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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
Some days the world is too much with us and the centre cannot hold. Appropriating Mr. Yeats here. Why waste words when someone has already said it so beautifully?
The pandemic has not only unleashed a virus but a lethal cocktail of fear and fatigue. Its manifestation ranges from cruelty, intolerance, anxiety, grief, confusion and a plethora of other states of being, often a flux. At times, it can get too much even for incorrigible optimists. Silence is relief then. I’d read somewhere that silence is not the absence of words but the absence of thoughts. How difficult it is to be truly silent!
And so, the news has been silenced and life has been lived slowly. The frequent and sometimes long power outages have been helpful to keep the expanse of quiet and slowness of analog life moored. The woods aid that sense of anchoring. I’ve been enjoying its green heart in the rains, especially since it is almost devoid of people. No two days in there are the same, it is always fresh and new. The ground is teeming with life now so I stick to the tracks rather than stomp down on some creature. It’s messy with thin soled shoes so got a pair of wellies. Hopefully, ambling will be a little easier over the next few wet months.
A few days ago, I wrote a letter to a little boy who turns 11 later this month. Usually, letters are easy to write, it’s like speaking but occasionally I want them to be a little extra special, like this birthday special for a young man I have never met. So, I let it remain unwritten for a couple of weeks. Finally, it came to me as I lay down on the floor after practice. There was music wafting from the kid’s balcony studio. Perhaps, it was the state of mind after practice, maybe it was the music, maybe it was the morning reading or perhaps it all coalesced into a question. What is the form and substance of our lives, our living? And in that thought, I found my letter for R. Of course, not in quite so serious a manner but hopefully he will pause to consider it.
As much as it was a focal point for the letter, it became a question to myself too. I found articulation of the answer in Maudie, a movie I saw today. It is a dramatized account of Maud Lewis’ life, a folk artist from Canada. Brilliant essaying of roles by the lead actors, a gorgeous Nova Scotian landscape and beautifully restrained dialogue. There is harshness, hardship and pain yet the entire movie flows in love- quiet, slow and content. “The whole of life, framed.”
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.
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.
The Grand old Baobab
the sticky flower
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!
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.
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.
This outing has been too close on the heels of the previous one. Much as I welcome the opportunity to walk on quiet roads, it is also a reminder of a bleak reality. I’m early and it seems pointless to go back home and come out again. So, I sit on the pavement under a gulmohar tree and look at another which has already started its summer dance.
Perhaps if I were not responsible for other lives that depend on me, I might have just remained outdoors. It is beautiful without the debris of human activity. Crisp mornings, azure skies, sounds of unseen creatures and beloved tree friends make it a world that is more than enough.
The cops are out in good measure, a wall of containment in a city that is contained within containment. An ambulance careens through the opening in the barricade, siren wailing and suited bodies in the windows. A motorbike escapes in its wake and there’s a dash to catch the errant biker but he’s gone. The momentary excitement lapses into silence and all I can hear are insect sounds. There’s a tantalizing whiff of jasmines although I can’t see it anywhere. Perhaps, it is coming from the compound of the reserve forces. The masked policemen sit on plastic chairs, swatting flies and chatting at a distance.
At a little distance is the spot where I used to commence my runs. It used to be a pause, the setting of the watch or app before the propelling into a distance, never knowing how it might turn out. Some days would be effortless, a few days were written off. Mostly, they were an endeavour. I want to go back, injury be damned. I want the taste of that sweat and the exhaustion of brutal runs. Maybe it’s an empty that is missing.
The wind changes direction and I can smell cowdung, it’s probably coming from the compound where the families of the forces live. In another time, I’d walk through the almost village with its idyllic scenes played under old trees. Children playing, women sweeping the yards, old men sitting on verandahs, rookies working the land. It would be a suspension from city busyness to dip into a slower pace of life.
I could spend the day here, on a pavement, below a tree. But…
I’m not a big facebook fan and end up using it mostly in the course of work. So, I saw a message from a stranger almost a month later and it was a curious thing. This person had figured a few of my blogs as well as my name through them and was intrigued about a lack of face on my saree posts enough to want to reach out. Sometimes, I do that too, reach out to people although it’s mostly because of words. It got me thinking of how people connect in this century and also why. But that is for a later post.
In pandemic times, our interactions have changed in their texture. There’s either a frantic need to maintain old socializing in a virtual avatar or a retreating into journals, books, letters and blogging. So much of our lives are about places we go or things we do and so being confined brings very little to conversation as exchange of raw thoughts can be frighteningly intimate.
Yesterday, technology gave way. My internet device went bust and later the phone hung. It refused to shut down or restart. And truth be told, I was relieved to be disconnected. After trying without success to reconnect to the call I was on, I calmly put aside everything and wrote a letter. Then an entry in my journal to mark the day and a book in bed before sleep stole on me. I slept for 12 hours straight.
Today has been reflective, a little despairing, mildly cynical, a tad bit impatient and curious too. I could attribute the shaking of a steadiness to a variety of factors perhaps the last two books I finished? In case you want to know, they were Disgrace and Giovanni’s Room. They were recommendations from another stranger. Sometimes I think it is easier to exchange digital words with people one never needs to know. Days like these make me want to crawl into a cave. But life has a penchant for teasing and torments by denying what one seeks.
I sat calmly listening to a an old woman who needed to talk, a young girl who was frustrated about being unable to go cycling. Behind the eyes which were with them, there was impatience to get back to my page where a half written sentence demanded completion. Eventually, time made itself available but the need to finish the line dried up like the ink in my pen.
In the midst of all that, a friend prodded me to do something I wouldn’t ever have considered. But I said yes, spontaneously. It felt right although I didn’t expect it to move at the pace it did. I’ve mostly gone where the river of life has taken me and so far it’s been interesting. I suppose one can liken the river bed across miles to the constancy of one’s personhood and the different features along its course as the various experiences one encounters – enriching, depleting, polluting, reviving. Along the way, it’s song meanders through joyous notes and plaintive ones, furious thundering and quiet whispering. Eventually the waters will spill into the ocean and all those songs will drown into a majestic silence. I find myself with a longing creep in for that soundlessness.
I saw a short film yesterday, The Swimmer and it set into play so many flashes. The poetry of Derek Mahon (he’s a discovery), the beautiful capturing of the moods of open waters and Redmond’s moment 20 miles off shore. Just like the slashes of Mahon’s poetry, my memories of running, swimming and the sea coalesced into a private film. The lines read by the poet in the movie reminded me of a few lines I wrote to myself a couple of months back, mesmerized by the sea.
The water was just right, like the temperature of breast milk or maybe the fluid in the womb. Warm, alive as though it had a heartbeat. Walking through that was such a sensory immersion, the smell of salty air, the sand shifting below my feet, the touch of moisture in the air and the incredible expanse of sky and water. What if one walked into the sea to die? What would that moment feel like- the one of no return as water burns into lungs?
In the meanwhile, I found pleasure in swimming while also discovering deep silences under water. The breath has started to become a friend as I let go and surrender to the flow. It is a different experience to be suspended in a medium which can either support or swallow you. As an element, it’s an interesting one to explore through its different aspects. Benign, malevolent, neutral. Three different states- ice, water and steam, all with different gunas. Water in the womb, water in our bodies and on our planet. Universally used by all that lives… Quite like the secrets of water under open skies. They invite you to dive deep and dissolve. After all, isn’t life really a preparation for dissolution? A bit like all asana being preparation for savasana…
Winter is melting into summer, rapidly. The water in my matka is just the right degree of cool to quench my thirst. The pool waters provide buoyancy and resistance as I swim. My thoughts flow one into another until they bear no link to the original thought. I feel water everywhere…
Free flowing and stagnant.
Life sustaining and suffocating.
Terrifying deluge and gurgling brook.
Thundering waterfall and the silence of a mother’s womb.
Meandering rivers and gigantic waves.
Baptism waters and bearer of ashes.
Finally, I was reminded of the movie, The Shape of Water and it’s mute beauty. But that one is a separate post.
In the meanwhile, I wait for a pandemic to spend itself so I may find my way to the ocean and submit to its incredible silence.