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.

Lessons from my garden

This evening after a yoga class, I stepped out to the balcony to look at a roiling cloudscape. Rain would come, thick, fast and short. A walk was out of the question. And sure enough, it came in a few minutes. So, I sat down to watch its dance and that’s when I noticed the fallen leaves. I thought the pigeons had made a mess again until I went closer and saw a feeding frenzy. There were hungry caterpillars, making short work of an old lily plant.

These will turn into the most beautiful lily moths soon. I reckon the plant is as good as destroyed since there’s an army of them feeding voraciously and what looks like a million more on the way. Should I let the caterpillars be or save the plant?

Who am I to decide who gets to live? And yet a choice will be made at some point, if only to move the plant away from the others to prevent infestation. Attachment, underlying everything we choose to do or avoid.

Nature’s seeming violence is probably not seen as such by her other denizens, it’s just business as usual. It is simply a matter of survival. There are no moral dilemmas there, all that hair splitting belongs to the world of humans.

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…

Days of the body

And some days are purely of the body… Most days, I begin with a yoga class that I attend at 6 am. On a Wednesday, the mat remains open for another 2 odd hours at the end of which, I feel like I’ve finished a rather long run. I suppose it is also endurance of a kind, to work with the limitations of injury, degeneration and the likes and sculpt body shapes that have integrity and beauty.

I had two outings yesterday, one in the morning after wrapping up yoga to pick up supplies and another in the evening. Morning drives are on quiet roads to visit tree friends and watch old houses or ruins of old houses. At one time, I’d imagine homes complete with people and stories but now I see just the houses, in and of themselves. The street cruising is usually to step back into the world from being immersed in the body but today was a restless day. I let an algorithm decide the music and it turned my day into a contemplative dusk.

Some part of the afternoon was spent trying to tame a document but it just kept growing wild on me so decided to head to the woods and maybe tackle the trash. That is uncomplicated. It’s amazing how a few minutes into the trail, the mind clears up as I look at the ground and tree tops, a child in wonder. Nothing exists then except what is around me and it is all green, mostly a wilderness of weeds and bugs that clamour around the trees.

In the woods, the restlessness that I enter with disappears as I walk in between the trees. It usually begins by feeling a filling up and overflowing of something akin to love or thirst. Perhaps, they both are the same thing. Or maybe it is the call of the sap that makes this bubbling over that I don’t feel for humans. It is wordless, thoughtless, without language. After all, language only speaks of attributes and connections. It can only feebly express or rather attempt to express, it does not experience. In the case of trees, their expression is their existence. I suppose it is a good example to show what dharma might mean.

The sun was out and the skyscapes were gorgeous so I sat on a stone and basked in its light as though I were a butterfly. Elsewhere I saw a man sleeping peacefully in the shade of a tree. Dragonflies were all over the place as usual and I watched them idly, got a reasonably clear picture of one. Post walk, I still didn’t feel like I had my fill of the skies so did a quick trip to the race course and was treated to some spectacular views.

While I prefer the vaster spaces, empty roads mostly, I also enjoy the city streets and its moments, ordinary moments like the man feeding the strays, a mother tying the shoelaces of her child, a young couple snuggling on a bike on a secluded road, an old man with baggy pants and a beret waiting for a bus, perhaps? The frames are endless and exist only as a photograph in my mind. Being a human is mostly about doing and less about being for the vast majority of us. Never a still moment. Maybe it is this trait that makes all our stories possible, real and imagined.

All things wild and wonderful

The last few walks were out in the cantonment but they have cordoned off sections now, seems to be a surge in infections. It’s a common enough pattern to open and close off areas as the number of cases fall and rise. Another change is in the number of ambulances I see in a day. Earlier, I’d average sighting to once a day, these days it is 3 to 4. I don’t know if they are related to Covid 19 or not but sometimes a screeching siren insists that the virus is the culprit. People are out and about but mostly masked now. The young crowd though tends to hang out close to each other and some of them are without masks.

Lantana flowers are all over the trail now.

The youngling chooses to accompany me now and then. I must confess I sneakily nudge her in the direction of trees, hoping to see her paint the lovely peeling barks of Eucalyptus trees. Another image I’d like to see on canvas is brown earth, darkened by rains and patterned with faded leaves. Our conversations outside home end up touching various topics and it is a relief that she has a commonsensical approach to some of the burning topics of discussion right now. She’s been dabbling in a little skateboarding and its been another learning opportunity to discover the physics of it as well as understand the biomechanics of balance. She’s a bit of an autodidact so these moments are good to plant seeds for further exploration. I’m not surprised that she enjoys learning via online school as compared to classroom lessons.

Some companions today

Thanks to her and other kids, I learn how her generation views the world. It’s strange how most of my friends and acquaintances have been significantly older people or then much younger ones. I enjoy seeing life from their viewpoints, one set for stories of a time gone by and the other for how they navigate a world that is changing so rapidly. Middle age is a good mean I guess, straddling nostalgia and curiosity about the future. It’s also a time where the transition into becoming an elder begins in a way.

I found myself on the other side of a presentation by 5 teams of young people. Listening to their work, evaluating it and providing feedback they could use made me realize I’ve gotten older and am viewed as such. As a parent to a grown up and a teenager, I am reminded twice over that there comes a time you have to gracefully accept that the young have gone further than you can go and allow them to lead the way
while you celebrate their successes.

Classes opened up for the next couple of months and I think I may have bitten off more than I can chew. Despite the virtual nature, they are intense and perhaps I should have stuck to just the ones I have been attending. I’ll just have to treat it as a two month intensive. There’s been more hours in my day lately and I’ve managed to include new pursuits which also help flex those old grey cells in different ways. Personally, the pandemic has rearranged my life in a good way, simpler and more fulfilling.

And the fig begins another fruiting

The balcony garden is quite happy with the season and there are fruits getting ready. Some of the flowering plants are in bloom – raatrani, parijat, jui, ixora, marigolds and rain lilies. One of the adeniums also strayed into a bloom.

A day in pictures

Morning visitor says my garden is a happy place

Propping up with bricks and books

Wore jewellery after months!

All bets off.

Green grave for bikes

Sometimes the resident artist approves of picture take-outing 😁

She sings and I ride on her words and the clouds, half a century away…

Joy

Sometime last month, life nudged and I rearranged my days to include more physical activity and slowly it has settled into a nice rhythm of work and play. This morning I spent close to 3 hours on my mat, first with an hour of class with my teacher and then self-practice. Large chunks of asana time like this don’t happen always and when it does, it leaves me feeling really good.

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the post office is open!

There were errands to run today and the teen decided to accompany me. We both enjoy a decent ‘chakkar’ around the cantonment and she handles the music when we’re out. Often, we sing along and at times she gets mildly embarrassed when I get carried away. A bigger consternation is when I sing made up lyrics rather than the original one and it gets stuck in her head. A mild annoyance now but maybe she’ll remember it with a smile when she’s much older and I’m no longer around.

There’s almost always something playing while I drive, music or then tracts of chants I wish to memorize or podcasts. These days the drives are pleasure trips and so it is  music, the volume usually a tad higher than what it should be and I sing along without a care. Today’s highlight was What’s Up from the 90’s and a favourite as a teen. Something the youngling was playing reminded me of this song and I asked her to play it. I found myself singing along and caught in its sound so much so that I parked under a gulmohur tree to belt the rest of it out without any distraction. It felt like a concert right there and the kid was shocked that I could let go like that. Just for those few minutes, there was nothing except the song, the singing and pure abandon. I felt wildly happy for no reason.

And then the next thought was that I shouldn’t be feeling good when there is unhappiness and pain in the world. A guilt that crept in saying, how can you be so full of life when there’s so much distress and chaos in the world? Truth is even before the pandemic, there was much suffering. Just that in the lockdown there was more time to notice it. Homebound and ready access to news in real time just made it more visible and loud. If the planet is noisy with our voices, imagine what it might sound like if every byte had sound too. It would be positively deafening! It’s ironic that I add to the same strange online world that I look at in amazement. Much of the noise has a very short shelf life, the feed feeds on itself and never pauses. There’s also the fastest finger first syndrome which shouts first and then checks on veracity, sometimes costing lives but there seems to be a shrugging it off as acceptable loss. I watch the parrying between opposite sides of whatever is the discussion and its the intolerance that strikes me every time. For all the viciousness that is exchanged, there’s a new fire that rages even before the current one has died down. I see fear and rage feeding into a frenzy of anxiety, making it a vicious cycle and negating the possibility of reasonable disagreement.

So, what can I do? I don’t know. A few thoughts from some of the media I consumed play in circles, a sportsman’s statement of not being an activist but focusing on his craft, a Jesuit writer speaking about finding one’s calling and a French Tibetan monk who speaks of happiness as encompassing sadness. All these different thoughts resonated and reinforced the idea of individual action within the limited universe I inhabit, small acts of full presence. And it begins with taking care of myself so I can serve however I am called.

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The Sausage Tree is fruiting. I first got acquainted with this tree a few years ago through a fruit that fell in front of me when I was running.

 

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The flowers remind me of diyas

This care takes the form of nature, slow words, art and movement to feed the mind, heart and body, all of which have a longevity and stability, pandemic or not. Simple food that the body, mind and heart need for its well-being. I find time spent outdoors, on the mat, creative pursuit and in books that stand the test of time most rewarding in their expansive silences and ability to remain energetic. Most of all, they allow happiness as a way of being.

June is a week old

And just like that June is one week old! Today was a complete rest day but I was up at an insanely early hour thanks to an impossibly early night. So, a morning walk seemed like a good idea and the youngling decided to accompany me. We caught a sunrise out in the open after months. I saw the teen at a little distance and realized with a start that she’s grown quite tall! She suddenly seems more older and I think I must be too. It’s funny how the mind and body perceive age, sometimes very differently. We spoke about many things, mostly art and music, running, religion and she had questions about my life as a teenager. It’s interesting how memories lie below the surface ready to come up, quite like the dormant life that has been sprouting green all across the forest floor.

She mentioned some song and I remembered RSJ, a music magazine founded by the artiste’s father. It was one that I would pore over with a friend. Back then, the publication was novel and we would share a single copy but it was a short lived shared pleasure as life took us both different ways. The 90’s were a wild, interesting time to be a teenager; actually maybe it’s the teenage years that are wild. Thankfully, there were no mobile phones then and all that is remembered remains as sepia tinted memories rather than inerasable photographic evidence.

Since the rains, the trail has been teeming with life and it’s always in motion. All life is movement, every breath, an inhale and an exhale. Stop that movement and you cease to be, plant or animal. And yet, there is stillness in motion. I found it while running or swimming, I find it in asana as also in writing by hand or doing the dishes. It’s a different inhabiting of the body and mind, one that is not quite finite.

I almost went for a walk in the neighbourhood in the evening but changed my mind when I saw the crowds as also the disregard for social distancing and masks by many, especially the young. While it was heart warming to see them in their robustness of youth, it was also worrisome as it appeared as though they had let down their guard completely. I suppose it is inevitable after such an extended lock down and we’ll just have to brace for a new wave of infections.

This year has pretty much been written off in terms of old routine. The child’s school has nothing planned yet for the new academic year and she’s not complaining. Neither am I. Recently she pointed out that all her friends who had something that they liked doing seemed to have done ok during the lockdown. She has her art and found ways to adapt when art supplies were low. A lovely young doctor friend who was stuck in Pune began a podcast , check out Dr. Gypsy here on Gloves Off (Real doctors, undoctored opinions). A passionate doctor since the time I’ve known Dr. G and it comes through even now. We’ve shared a few runs and many coffees together.

As for me, I have spaces like this where I think aloud besides walks and yoga. Volunteering and a little work wrapped up the remaining time. While the head and heart remained steady, sleep got disrupted but that seemed more a function of packing too much in a day. I also found it difficult to watch any movies or shows, perhaps because the eyes were tired. Sometimes, it would take 3 days to watch one movie in installments! The last couple of weeks have been easier as I consciously rearranged my day to increase leisure time. And the woods have helped, as always.

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.

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.