry in the South, our hotel room had some glorious, colorful tiles that I assumed must be local. I was told they’re called Athangudi (also Attangudi) tiles, after the village in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu where they originated. I had, however, little hope that they would be available outside that area.
Until today, when I found in my (Indian) Houzz feed, an enlightening article about Athangudi tiles, the answer to my dream. Fellow tile lovers, rejoice! You’ll find a link at the end of this post.
Now that I finally know where and how to get my hands on these beauties, I have to find a project to use them. I’m thinking of redoing my bathroom, for starters… I never liked the builder’s default lime green.
Een kamerden was het enige wat we konden
vinden voor onze eerste tropische Kerst,
met van die superzachte naalden waar alles
gewoon van afglijdt als water van een eendenrug.
Het lijkt wel een metafoor, al weet ik niet meteen
We hadden natuurlijk ook wel ergens een plastic
gedrocht op kunnen pikken, maar dat was ons
een brug te ver. Erg genoeg dat we het moesten stellen
met generische versierselen made in China, lichtgewicht,
want zo’n kamerden verdraagt niet veel, zoals u al wel
De buren kwamen kijken naar onze échte Christmas tree.
Met een snoer rode lichtjes (voor amper vijftig roepies)
kon ie er wel door.
Je kunt ook watten gebruiken als sneeuw,
zei iemand, maar daar bedankten we voor.
Friends from America have been sending me “Happy Thanksgiving” messages today. It brings back memories of my first Thanksgiving as a new immigrant in the USA, 27 years ago. Our family had been invited to “dinner” by a Chinese-American family. They asked us to skip lunch and to come to their house about 3PM. What? Dinner in the middle of the afternoon? How strange!
Until my children shared some knowledge they had picked up in school that first year, I had only the foggiest notion of what this “Thanksgiving” was about. It sounded vaguely religious, and given the season, it must have something to do with the harvest, I reasoned. I wasn’t too far off, but I was yet to learn all of the stories and traditions surrounding this most American of holidays.
Pilgrims, “Indians,” and turkeys
So yes, every year on the fourth Thursday of November, American families gather around a festive table laden with nature’s bounty, and give thanks for their blessings. The custom is not associated with any religious denomination, and nobody is required to go to church, temple, or synagogue. Usually, a short prayer of thanks is spoken at the beginning of the meal. In some families, including ours, every member in turn will mention something he or she is thankful for. A subtle exercise in gratitude.
Harvest festivals and thanksgiving gatherings have been around for ages, but what is commemorated on this particular day is the legendary “First Thanksgiving,” celebrated in 1621 by a group of early immigrants on Plymouth Plantation in Virginia together with the Native American (“Indian”) tribe that had helped them survive in their new surroundings.
These immigrants were the Pilgrims, English Protestant dissenters who had fled religious persecution in their homeland. One hundred of them had arrived on a ship called the Mayflower. Literally half of the newcomers perished that first year, when they ran out of supplies before they were able to grow their own food on this foreign soil. Thanks to the natives of the Wampanoag tribe, who showed them some fishing, hunting, and cultivation techniques, the 50 survivors were at last able to hold a harvest feast that lasted three days, sharing the new-found abundance with 90 native guests. Two of the colonists, William Bradford and Edward Winslow, left behind descriptions of this event.
Here is an excerpt of Winslow’s account:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
The fowl that was captured in the woods probably included wild turkeys, and to this day no Thanksgiving is complete without a huge (now farm-raised) stuffed turkey and many side dishes that represent the produce of the new land: sweet corn, cranberries, potatoes and sweet potatoes or yams, squash, and pumpkin pie. Later additions are green beans and Brussels sprouts.
Our hosts that first year had also included some Chinese dishes. There was so much food that we did not feel hungry until the next day. The following year we invited our American neighbors over for a turkey feast. And later still, when three of our four children had turned vegetarian, we usually prepared a Tofurky (a soybean-based roast shaped like a turkey) instead, with a smaller bird – Cornish hen or Guinea fowl – on the side for the die-hard carnivores. Most American families spend the rest of the day watching (American) football on TV and napping. No more cooking is done. If anybody gets hungry late at night, they can make themselves a plate of yummy leftovers to heat up in the microwave.
Because Thanksgiving is a federal holiday and falls on a Thursday, all students and most employees get a long weekend (four days) off. Many people travel home from wherever they study or work, by road, rail, or air, to be with their loved ones, making for some of the busiest travel days in the year.
The day after is nicknamed Black Friday, and is known for huge discounts in all stores, often leading to chaotic scenes as eager buyers try to beat each other to the bargain merchandise. But that’s a different story!
(Trigger alert. Contains description of violence against humans.)
It’s been over a year now that I disabled my FaceBook account. No, I did not quite delete it, I kept my options open. I discovered that the Messenger function had somehow been preserved, which I thought at the time was a good thing because – even though I’d shared some alternative ways to keep in touch – some faraway friends prefer messaging. I’m beginning to have second thoughts about that now.
Why did I say goodbye to FB? Let me count the reasons… There was the poisoned political atmosphere during the last election campaign, the gross commercialism, the forced camaraderie, the excess of vanity and silliness, the mindless time waste, but most of all, the fake news being gobbled up and regurgitated by people I had previously regarded as discerning. I breathed a deep sigh of relief after leaving all of that behind.
Sadly, though, there’s no escaping fake news anymore. One of my best and oldest friends keeps circulating false information, no matter how many times I disprove her sensational “finds” and beseech her to fact-check before sharing. Why? Because there’s always some compelling hook that will fool a certain percentage of the recipients. Clearly, unseen powers analyze our FB posts to identify our hot buttons, then use our pet causes and pet peeves against us.
A recent (October 29) article by Kevin Roose in the New York Times covered the problems FaceBook is facing as a result of this disturbing trend, whose effects are influencing politics and life worldwide. Because it’s not just “Russian interference” or “the Rohingya (pro and con),” but a wide range of issues affecting our everyday lives, no matter where we live, that are made to go viral and become many times more divisive than they deserve to be, with the help of photoshopping, deceitful captioning/voiceovers, and wrongful attribution.
It’s not just FaceBook, of course. This is the kind of world we now live in. To keep in touch with family members across the continents, my husband and I are using WhatsApp. It was only in the above-mentioned NYT article that I learned this handy, free, phone messaging app is owned by FaceBook. However, living in India, I have witnessed its crazy popularity and scary influence first hand over the last year.
It’s safe to say that almost everyone in India has a cell phone now, down to the farmers in all but the remotest villages. Tech research site Gartner reports that 62% of mobile phones sales in 2018 will be smartphones. And WhatsApp is not only universally popular here, but regarded by many as a reliable source of news. As such, it’s become an ideal tool for the unholy purpose of inciting hatred and violence between communities. As stated in Mr. Roose’s piece:
<<In India, where internet use has also surged in recent years, WhatsApp, the popular Facebook-owned messaging app, has been inundated with rumors, hoaxes and false stories. In May, the Jharkhand region in Eastern India was destabilized by a viral WhatsApp message that falsely claimed that gangs in the area were abducting children. The message incited widespread panic and led to a rash of retaliatory lynchings, in which at least seven people were beaten to death. A local filmmaker, Vinay Purty, told the Hindustan Times that many of the local villagers simply believed the abduction myth was real, since it came from WhatsApp. “Everything shared on the phone is regarded as true,” Mr. Purty said.>> (K. Roose NYT)
Over time I have seen multiple instances of misinformation on WhatsApp, and Messenger, but a few days ago I had a taste of just how insidious these things are and how they are crafted. My friend sent me a gruesome video accompanied by the following text: “Hindu girl burnt alive in Madhya Pradesh because she attended a prayer meeting in a Christian church. Send this around pls. This video must go viral. This is the real face of Shining India!” I’m purposely neglecting to include a link. It was a cellphone recording of a young woman in shorts being harassed by a mob, beaten, and eventually set on fire. Nobody came to the victim’s aid during the attack. Instead, the bystanders were watching and filming the spectacle. It’s the most horrible thing I have ever seen and I wish I could unsee it. But what shocked me even worse than the lynching itself was the realization that this clip was and is still making the rounds and being used for anti-Indian, anti-Hindu, and anti-Muslim propaganda!
The incident was purported to have taken place in Madhya Pradesh, the state where I happen to live. I won’t deny we have our fair share of violent crime here, duly reported on by the daily papers. However, I had never before seen anything reaching this level of communalism in our state. And there were other things that made me suspicious: the clothes and hats people wore, their faces, which were brown but not particularly Indian-looking, and the audio, which was unintelligible – consisting as it did of multiple voices overlapping – and appeared (purposely?) muffled. What I found really strange, though, was that I was unable to identify even a single Hindi word in the melee.
As usual, I searched for the source, and found it on one of the websites dedicated to separating facts from hoaxes. The video was exposed on the site 11 months ago by Prashanth Damarla, yet it appears to be as viral as ever. It originated in Rio Bravo, Guatemala, where the brutal attack happened in May 2015.
The actual cause according to Mr. Damarla: “The girl was accused of killing a 68-year-old motorcycle taxi driver Carlos Enrique González Noriega along with her biker gang, who managed to flee the scene. Talking about the unfortunate incident, a police spokesman said that officers tried to intervene but were blocked by the bystanders.”
In its new incarnation, various kinds of “explanations” have been posted with it on different sites: “Different stories attached to the video say that the shameful and inhuman incident happened in Andhra Pradesh State or Hyderabad City of India, because the Hindu girl married a Muslim man, and she did not follow the Muslim customs.” (P. Damarla)
So the same mob-violence video was being used by discrete (groups of) people to spark indignation, rage, and similar states of mind possibly leading to… more mob violence. Also resentment between neighboring nations: the version I received came from Bangladesh. It blamed the girl’s own Hindu community, supposedly enraged by her visit to a church. Another version has been used against Muslims. On the other hand, the jibe about “Shining India” will to many Indians appear as having come from Pakistan.
So much mischief emerges from a single video clip.
Who is responsible? On the face of it, multiple entities, each for their own political gain. Or could there be a central puppeteer who benefits from the level of hatred increasing day by day in our world? (Fodder for a conspiracy theory, I know.)
What is the purpose? To have a candidate elected? To destabilize a local or regional government, or a central one? It’s not world peace, or even a quest for justice, for sure.
Years ago, Dr. Andrew Weil advised his readers to regularly go on a “news fast.” That is still good advice, if you want to keep your blood pressure in check. Nowadays, we should include a “social media fast” if we wish to keep our sanity.
But we also have to keep watching, and fighting for the truth to come out, and disabusing our near and dear ones who fall for this blatant manipulation. Which is why I decided to write this, instead of lying awake another night.