Lessons from my Grandmother

This article was published in The Star Malaysia’s Heart and Soul column on 1 July.
My grandmother, the original Wonder Woman, who gave the best Dunlopillo hugs. 

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*****
“My grandmother didn’t tell me how to live. She lived, and let me watch her do it.”

I am paraphrasing a quote by American writer Bud Kelland, but it is so apt that I had to borrow it.

My grandmother glided through life effortlessly – and always with a smile that radiated from her heart and twinkled out of her eyes. She faced every challenge with strength. She embraced every moment with love. And her chicken curry was legendary.

These are some of the lessons I learned through watching her:

Always maintain a sense of humour. Laugh often, and loudly. Your enthusiasm will be infectious. Your smile can spread through oceans of despair, over mountains of troubles, and soften even the hardest heart. Get on with it. Complaining is a waste of precious time. If you have a job to do, do it with grace and courage. Be grateful for your responsibilities – not everyone is so lucky.

Chill out. Getting angry or upset is hazardous to your health. A calm approach based on compassion and common sense will do everyone good, especially yourself. As will a hot cup of chaaya tea.

Hugs are underrated. Never underestimate the power of a genuine, warm embrace. It can melt away fear, tension and sadness in the young, the old, and everyone in between. Hold close the people you love. Hold them until you feel their pain evaporating. Don’t be the first to break away. If a child tells you, mid-hug, that you are as soft as a pillow, take it as a compliment.

Stay curious. You’re never too old to learn something new, be it a language, a card game, a skill or an idea. In an ever-changing world, adapting your mindset without compromising your values shows self-awareness and self-preservation. Also, being interested makes you interesting.

Get stuck in! Your appetite for food mirrors your appetite for life. Savour every moment. Lick your fingers. When you cook for others, cook with love in your heart, for this is the secret ingredient, in food and in life.

Rest in Peace, Muthashi.

(Sarada Menon passed away peacefully on April 11, at the age of 95.)

*****

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Muthashi

mutchI recently made two short trips to Malaysia in the space of about six weeks. The first, in March, to spend a few days with my grandmother, who had not been well.

The flight out was delayed due to a thunderstorm in Sydney. So the four-day trip would be cut short to three. Waiting at the airport for information, frustrated at the thought of one less day with my grandmother, I contemplated cancelling the trip and rebooking for another weekend.

I’m glad I didn’t. Because the second trip I made to Malaysia, in April, was for the religious ceremony that would mark her passing. Those three days in March ended up being my last moments with someone whose impact and influence on my life cannot be measured.

To help with the healing, I wrote an article about my grandmother. As I typed, in Microsoft Word, the spell-check decided to call out the word Muthashi, as it did not recognise the Malayalam word for grandmother. One of the options it suggested was Mothership.

Mothership, noun.
– A spacecraft or ship from which smaller craft are launched or maintained.
– A place regarded as a base, source, or headquarters.

I usually get annoyed at the ridiculous suggestions offered by spell-check.

But this time, I had to agree.

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Let’s talk about Love.

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I meant to write this post for Valentine’s Day. But life, like love, is unpredictable. So on the last day of February, I tell myself it is still Valentine’s Month and therefore this post is still highly topical, suitably timely and massively interesting. My blog, my rules, my denial. Especially as it’s now the 1st of March.

Psychologist Robert Johnson thinks we don’t have enough words to describe our feelings of love. He wrote about the lack of ‘awareness and emphasis that we give to the realm of feeling’, and says the English language is partly to blame. His analysis is intriguing – “Sanskrit has ninety-six words for love; ancient Persian has eighty, Greek three and English only one.”

Johnson draws a clever comparison between our “poverty-stricken vocabulary” and the fact that Eskimos have 30 words for snow because it is so important to them. Each ‘snow’ word has a different nuance, a precision of description. I researched (Googled) this fact and it seems there are actually over 50 words for snow in the various Eskimo languages (including Inuit and Yupik dialects). They have different words for the snow that is safe to walk across, the snow that is like powder, wet snow, softly falling snow, the snow that is good for driving a sled over.

This is important because snow is all around them, is intrinsically linked to everything they do, and is fundamental to their existence. And we have only one word for love.

We use the same word (love) in all situations: for family, a lover, a hobby, a coffee. I love you. I love that idea! I love dancing. I’d love a coffee. Yet, we have so many different words for coffee: cappuccino, latte, flat white, piccolo, espresso. So many words for getting drunk: wasted, bladdered, sozzled, plastered, sloshed, legless. So many words for being angry: pissed off, livid, mad, raging, fuming. But just one word for love.

So. What is love? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Since the internet was somewhat disappointing, I asked a few young and innocent (and non-jaded) children what they thought about love. Here’s what they told me:

How can you tell that two people are married?
♥ “You could see their ring if you were close-up. They would probably be talking about their kids.” (C, aged 7)
♥ “If you’ve been to their wedding.” (N, aged 10)

How would you choose a boyfriend or girlfriend?
♥ “I would write down some cateristiks that I want and then see if they have those cateristiks. If they don’t then I would move on to the next person.” (C, aged 7)
♥ “Someone who is smart and doesn’t eat that much candy.” (R, aged 6)
♥ “I’d want him to be honest and not act differently to me than he normally would. I’d want him to be like daddy.” (M, aged 10)
♥ “I already have one. She tells me funny jokes.” (D, aged 5, I repeat, aged 5)

How would you show love?
By going to a movie with them even if you’ve already seen it.” (M, aged 10)
♥ “Don’t take anything out of her lunchbox. And definitely don’t wrestle her.” (D, aged 5)
♥ “When my brother is scared at night, I tell him there are no monsters, even if I’m a bit scared too.” (J, aged 8)
♥ “Not go to a football match on their birthday.” (J, aged 8)
♥ “Make sacrifices to show the other person they are more important than what you really, really want.” (N, aged 10)

And just when I thought I would finish on that deep and profound note, I received a message from my sister that couldn’t not be included in a post about Love:

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©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

A Wilde Weekend – Act III

The Wilde Weekend was 72 hours long. If you thought I had forgotten about Sunday, the final 24 hours of debauchery well-earned indulgence, I don’t blame you. This weekend took place in June 2018 and we are already at the end of January, with no sign of Act III until now. There is a limit on how long one can draw out a single weekend as blog fodder. But one will do one’s best.

(If you missed it, or need a refresher, this was Friday and this was Saturday)

Sunday
After all that delicious dancing, we have an even more delicious lie-in which is necessary to replenish depleted energy and aid muscle recovery. It was not just dancing, after all. It was a full-blown workout of cardio+strength+style. So we sleep.

“In England people actually try to be brilliant at breakfast. That is so dreadful of them! Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.”
Upon waking, we whip up and devour scrambled eggs and avocado. As we are now well-fed and more likely to partake in brilliant conversation, we head to the Putney Tavern to watch the football, the sport that launches many a brilliant conversation.

“Football is all very well as a game for rough girls, but it is hardly suitable for delicate boys.”
It is England vs Panama in the Group stages of the World Cup. Some interesting manoeuvres to get a G&T safely from the bar to our prime vantage point, some rowdy fans, and thank God for an English win. It is a 6-1 thrashing and (most) people cheer Panama’s lone goal with the generosity of those who know they are still comfortably superior.

Time for refuelling at Wagamama, then a spot of shopping in Putney. We head home and make a decision to end this weekend in the manner to which we have become accustomed: in style. My sister has found the perfect activity to close this weekend – Gatsby Immersive Theatre.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
We dress to theme and step into the 1920s. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s world of decadence, champagne and sparkle is brought to life by a cast of talented actors who take us through The Great Gatsby in a unique and fun production. The characters mingle with the audience (my sister and I are welcomed by the Nick Carraway character loudly proclaiming that he is ‘SO pleased we could make it!’), have impromptu conversations that become part of the show, and we even get a dance lesson – the quirky Charleston. It is the perfect way to end our weekend.

My sister tells me I am ‘fun in London’ and I have been striving ever since to channel some of that London vibe and make it a part of everyday life. Full immersion. Sequins and feathers optional.

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©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

 

A Wilde Weekend – Act II

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In an earlier post, Oscar and I illustrated the first 24 hours of the Wilde Weekend in London. If you thought my sister and I may have used up all our energy on eating, drinking, shopping and comedy-ing, you would be right. We went to bed exhausted. But nothing that a 7-hour sleep didn’t cure.

Saturday
If laughter is the best medicine, a cooked English breakfast comes a close second. Better yet when cooked at home and washed down with copious mugs of hot tea.

Later, we take a walk along Putney High Street, but this is not a stroll without purpose. It includes a stop at Putney Market where a delightful Malaysian bakery sets up a stall every other Saturday.

“With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?”
Agreed, Oscar. But you have not tried these pineapple tarts. Or these peanut cookies. This is not just happiness. This is bliss. The cookies are melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The pineapple tart is love at first bite. When the buttery exterior gives way to the generous filling,  I am transported to my Malaysian childhood where jars of these tarts are abundant at Chinese New Year. Oh, Pandan Bakery, there was not enough time or belly space for all your deliciousness, and don’t get me started on those spicy sardine curry puffs which are a true triumph of pastry over perception. [Photos from Pandan Bakery’s website]

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Are you drooling yet?

The sardine-pineapple snack will tide us over till dinner. It is now time for the man himself. We head to the Vaudeville Theatre for a masterclass in quick-witted dialogue. The play is ‘An Ideal Husband’ – a study of moral flexibility, forgiveness and class hypocrisy, all wrapped up in a fun, theatrical package. Wilde’s genius lies in, among other things, his use of paradox to comic effect. His humour is unexpected: “I like looking at geniuses, and listening to beautiful people.” He combines ideas that shouldn’t go together, but somehow, do: “When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” A bit like sardines and pineapple. The play was a real treat.

“I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.”
Not wanting to be shallow, we have already planned our next gastronomical adventure. My sister has an immensely talented friend who has set up a Malaysian Supper Club (hosted at different venues around London) called Wild Serai. The menu is clever, the ingredients are authentic, the labour is clearly one of love, and the result is pure pleasure on a plate. Nasi lemak with chilli crab. Never have 5 words held so much history, mystery and delight. And just when I thought it could not get any better, we sample the best ikan bakar (literal translation: burned fish) I have ever tasted outside of Malaysia. This is stingray, barbecued to perfection and served with a tamarind-chilli dip. We are in the middle of Soho but my taste buds are in a hawker stall in Petaling Jaya, and my appetite is suddenly teenage. Yolanda, terima kasih!

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Fish with attitude. 

While the appetite is teenage, the metabolism is not. There is now an undeniable need to burn some calories. We head home, and for a brief moment, contemplate pyjamas and channel-surfing. But this weekend is a rare one, and not meant for sitting on the sofa. So we get changed and head to a local Putney bar.

“She wore far too much rouge last night, and not quite enough clothes.”
Oscar wrote this in 1895. In many ways, still relevant today but certainly a matter of opinion. And anyway, in the words of Taylor Swift, haters gonna hate (hate*4). May as well wear whatever you like. We have opted for flat shoes so we dance till closing time. This bar is cool, friendly and unpretentious, and they play Blackstreet’s No Diggity, which is my yardstick for a good time on the dance floor.

Putney, I like the way you work it.

©2018 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

You can check out any time you like…

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Dear Willpower,

You’ve got this. You know The Rules. You’ve done the groundwork. Now execute the plan. We’re in this together, you and me.

Rule #1: Never go shopping when hungry.
Well done on lining the stomach beforehand. This challenge requires stamina. If our blood sugar is low, so is our resolve.

Rule #2: Make a list…
…and check it twice upon encountering the aisles of temptation.

Rule #3: Follow the process.
We begin with the warm-up: we wrestle with a trolley until it breaks away from its nest. Then we proceed on the outer ring of the track at a slow, consistent speed.

Rule #4: Stay focused.
May I remind you of our recent trip to a certain Swedish furniture shop? Store layouts are designed with the sole intention of distracting us from our goal. We went in for a bedside table and came out with candles, ceramic cacti and stemless wine glasses. Come on, we can do this. Stay on the fringe and we will be fine.

Now that we have the essentials, we pick up speed. Shopping can be a great cardio workout. Power through the list.

Rule #5: It’s not a bargain if you don’t need it.
It may be half-price but if it’s not on the list, walk away. These are traps, some of them baited with Double Brie. We don’t want to be prisoners of our own device.

The perspiration starts to flow. This is hard work. Push, push through. The end is within reach.

Rule #6: Speed up at the checkout.
We’ve made it this far. We will not allow ourselves to fail now. Avert your eyes. Stick to the plan. Resist temptation in all forms, including impulse Kinder Eggs and unplanned purchases of breath mints.

As we make our way to the exit, we take a deep, smug breath in, then release with a satisfied sigh. We think about the protein shake we will have when we get home. Post-workout refuelling is required. High-fives all round.

Then just before we are out of danger, there she stood in the doorway, blocking us from liberation. Big smile, holding a tray of samples. This could be heaven or this could be hell. She is targeting incoming shoppers but there we are, being drawn to her as if by some magnetic force. “Would you like to try one? Double brie with prosciutto and chilli jam.”

Noooooooo! I say, trying to guide you to the shimmering light of safety but then I hear your voice blurting out, “Sure, why not?” And with that comes the shattering of a thousand promises.

Next time, we must remember to bring Luck, along with our reusable shopping bags.

Sincerely,
Motivation.

©2018 Seetha Nambiar Dodd (feat. The Eagles) 

A Wilde Weekend, Act 1

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A few months ago, I spent a wonderful weekend in London with my sister. Part of her plan to ensure maximum fun in 72 hours included tickets to the Vaudeville Theatre in Covent Garden for my favourite playwright, Oscar Wilde.

Oh, if you were hoping for wild tales of alcohol-fueled madness or hazy recounts of debauchery, I’m so sorry to disappoint you. Those were (mostly) contained on stage. Oscar is as Wilde as it gets. But here is my travel log of the visit, with some help from my pal, the Master of Wordplay.

Friday
On the Underground from Heathrow airport, my suitcase and I are not welcome amongst the suited, city types who are jostling for elbow room while simultaneously avoiding eye-contact. It takes a certain skill to show disapproval without looking up from one’s mobile phone.

“Travel improves the mind wonderfully, and does away with all one’s prejudices.”
Fortunately for my mind, once the tube deposits the Disapprovers at their stations, it is left with Tourists, Students, Musicians, Non-City Workers, and Others. It is as if the air in the carriage has filtered out the busy-ness. People now smile. They give their seat up if required. The closer we get to East Putney, the happier everything seems. A kind soul even offers to help me with my suitcase. “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”  

I surprise my sister with an earlier than expected arrival and we catch up over a hot mug of (what else?) English Breakfast tea. She opens up a world of possibilities that the next 72 hours may present. But first, we must eat.

“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.” What better cure for jet-lag than food that nourishes the senses? We sample tapas and Tempranillo at a local place called Home. After all, we are only 2 hours from Spain. It would be rude not to. The ‘cheeky bar food’ is delicious and the atmosphere is friendly and comfortable. So you feel at home, except with plates of tapas brought to your table. #win.

Home

As we are already out, we take a stroll along Putney High Street. There is plenty of temptation in the form of shop-window displays and SALE signs. Oscar offers a reason to yield: “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

I don’t know if it is the jet-lag or the Spanish wine but a 3-hour nap follows. Then it is time for more food. We jump on the tube to an old haunt, C&R Cafe, a Malaysian institution tucked away in a back street near Piccadilly Circus. I resist my favourite dish, nasi lemak (pictured), for other, smaller dishes to share. “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

cr5.jpg Did not have this.

“My doctor says I must not have any serious conversation after seven. It makes me talk in my sleep.”
So our next stop, for the opposite of serious conversation: The Comedy Store! Stand-up comedy in a venue that’s small enough to be intimate but big enough to be comfortable. I am delighted that one of the acts is Larry Dean, a hilarious Scottish comedian who I recently saw in Sydney. We leave after lots of hearty laughter and also get to chat to Larry on our way out. He may or may not think I am a groupie.

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Nothing left to do but crawl into bed and dream sweet dreams of the next 48 hours of indulgence. To be continued….

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