Category Archives: International Travel

Mustard Seed: A Collage of Science, Art and Love Poems by Lalita Noronha

I am thrilled to introduce you to my new poetry book  entitled “The Mustard Seed:  A Collage  of Science, Art and Love Poems” published by Apprentice House Press, Loyola University. The book is dedicated to  my not-quite- three year old grand daughter, Emerson Barlow Blob and my baby grandson Andrew Noronha Blob.

mustard

 

“Mustard Seed” is the name of a poem I wrote for my little sister, Maria, who died of cancer, when she was 5 years old, and I was 11 years old.  I brought her black and white picture in a little silver frame to America forty-some years ago. She lives on my dresser, where I can see her everyday, smiling, and never growing old.

 

Here are two blurbs which appear on the back cover of my book:

“Lalita  Noronha is a rare creature, someone who feels comfortable among the conflicting demands of art and science. In the Mustard Seed she fulfills the promise of her earlier poems on scientific themes, ekphrastic poems on art and artists, and the post-colonial background of her family in India. In her new work, the biological sciences remain powerful sources of metaphors, especially in poems like “Specimen Child,”  “Apoptosis,” “Passive Diffusion,and the astonishing “Beyond the Cenozoic Era.” “The Python,” one of the most amazing poems in this collection, beautifully demonstrates the power of biological description and begs to be compared to animalistic poems by Ted Hughes and Rainer Maria Rilke. It contains the extraordinary line “sorrow swallowed me like a python takes a rat, head first” and the section in which it’s found culminates in a powerful political poem, “Bird of Paradise.”  Finally, something should be said about the tender love poems like “The Shirt” and the ekphrastic poem “The Widow.” I have many other favorites but then this note would turn into an essay. In this sophisticated collection, enlightenment is but a page away.”

–Michael Salcman, M.D., editor of Poetry in Medicine, An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Illness, and Healing, and author of A Prague Spring, Before & After.

 Whether discussing the process of passive diffusion (“moving from high to low concentration,/down its gradient,/the way honey swirls, thick in the center”) or the pleasure of going to museums (“your oval gold frame,/a pendant on my heart”), Lalita Noronha writes with the precision of a trained scientist. Mustard Seed travels, from Goa to Baltimore, from Bethlehem to Rome, from past to present—always with a finely attended hand to guide the reader. It is a delight.”

 Kim Roberts, Editor, Beltway Poetry Quarterly.

 

 

 

Where is Home?

20151126_025621Although I returned from home #1 (India) some 7 weeks ago, I have only recently begun to feel settled in home #2 (my much-loved city, Baltimore, USA.) This time the trip felt longer and far, far more tiring, which makes little sense since I last went there just 2 ½ years ago. Perhaps, there’s been a speedy continental drift, I told myself, and home #1 had floated further into the Pacific Ocean.

And then it occurred to me. Get real, I told myself. You’re older! Travel takes a toll.

But isn’t age just a number? I’ve heard that so often it’s almost a cliché. In any event, I googled the saying and found a zillion. I chose three to contemplate upon.

Age is just a number and young is an attitude.

Age is just a number. It should never hinder you from accomplishing your goals.

Age is just a number and weed is just a plant.

Well yes, over these many weeks, I’ve amassed plenty of attitude that has not hindered me from being asleep or half asleep both day and night, if that was my goal.

And of course, I know weed is a plant! After all, I have a B.Sc. in Botany for heaven’s sake, which should count for something! My father, a botanist, used to say a weed is a plant that grows where it’s not welcome. If a rose grew in a cornfield, it would be a weed, he would say. Little did my father know that weed also grows where it is warmly welcomed.

With that out-of-the-way, let me write about one of my best friends in India. I visit him whenever I go home. If you’ve read “How Far Away is Far Away?” (scroll down) you’ve met him too. He had travelled to the far end of the street and now he was back “home” tucked in his little shop at the corner where he has worked since I was a teenager.20151126_025621

I was delighted and relieved to see him. As always, I’d taken all my sandals that needed repair to India so my mochi could work his magic. They are too beautiful and unique to discard. I buy them from roadside vendors, who may be here today and gone tomorrow. So, my sandals are irreplaceable. Shoe repair in America essentially involves glue, whereas my mochi sews right through the leather, stitch by stitch, using his coarse well-worn hands and a long, thick needle. No machines, no glue. He uses his feet as a clamp. In fact, whenever I buy pretty sandals in India, he fortifies them for me even though they are brand new. Only then do they nestle in my suitcase en route to America.

I was with my brother when I met him this time. As usual his head 20151126_025946was bent, working, while people walked around him on the side-walk. When he looked up, I smiled and asked him if he remembered me. And his eyes just lit up! He smiled his warm toothless smile, nodded, and simply said “Hahn ji” (Hahn means yes. Ji is a form of respect as in Gandhiji.) Then he said in Hindi, “So many days, you didn’t come.”

I was deeply moved. I didn’t expect this old man, who sees hundreds of people walk by everyday to remember me. My brother, who is also his customer, was equally shocked at his memory.

“I didn’t know you were brother and sister,” our mochi said.

There is a Hindi proverb that says, “the heart at rest sees a feast in everything.”  Over the five years that I lived in Bombay before making the U.S. my home #2, and all the years thereafter whenever I returned to India for brief visits, this poor gentle man, who works everyday as if it’s his first day, has been an inspiring example of what life is truly about. He has given me many fold more than I could ever pay him for repairing my shoes. He is as faithful as the sun and the moon. In this transient fickle world he has been a rock! My family aside, he is what home #1 means to me. And why I must keep returning, no matter how far India drifts away.

Below is a poem entitled “From Bombay to Baltimore” taken from my book, Her Skin Phyllo-thin.

FROM BOMBAY TO BALTIMORE

                                  

The Arabian Sea still flecks with fishing boats

like paper toys my father taught me to fold

and float in streams behind our home.

 

My plane, a silver scythe knows no ache,

splices clouds in half like cotton scarves,

shreds and tosses wispy threads afar.

 

Dim one-bulb huts recede, pinpoints of fire flies,

five star hotels shrink to match-box size,

coconut fronds to dainty fans.

 

This time, my heart, quiet and stilled,

leaves behind a billion people, maybe more,

who say their destinies are written on their foreheads.

 

And still I search between continents,

between sky and sky,

between then and now

 

for home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Far Away is Far Away?

Although I was born in Bombay, now renamed Mumbai, the city was never my home. I grew up in small towns along India’s west coast. But it was home to my grandmothers, uncles and aunts, and my parents would take us to India’s Big Apple for holidays.

As a young girl, I would walk past a rain-washed salmon-colored cottage, past the culvert, and past a field where cows grazed on over-grazed grass, and buffaloes stared with big vacant eyes, unperturbed by flies or children running around. Left-over rain water lay in puddles, riddled with mosquito larvae hatching beneath the surface. Occasionally, the government would spray a film of kerosene oil to kill them and prevent malaria outbreaks, but during the monsoons, the mosquitoes won the battle.

Now, when I visit India, nothing is familiar. The stone culvert has been ground down to dust, the streets widened and tarred, the houses, cottages, gardens and trees gone. Instead, tall ten-storied buildings with iron-rimmed balconies, symmetrically spaced and stacked, reach up to the sky. Gardens have been reduced to strips of land with a few coconut trees, flowers and potted plants, bordered with cement bricks. Barking dogs have replaced the silence of napping buffaloes and lolling cows.

But a little ways down the road, there is one thing that doesn’t change—my visit to my mochi, who still mends shoes and sandals by hand, and unapologetically tells his customers to come tomorrow because he will not hurry, not if they want good work, and if they don’t, they should go elsewhere.

My mochi, the cobbler before he moved far away!
My mochi, the cobbler before he moved far away!

I start down Almeida Road where I expect him to be, but he isn’t there. So I walk a little further down the road scanning the pavements on either side, and there he is — in his new digs! It’s a thin plywood board contraption, water proofed with discarded rain coats, strips of gum boot mackintosh, a black umbrella minus the handle, and irregular patches of water proof pliable plastic. It’s very colorful. And there he sits in a space so low that he must bend to enter it, and when he crouches down and crosses his legs to align the soles of his feet, his head almost touches the ceiling. His feet are like a podium for his customer’s shoes; sometimes they are a clamp as he wields a large needle through the leather—-stitch by stitch, as if he has all the time in the world.

“Namaste,” I say, delighted to have found him. “How are you? Do you remember me?”
He nods, joins his hands, smiles a tooth less smile, his deep eyes filled with kindness. But of course, he doesn’t remember. How could he? My hair is short and curly, my face more lined; a few hundred people walk past him everyday. And it has been three years since I came “home.”

“May I take your photo?” I ask him.
He shakes his head, yes, with pure delight. “Can you wait a little?”
“Of course.”
He almost bumps his head against the ceiling as he emerges, and reaches on a tree branch behind him for a blue cotton shirt to cover the vest he wears while working. He uses his palms as if they were an iron, and presses down, on his shirt, over and over, then adjusts his collar, and shakes his head side-to-side to indicate he’s ready.

I take several pictures and show them to him on the LCD display. He smiles, pleased with what he sees. And that seems to trigger a memory, because I’ve taken his picture numerous times—-essentially every time I go home.

“Ah, you don’t live here,” he says. “Where did you go so long?”
I wave my hand toward the sky. “Bahut dhoor,” I say. “Far away.”
“Me, too,” he says. “ Bahut dhoor.”
“Really? Where?” I asked, happy that he could afford to close shop and travel somewhere, perhaps to see the Taj Mahal. It is after all, one of the seven wonders of the world in his (our) country.
He points up the road. “Oodhur,” he says, “There!”
I look to where he points.
“So many years, my shop was there,” he says. “Under a mango tree. Then, they cut down the mango tree. So, now I’m here.”

I feel my eyes filling up with tears. He had travelled far away too, and set down new roots, like I had done when I came to America.

 

A NEW STAR

   sky_w_strs-5

 On January 28, 2012, I was in Auckland, New Zealand, walking along Manukau Bay (please scroll down to see pictures.) The fiery Pohutakawa Christmas trees, drunk on red wine, were beginning to sober up. A month past Christmas, and they looked dim, cooling down much like stars do. The pied pipers tip toed across jagged black rocks, dipping deep with their slender beaks to fish out delicacies swimming in their orbits. The oyster catchers were standing in formation ready to take off.

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That day in 2012 was ethereal. For almost five months, I’d been writing my novel, the third draft, for many hours a day, sitting like a hermit crab in my sister’s basement.  Rarely, did I emerge to take a nice walk along Manukau Bay. My life as a writer felt much like a black hole eating light and turning blacker with each passing day, ripping from their orbits, the planets of my own sanity . Everything I had to give went into this black hole, deep into the caverns of this  project. Yet at the end of the day apparently nothing came out, or at least nothing that an agent has picked up so far (though in all fairness I’ve only recently begun the arduous task of finding one.)

Fast forward to exactly two years later, January 28, 2014. I was at home in Baltimore, Maryland. There was an arctic front marching toward us, wind chill alerts, temperatures in the low 20s, an “iced inner harbor.” Nothing in anybody’s garden dared to bloom. Even the ever greens were re-thinking their determination to stay forever green. Honestly, they whispered, there’s only so much snow any living thing can endure.

And then, from Stamford, Connecticut, my son called to say he and his wife were at the hospital and they would be first time parents before the day was done. Although it wasn’t the predicted day, it was going to be The Day. And please, could I not expect constant updates? Hmm, I thought, would 10 minute breaks in time constitute constancy? It wasn’t a good time to ask.

Whenever I feel helpless, I light candles. It begins with a tea light before the six inch Pieta on my mantel piece and then I move to some block candles around the house. The scent drops my high blood pressure and softens the what-if-what-if voices that send me spiraling toward a black hole. This day in 2014, most certainly, was violating the laws governing the rotation of the earth, as it had thirty-some years ago, when I brought a baby boy, now about to become a Dad, into my own orbit.  Imagining this whole scene from Maryland was traumatic. Being in labor myself would have been preferable, I thought, foolishly. (And no, I couldn’t hop on a train and just show up in Connecticut, lest I be blasted off into space.)

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And then, finally, a tiny new star spiraled into orbit. She was  nineteen inches long and weighed 6lb.11oz. She was heartbreakingly delicate.  In the last almost-four months, she’s been gaining speed, mass and volume. She now emits dazzling white light that breaks into colors of the rainbow, and sounds so sweet, she could be a song bird, or a New Zealand tui. But when the sounds change register, the roof of the house almost sails away as Dorothy’s roof did in Kansas.

It is too soon to show her New Zealand’s fiery Pohutakawa trees in December, too soon for her to chase oyster catchers, too soon to see constellations in the Southern Sky, too soon for so much to come. But one January 28, 20–something–we’re going there to Manukau Bay.

(And just between us, her Dad and Mom better not expect constant updates.)

Manukau Harbor–A stone’s throw away!

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The problem with going to New Zealand to write a novel, my goal for 2012, was that I had to mentally go where my characters were, think like they think, and submerge myself in their fictitious drama, of my own making! My characters were in India and in the US, countries that are approximately equidistant from each other and from New Zealand. Little wonder I was in a state of permanent disorientation.

I asked myself why I write, what was the lure, why not walk along the esplanade, or sit on a bench and watch the birds, instead of gaping at a computer screen, doing something that might never see the light of day. Such are the questions that writers ask, and to which I have no sane answer, other than to say I’d go insane if I didn’t write. But did it have to be a novel?

Well, I didn’t go to Manukau Harbor in 2012. But I did go in the summer of 2008, New Zealand’s winter, and here is a glimpse of the many walks I took. (Note: In all my blogs, the pictures are mine.)

Mangrove and tussock grasses, kowhai and pohutakawa trees (see earlier blogs) flax plants and all manner of beautiful foliage line the walkways.  When the tide comes in, those magnificent black boulders and rocks are submerged, but as the tide goes out Manukau Harbor turns into a feast for birds and bird lovers.  The land curves gently along the bay culminating in a bird sanctuary and the Ambury Regional Park.

The Pokeko

Pressed to choose a favorite avian, I’d have to pick the Pied Oyster Catchers, even though they aren’t the prettiest girls in town. Their plumage is all black with a splash of white, but they have strong, orange-red bills to—well catch oysters—of course, (and other mouth-watering molluscs) and pry them open.  At dusk, I’d watch them fill the sky and blow in like scarves of  black silk as they came on shore, and descended in perfect order.Hundreds of them. Each wave settled on the lawn at the rear, row by row, never colliding or arguing, until the lawn itself was a black and orange blanket. And when they took off, they did so in the same order patiently inching forward as if there was an invisible “go” line. I found that fascinating. No one rear ended, or broke rank, or took the back roads. And I read that oyster catchers are monogamous; they have a no-frills nest on land; they share the job of incubating eggs, and in general, are model citizens worth emulating.

But to be fair, I admit they engage in “egg-dumping.” Much like the cuckoo, they sometimes misbehave, lay their eggs in other nests, especially the unsuspecting sea gulls, and expect someone else to raise their young. But that doesn’t happen often, I’m sure. I know because I asked them.

There are other beautiful visitors too— Pied Stilts, Sandpipers, Pokekos, Kingfishers and others. The mottled brown Bar-tailed Godwits and the Red Knots (with their short, green legs) fascinated me because they nest in the Tundras and migrate some 12,000 Km to this beautiful island when their homes freeze. I almost asked them why they’d ever return home to such an unforgiving land.  But then—don’t we all?

http://www.teara.gov.nz

Constellations: Of Glow Worms?

 March 23, 2012

I have been rolling the words, Arachnocampa luminosa, a lyrical mouthful, on my tongue all week— ever since I returned from a visit to the Kawiti Caves.  Several million years old, the caves were discovered in the 17th century and are still owned by the descendants of the original Maori family. The walls of these caves contain massive pillars of sandstone and pure white limestone— stalactites and stalagmites growing at the rate of an inch every one hundred years, sometimes into recognizable shapes—the fronts and rears of elephant herds, a polar bear, a bearded man, and more, if you use your imagination.

As if that wasn’t awe inspiring enough, the ceiling of this pitch black cave was magical because it has been home to constellations of slender worm-like larvae that glow like stars in the Milky Way. Walking by dim lantern light, the ceiling was, at times, low enough for me to almost touch a star.

Even at the highest points the “stars” were a mere 22 yards away. Deep in the inky black cold interior, with the lantern extinguished, I stood wrapped in a shawl, conversing with Orion. Some of the larvae-stars were as bright as the North Star; others less so, although they were all lodged on the ceiling equidistant from my eyes. Why? “Because,” said our guide—a sweet 12-year-old Maori boy—“the hungrier the larvae, the brighter the light, and when they’re full, they turn off the light and sleep.”

And then, he gave us a little science lesson which just warmed the cockles of my heart! I had smiled at him when he pronounced the glow worm’s multisyllabic name correctly in his beautiful Maori accent. Now, like the glow worms, I beamed when he said the larvae glow because a waste substance produced in their bodies, luciferin, is converted to a biofluorescent  blue-green substance in the presence of oxygen and energy (ATP).

Andwhere do they get their energy from? From food, just like us, the boy said, which is why they have to catch insects. And so, like fishermen, the larvae sit on the ceiling and cast their nets—vertical, silvery sticky strings that dangle down like a pearl necklace, to which unsuspecting insects cling, and are reeled in for supper. Thin as sewing needles with blue-green tail lights, the larvae grow from a speck (one hundredth of an inch) to a whopping inch and a half. That’s a lot of glowing!

By this time, I decided I’d like to be a larva-star. Glow, eat, and sleep—what’s not to love? But then, my little Maori friend said, Arachnocampa luminosa’s  life span from egg to adult was just 10-12 months! I didn’t like that at all. And the glow worms weren’t even worms. The eggs would hatch to be these voracious larvae-stars that would live for some 9 months, metamorphose to pupae and then on to unattractive flies that would live for a mere 3-5 days because they have no mouths to eat.  That was really discouraging. In fact, their sole purpose was to mate and lay fertilized eggs, or worse, just lay unfertilized sterile eggs, if no males were around.

No, I thought, no—this was much too bleak. No stardom for me. I would just go back home and settle for being a writer on a shoe string.

(Photography is not allowed inside the caves. All pics are taken from the internet.)

http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/glow-worms/1

http://davidwallphoto.com/searchresults.asp?tx=&ts=&c=&g=43&Lids=&Gids=&p=17&n=6748&phrase=

http://davidwallphoto.com/searchresults.asp?tx=stalagmite&ts=&c=&Lids=&Gids=&p=1&n=22961&phrase=

The Monarch and The Swan

While my neighbor was visiting family in Thailand, she asked me if I would water and weed her garden in exchange for a couple of traditional Thai to-die-for body massages. I happily agreed, forgetting that my body is a grouchy, old, creaky machine with hinges that incessantly squawk and squeak, but is a magnet for fickle-headed mosquitoes, bees, wasps and all manner of biting insects that keep falling in love with me.  Scented with some “new and improved” Bug Guard—(notice how all products are reborn new and improved, yet never attain Nirvana?) I did a fairly decent job except for one patch in the corner of my friend’s vegetable garden.

That’s where a 5 ft. Swan Plant was weighted down with innumerable Monarch caterpillars voraciously feeding on its leaves, stalks, seeds, and seed pods.

They quite literally were stripping the plants clean. Fatter and plumper by the hour, I watched and worried they would fall, nest and metamorphose in my hair as I weeded under the Swan plant.  I have never seen such greed, not even when I binge on ice cream.

The Swan Plant belongs to the Milkweed family(and gets its name from the shape of its seed pods. There is even a dark spot that looks like a beak. The seeds ripen from green to brown and then burst open releasing a cloud of wispy seeds that sail on the wind

to new homes. Originally from Africa and Arabia, it has colonized many parts of the world including Australia and New Zealand. Sadly, in America (and perhaps in other places) Monarchs have been declining due to a lack of Milkweed food plants, insecticides and the pollen of genetically-engineered crops that apparently poison the caterpillars.

(Okay, now let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water—genetic engineering is much too complex a topic for me to insert into this blog)

Let’s just say that the science truly is getting newer and improving beyond labeling and repackaging (unlike my bug spray!)

(Pictures taken by my brother-in-law, Larry Smith)

http://www.monarch.org.nz/monarch/monarchs/monarch-host-plants/milkweed/

What’s In A Name?

The word “weed” conjures up immortal tough grasses with long tap roots that grow down into the belly of the earth and scar your hands when you try to dig them out, and then stubbornly reappear the following year with more vigor. Or the hairy crabgrass that grows wherever the sun hits the ground, along sidewalks, between and in between flower beds, and every nook and cranny of garden space.

When I learned that the agapanthus is considered a weed in New Zealand, I was flabbergasted. This is plant that seems contained, growing in clumps as day lilies do, sending thick, strong stems, 2-4 feet long, at the end of which some 50 – 60 star-shaped purple flowers, each with six dainty petal are arranged in pompom-like clusters.  To me, the agapanthus is a magnificent, stately flower, adaptable to tall, graceful flower arrangements. My sister floats the pompoms like candles in bowls of clear water.

My father, who taught me to love plants and genetically lent me his green thumb, used to define weeds as plants that grow where we’ve decided they shouldn’t. He was particularly fond of the dandelion,those yellow bursts of sunny petals that sprinkle unmowed lawns, or suddenly pop up on manicured ones, and then have the audacity to turn into feathery wisps that children love to blow and make a wish on. Not to mention dandelion wine and salad if you’re so inclined.

Here are some pics of the lovely agapanthus taken near where I live in New Zealand and my poem below.

Immigrant Dandelion

By

Lalita Noronha

Deep within the mud-brown ground                                                                   

of muscle and bone,

pith of water and cell,

a long tap root

sprouts fine fibrous hairs

and runs deep down

into the belly of the earth.

Sunflower yellow blooms

and feathery seeds,

dare to live

anywhere,

between cracks in pavements,

sidewalks,

within gated walls,

between blades of pristine grass

in sculptured lawns.

Undaunted by perennial labels—

(damned nuisance, common weed,)

they grow quietly, striving to succeed.

Ever heard a Tui sing?

Tui in a flax plant

Yesterday, I heard a Tui sing—and that was just one song of her repertoire. It was a beautiful pulsing beat, the sound of a flute, one note, mesmerizing and almost hypnotic. Like us, tuis sing different tunes—joyous, plaintive, flirtatious melodies, and sometimes, they click, cackle, wheeze and grunt. I assume that’s when they’re in a bad mood (like I am now; how could my Ravens not fly to the Super Bowl?) I’m glad I don’t have two voice boxes as tuis do; I’d have a double bout of laryngitis from yelling and cheering. Oh well!

I’ve learned to recognize tuis from their greenish-blue iridescent feathers and the white tufts on their throats, which turn into white shoulder pads when they fly. It’s beautiful to watch a flock in flight. Or even just a solitary little one flitting and flirting about in my sister and brother-in-law’s garden. Next year, there will be many more because the young kowhai (pronounced kofai) tree they’ve planted will burst into bloom—long, yellow, pendulous blossoms, so commonly seen everywhere in Auckland. Tuis feed on their nectar and fruit.

What they love equally well, perhaps even more, is the New Zealand flax plant, whose nectar ferments, causing them to totter a bit, and fly somewhat ungracefully. But hey, they don’t drive, so why begrudge them a little good cheer? Or a night cap?

Here are some pictures taken in Rotorua, about a three hour drive from Auckland, where I presently live.

Kowhai tree not yet in bloom
Tui drinking nectar from flax plant