Of words and tongues, silence and knowing

Words find you.

A re-reading of a book on yoga pointed me to Ananda Coomaraswamy and from then on it was a cascading into Indian culture and regional literature. I picked up books I had with me for a while and proceeded to get hold of a few more until I was swept away in the sheer volume and brilliance of thought and language. And these are translations in English. It made me want to listen to them in their original, so I found myself listening and watching related works in Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi and Hindi. It’s something we take for granted in this country, being conversant in multiple languages. I had never really stopped to consider a proficiency in multiple tongues but that’s something I’ve started to rectify by including more of their flavours in my consumption.

There’s something about regional languages, at once a particular lineage of a family/community tongue as well as a transmission of collective memory of spaces, times, events and associations that come down the ages. A continuum of sounds, unbroken as generations of their vibrations spill from womb to womb until they reach the present individual. I’m reminded of a line from a movie I recently watched, “From the first human hand print on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous”. And as the species evolves, memories associated with words begin to fade away keeping time with the experience of living changes from one that used to be deeply rooted in the rhythm of the natural world to one where we rearrange time and space. Sangam literature, for example, is rich with descriptions of the landscapes of their action but many of the scenes that come alive in their verses are no longer quite the reference for our expressions of emotions and thoughts.

The need for information is greater than knowledge and so we tend to approach meaning directly when an oblique reaching out and patient receiving would perhaps reveal its meaning in a different, multi-dimensional way. I suppose darsanam that is spoken about is probably a result of something similar. It is something I have observed during time on the mat as I settle into shapes of the body and breath and let the mind expand without resisting. Things express themselves, connections make themselves apparent. The meditations on conjunctions in one of the Upanishads provide a valuable clue in how one might approach this way of knowing, a subjective, experiential one as opposed to an objective one. Over time, much of these intuitive sensations and experiences are validated through an objective exploration.

I’ve often wondered how it might be if we lived in a world without language. Our first expression is sound, the wailing as we enter a world of senses. The same Upanishad begins with a reminder about phonetics and progresses from there on. That’s how language begins for all of us- varna, swara, matraa, balam, saam, santaanah. It is through being washed in sound that we learn language. And silence is probably the most eloquent of all languages. It is in silence that we begin to hear, life pulsating within the body, the songs of the breeze as it moves through trees, bird sounds, the music of waves or the stunning quietude of mountains.

Perhaps, I have broken a magical spell by writing here but it felt like a moment to emerge from a cocoon and fly, if only for a day.

A smattering of current reads that decided to come along for a ride.

The luxury of being all on my own

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.

Actually 2 rainbows

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.

A hearse in front of me

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.

Stories and Rememberings

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.

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.

1
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

On not writing

Over the weeks, I’ve consciously reduced consumption of the written word, sticking mostly to study texts and work related reading. I’ve also resisted the urge to buy more books and instead finish the ones I have or reread those that call for a second reading. There’s been a withdrawal of sorts happening right in the middle of my life with everything else as is, almost a parallel living. One firmly in the world outside and the other in an inner world. Yesterday, I experimented with not writing a single word just to stay with silence. It was incredibly hard. Truly, silence is not the absence of noise, it’s the absence of thought as I read somewhere! The urge to pull out my book or screen was very compelling but I didn’t, choosing to let memory record them as mental notes instead. Maybe that’s why sleep was unsatisfactory. Perhaps, that’s a cue to work on letting go of the attachment to the act of writing?

Rereading a book on Ayurveda

On an average day, words are strewn about on my blogs, journals, letters etc. They number up to a fair bit, often unruly and raw. It’s almost a compulsion- this need to capture the fragments of my days, thoughts, opinions, contemplation, practice notes, scraps of imagination etc. Maybe I’m afraid of forgetting, maybe it’s a way of keeping record or then it is just a journal of my experiments in living. They are an essential part of my day. The thought of not indulging in them is uncomfortable, strange how sometimes attachment can be to things without substance. At the end of my days, will it matter what I thought or wrote? But here I am, continuing to fill pages, leaving markers of a period in time where I occupied some space.

A White Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A perfect Thursday in January

One fine day, she rose early. The kitchen woke up under her fingers and she cooked for the day, simple nourishing food for two. Much later, she wrapped herself in cotton sunshine and went to an enchanted garden of old trees and pretty flowers. She found a pretty yellow shevanthi to call her own, a burst of happiness in a happy day.

She drank deeply of nature’s beauty and slowly found her way home. Along the way, a young friend joined her and they watched a movie they had begun a long time ago. They didn’t finish it and have made a date for Monday afternoon, away from the bustle of the city. They’ll sit below a sturdy old tree and finish what should have long been finished.

She went to say good bye and on her way back, stumbled on a delightful little patisserie. She got herself an indulgence, a perfect lemon tart with just the zing to celebrate the coming of spring. It was a perfect Thursday in January.

A day in words

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

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

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

In the meanwhile, I splash words wherever I can.

Desire

2020 woke me up to the sounds of peacocks.

2019 was tumultuous silence.

It’s difficult to make sense of a year that destroyed life as I knew it. Early on in the year, the word relentless got set as a cue and proceeded to unravel the frayed threads that were held together with the grime of inertia. The year stripped me naked with nothing left to hide and nowhere to hide unlike Draupadi’s disrobing which never unclothed her. It left her with smoldering rage while I became a clear stream.

Of all the sarees, this humble Kadappa cotton is probably what desire would look like for me

A year later, I find myself drawn to ‘desire‘ and maybe this will be a year of discovery. What do I desire? We’ll know in 12 months. Serendipity, I don’t know but the first book of the year is Kama The Riddle of Desire and right in the early pages, the author says, “Over the years I have come ro realize that one has to be deserving of desire.” As a theme, it has been a subject matter for my offline writings and I cannot help but draw a parallel between the act of writing and desire. Both seek expression. Can the wild flower refuse to blossom for you?

Desire is that wild bloom, for its own sake.

May the year show you what you truly desire.

“It smells like agarbatti and wood”

“It smells like agarbatti and wood”, she said.

One of the earliest mythology books I bought was Myth = Mithya by Devdutt Pattnaik. Since then, I’ve wandered into Indian philosophy and her old sciences by various authors, Indian and foreign. Those old sciences and arts still exist although what we get is the pop packaged version. It is rare to find authentic practitioners amidst the din of the internet. For an inert screen, computers and phones do make a lot of noise.

The daughter had run out of books to read and I thought it might be interesting for her to get a taste of the fantastic world of Indian mythology. She took the book and in true bibliophile style, smelled the pages. I took the book to smell too and was washed not just in the fragrance of an old book but the milestones in its age.

It lived longest in an old sheesham bookcase which also housed incense sticks from various parts of the country. Some were bought on travels, others gifted by friends. Every time I opened that cupboard, there would be a whiff of wood and smoke and it always reminded me of an old ancestral home that no longer exists. That house was deep in the hills, snug at the bottom of a green jungle, all stone and wood. I remember all too few weeks with my aunt listening to stories and watching the fireflies flit until we fell asleep. Life was simple in that way. Mornings began with the smell of black coffee and the kitchen would cough up food and smoke through the day until the embers were silenced at night. There was time for stories and aimless wandering, games in the open and books.

The sheesham bookcase was abandoned but some of the books made it through the various pages of my story. Stained, yellowed and with the binding showing signs of disintegration, these old books are uncannily similar to human lives. Fresh off the press, they are sharp and crisp and as they come in contact with hands and eyes, they start to lose some of those edges and become softer, beaten and develop age spots. Hidden between their pages, you discover old notes and cards, like the one I found in this book. It was from a colleague many years ago as she was moving on to a different role.

The past never leaves us, it circles around our present and comes up for air every now and then. Like a friend once said, we live our lives in the orbits of other people.