In spite of everything

Something like silence descended down the mountain slope. For a while it stood still – as a background to the tranquility that pervaded the moment. It stood there – the cloud, resplendent in its transience; beautiful in the moonlight which held my breath.

How often can one recognize a moment to be important as it happens? How often does a moment leave an enduring peace in one’s heart? How often can one recollect the shape of a cloud that has passed?

I have heard that one can commit such moments to eternity – with a paintbrush and a canvas perhaps. Or maybe with a pen and a piece of paper. I have heard masters say – “If it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it“. I have read and reread and wondered if words would ever burst out of me that way.

It is not that words have escaped me. They have arrived – flowing naturally and sometimes for no reason at all. Some were even beautiful when read aloud. I have wished a poem out of some of them as well. Each passing word however sighed and merely skimmed the surface of a feeling, the depths of which remained beyond its reach.

But why blame the words when the truth is that I have been unable to hold a true feeling in my heart for long. Embroiled as I am in the mundane, anxious as I am to not allow the intensity of emotions to affect the normality of life, I have let my words ring hollow.

The burden of life is easier on the shoulders when the soul stands ajar, unaffected. It is also quite possibly a lesser life.

The unwritten words however haunt my days and the blank pages cry for ink. I agonize over the futility of the torment my mind generates. What purpose do a thousand thoughts serve if none can hold its own on a blank page.

However, I have no intention of chronicling the mundane. My personal musings refuse to lend themselves to general consumption and the fiercely private self I have battles the public nature of the written word.

And yet here I sit, watching a grown man break character to amuse his son in a crowded airport. The memory of that faraway cloud creeps into my mind – a memory and a feeling as true as the child’s laughter. Thrust back into that intense beauty that rustled my soul, I realize I must break character to write.

To write is to become vulnerable, to lay bare upon paper – a piece of yourself; for others to read. It is a frightening prospect. But to not write is to shackle yourself into a space too narrow for your mind. I must write.

And what must I write about? Maybe about how, sometimes in the strangest of places, one finds an enduring tranquility. Maybe, I should write about the beauty of a moment so serene that it surpasses the longing in one’s soul.

Maybe I should write about how at times, when the moment is right, something close to peace descends upon you. And you find within it a reason to be vulnerable, to write – in spite of everything.

Note: The master mentioned is Charles Bukowski and the quote is from his poem, So You Want To Be A Writer

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On trees, birds and lofty things

How wonderful it is, to glow under a February sun! To let your leaves, yellow and green turn a shade of gold. To stand still and let your bare branches frame a sky – serene and blue. To shelter birds of different tunes, to exist and merely be. And in that, to find purpose. How glorious it is, to be a tree!

How liberating it is, to soar over that tree! To fly to places where your wings can take you. To feel the wind under your feathers. To see the essence of life beneath you – the incessant movement. To perch on the windows of homes put together with love and care. To go back to that golden tree. Always. How delightful it is, to be a bird!

How humbling it is, to be a part of that incessant movement! To be able to stay a while and watch the sun set. To own your life and revel in your being. To watch life pass by all around and to know that all hearts beat the same. To find a reason to smile and to be at peace. How marvelous it is, to be alive!

How magnificent it is to light up the world! To rise and set for no reason at all. To paint the sky and to give life. To be worshiped and to inspire. But how limiting it is to be that indifferent sun. To exist without being aware. To bear witness to the drama of life, but to not know.

How fitting it is that what I tell myself is the meaning of my life! My purpose, my freedom, my home, my peace and my being – all stories I have told myself.

Kuttetan – a terrorist

Kuttetan was a terrorist. He terrorized me in the way a seven-year old can be terrorized – purely and entirely; cold terror flowed from the edge of my goosebumps to my dilated pupils whenever I saw him.

But before Kuttetan became a terrorist, he became a proud rooster. He strutted his red comb in front of a world that he could not understand because of his narrow rooster-like worldview and held his head high.

But unlike regular roosters who also sometimes hold their heads high (to monitor an eagle in the sky, for example) Kuttetan did it self-consciously. He had come to realize that he can remember his past all the more well when he did this.

This past isn’t his – not at a personal level. But then again, don’t we all identify with events and ideologies that are strictly speaking, not of our own making. So, Kuttetan walked around in this chicken-loving world, brooding and terrorizing me.

I could not step out of my house – my very own ancestral house without being chased by him. The angry Kuttetan was a sight to behold. Not that I had time to stop running and be overawed by this half-domesticated, half-monstrous creature that I lived with. But terror demonized his every movement, so much so that his light-footed scamper were repeated thuds beating against my anxious heart, his stare was “I see through your supposed child-like innocence”. I clung to my ideas of sapien superiority while trying to skirt the issue of Kuttetan’s past repeatedly.

Kuttetan had a gory past. Most rooster’s live out their lives in pens and farms seeing more blood of kith and kin than we ever see on our plates, but Kuttetan’s life experience was rather unique. He lived in a free home. When he was brought to this home, there had been expectations of nurture, freedom, happiness and fulfillment. But he lost two of his siblings within weeks of moving in to this new home.

I remember how the three of them were brought in. Bundled together with more chicks than I could count; in a small circular basket with a little hay to pad their claws. They looked scared. They were colorful too. The three children in the house picked out three chicks to own (read nourish, protect, etc). Kuttetan was yellow. Another was green and the third one was pink. We should have known then – Kuttetan was the named one. Names are important – It is through our identity that we negotiate with society.

We were children. We made mistakes. But since we were children, we were also open to learning from our mistakes. But some mistakes make wounds that fester for generations and leave scars. Kuttetan carried the scars of our collective mistakes and he brooded and terrorized.

My cousin built a house out of all the loose bricks that he could find for his lovely pink chick. Resources were scarce and his ideas of structural strength of buildings were weak. The roof of the house caved in on the pink chick before he could enjoy the ambiance of his hastily built home.

Kuttetan had probably heard the noise of the disaster. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I myself cannot claim to have had any such intentions. Nor did I have my cousin’s imagination or energy. I merely forgot to steer my little green chick into its pen in the evening – lethargy and books won over mundane duties. An industrious wild cat (wild because the green chick deserves at least that) made a meal of the tiny one that night.

Kuttetan stared at me that day when I went to inspect the green feather and paw prints on the ground.

Kuttetan brooded and as soon as he developed the red comb and wattle – his chief instruments of terror – he made it his life’s mission to chase me and my cousin around the house whenever he could. Afternoons were his favorite time. That was when we were most vulnerable. The adults would be taking their siesta. And by the time it was evening and they were up, his day’s work would be done.

No one believed our stories of traumatic afternoons. Kuttetan was merely chicken for the adults. Until one day! I stepped out of the backdoor of the house, looked ahead, left and right. I saw Kuttetan stand in the extreme end of the backyard gnawing with his lethal claws, the ground. I ran to the clothesline, managed to pick up one or two clothes before Kuttetan realized that there was a bigger prey in the ground. He charged. I ran back. The clothes mom had washed now lay in the puddles. But there were other things to worry about. With Kuttetan almost at my heels, I ran into the house. The fat, lethargic child that I was, I tripped and fell near the steps. Kuttetan, agile and breathing vehemently stood on a raised step. I looked at him through my chubby fingers that were covering my face and tried to judge his next step. Kuttetan stood there – years of pent up suffering forgotten. Anger and hatred now guided his actions. With all the might that his rooster body could muster, he pecked me.

Bleeding from my nose I ran to the adults. They believed me this time. The blood was my media; my hate-spewing advertiser. Maybe we could have dealt with the issue differently. But we killed Kuttetan. I ate him. Maybe I was pleased that day.
And that is the tale of Kuttetan, the terrorist.

*Disclaimer, explanations and the like : The story is real. The characters are and were real. The emotion and reasoning are of course imagined. Kuttetan is Kuttan + Chettan. Chettan means elder brother(Bade Bhaiya). Kuttan is an endearing name for a boy.

Nostalgia – a privilege

The tiny, tender leaf of the banyan; tearing it along its vein without a break is a sure shot way to make Krishna appear. In each of the million and more leaves swaying above our heads lies a key to find him.

As a child with a credulous mind and a romantic bent in the heart, I snatched away many an unsuspecting leaf from its branch and looked for a beloved cowherd. Today, I hold it in my hand and trace the innocence of that child along its veins.

Nostalgia is a safe game to play from a distance. Miles and hours separating you and your earlier self, covers everything with a shade of love. Your heart yearns for an earlier time.

We love our stories. We love who we were.

Then there are those born to that same space and time, but for whom the world is a maze. Surviving it is a task they have to begin before learning to dream. And the maze is unrelenting in its complexities. How does a child born to nothing make something of himself? Doomed from the start by his lack of opportunity and which some would later call – merit, maybe he will learn to blame that obscure word – fate.

And if by a strange, impossible miracle latent in those banyan leaves, in himself or by just plain old fate, he deciphers the maze; will he, sitting in a balcony with wind in his hair and a million thoughts in his mind wish for an earlier time?

We are all children of privilege. Entitled to nostalgia, to romance the bygone.

The gentleman soldier

“Education is one thing, ma’am. But humanity – that is different. And I think that, is more important.” – Raja Basheer Khan (a soldier guarding India’s borders).

The lonely soldier atop a mountain is sometimes a philosopher. He is also someone who is entrusted with one of the most extraordinary jobs in the world – being India’s first line of defense.

He stands guard over snow-covered ridges, day and night. He watches the desert sun set across the fence. He opens the gates for the farmers ploughing the last tract of India, lying beyond the fenced border. He watches as the river turns into a sea and drowns his camp every year.

He will tell you about his daughter who is in college and his wife who is his strength. He will tell you how far his home is. He will also tell you, how important his job is – for his family.

He will tell you of struggling with frostbites and low-oxygen situations. He will tell you how he helped another soldier, still.

He will tell you of the difficulty of navigating a river which builds and destroys islands as it pleases. He will tell you of the people who live on these islands with a compassion that is rare.

He will tell you of cross-border smuggling and how that makes his job difficult. He will also tell you, better than any economist of how poverty makes smugglers of people sometimes.

He will ask you if you feel fine as he drives along what is affectionately called a national highway, but is really just a dirt track cut into a steep cliff. He will later smile and tell you that it was one of the most dangerous roads in the world. And if you ask him, how he knows that and drives on it still, he will merely smile and shrug.

He will tell you of long marches and treacherous climbs to unreachable outposts. He will tell you how that helps him when he is sent for disaster relief.

He will fret over your comfort and apologize for the lack of electricity and other amenities while showing you into the best room there is in his camp.

He will also wait hours for you and when he finally finds you, he will insist on showing you the gurudwara nearby and with a child’s enthusiasm tell you it’s history. He will blush like a teenager if you tease him. He will also trek miles carrying weights you cannot lift.

He will help you climb a mountain and tell you, you are almost like his daughter and that he will fall before you slip on the sleet and slush.

He will tell you it was nice to see a new face after so long. He will ask you to hurry up and leave as the snowstorm was coming and you shouldn’t have to deal with it -with him.

He is the gentleman soldier guarding our borders. And it was my privilege to have spent some time with them as they went about performing the sovereign duty of protecting my nation.

(a few memories from the 2 weeks spent with the BSF and the ITBP -India’s first lines of defense)

On verses yet to unfold

The halls seem desolate. The rooms, rather impersonal. Like the last breath has left a body. Only, here the rooms await someone else. Melancholy inhabits the spaces, in the meantime.

Another onam has passed. Someone died today, as the sun came up.

I’ll pack my bags again and move tomorrow. In the meantime, I linger and ponder on whether these trees will miss me. How I have stayed and dreamt with these trees day and night. They look beautiful. I should pack.

Are all notions of permanence mere transitory thoughts?

It might be preposterous to imagine, that my presence here mattered. The day will look just the same tomorrow.

*
What are we really working upon – each day – every single day of our very short lives? What are we building? What should we be building? A family, a name? Are they incongruous to each other? Where lies that fine balance?

The echoes of the past reverberate through stories and monuments. Walk into an old tomb and listen to the stories of yesteryears- stories of workers that laid hands on every sculpture there is. They must have measured out every angle of every chin of every sculpture. They have left behind, a witness to their existence.

What is my monument? What is my grand story? All these seemingly regular days; these winds I whisper to; these moments I so love – what will they translate to?

“That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
– Walt Whitman (O Me! O Life!)

What will my verse contain? Maybe, I’ll know… soon enough.

Onam of my memories

Onam began at school – with a bucket-full of mud and dirty hands. A bucket-full of mud dug out of the school grounds, set into a big circular cake in the verandah, soon transformed into rows and rows of pookalams.

Onam began at home with Chandrika chechi making a small round circle with cowdung in the frontyard which I and my brother filled every day for the next few days with flowers collected from the backyard and the roadside, using a non-existent imagination.

After a few days of joyously making pookalam and a few more days of grudgingly getting out of bed and making a pookalam and a few more days of telling mom and grandmother to go make the pookalam for themselves, Chandrika chechi would again come by and make for us the maathooru. No one could exactly remember how or why the 3 pyramids of clay came to symbolize Mahabali. Mom would make kolam around the maathooru and try vainly to pass on the skill to me. My indifference notwithstanding, she would write my name and my brother’s with the rice batter.

As a child, I could never get my head around to why Mahabali was given a raw deal or why he sounded like Innocent all the time. You felt sorry for him, our king of good times and angry at Vishnu for being sneaky and conniving. You learn about politics and back-channel power-struggles and about people who are left leaderless.

But slowly you realize, that is what Onam is all about – recognizing the good in an asura king, accepting the fallibility of your deities, a call to color your life, to celebrate the flowers, the rains, the nature and the togetherness. That is why Onam belongs to no religion.

Onam then ended aptly with my mom and my brother’s birthdays – More payasams and more of those sadyas.

Explanations:

Pookalam – a floral decoration
Chechi – Literally elder sister, but used to refer to any lady elder than yourself
Kolam – A drawing made using rice batter
Maathooru – Pyramids of clay made during onam and kept outside the home. They symbolize Mahabali
Mahabali – The asura (technically demon) king who ruled over Kerala.
Payasam – Sweet dish
Sadya – A feast
For more on Onam: Click here