Gained in translation

About a month ago, my teacher mentioned a Marathi poem that I might want to look up if I could understand the language. I do follow the script and can get by in conversation but not so much in terms of literature. Nonetheless, I decided to give it a go and looked up the poem. I read it aloud and while some of the words made sense, a large part of it was lost in unfamiliar words. So, I attempted a translation, reminding me of school days when that would be one of the questions in the Hindi and Marathi examination papers.

It took me a while to complete it and I’m not too sure if it captures what the poet was trying to say but in some of the reflections, there is a lot of quietness, a quality that is timeless. Attempting the translation, I may not have got it right but I did gain a renewed appreciation for the way language can provide the very soil for reflection with all the gravity of its geography, history and culture. It is a new experience, this immersion into another language, a familiar one and yet so different. Entering into this exercise began as a way to make sense for myself but it does feel like there is probably a new way to study language.

I’ve mostly glided on sounds and let the meaning seep from it even as someone would translate it for me. Kannada was almost exclusively absorbed in this manner and there is complete comprehension of the colloquial version. Sanskrit too has been an endeavour by soaking in sounds while Tamil has been a piggybacking on Malayalam and translations in English but then my exposure to it has been limited. Hindi and Marathi are tongues that are around me and also used in everyday transactions. So, the poorly learnt two that I use almost daily have not quite got the attention the others did. Part of it was also a mental block from school days when the general expectation of the teachers was that one had to replicate answers verbatim. Decades later, the freedom to dabble in language for pleasure has been an interesting journey.

Here’s the poem and a first attempt of a translation. I’d be happy to hear from anyone who might be able to help with editing or correcting it.

आधार

जोवर फुलांच्या बागा फुलताहेत,
पहाडामागे वारा अडत नाही.
शब्दांपोटी सूर्योदयासारखा अर्थआहे,
फळे नित्यनेमाने पिकत आहेत,
माणसाला उपकार आणि आणि त्याची
निर्व्याज परतफेड करता येत आहे,
एखाद्याची महायात्रा पाहून एखादा
सहजच नमस्कार करतो आहे
तोवर आम्हाला एकमेकांबरोबर
अबोला धरण्याचा अधिकार नाही.
आम्ही आमच्या पडजिभेइतकेच
सर्वार्थांनी एकमेकांचे आहोत.
कालच प्रत्येक क्षण उष्टावतो
तरी काल ताजा टवटवीत आहे.

ईश्वराने दिलेले हे अंग प्रत्येकजण
बारा दिवसाच्या अर्भकाइतक्याच
हळुवारपणे सर्व तर्‍हांनी धूत राहतो,
आपापल्या मापाचे पापपुण्य बेतून
सगळे आयुष्य कारणी लावतो.
म्हणून कधीतरीची प्रसन्नताही
मनाची उन्हे करते आणि सारा ताप
उन्हातला पाऊस होऊन टपटपतो.
धरेच्या पोटात पाणी आहे,
घशाखाली त्याची तहान आहे,
माणसाच्या पोटात आनंद आहे
म्हणूनच नेहमी भूक लागते,
इंद्रियांची वेल पसरत पसरत
झोपेचा गारेगार मोगरा फुलतो.

शेतकरी पिकाला जपत असतो
पहिलटकरणीसारखा, रात्रंदिवस
कायावाचामनाचा पावसाळा करुन
मातीच्या कणाकणातून झिरपतो,
अशा वेळी आकाशाच्या कोनन कोनाचा
स्पर्श त्याला झुळकाझुळकातून होतो,
हवेचेही कोनेकोपरे प्रत्यक्ष चाचपतो.
दाण्यादाण्यातील धारोष्ण दुधाची जाग
पाखरांच्या पिसापिसातून जाते,
थव्याथव्यांनी आनंद उतरतो,
शेतमळा डुलतो, वारा डुलतो,
शेताचा पिका पिका दरवळ
झुळझुळत्या झर्‍यासारखा
शेतकर्‍याच्या मनातून वाहतो,
सुईणीच्या मुखावरील कष्टासारखी
रसरसून लखाखते कोयतीची धार.

जीवनावर प्रेम करणारे सगळे जण
एकमेकांना नमस्कार करीत करीत
सुखदुःख वाटतात जिवाभावाने.
सर्वांना पोटाशी धरुन सर्वांवर
स्वत:च्या आयुष्याची सावली धरतात,
एखादा अनवाणी चालणारा विरक्‍त पाहून
सांगतात : सर्वांच्या पायतळी जमीन आहे.
एखाद्या मेलेल्या मित्राच्या स्मृतीवर
हलकेच कधीतरी अमोल क्षणांचा
एखादा ताटवा वाहून रात्रभर जागतात,
आणि मग कधीतरी झोपेतून उठून
स्वत:वरच आनंदाश्रू ढाळतात,
स्वत:लाच नमस्कार करतात.

सखीने सजणाल्या दिलेल्या गुलाबाच्या
गेंदाप्रमाणे, वचनाप्रमाणे प्रत्येकानेच
कधीतरी मन दिले – घेतलेले असतो;
सखी-सजणाच्या संकेतस्थलासारखेच
हे आयुष्यही एकमेकांचेच आहे.

या जगण्यात खोल बुडी मारुन आलेला
एखादा कोणी सर्वांना पोटाशी धरणारा
आणि ते पोटाशी धरले गेलेले सगळे –
दोघांनाही एकमेकांचाच आधार आहेआरती प्रभू

– आरती प्रभू

Support

As long as gardens blossom
the wind behind the hills does not get entangled
The essence of words illumines like the sunrise
fruits ripen in the rhythm of their cycle
They bestow a benediction on man
They give back without interest
Seeing someone’s great journey(inwards?)
One naturally acknowledges
that which is but one’s own
Until then we have no right
to be separate from another
In every sense we are like the uvula to ourselves,
in relation to one another
even though each moment of yesterday is tasted yet it is still fresh

This God given embodiment of each one of us
is bathed completely by the grace
of a gentle wind (existence) as much as that of a 12 day old infant.
We each grow into our lives as dictated
by the measure of our acts- auspicious and inauspicious. We are planted. Our lives are realized
basis the measure of all our karma – good and bad
That’s why some peaceful joys fire up/ enliven the mind
and all the feverishness comes down as summer showers
The belly of the earth has water, its thirst lies below the crust
The belly of man has joy, therefore the hunger, always
As the vines of the senses spread and spread, so also the pleasant jasmine fragrance of sleep

The farmer tends to his ripening crop
as though a first time mother.
Raining body and thought into the earth,
day and night, that it seeps through each pore.
At such times the touch of the corners of space
makes him blink with each graze of air
Streams of grain like milk froth,
madden the birds, delighting them.
The fields dance, the wind dances,
The crops yield the farm’s bounty
like a gushing stream flows from a farmer’s mind
The sharp edge of the scythe draws the rasa
like the pain on a midwife’s face

All those who love life greet each other
as they experience the joys and sorrows of this life
Holding everyone dear,
the shadows of one’s own life blankets each.
Seeing a barefooted man without a care,
it is said the ground exists under every sole
Sometimes the memory of a dear departed friend lightly touches
in a precious moment- a length of a long night of wakefulness.
And then waking from sleep,
weep tears of joy on their existence, they greet themselves.

Like roses gathered into a ball given by a friend to adorn,
like promises, everyone gives or takes the mind (thoughts)
Just like the friend’s nudge to adorn, this life too is one another’s

Immersed in this world, someone is holding every stomach
and all that is contained in it. Both have the other’s support.

– Arati Prabhu

Note:
Chintamani Tryambak Khanolkar wrote his poetry under the name of Arati Prabhu.

Notes from Bombay

Borivali Court

The market area in suburbs is a bustling place, it is perfect as a study in human interactions with each other as well as the co-existence of plant and animal life. Fruit and vegetable vendors push their wares, customers choose good looking produce and both parties play the haggling game until a deal is closed. There is a hierarchy in their business too. Handcarts that are at hip height, stores with neatly arranged and labelled produce, mobile vendors with baskets on their heads and then those who simply sit with a cloth spread out with a few vegetables, mostly homegrown. It reminds me of those topics we would get assigned as school kids. Draw a market place or a festival etc.

The background score is a cacophony of honking, bikes revving, crows and the sounds of people. It makes sense to immerse oneself in this sea of sound else the volume is deafening. I stand under the shade of a jamun tree waiting for an agent to help me clear some paper work and watch the magic of yellowed leaves pirouetting in a spectacular last dance. The humidity is a thick 82% and people lower their masks to breathe. Except for the masks, there is little indication that a pandemic has enveloped the country.

There are flies, you can’t escape them, their light landings on sticky skin alongside the slow trickle of sweat adds to the sense of drowning in a humid hell. Rain must come. And it will. A downpour to cool down the restlessness and then the wet heat will rise again from the ground. In a market place, the ground sweats too, a rotting sweat that carries tones of decay and waste. The crows have a feast as do the strays that roam these streets.

This part of middle class Bombay has spawned lookalikes of my parent’s generation. A bespectacled lanky old man, rotund men, plump women and skinny young people. Rain begins to fall. The homeless family slides behind a patra, the young mother nursing her baby at her bronze breast. Elsewhere riders and pillions find shade to step into their rainsuits. A cyclist pedals hard with a load of tin cans that gleam, probably headed to the oil merchant. There is a line of notary officials, all of them seem to be doing brisk business. The space has a rhythm of thwack and thump as documents get verified. Against this picture of industry, there are a few rickshawalas who laze in their vehicles. Mobile phones make for a nice escape with streaming videos. It is hard to find anyone just looking out, most heads are bent in surrender to a screen if they are not actively engaged in transaction.

I realize that my walks have been so away from the city streets that I have lost touch with everyday actions of people. Inevitably, my feet turn towards the patch of forest land and I amble there. The trail is green now and there have been additions to the trees. A group has planted some native trees at one end, I hope their enthusiasm doesn’t cover all the scrubland, there is a lot of life in its seeming barrenness. They have the blessings of the forest department who have also provided some protection for the young saplings.

Pune Streets

Bombay is nicer as an out of towner. Back home, I know I have the quiet of a little wild just a couple of hundred metres away. Even the neighbourhood has its cool, empty streets lined with gorgeous trees. But the city of dreams was home for over two decades. There is something about the sheer energy and fatigue one can experience in its swelter. I happened to be at a shoot on one of the days and it was in the middle of a small wadi on the outskirts of the city. While the production team was inside a shed, I sat outside watching a tree full of nests and teeming with life. A decade ago, I might not have been able to remain as still and watch, I’d be engrossed in whatever activity was immediate. It is easier to have a long view now, the lens is one of time rather than space. In slowing down, it has been possible to live in more vibrance, one with the space rather than separate.

A Sunday in Maximum City

Covid times, else Colaba Causeway would have been chattering with street side bargaining and hustling. It has been years since I needed to go that way. I was in Bombay again and decided to head out to town. From the northern tip of the city to the southern most, it was a drive tracing familiar spots and watching the gobbling up of land by looming buildings and other such development plans along a depleted coast.

C.S.T. (V.T.) Station

The Western Express Highway has been undergoing a long labour of the metro line. It is beginning to take recognisable shape now. Hopefully, once done, it will ease the commute of the city’s dwellers but perhaps the need for it may not be as much as anticipated? It used to be common to spend a couple of hours inching along the highway during prepandemic days. I’d joke that it was faster to travel from Pune to Bombay than from Chembur to Borivili. These days, travel is faster although interrupted by nakabandis. It is good to see structure though with a neat canopy for the police force manning the barricades along with a well lit sign that lets people know the reason for the tardy flow of traffic.

The flyovers built over the years have made it a breeze without the usual density of vehicles. The Bandra Worli Sea Link brought back memories of my first Bombay Marathon. The event was one of dismay as a participant. After having run solitary all along, being corralled with nearly 20,000 people was claustrophobic. The ride on the bridge saw an intense desire to be back near the ocean. The sea is beautiful in all its seasons, its raw violence during the rainy months, the almost placid nature through tropical winter days and choppy waters on moody ones. And just then, there is such a deep longing to be living by the ocean, always with the call of its deepest heart. It is a dangerous beckoning at times, with it almost hynotic welcome. I could walk in and become seafoam.

Bandra Worli Sea Link

The Sea Link ejects into what is South Bombay with its prime real estate and iconic landmarks. The ride had a surreal feel to it with empty roads, empty beaches and downed shutters. The Queen’s Necklace is now the site of rapid work on the coastal project. I can’t help but feel a sense of dread, we’re eating into the sea. She will extract her price.

Marine Lines

I pass by places from long ago wanderings. Churches, art galleries, colleges, old residential buildings and hotels, libraries, heritage structures, large grounds and parks. Metro Cinema, Parsi Dairy, New Yorker, Air India building, Eros, Sterling, University, Kala Ghoda, Sassoon Docks, Afghan Church, US Club and a host of other spots that scream Bombay were part of the day’s meandering. It was a day when I was a tourist in the city of my youth. These were places I roamed on foot as a cash strapped teen, now I watched from the comfort of a car. Covid 19 has taken over the landscape not just in absences but also in the ubiquitous signs on hoardings, buses and even apps like the map. Covid hospital boards, screeching ambulances and vaccine drives make up the balance of the pandemic’s establishment in a cityscape.

Ballard Estate

We return via the bylanes of Bandra, cruising along the promenade. Bandstand, Chumbai, Carter Road, Khar Danda, Juhu with many images of different times. Bombay seems to have shrunk even as she has grown gaunt in the dizzying heights of her skyscrapers. She appears like a fading superstar, glittery yet tired. Maintaining a youthful facade is easy but you feel age in your bones, they become brittle. I see the cracking up of her hillsides, washed down in inelegant landslides that take a week to clear. But life still goes on, regardless of damaged property and lost lives.

The colony I grew up in still has trees, many of them around from my childhood. Just that morning, I watched a tableau play itself out, a squirrel running on a compound wall as a butterfly fluttered about. A crow sat on the gate and sun filtered through the canopy of a pipal tree. The pipal tree itself was slowly becoming sanctified even as multiple images and idols grew around its base. There was a shivling, a Sai Baba and an assortment of Saraswati and Vishnu pictures. Baby mushrooms were beginning to sprout in some of its crevices and the tree had all the potential to become a temple. Most people walked past oblivious to a drama that had so many actors. I love the sense of theatre in these unfoldings, it is almost as though I am the only one in a vast hall.

St Francis Ground, I.C. Colony

Mornings in this bustling suburb are full of birdsong, audible even over the AC’s humming. A pair of crows stop by for breakfast and sometimes return the favour with a piece of rotting fish. Houses in cities as these don’t leave much in terms of privacy and there is a studied ignoring even as every one is aware of activities in neighbouring apartments. Old men and women are efficient as watchers with an eye on the comings and goings of the neighbourhood but the extent of their endeavours extends to just the human species. And almost just as easily, I slip into the shadows, trying to escape those eyes. Vestigial habit.

Driving back home, the highway gave rise to an intense longing to be out on a long road trip. It is almost like walking as the slow changing scenes and almost cruise mode allow for the shifting mindscapes to spread themselves out rather luxuriously. It is strange, the pandemic has seen me pile on the miles more than any other time. I suppose the reason is having access to online classes, the physical ones kept me bound for 11 months a year. Another reason is a curious self realization which took over two decades to be apparent. Solitude is a great place for awakenings.

Mumbai Pune Expressway

Amaltas

Fridays usually see a grocery run to stock up on fresh produce to cover the weekend. It’s also an opportunity to have my fill of the flowering trees on city streets. Pune is flush with amaltas now.

On one hand, I seek the woods and soak in all their gentle wildness. In that space, things seem as they should be in their presence. Away from the wild, I find the same sense of presence in the trees that line the cantonment streets. Back at my desk, there is another world of disbelief and suspension.

Just a marker post for a day in a pandemic. Soon, these moments spent in communion with beloved trees will come to a halt as the inevitable lockdown will clamp the country. It is only a matter of time.

Selfish, this act of self preservation.

In other news, I may have found some organizational help in cleaning up my beloved woods. It would be nice to get that done thoroughly once and for all.

Desolate

No vehicles at the station meant a cricket game for the attendants
Desolate food court, all eateries shut except Starbucks and McD but no takers
Ronald McDonald is masked and staying safe
Summer showers
Empty streets
Chasing Gulmohurs has been a pandemic pursuit, some images from the summer of 2020 and 2021

An unexpected trip to Bombay and back on a desolate highway. The city streets at both ends had nakabandis, screeching ambulances and reduced traffic. The cops have a tough job screening people and sometimes lose their cool. It is not a pleasant sight.

Entering my home city, it was a balm to see favourite trees in full bloom, oblivious to the madness of a pandemic.

The numbers of the dead are like a ticker, non-stop. Each of them linked to families and friends, colleagues and acquaintances. By the time the virus and it’s cascading madness lose momentum, we will be a country populated by mourners. Imagine the weight of collective grief and rage, fear and paralysis. How does one heal enough to pick up the pieces of broken hearts, mangled minds, silent homes and lost livelihoods?

A photo note to remember a day when empty roads did not inspire speed but slow reflection

An incoherent grief

I just got to know about N’s passing away. It’s a shock, I didn’t expect her to pass away so soon The kids are hovering around. The firstborn says, “Mama don’t be alone.” But, I need space and silence. I need my woods. I’ll escape into its quiet in a bit but before that, words.

I never met N, we spoke on the phone occasionally, exchanged letters and shared sarees. We were two strangers who shared a love for the quiet pleasures of books, nature and sarees. Instagram brought us together and we’ve followed the snippets of our lives through a little window. Despite all the bad rap social media gets, it has brought me some wonderful people I now call friends.

Two weeks ago, I received a parcel from N, a lovely grey ikat saree and a slim book, ‘The Living Mountain’ with the sweetest note inside. The title and book blurb sounded like I needed to read it right then and that’s what I proceeded to do. One of the few instances where I read a book cover to cover at a go, despite knowing that it is best savoured slowly. But, I wanted to read a work that my friend thought I’d like and so I gulped it, greedily. I called her as soon as I finished the book and she was apologetic for not feeling more cheerful. She had recently tested positive for Covid-19. That was Neelu, always concerned about others than herself which is something I realized about her, early on in our acquaintance.

Nan Shepherd’s book is the book I wish I wrote. This book will be doubly precious now for it has come to me from her. There is a little bit of her in that note written on its page, the closest to feeling her touch. Soft, tender, gentle, kind, considerate, caring, encouraging, supportive – I could go on about her and it would be echoed by many like me who haven’t met her but only known her virtually.

Now, I sit here, typing because I know of no other way to feel grief for the loss of a friend I only knew through a screen and handwritten notes. I miss not having felt the dazzle of her smile, what I imagine would be the scent of her presence, the warmth of her hug and her lilting voice. She may be gone but she left me a title that I need to complete, if not for anything else then simply for her.

RIP N.

A pandemic afternoon

It’s incongruous, the panic of people at large and the absolute assurance of nature in all her glory. 200 metres into the trail, the city fades off and there’s nothing but dry browns and fresh greens of an Indian summer.

I walked a while until I came to a rocky patch a little off the trail. While bright, the sun was not hot so I lay down on the rock and watched the kites riding the thermals against the moon.

And right there, the world was perfect and I was a butterfly basking in the sun.

Reflections on asana

At best, I’m a mridu student, what the purists would call a mild one. The gains in asana have been more a function of a few years and a meandering exploration rather than a strict, structured one. In practice, I am curious rather than outcome led, the shift having happened during a long period of knee rehabilitation. Many of the poses and positions I assumed then were passive, heavily propped and required long stays. It helped the body alright, I can walk long and far, sit cross legged and even attempt the odd lotus pose now. But, more than that, I learned to simply be. This really is why I return to the mat again and again.

As a raw beginner, there was a lot of doing, energetic muscular actions but with time, there has been more efficiency in quieter, less effortful movements. A certain luxuriousness of curiosity, an embracing of the unknown, an openness to experiences of the senses, the mind and textures of silence. The same asana is never the same just like the oft trodden paths I walk are never the same.

Honing a craft involves repetition, countless repetition and yet it is new every time. The nectar of any activity is revealed and received as benediction but before that one has to strive, sweat and bleed. In the few years of study, I’ve been fascinated by the very first pose that was taught, Tadasana or the mountain pose. It is a deceptively simple act of standing straight but like many fellow practitioners, I can spend an hour or more exploring and examining the actions, reactions, responses, effects and so on.

This morning was again a study in tadasana through the anatomy of the hamstrings and sartorius muscle. The very act of standing is a symphony of so many parts, each coming together to hold the body upright. Close your eyes and you begin to see how despite the seeming symmetry, there’s a favouring of one side. Sometimes, we explore tadasana through a headstand and that’s when their firmness comes into play. At others it is through being seated or in supine positions. Each approach is a bit like climbing a mountain from its different faces. The texture of a tadasana arrived at from sirsasana is dramatically different from one that is a result of seated poses like dandasana or upavishtakonasana.

What does it mean to stand tall in tadasana? What does it mean to be a mountain? Every time I think of mountains, I imagine presence quite like the trees and stones, things of the earth element. Grounding and providing a substratum for the play of life. Our feet and legs too belong to that same principle of firm groundedness. Now more than ever, we need that stability and contentment to endure what is difficult and what is uncertain. Now more than ever we need the quiet strength and elegance to stay. Names of asanas are a lovely invitation to stay with their meaning and plumb their essence into one’s actions.

Silence

Last April we were in lockdown. This April too is a lockdown one although not as restrictive as the previous year. But there is a hunkering down mindspace that rearranges the days. Like the year gone by, we occupy our private bubbles of words and art, emerging for chores or meals or chess. The last is probably a marker for a second year of a pandemic. This time around, it is much closer with most of us knowing people in our immediate circles who have been affected. I graze on news just enough to keep abreast of travel restrictions.

Once again, I spend hours in my terrace garden with its scents of jasmines and an expanse of sky and tree tops. It is easy to slip into silent mode and I am reminded of the rustiness of speech after days of silence. It almost feels like a violation, talking after being in quietness. But that is only silence as absence of sound. The mind continues its chatter. I read somewhere that true silence is really an absence of thought. Would it be possible to be truly silent?