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.

Walking through Pandemia

We’re back in a kind of lockdown again with nothing but essential goods and services. It’s been this way for a while now and the rest of the state joined in last night. But this time around, the announcement was like bracing for that sharp cold of the first lap in a pool rather than an unexpected shove into it. Pune has been under similar conditions over a week so this new set of restrictions hasn’t really changed anything. Quite a few people I know, including some dear friends tested positive and some even took quite ill but thankfully, they are recovering.

Life’s been meandering along highways and my beloved woods almost equally. But looks like there’ll be a pause in all that long distance driving for a couple of weeks. The woods may still be a possibility in the wee hours or early afternoon but that is to be seen. Yesterday, the youngling and I went to a hill at a distance. The sky was overcast and we got some rain on the way. The amaltas made a beautiful contrast against a grey background and the trail itself was mostly empty. We sat down and watched three men fish in the quarry below although I’m not sure they would’ve caught anything. Much of the water has dried up and it looks a little naked.

While walking on the soft earth with the youngling, I thought about how walking in nature with another person is such an intimate act. There is something about wooded spaces that naturally lowers the need for control and conversation unfolds from a place of vulnerability, like the soft underbelly of animals. It is a period when the whole and the particular, the distant and the near are both available in their fullness. Time too takes its rightful measure outside of the human constrictions of minutes and years. During the last couple of years, the woods near my place have been where I spent many delightful hours. That place taught me many things, continues to teach me much still and I go like a wild child into its calm, to wander and become one with it.

Lately, all the pandemic panic I see around me has been a bit fatiguing and it also feels like a regression into last year’s bubble. The kid has a pandemic playlist and while we listened to it on our way to the trail, we reminisced about our routine in 2020. She’d paint late into the night to the same playlist and I could hear the music waft through my balcony. We were a fuller household then but more withdrawn. Mother lived with us then. These days we have Speedy, a rescued turtle who is a temporary guest. He’s absolutely adorable and has a terrible foot fetish which makes him quite the speed demon. Luckily, he likes to just look and not snap.

Today, I had a surprise delivery from someone I got to know virtually. She sent a saree for ghadi modane (you could read an earlier post about it here) along with a most delightful book, The Living Mountain. Needless to say, I sat down to gulp the pages greedily. Nan Shepherd writes about the Cairngorm mountains what I feel about the woods in my neighbourhood. Her words make me want to skip in joy, withdraw into the quietest silence within and dissolve into all that I love. The book is on the immediate re-read list.

Throughout pandemia, I received many gifts, most of all the gift of connection from those I’ve barely known, those I’ve known intimately and absolute strangers. It echoes what my teacher mentioned this morning, about the necessity to connect with others as well as with oneself. That latter one comes easy through time outdoors or on the mat or then simply watching the sky from my floor. The former though is a navigation and one I probably still have to learn from my beloved woods.

A floral Sunday

The city was out shopping and I went out walking in the opposite direction, far away from the madding crowd. While everyone was busy standing in line outside shops, my feet found their way to the closed post office. On a whim, I decided to take pictures of all the different flowers I met on the way and they added up to around 40 or so, some of which are here.
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It’s hard to choose favourites when it comes to flowers, I love them all but there’s a little extra special space for the seasonal ones. Right now, there’s a patch of babool trees that have burst into tiny yellow suns.
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Abandoned houses

Sundays have been restful days since the last couple of months. A complete day off. Sometimes, the youngling and I take off either for a long walk or a drive. Yesterday, we quickly finished stocking up a bit of fresh produce and a few essentials before heading out to the other end of town. We got a takeaway breakfast, listened to music of her choice and drove past the cantonment in our neighbourhood to the one further away in Khadki. Khadki or Kirkee as it used to be known is an old cantonment, approximately 200 odd years old. It is home to some beautiful old trees, quaint churches as well as old houses, some of them abandoned and in various stages of disrepair.

Kirkee War Cemetery

The light was really pretty around this house.

This one had a bovine squatter!

While a strict lock-down is imminent, it doesn’t feel restrictive personally since the lock-down lifestyle continues save for the restriction on walks and drives. I guess this lock and open game will continue as surges become unmanageable and hospitals run out of beds. In the hour or two that I am out, I see many screeching ambulance hurrying through red lights. The pandemic has lost its ability to shock. Now, it’s simply a part and parcel of everyday living. I suppose when the loss hits closer home, it will bring its own sorrow but else there seems to be a desensitization to its virulence.

Methodist Church

Over the centuries, we have developed some control over some diseases and have come up with tools and techniques to predict natural calamities but largely control is illusory. The planet and her natural laws are boss, we’d be smart to acknowledge that and learn to co-exist with her other creatures and the natural world at large. It seems doubtful though that we will really change if the current is any indication, not just in terms of the environment, hygiene and the likes but also in the way we live amongst our own kind.

I’ve often dwelled on death and dying to understand what it might mean to live and be alive. In yoga practice, one often ends with savasana or the corpse pose. It seems deceptively easy. How difficult can lying down with your eyes shut be but to really inhabit that pose, one has to be prepared to experience being dead. That sense of surrender is a difficult one, making it quite a challenging asana to stay in. Much of what passes for savasana is often guided relaxation and not really resting in the space of not being.

The daughter made an interesting observation that we spent more time outdoors in these months than pre lock-down. She’s gone cycling for at least an hour or two most days while I’ve gone on long walks. It’s been an immersion into the local flora and fauna and there has been a curiosity to understand more about the mini forest that is just around the corner. The woods facing my balcony have also been a rich experience ever since I moved here in December. Seeing it as a green headed space to stark browns to a verdant green again has been a meditation on the march of seasons. The balcony is a restful space and an old pair of binoculars has allowed me to enjoy watching birds and butterflies. The lushness is camouflage now and one has to sit simply for a while to notice the avian activity. I still can’t identify many of the birds, especially the smaller ones but it is interesting to find out. There are many enthusiasts who share freely of their knowledge and then good old books.

Balcony birding

The butterflies are in full form now. In fact, yesterday at one of the old ruins of a house I counted around 10 different species in a matter of 2 or 3 minutes. That compound was a large one and I suspect that the property has a well or another water source. I saw a man, presumably a wandering mendicant in an orange lungi who was putting on a shirt. In another corner of the property, a man sat on a tree with a bag next to him. Homeless people also need their makeshift homes to sit out the vagaries of the weather or people. That particular place had a section of the outer wall still standing and wooden window frames. The brickwork on the house seemed to be from a later period compared to the other ruins I’ve seen. Those bricks are much slimmer.

This property had a riot of butterflies

I found myself looking at the top left window and imagined a woman looking out from a century ago. What would her world be like? What might have she seen from behind the curtains? Did a family live there? Was it a large one or a small one, a happy one or a tormented one? Whose were the ghosts that roamed within its walls? How did the house come to be derelict? Abandoned homes and the stories they can tell. So many reasons, why they are left without pulsating bodies. But that is perhaps something best left undisturbed.

It reminds me of a few lines I wrote a couple of years back.

Abandoned Adeniums

The garden lies untended

No wild overgrowth

Just desolate dust

The Buddha, silent

The house, still

The windows, blank

The doors, unopened

No baby cries

No kitchen smells

No music of life

No singing birds

No blinking lights

Just a mute house

and abandoned adeniums

that bloom

I used to know a house like that…

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

Slow

The trail was wet today. We’ve had slow rain since yesterday and the mud has become soft, like a belly on which children like to rest their heads. This kind of rain is reminiscent of Pune monsoons until a few years ago. Lately, the weather patterns had changed to mimic Bombay rains, heavy and incessant which would make sludge of the trail and then dry into hard packed soil when the sun would get out. Slow, soft rain is gentle, teasing the soil to open up to receive footprints and leave clumps of soil on soles of feet or shoes, maybe with seeds that have flown from bursting pods?

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Mynas, drongos, the crow pheasant and crows (both varieties) were out in much larger numbers than usual today, they’re noisy. The cicadas were also louder than usual and I heard 3 or 4 different sounds. The strays were missing today. I didn’t expect to see too many people considering the rains but there were a couple of boisterous groups. It means more litter inevitably. Another really sad sight is the broken branches. It’s the handiwork of those who come for firewood. There are plenty of dried twigs and branches on the forest floor but those are abandoned and live ones are butchered. I suppose it makes it easier to carry. Alongside this is also the happier sight of smaller trees, the neems in particular growing near larger ones. Small rebellions of life erupting amidst the glyricidia.

As I walked about, I thought about my day until then. It began with yoga as a shared and studied practice, cooking a meal, a few working hours, a talk on handicrafts and finally the trail. All of them have one thing in common, they are slow. Yoga for me has been an extremely slow progression through various stages of fitness, injury, rehabilitation and health. Cooking is always a simple affair and from scratch. My work involves changing attitudes in menstrual health and hygiene and is a long term project. Handicrafts and handlooms are slow arts and the woods take their time in the making.

All these various facets of my living have a longish horizon and in the short term there is a chipping away at them from different angles, sort of like sculpting. Most of the time, there is very little to see as progress until one fine day, there is a breakthrough and I step back to see a whole picture rather than a part of it. Working on the part, the whole is worked upon be it body or mind. It’s the same in the making of many handicrafts and the trail is a sum of many different parts, mobile and immobile. There is the passage of time implicit in their becoming and at any stage, the shape taken by these is a sum of many different parts.

In yoga poses, it begins with very gross actions of the muscular system and progresses to quieter, internal work. Artisans working with their craft spend years perfecting their skill, beginning with learning the different tasks of their art. The forest is a continuum of birth, growth, decay, destruction and regeneration. There’s also the element of individual effort be it on the mat or of the creatures that make the green spaces.

In these times of a pandemic, it again boils down to the individual. We see it as people question their lives and choices. In today’s talk, Laila Tyabji touched upon Swadesi and it’s a word that is a separate post in itself. While there is a collective or community aspect to all of the above, it is a sum of many individuals too, be it arms and legs working together in an asana or a wood carver and block printer or then the stones and birds, insects and plants in the woods.

There is much that is terrible in the world right now both man made and nature designed. In the face of nature’s fury, one has to acquiesce and brace for impact. As to human inflicted violence, I don’t have an answer. Neither shows any sign of abating. Literally and metaphorically, this year has been stormy to say the least. But in the midst of the wildly careening world, my days are quieter. I’ve had time to rearrange my routine to have an increased component of the physical rather than just the cerebral, both in work and play. And that makes me glad to work with what I can experience with all my senses.

A Baobab

Last night, the youngling and I were talking about the lockdown and she mentioned that all her friends who had some kind of hobby or interest seemed to have been very productive and relatively ok compared to those who didn’t have any special interests.  She’s been prolific with her art through these days across different media and has also 1made album covers for her friends who have composed music. A couple of days ago, I got her some art supplies and she got to dabble in oil colours for the first time and it’s a messy affair as she learned the hard way.

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if it’s possible for the woods to be even more beautiful!

The woods always manage to bring more time to my days. This evening I didn’t feel like collecting the trash and decided to walk or then just sit under a tree and maybe read a book. The place was empty as usual and I stood watching the birds for a long while. There’s a thicket where they make a merry racket. There are butterflies too but they are further inside the trail. I saw a couple of green bee eaters, robin magpies, fantails and mynas and heard the saat bhai (jungle babblers) not too far away but didn’t see them. After a while, I settled down with a book that I had left half unread a while ago.

On the way back, there was an old man with 5 young children picnicking. The kids had steel dabbas with poha and it was an idyllic sight, didn’t feel like we were in the middle of a pandemic at all. Also, bumped into the young man who wants to become a police officer and we walked together for a good distance. He’s quite the badass runner, does a full marathon in 3 hours and change. So, we got talking about running, his training and elite athletes etc. His training consisted of running up and down the hill in circular loops and he said he could do it nonstop for 10 loops. No need for any other training after that!  There was a time when I was obsessed about all things running, now they’re packed in forgotten boxes of nostalgia, opened only when something prompts it.

 

It’s almost a given now that I drive around for a while after the woods chasing gulmohurs and today I found my way to a stranger’s house to admire a grand old baobab. The security guard there was kind enough to indulge my desire to see the elder one in person. The tree had such a presence, an energy which is quite inexplicable. It needs to be experienced. The tree had shed sticky flowers on the pavement outside the compound wall and was fruiting which is what made me stop. I’ve never seen the flowers until today and it was the highlight of my day!

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gulmohurs in the evening

Pune has never been this gorgeous in recent history. The current Covid crisis has crippled much and it seems selfish to take pleasure in enjoying the beauty in nature, urban and wild when so many suffer. But, I go anyway. There’s an urgency to pack in all I can before the rains set in. And then I wonder am I the only one who cruises like this, solely for soaking in fading summer sights? Most drivers and riders seem intent on a destination and hurry towards the residential areas while I go in the opposite direction. It’s a different viewing of the trees in the evening light, somewhere between silhouette and colour. I return as night wakes up, that too is a deep pleasure this season. Fragrant, cool inky nights with stars that come alive when you look into the dark.

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Even stones speak to those who listen…

The couple of hours out every afternoon/evening are a long meditation in a manner of speaking. Sometimes I think if I keep this long enough, I may become mute. Actually, speech has reduced significantly even as the written word has become more voluminous. Perhaps it is time to pause for a while and learn a mutism of the written word too. That’s a restraint I am yet to embrace.

Births in pandemia

Do not read if you get queasy about childbirth.

I received a picture of a masked migrant woman, holding a new born baby, the umbilical cord still attached and blood dripping between her legs. That image had a quiet dignity to it which made the message all the more stark and terrible in its silent depiction of one of the horrors of this lock down.

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Birthing is such an exhausting act at the best of times and in the case of women who have given birth during this mass exodus, I can’t even begin to imagine what they have endured. I remember feeling as though each pore in my body was burnt out when I gave birth to the firstborn. I was a very young mother then and not as strong then as I was with the second one. The body felt ravaged and the insides raw. The body is vulnerable following birth as it begins to get over the shock of an empty womb after 9 months of life growing within.

It doesn’t quite end with expelling a child from your insides but continues through the days with the internal organs readjusting to a pre-pregnancy state, a process that takes a few weeks. Every time the uterus contracts to shrink into its normal size, there would be a violent cramping. If the baby refused to wake up and feed on time, the breasts would harden into rock solid pain which could in turn lead to an infection taking a few days to settle. If the baby was a large one, chances are you would have to be cut to make way for her little bawling self to emerge into a blinding world. If you were unlucky, you were torn in jagged edges to let life fulfill itself. The birth wounds eventually heal and leave scars hidden from sight and the pain would be eventually forgotten. If not for the forgetting, women would probably refuse to have multiple children.

Millions of women have gone through this, some in the confines of their homes, hospitals or then out in the open. There are women who have brought children alone into the world, severing the umbilical cord and delivering the placenta themselves and there have been women who have had babies in hospitals or at home with midwives or doulas or then doctors and nurses. It is a period that requires rest to recuperate from the internal brutalizing and the comfort of a familiar space makes it a little easy to bear. I suppose that is why traditionally women went to their parent’s homes to have their children. Of course, these days sometimes convenience of access to the regular doctor dictates staying put.

I found myself thinking of all the mothers who delivered their babies in a pandemic, far away from anything familiar and in conditions that were worse than those of their tough lives before the exodus. The pain of that is something that raises silent screams in vague places inside me for the terrible pain of another woman. If it’s her first child, the terrors of childbirth are a hundred fold. The anticipation of pain as shared by older women who have had children or then what is depicted in movies makes the fear of the pain to come acute. And by the time, it is time, the body is exhausted carrying all that additional weight and fatigue. A long drawn out labour compounds the agony, the body drenched in sweat as the radiating pains of contraction hit you multiple times. Add to that the embarrassment of having your insides on display.

Birthing strips you of shame. It’s gory, the blood and fluids as a naked child emerges out of a naked mother. Strangers poke around and tease reluctant babies who take their time entering the world. Once you have gone through that experience, it is hard to feel embarrassment about the body.

And now imagine walking for endless miles with an additional 10 or 15 kilos under a punishing Indian summer sky. Imagine the heat rising in waves from the road and an unending stream of people walking with you. Imagine having to push a baby out of your body by the roadside. Tell me if you wouldn’t scream for more than just the pain of labour?

I wonder what the new mother would think or feel about her child, the one born in a pandemic which upended her life. What would she name the little person who would need feeding and nurture regardless of her state of mind and body? Would she see hope or bitterness? Would she howl in pain or resign in silence? Would she be resentful or glad? And then I ask, who would care what she feels when the immediate concern is about making it alive to her home far away.

The days will heal the wounds of childbirth and the weeks will wrap themselves around survival of the bodies of mother and child. Hopefully. Maybe the months will add layers of new memories burying old ones and she’ll find pleasure once again. Maybe a child’s unbridled laughter will make her forget the price of his/her being. I’d like to rest in hopeful thoughts because the alternative is unbearable.

Maybe I’ll grow me a forest

Late afternoons have settled into a nice rhythm with a large chunk of time spent in the woods followed by a spin around the neighbourhood to catch glimpses of the gulmohurs. The trail was empty when I got there and I walked aimlessly through the dry scrub for a while. The birds were not as noisy as they usually are, the mynas sound like they’re fighting most of the time. Perhaps it was the heat that kept animal and human away, it was about 40 degrees. And maybe heat that made the mind think slow thoughts.

If ever I end up being a caretaker of a patch of land I call my own, I might just let it grow wild and become a forest. Maybe animals and birds will come to live there and if they permit, I’ll also disappear into it for some time. Letting things grow the way they are meant to means giving up the need for control and the belief that we know better. Sometimes life unfolds its wild beauty quite like that, unplanned and far more richer in texture.

Raat Ranis – these tiny nocturnal blooms are quite heady

A few years ago, I stopped trying to tame my balcony garden and let the weeds grow alongside the plants. Mostly I did nothing save water them. Over time, the mealy bugs disappeared, the plants looked happier and caterpillars came to stay and morphed into beautiful butterflies on the curry leaves. Adenium pods burst and their babies sprouted by the dozen. Lilies sprung at the root of bougainvilleas and ferns emerged from nowhere. Instead of an orderly, tidy garden, I got a piece of urban jungle right outside my room, complete with visiting feathered friends and tiny creepy crawlies.

It happened by chance and then I discovered Fukuoka and the concept of ‘mu‘. I was reminded of this thanks to a fellow blogger who mentioned one of his books today. This was around the time I worked with fresh produce and was also running long distances barefoot. There was an intersection of earth, food and body and the connections between them started becoming clearer. Some of Masanobu’s work finds resonance in the Indian texts too, especially the Taittiriya Upanishad which talks about the food sheath. Food was not just what I fed my body but also my mind. Most of my learning has been a stumbling into self-discovery through the lens of yoga. Of course, a lot of it is incomplete and sometimes completely off the mark but even that teaches.

The horse with no name🎶

It was a quiet sort of a Monday and the highlight was the two odd hours spent outdoors. Since I was driving around anyway, headed to the racecourse which has been shut since lockdown began. All the common landmarks were also firmly shut and considering the situation in this state, they are likely to remain like that for much longer than the end of the month. The streets were fairly empty and it seemed a little tense. In another time, it would have been a busy period with Eid revelry but festivals and celebrations are muted now.

I did see a beautiful sight though, a young man taking a picture of his friend clad in pristine white against a wall of bougainvilleas. It was a moment I framed in my mind for the pure joy in that face – unadulterated light. These moments make it bearable when the horrors of the world outside make the heart heavy. Today, I ended up reading a terrible account of brutality and I couldn’t get over the cruelty against a 10 year old. Destruction exists in nature too and it has a cyclical purpose to regenerate. Unfortunately, in humans, sometimes causing harm is the purpose.

Homeless in a Pandemic

These days when I see open spaces, there’s a sudden desire to run and disappear into its expanses for a long time, perhaps for good. And if I give that fantasy some wings, I imagine that I’d make a leap for it and somehow magically the world will close behind me as though I jumped through a portal. But that’s just the mind running riot.
Much as I love using the excuse of supplies for a long meander, it is also an ache to see a world of masked people, barricaded streets and downed shutters. Last evening, I drove out about 6km, the furthest since lock down just to get a sense of the outside world. Traffic was sparse, both human and vehicular. Cop patrols were quite visible with their loudspeakers warning the few open establishments to close for the day. An entire species is living indoors. Mostly. But there are those who fall through the cracks of having homes or even walking miles towards homes. These are the unwanted, unseen wanderers of the streets like B, the homeless man on my 10k route.
He loved crosswords and I’d see him with a pen and newspaper in the mornings. It’s still not clear how he got a newspaper every single day but he’d be busy. We’d smile at each other, sometimes I’d wave out and he became one of my visual milestones. His smile had a warmth to it. His assortment of a footpath home varied slightly with the change in seasons. Rainy days, there was a makeshift tent of sorts. Winter mornings, he would lean against a wall with a blanket around him. Towards the end of my running days, he even managed a mattress. I remember thinking he seemed truly happy. There was a certain lightness in his face and being. I was fairly certain that he could have had a different life if he chose to.
His eyes were sharp, intelligent and always had a twinkle. Although I wanted to hear his story, I never ended up stopping because I was inevitably in a rush to return home in time to get the kid up for school. And then it was too late. He died a few years ago, someone broke a bottle on his head. Wrong place, wrong time. I got to know his story from a lady who used to run a Tuesday kitchen for the homeless. She’s got quite a few stories of the streets and is someone I admire deeply. But P’s story is for another day. B used to be in the armed forces but a nasty temper ensured he was discharged. A few years later, his family threw him out. Anger has that effect, left unchecked, it ravages lives.

Yesterday, I was reminded of him when I saw another homeless man not too far from where B used to hang out. This old man wore similar dirty white pajamas and a kurta and was busy feeding the birds. It was a joyous action, his scattering feed for the birds. A little ahead, there was a man who had probably lost his mind a long time back. Barely clothed and with his hands stuck down the front of his pants, he swayed and walked as though drunk. There are many such fringe dwellers and people see through them.

One that is still very vivid is a thin, bare chested man asleep on the road with maggots in an open wound. Another recent image is of a woman with bare breasts picking off something from her saree which lay around her as I walked along a busy road one evening after class. And then this morning, amidst the beautiful trees and flowers, I saw a man wasted on the pavement, probably blacked out after a drunken spree. Addiction, homelessness, insanity make them invisible to the world, often even the cops leave them alone.

The overwhelming feeling is tenderness at such times, a desire to cover them if only to protect their selves from not being seen. And in the times of a pandemic, where do these destitute children of a tortured planet go?