This morning, I was awakened by the fragrance of the parijat in the balcony. Maybe it peaks in the wee hours of the morning, I don’t know. But, smell pervaded the day in all its textures. Mother cooking food, junglee roses in the garden, paints, the woods and piping hot medu vadas.
The woods smell different at different times, the air in there varies too. Sometimes there is a viscosity, at others a lightness. The breeze can be loud like the ocean or then imperceptible and ranges from warm to cool. Often, there are little swirls of wind currents that don’t match the general direction of the larger flow. I’d feel it really strongly when barefoot.
The trail was devoid of any walkers as expected. Pune rains though generally mild, make it easy to sit at home and watch the grey pitter-patter. Out in the woods, the rain has a soothing sound as the drops hit the ground, the tones depending on what surface they meet.
There is more green now, different kinds of grasses and little plants or weeds depending on how one sees them. It’s always fascinating how plants and trees lie dormant until it is time for them to wake up. Right now, there are a few hundred thousand seeds that have burst open from the pods in the woods. Many have been stamped into the pathways and across the length and breadth of the little urban wild. Perhaps a few will take root and go on to survive into adulthood. Most will not. I find thoughts like that too, dormant until woken up and like the innumerable seeds, they too remain scattered in a continuous churn far below the surface, coming up only when the moment calls. The mind truly is a wonderful instrument but it can also be thoroughly unreliable.
An interesting sensation was the rain on my head, first time on a bald pate and the soundtrack that was on repeat loop on my lips was Raindrops keep falling on my head…
Time out in the open provides a much needed balance to the weight of the screen. I got to know about Covid deaths of family members of some people I worked with recently. And terribly tragic too, one of them a woman who delivered a baby about week ago. At such times, the statistics come closer and start to feel more personal. In another case, a young man, the son of an acquaintance took his life because living became unbearable in isolation. I can’t even begin to imagine how terribly lonely he might have been. How do parents cope with the loss of a child?
How much transpires in a day? Highs, lows, joys, sorrows, terrible news and exquisite beauty. And all transient, none permanent.
Sometime last month, life nudged and I rearranged my days to include more physical activity and slowly it has settled into a nice rhythm of work and play. This morning I spent close to 3 hours on my mat, first with an hour of class with my teacher and then self-practice. Large chunks of asana time like this don’t happen always and when it does, it leaves me feeling really good.
There were errands to run today and the teen decided to accompany me. We both enjoy a decent ‘chakkar’ around the cantonment and she handles the music when we’re out. Often, we sing along and at times she gets mildly embarrassed when I get carried away. A bigger consternation is when I sing made up lyrics rather than the original one and it gets stuck in her head. A mild annoyance now but maybe she’ll remember it with a smile when she’s much older and I’m no longer around.
There’s almost always something playing while I drive, music or then tracts of chants I wish to memorize or podcasts. These days the drives are pleasure trips and so it is music, the volume usually a tad higher than what it should be and I sing along without a care. Today’s highlight was What’s Up from the 90’s and a favourite as a teen. Something the youngling was playing reminded me of this song and I asked her to play it. I found myself singing along and caught in its sound so much so that I parked under a gulmohur tree to belt the rest of it out without any distraction. It felt like a concert right there and the kid was shocked that I could let go like that. Just for those few minutes, there was nothing except the song, the singing and pure abandon. I felt wildly happy for no reason.
And then the next thought was that I shouldn’t be feeling good when there is unhappiness and pain in the world. A guilt that crept in saying, how can you be so full of life when there’s so much distress and chaos in the world? Truth is even before the pandemic, there was much suffering. Just that in the lockdown there was more time to notice it. Homebound and ready access to news in real time just made it more visible and loud. If the planet is noisy with our voices, imagine what it might sound like if every byte had sound too. It would be positively deafening! It’s ironic that I add to the same strange online world that I look at in amazement. Much of the noise has a very short shelf life, the feed feeds on itself and never pauses. There’s also the fastest finger first syndrome which shouts first and then checks on veracity, sometimes costing lives but there seems to be a shrugging it off as acceptable loss. I watch the parrying between opposite sides of whatever is the discussion and its the intolerance that strikes me every time. For all the viciousness that is exchanged, there’s a new fire that rages even before the current one has died down. I see fear and rage feeding into a frenzy of anxiety, making it a vicious cycle and negating the possibility of reasonable disagreement.
So, what can I do? I don’t know. A few thoughts from some of the media I consumed play in circles, a sportsman’s statement of not being an activist but focusing on his craft, a Jesuit writer speaking about finding one’s calling and a French Tibetan monk who speaks of happiness as encompassing sadness. All these different thoughts resonated and reinforced the idea of individual action within the limited universe I inhabit, small acts of full presence. And it begins with taking care of myself so I can serve however I am called.
This care takes the form of nature, slow words, art and movement to feed the mind, heart and body, all of which have a longevity and stability, pandemic or not. Simple food that the body, mind and heart need for its well-being. I find time spent outdoors, on the mat, creative pursuit and in books that stand the test of time most rewarding in their expansive silences and ability to remain energetic. Most of all, they allow happiness as a way of being.
S is one of my young friends and I enjoy her company immensely. Actually her mother is my friend and over the years, S and I discovered that we liked hanging out too. We’ve been meaning to go to the trail together for a long while and were waiting for the end of lock down to do so. Finally, we made it this afternoon and she was excited to see parts of it that she had never seen before. I was equally chuffed to show my favourite spots and sights too. Soon after we entered the woods, it started to rain, a passing shower against a sunny sky. And we were treated to a rainbow so close that we could almost walk through the light! By the time we thought to take a picture, it disappeared but it was such a delight. It was an even greater thrill to see her enjoy the greens and stones and gambol like a free animal.
We walked through the rain, got a little drenched and it soon passed away. The sun dried us quickly enough and we continued walking. We sighted this poser who stayed like that for the longest time, he was so well camouflaged that we almost missed him. Much of the teeming life in the woods is hidden in plain sight and unless you are aware, they can be invisible. This one seems to be a fan throated lizard of some kind but I’m not sure. Happy to know more if anyone can identify this one.
We continued towards the tree I like to sit by and she got to listen to ocean sounds in the tree tops and the creaking of their branches. I enjoy solitary walks but these jaunts with the young ones are special too in the opportunity they provide to share my love for the outdoors. In a natural way, it also becomes a kind of teaching experience when I can pass on what I’ve learned from the flora and fauna around. I’m no expert on the species in there and am learning as I go. It’s nice to pass on the sense of curiosity and I hope they retain the magic of not knowing and wanting to find out as they grow into adults.
We were on our way back with a bag full of trash and saw a police van with a few of the force carrying a couple of large bags. They had come to release a couple of snakes that were caught in their compound and so we got to see a beautiful yellow rat snake, dhamin as it is called in Marathi. We weren’t allowed to take pictures as one of them was holding it for security reasons but S got to touch a live snake! We watched it being released into the wild and then one of the cops asked if we wanted to see a scorpion which was captured as well and we got to see that one too up close. Here’s a picture.
Just as we thought we had a good day on the trail, we got to see one more infrequent visitor, the black ibis. S was thrilled beyond measure and now wants to come as often as I can pick her up. I was caught up in her excitement too, it’s heartening when these kids discover the pleasure of the open. All my life, I’ve considered myself a perpetual student, needing to understand more, know more but somewhere along the way I discovered that I have learned enough to share too. In the woods, it is a natural activity that unfolds quite organically, making the exchange very relaxed and pleasurable. The sensory inputs also make for more vivid recollection where it’s not just a new piece of information which has been gathered but also an emotional memory which has been made. More than them, I am rewarded as I become a child again.
But why should we label artists as belonging to some place or by their sexual orientation? Inevitable, how gender, caste/race and class inevitably come up to introduce the creator of art in all reviews. By knowing the background of the artist, perhaps unconsciously our lens adjusts itself to respond to their art in a manner that comes from biases, both aware and unaware. In the wake of creative people who have since become infamous for their sexual offences, there is a conflict between how one views the creator and the creation. And then the question follows, should art be seen separate from the artist’s life?
I’m not an artist and have no understanding of technique, history or philosophy of art. All I know is how I respond to it mostly at a visceral level. And it remains just that, a personal response, often intuitive and completely subjective. Yesterday was a cocktail of different stimuli, yoga- shared and studied, work, an interesting webinar (first time I listened in to one while sitting in the woods), a quiet movie, some reading and an essay on an artist.
That last one there piqued my curiosity and I spent time looking through the artist’s website, www.salmantoor.com . It’s not the kind of art I might go seeking but something compelled me to dwell on it for a while. A few themes from many aspects of my day echoed in his work. The day saw two triads of thought, Gender, Race and Class was one and the other was exclusion, exploitation and expendability. These are playing out loudly on a world stage at present but closer home, the story has been the same in my small universe of work. For now, they’ll just simmer until that post writes itself out.
Back to the artist, I felt there was a thread of an essential loneliness in the subjects of his art. Some solitary and awake, some asleep, some in twos or in groups but disconnected-connected. There was an overarching sense of a resigned aloneness of each individual, an underscoring of the impossibility to ever truly share space, awake, asleep or in dreams. Even in intimacy between two people, there is a movement towards separation, a parting that is implicit.
All his paintings are of people and the bookshelf ones also have people in photo frames. Something about them reminds me of a Van Goghian anxiety and there is a drawing into his world with a colour wash of greens and quick facial features, particularly the sense organs. The bodies seem to be treated with a pallor of disregard, an indifference and the backgrounds have an emptiness of urban spaces even when crowded with people.
I didn’t find sadness as much as I found a capturing of something like apathy, there is hope yet. It feels as if the paintings are a seeking that has not found its destination yet and as a viewer I want to know the outcome. I want it to be of resolution but there’s also the possibility that it will never come. The tableaus are a playing out of images of ideas of what might be thought of as revelry through a debauchery, reminiscent of opulent pasts in a present continuum with the paraphernalia of a global 21st century, including the ubiquitous cell phone.
The trees where they appear are barren almost always. Blues and browns make up much of his colours besides the green. The orange-white pairing when it occurs feels like the possibility of something outside the normal a slight elevation perhaps, of a different response but there appears to be no definite outcome yet. Through all of the works I saw on his site, I experienced the painter in the paintings, as much a part of the pigments in the canvas as his subjects. Some of the paintings that caught my attention almost immediately were Immigration men, Boy in Window. Floating Shelf II (this felt like a peek into the artist), Confession and the Green Bar. Needless to say, these are just personal musings that found their way here and in no way a review, I am not qualified to do so. And all of this meandering is probably way off what the artist intended.
Since it’s been an arty post, here’s a recent water colour on paper by the resident artist.
And just like that June is one week old! Today was a complete rest day but I was up at an insanely early hour thanks to an impossibly early night. So, a morning walk seemed like a good idea and the youngling decided to accompany me. We caught a sunrise out in the open after months. I saw the teen at a little distance and realized with a start that she’s grown quite tall! She suddenly seems more older and I think I must be too. It’s funny how the mind and body perceive age, sometimes very differently. We spoke about many things, mostly art and music, running, religion and she had questions about my life as a teenager. It’s interesting how memories lie below the surface ready to come up, quite like the dormant life that has been sprouting green all across the forest floor.
She mentioned some song and I remembered RSJ, a music magazine founded by the artiste’s father. It was one that I would pore over with a friend. Back then, the publication was novel and we would share a single copy but it was a short lived shared pleasure as life took us both different ways. The 90’s were a wild, interesting time to be a teenager; actually maybe it’s the teenage years that are wild. Thankfully, there were no mobile phones then and all that is remembered remains as sepia tinted memories rather than inerasable photographic evidence.
Since the rains, the trail has been teeming with life and it’s always in motion. All life is movement, every breath, an inhale and an exhale. Stop that movement and you cease to be, plant or animal. And yet, there is stillness in motion. I found it while running or swimming, I find it in asana as also in writing by hand or doing the dishes. It’s a different inhabiting of the body and mind, one that is not quite finite.
I almost went for a walk in the neighbourhood in the evening but changed my mind when I saw the crowds as also the disregard for social distancing and masks by many, especially the young. While it was heart warming to see them in their robustness of youth, it was also worrisome as it appeared as though they had let down their guard completely. I suppose it is inevitable after such an extended lock down and we’ll just have to brace for a new wave of infections.
This year has pretty much been written off in terms of old routine. The child’s school has nothing planned yet for the new academic year and she’s not complaining. Neither am I. Recently she pointed out that all her friends who had something that they liked doing seemed to have done ok during the lockdown. She has her art and found ways to adapt when art supplies were low. A lovely young doctor friend who was stuck in Pune began a podcast , check out Dr. Gypsy here on Gloves Off (Real doctors, undoctored opinions). A passionate doctor since the time I’ve known Dr. G and it comes through even now. We’ve shared a few runs and many coffees together.
As for me, I have spaces like this where I think aloud besides walks and yoga. Volunteering and a little work wrapped up the remaining time. While the head and heart remained steady, sleep got disrupted but that seemed more a function of packing too much in a day. I also found it difficult to watch any movies or shows, perhaps because the eyes were tired. Sometimes, it would take 3 days to watch one movie in installments! The last couple of weeks have been easier as I consciously rearranged my day to increase leisure time. And the woods have helped, as always.
Today, it was bugs day out! And predictably a lot of birds were having a field day. I saw a black ibis, lots of green bee eaters, four or five smaller birds that I couldn’t identify at a distance besides the regulars. Ants were busy everywhere, on the ground, on trees and crickets were leaping all over the place. There were a few butterflies too and gorgeous dragonflies, spotted about 4 different varieties, a lovely crimson one, a couple of blues, a few amber ones and some goldenish green ones. The first creepy crawly that I laid my eyes on though was a red velvet mite as it moved on the ground.
There was just so much life in the woods today and it was a symphony of different sounds. There were hardly any people save for a group of young men playing cricket and a couple of bikers. Most days, I am the only woman in the woods for a long time until a few of them come in twos or threes. But in there, I become genderless, one with the ground and wind. Ever since I went bald, I feel outside of the limitations of gender as though along with the hair, something else also was freed. In this country few women choose to go bald and it is associated with widows, renunciates, those undergoing treatment for cancer or then those with a non-heterosexual orientation. Going bald for was a spontaneous decision and I found I like it. It’s non-fussy and looks like it might remain this way for some time to come.
The only thing that stopped me before was meetings outside but with work calls coming into homes, there is a diluting of the work persona. I found that professional relationships have become a little more personal. An interesting work call was one where there were four of us and three were bald! One of my yoga teachers and his entire family (wife and two kids) also turned bare headed and it was the sweetest picture I saw during the lock down. I suppose this encounter with uncertainty and mortality has allowed people to let go of many fixed ideas about life and work.
I roam the woods as though it’s my playground and I catch myself appropriating the wild as mine even if it is in my thoughts. It’s so easy to slip into this sense of feeling at home in a place that is free. I think of a tree as ‘my tree’ even though it is not mine and am reminded of the concept of aparigraha. Sometimes possessiveness is not things but beliefs and thoughts and these are as binding as actual things. As I reflected on the thought, a spill over from yesterday’s reading, I ambled to the southern end of the woods and saw the most delightful sight, a dog sitting in the shade of a tree. There was also a shirish with some flowers still on it, they have a lovely mild fragrance. In full bloom, they scent many streets of Pune. The strong winds had broken quite a few neem branches and I picked some fruits off the ground. The grass has already started to sprout and soon it will become tall as the rains set in completely. I do hope to see it through the season, hopefully there will be enough days that are not too wet. And the next time, I should remember to carry a pair of binoculars.
It’s a blessing to have this patch of green to disappear into, to become a child again, full of amazement. Some days, poetry erupts while there and I have no choice but to note it down as it writes itself. These walks have never been for fitness but an escape into wonder and a suspension from life as a city dweller. And so there’s no thought of time and it ends whenever I feel like it. In fact, over the last couple of weeks three hours have been set aside expressly for this purpose and it is sacrosanct even if I don’t go out. Today was a little over a couple of hours and I didn’t realize it until I got back home. At one time, I’d have covered about 4 times the distance in that time but now I don’t even think of distance. It’s time, elastic time unbound by anything except having my fill of a space that is special.
After long, the thought of my father’s ancestral lands came unbidden, fertile green acres in a forgotten corner of a tiny sliver called God’s own country, which now belong to some stranger. And I found myself thinking it may be nice to have a patch of wild to slip into right in one’s backyard. Perhaps the sea nearby and undulating rolling greens as far as the eye can see…
One of the things I took for granted as someone who lived in Bombay for over two decades was 24/7 access to electric power. Pune was different as I discovered when I moved here a few years back. Once a week, usually on Thursdays, there would be an outage from about 10 in the morning to 5 in the evening. And in the monsoons, any time we had rain a little more than a drizzle, it would go off. I never figured out if it was a preventive act or one of a breakdown. It didn’t matter since I had backup which could power up lights and fans and charging points.
Yesterday, we had heavy winds and lashing rain and the power went out sometime in the morning. It was restored only post noon today, a little more than 24 hours without electricity. My current place has no backup and all the devices drained out quickly considering they were in use from 6 in the morning for class and work. Half written documents, notes and e-mails sat inside my screen and I shut the lid on them. Afterwards, I lay on my bed and watched the clouds hurtle past, the winds were really strong and it seemed like they were being herded along.
One of the nice things about my present home is a small terrace balcony attached to my room. It faces a green patch and I wake up to an expanse of sky and treetops. The woods here have many winged creatures, both visiting and resident and it is a delight to watch them. There is a pair of grey hornbills that comes by sometimes and a family of 7 peafowls call it home. Some evenings they fly their bulk to the top branches of the trees as they prepare to rest for the night. This is in addition to a whole host of common birds like drongos, bulbuls, koels, sunbirds, crows, mynas etc.
But in the last few weeks, clouds have caught my fancy. They were always fun to watch but in the mood of these times, they also became a point of contemplation. I’ve been watching them lately and when there’s no distraction, it makes for a fascinating viewing. The white ones were sunbathing companions while the grey ones have been viewed best from my room. The edges diffuse, disintegrate and disappear into the sky, like the cracks between continents as they moved into the shapes we are familiar with today.
It made me think of disintegration. As I clean up the trail, I pick up plastic items in varying stages of decomposition. Plastics, paper, foil, cloth, laminated packs etc. all have a different rate of ageing and decay. It speaks of a passage of time and there’s a sense of measure I get looking at their state. Not so with the glass bottles and fragments. I did manage to salvage a few interesting looking bottles and they now hold greens in my house. The youngling was inspired enough to attempt a second oil painting looking at it one night.
And then I see the death and decomposition of dried leaves and flowers on the forest floor. First the intact dry crunchiness until it disappears into the soil, becoming part of the mud. But it takes time. Relationships also disintegrate- marriages, friendships, familial bonds too. It is just the nature of things, the blossoming, the dropping off, decay and disintegration and final disappearance. Sometimes it happens slowly, at other times fast but eventually if nothing else it disintegrates with the death of one or the other. In a larger context, there is breakdown whether in political or economic power. Old technology gives way for new and the cycle continues.
Rains are welcome after the heat but they are also a more introspective time. It feels like the middle of the monsoons right now with the grey skies and clammy weather. Perfect for adrak waali chai and bhajiyas. Maybe I’ll make some today. Yesterday was for snuggling under a blanket and reading the most delightful book, A man called Ove. I meant to read it after little K did but the book disappeared in the pile of her mad artisty things. It is such an endearing read, so much so that I sat by candle light to devour it until my eyes were tired.
Reading in that light reminded me of a few summer holidays at one of my aunt’s homes in Kerala. She lived near the beautiful Periyar river in one of the hillier districts in Kerala. As city children, we were enamoured with the lush green and flowing waters. The section near her house had a rocky river bed and the waters were so clear that we could see our bodies in it when we would bathe in it. In the distance, was a rolling hill and beyond a dense forest where elephants lived. The houses there were the last to receive electricity and as children we were equal parts fascinated and repulsed with the lack of modern conveniences. We were city kids who lived in sterile houses.
Now, I find a little longing for a similar slow existence but would I be able to live like that? One day is novelty but to actively choose such a way of life, I’m not sure I have it in me but then I’m not sure I don’t either. It does simplify life to its bare essentials and provides much time and space to live in rhythm with the day and seasons. There is more opportunity for a living meditation so to speak. Perhaps I might upgrade to such an existence, hopefully sooner rather than later but that’s still in a future and I don’t even know what today will unfurl.
There’s a bit of a cell phone declutter happening yet again and after the first couple of days, I wonder why do I go back after these month long breaks. The world is too much right now and knowing what’s happening doesn’t change anything. All it does is make one spout updates. What does it add but empty noise to a screaming world? Life still goes on in its messy spirals whether one is relatively insulated from a pandemic and other violence or thrown right into its boiling centre. It is wearying and staying away from the onslaught of information has increased focus and concentration. Maybe this time could be better used to grow inwards and be of assistance in the most basic of ways, by a fuller presence.
The trail was wet today. We’ve had slow rain since yesterday and the mud has become soft, like a belly on which children like to rest their heads. This kind of rain is reminiscent of Pune monsoons until a few years ago. Lately, the weather patterns had changed to mimic Bombay rains, heavy and incessant which would make sludge of the trail and then dry into hard packed soil when the sun would get out. Slow, soft rain is gentle, teasing the soil to open up to receive footprints and leave clumps of soil on soles of feet or shoes, maybe with seeds that have flown from bursting pods?
Mynas, drongos, the crow pheasant and crows (both varieties) were out in much larger numbers than usual today, they’re noisy. The cicadas were also louder than usual and I heard 3 or 4 different sounds. The strays were missing today. I didn’t expect to see too many people considering the rains but there were a couple of boisterous groups. It means more litter inevitably. Another really sad sight is the broken branches. It’s the handiwork of those who come for firewood. There are plenty of dried twigs and branches on the forest floor but those are abandoned and live ones are butchered. I suppose it makes it easier to carry. Alongside this is also the happier sight of smaller trees, the neems in particular growing near larger ones. Small rebellions of life erupting amidst the glyricidia.
As I walked about, I thought about my day until then. It began with yoga as a shared and studied practice, cooking a meal, a few working hours, a talk on handicrafts and finally the trail. All of them have one thing in common, they are slow. Yoga for me has been an extremely slow progression through various stages of fitness, injury, rehabilitation and health. Cooking is always a simple affair and from scratch. My work involves changing attitudes in menstrual health and hygiene and is a long term project. Handicrafts and handlooms are slow arts and the woods take their time in the making.
All these various facets of my living have a longish horizon and in the short term there is a chipping away at them from different angles, sort of like sculpting. Most of the time, there is very little to see as progress until one fine day, there is a breakthrough and I step back to see a whole picture rather than a part of it. Working on the part, the whole is worked upon be it body or mind. It’s the same in the making of many handicrafts and the trail is a sum of many different parts, mobile and immobile. There is the passage of time implicit in their becoming and at any stage, the shape taken by these is a sum of many different parts.
In yoga poses, it begins with very gross actions of the muscular system and progresses to quieter, internal work. Artisans working with their craft spend years perfecting their skill, beginning with learning the different tasks of their art. The forest is a continuum of birth, growth, decay, destruction and regeneration. There’s also the element of individual effort be it on the mat or of the creatures that make the green spaces.
In these times of a pandemic, it again boils down to the individual. We see it as people question their lives and choices. In today’s talk, Laila Tyabji touched upon Swadesi and it’s a word that is a separate post in itself. While there is a collective or community aspect to all of the above, it is a sum of many individuals too, be it arms and legs working together in an asana or a wood carver and block printer or then the stones and birds, insects and plants in the woods.
There is much that is terrible in the world right now both man made and nature designed. In the face of nature’s fury, one has to acquiesce and brace for impact. As to human inflicted violence, I don’t have an answer. Neither shows any sign of abating. Literally and metaphorically, this year has been stormy to say the least. But in the midst of the wildly careening world, my days are quieter. I’ve had time to rearrange my routine to have an increased component of the physical rather than just the cerebral, both in work and play. And that makes me glad to work with what I can experience with all my senses.