We’re in for another lockdown, this time a ‘strict’ one, starting 14th July for ten days. This time, it’s supposed to be even more stringent than Lockdown 1.0. So, the streets were chaos, the market place already out of stock and people in panic mode.
While the city got busy shopping, I went out into the woods and favourite streets to soak in some sights before being confined again. Some pictures got shot on the phone, the others remain stored in memory.
Nine years to the day since my father passed away. It seems like a long time ago now. A couple of days ago, I was talking to one of the siblings and she wanted me to go over the events of the day he died. It was a Monday. He had had cataract surgery in the morning and it went well. Later in the day, an ultrasound showed a massive aneurysm. Mother called me from the hospital and I rushed there from work, a good 2-3 hours in Bombay’s viscous traffic. He was on the 10th floor and the elevators had unending lines considering the visiting hours. So, I ran up the stairs, not sure if he’d be alive, the aneurysm was a ticking bomb. He should have been dead months before if the size of that thing was any indication.
But there he was, leaning against the headboard of his bed, quite cheerful. He was a happy-go-lucky sorts and always good humoured. It took a lot to rile him. It was impossible to feel horrible in his company, he had a way of making you feel good about yourself. Perhaps, that’s why we always had people visiting. Young, elderly, new acquaintances, old friends and relatives, the house was always open. Sometimes the visitors were long term and as kids, we resented having to share space in an already cramped two bedroom apartment. Often, we had people from the neighbourhood as well as visitors from out of town dropping in for a meal or a cup of weak Malayali chai. The Gulf War days saw a lot of people use our home as a transit house. In retrospect, I see how generous my parents were especially in times when they were in a tight spot financially.
I was glad to see him in good spirits and we chatted for a couple of hours. I got my parents to agree to wait until I came back the next morning to drop them home. It was around 8ish in the night and dad forced me to leave, saying that traffic would be bad. So, goodbyes were said and we waited for the elevator. Mother was upset considering that there was no real treatment we could get for him, with all the complications he had. She is a worrier as much as dad winged it through life. We discussed options as we waited for the elevator to ding on the floor. While waiting, an ayah passed by and asked if the patient in bed number 13 was related to us and we said no. She grumbled saying that the man was lying down with the plate on the bed and had made a mess. Dad was in bed number 12. Later, we figured that she got the bed number wrong. It was dad who was sprawled in that fashion. He had died almost as soon as we left the room.
I was at the hospital gate when mother called. The first time around, it was blank and I thought it might be a mistake; the second time, she just cried and managed to say, “he’s gone”. Long story short, I rushed back to his room. There was a crowd of doctors and nurses trying to resuscitate him. I could only see his feet and they had changed colour. He was gone. Someone removed his wrist watch to find a vein and gave it to me and I put it in my bag. I would discover it after a couple of weeks and it has remained with me ever since. I wanted to tell the medicos to let him go but they had to do the hospital thing and leave no stone unturned. Saving a life is a messy affair and has little dignity for the body. For the next hour, they tried everything till it was finally time to call the time of death. And just like that dad became a body, no longer a person.
While recounting this to the sibling, she asked me what I felt then. I don’t recollect feeling anything. I was glad that he didn’t suffer and went in a flash. Mother was in shock though, the last few years of her life revolved around him. The night was long, my brother arrived from Bangalore in a few hours and by the time we were finished with all the paperwork and calls to the undertaker etc., it was almost early morning. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I managed to have enough sense to eat something. It was simply easy to take charge of the situation and tick off things. Crises are perhaps easier to handle than emotions.
Dad was buried on a rainy Thursday. The house was packed with mourners, I was surprised at the people who showed up despite the bad weather. They came from all over the city and country. A cabbie, maids who helped out, security guards, friends, extended family and the church community, including one of my more recent friends all the way from Goa. They all had stories of his kindness, generous tips, a patient ear, help to get started, advice and so on. I had only known him as a father and through the experiences of all these other people, I started to see a person who was liked and loved by many. I loved my father although I never told him that and I am fairly certain he knew it. He was an awkward hugger and his would be a bumbling daddy hug topped with a kiss on my head. I find I unconsciously do that to some people I hug. A tiny benediction of a kiss.
That afternoon, we stood by the freshly dug grave and I watched the rain drops as they fell. It appeared as though in slow motion. My sister spoke on behalf of the family, she’s a natural. While everyone watched him on his final journey, I found myself going back to the night in the ICU when I bid him goodbye, alone. I continued to watch the rain pelt the coffin. It was a typical tropical downpour and the grave was flooded so much so that the coffin had to be weighed down with stones. I wondered what if he came alive and found that not only was the coffin shut but there were huge stones on top of it. Would he think that we had left him to be dead forever? Gravesides have their own kind of thoughts, on death, dying and being left behind. Warped, some of them. It was evening by the time we reached the house but there was barely any time to even sit as the father-in-law had taken a turn for the worse. He would pass away in 5 days. In one week, I lost two fathers. Both quiet men who let their actions do the talking.
I think of my father often, his thoughts are present in his favourite foods, Christmas time, the smell of whiskey, in quiet moments when I stare out as he would look out from his wooden easy chair. I don’t think I miss him too much now, not in the way it used to be a rude hole in the region of the heart, not in the way I wished I could have the abandon of a child sucking her fingers and snug in his arms. In the last nine years, much changed in all our lives. A nephew born after his passing away reminds me of my father, he has that same charm. Mother gets a little misty this time of the year but a pandemic has kept her distracted as has a new place to call home. She still needs solemnity of loss while I like to celebrate a simple, uncomplicated life.
I never found the time to grieve him as I lost the father-in-law soon after. It was a chaotic time, buried one father and then had to cremate another. A Christian funeral and a Hindu one with its elaborate Brahminical rites and rituals. At the time, the rituals were a pain but I see that both the spouses needed the comfort of age old customs of public grieving. It was nearly 3 weeks by the time all that was over and the guests departed. I thought I could sit down and mourn the losses but found that the time had passed. I hadn’t shed a tear and now there was nothing to grieve.
Strangely, mourning happened in small, leaky sorrows every time I attended the funeral of a friend’s parent. Waiting as one of the crowd, my mind had the opportunity to be present in an environment of grief and allow the sadness to rise. It never felt done until one Christmas. The brother and I pulled out old family albums and looked at them with mom. The sister got to see some of them via messages halfway around the world. Technology can be a wonderful thing too. That season, there was some closure for all of us, a sense of being able to move on. Else, all special days were fraught with the weight of an absence.
I wonder if any of his friends remember him now. It’s been a while and our memories tend to get overwritten with current relationships. Life grows around loss adding layers of newer experiences. Eventually, the loss becomes like a fossil, imprinted deep and looked at only when excavating old memories. This evening, I went for a walk and the woods were lush. The grass has grown quite tall in patches and I almost stepped on a snake! It reminded me of my father’s house in Kerala, fertile green acres of teak and coconut, jackfruit and mango trees. I wish I had the opportunity to walk on that land with him and listen to stories of his growing up directly from him. Maybe this is missing him.
Over the last few months, the food on my plate has slowly gone back to the food I ate as a child, thanks to the mater. She loves to cook and feed people and prepares meals that hark back to when she was a younger woman feeding three growing children and a house that was always open. We often had long term visitors as well as people dropping in for a cup of chai. Meals were prepared in large quantities to account for the inevitable visitor or two. It was probably a carryover tradition from the ancestral homes with large families.
Those kitchens were marked into clearly defined areas for cooking, storing and prepping. In my grandmother’s kitchen, she cooked with firewood and the area always smelled comforting. It must not have been very comfortable for those doing the cooking thought as it wasn’t very well ventilated. Pieces of meat and fish would hang over the pots as they slowly dried to be used during the wet months. As city kids who came from homes with compact kitchens, it was exciting to watch the sparks fly as the fire would be stoked. It’s still mesmerizing to see the dance of fire.
Circa 2020, my mother feeds me and mine with foods that used to be childhood favourites like puttu and pazham, kappa puzhungi (steamed tapioca) with chamandi (chutney), ethakka appam (plantain fritters), idiyappam (string hoppers), chakka kuru manga (a curry with jackfruit seeds and mangoes), moru kachiyathu (cooked buttermilk) etc. I barely made them before she came to live with me, the tastes of the youngling are more urban and generic. She didn’t care for the unique texture or food combinations and I couldn’t be bothered to make two different kinds of meals.
The kid hasn’t really warmed to those old foods but I’ve rediscovered those tastes and textures. It also reminds me of my father. Puttu and pazham were a favourite breakfast item but as a child, I couldn’t get around to mashing the banana into the puttu. Dad would do it for me and when it was a nice sticky mass, I’d dig in happily. As even smaller kids, we would have hot rice, ghee and salt mixed and made into small balls to pick and eat. It’s yummy even for adults.
Food has been revered and there exists a rich tradition in their preparation, presentation, consumption etc. but we’ve lost much of those practices to convenience. Elders are needed to continue traditions that are worth saving but it’s tougher now with nuclear families. Perhaps, the loss began with the breaking up of joint families. These days even the nuclear families have fragmented into single person units or fractured families as members live across different cities or countries due to work or study.
The act of cooking together and eating together also faded as appliances reduced the need for increased time in the kitchen. Plus, ‘healthy eating’ was simpler, it didn’t call for elaborate or time consuming prepping. I’m a reluctant cook, a basic one at that and can subsist on simple fare. But, it’s always nice to taste all those old foods once again and have my fill of them too. Maybe, get mother to write down those recipes for me. Maybe someday, I may want to experiment with old food.
Leaving with a quote from one of my favourite Upanishads,
From food all beings are born, having been born, they grow by (consuming) food. Food is that which is eaten by the beings and also that which in the end eats them; therefore, food is called annam.
Over the weeks, I’ve consciously reduced consumption of the written word, sticking mostly to study texts and work related reading. I’ve also resisted the urge to buy more books and instead finish the ones I have or reread those that call for a second reading. There’s been a withdrawal of sorts happening right in the middle of my life with everything else as is, almost a parallel living. One firmly in the world outside and the other in an inner world. Yesterday, I experimented with not writing a single word just to stay with silence. It was incredibly hard. Truly, silence is not the absence of noise, it’s the absence of thought as I read somewhere! The urge to pull out my book or screen was very compelling but I didn’t, choosing to let memory record them as mental notes instead. Maybe that’s why sleep was unsatisfactory. Perhaps, that’s a cue to work on letting go of the attachment to the act of writing?
On an average day, words are strewn about on my blogs, journals, letters etc. They number up to a fair bit, often unruly and raw. It’s almost a compulsion- this need to capture the fragments of my days, thoughts, opinions, contemplation, practice notes, scraps of imagination etc. Maybe I’m afraid of forgetting, maybe it’s a way of keeping record or then it is just a journal of my experiments in living. They are an essential part of my day. The thought of not indulging in them is uncomfortable, strange how sometimes attachment can be to things without substance. At the end of my days, will it matter what I thought or wrote? But here I am, continuing to fill pages, leaving markers of a period in time where I occupied some space.
A couple of evenings ago, a friend came over. We met after a few weeks. I love it when she calls to say, “I’m coming over, will have coffee.” While I prefer a strong shot of black, she prefers filter coffee and I enjoy the slow process of making it happen. The smell of coffee as boiling water is poured into the filter, the clang of tongs and the vessel as they are set down, the sound of milk coming to a boil and the whoosh as it settles down. Finally, the long pouring of coffee into two cups. It’s an incredible sensory experience.
S was the first friend I made in this city and as our tentative acquaintance found common ground, she and her family became mine too. Slowly, the pieces of our lives grew like a comfortable patchwork quilt.
She is an amazing culinary artist, we met over food on a now defunct food platform. It was an idea just a little before its time. I did a feature on her and in the course of our conversations, discovered that we shared a common love for flowers. There’s something about fresh stems which makes any living space light up. The last lot she got had yellow snapdragons, uncommon in the Pune market. Usually, it’s a mix of tuberoses, gladioli, liliums, chrysanthemums and whatever wild flowers are in season. Sometimes, we would toss it up with roses, carnations, orchids etc.
Once a week or fortnight, we’d head out to the market and lose our heads over the gorgeous blooms, always returning with more than we needed. Eventually, we got our quantities down to a pat and still later, we became even more efficient with one person shopping for the two of us. But that efficiency killed the slow mornings and unfolding of our selves. The couple of hours shopping, coming back and sorting the stems over coffee stretched to make space for sharing the travails of raising our kids, relationship challenges and work related issues. It took a backseat in the busyness of our work and chores. I suppose it is the case for almost all relationships, a ticking off check boxes in order to maintain them or appear to do so. Conversations can quickly settle into the nature of updates. People still meet for a meal or coffee but the spending of time doing an activity together has a different flavour.
Those unhurried times helped to strike roots in this city, perhaps not very deep but still strong enough to not have a sense of being in transit. Although there is a lack of attachment to the place, there’s an easy familiarity and love for its flowering trees, quiet stretches and laid back feel although it is a lot noisier and crowded now. Flowers make my heart smile, there’s something so full about them, especially those on trees and plants that have but one day of living but what a glorious day it is!
The most beautiful things in the world are at once simple and profound, like the heart of a flower. Most of my pleasures remain simple and freely available- flowers, birds, bugs, stones, trees, animals, water bodies, clouds and all things in the open. They gladden my heart and senses. Since lockdown, I’ve enjoyed their colours and scents in my little garden as well as the riotous burst on the streets. Summer is always a good time in Pune, the colours rising almost like a Mexican wave- purples, yellows, oranges, reds, whites.
From the garden today and a few lines from a while ago…
in a world without flowers the world would know no colours rainbows would grow pale and die
And some days are purely of the body… Most days, I begin with a yoga class that I attend at 6 am. On a Wednesday, the mat remains open for another 2 odd hours at the end of which, I feel like I’ve finished a rather long run. I suppose it is also endurance of a kind, to work with the limitations of injury, degeneration and the likes and sculpt body shapes that have integrity and beauty.
I had two outings yesterday, one in the morning after wrapping up yoga to pick up supplies and another in the evening. Morning drives are on quiet roads to visit tree friends and watch old houses or ruins of old houses. At one time, I’d imagine homes complete with people and stories but now I see just the houses, in and of themselves. The street cruising is usually to step back into the world from being immersed in the body but today was a restless day. I let an algorithm decide the music and it turned my day into a contemplative dusk.
Some part of the afternoon was spent trying to tame a document but it just kept growing wild on me so decided to head to the woods and maybe tackle the trash. That is uncomplicated. It’s amazing how a few minutes into the trail, the mind clears up as I look at the ground and tree tops, a child in wonder. Nothing exists then except what is around me and it is all green, mostly a wilderness of weeds and bugs that clamour around the trees.
In the woods, the restlessness that I enter with disappears as I walk in between the trees. It usually begins by feeling a filling up and overflowing of something akin to love or thirst. Perhaps, they both are the same thing. Or maybe it is the call of the sap that makes this bubbling over that I don’t feel for humans. It is wordless, thoughtless, without language. After all, language only speaks of attributes and connections. It can only feebly express or rather attempt to express, it does not experience. In the case of trees, their expression is their existence. I suppose it is a good example to show what dharma might mean.
The sun was out and the skyscapes were gorgeous so I sat on a stone and basked in its light as though I were a butterfly. Elsewhere I saw a man sleeping peacefully in the shade of a tree. Dragonflies were all over the place as usual and I watched them idly, got a reasonably clear picture of one. Post walk, I still didn’t feel like I had my fill of the skies so did a quick trip to the race course and was treated to some spectacular views.
While I prefer the vaster spaces, empty roads mostly, I also enjoy the city streets and its moments, ordinary moments like the man feeding the strays, a mother tying the shoelaces of her child, a young couple snuggling on a bike on a secluded road, an old man with baggy pants and a beret waiting for a bus, perhaps? The frames are endless and exist only as a photograph in my mind. Being a human is mostly about doing and less about being for the vast majority of us. Never a still moment. Maybe it is this trait that makes all our stories possible, real and imagined.