Joy

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.

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the post office is open!

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.

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The Sausage Tree is fruiting. I first got acquainted with this tree a few years ago through a fruit that fell in front of me when I was running.

 

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The flowers remind me of diyas

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.

A stranger life

I’m not a big facebook fan and end up using it mostly in the course of work. So, I saw a message from a stranger almost a month later and it was a curious thing. This person had figured a few of my blogs as well as my name through them and was intrigued about a lack of face on my saree posts enough to want to reach out. Sometimes, I do that too, reach out to people although it’s mostly because of words. It got me thinking of how people connect in this century and also why. But that is for a later post.

In pandemic times, our interactions have changed in their texture. There’s either a frantic need to maintain old socializing in a virtual avatar or a retreating into journals, books, letters and blogging. So much of our lives are about places we go or things we do and so being confined brings very little to conversation as exchange of raw thoughts can be frighteningly intimate.

Yesterday, technology gave way. My internet device went bust and later the phone hung. It refused to shut down or restart. And truth be told, I was relieved to be disconnected. After trying without success to reconnect to the call I was on, I calmly put aside everything and wrote a letter. Then an entry in my journal to mark the day and a book in bed before sleep stole on me. I slept for 12 hours straight.

Today has been reflective, a little despairing, mildly cynical, a tad bit impatient and curious too. I could attribute the shaking of a steadiness to a variety of factors perhaps the last two books I finished? In case you want to know, they were Disgrace and Giovanni’s Room. They were recommendations from another stranger. Sometimes I think it is easier to exchange digital words with people one never needs to know. Days like these make me want to crawl into a cave. But life has a penchant for teasing and torments by denying what one seeks.

The shrieking parakeets this morning reminded me of this khesh saree and so it became the accompaniment to my day…

I sat calmly listening to a an old woman who needed to talk, a young girl who was frustrated about being unable to go cycling. Behind the eyes which were with them, there was impatience to get back to my page where a half written sentence demanded completion. Eventually, time made itself available but the need to finish the line dried up like the ink in my pen.

In the midst of all that, a friend prodded me to do something I wouldn’t ever have considered. But I said yes, spontaneously. It felt right although I didn’t expect it to move at the pace it did. I’ve mostly gone where the river of life has taken me and so far it’s been interesting. I suppose one can liken the river bed across miles to the constancy of one’s personhood and the different features along its course as the various experiences one encounters – enriching, depleting, polluting, reviving. Along the way, it’s song meanders through joyous notes and plaintive ones, furious thundering and quiet whispering. Eventually the waters will spill into the ocean and all those songs will drown into a majestic silence. I find myself with a longing creep in for that soundlessness.

Why do I Write?

Earlier in the day, very early on in fact, the mind settled on a single word as a cue for the day. In the course of exchanges with a friend, the word cropped up a few times lately and yesterday as I watched the bougainvillea curve into a dip under the weight of violently pink flowers, it settled into an easy prompt. Often the word stays fluttering behind my mind’s curtain until threads start to appear and I can begin to weave it into a poem or a snatch of prose. There is no purpose save to see where a word or thought might go left on the wind. And then, it gathers unto itself something of an energy to become a piece that is self-sufficient. It mostly writes itself with very little intervention from my end, save a little rearranging like one might attempt with flowers in a vase.

Curve was meant to be the word today until I was asked, “Do you see your writing as an end in itself?

I suppose so. It wasn’t always so. Even now, sometimes it slips into a means rather than an end but that is reserved for my journals.

For many years, I didn’t consider myself a writer simply since I did not publish anything (blogs didn’t really count). I still haven’t done so. It was mostly in the nature of unpacking thoughts that would refuse to go beyond a point in the mind or then to capture a moment or how it felt or appeared. These remained private, anonymous and a way of making sense through the years. The form it took was mainly entries scribbled in journals and the odd poem or a patch of prose. These have been scattered in papers, notebooks, screens and pretty much anything that could be a writing surface. They’re coloured with the textures of my days and in retrospect I see changes that have happened as well as an intrinsic basic nature. It was and continues to be a way of discovering myself and allowing the thoughts to flow. These have led to explosive breakthroughs although the intent was never about using it as a means. The outcome just seemed to happen. I burnt my journals written until the age of 27 when I decided I didn’t want to look back. There are some old letters that I had written which have survived and somehow happened to fall in my possession.

Blogging was a tentative exploration and the initial few were to save my words somewhere lest I lose the papers in the process of moving homes many times. A few years ago, I decided to document my running journey as a means to keep me accountable to myself and discovered that it became an accompaniment to the sport. Running fed the blog and vice versa. I also discovered the joys of having someone read what I wrote. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that they connected enough for a two-way conversation.

Yoga came back to my life soon after and another blog was born and the two were primarily to document my journey so that another who might struggle with these things as a beginner might benefit. I also discovered my voice and that of others who began to read those musings. It was just a way to document my personal experience, subjective as it might be. Running was lost after a few years and around the same time, sarees made a re-entry into my life and through them, an entire world of memories. I found that the humble piece of clothing that had been a staple when I was younger also became an anchor for musings, mostly quiet reflections about the mundane every day. Maybe a witnessing of living in the now and how it has never quite been too far away from the past and the future. Lately though, that is also dwindling and I find myself withdrawing into the format of a letter.

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Something about sarees that makes it so easy to meander in thoughts. the lines on this cotton ikat remind me of the pages of a notebook.

Perhaps, it is a way to reclaim time, find a pause and release where instant communication is the norm. Does an experience cease to have significance if it is dated? Letters make it possible to pause in the present to share of myself in the moment and send it into an unknown time and place. I like the act of writing to one person and that is how I like to relate to the outside at present. The appeal of this format lies in its dispatch, once gone it is truly gone from my memory until a reply, if and when it came, jogged some of the contents. It also feels natural considering that it used to be a way of sharing myself as a very young adult, long before the time of facebook and texts. Of course in these days of a pandemic, I take pictures and send them on since the postal service has been disrupted.

Now, the three weave in and out of each other and their boundaries are blurred. And in a sense it has become a practice, much like my yog sadhana, a continuous striving with no end in mind, just the act of endeavouring. Call it a studentship maybe? Occasionally, there are aha moments when a sentence or a pose come together effortlessly but that’s nodded at, acknowledged and it’s back to working on the art.

Writing for me is an intensely solitary act of silence. It feels like painting in a sense, brush strokes of a present truth that are rarely edited simply to keep the truth of the moment of its birthing, both conscious and unconscious. There are crafted pieces too but the spontaneous fragments remain my favoured children. Most of what finds its way as a complete picture or a profile of one are raised from a pool of rememberings, colourings and learnings. It is a sum of all I have experienced, imagined or heard. There used to be a time in my younger days where I feared that all the thoughts were already thought, all the beautiful sentences had already been written before. I feared having my words resemble that of other writers and not being original but that perhaps was an insecurity of an immature writer. Writing just for myself released me to let the words flow through me as they deemed fit.

If I had to have a framework for my craft, it would be Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram. Simplicity and restraint are the checks that I like to use in language. As much as writing is for my pleasure, it also gives me happiness when others respond to what I write from their own recollections. The biggest joy is when young ones find something useful and beautiful and true in my words.

So, why then do I write?

I write to wrap a hint of myself in the act, an act of ego perhaps, to mark this blip of a presence.

I write because I feel through words all that I may not necessarily be able to experience.

I write because there is pleasure in seeing words come together to create something familiar and new at once.

I write because the act of writing is a deeply sensuous one, an act of giving completely of myself.

I write because I cannot not write.

A White Table

There used to be a white table, at least it was white at one time. Probably years ago. Now, it has candle stains, patches of wood showing, an edge that doesn’t quite go around the entire periphery but it is reasonably stable. It’s suitably maimed, scarred and would be the perfect subject for a DIY project, just that it wasn’t bought for a leisurely Sunday afternoon activity but for utility. This one is versatile, it sees study, work and food in varying proportions. A serendipitous find, the perfect size for two people and the room.

It was appealing, getting a table for a song, refurbishing it to make it worthy of Pinterest. But, that thought was covered with a poinsettia table cover which overstayed its Christmas welcome. The cloth is a cheery one and goes for a wash every now and then considering its constant wear. It adds a smile to a stark room. There were paintings that were intended to be hung but never got around to being displayed. The place feels like an inn and she’s wary of making it a home.

She made a home once upon a time ago and abandoned it, what is the point of letting roots grow? Perhaps the troubadours got it right, wanderers of the soul with nary a painting, just their music and an endless road. She imagines becoming a roaming wordsmith and writing stories and songs for a nickel and a smile. Wishful thinking, one doodled thanks to colourful note pads lying around.

Homes are fickle, they change shape with the lives of its residents. Nothing endures. Now it makes sense why Siddhartha despaired and escaped into being Gautama. It is appealing, a life of silence and just one’s own body and mind to wrestle with. Maybe people make families to dispel loneliness but eventually it is a solitary journey. Can sleep be shared or the dreams in that sleeping?

The table though feels none of the paradox, it just stands on four legs, silent and listening to the sound of the keyboard or the conversations floating over its head. There is a motley crew of stationery, art, books, bags and coffee standing around as though at a cocktail party. She finds herself imagining them as people, how would they look? The steel mug morphs into an elegant lady in stilettos and a cigarette holder. The smokes have gone but their memory is still strong in the mind and she toys with a thought of lighting up again.

The wooden paper weight turns into a jolly man, plump and decked in rings of shimmering stones and a loud laughter. Perhaps he has a turban studded with precious jewels like the elephant painted out of the dust of precious stones. The spectacle case turns into Anton from Ratatouille, cold and unimpressed until he is lost in the gustatory memory of his mother’s kitchen brought to life by a little rat chef. The characters on the white table are from books she has read, movies watched or wisps of a mind with time on her hands and a willing keyboard. They people the table and the tableau changes through the day. Sometimes they get arranged like little soldiers in their proper places while at others they are at a party, milling around.

The books are the most talkative of the lot. They end up in discussion as one page opens up another in a second book and so on until there is a veritable tower of the written word. Study texts jostle for space with short stories and poetry. Imagine if each word weighed a pound, how much time would it take for this table to collapse? Imagine the weight of memories and worries in the mind. And there’s no tidying them up really. Where do lost memories disappear? Where do you discard useless ones?

The table asks no such questions, it just stands under bright red flowers, stoic in the face of clutter or order. It has grown to be her friend, one that is welcoming and forgiving and privy to thoughts and words that may never see the light of day.

Plums and Daffodils

Sometime in December, there was a book exhibition in the neighbourhood. The kind where some books were sold by the kilo, some were discounted secondhand books and some brand new. Every time I went there, ostensibly just to see or to accompany someone, I ended up buying a few. Almost all the books from that month were titles bought in a spirit of adventure, genres I haven’t read in a while or not at all.

And there was a bonus in the form of bookmarks and notes. I’ve seen them often in library books, notes, photographs and even the odd letter but when such books come home to stay, their accompaniments are always interesting to spend some time over. A peek into someone else’s world.

One such is this bookmark, a reproduction of a hanging scroll in ink and colour by Wu Ch’ang- shi titled Plums and Daffodils (1923). Wikipedia tells me he was a prominent painter of the Shanghai school, calligrapher and seal artist of the late Qing Period. There is an interesting piece about the artist on the internet, you could read about it here.

The bookmark had immediate appeal by virtue of its incomplete fullness, as though one encountered the perfect frame in the middle of a walk. Ofcourse, the fact that it has flowers and fruits and a certain controlled flamboyance besides script added to its charm for me. I would very much like to know what the artist wrote since he seemed to have been steeped in scholarly studentship early on.

Art is such a unifier, across differences of geography and beliefs. It’s also such a marker of the lives and times of different periods. I’m quite intrigued by the script on the side of the scroll and would love to know what it means. Perhaps if someone knows to read Chinese, they might help? It’s always fascinating to see how highly disciplined and trained classical artists work when they break structure, more about what is unsaid than said.

In the mad medley of a working Monday, I finished reading one book, wrote a bit, taught someone and spent a fair bit of time looking at this old bookmark. Thanks to google, I found a little to read up on an artist and enrich a few minutes of my today. One of the perks of independent work is the flexibility to intersperse work with pleasure and that is an incredible privilege.

A visit from a stranger

Infants live mostly in a world of smell and taste, primarily of the breast. Adults though have different needs, to be heard, seen, and sometimes touched. I’ve found that the older I get, it’s more about being heard. Shabda after all is the subtlest of the lot and first to manifest in life.

Many of my connections in the last few years have spilled from the virtual world into the real. Some have stayed, some have fallen away just like those made solely in the real world. I’ve also been lucky to have had some internet acquaintances grow into friends but mostly, its been a comfortable space to fulfill a need to express.

Yesterday, I had a stranger come over and spent a couple of hours in conversation, content to listen. Now, I’ve never spoken to S before and it was just a couple of days before that we chatted briefly on twitter. It didn’t take long for S to stop by and give a whole bunch of books, a stash of 27, all of which I haven’t read (finished one today though :). I’ve got so many unread books now across three separate book shelves and the kindle that I don’t need any until perhaps the end of the year! It also necessitated a visit to the library to pause my membership there temporarily until I get through the current lot.

Anyway, back to strangers visiting my home, I’ve had quite a few friends/acquaintances of friends who have visited and also stayed over. It is quite enjoyable to listen to their stories and get a glimpse into what they choose to share. Sometimes, I like to know more but mostly it is about being present and witnessing a person rather than anything else. It is an honour to be able to receive people’s words and partake of them. Sometimes, they become fodder for my ruminations. Like something S said, ‘The internet is full of lonely people‘. It became part of a letter to another blogger friend. Words, they have a life of their own.

My new place has slowly grown into the old open home I used to live in. It’s nice to have friends and strangers come and break bread once again. At best, I could describe the niceness as a sense of contentment at people feeling welcome and at ease, enough to want to stay. It makes me think of a time, a few decades ago when travellers would be guests in unknown homes. After all we do belong to a place that reveres the athithi as a God.

Sunrise Sunset

It’s rare that I get to sit and enjoy a sunrise and a sunset on the same day. Mostly it’s a hustle- work, home, yoga, writing and escaping into the woods. But somedays I get a perfect ordinary day that rolls out rather spaciously. Yesterday was one such serendipitous Saturday. I woke up to a sleeping household which is unusual considering an insomniac mother who is fast fading into senility. A quiet cup of coffee later, I took off to the woods nearby. No one saw me or heard me leave home and I was reminded of a younger me as I hurried out with a skip in my step. Those days I sneaked out to meet a boy, these days I sneak out to meet myself.

Five minutes later I was swallowed by the woods along with the sounds of the city and transported to a different soundscape of parakeets and distant train horns. The dried leaves felt satisfactorily crunchy as they disintegrated under my feet becoming part of the spread of forest floor in front of me. The glyricidia is almost at the peak of its blooming and I remembered my poet friend in Bangalore. So, I tagged her on a photo I scattered on the internet in one of the countless web notebooks I’ve opened and never closed.The trail never disappoints. It has its assortment of humans, things and animals . Mostly, I leave the beaten track and amble without any design,, that’s where the magic comes alive. I’ve come across a bunch of papers with notes and poems, seen voodoo dolls nailed into trees, a bike that has been steadily coming apart, pants hanging on a tree and so on. Sometimes, there are little tableaus left behind like a clearing with broken coconuts, vermilion, flowers and ash suggesting a very romantic runaway marriage. Then there are the groups of people at play or chopping firewood, running or doing drills- those I steer away from.

These objects or arrangements of things or even people are rich fodder for an overactive imagination. It’s always interesting to see two or more people and watch from a distance. Without the benefit of verbal communication, body language speaks volumes and it’s easy to make up stories. Writing is a sly craft that way, piggybacking on real lives. Often the watched are unaware and I’m aware of my voyeurism but I can’t stop myself.

Like the barechested man I saw at a remove. He was in a yoga pose and part of me wanted to adjust his torso while another was curious about his sequence and still another wondered about his motivation. And then the story making began, without any warning. Slow brush strokes of imaginary people and circumstances of his life and once a flimsy narrative begins to emerge, the details start filling themselves in. Barring a name, he is alive in a way he probably isn’t in his real life.

And it repeats for all that I encounter, people and things, living and inanimate. Abandoned poetry and essays, voodoo dolls hammered into trees, pants hanging on trees, a motorcycle without wheels and handles, the old man and his gorgeous Alsatians and the list goes on. Every day, different stories unfold. Yesterday, I heard music but didn’t look behind to see simply because words began to unfurl…

a voice sings behind me
plaintive, it dips and meanders
somewhere behind
but i walk on

the melody is haunting
perfect perhaps
for a song I wrote
but i walk on

maybe it’s a troubadour
i see gypsy tents
in the distance
but i walk on

the music is relentless
urgent, insistent
a message
but i walk on

the wild woods spill
onto a beaten path
i am expelled
i walk on

A day in words

How many word universes does the mind inhabit in one rotation of the planet?

It was an interesting sort of journey through words beginning with a long reading of The Divine Song early in the morning, some poetry bordering on erotica, a comic book on menstruation, an account of a modern woman’s search to unpack traditional wisdom with regards to women’s health and a dipping into an anthology of women’s writing as well as a translation of a hindi novel.

Most of it was reading and a small portion was writing. There was also a long phone call with my soulmate and in our conversations, we discovered that we laughed so hard to avoid looking at the fading mind of a mother we never knew. They say there’s a tumour that is benignly placed and comfortably on its way to senility. Alongside, a brain shrinks into singsong inappropriateness and manic energy. Now that’s a book that will remain unwritten and unread.

In the meanwhile, I splash words wherever I can.

1969 -2019

The year was 1969 or thereabouts. 50 years ago, India would still have been very young in her freedom and quite poor but the handcrafted aspect of her everyday was rich, a living, breathing continuum of history, full of colour and flavour. A tiny part of that piece of culture wound up in a country far away marking time.

A New Yorker visited India as her friend was from this exotic land of colour and chaos. Perhaps her only visit and she might have been enamoured by the colourful sarees she saw on the women around her, enough to splurge on a few herself. Soft silk with exquisite zari work, thread work and unusual motifs, they lived half a century in the wings before winding their way to me.

I wish I knew more about that lady, her impressions and thoughts about my country as it was then. Travel in that era would not have been like it is today with app based cabs and airbnb. It would have been fraught with logistical nightmares and culture shock. I am curious to know about her relationship with M, the Indian lady who was her friend. Which part of the country was M from? What nostalgia did she bear for her country that kindled a desire in her friend? What were the seasons of their friendship and how did their lives play out?

I don’t know any of the answers and the questions still bubble over as I run my fingers over 50 year old silks in extremely good condition. Part of me wants to know and the other part is happy imagining their lives and flavouring it the way I choose. All of life is really a series of choices, moment to moment anyway and a different choice at any point could result in a different unfolding.

These sarees found their way to me via a pretty circuitous route. I opened the package yesterday and they shimmered in all their silken glory. The choice of colours would have made it just the right range for an exotic garment of an infrequent saree wearer. I wonder how many times M’s friend would have worn it and the way she might have played with it.

M’s friend would have been quite the hippie and might have worn the saree out and about in NY. I imagine a happy woman with a full throated laugh who would own a drape and make it her own. In my head, I have an image of Audrey Hepburn like elegance. These were a part of her life’s possessions and her daughter kindly offered them to me, a stranger on the internet. And just like that six yards of silk stretched across time and space to connect the lives of 4 women and an unknown number of hands who wrote poetry on silk.

Social media often gets a bad rap but it’s brought me real people and their stories, some from many miles away. Often, homes are opened and strangers like me have been privileged to break bread. And sometimes, they take the shape of stories, like this one about vintage sarees that unfolded thanks to a fellow blogger’s generosity. Thank you Caitlin for sharing a piece of personal history with a stranger.

Update:  The New Yorker in the story- that’s Caitlin’s mother Cynthia and Molly Tharyan’s friend. Cynthia wore these sarees around Toronto causing quite the scandal amongst the sedate moms in their understated and elegant pearls and cashmeres. She would have been an exotic adventurer considering she did a trip to India in a cervical collar after an ill fated dive into a swimming pool. The silks are so vibrant and full of life, colours of throaty laughter and uninhibited expression.

Half a century later, Molly has passed on, her sister and daughter lost to distance and time. Estrangement at many levels. Some wild art of me wants to see a story unfold here, it’s just a romantic’s dream. Maybe Molly Tharyan’s daughter and sister stumble upon this post via an unknown reader and connect with Caitlin. I’m not sure if that’s desirable or not but it makes for an afternoon’s worth of story making.

 

Tuesday with a shoebox of memories

A Tuesday morning spent in the company of an old shoe box with even older letters and cards.

This was written on a folded piece of paper by a friend who is a star herself. She was one of my early correspondents as I discovered how fragile and difficult adulting can be. Back then, the term didn’t exist but the suffering was real.

She died young but lived a full life of music, art and swimming with the dolphins. India was probably her soul home and she would spend 6 months at a stretch here before heading back to England.

The very last time I saw her was when she stopped by on her way home. She was quite poorly then but wouldn’t miss spending time here. As I type, I can see her bright eyes, freckled face and wisps of blonde hair bleached by the sun. Her arms were tanned and spotted with much sun and she radiated beauty.

Her letters lifted me up on days I struggled and now when I look back, I wonder what did she see in that barely 20 year old?

This particular line is so beautiful and is as true today as it was over 20 years ago. This one is for a new old sister of the heart who completes another trip around the star of our Solar System. Sending you love T, from a star in the skies. .