Our first visit was over. We – our family of four – had seen the place, and taken a call. This was to be my Himalayan adventure, the home in the hills I always dreamt of. I did have reservations and goosebumps about its remote location and how very back of beyond the place seemed to be, almost suspended in those really high ridges. But these same features also made it the perfect project for my romantic notion of a getaway. And so I took on the project, with zero idea of how I would go about it, what was going to be needed in terms of resources of money, time, learning, and anything else. All I knew was that for me this was a labor of love, a creative journey that engaged my mind, soul, heart and body in so many ways.
The official paper work was carried out over the next few months, the registry signed and the deal sealed. And thus I became a ‘khashtakar’ or rural land owning farmer in an interior village of Uttarkhand. This was all across the years 2007-2008.
Things have a way of working out so different from what you plan, as far as the details go. For the past few years we had scoured Kumaon, agreed to big ticket deals there, and then not been able to seal the deal for some reason or other. Then out of the blue, without our looking for it, without our even being aware of its existence or location, an offer of land sale in a remote, unknown location came our way and some curious adventurer gene in us made us go check it out. And so it all fell in place. From my childhood dream of a mountain cottage to an official government land deed for a pretty little parcel of Himalayan soil in my name.
Then came the actual work on the ground, before which there was all the exciting brainstorming, learning, ideating and creating – a vision for the cottage in our minds and on paper. We went from working with lego to woodblocks to line drawing to drawing layers and layers on site photographs….trying to get that one perfect fit with our thoughts, our dreams…..then fitting it all with the practical situation on the ground, the size of the plot, the cut of the terraces, the direction of the sun, wind and the snow views.
We read, we looked at pictures, we sketched our thoughts, our fantasies, we visited a couple of other city folks’ dream cottages to see how we felt about them, and what the owners felt and had learnt over time living with their dreams, and delved deep into what inspired us. It was an exciting, creative, alive few months, so full of promise and discovery and possibilities. It was also a time of intense learning, of condensing, of choosing, of prioritizing, of letting go.
By the end of it all , when we had the printed layouts in hand, almost another year had passed and we were in early 2010. The project was coming into shape slowly and along with it, many new ideas and thoughts were stirring in my mind….
Today a friend said to me that she is convinced her life is a journey, because more and more she notices that it feels like this – that she is on a train where she has many people coming in and sitting next to her, and then moving on. The recent awareness she has also picked up about this coming and going, she said, is that she is now totally accepting of, and at ease with the changes. The new connections made, the old ones lost, some broken in pain, some forged deeper with love. She knows that whoever comes to her comes with a reason, and that particular interaction is meant to be, would lead to something. And therefore she is now more happily open to anything and everything coming her way. To letting go, to letting be, to being.
Isn’t that such an apt story for what our lives too, in essence are really like?
So also is travel. And not just the wander lust type, the great journey of my life type of travel. Even deliberate, conscious planned travel. The journeys we are sent on by the office. Or the sudden trip made to handle a family emergency. Or the fun family holiday trip gone wrong due to weather or airline mess up. Any and all travel. We may have a start date and place, and a itinerary, and a schedule of stops and destinations and a return date. Or we may leave it all open and free flowing. But then the journey and the road take over, and the more we are willing and open to this flow of the journey, the more fun we have on our travels. We don’t always know who we will meet, what we will encounter, whether we will see what we set out to, and sometimes, even, where or when we will reach.
And if we start to be rigid and inflexible, fixated and unbending on the move, we will miss out on so much, and end up uncomfortable, on edge, fearful, anxious and miserable, and thoroughly dislike the journey and the sights and encounters enroute and never be happy with the destination, which will not seem worth it after all.
I say this from my own experience as well as that of friends, and I feel the fun of a journey, as that of living a fulfilled, happy life comes from unshackling one’s heart and mind, the giving up of the need to be in control, to judge, to classify and categorize. It comes from a willingness to be, free and unbound in your heart, in your soul, in your essence.
Then the external, temporal ups and downs are just that, highs and dips of the road, a part of the journey, no more, no less.Passing features of the terrain, to be watched, and watched out for, to be dealt with, to be overcome, to be left behind…not the things that hold the ebb and flow of my life in their hands. I am much more than the parts of my journey.
The story finally began to come together on the internet, the way so many stories actually do these days. This is a photo essay of that journey from the first site visit in September 2007 till the dream took shape and stood firm in front of us in the summer of 2012.
I was obsessed with a home in the hills since early childhood, and in 2006-7, having finally moved back to live in North India it felt high time to action this dream. So there were trips to hill stations to find out about land or homes for sale, there were enquiries and show of interest from people connected to the hills, but nothing seemed to be working out. Then on the online travel forum I came across a thread about buying plots in the hills. The people in the conversation were all talking about places where we had already tried and failed to get a good deal. But there was just this one girl, now living abroad, who said these areas were getting crowded and would we care to look at her native village, far away and remote, pristine and pure, within touching distance of the mighty Nanda Devi? Well, why not, I wondered, and got talking to her. One thing led to another and within a few months of first touching base, we were off to check out the tiny remote, unheard of and off the map village of Guniyala Khal, in Chamoli Dist. of the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand.
Reaching Guniyala and seeing the little plot for sale for the first time proved to an adventure in itself. We were caught in torrential rains, the last outpouring of a retreating monsoon, in full blast. The drive from the foothills of the Himalayas at Rishikesh 200 kms up to the high ridges of the Central Himalayas around Guniyala was an interestingly gripping one to say the least! Dense clouds that blocked all vision, hairpin bends, raging river gorges, crumbling landslides and washed away roads were just some of the adventurous encounters we faced. The overwhelming feeling after about an hour into the over 6 hours drive (supposedly) was one of utter remoteness and being in the back of beyond, in an unknown, lost corner of the world! It was a thrilling, exciting and sometimes bewildering time.
With myriad breaks, change of transport modes, and the massive patience of explorers on an unknown journey we finally made it to our destination just as the sun was setting, as against the estimated arrival at noon. A warm welcome by the owner of the property next to the plot on sale, and the beautiful, lush green serene surroundings refreshed us a fair bit and we were soon tucking into delicious home cooked rustic fare and feeling warm and rested.
Next morning we woke up with the tinkling of cowbells to a crisp, clear day as the cattle were led out to the forests to graze by the village herders. Walking out we surveyed the plot of terraced fields for sale, marvelled at the prettiness all around, and our good luck, and said a quick yes to the deal. And that is how we came to create our own little slice of personalised bliss.
My head reeled and my stomach cramped as I sunk into a huge sense of frustration and helplessness. I could not believe this had happened! OMG… We were on our Holi-Easter break, driving uphill with some friends to our home in the hills, and had just come to a midway halt on the journey. As the car engine switched off, my husband casually remarked, “You have got the keys to the cottage, of course?”…And the realization hit me that I had Not ! I had not even thought of the keys during the preparations for the journey, leave alone bringing them with me .
So what were we to do? Apart from feeling like an utter fool who had goofed up big time, I just couldn’t think what was to be done. Did I rush back to Gurgaon (220 kms away) right then to get the keys, or did I call someone from there to rush out to us with the keys? Or did we take our chances and carry on and hope to find a way to get the lock opened or broken? In those early days, I did not have a regular caretaker on site and no one local at the cottage’s location – totally off the tourist map, remote and rural- had the keys to the cottage. Like I said, my head reeled …
Luckily for me, the others didn’t seem to think that any major problem had occurred. They were more amused than worried, and kept telling me to chill, and that this was all no big deal and we would find a way. Back in the city I would have acted and felt exactly like them. But not when we were heading to a tiny village, off the main road networks, in the interiors of a reserved forest range in deep Himalaya. And that too during a festival when it is considered just fine to be drunk stiff and off from work for a few days at a stretch.
I worried that the tiny remote Himalayan village where the cottage is located would have no key makers/ locksmiths to help us. The markets would be shut and locksmiths would be off work. I worried that we would have to break the lock open with brute force, damaging the brand new construction. I worried about the travel time we would take next day to get to Birdsong and that there would be no place for us to find shelter if we didn’t get the house open before nightfall. But with everyone around me making light of the situation, after a bit even I started feeling that a simple way would be found out of the situation. I even started smiling shakily when others joked about the adventure we would have camping out under the stars at night if nothing worked to open the door before nightfall.
Next morning we started on our ride to the cottage from the camp, some 160 kms away, in high spirits, intending to look out for a locksmith on the way in the little towns we would be crossing, and to ask him to come along with us to our destination. At about 100 kms along the NH 58 we were at the junction town of Rudraprayag, a nondescript place made infamous nearly a century ago by its man eating leopard and his nemesis, Jim Corbett. All we found noteworthy here was the turbulent confluence of the Mandakini and the Alaknanda as they rush down from their source glaciers to meet more sister rivers, to ultimately form the Ganga.
This was our last main town on the route, after which we would drive 50 or so kms through thick forests and high mountains and mind-blowing views of endless ranges, snow peaks and deepest, widest valleys but not even the smallest of towns. So this had to be our best chance for a key maker, and we hoped to find one and take him home with us.
So we started asking at the market place, and the first few shopkeepers said there was no one like that in town. The little mountain town was was still somnolent after Holi. When we saw some police constables we thought ourselves lucky- they would surely know of a locksmith! So we asked them, and yes, they did know of one!! “Yes, there is a Sardarji (Sikh) chabiwala (key maker) and he roams the market on his bicycle. But I haven’t seen him around today. He generally also sits under that huge Pipal tree “.
We went up and down on that market lane, turning our car with great difficulty on that narrow one-way road, with permission of the policeman, and while many other shopkeepers confirmed the existence of said Sardarji, there seemed to be no sign of him that day. Then one shopkeeper mentioned that he actually was an itinerant, and had a room booked for him at a local lodge, where he stayed when he was in town. So off we went to look for the lodge, and traced this elusive man’s phone number from the lodge guest register. We rang up the number, and the man picked up our call, confirming that yes, he was the key maker, Gurmeet Singh and while he could certainly help us had he been around, he was right now home away in Dehradun a 100 kms away, and not coming back for another couple of days. When he did return to his work in Rudraprayag, he would call us to check if we still needed his services. And meanwhile, he helpfully suggested, if it was just a simple door, could we not try just forcing the locks with the help of a few basic tools? The villagers did it all the time, didn’t we know that?
I was now even more than ever worried. What would we do? My heart could not accept breaking the lock of the newly made dream home. And what would we do after breaking the lock? Spend the night in a remote forest area without a decent bolt to keep the door in place? When we have all sorts of wild animals prowling around and their night calls audible to our ears? I would mange it, having spent nights in a tent in the same area, but what of my very urban, city slicker guests?
In desperation, I called a neighbor in the village, and explained my predicament to him. He sounded nonchalant and said he would take care of things. We reached the cottage and all seemed quiet. No caretaker, no neighbor. No sign that anyone had tried doing anything to get the door opened. Our guests ooh-ed and aah-ed about how pretty everything was. And then they wanted to use the wash room. And there was no way to get in. I held the handle of the door helplessly and moved the lever down, expecting resistance. Instead, the handle moved down and the door swung in and opened. We all gasped in surprise, and with perfect timing, while we were still confused, our caretaker and neighbor walked in. It seems on hearing of the problem, my neighbor had called the caretaker and between them, they had fabricated a makeshift key. Somehow they had managed to open the lock without damaging the door. And then had gone off to have a cup of tea. And that is how we found an open and undamaged home. The door even shut properly and could be bolted for the night.
They know too well the importance of a safe door that shuts properly at night in these parts. For reasons quite different from those we lock ourselves into our homes, back in the city, even in broad daylight.
My guests of course only felt more sure that I was a worrier. That I had made a fuss when there was no issue at all. They held fast to their stand even when that same night they actually heard the leopard. I wonder if they would have felt differently when the main door was swinging open in the night wind and the leopard was heard growling in the forest cluster on the hillside across the cottage? But I am so glad we didn’t have to find out.
A reflection on our writing expression workshop. From Debosmita Nandy, a participant who is an award winning, published author of short stories now working on her first novel.
I stared at the Facebook notification that said I have been invited to a day-long writing workshop at Zorba the Buddha by Kiran Chaturvedi.
I was flummoxed. I knew nothing about the venue and the person inviting me.
I was also a little worried. Do I now need writing workshops? I was pretty sure writing came naturally to me. I quickly looked up my blog for reassurance. I had written so many fiction, a few poetry, won some contests – I was momentarily happy.
Then I checked the dates of my last few posts with a sinking heart. I also knew that I have been trying to take forward my novel beyond just the first chapter for the last many many months.
I also wanted to explore a new place and meet new people. So I clicked on the “Going” option.
On 12 July 2014, last Saturday, I arrived at…
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As we drive down the forest road at dusk, my co-passengers in the jeep talk of animal sightings and sundowners by a bonfire that await us back home. It is a cool, damp-after-a-thunderstorm evening, with a freshly mixed misty mauve sky. The snow peaks around us glow with an orange hue from the setting sun, as they flirt with massive, fluffy, white clouds. A stillness is settling in as the day winds down in this remote part of the Garhwal Himalayas.
We are driving back to our vacation home , after a walk in a Protected Forest Zone. It had been a walk of many discoveries, with views to make you stop and stand and stare into eternity.
I feel happy at my good fortune to be here, living out my dreams. The word ‘Leopard’ uttered in the flow of the conversation, just then, does not strike me as connoting anything besides another name on the laundry list of sighting possible…until I hear specifics of color, size and shape – and look up to see the front seat passengers excitedly pointing to the edge of the road! It seems they had seen the leopard! It was standing still and staring at the car as it slowly approached him, then jauntily flicked its tail, turned and disappeared down the wild rose laden slopes.
Now, a leopard roaming the hillside, without harming the humans around, is good news really, scary though it seems to some. It means he is able to hunt some wild game there. Which in turn means the wild game had enough greens to eat. Which further means the forest is doing well, despite being literally cheek by jowl to a fair sized human settlement- a Tehsil town no less! Reason enough to feel gratitude, and awe for the work being done by the simple, unsung staff of the forest Range office at Nagnath – Pokhri. Staff that include a young Rekha Negi, the 22 year old lone lady forest guard we had just met.
Rekha Negi had taken us around on a guided walk through ‘her’ range, talking to us about how she joined the force four years ago, just after high school by clearing a competitive exam. About how she studied and worked hard to learn all the botany and zoology and firearms work and legal stuff the job required her to know. And how she now roamed the forest alone at times, on her rounds, armed with her government issued gun, fear and duty lodged firmly in her heart, spurring her on to do her job well. And how she lived on the forest range office premise with the rest of the range staff, in the government quarters and cooked all her meals and ate them alone. About how she and her family were determined she stand on her own feet, earn an independent income and be someone in her own right.
Even if doing so meant she was miles away from home, working on a high risk job, living on campus with men and women she had no previous connection with, and making a definite break with custom and forging a completely new path. Even if, in doing so there were times of extreme sadness, longing and loneliness.
As Rekha spoke and walked us through her work area, I noticed the glow of pride on her face and the ring of accomplishment in her voice. How excited she was when she walked us through the new oak and deodar forest they have planted in a degraded and denuded patch of hillside near their office. How she took us to each young tree like a proud new mother, and described the sorry state of the slope before the new saplings were planted. Before the work they were doing started making a difference to the better health of the local ecology.
The image of Rekha was still playing in my mind when we reached home and walked by a freshly lit bonfire in the yard. I caught a glimpse of our neighbor, getting out of her cowshed and walking into her kitchen to start the evening meal. A lady who was so shy to speak with me just 5 years ago, barely raising her eyes to meet mine, head demurely covered with the pallu of her sari and bowed down. Today she is a changed woman. As the elected ‘Nagar Panchayat Adyakshaa’, the local councillor for a group of 6 villages!
It is a ‘reserved for women’ seat, so she is rubber stamp candidate of sorts, as her husband is the real power behind the throne. And yet, the changes in her are real. As they are around her too. In the better local roads, the public utilities like a new bus stand in the market, and most striking and significant of all, the public toilets for women near the bus stand. It is clear when I meet her now, that she herself is a changed person too, aware of the shifts of power and perception, as is her husband. And it is almost magical, the transformation of their equation.
Where earlier she would not even look at him directly, now she talks freely and loudly in front of him. He speaks to her far more respectfully, and considers her opinion in many matters unlike before.
She walks with her head held high, her clothes worn better, her hair always groomed, her skin and eyes glistening. She talks more confidently, even approaching my father and my husband on her own, in my absence and carrying on a full conversation with them.
Barely literate herself, it is her school and college going kids who help her write and rehearse her official notes and speeches. She now chairs meetings where IAS officers and other govt. bureaucrats share space, ideas and time with her. For which, she tells me, she needs stylish cotton handloom saris from Delhi- Can I get her some the next time I visit, please?
She is aware now how the scales have shifted, how she is now someone with some heft beyond the usual role of the village farmstead housewife.
A tale of two once obscure women in the remote, unexplored part of the country. Treading new paths, making a difference to all those whose lives they touch. Bringing about change. Inspiring others.
Note: This piece was first published on the BizDivas India blog, http://bizdivas.in/road-travelled
While it is its easy to be drawn to reflections about family ties in the festive season, my thoughts have been a lot about family ties almost all of the year and more. 2013 was my 20th wedding anniversary year, and it was also the year when I built up my experiential travel business. Anniversaries have been important to me this year in my personal life, and through my work, where I saw beautiful expressions of family landmarks being honored by some clients.
Thinking of these events, I wonder what is family to me, and what sort of a family legacy have I inherited, and can create. And I conclude that the value of family, for me, lies ultimately in the effortless sense of belonging and identity it bestows. It is about being in a web of natural, organic, given connections. But the making of these connections and the nurturing of them is a whole lot of work of intention, commitment and leadership. Which will make for some other blog posts, or a whole book, even, at some point. For now, it is the cosy easy embrace of familiarity I want to talk about.
Family is the first and everlasting bond we humans know and feel in this earthly existence. From the day we are born to the day we pass on, it is a family that welcomes us and bids us farewell. We may grow up, grow out and grow apart from our families, but the bond once born into can never be really torn asunder. Even renunciates do know who their original family are, and have to go through a very symbolic and intense rite of passage to renounce their earthly ties of blood and heart.
Of all the family stories of bonding I could narrate, to drive home my point about the easy, comforting embrace of family, the immediate and strongest memory that comes to me is infact about rather distant relatives and not the immediate nuclear family. My paternal uncle – twice removed – acted as my ‘local guardian’ when I was a teen, in hostel away from my own home. I had not met him for perhaps 5 years, and yet, going home to his home and immediate family for the weekend or a celebration felt like the most natural thing in the world. There was a sense of familiarity with them, going back to generations before either of us. While we personally may not have seen each other for years, I had heard about them and of two generations before them almost continuously as part of my own story, as part of the story of my parents’ and grandparents’ lives. Also uncle had lived with us in our home for a year when he had first started working, when I was a very small girl of 4 or 5 years. So I had a hazy sort of real time memory of him as well.
One foggy winter evening in Delhi when Dad was in town on some work, we all met up at the cousins’ home. My father and his cousin and I reminisced over drinks, and we talked and listened and learnt about scandals, fights, past dangers, escapades and achievements of so many relatives. I also shared a few tentative dreams and ideas of my own…
There was endless tasty food cooked lovingly and with pride by many family members, with stories connected to each dish, and the evening just went on and on in a cosy glow of oneness. It was not that we agreed on anything- rather, mostly we were in disagreement on practically every story or topic that would come up! And yet, the ease of sitting there , as if by some divine entitlement and saying freely how one felt, what one thought and what one had been through and dreamt of, was a most precious feeling . It was about having a context and a backdrop. That feeling of connection, which then leads me into an ever widening circle of life, is for me the ultimate gift of family.
The ‘just right’ context I felt then may have been first set by biology, then buttressed by social norms and culture, but just the force of biology/ marital bonds/obligations and culture would not be enough to hold it all together. We are all too familiar with family gatherings and even individual families where people can’t get along, fight a whole lot, and are very miserable with each other. So what makes for happy, well bonded family ties then? Why was the evening at my uncle’s home so memorable despite the differences?
I guess what made it meaningful was that it could hold us all connected, by letting us be, by complete acceptance into its fold, and sharing a collective story that could touch our core. In a beautiful, subtle, simple yet powerful way, that evening was all about family love, without the word being enunciated even once.
I have come to see the acknowledging, accepting and ‘letting-be’ as a sort of model of creating conscious relationships. It is about being aware, – rather, about choosing to be aware – that family and love is what we make of it.
I would also describe this as an open acknowledgment of and respect for the contribution of each one to the family or a relationship backdrop, by just being what they are, and doing what they do. Each link in the chain matters here. Not just the shiny bits. And finally, the consciousness, the awareness, the choice, is made by each one of us for ourselves.
Families are given to us and we are born into them, but what we make of our family life is a matter of our choice. So while family is about connections, context and backdrop, that context and backdrop is going to be the strong wind beneath my wings only when I am aware of it, and able to ride it, being one with it.
In the traditional Indian culture we have rituals and acts of marking attention, awareness and bringing to the conscious realm values such as respect and obedience to parents and elders, and unconditional care and indulgence of little children. Today, many such rituals and symbols are being discarded- partly for practical reasons, and partly with the many winds of change we face. The ‘home’ in the ‘native place’ of our childhood is rarer and rarer now, and the steady stream of family functions or get togethers occasioned by births, deaths, coming of age, engagement, marriage, childbirth and so much else, are now fast vanishing as real rites of conscious connections, becoming clones of any other kind of a party anywhere.
And so I come to thinking of what all can play the role of getting attention back in family relationships? Getting families to experience the PRESENCE of members, and to feel the connections, and not just be consumers of events, gifts and entertainment? What are your stories of family ties and connections? How do you experience, express and pass on the LOVE and ATTENTION in the family? Would be great to hear more stories from others on this.
A recent very positive Facebook post by me about of Krya, the organic, plant based clothes-wash & dish-wash that I have been a regular user of, had a reader react about the futility of going organic for economic and ecological reasons. His argument was that the cost of organic goods was often so much more than the regular stuff that average income people and lower income earners could hardly consider them. And that given the low uptake of organic goods then, their impact on the overall ecology was going to be negligible, and also that the non organic stuff like detergents hardly added to about 2% of pollutants to the waterbodies.
So I want to take on this issue and look at it from my perspective, and how I have made my choice. And I have to say, the choice is finally not an economic one. Because you know what, how much of the rest of your acts are going to matter in a statistical sense? do we even think of things that way for most life decisions? No, na?
Choices are not made like that t a deep , instinctive level. It is about liking something or not. In the light of what we know and how we feel. About a value system, of thus choosing sustainability over short term expense calculations. Of course, a packet of regular, non premium detergent costs about 1/4th the price of the organic alternative. So on the surface yes, the cost is a big deterrent. BUT lets dig deeper.
Actually, because of the little amount needed per wash, compared to a synthetic detergent, the organic wash is cheaper overall, calculating the per wash load cost! Then, the water discharged is harmless to my plants or to any waterbody. No phosphates whatsoever discharged ! Someone points out scientific research studies to show that the polluting phosphates in regular dishwash and detergents are actually making a negligible impact on quality of water bodies, as the total amount discharged in India is so less. Well, the amount is only increasing everyday, as consumption of mass made mass marketed good goes up and people aspire to more modern, convenient lifestyles, which include clothes and more washing. And it is not just detergent run off that goes into the water- so does the dish-wash, the sewage, the industrial pollutants, the waste of every sort. So it is also about an overall eco friendly, earth caring attitude in every walk of life. And if we only focus on the economics of the price point on the pack, we will never get out of the mess we are in and a mess it surely is – look at any water body in any city or village and ask yourself if you are willing to take a good wallow in it, as we all have done just few decades ago as children? I am at least willing to not add to the mess.
Going further, its not even just about the post use discharge – its the whole lifecycle of producing the goods, right from the raw material sourced, transported, and processed. Its about embodied energy that was used up in the process of getting it from raw state to the consumers’ hands. Its the use of water and energy at every stage, its sourcing, the type of packaging and its disposal, the transport, the printing, the whole process, and not just the effluents left out at the end use stage. There are effluents produced at the manufacturing stage, which even if treated for pollution control are using up a lot of scarce non renewable energy /fuel. So my point is that if I add up all of this, then the cost on the packet is just a number that does not tell me the whole story. Whereas with my organic, earth friendly detergent, I know the whole story- for e.g was grown on wastelands that now are healthy and alive because of the agro-forestry on them, the water used to irrigate the crops of native growing soap berries was rain harvested and there was natural mulching and bio mass fertilizers alone used on the crop. So it is totally natural in its process of production, and also earth friendly and beneficial. The people employed in making it suffer no health hazards and production risks, and are working with the natural rhythms of growth and flowering and fruiting. There is only sun-drying of the final product, so hardly any non renewable energy source is involved, and the packaging is all from recycled materials and recyclable. Even the printing is limited to monochrome colors so that too much of synthetic inks do not get used or released into the biosphere. There are no artificial fragrances used, no additives, keeping the purity and naturalness of the end product very high. That also makes it very very non toxic and safe to use for all. Also when I think about product, design, systems and lifestyle trends globally, I have to ask- having gone full circle on mass industrial synthetic production, why are the developed countries now coming back to a more holistic, earth friendly approach?
To my mind, the industrial mechanized mass production of synthetic goods served the economic- political ends of the leading industrial and colonial powers of the time. India had a far more diverse eco system of goods production and holistic sustainable lifestyles which were crushed and superimposed by these synthetic systems in the march of colonisation, industrialisation, modernisation and then globalisation. Now that even the pioneers are realizing the shortcomings of those systems, we who have a rich heritage of holistic, earth friendly lifestyles and culture can surely pause and re-look a bit at our choices. So at the end of the day, product choices for me are about much more than economics, they are about affirming values. It is about being willing to pay some more cash to preserve and grow the abundant beneficial resources of the planet. It is also about thought leadership and being a role model and an inspiration. It is about aligning my actions with my love for and belief in living with nature’s rhythms and being respectful to the earth.
And of course, it is also about being pragmatic abut where is it right now best value for me to go organic- but not to throw the baby out with the bath water. It is also about basically overall following the de-clutter, recycle, reuse, reduce philosophy. On a very practical note, here are a few things I feel nearly everyone can do to start their organic journey in a cost effective and healthy way. To me, every drop counts, and no effort is too small as it is but the first baby step on a journey of sustainable, earth connected living:
1. Try to replace a few staples with organic alternatives if not all – e.g just change your main cereal to organic, and maybe your sugar, and maybe 2 lentils? So its not a big hit at once on the budget. There are many many choices in the market today.
2. Go back to the traditional foods of your Grandmother – eat more whole grains, more varieties of traditional foods like raagi, jowaar, bajraa- at least get some of them home once a month! And use for breakfast chilla, or poha, or khidchi. Replace at least one serving of processed foods with old style organic home made snacks once a week. Go back to using fresh chutneys – dhania, pudina chutney, narial chutney, imli chutney, sesame paste…instead of packaged mayo and sandwich spreads. Join an Ayurvedic cooking course run by the ART OF LIVING foundation to get back to the basics of cooking healthy, wholesome dishes with least processing.
3. Make your own Compsot at home – Simple, rewarding way to learn about and participate in the circle of life 3. Start your own kitchen garden, and keep a few indoor and outdoor plants, even if all you have is a window ledge. Start with herbs, tomatoes, cucumber, palak, saag, methis, dhania. chilly, tulsi, basil, lemongrass – all easily grown and once you see the output you will be able to move on to bigger things. It is possible , with some practice and over a one year period, to actually supply more than half of a nuclear family’s vegetable needs from a small terrace kitchen garden.
4. Change to natural products for washing, cleaning, disinfecting, pest control – and if cost is an issue, go for buying non branded stuff. It is easy in the old wholesale markets of all Indian towns to still get reetha, baking soda, white vinegar, essential oils like neem and eucalyptus. And old style cake soaps, which are far more earth friendly than some costlier brands. Stop using Colin for window glass cleaning – plain water with a drop of vinegar does just as well. Burn pure camphor for air freshening and disinfection. As also lemongrass and citronella leaves. Notice that apat from reducing toxicity of synthetic chemicals you also reduce the packaging and manufacturing energy that goes into the creating the final ready chemical products . These are the few easy basics for a natural home care kit:- Few drops of neem/ nilgiri oil in the poncha bucket will keep flies and mosquitos away, and a lingering perfume as well that is non toxic. Few spoons of baking soda scrub on the sinks and non marble hard surfaces will keep them clean. White vinegar and water mix half and half is good for all purpose cleaning, deodorising and disinfecting. Toilets can also be cleaned with a cup full of white vinegar left poured in for at least half an hour then brushed and frushed. Lemon & Vinegar will give your dishes such a sparkle, and can also be used in the washing machine for a brightening and softening effect on clothes. Salt is also a good cleanser and scrub, for removing caked up food and other cooked food marks on stoves. Many detailed tips are to be found in magazines and online on these. This is a really big area of cost reduction while going natural and sustainable!
5. Think about how you can reduce the use of the petrol/ diesel vehicles- can you walk to the local market, can you cycle, can you take the rickshaw? Can you car pool? Can you take the Metro? Again its not just what you as one person do, its about creating a mood and spreading it, its about being the change ! Also, once you get these into a regular lifestyle, you will notice much better health for everyone- less allergies, less skin irritations, headaches- basically all the side effects of toxic pollutans in the home air are removed. So now think of the costs – which is the easier cost to bear ?
It is ironic that today we prefer synthetic goods with harmful side effects (which most consumers are blind to , actually ) over natural, beneficial goods for our daily basic needs like food, cleanliness, clothing, and healthcare. Organic food, cleansers, medicines, anything in fact, was how nature meant us to use those things in the first place. But as society grew in numbers and in complexity, we super specialised our work and lives, we moved further and further away from the source of things that sustain us and make us thrive. We have almost come to see money, our professions, our possessions, our consumption patterns as all that makes us who we are, and forgotten that it is the unchained flow of breath, of water, of wind, the sunshine, the rain, of food sprouting out of the earth, that in fact is our lifeblood, and not the stuff of life we have created, like brands and packaged goods . So for me to come back to the organic lifestyle, is in a way about coming back to connect with the flow of life, with the very source of our origins. It is about honoring our oneness with the circle of life and being a part of it once more. It is about standing apart and away from a synthetic lifestyle that is slowly but surely making the earth toxic.
Man invented mecahnised power, and it has served him in many ways. But today it appears that the power is what drives man, and man has become just a spoke in the wheel, ‘another brick in the wall’. Going organic to me is not about saying all of technology is bad, or all of industrial production is harmful, or that I am against using any packaged, mass marketed goods. Going back to nature for me is about reclaiming one’s humanity and power of choice. In simple day to day terms it is about enjoying the smell of the essential oils used in my home, rejoicing in the fresh earth feel and smmell of the products of my compost bin , reveling in the color and feel and smell of my home garden, and about being more involved in the selection and preparation of the food in my home. So the underlying arguement for going back to organic living for me personally is not really economic, not till the economics of production are what they are now. It is rather a human, even a spiritual one, and I am blessed and privileged to have that choice. And for that, I am paying a cost in money terms, and doing so deliberately.
As put across so touchingly by Professor Guttorn Floisad, an ideologue of the Slow Movement , “people need to get off the ever accelerating treadmill of life. ..the basic human needs remain unchanged. The need to be seen and appreciated…the need to belong. The need for nearness and care, and for a little love. ” It is still these basic needs that consumerism feeds on, panders to and builds on, and never fully fulfills, leaving humans ever more in the quest for harmony, love and connection. The paradox is that they are driven to seek it in a synthetic, unsustainable lifestyle.
Now that the list of the World’s Most Honest Places is out, and Mumbai ranked an admirable No. 2 in it, of course a debate has ensued as to whether other places in India can ever share the same glory as Mumbai.
The list makers tell us that the results were arrived at after carrying out the ‘”Wallet Test” to see how often a dropped wallet was returned/ attempted to be returned to its owner. While I am happy for all those ‘lost and found wallets’ and for Mumbai, I do know that I once lost a bunch of very important office papers on the suburban train in Mumbai and never got them back 😦 Wish they were doing these lists then- perhaps my papers would have been treated with more respect. Anyway, that is besides the point, really, and not the reason for writing this piece at all. Its the idea of returning things to their owners – connecting them back, as it were, that touches a chord with me, as I am sure it does with eveyone, including the folks who designed the survey that got us this list.
So today I want to share two stories of honest to goodness kindness of near strangers to me, because of which I too was re-united with things I had lost or left behind by mistake.
In December 2006, just about a year after buying the plot of land where Birdsong & Beyond now stands, we went on a road trip through north Garhwal, touring in a sort of circle around the Birdsong location as its sort of centre. We had another friend and his family with us , and it was a great long trip with lots of lesser explored places to visit. The vehicle we rode was new, the route largely unexplored, the drives long and full of discoveries at every turn. The cold crisp air, the clear sharp winter sun and the morning mists all added to the enjoyment and thrill of the journey.
One of the early stops was the Mandakini Magpie Birding Camp, a timely discovery on the banks of the Madakini river in a one tea shop village named Kakragaad. This is a place just about a couple of hours downstream from the base point of the trek to Kedarnath shrine, and there is a birding camp there run by an expert local birder, Shri Yashpal Negi (Negi Ji to all). I had found references to him on the Delhi Bird pages on the net and was excited and curious to explore what he was doing, as birding was a budding passion I was engaging with, and Negi Ji happened to be located practically in our backyard.
Negi Ji turned out to be an absolute find, and we had the most thrilling explorations with him. He is an excellent birder and guide with an immense range of knowledge and an uncanny knack to spot and identify birds out of thin air or dense foliage as the case may be. He is also very much the storyteller, sharing captivating nuggets on the local natural history, and local heritage. It was all a unique experience , more so perhaps because we had no idea what we were in for.
We had anticipated that the place and arrangements would be simple and minimalistic, and we had overcompensated to an extreme degree- having packed every possible supply into the car ! Sleeping bags, towels, flasks for hot water, food supplies…we were an army on the move. However, things were not so dire on the ground and we did get warm clean quilts and fluffy white towels to use. And while the washrooms were draughty and cold, the food was warm, fresh and somewhat exotic in being rather different to our usual fare. To accomodate more guests in the peak birding times, Negi Ji had put up two tents on the grounds and the younger children in our party decided to make a tent their sleeping place, and use our sleeping bags rather than the beds laid out, to make the experience even more camp like.
From Negi Ji’s place we went on to Chopta Meadows, and attempted the Tunganath temple climb on New Year’s eve. The shepherds who graze their sheep and goats here on the lush spring and summer grass were all gone, leaving behind their ancient stacked stone shelters available for interepid trekkers to camp around. There were parties of locals here and there, with their mobile kitchens and rations trailing into the forests and wilderness all through the day, all around Chopta Meadows and in the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary’s surrounding areas.
Anyway, to move on, in a few more days we we were on the return leg of the trip, from Auli to Rishikesh. While counting the luggage in the boot at Auli, it semd to us there was something missing, since the boot just looked so much more spacious than before. A quick review revealed that 3 sleeping bags were missing! A rushed check of the hotel room showed up nothing, and then it hit us that the sleeping bags were last used at Negi ji’s place only. There being no signal on the mobile phones, and the hotel phones being down due to a snow storm in the making, we drove off, and called Negi Ji from the first PCO we came to and asked about the sleeping bags. Negi Ji said he had been desperate to hear from us… He had found the sleping bags in the tent after he went to ready them for other guests once we left, and had been so worried as he could not get us on the phone. He was thinking of getting hold of someone going down to Delhi and sending the bags with them to our address as a last resort, but it was difficult to find people travelling to Delhi in those parts!
So now that he had spoken to us and knew our plans, he offered a most generous and kind suggestion to get the bags to us. Our route to Rishikesh would bring us to Rudraprayag on the National Highway, from where the road to Kakraagad branched off. He would meet us there and give us our stuff. This meeting point was more than an hour’s journey by local bus from his home, and he offered to do it just so simply for us! His logic for not letting us take the detour and come pick the bags was that it would add hours to our travel time.
Needless to say we were totally floored by this wise, pragmatic and kind gesture of his. In hindsight, I realise how important it is in those areas to stick to tavel time estimates, keep mindful of the weather and to drive within daylight hours as far as possible. By offering to bring the stuff to us, he was not only returning our things to us, but also ensuring our journey stayed safe and as short as necessary.
A lot has changed in those hills since 2007 and I have been travelling there every few months in the last 3 years. I am very familiar and at home in these mountains and know a lot more of the locals. The Birdsong Cottage is now a reality and in in April 3013 we again had a wonderful trip up there with friends, combined with an overnite camp and trek to Deoariyatal lake. Located in the mountains just opposite the Chopta and Tunganath slopes, just off the Kedarnath- Gopeshwar highway that runs through the Kedarnath Musk Dear Sanctuary, this is an alpine lake in the middle of a forest, where the forest gives way to gently sloping alpine meadows that end into a bowl like depression on a mountain top, and in this depression sits the mirror lake. It is a sight that simply takes your breath away, leaving you grappling, a bit dazed, to take in all the beauty and the stillness around you .
There is no settlement here or buildings save two forest officials’ cabins there, and alpine camping tents are the only accomodation for the night. Its an amazingly well managed, clean and well protected site, with stunning snow views, teeming wildlife and birds and flowering trees of every hue. At Deaoriyatal I found myself wanting to be for ever outdoors, connecting with the tremendous presence of the universe every single moment. Even taking a break to eat or drink or go to the wahroom was a tough call to take – its that hard to break away from the spell of nature’s majestic and magical presence there.
Anyway, we could not linger in this Shangri La forever as we had a time bound plan….so off we were again by mid morning, trekking back downhill to the base point at Saari, in the glare of a noon day sun of the high altitudes. On the way down from our trek, at the base point, I felt a bit dehydrated and dizzy so took a time out from the group while they had tea at a local dhabha point and then went off settling the children and the luggage in the car. Meanwhile I took a 5 minute shut eye and a long drink of ice cold water, and then went off to wash my face. When I returned the car engine was running and the others were waiting for me to join them. I got in to the car and we started the drive back to Birdsong.
It was afternoon already and we had delayed so much at the lake, mesmerized by its beauty and peace, that we had totally ignored the the day’s timetable. Changing the planned lunch at Birdsong to dinner was no big deal in comparison, just a matter of a phone call back home. So we made our way down hill and reached the Kedarnath highway along the Mandakini river. By now all of us were pretty much starving and looking for a lunch break. The GMVN rest-house on the banks of the river at Syalsaur was our halt for a late late lunch and as soon as I started to step put of the car my head reeled again – this time not with dehydration but with the knowledge that in my confusion at Saari, I had forgotten to pick up my camera bag, and personal bag with my wallet etc…and nor had I asked the others to, and nor had they thought of it!!!
I was in a panic now, thinking of my cash heavy wallet, all my IDs and credit cards, ATM cards, and my precious precious camera gone for ever …or at least in grave danger of being lost to me….when calmer sense prevailed and I called our trek guide Raghubir. He was not at the tea shop where we had stopped but promised to go check immediately and call back. Soon he was back on the phone to us, saying the tea shop owner had noticed the bags and kept them aside safely. Now he was watching over them for us and where were we and was it possible for us to come take them, and when would be reach the place?
We told him our location, about 50 kms downhill of Saari and said we would start immediately, but if there was someone he knew in the village coming down was it possible to send the stuff with them? When Raghubir realized where we were, he immediately told us not to make the trip to Saari, telling us that he would find a way out and call us back. Within 5 minutes he was back, informing us that he had found a relative’s motorbike and was coming down with a friend to personally hand over our valuables to us! We were just dumbstruck. These guys would ride down 50 kms and then ride back 50 kms to prevent us from doing the same, as it was safer and more practical for them to do it than for us!!! And within less than an hour, Raghubir was there, at the rest-house, handing over my things to me and being so gracious and sweet and kind….. And on top of that, he refused to let us pay for the fuel , saying it was no big deal, anyone would have done the same and so on. And mind you, these are people who do not really have decent sums of cash to even meet their daily needs, leave alone spare cash to run uncalled for errands of kindness for strangers.
So when I read about the “Wallet Test” and the honest places ranking, my mind goes back to those panicked moments when I realized we had left our stuff behind and then the sense of enormous relief and gratitude toward the men who personally made sure they came and returned our things to us, wherever we were.
Linking this blog post to an artice of mine, published in The Alternative.
First, I am reposting this, as some friends told me they are not able to get the link on my earlier FB posts. So here we go again….
The title of my blog today is taken from the metaphysical poet John Donne’s work. I encountered these lines first while reading Hemingway, and they have made a lasting, haunting impression on me. It is telling that Donne used them in a series of writings while he was himself recovering from a near fatal illness- as meditations and prayers, actually- on health, pain, and sickness. These were published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Here I am copying from Wikepedia, with the original spellings, as printed by them. BOLD highlight by me.
- “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
What is it that would make more and more of us think as Donne felt? When will we realise that the bell tolls for all of us ? This thought comes to me repeatedly these days, in many different contexts. What would it take to connect peoples’ hearts at a deep, abiding level, and make our world reverberate with one universal beat, at least for a bit?
The aftermath of the floods and devastation in some regions of Uttarakhand has been disturbing me at a very deep level, and I am still coming to grips with the incredible enormity of what has happened. Maybe soon I will write on that, as a separate blog post. Today I am just touching upon some instances of nasty human indifference, or worse that showed up in the crisis. There have been wonderful stories of help and support too, but then should not those be the norm, and anything else an aberration? When will we realise we are but One, ‘no man is an island…every death diminishes me”?
Looting the fragile hillsides, raping and gouging them out for short term greed and monetary gains, without thinking of the risk to others, to the earth itself- how disconnected can we be? Refusing to listen to science, refusing to use better technology, refusing to admit to mistakes and correct them- why this disconnect?
Looting helpless lost people – obviously, some very very deep disconnect with humanity. In this havoc there are hardy and helpful people, taking great risks to go out and organise relief for others, and to help re-build lives. And then, we hear from the ground, of others, who are hampering their work, rather than joining them. There are those complaining of having only kicchdi to eat for 4 days, when there are those who are forgoing their rations to feed others, and some are with no food or water for days on end. There is shouting and shoving to get to the rescue chopper first, and then fights and arguments with the army guys. The same army guys who are risking their lives to save others, who have already lost colleagues in this operation. Are we so out of touch with our oneness as bits of the same, unified creation? Why? Why do we not rally around and work as one?
Then, why the huge disconnect from our own responsibility to ourselves, to our families, to take charge of our own safety? To know if we are fit enough for an arduous trip to a difficult region? Why no attempts to educate one self about where I plan to go, rather than be herded like some subjugated domestic animal?
What of the disconnect from roles and responsibility of the officials, who allow the yatras to be so unregulated- why no connect between the numbers of visitors and the region’s carrying capacity? Why no connect between what will be a safe and low impact tourism infrastructure suitable for the locations? Why no connection was made between the terrible, ravaging rain of over 2 days and its likely consequences in a region of glacial lakes and debris dams and landslide?
Closer to home, why do I have more than 5 scores of people applauding my efforts at organic living, at community waste management, and barely a handful of them actually doing any of what they so solidly cheer me on for? What does my being an ‘Inspiration’ mean to them, if it does not bind them in common, similar action to the source of that ‘inspiration’? What is this disconnect between their words and their deeds?
Why do we get so much blame and counter blame in any crisis situation rather than a resolve to team up as one and actually handle the situation, to find ways to overcome? Why be divided forever, like debating teams, rather than be connected like links in a chain? Team work, anyone? Common purpose? Common values? A common sense of humanity? What is the journey that takes us there?
Certainly I don’t see connectedness of any authentic, lasting, deep kind emerging from the most commonly made journeys. Not in the journey that gets the migrant hill dweller to the plains for a better and regular income . Not in the journey made home every few months to look in at the family and / or farms/ homes left behind, or festival to mark back in the native place. Soon, the journeys grow fewer, the ties become weaker. Those left behind also look for when they can escape. And soon the only connection binding the place that was home and the place that will be the saviour is that of cash.
Certainly connections also do not bloom on the journey made in package tours by groups of friends , family, cocooned in their sameness and familiarity even when in an unfamiliar geography and culture. There is a sensory pleasure in the novel sights and foods, and crafts, there is shopping and picture taking, and a sense of ‘I too have been here, I too have seen the world’ . But I doubt if seeing the world is the same as really having an experience of what is the connect between a new and different place and its people with any one of us, beyond the differences? The connect in such journeys is with one’s ego, with one’s vanities perhaps, and with a sense of consumption. It is only when one stops seeking to consume, and lingers to absorb that a deep and authentic experience of a place can come to us.
I take your leave now, with a powerful positive intention that my words have connected with your deepest essence, and your journey of connected oneness, and mine, will be stronger.
Bhoomi Pujan. The prayer before very first strike of the workman’s tools on the ground to make a building. In our part of the world no home or workplace or any building would ever be deemed ‘sanctioned’ to exist by the forces of nature and by something even beyond nature without the Bhumi Pujan. I had always found this to be a bit of an empty robotic ritual, disconnected from its essence in practice, though it is a strong and inescapable part of life all around me. Even foreigners who work in India have presided over ot at least been to one Bhumi Pujan, no matter how they personally felt about it.
When work started on site for Birdsong, my local Gurgaon civil contractor was sent to manage the local labor. The first thing the crew asked him about was when and how was the Bhumi Pujan to be performed. He asked me for directions. I told him to arrange for it locally, with the village priest. Interestingly, the site supervisor is originally a Bihari Muslim. He and the locals got together to have the ceremony carried out.
So, yes, we did have a Bhumi Pujan, conducted by a local priest. But this was done more for the peace of mind of the crew working the land. But preparing for the ceremony made me think of performing my own ritual too, a rite of passage for my dream taking material shape in mud and stone and wood and mortar. I wanted to signify this step with something that would speak of my underlying intentions and hopes with this home. I wondered how to put my feeling and wishes into action within the structure of a conventional, traditional Bhumi Pujan ceremony .
One of my friends suggested I speak to our common friend and mentor-guide. I called Nithya in Pune. He well understood my dilemma, and asked me to hold clear in my mind my vision and hopes for the home, and then helped me further crystallise my intentions. Thus I was able to work out a vision for what this home in the hills was all about, what it represented to me, why I wished to create it and what I saw as its future and our relationship with it, and its relationship to the place,the local life and people, to the people who I hoped would visit there. These were the ideas to be affirmed, set as intentions, and celebrated in our Bhumi Pujan Ceremony. If one wished, Nithya suggested, one could further relate them to specific attributes of specific deities, and bring in invocations to those deities in the priest’s traditional prayers. I asked the priest if he would invoke the deities as per our choice and he said yes, he would even invoke the special thoughts we wished to invoke. So we did go ahead with the Bhumi Pujan, done our way with a syncretic, quirky and personal twist.
To give you a simplified sense of what I mean, we expressed the intention of a rich, abundant life at Birdsong and around it through the invocation to Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity and plenty. A wish for it to be a place of learning, discovery, exploration, self knowledge and connection was symbolized through invoking the Saraswati, and so on.
Rites of passage are a familiar part of village life. Everybody understands their meaning and is deeply connected to them. Come to think of it, most situations in these areas are rites of passage, some cyclical and patterned, others bit less certain and fraught with tension. Having familiar, understood rituals to see you through them make the transitions that much smoother. What it also may lead to, of course, is a difficult time when it comes to innovation and adapting to a fast changing world that is now definitely approaching these remote areas at a fast pace. Customising my own rites of Bhumi Pujan gave me a chance to appreciate the value of ritual as well as the need to allow for a change in its expression.
Meanwhile, the ceremony was over and the priest symbolically hit the first blow on the field, after which the workers took over. Digging started for the retaining walls, to bolster the edge of the plot. The old retaining wall was demolished, and a new reinforced stone wall started coming up in its place. Those were heady and exciting days for me, and for my little site team. Everyday we would catch up on the progress- how many feet were dug, how was the pace of work, how was the weather, what were the ground conditions, how many more days….the hardworking and tough digging crew from Nepal was efficient and fast and we were pretty soon ready for the next big thing, the foundation of the cottage.
Its been a long time since I wrote here, and for many reasons. The main one being that I was away at Birdsong without my laptop.
The biggest discovery for me these last 2 weeks has been the large number of responses evoked by a call for summer internship at Birdsong & Beyond. I asked friends in the field of Architecture and Planning to help spread the word, and within days the applications and Resumes started pouring in. Facebook and the good old College Notice Board had a big role to play, as also the personal influence of the friends who spread the word originally. Finally we had 3 students staying in the village for over 2 months, and we all ended up making new connections and discoveries along the way. About old pilgrim routes, lost recipes, local animals and plants, house building styles, geology, ourselves, village folks and so much more.
Another encounter and discovery centres around the beautiful bride pictured above. It is an encounter which typifies what big city folks will find to be a ‘lack of privacy’ and disregard of ‘personal space’. What it really comes from is a rather distinct sense of ‘being at home and familiar’ with all around them that Indian villagers live with, when they live in their village. Where community is clearer and stronger, and intertwined with every aspect of life.
A nearby homestead was hosting a son’s wedding and we were invited of course, with a band of village boys delivering the card and asking us to definitely come for the ‘baraat ‘and other ceremonies. The day after a night of song, dance, revelry and rituals, to our surprise we discovered that the bride, with her old and new relatives, was at our door! She and her entourage had come by to meet the city folks who had opted to live amongst the villagers. The bride was a friendly girl, and she happily posed for pictures with her camera wielding relatives in all our rooms, and with us, and our guests, who were still semi asleep and not at all prepared for wedding album pictures.
The visits didn’t end with the bridal procession. A local school teacher brought his 2 colleagues from nearby schools and colleges to show them the cottage. They had always seen our place from far, from the road on the downhill side of the valley and wondered about it.
So far, all was good and friendly, but there was something not so pleasant too. A wandering sadhu sauntered in to our verandah one morning. His persistent knocking was unwelcome as was he, but I opened the door and went to deal with him. The usual exchange of blessings and demands for alms followed, after which whatever I offered was deemed too unworthy by him- to be exact, worse than human refuse, literally. Disgusted by him, I unleashed some tough words of my own to send him off and I am sure glad he scuttled off when he did. Both for his sake and mine.
Then there were the various village youngsters who came to just talk, about their life, their families, their hopes and challenges. And the lack of opportunities in front of them. Apart from the lack of career choices and windows to the world, which we do acknowledge and know of, it is specially on the personal front that the lack of growth and exposure was a discovery to me. Caught in the crossroads of tradition and modernity and a whole lot of change that they can’t control, the young are restless and hungry for a chance at a bright future.
In terms of social mixing as youngsters, boys and girls find themselves on Facebook, a magical, exciting world without known signposts to negotiate. Messages from far-off media make them feel helpless and hopeful at the same time. Neither the old certainties hold true or deliver well, and neither the new freedoms and ideas lead to the promised happy endings.
Most are just confused and frustrated and have little by way of a sounding board, understanding or guidance. They are all rather friendly and warm hearted and open to learning, open to knowing, but also hemmed in by tradition, by taboos and fears of the unknown. There is a sense of helplessness, of being in a lost and forgotten world, of not being important in the scheme of things of the wider world. What would it take to open a window to the wider world for them that permits an easy movement between their world as it is, and the wider world out there? I am sure this question will be part of the driver for our future work in the region.
There are winds of change of a more progressive kind too, and this ‘off the map’ place is also getting embedded in the political map of Local Self Governance as I type this. The cluster of villages around us has just been formed into a “Nagar Panchayat” or rural council, and the first Chairperson elected. She happens to be our neighbor and it’s amazing to see the transformation this development has brought to the entire family.
Though the lady herself is a more of a figurehead or rubber stamp office bearer, who had to be nominated for the ‘reserved for women only’ seat, she is making efforts on various fronts to fit into the role. The kids are teaching her how to say her speeches, the husband wants me to teach her some social graces, she herself is looking to buy nice, formal cotton sarees to wear to office where she has to sit with officials of the government and so on…she also now says all the farm and animal work is too much to handle, how can she do all this and be expected to use her head to learn new stuff for the office.
Today I am going to share with my readers a different side of travel – the not so pleasant aspect of motion sickness on a road journey. And for those of us who love the mountains, and also suffer from road sickness, this can be quite a deep cut, as most hilly regions of India are ill served by good roads, leave alone comfortable trains and regular, reliable flights.
As a child I would be given a tablet of Avomine by my parents the night before a long road journey in the hills. In the plains they would hope for the best and leave things to chance, and mostly I managed to complete plains road journeys alright. It was the constant zig zagging and curves uphill and downhill that got my stomach all twisted and apt to throw up its contents every now and then. Eating anything was a torture as it would come up sooner than it went down and I was perpetually left with a bad taste in my mouth. The other option, of not eating would make me nauseous with hunger. So it was a no win either way. The Avomine though, would work at times, putting me into deep slumber and not let me enjoy the experience of the journey or the place being visited.
As I child I never really thought about this much, or tried doing something to get over the condition- I guess thats just how kids deal with stuff. Now I wonder what made me such a stoic about the condition. Was I aware somewhere in my subconscious that with a lifetime commitment to the hills, I just would find a way sooner than later to deal with this? I don’t know, but what I do know is that sometime in my early adult life I started to actively look at ways to deal with travel sickness when I realised that Avomine induced sleep robbed me of a lot of the experience of travel and kept me groggy long after I reached my destination too.
So a search for other ways to cope began, and carried on for years. Homeopathy was tried, with quite effective results, as was just mind control – NLP of a self taught, self invented sort, and driving simulation – meaning, you pretend you are actually driving the vehicle- because as everyone has surely noticed, the person driving the vehicle never ever gets motion sickness! All sorts of churans, pachaks and sour lozenges for keeping nausea at bay….and so on. With time I moved closer to many more healing modalities in alternate / traditional health systems, and tried yoga, accupressure and Bach Flower remedies for the control and eventual wiping out of this tendency for me to be road sick. All in all,there is a clear shift now, a mild one initially which has grown stronger and stronger to the point where now I am not car sick at all in long mountain drives, unless the vehicle is really ramshackle and jolts too much or the sun blazes right into my eyes.
So I hope all of you who do have a case of road sickness take heart from my story and keep trying your coping methods till you come to the right mix. Do not stop being on the road though, just because your body does not keep comfortable pace as of now with the quick moves of a mechanized, fast moving, sharp turning turbo fueled super-machine on wheels.
Here are the few tips, tricks and tools that I have felt are at the core of overcoming this roadsickness phenomenon
1. The driver’s seat is the best place to sit. Two, next to driver is the second best place. Then come the other seats.
2. Eyes always on the road straight ahead is another key learning.You have to really look straight ahead, being one with the road, with each and every curve and turn embedded in the software of balance and motion in our brains that we are trying to enhance. No looking back, leaning sideways and forward to catch snacks, water or chats to share or such like ….
3. Singing loud and clear. Yes, singing ! Always makes the arising giddiness or nausea just vanish 🙂
4. Eating dry and light. Slow and small munching on dry toast, roast namkeen, and pulped up bananas. Tea and coffee don’t help. Lemon drinks do help. Saunf and churan help too. Eating light and at short intervals also works better.
5. The accupressure routine that works instant miracles is this – press deep and sharp on the inner wrist at a point two finger breadth away from your inner wrist and palm joining line, and keep pressing hard for 2 full minutes. Do a two minute routine with both arms and then repeat till you are totally symptom free.
6. Another amazing tool is tapping, as propagated by the system of EFT healing- the Emotional Freedom Technique, to elaborate. This is a modified accupressure practice, with tapping on ‘energy points’ releasing blocked ‘energy channels’, along with some positive validations, acknowledgements and affirmations. Have had amazing outcomes for myself and for friends and family too.
Don’t know the scientific reasons for how any of this works and is effective, but these are the coping ways I learnt and this is how I have overcome my chronic motion sickness. And now I share my coping tricks with all my friends, and anyone else who is looking for some way to cope. I was on the other side and having made it across I know what it feels like when you can’t see, experience and enjoy the best that the journey has to offer. Happy travelling and many joyful road trips to all .
While driving to the bank a couple of days ago, I saw a familiar figure on the curbside, walking by with a very leisurely, ambling sort of demeanor. I felt pretty sure it was my architect friend Sanjay Prakash, who I had not met for a rather long time. This person seemed leaner, and very relaxed. I had passed him in a hurry so I thought of calling Sanjay to ask him if indeed it was him I had seen, and where was he headed to. I was so glad I called him, because not only was it really him that I had seen, and now I had got a chance to catch up with him after a fir bit on phone, it also turned out that reason he was there on the roadside was that he was now a Car Free person by choice.
It seems when his last car got too worn out to be road worthy any more, he decided not to go for another car at all. It was a thought he had toyed with often, over the years, having been a keen cycle commuter in his younger days (he is now past 50) and now at last he felt he was ready to put this thoughts into practice again.
So now Sanjay commutes partly by foot, partly by public transport and partly by the occasional car-lift courtesy friends, clients and relatives. It is a potentially high impact lifestyle choice and one I highly respect and endorse. It has been 5 months since Sanjay has gone Car Free, and he has many insights to share. He is happy and enjoying this change, just as he enjoyed being a cyclist commuter early in his career. Those days, his commute was short one, and he was the proud owner of 2 rather snazzy cycles. Then came a couple of close brushes with the DTC buses, and marriage, and he chose to keep a car instead. Then the commuting also got longer, and for many years Sanjay was like the rest of us, driving to work, thinking perhaps some day maybe the traffic mess will be better and like some of us, also thinking, maybe he would give up his car…and so on.
These days, Sanjay tells me, he feels quite independent and empowered, being Car Free again. He is realizing he can cope with his commuting need quite well, minus car ownership and he is benefiting financially and health wise too . On the other hand, the physical challenges for a walker in the city of Gurgaon, or Delhi or most Indian cities are seriously serious. The lack of suitable footpaths, and the utter disregard to the needs of walkers in road design and management of traffic flow are the top drawbacks. This leads to rather a hard time for a walker to safely and comfortably manage their commute. Sanjay for example finds that the road dividers are made like fort walls to be breached, being rather too high. But then, he reasons, they have been made too high to ensure that motorists stay on the right side, by not just by the presence of a divider as a sign, but by their presence as a physical barrier, that can’t be breached !
As of now Sanjay plans to carry through with his plans through summer too, with the help of a big thick umbrella. His asthma and wheezing have not been affected for the worse, and he feels his resistance and adjustment to the pollution is also better. He was also told by another friend that certain medical studies have shown that the cardio-vascular benefits of walking like this overall tend to nearly cancel out the ill-effects on one’s system of the pollution etc faced on the roads. As for going back to cycling, that is not on the agenda, since the infrastructure support for cyclists is even worse than for walkers. The safety aspect for cycling is a big deterrent and unless addressed speedily in all earnest, even the most ardent cyclists, sustainability supporters, and green living enthusiasts will not be able to really take it on much here even if they wish to.
It was an amazing piece of co-incidence that after speaking to Sanjay I came home and found a link in my email to a talk by Anvita Arora, Transport Design specialist. She heads a venture for promoting cycle friendly transport systems and road infrastructure in our cities, and works on a lot of projects to make public transport systems more user friendly right from the planning stage. And when I called Sanjay again for something I came to know that when I had seen him walking, he was in fact going for a meeting with Anvita! A walker architect on his way to meet a transport designer, all working together to make a difference. Power to them, and may their tribe increase !!
I am two weeks late, by my own rules, for the monthly book report for May. The first and only time I am allowed to do this. (Promise to self).
Knot for Keeps – Writing the Modern Marriage. Edited by Sathya Saran
Any attempt to dissect and discuss marriage is bound to be mired in complications, contrasting viewpoints, and dollops of hope and despair. Pretty much like the thing itself, it can follow no simple trajectory or denouement except a clear beginning and an uncertain end. So this book is an ambitious project in every way.
It gets sixteen writers together within its well designed, prettily packaged and bound pages, offering readers different perspective and stories on marriage. In that diversity of approaches, content and concerns, readers can find plenty of information and insights, and possibly a connection to their own unique situation vis a vis the idea and practice of marriage.
The stories, essays and a lone poem together offer a general overview of the modern state of marriage, and at times the telling is refreshingly at variance from the more popular presentation of coupledom in entertainment and art.
Sharanya Manivannan leads us into the book with a stellar essay that both questions marriage and posits the singledom as a state of arrival. Most poignant, incisive and deeply personal, this piece asks us to reconsider the idea of pairing as the default adult mode of existence. As she says, ‘…the first thing I must tell anyone about finding a meaningful paradigm for an unpartnered life : It is possible’ …..’Consider the absurdity of the term ‘pre- marital sex’. What is that except the presumption that sex before marriage is out of the norm because marriage is an eventuality?’
The book ends with an assessment by Vijay Nagaswami, of the nature of the recently emergent New Indian Marriage and its participants, the New Indians. Based oh his work with couples he holds out hope of a uniquely Indian response to the changing contours of individual expectations in the evolution of marriage.
In between the challenge posed to inevitable partnering in the first chapter and the hope held out in the last for an evolution to a better form of marital bliss, there are varying shades of marriage stories shared.
Milan Vohra‘s recounting of a husband and wife’s breathless, racing complaints against each other entrances us into their love story, only to leave us achingly heartbroken in the end. This story captures beautifully the ‘gusse mein bhi pyaar’ notion in its most positive expression, in my view.
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli and Chitra Viraraghavan offer us fictional glimpses of marriages navigating infidelity and incompatibility, but the absurd games of one-upmanship the stories move through are not too far fetched for many a real real life marriage as well.
Neha Dixit’s piece on the rigmarole and harassment that goes with a ‘court marriage’, specially in the case of ‘love’ marriages of interfaith and intercaste couples, is something Hindi films never show.
Abha Iyengar writes with searing pain about the lot of a girl of a certain age in our culture, where her marriage is deemed more important than her selfhood.
Further heartbreak, as also warmth awaits us in the real life story of a married couple living with the foreknowledge of death of one partner, cherishing each other and their time together. (Rita Mukherjee wrote this piece and did not live to see the book in print).
On the other hand, Noor Zaheer’s piece lays bare the inherent biases and blocks to the dissolution of the most prioritised and protected of social and religious institution – that of marriage – across cultures and political systems even today, with her focus in particular on the struggles of Muslim women.
Wendell Rodrick’s touching personal essay on same sex couples being forced to the margins of love and legitimacy is another pointer to the long march ahead in the transformation of marriage towards something more just, equitable and in keeping with the progressive individualistic values of the modern world.
Not all is serious gloom and doom though, in a collection as varied as this. There are essays on the imperfect pairing of a chhottoo and lamboo as the Hindi term goes, the winning over of relatives and their prejudices in a Bengal-Punjab pairing, and the choice of marrying late and finding it surprising suitable and enjoyable, after being opposed to the idea of marriage for years. There is the heartening story of Aparna Sen’s marriage to Kalyan Ray as told by the husband – a long distance second marriage for both, of over two decades, across continents.
On balance, this is a book for keeps, for reading in small doses and large, as mood dictates, and thinking over, as your married or not married life throws curve balls at you. I wonder if the absence of a divorced or widowed contributor was a choice or an oversight. After all, what the once married and now single have to say about the modern marriage is also an important reflection on the subject.
It was at a casual lunch on a Sunday five years ago that Rajat Batra surprised and honoured me, by inviting me to the governing board of his fledgling Not For Profit, STENUM Asia. I have always been keen on Renewable energy and a cleaner world but I am not a professional Environmental scientist. To be asked to serve on the board of a pure science consulting group along with hard core scientists and engineers was something entirely novel.
Over the years I have watched as Rajat, Sanjiv Bhatia and the rest of the board, and our small but immensely talented and dedicated staff built that dream from a couple of small projects to a world class consultancy that is respected and looked up to as an expert its specialised field. Along the way I have learnt and grown as a person just being in their company. My grey cells have new ideas to chew on, with every meeting I attend. the beginnings were small, and pretty much like any start up, we didn’t have resources for the extras like a proper office at all, and then we graduated to a basic kind of a place. We hoped one day to be able to make it to a workplace which felt better in material terms too.
It has finally happened, I am delighted to record. Last month we shifted into a new office, but I was out of town, and missed the inaugural party. Today was the first time I attended a meeting in our newly settled, cleverly designed office. As a resource and energy efficiency consultant committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we have tried to be the change we help bring in the world. Be it in our sensitivity towards use of electricity, use of natural light or keeping ambient greenery in view, and minimising use of embodied energy in materials used, or mindfulness towards reuse, recycle and reduce principles.
The rope hung, adjustable height foldable worktops are designed by another friend and well wisher of the founders who is also a leading product designer. The exposed brick partitions are low cost and extremely pleasing to the eye, and bring an ageless charm to the space. And most of this beauty, ergonomic efficiency and comfort in a rental space can easily move with us, if and when things come to that. And it didn’t cost a bomb at all.
This new office is also where we officially launched the business entity we have been planning to branch out into. With SUSTENT consulting Private Ltd. we now offer all the expertise of STENUM to the B2B commercial segment as well, in areas of energy audits, clean production and resource efficiency.
As always, we help keep your enterprise and our world healthy, wealthy and green.
Who’s up for fresh mountain air and birdsong at this Uttarakhand homestay?
Birdsong & Beyond is off the beaten track and ideal for a secluded holiday
It is the view you notice first. The horizon awash with myriad hues of the afternoon sun interjected by steep snow-capped mountains. The crisp breeze, chirping birds, verdant greens, and wildflowers have you next, and before you know the fatigue of hours of travel has dissipated in the fresh mountain air. We’re at the very serene Birdsong & Beyond in Uttarakhand, run by the organic farmer and writer Kiran Chaturvedi.
About the homestay
Birdsong & Beyond stands inconspicuously in a small settlement of mountain homes in the rugged hills of the Himalayas. It is off the tourist trail, in a little village in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, known mostly as the birth place of the Chipko movement.
Surrounded by hills and jungles, the house is a mix of traditional architecture and contemporary décor. Spread over two floors, five bedrooms, a hall, a balcony and a terrace, the space is personal, comfortable, modern, and yet retains the rustic charm of a hill cottage. Here, you’ll see owner Kiran Chaturvedi’s personal touch everywhere—think cozy rugs and cushions, classics and novels, board games and art supplies and comfy chairs you can sink into.
The slanting rays of the morning sun illuminate every corner of this wood cabin; every room has huge windows that overlook the sun, the sky, and the hills. The ranges of Badrinath, Mansa Devi, Trishul, and Pindari, stand right across the meadow in the front yard. Endless birdsongs, crystal clear air, rustling forests, and glistening stars makes Birdsong & Beyond nothing short of a storybook escapade.
About the owner
Birdsong & Beyond is the culmination of a lifelong dream of sociologist, writer, and organic farmer, Kiran Chaturvedi. “Birdsong is your quintessential cabin in the hills that so many of us have grown up dreaming of.” Kiran tells us over a cup of coffee. “We are completely off the tourist trail and only a few like-minded wanderers looking for an offbeat location manage to find us,” she adds. Looking at her pine wood cabin with sun-kissed terrace, organic kitchen garden, and fully stocked pantry one cannot but agree with her.
The homestay offers fresh home-made meals prepared in-house using local ingredients. Most of the produce is sourced from the kitchen garden at Birdsong and adjoining farms. Mandua, or black millet, ferns and nettles, and local lentils like rajma, bhat ki daal are some ingredients used to create the simple yet satisfying spread. The specialty however is the mutton curry made by Jagat, the caretaker, with his secret sauce and spice mix, and the bhang-jeera, (cannabis seed) chutney with fern fritters. But of course if you prefer your eggs on toast, the kitchen is open to you to cook, only you may have to carry your own bread, for the supply comes only when the truck driver wants it to.
How to spend 48 hours around Birdsong & Beyond
“The best way to spend time at Birdsong is by doing nothing,” Kiran tells me. Watching the sky with the glistening snowcapped peaks, listening to the birds, exploring the tiny village is work enough, we think. But, given the strategic location of the home stay, there is much you can do and see from here.
The shorter, half-day trails include picnics to nearby places like the Valli village temple, and the Dukhtamba Devi trek. Sunsets are beautiful at Duthkhambha. The trek takes about an hour to leisurely walk up with stops and forty minutes or less to walk down. You can reach Valli with a 3kms drive from the homestay or alternatively a 1km walk on stone steps through terrace fields downhill.
The Nagnath Forest and a visit to Mohankhal Forest Department for an introduction to the rangers’ work is another fine option. You can chat with the ranger and his guards during a guided tour that includes explanations about the surrounding flora and fauna as well as a few animal sightings, if you’re lucky.
The choices for day long trips include a visit to the region’s highest peak Kartikswamy, home to the only Kartik temple in north India—uniquely situated on the peak of a cliff at over 10,000 feet—it is an experience of a lifetime. Driving down riverside to Mandakini for a picnic on its bank and the views of Kedarnath range, or into Chandnikhal village to check out old carved wooden homes and ancient stone temples are great options too. The place also serves as a base for camping at the meadows of Chopta and the peaks of Tunganath and Chandrashila, the Alpine lake at Devariyatal, Badrinath and Kedarnath. While you can eat at the many dhabas along the way that serve Maggi, buns, paranthas and tea, the homestay can pack a meal that includes parantha, sandwich, boiled eggs and fruits for your day trips.
Doubles from Rs3,000 excluding meals; Rs250 per meal per person.
How to reach:
Birdsong and Beyond is located in village Guniyala Khal, 2kms from the tehsil town of Pokhri Nagnath, in district Chamoli, Uttarakhand. 430 kms from Delhi, 210 kms from Rishikesh, into the forested rural mountain tops uphill from Rudraprayag. The area is also known as the hunting ground of the legendary Jim Corbett. You can reach there by car, bus, or cabs.
For all the familiarity with the term Depression, it is still shrouded in confusion. For all the exhortations for removing stigma and shame around those who suffer, there is still too little focus on context and systemic causes. Johann Harris is an award winning journalist and best selling writer who has suffered from depression since childhood. He has been taking medications since his teen years and believed that his condition was all about a chemical Imbalance that pills could put right. But his experience with drugs- while it provided some relief, specially early on, did not lead to lasting improvements. It led him to ask what wasn’t working and why.
What he found in the course of his wide ranging investigation is the story of this book.
The stories and data he investigates are surprising and shocking, as well as commonsensical and intuitive – sometimes all together. He looks at the nature of pharmaceutical research and trials and publishing of trial results. He looks at the nature of the experience of grief and other emotional and relational trauma. He looks at social context. He looks at man as part of the natural world. He talks to scientific and scholars and doctors and social workers.
He comes to see that Depression is a lot more than a chemical imbalance that pills can put right for ever. Some of his suggestions for course correction are utopian and because they point to the need for systemic changes, they may sound impractical; and yet there is a core idea in all of it that is possible for us to follow in our lives and interactions.
Given pervasive thoughts of stress and anxiety in our lives, this is a book for all of us, a book that takes a wide angle sweep and a close up into what all of us are now touched by directly or indirectly.
I turned 50 last month, and it was a birthday that felt special and meaningful in ways birthdays had stopped feeling, in the years since my childhood and teen years. In my childhood every birthday felt special. Every number on the age scale was a significant step up. A new class at school, a growing body, an expanding knowledge of the world, and a build up of skills. All very tangible, visible and noted by self and others.
Then came the twenties, and slowly, but increasingly, birthdays were markers that felt like the scores of a crucial, tense cricket test match. After college, each year gone by meant another round of stocktaking, comparisons, deadlines and the body clock. More of the same in the 30s. Birthdays turned ritualistic, performative and repetitive. It didn’t help that my husband didn’t understand what the fuss was about in the first place, and heartbreakingly for me at that time, did nothing at all to mark the my first birthday after our wedding. I caught the affliction and began to forget the date as well, and lost the previous excitement for this celebration for mine or anyone’s birthday, except for those of my children. Largely, a birthday was now only another excuse to throw a party and pretend this was something more than just another day.
After decades of this jadedness, my own excitement and sense of reaching a milestone on my 50th took me by surprise. For days before the event-which happens to be also International Women’s Day, I felt that old old thrill that used to build up days before a birthday in my childhood. I began to tell people (strangers included) that I was turning 50. I planned different, small, private celebrations to mark the half decade of living a rather fortunate, ordinary and trouble free life. I gifted myself special treats, specifically, for this specific reason.
I know it’s not like I did anything special to be 50 – I cannot take credit for being born, or for the supply of breath and everything else that keeps me alive. I owe much of that to my family. My parents specially can pat themselves on the back for giving me the best life they could, and then some more. And yet there is a feeling of achievement at having come to an age I could only think of as being monumentally old and unimaginable, when I was a small child.
You can tell yourself many things about middle age in your 40s. But to me, middle age, aka the 40s felt like a no good half-way house. 50 is surer, crisper, clearer. It is over the fence and over the hill in every best way possible, done and dusted.
Here’s to new beginnings for the freer happier me, who is closer today to what I thought I should be, and never imagined I’d find at the ripe round number of 50.
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off ”said Gloria Steinem.
Mr. Shiv Visvanathan had a choice. To stay pissed, when faced with new truths, or to unlearn, relearn, and move into freedom. What he chose was to write something which scapegoats women as the reason for men being victimised, romance being threatened with extinction, and for his being unsettled by all this.
His article is a particular kind of farce, given that Mr. Shiv Visvanathan, elsewhere in his life and work is a scholar, social anthropologist, professor, and Public Intellectual who coined the idea of Cognitive Justice – a concept that talks about recognising different truths of different social groups.
It is a truth too well known to need mentioning, that in man-woman sexual/romantic, desire-led interactions, men have wielded worlds of power in rather unequal proportions since ages. This raaz is being stripped of covers faster than Vera’s seven veils, even for Public Intellectuals who have a theory for everything but cannot stand in someone else’s shoes.
I am trying meanwhile, to stand in Mr. V’s shoes and see why he wrote that whiny confused piece of obfuscation, comparing a public voicing of private pain, through MeToo and The List, to ‘chilly justice’ and the Gulag, and bemoan the death of romance that this has supposedly led to. And while at it, why did he lay the blame of all of this on women’s need for instant gratification?
Poor innocent men, what are they going to do now, worries Mr.V. The world runs on sex, desire and all that follows….And women have decided to turn cold as a dystopian version of hell, and we are heading for apocalypse! Here is the end of love and mating and sex and marriage and relationships and all things nice and warm that lit up our hearts and made the world such a singalong place.
The idea of Cognitive Justice that Mr.V floated is the idea that there is not one hegemonic way of knowing something; that there are divergent and equally valid systems of knowledge, experience and lifestyle among different groups, and that asking one such group to “abandon their felt experience and identity is a form of injustice”. He has written about how “trying to normalise a group’s felt trauma is an act of erasure”. That “indifference and erasure become two rituals of normalisation of violence”. Can Mr. V please then look at MeToo through this lens of Cognitive Justice? To quote his words, “what adds insult to injury is that often people protest in favor of the perpetrator, ignoring the pain of the victim.” Time to walk the talk a wee bit, Mr. Public Intellectual?
It is ironic that the creator of the concept of Cogntive Justice should be calling someone else’s story of their experience ‘essentialism’. And he doesn’t stop there. Giving in to the worst exaggerations, misappropriations and false equivalences, he goes on to compare The List to a kangaroo court, the online naming and shaming of perceived sexual misconduct and harassment and assault to a Stalinist/ Naxal tactic, and regrets that the the targets of such naming shaming are being ‘eliminated’ in a feminist version of the Gulag. To compare the methods of state control employed by a powerful dictatorial ruler of a world power to the methods of a guerilla innovation by what is at best a small movement within feminism, is strange strategy for a social scientist who presumably should know the difference.
One wonders why indeed Mr. V fears the death of romance and the end of fulfilment of desire, simply because some women have started saying they would like to have a say in what they do with their own bodies. It isn’t like all of womenkind is suddenly discarding estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone from their bodies along with all the other essentials of carnal capabilty or romantic attachement. As a gender, women have been programmed into prioritising male desire. This programming is so steeped into culture that it does not get fully wiped out after decades of feminist sloganeering or substantive gender training. We have barely begun to reclaim ourselves. It is even harder wired into men, to take women’s bodies and existence as an entitlement for the male. After all, we still put adults into arranged marriages as the most normal of procedures, and balk at the idea of acknowledging marital rape as worthy of notice or intervention, in the name of preserving social order.
As ones who got to call the shots since all living memory, males feel the pinch, and resent having to watch their ps and qs after MeToo and TheList. It is an odd sort of unfamiliar place for them, to be mindful of their desire, their behaviour, and to take steps in keeping with how the object of their approach feels and accepts, or does not accept their moves. It was so much nicer, wasn’t it, being assured the right to instant gratification, and not having to bother with what a woman might want or feel? Why, all of a sudden must these women wake up to some sense of ‘what is it that I want’ instead of going along silently with what men want?
And worse still, to make it all open, and open source, by making use of technology and mass communication and social networks, to talk about things that need never be mentioned? Social media technology is a tool that patriarchy has not been able to pull away from some women. It is the kind of thing they are at ease with, and majorily the users of. As someone whose work helped develop the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) Mr. V could have tried another way of understanding this social shift, but to do so would need him to put aside his entrenched entitlement, and presumption of innocence of all men and the meanness of all women, and confront the reality of the power differential in gender relations.
The talk of innocent men facing the chilly justice of the Gulag is beyond ridiculous. For one, calling out on social media is in no way a legal conviction. There is therefore no legal punishment to serve. What then does a man have to fear? Women have been named and shamed in all sorts of ways as far back as we can remember in relationships, marriage, family and at work. A girl is brought up fearing for her ‘reputation’. Men smugly judge every women they set eyes on. Now here comes a little ‘judgement’ their own way, nothing more than a sharing of someone’s painful personal story, and oh lord, the prickliness! So much fear – it invites you to ask how many of the “innocent men” too feel guilty, how much and for what, and whether they fear the lid coming off their secrets?
Perhaps obfuscation is the only line of defense left to a Public Intellectual, when he cannot change his views and thus will know not and care not about what others go through. Sample this next – “I understand the poignancy of pain but I feel there is a one-sidedness to it. To make a man suffer just to open him up to women’s suffering does not add up. I admit mine might be a more innocent, stupid world where people learnt to confront each other’s mistakes”. Did I read that right? “Confront each other’s mistakes”? Does he really mean confront? Well, then TheList is just what he ordered, isn’t it?
He goes on with his fantasies of what men and women in relationships had and will no longer have post MeToo. “There was romanticism here but also a genuine attempt to work out a more humane relationship.” Seriosuly Dude! A woman asking for her consent to be respected IS asking for things to be more humane in a relationship. But there is more confounding bilge up ahead. “Yet this search for shaming eliminates the joys of a man-woman relationship.” Darling Mr. V, if there had been joy, reciprocity and humaneness in the man’s approach, believe you me, there would be no need for lists and telling stories on Facebook.
MeToo is a ritual of grieving, for loss – loss of trust, of hope, of faith in the mutuality of desire and the value of consent. Grant us the dignity to grieve without your judgement. Millions of women have been shutting their minds and abandoning their sense of inhabiting their bodies, to live with the violation they feel on their wedding nights and in their marital beds and with men they love and respect or fear and dare not say no to. This is the collective consciousness of the female gender, Mr. V, and it seeps into even the most seemingly ‘bold’ woman seeking to chart her sexual and romantic destiny independent of the shackles of conditioned constraint. With MeToo and TheList there is a safe space and community for women to speak up about the disquiet, to find release from shame and guilt of violation, and feel heard and understood. It is a first sigh of relief for many. It is a precious moment of owning and realigning fragmented bits of our selfhood. It is subjective experience being respected, and what I thought could be understood with the lens of Cognitive Justice.
First published here :
The flat maroon pebble skims three times across the jheelbefore sinking. I had managed up to four skips with these as a child, and Malti had managed five at one time.
Malti sits next to me. The dark brown frizzy hair severely pulled back into a topknot instead of the two tight pigtails of our childhood. The companion of my younger days, my almost-sister with her baby pink fair complexion and immense dark black eyes looks only to be a slightly bigger and stronger version of her once little self. I am told I hardly bear any resemblance to the child I once was. What with my crew cut hair and naturally olive skin tanned many shades darker over the years, and my unusually lean and tall frame that make heads turn, I have gone against the ‘natural order’ as Malti puts it.
Lying on the damp soft dub grass, hidden among velvet bloomed reeds, we dreamt of finding lost treasures from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the jheel, once we learnt to dive.
Neither of us has ever managed to get a stone to skip all the way across to the other shore. She does not try to test her skills today. Her gaze is faraway. She does not analyze the smooth throw I have just made, nor admire the shimmering cascade of ripples, which now stir the water of the jheel.
This is the place we both used to come to on long lazy summer afternoons of our childhood, with a load of suckling mangoes in our bags, and myriad secret plans spinning in our heads. Lying on the damp soft dub grass, hidden among velvet bloomed reeds, we dreamt of finding lost treasures from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the jheel, once we learnt to dive. The Shahpur wetland lapped the northern edge of farmlands beyond the little eponymous hamlet we lived in. My parents were doctors who had chosen to live and work away from the city of Shahpur in the rural outskirts, and Malti was the daughter of our estate manager.
I was 12 when we moved to another state. I lost touch with Malti for a long time. And when I returned to Shahpur University to complete a part of my doctoral research, Malti still lived on the same farmhouse. I lived on campus and visited the jheel often for fieldwork. An exciting new movement was building up for reviving the water body and its ecosystem with the help of a local community leader, and my research was concerned with this aspect of ecosystem restoration. Malti had heard of these efforts of Baba Jeewan Singh Ji, but as a confirmed atheist she refused to have anything to do with any Baba of any sort. She spent a lot of her time following the lives of characters on the TV soaps, keeping up with trends on teleshopping broadcasts, and on her newly acquired smart phone. She had dropped out of college and was completing her degree by correspondence. Sometimes she went into town for errands and a few lectures. She didn’t have any friends that I could make out, and she looked a little bloated, and sometimes puffy. She found life at the farm boring, slow, and depressing. She said I was lucky I had left when I did. She wanted to know about the boys I had met and how far I had gone with any of them, and whether there was a marriage proposal in the wings. And whether I earned anything as a research scholar and how much would I earn once I got a job. She wondered what had made me come back to the hopeless hellhole of Shahpur.
Standing by the jheel one summer evening soon after my arrival, I had wondered too. Bulbous tentacles crisscrossed most of the jheel. Vapors of methane and carbon dioxide suffused and stilled everything—the air, water, and my thoughts. A psychedelic pink and green carpet of water hyacinth sprawled over the eutrophied waters, while below the surface life suffocated to death in a zone of depleting oxygen and fading sunlight.
I wondered about Baba Jeewan Ji, out to heal nature using his mass appeal as a Jogi—urging people to come haul out the invasive, over-competitive colonizing water hyacinth; sitting on a hunger strike to demand a heavier discharge of freshwater into the wetland from the feeder canal of the river upstream; going from farm to farm, asking owners to change the practice of monocultures of cotton and wheat and reduce the use of toxic pesticides and excessive fertilizing. Could he succeed? Would land, water, air, and all that lived off it, ever be healthy and fecund again?
Malti harbored no such hopes about the jheel. “This is a rotting place. No one comes here except the ganjdis and amlis. Druggies. No animals anymore, no deer, turtles, dolphins or otters. No fish. All dead or gone. It is not safe. Maybe it wasn’t that much of a great place when we were small. We were kids after all, and kids tolerate such a lot…but now I would not come here even for a secret meeting with someone.”
“So, is there a someone then?” I asked, seeking a thread to connect with her.
“Here, in this back of beyond? There is not a hope… there isn’t even enough for my daaj if we did find someone. You know how things have gone downhill here. It is hardly the sabz baag you somehow remember.”
“Malti, I know what has happened, but you were there with me. You must remember too… plucking ber, the thorns cutting our fingers, hiding in thejamun branches where no one could find us? The trees are gone, but not my memories. There are problems no doubt, but new problems only lead to new solutions. Baba Ji is making a huge difference too. People listen to him, and the government listens to him. That is rare.”
“That is all good for talk, for pictures in the papers and to show on TV. You will get your Ph.D. and find another place to work, get married to a nice educated man, and all that. But what will I do? I can’t wait to leave this dead wasteland. But it isn’t easy. Where will I go?”
From my earliest recollections, the jheel and its surroundings had been the highlight of the landscape of my childhood. We lived in a fertile and lush submontane region at the foot of the Dhauladhar ranges, cut across with three of the five rivers that gave the land its name. Mustard blossomed bright yellow in winter and wheat stalks turned the fields into swaying sheets of gold in summer. In the wilderness of the forests around us we sighted deer and wild boar and partridge and porcupines on many a dusky evening.
I remember how spring brought the feather-soft touch of semal, its smoothness sliding across my bare skin awakening an unknown excitement within me.
Daddy used to drive off road into the jungles with Mummy, Malti and me on his photography expeditions. Sometimes he would take us fishing. I would sit mesmerized by the shapes and colors of the smooth riverside pebbles, imagining their journey from the glacial home of the brook down to these foothills. Malti would wade into the shallow snowmelt and scream as the chill cut into her ankles. But she would stay put in the freezing cold water, determined to catch the smaller fish with her bare hands. I was the lazy one, content to rest on the sand and stones, my thoughts riding the melody of the river.
I remember how spring brought the feather-soft touch of semal, its smoothness sliding across my bare skin awakening an unknown excitement within me. Malti and I collected bags full of these snowy silk-cotton pods. Her mother said it was all going to go into the pillows that would be made for our wedding trousseaus. Malti always managed to hoard much more than I.
Geese and herons dotted the wetland between fields and forest. We made fun of the bagla bhagat, the heron pretending to be a pious yogi standing in austerity on one leg, while focusing its gaze intently under water to catch the unsuspecting fish.
There were no books in Malti’s house and her parents could barely be called literate. But they knew how to read the land, the signs of the seasons and the hum of the trees. We watched in awe as migratory flocks of birds landed each winter exactly as Malti’s Mataji predicted. When the gorgeous, massive Siberian cranes landed on a little sandbar island on the other side of thejheel, we took it for granted as the way it had to be. That had been their roosting spot all winters since the time of the first Guru, and even earlier, said Mataji. When I shared this with my mother, Mummy read out the lines written by Guru Nanak back in the sixteenth century alluding to their flight here from the frozen Arctic.
I had held onto these images. Malti would not reminisce with me about how we roamed the land, played in these waters and climbed the tress, and watched the birds and copied their calls. Times had changed, she said, and she had moved on. So had much else. The cranes had stopped coming a long time ago. I found out from the internet that the migration had stopped because the birds themselves were on the brink of extinction, faced with habitat loss and dire dangers on the migratory routes. And worse, that if they did somehow come now, Shahpur would not be the place that could host them anymore.
But once upon a time it had all been real, those evenings of chucking pebbles into the jheel, the baths in the tubewells, the weaving of ropes out of wild grasses, and playing imaginary royal battles as brave queens in thesarkanda beds. We had known and understood the land and its creatures well, even as children. We knew its dangers, its treasures and its pleasures and had worked at our daily negotiation with it. Fertile, lush, rich in diversity, dangerous, nurturing and threatening…it spoke to us in many hues, offered up many blessings, and filled our senses with wonder. Knowing it as we did, we were at home. We were watchful, and yet we surrendered. We were different strands woven together into a seamless tapestry. Perfectly embedded notes in a collective symphony. Jarring notes might have disrupted the flow in the recent past, but now there were corrective forces afoot.
The call of the lark and cuckoo before monsoon and the dance of the peacock to celebrate rain clouds are all markers of the movement of time and the creator’s presence.
I saw reason for hope. Baba Jeewan Ji was onto a great initiative, and it was part of my research to monitor the wetland toxicity data before and after his interventions. He was working closely with the University, and for a man following the ancient path of the ascetics he was surprisingly attuned to modern science, and fascinated by the internet, data and laboratory work. I saw something new and better coming to Shahpur. The project for reviving the wetland had been going spectacularly well. People listened to Baba Ji because of his rustic speech and folk references, and he built his program of action on sound scientific facts and methodology. I started spending more time with Baba Ji, and Malti and my childhood memories soon receded from my everyday routine.
The one habit of my childhood that did not fade away was my daily recitation of Gurbani. The Japji Sahib every morning, and the Sukhmani Sahib each evening. And sometimes, I would read the Janm Sakhis, or the Barah Maha, and would be reminded that every season and every life form is part of the same circle of creation. Daddy had introduced me to the Barah Maha verses, which praise nature’s bounty as a celebration of the Supreme in all the seasons. The call of the lark and cuckoo before monsoon and the dance of the peacock to celebrate rain clouds are all markers of the movement of time and the creator’s presence. With every turn of the sphere we live on, nature shifts gears, and the land sheds one ensemble of its bouquet of flowers and fruits, for another. The mango and the aak and the dhatura, the mosquitoes and gnats and the bumblebees and the birds, the water reeds and the soft spring grasses, and the dark dry bare twigs of winter, are all emanations of the same force, rising from and dissolving into the One creator.
The jheel has changed much over a few months. The cover of hyacinth reduced enough to let sunlight reach into the depths. Little tadpoles swarmed in the shallows next to where Malti and I sat on the sandbank. Frogs croaked in the sarkanda cluster behind us. Far ahead on the horizon the Shivalik hills rolled on towards the snows of the Dhauladhar. A couple of days more of monitoring and then I would be done with this part of the research. Follow-up data would be gathered for another year, and then we would have conclusive proof of a reversal. I could feel vitality and new life rising already around me.
In a few years there would again be found on the menu sweet and juicy mulberry, the tangy astringent palate teasing jamun, and the sharp and acidicber, and not just kiwi and cherry and Alphonso mango imported from miles away. Bahera and lasura would once again be part of the repertoire of pickles made locally. Organic farming of native fruit trees was being received well in the farms in the region. The network of Viraasat Kheti volunteers was growing in numbers and resources. The good work and good word of a few was now rippling across in wider and wider circles. It was better than a return to memories of childhood. It was a step into new beginnings. I had so wanted Malti to be apart of this work. But she would not agree.
The morning Malti met me here, just outside our site office, I had let my hopes rise. “So all is well with your project work? When do you wind up and leave for home?”
“Maybe in two three days. I have not decided.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“I don’t know…depends on the thesis. But I am more or less done with this work. Next are my exams for the lecturship.“
“I have go away from here Raavi. I really have to. Could I come with you?”
“Oh of course, Malti. Mummy and Daddy Ji will also be so happy to see you. Oh, I should have asked you myself.” I hugged Malti and wondered why I had felt that I had not quite rekindled my childhood connection with her. She was still my almost-sister. She was going home with me. I had just not been able to see it sooner.
“Raavi, you need to know something before you take me home.” She hesitated, looking at me with a questioning, assessing gaze.
“Is it money you are worried about? The travel expense? I should be able to manage.”
“No. I have a new job. Or a project you could say. But I need your help.” Her chin shook as she gulped back more words. She sat down near me, on the sandbank and stared out at the wetland.
“Have you signed up with Baba Ji’s team then? Good! Better late than never. You can see the lake is already so much better. It is a great start.”
“No Raavi. The jheel is much better. I had not believed it could change. Baba Ji and you were right. But that’s not what I mean.” She kept staring out across the water.
“So what is this project then? Growing organic vegetables, like some of the farms around here have started?”
She did not turn to look at me. “There is this couple, very nice people, from LA. They are paying me well. But obviously it is a secret, and I need to go away. It is surrogacy, Raavi.”
Words died in my throat. My arms were so leaden I could not lift them to reach out and touch her.
She looked at me, chin up and eyes coldly boring into mine.
“Here everything was banjar. At least I will make good money with this. Just tell me if I can come with you.”
I nodded weakly. We were together in this. Just like in the days of our childhood.
Kiran Chaturvedi is a sociologist who has worked as a qualitative consumer research specialist for many years. She lives in Gurgaon, India with her family and pets. This is her first published fiction.
By Vivek Shanbhag. Translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur
Meeting Mr. Shanbhag recently made me go back to his internationally acclaimed, translated into English novel. This is also the time I have been paying more attention to translations in general, and I must say that if you haven’t been reading outside the borders of English language originals, please start to do so.
Ghachar Ghochar is a masterpiece of subtle storytelling. The nonsense title phrase is easily understood as something terribly tangled, and needs no translation. But the rest of the book could not have reached non-Kannada speakers without the brilliant trans-creation. And that is something all discerning readers can be grateful for. Because this a novel that is not to be missed if you appreciate a finely crafted, solidly rooted story of large themes and concerns, that is as subtle as it is disconcerting.
Ghachar Ghochar is a scathing social and moral indictment, a detailed empirical study, and a precise self-reflection of the unnamed narrator on himself and his rather toxic, enmeshed family. Nothing is quite as it seems, in the claustrophobic life in the narrator’s home. The early privations of the family and its later wealth change something in the nature of power, loyalty and obedience between them. They remain a unit ready to defend and attack as one, through the change of fortunes, from attacking and crushing ants to breaking any intrusion or opposition in any form from anyone inside or outside the home. Into this tribalism comes the wife of the narrator, an outsider who refuses to assimilate and become a cog in the system of daily cruelties and blind obedience. Her independent stance and critical eye on what goes on around her are the undoing of much, in horrific ways.
The novel leads us to the edge and then does not tie up any lose ends. The reader can form their own conclusions with a mix of dread and hope against hope.
At 115 pages this is one of the slimmest books you can find so go get it if you haven’t yet. I am sure you will be left reeling.
Amit curses the Delhi summer. He has been away for two weeks in misty Arunachal Pradesh, and his body seems to have forgotten how to transit back. Endless heat and dust and paseena, and the Metro carriage full to bursting are not conducive for a man to keep his cool. The thought of the new semester at college from tomorrow doesn’t hold its usual eager charm. Not after the setback to his doctoral plans. He doesn’t really even want to do the PhD; it isn’t the label he cares for. All he wants is to read, to discuss, and to teach. But he has to earn his keep in this world.
“Thand rakh yaar” is a lofty idea favored by his trek guide Dorje, back in the mountains, but that is so impractical here, velcroed to each other’s reluctant bodies as they all are. It may be better to get off and wait for another less crowded train, thinks Amit, and steps off at the next halt.
Peak hours in the sky too, he notes, looking at the airplanes that streak across the kaleidoscopic evening sky, up above the Qutub Minar and the Mehrauli forest. It is almost sunset, and the hydrogen fireball that powers all of life is slipping out of sight. It has been twenty years since Amit had his first look the Qutub Minar and the fascination has not faltered. He still gets his students out here for quite a few lectures, and spends winter weekends at one or the other monument lawns across the Capital.
Amit slips his backpack off, and sits down on a bench. The bag is beginning to weigh him down in the heat. It has been a long day since he left Itanagar early in the morning. The Pepsi he bought at Delhi airport is still somewhat cool, and he sips the leftover before chucking the bottle in the dustbin. The trains come and go, blasting him with a rush of hot air. The crowds of passengers are thinning, he can see.
“No extra baggage. Empty what’s no use.” Dorje’s words come back to Amit as he opens the cover of his bag and lifts out a thick spiral bound document. This is the useless baggage he has carried all through his holiday in defiance of Dorje’s instructions and checks. It is his PhD proposal. The one his HOD has rejected two weeks ago. Amit has not opened it these two weeks, and he has thought of little else, while in the midst of awe inspiring earthly wonders and novel experiences with different man-made systems in a new place. He knows he will not be doing anything with it now. What use is it to dwell over what cannot be? The deadline for submitting a proposal looms ahead in a few days. His HOD has left the university, handpicked for a place on the Council of Historical Research. Some committee to re-look Indian history or something such, Amit heard, after his proposal was rejected and the HOD’s leaving was announced, all on the same day.
Amit knows a new HOD joins tomorrow. Someone from Oxford, relocating to India. Some Dr. Amandeep Sandhu. Amit has not bothered to read the circular in any detail. How does it matter now? He wonders if it might be the time to move on, to apply for a place in a university abroad, what with the ghar wapsi of so many from there. But for now, he still has to find and submit a new topic for his PhD thesis. Brave New World may be his favorite book, but using it as part of historical scholarship seems too brave an idea, even in this new workplace. Amit is sure he cannot – or does not want to – think of something else soon enough to make the deadline. He is not a quick turn around person, in most things. Almost everything about Amit is slow, considered, and gentle. “Thehrav hai ladke mein”, as his Daadi used to say.
Amit leaves the document on the bench, closes the bag, and lifts it on his shoulders. Adjusting the weight, he scans the platform. A train is headed his way, its headlight dancing a racy number on the tracks. The pages of the document flutter in the powerful draught pushed ahead by the speeding train. Amit watches the pages straining against the hot air. For two weeks Dorje has urged him to drop all that is not needed. Dorje knows all about survival, about what to carry and what to leave behind. Amit lunges for the document, and flings it on the tracks. He boards the almost empty compartment.
Amit has always been happy to be outside the limelight. Doing his work quietly, doing it well, and finding the time to indulge his pet hobbies of trekking and sketching monuments. As a history lecturer in a government college till recently, he has been quite out of the race for publishing in professional journals, and is never found jostling for a seat on the conference circuit merry go round. He is popular with his students, as he is a kind and concerned teacher. He is liked well enough by his colleagues, and is a great cook and keeps a well stocked bar at his rented flat. But everyone senses there is an Amit they can never touch. No wonder he is still a bachelor, they say when he is not within earshot. Who spends their free time always in the library, always at bookshops, always reading at home? And then not even publish papers?
Amit keeps his fiction ambitions to himself. He cannot face the endless questions any mention of his one published historic fiction brings. You wrote a historic love story? Are you a romantic? Why aren’t you married? When are you getting married? What are you writing next, why don’t you write more? Why don’t you focus on academic writing more? Why don’t you do your PhD? Hardly anyone he knows outside his students’ circle has read the book, though.
Everyone has ruled out that he is gay, finding he makes no distinctions between the way he is equally courteous to both men and women. But they all agree he is too fussy, and a bit strange. He has opted out of all whatsapp groups even though he has a smartphone. He objects to jokes that laugh at men, women, married, single, queer, Punjabi, Madrasi, Gujarati, Bengali…. Irish, Jews. Well, some people are just born serious, they say. But he is a nice sort, they all agree, Means no harm. So they leave him alone, except when they invite themselves over, and he lets them come and feast on his food and drink his wine and then politely asks them to help him do the dishes. They don’t mind, not particularly. At the university he has now joined, in fact, he is a sort of trendsetter. At every party at all faculty homes he is invited to, the guests help clear up and do the dishes. He has so far avoided moving to campus housing. The Metro is a boon.
Amit stretches his tense and tired body. Legs outward, back against the seat back, arms upward. The coach is empty, practically. The contained spaciousness inside the carriage feels soothing and cool. There is one woman seated near the exit. She is reading a book. He cannot make out which one. Amit finds it fascinating that she hasn’t looked up at all from her book since he has stepped in. He hasn’t been able to take his eyes off her, though he is trying to be very discreet about it. The train has slipped underground and the windows face a black emptiness. Amit makes himself turn his face in the opposite direction.
He must think of what he has to do from tomorrow. Now, this HOD, who is coming in. He must be savvier and sense the ideological leanings of this one before he does anything about the new proposal. The thought feels like a heavy burden. A stifling of everything Amit lives by. He does not wish to put anyone under a microscope, to feel them out like a hunter. He feels cornered himself, shrinking with the familiar sense of being held back. His father and his uncle pressing their hands on his shoulders, and shaking him. “Why can’t you help out in the summer holidays? When will you learn this work if all your time will be spend stuck to a useless book?” Surrounded by cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents and neighbors in their modest chawl room near Opera House, Amit has spent a lot of his childhood outdoors, walking the streets of South Bombay, and then indoors at the dark and cool public library a few blocks away, and in the Irani Café across the library after library hours. A studious boy, who preferred to discuss books about imagined scenarios that didn’t involve buying and selling fast moving commodities, he has been secretly pitied and publicly scolded for his lack of smarts all his childhood.
“History! Who studies history, for Narayan’s sake…what will you do, be a school master? And live in a village?” The family had been shaken by his choice of a college out of town. “Delhi? Junglee place it is! They eat non-veg all the time, and drink whiskey and beer. Why are you doing this to us, haven’t we let you do your silly book worship without making a fuss all these years? Keep reading, keep writing your little articles. Peanuts you get paid for them, but we don’t want money from you. Why ruin your life now? Correspondence B.A. is possible, why don’t you do that, if you really want the degree so much?” It is hard for Amit to feel his own breath. He stands up with a small jump. The woman’s head jerks towards him. “You alright?” She stares at him with questioning brown eyes. Her voice is like the flow of the rivers he has been boating across till just yesterday. Perky, and quick and sweet.
Amit glances around. He is embarrassed. He sits down again and shakes his head at the woman. “I am sorry”.
“No problem. But are you okay?” She pulls a bottle of water out of her bag and stretches her arm towards him. He gets up and walks towards her across the compartment. The water is chilled, the bottle is some sort of thermos. It feels lovely. Comforting.
“I am a bit stiff. Just back from a long trek.” It feels nice to stand, to stretch up a bit on his toes, to flex his hands and arms at the holding rail.
“My station is up next.” The woman is standing next to him now, putting her book into her bag. The red spirals are scribbled over, but there can be no mistake. It is the book he hasn’t been able to get of his mind, Brave New World.
“You are reading my favorite book in the whole world.” Amit hastens to tell her, as the train slows down. His own voice is quickening, his heartbeat racing.
The woman smiles and her eyes shine at him. “Wow, it is my favorite too. I go back to it all the time. I am Amu.” Her skin is soft, her hand small and her grip firm, and Amit catches a whiff of khus. The doors slide open and she takes her hand away from his, and steps out. The doors slide shut even as Amit takes a step forward and shouts out his name.
She is waving at him and laughing as the train moves away, and Amit hasn’t felt this light and happy in years. He will meet her again, he is sure. She will find him. He will look for her. She seemed to be an office goer, from her rather formal blue pantsuit. Back from a business trip from somewhere abroad, going by the airline tags on her bag. He pulls at his earlobes. His station is two stops away. He begins to hum a tune. It is the first time he has actually talked to someone on the Metro.
Amit’s morning lectures are over. The new HOD had called a staff meeting over lunch. Amit is the first to arrive, a little before the said time. The office assistant is arranging chairs around the large worktable. In his Bengali accented Hinglish he tells Amit, “Woh bahar gaya, phone ka signal bery bad. I go tell you here. ” The office looks completely different from the last time Amit has visited. There are books piled on the wall mounted floater shelves. The walls are otherwise bare but have a new coat of bright yellow paint. Cartons still unopened are crowded into one corner. Amit moves towards the pile of books. He cannot stop his hand from reaching out. It is incredible, but there can be no doubt. It is the same book. The same scribbles on the red spirals. He opens it. In black ink, well-formed words proclaim “For Amu. With hope, love and blessings, Dad.” Amit is shaking, holding the book close to his chest. A faint whiff of lignin, and then khus. A voice he has not forgotten since last evening whispers softly in his ear. “You didn’t tell me your name in the train, so shall we start with that now?”
“Good afternoon Dr. Sandhu”, calls out Amit’s colleague Sameer’s loud voice. Amit turns from the bookshelf and watches the woman from the train move to a chair around the table. The HOD is about to start the meeting with her staff.
Are we so devoid of human compassion that we need to blame the dead for deserving their death? Are we so miserable that only by saying ‘serves you right, you had it coming’ to a silenced departed soul can we feel smug, and validate our own life?
The family is probably still reeling in shock, busy with the logistics of the funeral arrangements while they process a tragedy so sudden and enormous.
Millions of fans are in mourning too, and even those, like me, who are not committed fans, are saddened and shocked. Death touches all of us.It makes us pause and ponder. But is blame and shaming a necessary reaction? Is it kind? Is it even true? Does it need venting, and if so then what drives us to do so?
While death is the only certainty of life (because taxes can still be evaded), a death before time (or before hoary old age) is the less common way to go, and hence upsets the narrative we tell ourselves about our mortality. But whenever and however death arrives at our door, there is a culture of civility around the aftermath. Especially when the dead had done you no harm while they lived. There is the idea of privacy for the grieving relatives and friends. There is the nod to our common humanity and our ability to stand with someone in their experience of loss. There is the outpouring of compassion, in our words and tears and prayers and wishes that the departed soul may rest in peace.
But apparently not, or at least not for Sridevi and her loved ones.
The horribly macabre death of a poor marginalized tribal Madhu who stole a bit of food by a lynch mob is pushed out of public discussion by this new tragedy of a star collapsing. The lynch mob is out again, this time to dissect and judge the lifestyle and choices of the departed Sridevi.
Why is it that we are so hungry for blood?
Where did basic courtesy disappear for some within hours of Sridevi’s death? What do I make of the smug censure-camouflaged-as-caution bilge that is doing the rounds on social media about what could have led to her heart attack? Are we seeing a cultural shift in how we treat the dead? Who are the ghouls who can’t even wait till the kriya karam is over before they spout their so-called concern and expert opinions?
I want to ask these judgy theorists and speculators to think about the comments of a politician about how cancer was caused by past karma. I want them to imagine being the shoes of those who such comments are directed at, as thy are handling their grief and much else at the death of a family member. I want to know their expert opinion on all the unexpected and sudden deaths of children, and the continued longevity of older Botoxed glam divas. Will they now call out for health reports on all the celebs who they admire for not looking their age? Will they celebrate those who have aged visibly and don’t give a damn?
Why this cowardly misplaced dispensing of so called sense and wisdom, riding on the back of the dead, and why just right now? Why assume you have all the supposed answers without the burden of proof and why cause hurt to those already hurting? To serve up sound bytes of speculative causality between her lifestyle and her death is just so much poor taste. Facts, anyone? Choice, anyone?
It also strikes me that some of these people would refuse to believe a woman if she spoke up about abuse in public. They would ask for proof, for due process to be followed. So many of them would discount another’s own claims about her own life, but here they are, passing judgements on cause of death which they have no proof of.
The issue of the beauty myth is real. But feasting on someone’s death is also a problem. There is a way and a time to call caution. And the problem is far more widespread than the world of celebs. It is in our daily life, in the way we talk, the way we think. Almost all of us have an internalised look-shamer in us. So why start pointing fingers so callously at someone, even if supposedly it is a warning? If we are saying that the craze to look a certain way made Sridevi take fatal risks, we need to say it without dragging speculation and assumptions and judgements about her into the picture. We need to separate the story and the sensation. And we need to recognise that if what is being suggested was ever proven to be true, then Sridevi was a victim, and what we are doing is shaming the victim.
Why don’t we pause instead, and not make it about her personal life and take cheap shots of psychoanalysis about what kind of person she was? Cut the crap on nonsensical pseudo-psychobabble about how little self love she had and how suspect was the love of her husband. Studying the life and death of celebrities is all very well and part of our collective narrative but can we wait till her family is at least done with getting their senses back? Why this rush for being oracles? Is the buzz all we care for in this age of virality?
Certainly, things must be questioned. But at the right time, and for the right reasons, and even by the people who have the right to do so. Privacy cannot be claimed for one thing without extending it to others. Death is inevitable. But kindness and restraint are conscious choices. Unless we are Death Eaters.
The October 2017 Book Report.
(Forgot to shift it here when I wrote this on Facebook!)
It isn’t really about these books. I had no plan to cover them in a review. More than books to read, they are a part of me, and echo some of what I experience in the wild mountain back of beyond-ness. They are about much more than hunting man-eating predators. They are rich nature and place writing. They are also excellent specimens of narrative and descriptive writing. And they offer a wonderfully detailed cultural history of the hills of Kumaon and Garhwal, of the government and social order prevalent then.
Heidi speaks to my love of mountains but its setting is alien and I am no longer a little girl. Innocent love of place and rootedness are common traits that attract me to Heidi and Ruskin Bond. Bond is a personal idol and a writer after my heart because he creates beautiful prose and eternal meaning out of nearly nothing, located mainly in the hills or other lost places and about lost people, evoking a nostalgia for gentler times and attitudes that are gone or fast fading away.
Bond’s is essentially an urbane sensibility-even when he writes about jungles or ghosts; gentle, mildly sardonic at times and always civilised and soothing. Whereas Jim Corbett is the essential loner of the wilderness, at home on the machan or marching on foot through the wilderness missing not a change in the wind or temperature, and noting his observations in meticulous methodical detail, courageous and unflinchingly honest with himself and others and with a rare capacity for seeing the bigger picture way ahead of his time. For all this, he too is a personal hero and an inspiration.
Today I realised I had reached the end of a month and had forgotten all about my monthly goal of a book report. I looked at my shelves for a book to report on, and saw these books. This is a personal account of my own and some others’ engagement with the matter of wilderness and Jim Corbett.
I first read Corbett as a school girl and was suitably impressed with the adventures and the romance of this invincible hunter. We lived in the fore sts of MP, in a pure Mowgli setting, and tales of wolves carrying off children were part of the legends we grew up with. My mother had lived this life before me in various raliway bunglows in places like Khurda Road, Umaria and Gondia. My father, an army officer had jungle survival as part of his professional training and had served in rather wild places in Assam, and around the Chambal ravines in central India, and had encountered nearly every kind of wildlife. So my childhood experiences in lonely army outposts on edges of jungles and always far removed from the urban sprawl were layered on the subsoil of my parents’ stories.
Encountering a cobra on way to school stopped sending shivers down the spine after one or two occasions. News arrived of tigers and bears being sighted during night patrols and we felt safe and snug inside our pucca homes with locks. Then a snake or a scorpio would be sighted slipping into the house and there’d be an hour or two of commotion to get it out. One day the Tandons found a cobra coiled over their breakfast. That day Tandon Aunty had trouble concentrating on her teaching. She taught us Geography in the tin shed and tents collection of make do structures that served as our school. On a hike through the forest we were told how a bear had attacked a forest guard at the same forest inspection hut we were having our lunch at. We heard of hunters too.
So you see, Jim Corbett, Heidi and Ruskin Bond were what fit into my experience and imagination more easily than the glamorous and out of reach stuff occasional visitors from America, Bangalore or Delhi talked of. I had never owned or even seen shops that sold clothes like what they wore so casually, never imagined talking on topics they approached like experts. Books were practically my only window to the outside world, besides the summer holiday trip to a place of historical or geographical importance.
Just once a movie came to town that made us feel our story was being told. The movie was Bahadur Bacche. Anyone recall the line ‘kitna maza Ballu? Maza hi maza”?
The ideas of conservation has not become common currency, so that aspect of Corbett remained beyond my ken. It came to me in high school via the Nature Club, when I moved to a metropolis. For the first time in my life I was far away from jungles or any kind of rusticity. At first I talked a lot about where I had come from, to my new city bred friends. They found me amusing, and were not impressed or interested at all in my rapturous recall of adventures from the middle of nowhere. Slowly I stopped talking of how much fun life was back in the wilderness. I got busy with all the preoccupations of an urban teen – clothes, fashion, crushes, gossip, music, movies, socialising, studying, clearing exams in school. Then came college, and getting a job.
There was an exciting detour back to the hills and jungles, after University. A hostel mate excitedly showed us an article in Inside Outside about the mountain home of an Uncle, Dr. Lal of Sitla, at the edge of the protected forest outside the IVRI at Mukteshwar. He ran an NGO Chirag in the mountain villages around, and Smitie Misra and I promptly wrote to him to let us intern at CHIRAG.
Killing two birds with one stone we were, mixing work with pleasure all the way. The long walks from our village rental abode to the Post Office in Mukteshwar to encash our travellers cheques are etched in memory. The hoofbeat of the herd of racing deer, the never seen but always felt presence of leopards and the singular sighting of a fox in a field of golden wheat are still fresh without the help of any day to day fb records.
For all my love for the life far from the chaos or the city, I was beset with doubts and the then unlabelled and unsaid FOMO when time came to take up a regular job offer from Chirag. I came back to the rather predictable urban middle class trajectory of a corporate career, marriage, kids, slowly sidelining own career and dreams to family needs and husband’s priorities and so on. But the Chirag experience marked and taught me much for life.
Ages later, I started getting reacquainted with the wild in a more intimate way. Small hikes and overnight camping led to bigger steps. I hiked in the buffer zone of Corbett along trails made or followed by Corbett. I learnt of his hunts and his transition to a conservation advocate. I visited his home in Nainital and at the villages he helped settle around Choti Halwani, near Kaladunghi, and the canal network he initiated for agriculture. He is still fondly recalled as Carpet Saheb by the locals there.
On the Corbett trail from Kaladhungi to Powalgarh, the writing in his books came alive with every step. As it does every time I cross through Haridwar into Rishikesh and start climbing towards my home ahead of Rudraprayag.
I have come here nearly a century after Corbett did, chasing dreams and goals very different from his, with abilities not a patch on his (to me) divine powers. Yet, reading his The ManEater of Rudraprayag is the best testimony to what I witness on my journey here.
I always assumed most people who come to these areas are somewhat familiar with Corbett and his work. Imagine my surprise when a recent group of travellers turned out to have no idea about who Jim Corbett was and why a National Park they visited before arriving here is named so. Another visitor claimed to be a wildlife fanatic, self proclaimed expert on all there was to know about wild animals and the wilderness. On a hike to a nearby temple he insisted on returning from almost near the summit because “leopards are crazy” and the sun would set soon and he knew all about the mad and cruel ways of wild animals from watching youtube. I wish Jim Corbett ‘s bhooth haunts that fellow till he learns the proper way to educate himself about wild things.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
By Gail Honeyman
I picked up this book the favourite way I like to explore and buy books. I regularly walk into bookstores and browse many volumes. Linger over blurbs and jackets and flip through the pages. And then buy some because they make me want to spend more time with them than just the moments or hours possible in bookstores.
Anyway, coming to the book. I picked it up because of the catchy curious title. And something about the way the blurb was framed. I could sense this was a story with an emotional load I was going to savour. And I was right.
This debut novel set in modern day Glasgow is so refined and polished and subtle that I wonder how long the author held the story in her mind before it actually got published. And what a story it is. A gut wrenching tale of loneliness, soul damage, social anomie and being saved, of being on the outside and wanting to fit in while being clueless; at the same time a story filled with gentleness and warmth and finally, hope. And keeps a genuinely light funny attitude to things without sounding clever or over sophisticated.
Eleanor is the narrator who is an odd one who leads a lonely life of fixed routine and simple habits. We realise soon enough that this is her safe holding phase after a traumatic childhood and an unsettled youth. She wants to be left alone and yet she longs for love and can get pretty delusional about it too.
The story starts with Eleanor attempting to make a change. And then relentlessly keeps bringing change and novelty to Eleanor, and with ever so natural nudges the house of cards that holds memories and emotions in check comes tumbling down.
Eleanor is by chance pulled in to help save a stranger’s life, and then into befriending his family. In all this, she also becomes friends with her office colleague Raymond. All the while, she also has an almost delusional crush on a no good musician. From a recluse and office robot Eleanor starts shifting into someone who meets people, goes out and starts to dress well and groom herself more stylishly. She cries without warning. She takes risks. She is ready to be different, she thinks. She wants her life to be different, to mean something, to be fine. She is desperate for something to change, for the ‘correct’ love to rescue her somehow. But of course life is not a simple wish list. Eleanor’s delusions come crashing to the ground as soon as she tries to make them real. But while she breaks down along with her dreams, she is finally able to come to grips with the truth about herself, and reach out for help offered by her new friend, and to overcome a lifetime of fear and fabrication.
The author shows immense control over a suspenseful narrative while threading a plot through past and present. I don’t want to say more about the story as that would be giving away too much, but I can talk about the intelligence with which the narrative unfolds. It is a lesson in crafting a gripping drama in the first person. The voice is intimate yet never lazily familiar, and helps each of the characters become real people we know and care for and cry for and hate and feel scared of. I love how the book remains light and nimble and conversational while it goes at difficult themes and macabre minds. In the end it feels like a simple good versus bad kind of story that leaves the reader full of hope for the characters, and with a paisa wasool feeling for themselves.
A recommended read if you want an old fashioned drama with innocents and villains and good samaritans and a few twists, and a redemptive closure, laced with wit, intelligence and lots of warmth and grace.
At six years of age I had my first intimations of a future me as an adult. I imagined myself walking along in a place of adult power and importance- maybe an office or a school, dressed in a sari in some moments and in pants in some others. I was no longer a child who was clueless and had to be cared for. I was the one in control, in the know. Things ran the way I wanted them to.
This was soon after my first ever hospitalisation due to a complicated brush with chicken pox. I had been quarantined in a sprawling military hospital in Devlali and had seen only professional adult people for some days. People who seemed to have the power to get me through a terrible illness. I felt confident because they were so confident. I wasn’t lonely even though it was the longest I had been away alone without my sibling or my parents.
A few years later at age ten loneliness was a lingering backdrop to all I did. I was a paradox of introversion and strong opinions. Soft spoken of voice but cutting in my critical views. Socialising felt fraught and yet was essential to an army brat who so often shifted school and homes. I wanted to go away to a boarding school to have some constancy. To feel more in control. No doubt I was unduly influenced by all the Enid Blyton I devoured those days. My parents wrote to a few schools. The prospectus arrived in post from Simla. My brother protested when he heard what I had asked for. Said he wouldn’t ever go. My parents said okay then she cannot go either. I was so mad at him, at them. I can go alone, I said. They said no, That Inhad no idea how tough that would be. That when one was young one always needed someone known and familiar to be with us in new places, in times of change. And that they could only ever consider sending us away together else not at all. I didn’t say much but now I wonder if that must have been the beginning of something. I started stepping out more as my own person. I made a friend who was all mine away from the common group we had played in so far. I started going out on my own at playtime. I started reading books separate from him. I started wanting a dog for a pet. I picked up a puppy from a neighbor’s pet’s litter and walked home naming and renaming him all the way. Mummy made me take it back without even letting me step into the house. I told Suman didi no matter, I would get a pup first thing when I had my own house as a grown up.
I got my wish a few months after my marriage. It was almost an after thought by my non dog/pet fancying husband. A sort of peace offering, from the new litter in our building ka parking lot that I was taking care of with some neighbouring teenagers. It was a surprise to see her brought home, and I was confused about keeping her. I felt her fragile life in my arms and was equal parts terrified and smitten. Baby Doll was the four year old boss of our home when we welcomed our first born. When she passed away at fourteen years, after progressive organ failure, I promised myself I would never bring a pet into my home again. But I had not been a good reader of my own heart, a second time over. The kids (now there was Keya too) were insistent in their demands. I read something about how pets help shy and introverted people. How they can make a special needs child more confident. I longed for the loving playfulness that thrived between Baby Doll and the kids and all of us. The fabric of home had a dog sized tear that only seemed to sunder more with time. I stayed firm and made sure we did lots of things together. Outdoor games. Indoor games. Picnics. Cooking. Movies. Books. Holidays. Studies. Painting. I told myself I needed to get out more. I volunteered at school. Acted in a play. Rejoined yoga class. Attended a Stock Trading class. And the trainer said she was also doing a Bach Flower course next, would I like to join? It was for emotional healing and didn’t include much psychobabble, and it would not do any harm. Why not try it? Why not, I said.
In the class a participant passed around the picture of a new Spaniel pup who seems to miss its mother and cried often. The course teacher suggested flower remedies for the pup. I asked where had the pup come from. The new master said there were still two left in the litter and I might want to go see them. So some days later we had Truffle and Siberioo with us. Siberioo was Keya’s pet, supposedly, and Ken claimed Truffle. In a couple of days we realised they were both not quite well. They had the dreaded Parvo virus and within a week of their coming home to us, golden furred Siberioo was no more. His tortured tiny form lay still in my palm as the sun’s first rays slanted through the glass window. Truffle survived, recovering from the brink but he has never been quite fully well since. The vet and other people suggested that getting him a companion quickly would be good idea. I looked at five year old Keya and how kind and brave she had been with the sick pups. With Baby Doll she had always been somewhat hesitant, intimidated both by the bigness of her size and the loudness of her bark. And being the smallest and latest arrival in the family Keya could not quite yet do much for Baby Doll. Taking her for a walk was beyond her, as was handling her feeding. She would watch her older and bigger sibling do all that and wonder at her own smallness and Baby Doll’s power. l asked the vet to look for a pup. A month later we welcomed Oreo to our home. He was the opposite of Truffle in every way. A carefree singing dog that could beg for food the whole day long, and was genial and kind to everyone except other building dogs he met in the lift. Averse to being picked up or brushed. But very fond of climbing on every sofa chair carpet and bed and cuddling up on cushions and pillows to sleep. Truffle is much more particular and aloof, but will happily snuggle onto your shoulder if you lift him, and likes to be the Raja. After the initial bossing around, Truffle accepted Oreo in the home but never let him forget he had come in here before him.
With these two tiny pups, Keya too came into her own in many ways. She could feed the pups, and handle them in other ways. They were tiny and manageable for her. She gained confidence as she started taking them for walks. She learnt about discipline as she trained them. My years of no-dogs-on beds rule was done away with by the children.Truffle and Oreo started sleeping on my son’s bed. When he went away to college they went back to their own little beds for a while till Keya allowed them to cuddle up with her. It is now almost ten years since we got these two home.
End of last year Oreo was detected with a malignant carcinoma. It was removed surgically. The day of the surgery as Oreo recovered from anaesthesia and the pain, Truffle was by his side, at times just snuggled up to Oreo’s flank and at times licking him in what I can only assume was a gesture of care. As is my habit when the pets or kids are not well, I let him rest on my bed. I let him treat my quilt like his own little cave and refuge and am getting used to his one sided don’t touch me please kind of wish to be near us. I remember how being helped to the bathroom by Dad had brought me incredible relief and strength after my own first caesarean. Being physically held makes love real. Being held is what we can always do first for another being who suffers, and it what we can still do when we can do little else. Even when it is the kind of holding Oreo seeks- our being near him but not really catch him tight or squeeze close.bMore like letting him plonk himself where he likes, while we squeeze and adjust around him.
Touchwood the rest of the tests done on Oreo have been clear so far and he seems to be fine in every way. The vet and others we have shown his reports to say he is so old and really there is not much to do medically that would change anything. We tell ourselves he has lived well and we can only love him all the more for however much longer he is with us. So there will be no stopping Oreo from continuing to make himself at home on my bed. Never mind that now Truffle too has followed him there. Things do feel a bit like a crowded railway platform late at night though. Guess this is the grown up life. And I am not in control.
It has been twelve months of my monthly book report project. Twelve months of doing something which I never imagined I was going to do, which nothing in my education and professional experience or training specifically covered.
It is fitting then that the last book I review this year is also about breaking education out of its confines of arts versus science, general versus specialised, and liberal humanist versus vocational. College – Pathways to Possibilty is a book that is a thoughtful, studied reflection on the past, present and future nature of education and careers.
This is a book that is calling out to be read, discussed and debated. Young people in school, parents, policy makers, college students and teachers, sociologists, college counselors, educational consultants, researchers, professionals and anyone with an interest in theories of knowledge and the future of work and education would enjoy the many nuances and tangents of thought in this slim yet substantive book. It is a book which could, and which should lead to much more work in this area. I hope it is the spark that lights many more.
It is a call for change, a manifesto of new pathways to doing things differently, and an idealist hope for the future of college education. For many in our country today, a college degree in the arts or sciences is a dead weight of no particular practical application or use in the evolving market place, or in terms of life skills. On the other hand, the narrow deep dive into specialisation of professional/vocational courses leaves out a world of general learning from its scope, and is not usually any better in imparting lifeskills like critical thinking, analytical ability or creative ideation. Too much fragmentation. Too little integration. Silos that do not talk to each other. And there is history and sociology and ways of engaging with the world behind all of this.
“The liberal arts are sometimes imagined to be in opposition to STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine. But this opposition is a confused one, as the foundational S of STEM, science, occupies a pride of place in the liberal arts. The “liberal arts” are not synonymous with the arts and humanities; the archaic term is the surviving legacy of a time when the sciences were arts too.In fact, it is perhaps not generally remembered today that the word “scientist” was coined on the analogy of the word “artist”. This happened, as the cultural critic Marjorie Garber reminds us, in the 1830s, when the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science felt the acute absence of a term to describe the practitioner of science: “Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty…savans was rather assuming…; some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist*=.” ”
Written by a novelist, critic and scholar who is currently a professor at India’s first liberal arts University, this book is many things – it is the author’s professional stock taking exercise, a thoughtful reflection on the state of post secondary education, and a manifesto for change of mindsets and systems .
Saikat Majumdar’s pitch is for a broad humanist college education that is not straightjacketed into narrow walls of cramming and regurgitation, consumption and reinforcement of the status quo. And he makes the pitch in a mix of serious scholarship, anecdotal vignettes and flights of literary fancy. This is a book that talks to the reader about the souls of different disciplines, when talking of their epistemology. It argues in favor of the souls over the bodies, i.e, the content of the syllabus. It is book that is inspired and takes off from a lot of educational and psychological theory I have been long familiar with but hadn’t found put together in context of college education in the Indian setting. It is a book that has made me think about my own educational and career journey, and my children’s education and career plans. It has made me more determined to follow through with certain ideas I have in the realm of preparing high school students for college and beyond, back in the rural communities I am involved with.
A strongly idealistic vision and deep philosophical and historical enquiry mark the writing across eight chapters and 111 pages. From how different models of modern college education arose across the Western world, and then travelled to India, and where we are now at. Saikat juxtaposes his own experience with his college education in a premiere college and leading University in India with his experience in the American university system as both a student and a teacher.
The familiar story (it is what most of us have gone through, after all) of contrast between a narrow, body of content led coverage model of the former with the broader, more general epistemic approach of the latter is explained in novel frames.
Most interesting is how the author then moves into the exploration of the nature of intelligence itself, with a strong focus on Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Linking types of intelligences to different professions and the skills suited best to them, he makes an emphatic case for an education that acknowledges and nurtures the broad, humanistic learning potential of human minds without the restrictions of vocational exclusiveness too early in the college years.
“…it is intriguing how often disciplines are curricularised and taught in ways that are incompatible with a liberal artscience education. It is especially ironic with subjects that are considered to be at the heart of the liberal arts. If the economics major in the US university system begins to feel the suffocation of relentless research training, a very different story has been scripted for humanistic fields under the colonial university system in India. Let me pause here at my own discipline, English literature.
The whir in my head started when I received an email last year from my then six year old daughter. With a sunburst of smileys and emoticons impossible to replicate, it asked:
“Papa, have you written any future-fiction stories? Stories, which are now fiction but can become true later? Take lizards, which are teenage dinosaurs. If you live too long you will be in the future where they will be dinosaurs again. Please die on time!”
…..that the idea of literature as fiction, as made up, untrue stories emerged at a certain historical moment was something that I never received during my college education in English literature. These are questions that embody what Gardner calls disciplinary ways of thinking: the fundamental spirit and methodology of disciplines that lie deep inside the maze of facts and information that make up their bodies.”
All through the book, with progressively linked argument and examples and references, a case is made for a generally accessible, liberal artscience education – education that is both deeply immersed in one specific discipline while also covering a broad range of general education topic, along with a focus on skills of critical thinking, analysis and creative originality, as the base of all post school education.
While I enjoyed the book, and am definitely going to go back to its pages and my notes on it many times in the future, I found it a little rushed or curtailed overall, like a project that stopped short of becoming all that it could have been. And I wish the title did not quite highlight the College part so strongly, since it is much more than a college admissions guide book. The heavy duty theories could have been illuminated with more examples, more real life stories, more personal anecdote. Nevertheless, in every way this is an important and timely work.