A Sunday in Maximum City

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

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

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

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

Bandra Worli Sea Link

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

Marine Lines

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

Ballard Estate

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

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

St Francis Ground, I.C. Colony

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

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

Mumbai Pune Expressway

Amaltas

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

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

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

Selfish, this act of self preservation.

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

Desolate

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

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

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

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

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

A pandemic afternoon

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

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

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

Silence

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

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

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?

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.

What’s in a name?

Leg 2 of a multi city merry-go-round and this one involved an airplane. The airport was not as busy as it used to be and the sense of hurry was absent. While masks were ubiquitous, there was also a slipping into old ways. I guess it is inevitable with the increase in number of people. How does one maintain protocol for 450,000 square metres anyway? The flight I was on had about 25 people. Mostly young people heading for a holiday by the looks of it. How long will airlines continue to operate if this continues?

Covid is here to stay and people of Bombay have made place for it in the same way they absorb new things. Speaking of Bombay, actually Mumbai, the renaming of the city happened nearly a quarter of a century ago and there was much resistance to the change by those who knew it as such. It was a way of reclaiming Indian identity and disassociating with a colonial past. It was also a strong political posturing by the party in power at the time, a chest thumping of Maratha pride. Name changes of cities, streets and other public places don’t see the same resistance anymore. I guess in part it may be due to an increase in the transient nature of jobs and livelihoods. People move more easily.

Changing names is reasserting identity and ownership. Until some years back, it was not uncommon to find a girl changing her name to a new one chosen by her in-laws when she got married. I don’t know if the practice is still prevalent. It used to be couched in tradition emphasising how the girl was beginning a new life and so a spanking new name signified her changed identity as a wife and daughter-in-law. It was common to assume the husband’s surname. It’s now common to retain one’s maiden name post marriage.

Some time back, I was thinking about the names of trees, the ones we have given them. If they chose their own names, what would they call themselves? Would they also speak of themselves as individuals or would one name suffice for their intertwined lives underground? How do they call out to each other? Or perhaps they don’t consider themselves as separate at all, like gemels. That’s for the likes of us humans. We learn to love our names first as they are crooned to us by those who care for us. Much later we croon the names of those we love- lovers, children, gods. I remember something I scribbled a while ago

Greet one another
by name, it is beautiful –
the sound of a name

And then at some point, names fall by the way side just as form dissolves into formlessness, when structure becomes being.

Day’s end saw another walk, this time by the backwaters in Siolim where I caught a beautiful crimson and grey sunset. Just for a little while I lost myself in the flight of the birds, the gentle lapping of the waters and the cool breeze. Dusk has a different charm. It was also sad to see how little we care for natural spaces, they’re trashed without regard. Many of these places have religious symbols like crosses or shrines. At one time, they were sufficient to ensure respect for the surroundings but their influence has faded. I do feel that the time to reverse the ill effects of the systemic abuse of this planet is past. Now it’s simply a matter of time, maybe decades, perhaps less. Until then, we drink in what still remains and leave accounts of a beautiful world for those who will come after us.

“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.

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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