Some days the world is too much with us and the centre cannot hold. Appropriating Mr. Yeats here. Why waste words when someone has already said it so beautifully?
The pandemic has not only unleashed a virus but a lethal cocktail of fear and fatigue. Its manifestation ranges from cruelty, intolerance, anxiety, grief, confusion and a plethora of other states of being, often a flux. At times, it can get too much even for incorrigible optimists. Silence is relief then. I’d read somewhere that silence is not the absence of words but the absence of thoughts. How difficult it is to be truly silent!
And so, the news has been silenced and life has been lived slowly. The frequent and sometimes long power outages have been helpful to keep the expanse of quiet and slowness of analog life moored. The woods aid that sense of anchoring. I’ve been enjoying its green heart in the rains, especially since it is almost devoid of people. No two days in there are the same, it is always fresh and new. The ground is teeming with life now so I stick to the tracks rather than stomp down on some creature. It’s messy with thin soled shoes so got a pair of wellies. Hopefully, ambling will be a little easier over the next few wet months.
A few days ago, I wrote a letter to a little boy who turns 11 later this month. Usually, letters are easy to write, it’s like speaking but occasionally I want them to be a little extra special, like this birthday special for a young man I have never met. So, I let it remain unwritten for a couple of weeks. Finally, it came to me as I lay down on the floor after practice. There was music wafting from the kid’s balcony studio. Perhaps, it was the state of mind after practice, maybe it was the music, maybe it was the morning reading or perhaps it all coalesced into a question. What is the form and substance of our lives, our living? And in that thought, I found my letter for R. Of course, not in quite so serious a manner but hopefully he will pause to consider it.
As much as it was a focal point for the letter, it became a question to myself too. I found articulation of the answer in Maudie, a movie I saw today. It is a dramatized account of Maud Lewis’ life, a folk artist from Canada. Brilliant essaying of roles by the lead actors, a gorgeous Nova Scotian landscape and beautifully restrained dialogue. There is harshness, hardship and pain yet the entire movie flows in love- quiet, slow and content. “The whole of life, framed.”
Sometime last month, life nudged and I rearranged my days to include more physical activity and slowly it has settled into a nice rhythm of work and play. This morning I spent close to 3 hours on my mat, first with an hour of class with my teacher and then self-practice. Large chunks of asana time like this don’t happen always and when it does, it leaves me feeling really good.
There were errands to run today and the teen decided to accompany me. We both enjoy a decent ‘chakkar’ around the cantonment and she handles the music when we’re out. Often, we sing along and at times she gets mildly embarrassed when I get carried away. A bigger consternation is when I sing made up lyrics rather than the original one and it gets stuck in her head. A mild annoyance now but maybe she’ll remember it with a smile when she’s much older and I’m no longer around.
There’s almost always something playing while I drive, music or then tracts of chants I wish to memorize or podcasts. These days the drives are pleasure trips and so it is music, the volume usually a tad higher than what it should be and I sing along without a care. Today’s highlight was What’s Up from the 90’s and a favourite as a teen. Something the youngling was playing reminded me of this song and I asked her to play it. I found myself singing along and caught in its sound so much so that I parked under a gulmohur tree to belt the rest of it out without any distraction. It felt like a concert right there and the kid was shocked that I could let go like that. Just for those few minutes, there was nothing except the song, the singing and pure abandon. I felt wildly happy for no reason.
And then the next thought was that I shouldn’t be feeling good when there is unhappiness and pain in the world. A guilt that crept in saying, how can you be so full of life when there’s so much distress and chaos in the world? Truth is even before the pandemic, there was much suffering. Just that in the lockdown there was more time to notice it. Homebound and ready access to news in real time just made it more visible and loud. If the planet is noisy with our voices, imagine what it might sound like if every byte had sound too. It would be positively deafening! It’s ironic that I add to the same strange online world that I look at in amazement. Much of the noise has a very short shelf life, the feed feeds on itself and never pauses. There’s also the fastest finger first syndrome which shouts first and then checks on veracity, sometimes costing lives but there seems to be a shrugging it off as acceptable loss. I watch the parrying between opposite sides of whatever is the discussion and its the intolerance that strikes me every time. For all the viciousness that is exchanged, there’s a new fire that rages even before the current one has died down. I see fear and rage feeding into a frenzy of anxiety, making it a vicious cycle and negating the possibility of reasonable disagreement.
So, what can I do? I don’t know. A few thoughts from some of the media I consumed play in circles, a sportsman’s statement of not being an activist but focusing on his craft, a Jesuit writer speaking about finding one’s calling and a French Tibetan monk who speaks of happiness as encompassing sadness. All these different thoughts resonated and reinforced the idea of individual action within the limited universe I inhabit, small acts of full presence. And it begins with taking care of myself so I can serve however I am called.
This care takes the form of nature, slow words, art and movement to feed the mind, heart and body, all of which have a longevity and stability, pandemic or not. Simple food that the body, mind and heart need for its well-being. I find time spent outdoors, on the mat, creative pursuit and in books that stand the test of time most rewarding in their expansive silences and ability to remain energetic. Most of all, they allow happiness as a way of being.
Finally got down to sorting some of my old files and ended up looking at the piece below. I remember that September night which began nightly walks after dinner. They had an invisible feel about them, as though I melted into the darkness. Of course, it was not difficult to experience it as such since my clothing was inevitably dark to be as unobtrusive as possible. One phrase that kept popping up in my head through that long amble on familiar streets was the rot of prosperity. Partly due to the smells on the walk which registered dominantly as also the neon glare of shops and eateries bustling with people, spending. I haven’t been out in the night these last few weeks but if day time is any indicator, the streets will be desolate.
And letters back then were sent the old fashioned way 🙂
It’s been many months since I walked and a while since I ventured out in the night. The dark of the night is so different from the dark of early dawn. Night time darkness is weary with noise and fumes of a mindless humanity. My tree friends also remain shut for the night. They curl their leaves and sleep while I make do with jazz in my ears.
My life is silent these days and words seem familiar in their written form rather than let loose on the wind. So, I write letters. Letters to stranger friends, the ones whose words and faraway presence somehow comforted me. I write letters to my daughters which may perhaps go out from all the mothers in the world to their daughters. Today, I wrote a letter to my daughter and one of the stranger friends, a woman I haven’t met yet. They couldn’t wait until morning so I went walking to the postbox I usually frequent. The clearing time mentioned on it is 1325 hours and my letters will sit at the bottom, perhaps with other letters.
Maybe I should write a letter addressed to the postman who clears that particular box. What would I write and tell him? I don’t know. I recall a story about a postman who discovered unsent letters when he retired and was distraught at the fact. I can’t seem to remember anything beyond that point, perhaps I didn’t finish the story. It’s quite possible. I’ve lived long enough not to suffer through books that don’t speak to me. If they have words meant for my eyes, they will find me somehow.
The letters dropped, the weather pleasant and the prospect of endless hours to myself led me to amble on roads I knew so well at one time. The streets were packed with headlamps and frantic drivers all rushing to their destinations. The food carts and stalls were doing brisk business and I watched people eating without really eating. I found myself behind young couples with cheap perfume and the unmistakable musk of lust. Somewhere, there was a dead animal behind the bushes and the fetid smell of rotting garbage. There was also the fragrance of a carpet of the cork tree’s flowers. Mild, just a hint masked by the haze of pollution.
I passed parked cars with their owners playing games, a paani puri wala chatting on the phone even as he whipped up the puris in quick succession, bikers speaking with 2 people behind them. There was barely anyone without the ubiquitous cell phone, me included although mine was in my pocket and on Spotify. Even this is distraction, music.
It’s a confusing worldview, this rot of prosperity.
Sarees brought me the love and friendship of many special people across the planet. Some of them lovers of the six yards, others not but all of them wonderful people. A few have grown to be friends I’ll love all my life. Some have also been correspondents over the last couple of years and I have enjoyed the slow pleasures of letters written in beautiful hands. Often these notes are accompanied by something handmade, in the case of a special sister of the soul, tea for two. 🙂
Most days, I go through life unconscious of my presence in anyone else’s life. But every once in a while, I receive an act of kindness which makes me feel overwhelmed. It is a surprise that one is thought of in private moments of the spirit of another person. One such happened today. I received images of a letter that was written about a couple of years ago in a train between Bergen and Oslo.
R discovered the notepad on which she had begun writing that letter to me recently and shared pictures of the pages today. I was deeply touched to know that someone remembered me on their travels, enough to write their deepest thoughts as they watched a white landscape hurtle past a silent window. The pictures through the glass speak of harsh winters although this was a trip in April or May. I’ve never seen snow, not yet and often wonder how it might be to experience the silence of a giant white blanket for months on end.
Letters though are a wonderful way to break that silence. They are a window into thoughts that are free from the constraints of conversation. Of course, they have their moods and colours. Sometimes playful, often contemplative, at others obscure and so on. But, generally, they tend to be a plane where there is a relaxation of our personas and an emergence of our person. Often they are about the mundane while at times the pen wanders to think about deep questionings and at still others they are simply a record of activities. It made me question why I write letters almost compulsively but that probably is a separate post.
In an age of instant news, instant sharing, I find an almost fierce need to protect the slow savouring of thoughts that belonged to a loved friend but could be relived in the reading of a letter. Perhaps it is a result of growing older and wanting the comfort of a touch of lives through paper, a medium that is comforting. Or maybe it is a need for a physical reminder of something that transcends distance and time. Most of the letters I have received have been from friends, very few from family. In my books, friendships are probably the best among different kinds of love.
As I type this, I realize that this too has turned into a letter of sorts, perhaps a reply to that letter written on a train miles and months away from here and now. Maybe that’s what this blog is too, one long endless letter. Thank you R for your gentle, compassionate touch in my life. It has been much the richer for your radiance.
Some letters are best received much beyond their writing.
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.
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.
I woke up this morning and found myself on the floor, glasses askew, mugs and bowls, books and papers all around, earplugs entangled around my arms and a trailing saree. After an initial moment of bewilderment, I put on my glasses and remembered a longish night, laughing to Forrest Gump, nostalgic wanderings to a trail in Auroville, a midnight snack and some beautiful sketching by the youngling. There was music too that wafted to the accompaniment of moonlight and jasmine scents of a summer night.
The trashed room was actually a lovely reminder of the fullness of yesterday and its incompleteness too. It’s always the longing for what lies just a little beyond even as you go about the business of living. It’s been a very long time since my room grew wild on me like that. In the midst of a night space shared by the resident young artist and this scatterer of words, both of us acknowledged the chaos of our craft.
We produce a fair bit and then go on to produce more, scattering our babies across tables and books where we cannot quite find them. Last night I was searching for a line I had written earlier in the day and had to hunt across 2 screens, a notebook and a notepad before finding it tucked away in a blue cursive hand in a letter yet to be mailed!
Daylight comes and lifts the veil of night’s magic and last night was pure enchantment. Right from the moon peeking behind clouds, the intoxication of night blossoms in my balcony garden and a shared space of music, art and words to the delight of a favourite film on my screen. I could have died then and it would have been a lovely celebration of living.
Yesterday’s blog rumination prompted a repeat of the movie and it was just as sentimentally sweet now as it was the first time I saw it. It almost seems blasphemous to savour the days of slow living and helpless creating when a pandemic has wreaked havoc. In the midst of this island of companionable silence, there’s also the din of volunteering which brings up stark realities of hunger, abuse and opportunistic tendencies. Inevitable. As my friend AJ says, it is what it is.
And so I straddle two worlds of completeness and endeavour.
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.
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.
We’ve crossed the halfway mark of the lockdown. It seems an uncertain world that we will emerge into whenever this forced isolation is over. What is certain though is that art created in these times, splashing a canvas with fears and desires across all kinds of media, will remain. Decades from now, a future generation will read about these times like we do about the ages gone by of older wars and plagues.
These days hand written letters have morphed into images sent electronically
A couple of nights ago, I had fallen off to sleep and then gotten up with a start. So, I thought I’d work on some writing when your sister came by. She craves company and says that she is like a bug to my light. It’s a cute analogy. For me though, at writing times, I want silence and complete isolation. I don’t like having anyone nearby. Long story short, I didn’t end up writing but indulged her drawing whims.
We spoke for a long while and she sketched me, I really like the picture. Sending it to you so you can see what I mean. She is gifted and doesn’t quite know it. That’s probably the best place to be as an artist. Perhaps someday, I might ask her to make illustrations for books I will write. Through my writing, I have started to discover myself and explore beyond the edges of what I thought I knew. It’s been exhilarating, this deluge of discovery. But that’s for another day when I get to see you in person, my love.
It’s late and I’m tired. My mind’s ranged universes today and I have no wise words or thoughts for us to ponder, just this little slice of my today. And a very big I love you.
A letter sits undelivered in a post office, perhaps in a bag with other letters that have made the journey from various parts of the globe, the same one in the grip of a pandemic. The post office is shut and there is no one in the old brick building. It is a scene out of a doomsday movie just that it is happening in real life. Right now.
The letters sit in the dark, bursting with words and no one to read them. Perhaps, if they had to introduce themselves to other letters, they would have some companionship in these times of social distancing. How do you quarantine words?
The letter writer remains home bound and writes even more letters, less to people and more to the paper. Those letters sit it out as a species retreats into itself, bewildered. Once she is gone, these will be abandoned children, wandering without release until someone discovers them and sends them on their way. For now, they pile up neatly on her desk.