Category Archives: Nilgiris

My Best to you!

Scan_20171221December 2017

The past year was filled with many joyous moments! My son’s wedding in July was definitely a high point. It was wonderful to welcome his smart and beautiful wife into our family. The wedding was also a chance to renew our friendship with our relatives and make some new friends too. I also had a brief but affectionate visit with my sister. This summer I felt honored to be part of my favorite aunt’s 96th birthday celebration. Every time I see her I marvel at her grace, wisdom and amazing capacity to love. There were a few rejection letters to temper all my joy.  But there were some acceptances too. I had a short story published in an online magazine, and had several poems accepted into two different anthologies. I was also invited to become a book reviewer for The New York Journal of Books. So all in all it was a great year!

My holiday gift to you is a short story published several years ago in an anthology titled The Dog with An Old Soul. The story features my mom and her dog, two of my favorite subjects.

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Bark

Meera Klein

The black-and-white photo was old and yellowing, but I could clearly make out the proud stance of the dog and his mistress. I could barely make out the words penciled on the back of the fading photograph:  “Leela and Chuppa, 1951.” My mother and her beloved dog.

The cool mist swirled around Leela and smothered her in its wet embrace. She shivered and wrapped the woolen shawl more tightly around her slender body. The late November days in Kotagiri were chilly and dismal, nothing like the warm tropical nights she was used to. Leela’s sigh sounded loud in the gray silence as she paused to take a deep whiff of the fading jasmine blooms on the vine by the front gate. It was then she heard the sound, the tiniest whimper, which she would have missed if the world hadn’t been so silent. She reached up and unlatched the metal gate and stepped onto the patch of grass. In the dim twilight she could make out a small bundle lying on the wilted jacaranda blooms. When she looked closely, she saw it was a tiny shivering puppy. She couldn’t bear to leave it there on the side of the road. She relatched the gate and walked into the kitchen using the side entrance.

The kitchen was warm and cozy. Her mother, Ammalu, was seated on a small wooden stool in front of the hearth, stirring a pot of lentil stew. The sharp scent of cumin mingled with the wet puppy smell. Ammalu wrinkled her nose.

“What do you have there?” she asked, getting up to take a closer look at the black-and-tan bundle in Leela’s arms.

“Oh, Amma,” Leela wailed. “Look what someone dropped off at our front gate.”

The puppy seemed to know it as being inspected and opened its tiny jaws and yawned, stretching out a minuscule pink tongue.

“Not everyone has your kind heart, my daughter,” Ammalu sighed. “Remember what our neighbor Sister Mary told us?”

Leela nodded and held the puppy closer to her chest. Their nearest neighbor, an Anglo-Indian everyone called Sister Mary, lived a few miles down the road and was a feisty animal lover.

“Be warned. Villagers get rid of their unwanted pets by dropping them off at the bungalows in the middle of the night. Most of us are only too happy to take in these dogs and cats. It’s a shame, though, because not everyone wants a stray and that is the end of the poor animal,” she lamented.

This will not happen to this little one, Leela silently vowed. Mother and daughter dried the puppy and fed the hungry creature some rice gruel. Soon the little dog was curled up on a pile of rags in front of a warm hearth.

The next morning Ammalu mixed a little rice and vegetable broth in a beautiful ceramic pan decorated with deep purple flowers and urged the little puppy to eat out of the fancy bowl.

“Amma, why are you using such a nice dish for the dog?” Leela protested.

“Leela, you know I don’t like to use these tainted containers.”

The tainted containers Ammalu was referring to were part of a collection of dinnerware left behind by the previous owner. After the declaration of independence in 1947, many British decided to leave India rather than live in a country no longer ruled by Great Britain. Rather than pack up an entire household, some of them left many things behind. One such Englishman was the owner of the charming bungalow that was now Leela’s home on the outskirts of the remote hill station town of Kotagiri nestled among the famous Blue Mountains or Nilgiris.

When they moved into the charming red-tiled house in late 1948, they found the musty rooms filled with large pieces of wooden furniture. The cabinet doors were inlaid with ceramic tile in beautiful geometric patterns. An intricate carved folding screen in one of the three bedrooms provided privacy and beauty. The dining room boasted a large china buffet, complete with silver soup tureens, round and oval serving platers, big serving bowls and a tea set. The delicate moss-green tea set, made of the finest bone china, would never be used, though. Like most upper-caste Indians, Ammalu’s family was vegetarian. They had no intention of eating and drinking from vessels used by strangers and non-vegetarians.  At the first opportunity Ammalu invited friends, neighbors and acquaintances from surrounding areas to come chose from the lovely Spode plates and Wedgwood dinnerware. So the puppy happily ate off the Spode chinaware and drank from his Wedgwood saucer.

The German shepherd turned out to be the most patient of animals. He waited for Leela or Ammalu to get up each morning to let him out. He would wander around the front yard, sniffing at rosebushes and lifting his leg against the spindly poinsettia tree. He would then come back to lie on the kitchen floor, his bright blue eyes following Leela’s every movement.

“He really is the most silent dog,” a friend remarked to Leela. That was when she came up with the perfect name for her new pet, Chuppa, or “the silent one.”

She tried out the new name, calling, “Chuppa!” Immediately the puppy sat up, straight and proud. He cocked his head and looked at Leela as if waiting for a command. From then on Leela spent countless hours with the young dog, teaching him simple commands. Chuppa was an intelligent pup and wanted to please Leela. He became the young girl’s constant companion. He would greet her joyously, albeit silently, every afternoon when she returned from school. He draped his long tan-and-black body across Leela’s doorway. The pair was a common sight as they went on long walks among the tea bushes and apple and pear orchards.

One evening, when Ammalu made a teasing gesture toward Leela, pretending to hit her, Chuppa immediately sat up and stare at Ammalu and emitted a soft warning growl.

“Chuppa thinks I was going to hit you!” Ammalu exclaimed. “What a good dog. Don’t worry, Chuppa, I would never hit my girl.”

Ammalu bent down and petted the agitated pup, who settled down, his head resting on his folded paws, as if he understood Ammalu’s words.

Leela decided to teach the dog commands to make sure he would know when the threat was real and when a family member was just playing. The dog took to the lessons as if he was a sponge soaking up spilled water.

Two years later Chuppa was a full-grown German shepherd with thick black-and-tan fur and bright blue eyes. He was a familiar sight in the little village and allowed young children to pet and fuss over him. But his soft eyes were always on Leela.

A few months later, their postman, the deliverer of news and mail, had some disturbing gossip. “Did you hear about the thefts?” he asked Ammalu and Leela one afternoon. “There has been a rash of thefts in the area and residents area asked to keep their gates locked.”

That following spring Ammalu and Unny, Leela’s older brother, had to make one final trip to their ancestral village to take care of some business, and Ammalu was not happy to leave Leela.

“Don’t worry, Amma. Chuppa will keep me company at night, and during the day Mala and her husband will be here,” Leela assured her mother.

Mala and Lingam were local villagers who came to help Leela’s family with household chores. Ammalu and Unny were expected to be gone for about five days, and after giving Mala and Lingam many instructions about the household and Leela’s personal safety, they finally left.

That evening Leela made sure all the doors were locked before retiring to the living room. A fire in the hearth made the room snug and comfortable. Chuppa settled down in front of the fire and Leela curled up on the sofa with a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

“Why didn’t the dog bark?” she murmured to herself.

Chuppa glanced up with a questioning look in his blue eyes.

“Don’t mind me, Chuppa. I’m just talking about the clue in this story,” she assured her pet, who sighed and went back to staring at the golden flames.

The crackling fire was the only sound in the room and Leela found herself drifting off. Chuppa’s low growl woke her up.

“Shh…Chuppa. It’s just the fire.”

But the dog didn’t settle down; instead he stood up and looked toward the front hallway. The coarse hairs on his neck were standing up and his body was tense and alert. Leela was alarmed at the dog’s stance and got up to stand in the living room doorway. She was as tense as Chuppa and tried to hear what had disturbed the dog.

Then she heard it, the slightest grating of metal as the front gate was opened. Chuppa growled beside her. She put a hand on his head, wondering what to do.

“Is anyone home?” a woman’s voice called out from the front stoop. Leela knew whoever was there had probably seen the warm glow of the light through the living room window, even though the cloth curtains were drawn shut.

Leela took a deep breath and walked into the dark hallway. She turned on the porch light and lifted up the curtain to peer through the front window. She could make out the figure of a woman and a man standing on the porch steps. The woman raised a slim hand and knocked on the wooden door. Leela looked back at Chuppa and gestured for him to stand behind her. The dog obediently went into the hallway, where he was hidden in the shadows behind his mistress.

Even though she dreaded opening the door, Leela decided it was better than waiting for the couple to perhaps break the glass and force their way in. She pulled the door open and peered out.

“Who are you, and why are you knocking on my door at this time of the night.”

The woman laughed, a sound that was nervous and at the same time somehow threatening. “Sister, we are just poor pilgrims on our way to the temple on the hill. Can you spare us a hot drink or a few paisas?”

“I’m sorry, but my hearth is out for the night and I have no change. Perhaps you can find hospitality farther down the road.” Leela said.

“Listen here, sister,” the man snarled, pushing the woman aside. “We are not asking for a few paisa like beggars. We are demanding you hand over your necklace, earrings and anything else of value you have in the house. I don’t make idle threats.” As he spoke, he pulled out a knife, the blade glinting in the overhead porch light.

“I don’t like threats. I suggest you leave,” Leela said, trying not to sound as frightened as she felt.

The man answered by pushing the door aside and taking a step to come inside. A deep rumble from the hallway stopped him in mid-stride.

“Chuppa, come here,” Leela called out to her faithful companion, who came to stand beside her. He bared his teeth and gave out a menacing growl. The couple stared at the German shepherd.

“Now, I suggest you leave before my dog gets impatient,” Leela said to the couple.

The man hissed in anger. “A dumb animal isn’t going to stop me,” he said in a low tone as he stepped toward Leela, his knife raised.

“Chuppa, get the knife,” Leela ordered in a firm voice.

Without a moment’s hesitation, the dog leaped and grabbed the man’s hand. The knife clattered to the ground. The man yelped in surprise. Leela quickly kicked the knife out of his reach. The dog let go of the man’s hand waited for his next command.

“Good dog. Now get him,” Leela said.

Again the dog leaped and, using his full weight, brought the man down. Chuppa placed a heavy paw on the man’s chest and bared his teeth. The woman cried out, and dog looked at her with his soft eyes and pulled back his lips to show his sharp white teeth.

“Call off your dog,” the woman cried. “We meant no harm.”

The silence was broken by a murmur of voices.

“Miss Leela, are you all right?” a voice asked from the driveway. It was Lingam. He was carrying a smoky homemade torch in his hand. Behind him were several villagers.

“Lingam! I am so glad to see you,” Leela called and sighed in relief. “Chuppa caught a man who was threatening me.”

Lingam walked up to the porch steps and looked down at the figure on the ground.

“These look like the couple who have been robbing houses,” he announced. “We heard they were out tonight, and came by to check on you.  But it looks like you can take care of yourself.”  His white teeth flashed as he grinned at Leela.

“It was Chuppa who saved the day,” Leela said. “Chuppa let him go.”

The German shepherd looked down at the man and growled again before moving slowly off him. The animal went to stand beside Leela, looking up at her with adoration shining from his bright blue eyes.

Leela bent down and hugged the dog. She buried her face in his doggy fur. “Thank you, Chuppa,” she whispered.

“Woof.” Chuppa’s bark was short and soft. Leela laughed out loud. That was the one and only time Chuppa ever barked.

For years the dog was my mother’s faithful companion in Kotagiri. When he died of old age, my mother was heartbroken. Chuppa was the last pet she ever owned.,

 

 

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Bittersweet moments

mom pic

Photos of those watching from above. They were all missed!

 

Life moves on

July 2017

Intense joy is often tempered with deep sorrow. The occasion was my son’s wedding. The entire weekend was filled with joy. The radiant bride was more luminous than the bright sunshine and my son was particularly handsome in his casual blue jeans and cowboy boots. Relatives and friends gathered with a common purpose of celebrating their young love. The ceremony was moving with brilliant touches of humor and I wished all my family could have been there with me to share this happy day. Sitting in that hot sun, I took a minute to remember those who were no longer with us.

My mother would have loved the moment when my son draped the traditional gold “thali” chain around his new bride. She may have been a little puzzled by the country music and the delicious tiered wedding cake but she always had an ability to see what was really important. So she would have enjoyed my son’s happy grin and the joyful bride. “They love each other and that is all that matters,” she would have said. I know this because that is what she said to me 31 years ago on my wedding day in the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains.

My father would have taken great pleasure in puffing a cigar with the handsome groomsmen and perhaps sipping an ice cold beer.  The music, the food and the event site would have intrigued him.

My late mother-in-law would have been delighted to see her grandson looking so grown up and serious. She would have loved the bow ties and blue jeans. She would have exclaimed with pleasure over the bride’s gorgeous dress. She would have complimented us  on a job well done and she would have shed a few happy tears along with me.

My uncle loved animals and would have been amused to see the couple’s young puppy walk down the aisle with my younger son. His quiet wisdom, charming manner and self-deprecating humor would have attracted the attention of everyone, young and old. His blessing would have been simple and powerful, “remember men and women are meant to complete each other, not compete with each other.”

A successful marriage is based on trust and love and my uncle said it best in his succinct manner, “Put each other first,” he used to say with a gentle smile.

If my son and daughter-in-law practiced this compelling piece of advice, they will be blessed with a harmonious, loving and lasting marriage.

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Small World, Big Connections

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Happy Vishu!  Dear reader, may the coming year be blessed and prosperous for you and your family.

April 2017

Life in the Blue Mountains, Nilgiris, of South India was much simpler during my childhood. Back then it was a small world where service was close and personal. Our milk was delivered by a young woman named Helen who’s family also grew the most beautiful and fragrant roses. (Years later we bought huge bouquets of the colorful blooms for our wedding).  The baker was a family man who made sure he gave us the freshest coconut buns. Every winter the tangerine man came to our front door with a basket filled with tiny orange fruit, juicy and tart.

Even though our town was a sprawling tourist attraction, it was like living in a small village.  After my father’s death the entire town kept a close eye on my sister and me.  The stationary store owner, Rajan, knew when we had important exams and was ready to sell us the latest in fountain pens. The Alankar Bakery owner gave us an extra cookie or raisin-studded bun and always inquired about my mother and uncle (it didn’t matter to that he had never met my uncle!).

There was an invisible grapevine that was almost as effective as Twitter!   My mother heard all the important news of the day from her bus driver on her way home from work as a school teacher.  So of course she knew right away the one day I had left our school campus during lunch hour to visit the local bazaar. Surprisingly I didn’t get in trouble but it gave me pause because I knew there were a lot of eyes on me.  Small world, big connections!

I missed those personal interactions when I moved to California more than 30 years ago but I found another village in the city of Davis. For the past 19 years I have discovered that this college town has a small-town heart.  Small world, big connections.

Case in point: Recently I participated in a community theater production and was pleasantly surprised to see the cashier from the local supermarket in the audience. After the performance she hugged me and told me she’d see me at the store soon.  Another example of small world, big connections.

Social media can fool us into thinking that we are making personal connections while seated in front of our laptop computer or smart phone, but I have found that nothing beats face-to-face interactions.

So this coming year (April 14th we celebrated Vishu or Kerala New Year) I hope you will find the joy of life in the real world, away from the small screen.

THE END

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Filed under Blue Mountains, Celebrations, community theater, cooking, Fresh fruit, Fresh produce, Indian food, meatless, mindfulness, my mother's kitche, Nilgiris, Personal experience, recipes, Seven, South India, spring, renewal, Uncategorized, vegetables, world peace

Recipe? What recipe?

March 2017

Cups, teaspoons and tablespoons are the bane of my life.   Who needs measurements anyway? As I try to write down exact measurements and directions for my recipes, I find I don’t like it one bit. For this I blame my mother.  Every little cook learns by observing. It seemed to me that my mother would throw random spices in random amounts into a pot to create a tasty dish. Her recipes for family favorites were safely tucked away in her head. Nothing was ever recorded or written down.  Cooking was an art form for my mother but that doesn’t help me now as I try to re-create childhood favorites. I have to rely on my memory and my palate.

So what would have happened if I had insisted that my mother share a recipe? I imagined her poetic and cryptic answer to my question.

What Recipe?

Where is the recipe, I ask my mother

What recipe, she replies?

Just take a small onion

A pinch of hing

A hint of turmeric

A splash of golden ghee

Some diced onion and mustard seeds

A few okra

A couple of tomatoes

A handful of shredded coconut

Just a little coriander powder

A bit of cooked lentils

Two fiery peppers

Salt, pepper and tamarind

Mix, cook, and serve

The tangy smoky sauce perfect with steaming rice

How did she do it?

Give me a recipe, I plead.

What recipe, she asks?

Just add a handful…

You get the idea.

THE END

 

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Shopping is Personal at the Farmers Market

NOTE: Re-sending this because the numbering was messed up in previous column.

You don’t need 10 reasons to shop at a Farmers Market

By Meera Ekkanath Klein

Want to know the tale behind your kale? Or what is the back story on that white nectarine? Well, then you need to visit your local Farmers Market because here every bit of produce has an earthy beginning or a seasonal anecdote.

Our area market is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month and it is a perfect time to visit your local market and make that important connection between food and farmer.

Shopping in south India was an intensively personal experience. We knew the farmer who grew the spinach we used in flavorful dal (lentil) dishes. Everyone knew the Egg Man (with an odd egg-shaped head) provided not only the freshest eggs, but also legal advice on the side.

While I miss shopping in my hometown market in the beautiful Nilgiris or Blue Mountains of south India, I find solace at the Davis Market. Here the personal touch is not lost, it is celebrated. Along with nutrition the melons, onions, leeks and cherries provide a dash of nostalgia.

Top Ten Reasons to shop at a local Farmers Market:

10. Taste before buying. Cheese, bread, apples, peaches and berries are there for you to taste.

9.Variety. Everything from fresh peas to tortillas is for sale. Buy an artisan loaf of crusty bread, a container of eggplant pesto or even a lemon tart. It’s all there at your local Farmers Market.

8. You get to meet the farmer. Shopping at the Farmers Market is a chatty experience.

7. Even kale tastes better if it comes from the Farmers Market. Everything is so fresh that you’ll never eat supermarket produce again.

6. You can buy a lot or just a single tomato. Choose exactly what you need.

5. Eat seasonally. This can mean a lot of broccoli in winter and lots of corn and tomatoes in the summer.

4. Yearning for days of old? The leisurely pace of shopping at a Farmers Market will satisfy the Norman Rockwell part of your soul.

3. You will never know who you will meet at the Market. A long-lost friend? An acquaintance from Little League days?

2. You will be missed if you skip a Market. If you are a regular customer, farmers take notice and will actually want to know why you didn’t come last week.

1. Forget about politics for a few hours. You may find that choosing a bunch of turnips is more important than talking about Trump or sampling some chili-lime pistachios is better than re-hashing Hillary’s emails.

So no more excuses. Visit a Farmers Market and enjoy the last of summer’s bounty.

 

THE END

 

 

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Filed under Blue Mountains, Celebrations, Davis Farmers Market, Fresh fruit, Fresh produce, garden, harvest, my mother's kitche, Nilgiris, South Indian, Uncategorized