Slipping into the woods

Slipped into the woods this morning and it was empty save for the elderly couple who came to walk their beautiful German Shepherd and a couple of runners. I’ve been walking the western edge lately and it is a delight for there are more birds there. I saw two Indian thick knees today, last week it was just one bird in the same spot. Perhaps, there is a nest and little babies. They’re masters of camouflage, I didn’t realize how close it was until it took off to stand still at a little away.

In plain sight
Walking off the regular track, one gets to see and hear much more not to mention the pleasures of being alone. I walk the same browns and never tire of it, it is rather like chipping away at the same asana and discovering something new every single time. I hear echoes of what my running mentor would say, “master the route”. I never really listened to his words until much time passed for back then I chased new roads. Perhaps it was loss of running and the subsequent fallowness as I spent hours in passivity on the mat that allowed to go deeper rather than wider, look through a microscopic lens rather than a telescopic one.
The floor of the woods points me to the skies
Sometimes I think all the damage we inflicted on this beautiful planet is simply because of this tendency to look outwards and probe rather than being still and receiving when we are ready. We really should leave some things to their own mysteries, unknown and hidden but that probably will never happen. How much is our need to know, to get control over what is outside of us! Perhaps, it is to compensate for unruly thoughts and feelings that emerge, how does one stop them from arising anyway?

“Flowers for you”

If it weren’t for a pandemic, I wouldn’t have received this bunch of saptaparni flowers from a fruit vendor. I’d most likely be out at work or at the institute at that hour. A lock down rearrangement has made place for work and play, with greater flexibility. There are days I work in the morning and then there are days I spend the first half outdoors. Leisure first then work or vice versa.

The fruit seller had seen me admire the flowers a few nights ago and was amused at my fascination. The hour was late, he was packing up but we exchanged a few words about their lovely scent. He mentioned that it drove him mad at times, it is indeed a maddening fragrance. They’re blooming early this year, I’ve usually seen them around Navratri time. Yesterday morning I walked by again just to meet the tree and he snapped off a branch and handed me these bewitching beauties. They are wonderfully fragrant especially in the nights. They go by the botanical name of alstonia scholaris or the common Devil’s tree or Blackboard tree. There’s a lovely compilation on it that I came across which covers some of the traditions associated with it from across the country.

The weekend that passed was a leisurely one meeting friends over coffee and Ganesh Chaturthi sweets. The picture above is from a friend’s home, she is an artist and makes beautiful paintings in the Thanjavur style. The Ganesha in the image is one of her earlier creations.

Some of it was also spent meandering along the sullied rivers of Pune watching our winged friends. There were dozens of them although I couldn’t get any clear pictures on the phone. Cormorants, egrets, kites, herons and the usual smaller ones. The Mula and Mutha are in full flow now and the sound of their waters is mesmerizing. Recently, I saw a movie which had frames of the sea against a cliff and I recalled the sounds of crashing waves at another rocky beach. It’s a treacherous drawing in, the combination of sound and movement. Almost hypnotic and there are times I imagine them saying dive in. Nature’s fury has a wild, raw beauty- dangerous as it is mesmerizing.

Lest it seem like it’s all play and no work, the days have an ‘easy busy’ (like a recent professional acquaintance termed it) nature as far as my professional commitments are concerned. A rather incidental fall into teaching also happened a few months ago and I discovered that I enjoy the process of sharing what I have learned. It is a deep contentment to see eyes light up when others experience the awakening and awareness of their own bodies. It has made me a better student too. Despite the devastation and loss wreaked by the pandemic, there have been gifts, like an unfettering in the way we work, learn and play.

Sunday Morning To-Do vs Did

Made a To-Do List and proceeded to do none of the tasks on it.

Instead,

  • cooked and ate a piping hot khichdi with bhindi, liberally garnished with ghee
  • watched birds and butterflies, buffaloes and dogs from my balcony
  • pretended to tidy up but only shifted books from one side to the other
  • read pages of said books 
  • washed the house with music

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Not a bad Sunday morning at all.

A balcony view

One of the criteria in choosing a house to stay has been a decent sized balcony or two or three, mostly for the plants that come along with me. I’ve been in this location for nearly 9 months beginning 29th November. By the time everything was unloaded and dumped in the house, it was late evening and one of the first things I did then was sit with a cup of coffee in the balcony. Since then, it has been my favourite space. Yoga, reading, working, movies, chats, birding, day dreaming, sun bathing and pretty much anything that doesn’t need me tied to a place, all find space here. Lock down days were probably not too difficult simply because the balcony provided a sense of the wide open world.

The woods in front are part of the Forest Colony and home to about 20-25 species of birds as far as my untrained self has gathered. Mornings begin with birdsong and continues through the day. Sometimes late nights also with the lapwings screeching. It is home to a family of peafowls and I’ve been waiting to see them in their splendour but the camouflage now makes it hard to spot them. All the wild greens have attracted a herd of buffaloes and they are led by a man into its dark sumptuousness for a feasting every morning.

Pune homes usually have balconies and I look up at them when I walk on city streets. During the early days of lock down, I would look out at the few people walking on the streets and have an irresistible urge to wave out. Later, as I started going out for walks, I’d wave from the ground to an old man in one of the buildings. He would give me the most beautiful, toothless grin and it would make me incredibly happy. To truly connect, one doesn’t need a name or conversation. A smile is enough. Enough to reassure someone, enjoy a joke, set a heart aflutter, appreciate something or just plain acknowledge another.

Besides the trees and birds, the cloudscapes have been an endless fascination. They lend themselves naturally to reflection and in their shapes and shape shifting, there is a loosening of the knots in the mind. And these days are days of clouds and rain. While the skies are mostly grey, above the continents of clouds overhead are brilliant blue skies. Hope. There’s a lovely song, Both Sides, Now by Joni Mitchell which reflects on love as seen through the metaphor of clouds. Her closing refrain, ‘It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all’ is probably what says it best. If you fancy a listen, it’s here 

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Getting ready for lock down

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.

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munias come by in the mornings

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two of us reading ‘It’s like this, Cat’, a lovely book about a boy and a cat

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tunnel vision?

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the woods have given quite a few neem twigs as disposable toothbrushes.

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even rot feeds

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“we’re watching you”

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sandalwood tree tucked away in a lane

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Gods by the wayside

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fast fading gulmohurs now pressed in a book

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Maneck Hall is one of two houses which still has the ancient TV antennae.

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zooming in from the balcony

Wanderings

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.

Still chasing gulmohurs

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.

swaying roots beginning to shoot

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.

bael

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.

green wheels! this cheerful man supplies tiffins to houses in the area

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?

Oriental Garden Lizard

Reptiles, a scorpion and a rainbow

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.

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watch me pose!

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.

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watch out for his sting!

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.

 

After the rains

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.

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managed to get one picture of one of these fast flitting beauties

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.

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white shirish flower

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.

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the good life 🙂

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.

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Being barefoot, one develops a keen eye for the ground and its stories and there’s always interesting things to notice. Barefoot heightens all senses for some reason.

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…

Power Off

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.

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the gulmohurs begin their descent

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.

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looking out at the sky before it poured

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.