It is summer in the world outside, I catch glimpses of it as I cruise the Mumbai Pune expressway every week. It’s a familiar stretch, one I have seen being built over the last couple of decades. The cities it connects have spilled over at either end, shortening the bare open stretches. The trees on the verge are grown ones. I wonder if they were planted or they somehow crept into their tallness. They’re a mix, nothing planned about their arrangement, unlike the Satara- Kolhapur stretch which has neat lines of flowering trees. While driving back last afternoon, I wondered about what the person or team would have thought of as they decided on the landscaping of the road. What might have been my recommendation if I got to choose? I don’t know if we really ought to choose in the first place.
Over the last month, I watched jacaranda trees create lovely clouds and carpets, saw jackfruits ripening into sweet stickiness. Now, the copper pods mimic millions of suns as they smile between the leaves. In some places, the golden shower trees cannot wait and have begun to preen in dainty bunches. There are a few precocious Gulmohurs, early bloomers peeking through the green. Yesterday, I missed my leisurely ambles so much that I stopped on my way back home to say hello to my old tree friends. The ones that have been familiar are still waiting for their cue to burst into colour. I stopped by the old baobab tree on my way back home simply to see it before its season of flowering. There is something dramatic about trees in bloom, the entire run up to their flowering followed by their quiet retreat into anonymity. It’s beautiful how completely inconspicuous trees come alive in all their flamboyance and go back to being one among many. Tree time is slow time, perhaps the kind of time which we humans should also keep.
A few weeks before a pandemic shut down the world, I had paused my membership at the neighbourhood library. I’d gone a little book crazy then, buying an assortment of titles from an exhibition. This was topped with a pile of books I received from an acquaintance. It made sense to pause and finish what I had on hand. But I guess it’s a common reader tendency to always end up having unread books. Additionally, I also bought a few on the kindle during lockdown. My reads were mostly non-fiction interspersed with children’s books from the youngling’s shelf when I needed a break.
Last evening, I took myself on a nice long walk in the old Cantonment and rounded it off by heading to the library. It’s a quaint little place, over quarter of a century old and run by two ladies, K and A. Friends Library has had a loyal clientele over the years and the two ladies know all their regulars well. K is usually the one at the desk in the evenings and she knows the kind of books that I like. Sometimes I ask her to pick me something and she unerringly chooses the perfect one. She’s crazy about dogs and the library is always fostering abandoned ones. Shadow was a long time resident, he was gone though, someone adopted him. Four new strays had made themselves comfortable. Shadow would be sprawled between two shelves where I’d browse. It felt strange not to see him in his usual spot.
K was shocked to see me bald but like with most people, it was just an initial reaction. I’m still the same old me. Although the place was open, there were not many visitors. Most of the members are senior citizens and have been staying at home. K rued that a lot of folks hadn’t bothered to return books they had taken months ago. A long borrowing inevitably gets written off. Everytime I see the copy of Tughlaq at home, I feel mildly guilty at not having returned the book to my college library. But it’s also nice to have some relic of that short period in my life. I don’t think I have anything else from those years, no pictures, nothing. Maybe I should leave a note in the book about how it came to nestle among the other books at home. I digress.
Back to the library, it was quiet. Earlier, a little charm with bells that hung on the door never stopped tinkling. It was a place of comings and goings, of seniors and children, indulgent parents and solitary bookworms. There was a small sense of community in a largely indifferent city. The pandemic has erased that camaraderie. I suppose it will eventually come back but there is a certain apathy that is visible. The tiny place also has an attic for the kids, with books and toys along with a cosy area for reading. The youngling has spent countless hours reading there and often I’ve had to climb up to get her to come home. There are no children lounging there anymore.
I picked up a couple of books, one I’ve been meaning to read for a while and the other a random pick for its title. By the time, I got to K with my books, she already had the long green card with my name ready. I’d forgotten my number but she remembered. Come today evening, I was back at the library and returned one of the books I had read and the youngling got herself a nice, fat book to read. It feels good to slide into a familiar haunt, one that is warm and welcoming and smells of books.
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.
Lately the walks have been sporadic considering the extremely wet weather. There have been the odd late night ambles and some highway tripping though. The latter was an absolute delight, long stretches of pitch dark and very little traffic. This evening, I went for a short walk and it was another one of those bursting with happy kind of days. Just at the sheer pleasure of being alive and being able to enjoy the lavish spread of nature. The green is lush and walking under their cover is incredibly rejuvenating.
Inspite of all that we’ve ravaged, there’s still so much magic in every step. From rot to ripe, a continuous cycle of rebirths. Seed to fruit and back, endlessly. The same in the animal kingdom with species continuing to keep themselves continuous. Endless procreation in their own image even as their lives get snuffed.
As I walk in the now, I’m conscious of the insignificant tiny blip of my existence against the long past of this universe as we know it todayas well as the unknown length of the future. I look at the fallen leaves and imagine that hundreds or thousands of years from now, some one may unearth fossils from this ordinary piece of land and imagine how things would have been in 2020, the year of corona. What would a world in 3000 look like? What imprints would our species carry into that millenium?
Some sights from today as I walked with a skip in my step and music on my lips. It’s so easy to slip into a make-believe world. 🙂
And just like that I find myself with the luxury of complete solitude. An empty house, a clean one and all the time in the world. I took the day off work today and let the hours unfurl at their ease. Like the fox tells the little prince, “it is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” And important it was, I saw a rainbow, smiled at the sun and enjoyed a nap before lunch. Without child or mother, I was a teenager left to her own devices. Swathes of nothing time and short, meaningful stretches of listening and reading. Days as these, my tongue forgets to speak, to make shapes of words. Maybe we never really do quite grow up, we just play at being adults.
This morning, I got to know that Mr. M passed away due to Covid-19. He was a stocky man, old but one could never quite make out his age. (He was 72.) Energetic, strong and quiet, he was always willing to help and served quietly. He used to assist at the yoga institute since the 70s and was a familiar face to all of us students. I’ve been the recipient of his sharp eye and gentle compassion. Every time I adjust myself or someone else in one of the poses he corrected me in, I remember his attention to detail and not losing on the basics. Some day when the institute opens and I go back to the large hall to help out, I will miss his presence, him in his shorts hoisted high up on the waist and white vest. He’d slip in quietly with his old fashioned bag that would hold his regular clothes. Before class or after, he would often be seen draped on one of the props and resting. M is indelibly associated with one of the long standing students, an elderly gentleman who would always be assisted into the various supported asanas by him. I wonder who will adjust the old man now. And then a stray selfish thought, when can I go back to the large hall and breathe in its cool air and feel the touch of the cold floor.
I also stumbled on the story of Mr. Ripple and it reminded me of Kailash, the gola wala who would frequent the lane where I used to live. One afternoon, I ran down to speak to him when I heard his bell, I needed to know his story. You could read about him here. The upturned and locked handcarts I saw today reminded me of him too, he would get his impounded every once in a while and would often arrange for another one rather than getting it back.
In today’s unplannedness, I also ate a delicious masala dosa at the little joint I would frequent pre lock down. Of course, it was washed down with a piping hot filter coffee. It’s an outdoor space with sufficient space between tables and not too many diners now. Pre-pandemic, the place would be packed and like any self-respecting small joint, would not encourage lounging around. Today, I sat and enjoyed the sounds of the rain and the sun as they played together for a long while before heading back home.
Death, life, living and in all this, I find a quiet meditation, a refrain that our lives are meant to be lived in joy. It’s not a happiness borne of things or accomplishments, just the deep contentment of being fully alive, the satisfaction of service. The words of B.K.S Iyengar say it best, ‘Live happily, Die majestically’. Much of living is an exercise in productivity, accomplishment, getting somewhere. So, we study, work, plan and do the adult thing and forget to lavish time on things that have no purpose save that we enjoy them, they are the sap of our lives.
“I do remember,” he said, “only Pooh doesn’t very well, so that’s why he likes having it told to him again. Because then it’s a real story and not just a remembering.“
A couple of disassociative days, fragments of lives and times, houses and homes, a remembering and many rememberings. Of a real story. But, like Pooh sees it, a story. That’s where the difference ends. Pooh lives in pages and human lives play out in breaths. In and out, inextricably linked to threads of, well, living. And that is a complicated story.
So, it made sense to slip into Pooh’s world in a strange place, at once familiar and distant. Somehow in these kaleidoscopic days, the old teak trees were an anchor. It is the season of their blossoms and I’m glad to witness another cycle in their years.
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.
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.
One of the criteria in choosing a house to stay has been a decent sized balcony or two or three, mostly for the plants that come along with me. I’ve been in this location for nearly 9 months beginning 29th November. By the time everything was unloaded and dumped in the house, it was late evening and one of the first things I did then was sit with a cup of coffee in the balcony. Since then, it has been my favourite space. Yoga, reading, working, movies, chats, birding, day dreaming, sun bathing and pretty much anything that doesn’t need me tied to a place, all find space here. Lock down days were probably not too difficult simply because the balcony provided a sense of the wide open world.
The woods in front are part of the Forest Colony and home to about 20-25 species of birds as far as my untrained self has gathered. Mornings begin with birdsong and continues through the day. Sometimes late nights also with the lapwings screeching. It is home to a family of peafowls and I’ve been waiting to see them in their splendour but the camouflage now makes it hard to spot them. All the wild greens have attracted a herd of buffaloes and they are led by a man into its dark sumptuousness for a feasting every morning.
Pune homes usually have balconies and I look up at them when I walk on city streets. During the early days of lock down, I would look out at the few people walking on the streets and have an irresistible urge to wave out. Later, as I started going out for walks, I’d wave from the ground to an old man in one of the buildings. He would give me the most beautiful, toothless grin and it would make me incredibly happy. To truly connect, one doesn’t need a name or conversation. A smile is enough. Enough to reassure someone, enjoy a joke, set a heart aflutter, appreciate something or just plain acknowledge another.
Besides the trees and birds, the cloudscapes have been an endless fascination. They lend themselves naturally to reflection and in their shapes and shape shifting, there is a loosening of the knots in the mind. And these days are days of clouds and rain. While the skies are mostly grey, above the continents of clouds overhead are brilliant blue skies. Hope. There’s a lovely song, Both Sides, Now by Joni Mitchell which reflects on love as seen through the metaphor of clouds. Her closing refrain, ‘It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all’ is probably what says it best. If you fancy a listen, it’s here
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.