The last few walks were out in the cantonment but they have cordoned off sections now, seems to be a surge in infections. It’s a common enough pattern to open and close off areas as the number of cases fall and rise. Another change is in the number of ambulances I see in a day. Earlier, I’d average sighting to once a day, these days it is 3 to 4. I don’t know if they are related to Covid 19 or not but sometimes a screeching siren insists that the virus is the culprit. People are out and about but mostly masked now. The young crowd though tends to hang out close to each other and some of them are without masks.
The youngling chooses to accompany me now and then. I must confess I sneakily nudge her in the direction of trees, hoping to see her paint the lovely peeling barks of Eucalyptus trees. Another image I’d like to see on canvas is brown earth, darkened by rains and patterned with faded leaves. Our conversations outside home end up touching various topics and it is a relief that she has a commonsensical approach to some of the burning topics of discussion right now. She’s been dabbling in a little skateboarding and its been another learning opportunity to discover the physics of it as well as understand the biomechanics of balance. She’s a bit of an autodidact so these moments are good to plant seeds for further exploration. I’m not surprised that she enjoys learning via online school as compared to classroom lessons.
Thanks to her and other kids, I learn how her generation views the world. It’s strange how most of my friends and acquaintances have been significantly older people or then much younger ones. I enjoy seeing life from their viewpoints, one set for stories of a time gone by and the other for how they navigate a world that is changing so rapidly. Middle age is a good mean I guess, straddling nostalgia and curiosity about the future. It’s also a time where the transition into becoming an elder begins in a way.
I found myself on the other side of a presentation by 5 teams of young people. Listening to their work, evaluating it and providing feedback they could use made me realize I’ve gotten older and am viewed as such. As a parent to a grown up and a teenager, I am reminded twice over that there comes a time you have to gracefully accept that the young have gone further than you can go and allow them to lead the way
while you celebrate their successes.
Classes opened up for the next couple of months and I think I may have bitten off more than I can chew. Despite the virtual nature, they are intense and perhaps I should have stuck to just the ones I have been attending. I’ll just have to treat it as a two month intensive. There’s been more hours in my day lately and I’ve managed to include new pursuits which also help flex those old grey cells in different ways. Personally, the pandemic has rearranged my life in a good way, simpler and more fulfilling.
The balcony garden is quite happy with the season and there are fruits getting ready. Some of the flowering plants are in bloom – raatrani, parijat, jui, ixora, marigolds and rain lilies. One of the adeniums also strayed into a bloom.
Saw a brilliant documentary today on the Chauvet Caves in France, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Discovered in 1994, these are over 32,000 years old and in pristine condition, as fresh as though they were drawn yesterday. They are the oldest known paintings in the world! And all that history lay undisturbed for so long. I was reminded of the time the youngling picked up burnt charcoal pieces from the ashes of the holi fire and sat down to sketch as a 10 year old. The need to create is a primal one, even the Gods are not spared according to myth.
The cave paintings are beautiful, firm of hand, steady, sure. The subject matter is mostly animal life, fauna that would have abounded in the region in that period. I wonder where did they practise to have such steadiness? Proportion, light and shadow, perspective, contours, motion – that takes keen observation, practice. Where did they hone their skill? The pictures are incredibly beautiful. How old or young were the artists? Did they learn from someone or was it spontaneous? What were the thoughts that led to the creation? Did they have a concept of a future far ahead? Did they/he/she think of it as something to be left behind? How did they experience the seeing and the recall of the animals that came to be sketched on the wall with charcoal and red ochre? How would it have been to create in that space? Would the dark and silence have heightened their senses? There are more questions than there can be answers.
Language is beautiful, powerful and elaborate. Yet when it comes to sheer awe, perhaps aural and visual art score a little more. Their eloquence is in their capacity to reach the senses where the immediate responses are less cerebral. Words seem extraneous to the experience of that state of being. And I wonder, what other art did those people indulge in? Did the artist/artists make music, hum in languages we will never know as they painted in those dark spaces? How much time did they spend looking at the walls before the images emerged? How much time did it take to complete? Did they identify themselves as creators of the art in some fashion?
And it makes me question what would our art tell someone 32,000 years from now? Would it inspire the same awe? Would there be a coherence like the ones these paintings seem to exude? In 2020, we are a Babel of art, leaping over a multiplicity of themes, crisscrossing boundaries.
The documentary has men and women from different disciplines, trained in the ways of science but they too sense something beyond the realm of pure science, something at a more primal level. Julien Monney, one of the team present during the movie talks about “A feeling of powerful things, deep things. A way to understand things which is not a direct way.” Clottes speaks about fluidity and permeability and brings in the ideas of transformation, transmigration and the communion between the spirit and the material world. Did those anonymous artists use art as an end or as a means?
There’s the recollection of an Aborigine’s point of view that comes towards the end. The man touches up a decaying painting and a western archaeologist asks him why is he painting over it? And he tells him that he is not painting. It is the hand spirit who is actually painting. And that thought there feels like an echo of what I experience when I write whatever I write. A sense that the words come through me but are not of me.
There are a couple of disjointed scenes like the random introduction of a perfumer and crocodiles which don’t add anything much. It almost feels like the trick question in class that a teacher poses just to see who is paying attention. Post the movie, I spent some time looking at the stunning images. You can find them here
The last three days were wanderings in the cantonment. I’m not entirely sure if I am supposed to be on those roads but no one has stopped me yet. The trees there are elder ones, tall and wide. They would have been planted by people who may or may not have seen them grow to their adulthood. An act of paying forward.
The gulmohurs are still raging crimson and with the recent rains, their foliage is a refreshing green. The peepals stand grand and many of them have a shock of pale tender leaves which will turn green in a few days and the banyan’s hanging roots have also sprouted shoots. The neem fruits are ripe and there are patches of them quietly rotting on the ground. This season sees a spurt in growth of trees and I’ve often felt as though they creep to the verge. But that seems to also be their undoing as tree cutters come and chop off their branches. Many lanes are strewn with these hacked parts and they release a beautiful tree fragrance even as they bleed. These gentle beings have been around much before us and yet they’re the ones that have to be tamed into order for our convenience.
One of the trees I mourn is a babool. There used to be one outside my office window and it was the tree I looked at as I worked things out in my head. Tricky work issues, impossible personal ones but I found an anchor for the restless mind in that tree. It’s not a flamboyant species but there is a tenacity about their hardiness and usefulness. It was a problematic one for vehicles though, too close for the comfort of crazy traffic. A couple of Novembers ago that the tree fell in a storm and I mourned its loss for a long time. No one else seemed to care much but I missed the Babool every day. Every time I pass by, I see an unmarked grave, unknown to anyone except me. If you never knew the existence of that tree with a thousand tiny, yellow suns, you would never guess that it stood there for many seasons, long before there was a street.
The cantonment area is old, over 150 years and many of the trees there would be almost as old. Most of the trees in my neighbourhood are young ones in comparison. Pune loves her trees and plants, atleast most of the Puneris who have lived here for generations do. There are many groups of nature lovers and eco-friendly living has many takers. One of the houses I passed by had a hen roaming in the grounds and it was such a delightful sight. It reminded me of the tharavad in Kerala where hens would range free and suddenly there was a desire to go to the land of my foremothers. Work is remote and managed via screens. And I find myself thinking, why not move to God’s own country? Lockdown flights of fancy. We all need our escapes, I suppose.
The day’s ambling was a steady walk in the cantonment, it was a sunny day and I enjoyed the light and mild heat. Out in the streets, I look to the skies. Often there is a kite or two flying in spirals, effortlessly riding wind streams and as always, I find myself mesmerized by their elegant flight. If I were to be isolated, I think I would be able to tolerate it as long as I had a patch of sky to look at. As against this, the woods make me look to the earth and see life on ground. There is space for both. As I walked under ageless trees, I thought of age and ageing, how it is relative to the state and stages of our lives. In a strange way, the older I grow in chronological years, the lighter I feel, more childlike without the weight of tomorrow and a forgetfulness of the past. Maybe it’s the magic of the outdoors, be it in the woods or on city streets.
As expected, the virus struck close, we have three positive cases in the compound. Luckily, they haven’t sealed the place as yet. I’d miss the daily meanderings. Today’s highlight was this handsome fellow. Isn’t he gorgeous?
I’ve enjoyed barefoot running and walking for a few years now. Ofcourse I put on sandals or shoes when required but these are as lightweight as possible. After treading lightly for so long, the gum boots felt like clunky armour but the upside, I could walk without having the shoe soles getting clumped and needing to stop every now and then to shake it off. It will take a little getting used to but that seems a small price for the freedom to walk in the woods. The trail is impossible in this season for naked feet with the slippery mud as well as broken pieces of glass. A couple of dogs got injured and had to be bandaged, one of them requiring stitches. Today was a relatively dry day and the place was busy. On my way back, I stopped to watch the last few minutes of a cricket game in progress. 6 runs needed off 4 balls and the tensions were running high. That team didn’t make it. Bumped into Mr.C after long. Barring the crows and mynas and a few shrieking lapwings, there weren’t many feathered ones. Too many humans stomping about. Butterflies and dragonflies were in their usual strength and I spotted a blue moon butterfly, my first in there. I saw a young girl running and it made me very happy. On my way back, I stopped to buy groceries and saw that the neighbourhood was being shut down. The pandemic has arrived at our doorstep and we’re a containment zone now. There has been a cluster of infections and one death a few blocks away. Time to brace for impact by the looks of it. The apartment complex I live in will most likely see cases considering that there is little to no social distancing here. Kids and adults are out in large numbers in the evenings and barring the odd senior member, no one wears a mask. I wonder if this household will also be a statistic in the pandemic. There’s just so much happening all around but I find that my world has shrunk to a fullness with the outdoors, movement and words. It is enough.
Some days the world is too much with us and the centre cannot hold. Appropriating Mr. Yeats here. Why waste words when someone has already said it so beautifully?
The pandemic has not only unleashed a virus but a lethal cocktail of fear and fatigue. Its manifestation ranges from cruelty, intolerance, anxiety, grief, confusion and a plethora of other states of being, often a flux. At times, it can get too much even for incorrigible optimists. Silence is relief then. I’d read somewhere that silence is not the absence of words but the absence of thoughts. How difficult it is to be truly silent!
And so, the news has been silenced and life has been lived slowly. The frequent and sometimes long power outages have been helpful to keep the expanse of quiet and slowness of analog life moored. The woods aid that sense of anchoring. I’ve been enjoying its green heart in the rains, especially since it is almost devoid of people. No two days in there are the same, it is always fresh and new. The ground is teeming with life now so I stick to the tracks rather than stomp down on some creature. It’s messy with thin soled shoes so got a pair of wellies. Hopefully, ambling will be a little easier over the next few wet months.
A few days ago, I wrote a letter to a little boy who turns 11 later this month. Usually, letters are easy to write, it’s like speaking but occasionally I want them to be a little extra special, like this birthday special for a young man I have never met. So, I let it remain unwritten for a couple of weeks. Finally, it came to me as I lay down on the floor after practice. There was music wafting from the kid’s balcony studio. Perhaps, it was the state of mind after practice, maybe it was the music, maybe it was the morning reading or perhaps it all coalesced into a question. What is the form and substance of our lives, our living? And in that thought, I found my letter for R. Of course, not in quite so serious a manner but hopefully he will pause to consider it.
As much as it was a focal point for the letter, it became a question to myself too. I found articulation of the answer in Maudie, a movie I saw today. It is a dramatized account of Maud Lewis’ life, a folk artist from Canada. Brilliant essaying of roles by the lead actors, a gorgeous Nova Scotian landscape and beautifully restrained dialogue. There is harshness, hardship and pain yet the entire movie flows in love- quiet, slow and content. “The whole of life, framed.”
A few weeks before lock down, I had taken membership of an old library and reading room in the city. The Albert Edward Institute and Cowasjee Wadia Hall are adjacent to each other and sit snugly in a canopied compound. The first floor has been let out as consultation rooms to some city doctors. It overlooks a busy street and is neighbours with the popular Kayani Bakery and Victory cinema theatre.
The Albert Edward Institute houses a nearly 145 year old library and the Dinshaw Cowasjee reading hall was added on some years later. There is a small passage that connects the two structures. The latter has cupboards built into the walls to hold books although it is fewer in number. Between the two, the subjects range from science to philosophy, social sciences and literature. While the main library is functional only in the mornings and afternoons, the reading hall is open all day from about 9am to 8:30pm. It is outdated as far as facilities go – no wifi, no permission to charge your devices, poor lighting, lazy ceiling fans. There is some noise from the traffic that streams in through the window but mornings and afternoons are generally peaceful. It has a charm about it and perhaps the intense energy of focus and concentration of many heads makes it conducive to work without distractions. The few times I used the place to work and read, I found that I accomplished a lot more than I do at home. If I shut my eyes, I see a sepia tinted photograph of the place and it feels expansive and still. Note to self, check with the librarian if there are any historical records.
Pune streets are strewn with history with old temples, houses from the period of British rule and wadas. Most of them are ill maintained and in varying states of disrepair. Perhaps it is their everyday presence which makes it less of heritage for the average Punekar. The city is best seen on foot and besides the architectural beauty, there are a great many trees and plants, growing wild as also in carefully manicured gardens.
The collection in the main library seemed eclectic as I browsed through it before I signed up but I’ll have to wait to explore more. There are over 20,000 old tomes as well as spanking new ones jostling against each other in wooden cupboards that groan under the weight of their spines. The dusty portraits of grim old men stare and a mildly wild imagination can conjure up images of watchful eyes following all the readers, making sure they don’t snuck a book or two.
The reading hall has long wooden tables down the centre of the hall and generous sized single ones along the walls. The day’s newspapers remain on the centre table. It’s usually filled with students hard at work, making notes and cramming information. Most of the single tables are stacked with thick tomes on economics, political science, computer science etc. It also sees the odd middle aged academics, researchers but they’re fewer. The senior citizens are usually found in the verandah outside the hall as most of the places inside are taken up by the younger ones. They sit with the newspapers, lounging on the chairs outside and often in quiet conversation with each other.
I had just started to get familiar with the reading hall and was hoping to get to speak with the librarian to find out more about the place but it will have to wait now. In terms of social distancing, it would meet the norms with the tables being wide as well as long and sufficient distance between the plastic chairs.
This morning there were a few tasks to be done outside home and decided to pass by the library. And as usual, took the long route home passing by some favourite houses and trees.
I stopped at a bakery to pick cake for S who completes 74 trips around the sun today. She is the funnest old person I know, her life story is chapter after chapter of adventures across the globe but that’s for another day. Maybe if she agrees, I will write it just for the pleasure of reading it. Just for today, it was a delight to see her face light up when she opened the door. Friendship is truly a gift.