The Fine Art and Science of the apology. My Review of “Why Won’t You Apologize?’ By Harriet Lerner

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Written by a psychologist who has worked for many years as a therapist and teacher, this is a self help manual in the best tradition of that genre.
A vexing topic that plagues almost everyone at some point of time is the how, why and when of apology. We are taught good manners and so saying sorry for mistakes and transgressions becomes almost a reflex in mundane day to day interactions. And yet it is also the most difficult thing in certain circumstances to be genuinely able to apologise.
Offering apologies that are meaningful and apt and not self-sabotaging can be hard for many people. Typically, these are circumstances that can poison relationships deeply and for long. The hurt of not being heard and not being given due redressal after being wronged calls for a healing touch. Oftentimes the parties on either end of the equation are ill equipped to do what is required.
So the hurts linger. The pain festers.
That is where a book like this plays a role. In making us understand what goes on in the minds of those who cannot and will not apologise. How it is the result of not taking responsibility and dodging accountability. How do some people get to be this way and how can one overcome such behaviour. All of these topics are dealt with In a straightforward way with examples and sans jargon or theorising. The tone remains anecdotal and engaging and light while the intensity of the phenomenon and its impact is fully examined from different perspectives.
“The need for apologies and repair is a singularly human one – both on giving and receiving ends. We are hardwired to seek justice and fairness )however we see it), so the need to receive a sincere apology that’s due is deeply felt. We are also imperfect human beings and prone to error and defensiveness, so the challenge of offering a heartfelt apology permeates almost every relationship.”
Reading this book is an act of healing and validation and being understood. Read it to know yourself better. You may be able to apologise where you need to. You may be able to also drop the expectations of apology from some people. Most importantly you will also be able to see why it is not always necessary or effective to forgive those who wronged us.
If ever you have felt an apology is pending to you, you must read this book NOW. If you have wondered how could you say sorry for what you did wrong, here is all that you need to know.
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Coming into being. The story of Birdsong & Beyond. Part 2.

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.

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The work begins-plotting, planning, marking out rooms, pathways, and more.
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Village cricket league carrying on side by side with our fixing of room co-ordinates.

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….

The joy ride of life. Why and how to keep the flow smooth.

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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.

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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.

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Coming into being. The story of Birdsong & Beyond. Part 1.

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.

 

The Tale of the Keys I Forgot!

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?

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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.

My Day of Writing

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.

Life's Many Whispers

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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Winds of Change

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. IMG_8036

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.

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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.

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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

Journeying into LOVE – Connecting with family ties

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.

The economics of an organic life…it isn’t just the money

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.

Organic herbs
Organic herbs
Krya Clothes Wash- fully organic and biodegradable
Krya Clothes Wash- fully organic and biodegradable

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 Organic in Rajasthan
Going Organic in Rajasthan

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:

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Organic handprocessed jaggery- rich source of natural sugars and iron
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Organic, traditional foods of North India- Seasonal, local, suited to the soil and climatic conditions
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My organic terrace garden grown with home made compsot and natural pesticides
Compost made at home from food and garden waste
Compost made at home from food and garden waste

FOOD:

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 ?

Health
Health (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

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.

Honest Tales from the Hills – A bond of kindness and truth

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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.

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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.

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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.

Building connections; Journeying to Oneness.

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 SeaEurope 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.

Coming into being. The Birdsong Cottage story. Part 3

Rites of Passage- To creating Birdsong Cottage

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.

News from Birdsong & Beyond

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.

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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.

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Travel sickness or not being in sync with the road

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.

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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 .

With or without wheels…..some of us showing the way.

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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 !!

The Queen of Jasmine Country

Book Report – March 2019
The Queen Of Jasmine Country: Sharanya Manivannan
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Books that have to do with retellings of things religious or mythological find me resisting them, or reading them with a critical and vary eye. Even if sometimes a book holds my interest initially, it is hardly ever able to retain it for long. But The Queen of Jasmine Country is not quite myth, and it is not quite religious retelling. It is steeped in the religious, and the mythological, but it is also beyond the familiar treatment of myth and religion. It is a book like no other – a book I won’t forget, and one that is far more than a book for me.
I came to know of Andal and her work through the author’s social media posts, and while I was not too interested in a saint-poet of the 9th Century, I was very interested in the way Sharanya wrote abut her, and about the dream that had made the author write a biographical novel about her.
By the time the book came out, I had read and re-read the author’s refreshingly different The High- Priestess Never Marries, and found it to be one of the best lessons in self-reflection. It is also a deep -dive into in surreal, lyrical, magical prose. So it didn’t matter what the story of the new book was, and who it was about, anymore. I simply had to read more of this writer’s work. And I was amply rewarded for my faith.
Written in the first person, The Queen…tells the story of a teenager who, after a mysterious birth and adoption, lives as the beloved daughter of a poet-priest, and is a great devotee of Vishnu, and finally gives up earthly form and life to merge into the deity she adores.
What happens between the beginning and the end of the story, and how the author imagines it to have happened, and how she tells the story to the readers, is what makes the book remarkable. The author makes Andal or Kodhai come alive as everywoman, with wishes and dreams of her own. At the same time, there is something about her that is way more than what the limits and norms of her situation, as framed and decided by others, will allow.
From praying for a good match in marriage, to rejecting marriage to any mortal man, to surrendering completely to the longing for the Supreme Lord, as a carnal, erotic and sensual need, this Kodhai is Meera and Radha to my north Indian mind, but only more real, more relatable and more clear.
The setting, the people, the kings and court, and markets and temples, the rituals and the farms and the towns and the cowherds and the seasons are all there in rich flavors, holding the story, as it moves. I feel Kodhai’s heartbeat in the words of the author, and know her desires, her frustrations. The quality of sensuality and earthiness in Manivannan’s writing goes right to the reader’s bones, and I have had to stop to breathe, to stay with and feel the feelings rather than rush on with the reading. Even though it is a very slim book, I took my time reading and re-reading the lyrical prose, letting it change the texture of those moments for me.
That a young woman so long ago owned her voice and wrote her heart out when it was not the norm for her to be even literate, was surely the gift of divine grace. And it is divine grace that has brought the story to us. Do yourself a favor and allow this beautiful gift to touch you, to seep into your heart.

Why be Limited by Our Blind Spots?

 

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“By God’s Grace, everything is good with us. Everything is fine, we are happy, and touchwood, no issues like that.”

RK’s smile was bursting with pride and relief, and something else indefinable. She rubbed her hands. In glee, or relief, or was it thanksgiving? MV could not say. The impassioned comment was a response to a question MV had asked. A question about marital status. MV had no intention or interest in RK’s marital status, though. They had met for a work related conversation. They didn’t know each other personally or socially. But just a minute ago, RK had raised the matter of MV’s marital status.

“You support these causes with passion and put in so much work. It is very admirable.” The comment was one MV heard often. She took it as a compliment. She thanked RK for the acknowledgement. RK’s was an impressive CV, with global business success and pioneering, groundbreaking initiatives to her credit. MV felt good that such a sassy, smart woman appreciated her own small-scale pioneering endeavors. MV felt especially gratified when women built the sisterhood, when they leaned in.

But RK wasn’t done. “I haven’t heard a mention of a spouse all this time. I am assuming you are single, or divorced? Not that it matters to me. But you seem so free, so unburdened.”

“None of your business” was the response MV almost let out. But then she decided to play RK a little. She had asked for it, really. MV told her that while she was still legally married, the very cordial relationship she and her (un)spouse shared no longer fit the conventional rules of marital engagement. That she believed there were ways and ways to configure domestic arrangements, within or outside the framework of a typical heteronormative marriage, and it should really be no one else’s business except of those really in the thick of the situation. And then, she asked RK the same question.

“I didn’t think any of this was relevant to our conversation or the task we are working on, but since you brought it up, I felt I must take it head-on, and make a few things clear. And then RK, I must also ask you, what is your marital status?”

“By God’s Grace, everything is good with us. Everything is fine, we are happy, and touchwood, no issues like yours. It’s all working well.”

MV was not taken aback at all. That RK had needed to ask the question, framing it the way she did, had already revealed a blind spot.

“By God’s Grace. Really? No Issues like yours? Will you listen to yourself?” MV wasn’t letting this pass.

Surprise lit up RK’s face. Like a searchlight pulling apart a dark night.

MV would not let anyone force-fit her customised, hard-won, unique and rather fine, rather pleasant version of a good life, a good home, into RK’s definitions of lack of grace, lack of happiness, or not ‘working well.’ She had to lean in, push some notions aside.

“Did I say there were issues? Just because mine is a different situation from yours does not make it an ‘issue’. Okay? And what makes you think I do not feel fortunate to have the arrangement I have? Why this narrow imagination of what God’s grace can touch and not touch? My rules work well for me. What didn’t work was trying to fit into others versions of my life, my marriage. And you, of all people, should know better.”

The Wikipedia, describes a blind spot as “an obscuration of the visual field. A particular blind spot known as the physiological blind spot, “blind point”, or punctum caecum in medical literature, is the place in the visual field that lacks light-detecting photoreceptor cells on the optic disc of the retina. Because there are no cells to detect light on the optic disc, the corresponding part of the field of vision is invisible.”

Metaphorically, though, blind spots aren’t a matter of just our physical field of vision, or for motor vehicle drivers alone. Let me bring up a few more examples.

Mr A : “I live alone, so I can’t bring anything to the potluck.”

When I heard this from an adult male, I couldn’t let it pass.

“What does living alone have to do with getting some bit of nashta to this meet-up?” I asked.

Mr A’s face was a perfect composite of coy smile and superior grin.

“You see, you didn’t get me. I am unmarried. And I live alone.”

“Alright, so what is your issue, if you live alone? Thing is, if you are eating at home, you could also bring something for these sessions. We aren’t talking big amounts or complicated dishes.”

The grin had left his face. Silent stupefaction remained. The conversation was interrupted and then moved on to other logistical matters.

As the meeting came to an end, my friend and I walked to the door. Mr S, who was already at the door, smiled at us.

“I love the interesting points you ladies raise. Would love to know more about your thoughts. But tell me, how do you manage to come here, all the way early in the morning?”

“Oh, it is truly no problem with the Metro and all the cab options…”

He wasn’t really asking how we got there, more the fool me. He wanted to know how we managed to get away at all. Even while he and ten other men were also there at the same time as us, on the same Sundays.

“No, no, of course, of course Uber and Metro are fine. I meant, how do you come – I mean, you cook breakfast and lunch early on Sunday, for the family, before you come here? How do you manage that?”

I am sure Mr S was very interested in us. He just couldn’t see us as anything beyond a certain role he had framed in his mind’s eye.

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What are we going to do about these automatic patterns, these blind spots of thought and belief and words?  To add to the biology lesson I shared earlier, “as there are no cells to detect light on a part of the optic disc, the corresponding part of the field of vision is invisible.” Our biology may be a given in this matter. But not so our mental perceptual field. Why must we block the light of open-minded acceptance, of alternate possibilities, in our mental models? How about more inclusive, diversity-spectrum thinking, in place of this or that, black or white categories?

To go back to the physiology of vision, ” although all vertebrates (humans being included) have this blind spot, cephalopod eyes (of which the octopus is an example), though superficially similar, do not. In them, the optic nerve approaches the receptors from behind, so it does not create a break in the retina.” Therefore, cephalopod eyes have complete visual perception of their visual field.

May we all learn to see from the cephalopods then. May we channel our inner octopus. Let that be the new metaphor for perfect vision.  May we build fresh possibilities of connection, instead of rigid, predetermined frames, which box us in isolation and otherness.

This was first published here.

https://www.shethepeople.tv/top-stories/channel-inner-octopus-perfect-vision-kiranjeet-chaturvedi?sfns=mo&fbclid=IwAR2q3QavfBFq3_fyQw4Sja5uQKpwBUKsmb6g8yGQjYpkY3AXrns5Nzh5Ue4

A Fractured Life. February 2019 Book Review

A Fractured Life : Shabnam Samuel. Green Writers Press.

I came to know about this book and its author through Facebook, and what I came to know made me most curious. A Fractured Life is a memoir, and it is an unusual story in so many of the facts. Yet, it is a most relatable and universal story too. It is a woman’s need to tell her story to herself above all, to ‘prove that I exist’ after all the mixed messages her life has been full of.

Shabnam’s is a cross-race and cross religion family, and her story for me is a palimpsest of the lives of all our forbears. We quite often do not know or forget the intermingling and the boxing in that all of our stories and pasts necessarily involve. Reading A Fractured Life reminded me that all of us are looking through a tunnel of limited vision at fragments of our stories, arranged in a vast and ever moving mosaic, quite like the images seen at the far end of a kaleidoscope. A shift in focus, a twist of the wrist, and the image changes, never to be the same again.

Shabnam is the granddaughter of a Russian Revolution refugee and am Indian man from Orissa. They were working – she as a nurse and he as a soldier- for the British Empire in Iraq during WW1. When the war ended the two married and come back to Cuttack to start a new life. The two had little in common except the Christian faith, which made the marriage possible at all. Moving to India, the family found worldly success, and many children were born to the couple.

The Russian refugee’s life as a displaced, alien presence in a land she came to without any connection is described and evoked wonderfully by Shabnam, with her own memories and from her grandmother’s musings. Those parts of the book filled me with wonder.

Shabnam’s mother marries against her parents wishes, and later her’s turns out to be an unhappy marriage. Its breakdown leads to Shabnam’s abandonment by her mother, at age two. Shabnam is brought up by her grandparents. The conflict, the tension between love and loyalty, anger and betrayal falls heavy on the child caught in the middle of it.

The parts of the book dealing with Shabnam’s family background and how it was for her to grow up with her grandparents, and her own state of mind as nobody’s child are what gripped my attention and had me emotionally invested in the story. It is heart rending storytelling, and is written with fearless openness. Shabnam shares her grandfather’s journal to show us his point of view on the matter, and we get to see the situation from different perspectives.

In the later half of the book, when Shabnam is an adult, and then married and when she moves to America with her estranged husband and little son, I felt the richness of views and stories petered out somewhat. But then it is here that the real shift in Shabnam’s life and personality emerge, as she finally finds her own sense of self and can begin to live by her truths, on her own, overcoming a lifetime of fragmented fragility, thwarted dreams and suppressed longings. The book ends on a happy and hopeful note, with a promise by the author to tell more about the current and more recent story of her life in another book, soon.

I am glad Facebook led me to this book and its author. In the simple, stark, at times uneven and rough telling of her own life, in her insights and her heartfelt questions, Shabnam Samuel and her book have made me relook my own life experiences from yet another angle, and discern new patterns.

Beloved Delhi. January 2019 Book Report.

51iw8cfz9fl._sx322_bo12c2042c2032c200_ Speaking Tiger books.

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I grew up in love with Delhi. And I grew up in a family where Urdu was a lived experience. And yet, I knew so little of the past of both Urdu and the city of Delhi- beyond the verses of Ghalib, beyond the common usage in spoken language, beyond the monuments and the modern part of the city, or the kings who ruled here, or the wars that were planned and fought over it. Reading Beloved Delhi (with its English translation of Urdu verses in Roman script) has been a delightful guided tour of discovery.

Saif writes in his Introduction, “I am neither a historian nor an Urdu scholar. But I have grown up around dining-table conversations not only about but also in Urdu Poetry. This book is the culmination of those conversations.” And he asks us to “read it also as a taster’s menu for those who love Urdu, its poetry and cadence, but have little or no access to it.”

I know very little Urdu myself, even though my father had learnt to read and write in the language in his early years. For my paternal grandfather, who ran a dairy business in Lahore, and whose relatives had farming interests in undivided Punjab in pre-partition times, it was very much the language of literature and business. For my maternal grandparents, this was not so, despite their roots too being in undivided Punjab, and despite my great-grandfather being a sort of raja of a small principality comprising Urdu and Punjabi speaking populace. Having pledged allegiance to the British Crown, my maternal ancestors embraced many kinds of cultural and linguistic changes, and become an early version of brown sahibs.
I remember looking at sepia toned photographs of grand-aunts in chenille ghararas, with tiara type hairband on their carefully coiffed hair, holding tennis racquets in one picture, posing with a hunting rifle in another. The photographs were almost all captioned in English, with a smattering of a few words in Gurmukhi on some. And I remember thinking to myself, “these are English princesses from the Arabian Nights’. When I told my mother and her mother what I thought, they told me about the North West Frontier, the connections with Persia and Afghanistan that Sikhs and other Indians had through centuries, and that we had relatives who had lived in and travelled to Basra and Bhagdhaad.
I imagined those long lost relatives speaking in Faarsi, even writing in it, even as I admired my Naana’s perfect cursive hand, and tried to emulate it. I don’t recall if he knew Urdu, but I am sure his father and most certainly his grandfather would have known Urdu and possible Faarsi as well if they had anything to do with the court and government work in their time. Courtly language in North India, till the middle of the nineteenth century was Persian. Urdu was what was the language of the margins at first, of the bazaar, and common people… and then, thanks to the poets and their popularity, it became the language of art and culture and emperors and nobles wrote in it, and were patrons of it. Till the next churning of times, and the shift in fortunes of kings, company, crown, commoners and cultural capital, which made my Naana proficient in English and Hindi as his work languages, and which is how it has continued with his children and their children.

While the idea of Farsi speaking relatives lent a romantic air to my sense of my family and their adventures, it is only in recent years that I have started to discover stories of what happens when languages, cultures, geographies and histories churn in a massive vortex over centuries of comings arrivals, wars, trade, and cultural innovation. Only recently have I begun to notice that we exist in a continuity of ideas put in words by the famous Mughal Delhi poets. For instance, it is in reading this book that I learnt that a much loved Hindi Film ghazal I often hum is not some modern poet’s work but that of Mir Taqi Mir. And so is my personal non-favorite …Patta Patta boota boota, which I never liked in the film, but have found a new fondness for, when read in its original form.

When worlds collide, it isn’t just always terra-firma that rubs together, nor just oceans beds that rise into mountains, and not just river that flow anew or change directions. Languages are born that didn’t exist before, and new art forms give shape to the zeitgeist of the changing times. Urdu or Rekhta is one such creation of the sub-continent, forged and birthed in the flux of the cosmopolitan, multi-national cities, serais and Sufi khwankaahs from the 17th to the 20th Century. As the political and economic nerve-centre of the region, Delhi soon became the place where a lot of Urdu poets worked and earned a name. The flowering of Urdu however, was also the time of the collapse of an era, an ebbing of the tide of all that had made Urdu possible. Saif Mahmood’s brilliantly compiled book captures the story of those times through its telling of the life and work of Mughal Delhi’s eight most popular and well regarded Urdu poets. The book opens with a Foreword by Rakhshanda Jalil, that sets the context for the interplay of poetry and politics in the book. A deeply informative Short History of Delhi’s Urdu follows, written by the master storyteller and historian Sohail Hashmi. In these early pages, the Dilli-wali in me was entranced with the book before I even got to the stories Saif goes on to tell. It has taken me a long time to read the book, and I have already done a second quick scan through of my favorite marked out parts once. I am sure I will be going back and discovering new enchantments again and again, digging about in the old world I didn’t quiet know, and one in which somehow always feels familiar, like being back at home.

In Love with your Body…Truly?

The world used to go on about ‘don’t ask a lady her age’ when I was growing up. These days, I hear this phrase far less. Does it mean that we are more easy with the idea of being/not being a certain age-bracket? Or have we eased up on hiding our age because we are more and more able to look ‘youthful’ for far longer than the generations before us?

When we don’t mind saying we are forty-five, or thirty… is it about our ease with our age, and what it implies for our body, and our physical form, and the place of all that in the scheme of things? Or is it really the knowledge that even at forty-five we can elicit the comment, ‘you don’t look a day older than thirty…?’

Have we truly come to accept ageing and the changes it brings, or it is that we have got better filters than ever, on our cameras and our minds, and therefore find it easier to claim ageing agnosticism? What is it that we have come to terms/not come to terms with? And what is, or isn’t, the issue at hand – being older, or how older woman are thought about by some others in terms of sexual attraction and desirability? Could it be that, we too still acceed to that discourse, despite saying age is just a number? Doth the lady protest too much, then?

Have we truly come to accept ageing and the changes it brings, or it is that we have got better filters than ever, on our cameras and our minds, and therefore find it easier to claim ageing agnosticism?

What were the assumptions underlying the idea that to ask a woman her age was somehow impolite, and that to expect a woman to answer factually was not right? At what age did this rule start applying, and till when was it valid? What was there to hide, really, which necessitated this usage? Was it to be circuitous and seemingly avoiding making calculations of a certain kind, related to a woman’s fertility potential? Was it to avoid the instant judgement of how many years a woman had remained unclaimed on the marriage market? Was it to avoid being instantly slotted as past-the-prime, of no longer being optimum mate material, or of carrying child-bearing potential?

It could have been all of that. And have we really moved on, despite or in spite of IVF and Embryo banks and surrogacy and Botox and body sculpting and honeymoon stitches? Why the insistence of the whole world treating every age the same? I am not the same from one day to the next, so why carry the notion that I must look the same years down the line, forever 21 once I reach a certain age?

Why the insistence of the whole world treating every age the same? I am not the same from one day to the next, so why carry the notion that I must look the same years down the line, forever 21 once I reach a certain age?

What is really being said, when it is said that women of a certain age are ‘invisible’ in the world? Invisible to whom, and to what intent? Is that sort of visibility really something one even desires? Because if it is simply a matter of being noticed and being attracted and liked and appreciated, I can vouch for so many of us having felt visible at every stage of our life, age no bar. But if seek the same male gaze, and treat the desire we prompted at twenty with the desire one evokes at forty, I guess things will be different. But then again, would I  judge my worth, my attraction and desirability, with the yardstick of how much men notice me and acknowledge me as a potential mate at different ages?

What is really being said, when it is said that women of a certain age are ‘invisible’ in the world? Invisible to whom, and to what intent? Is that sort of visibility really something one even desires?

At the ripe old age of fifty, I do not agree with all the noise that is made about the ‘invisibility’ of older women. Simply because I do not look at ‘visibility’ in the same way as is implied in those claims. If a man of fifty wants to date a woman of twenty or thirty or whatever, isn’t that is his choice? I know of men of thirty, wanting to date a woman in her forties or fifties. Obviously, she is visible to them. Indra Nooyi is very much visible now as she was in her younger days, for yet another set of reasons. My daughter’s music guru is past sixty and her professional and personal visibility is global. My visibility since my forties has surpassed anything in my twenties and thirties for various reasons, mainly to do with the way I began to look at myself and my life, than how and where was the focus of the gaze of others. Are we to feel invisible just because a man does not feel attracted to us romantically or drawn to notice us for our looks or the allure of a mate-worthy body? The question for me today (and I regret that it wasn’t always so) is simply this  –  do we really ‘see’ ourselves, and  are our bodies still ‘visible’ to ourselves in ways that are affirming, accepting, and appreciative?

My visibility since my forties has surpassed anything in my twenties and thirties for various reasons, mainly to do with the way I began to look at myself and my life, than how and where was the focus of the gaze of others.

A few days ago I read an article where French author Yann Moix, 50, told a glossy magazine “Come on now, let’s not exaggerate! That’s not possible … too, too old.” He was talking about older women and love. Moix then added that women in their 50s were “invisible” to him. And he didn’t just stop at that. There was more coming.

“I prefer younger women’s bodies…The body of a 25-year-old woman is extraordinary. The body of a woman of 50 is not extraordinary at all.”

Now, those words say many things, but mainly what they tell me is how happy I am to not be a 25-year-old woman on such a man’s radar. This is a fifty-year-old man reducing a woman to just her ‘body’, and passing judgements on women’s bodies like they were some assembly line item of food production. Let us never do the same to ourselves.

Let us not be afraid or ashamed of our age or our bodies, because  it is through them that we live and love.

Age may be a quantity of time, but it is no depreciation chart for the lovability of any body’s ‘extraordinary’ quotient. Love isn’t something transacted in numbers, with quantified measurements. It is our quality of awareness, experiences, learning, loving, and living, which make each moment expand or shrink to nothingness, or stretch into eternity. Let us know and honour the extraordinary in our hearts, in our bodies, at any age. Because we are not someone’s plaything or  specimen for evaluation. Let us not be afraid or ashamed of our age or our bodies, because  it is through them that we live and love. We are invisible at any and every age only to those who have some serious blinkers on. Let us not be blind to ourselves.

(Image courtsey http://beautifuldecay.tumblr.com/post/82197661829/anatomically-correct-body-art-turns-the-human-body)

(This article first appeared as a column on SheThePeople.tv as https://www.shethepeople.tv/top-stories/truly-accept-ageing-changes-brings-kiranjeet-outloud?fbclid=IwAR0V_VV0YJ9LRz0HkW2eQBpgtMEWFyBhnbcxUPLMamdZJ9PuoYffjqNw4kc)

What’s in a Name – Householder or Homemaker? And Who is to Say?

Vanessa wasn’t happy at all about being described as ‘homemaker’ in the byline of an article she wrote. In a profile she sent to the newspaper, she had clearly listed all the things she was – theatre professional, copywriter, and author. Despite that, her byline began, “Homemaker Vanessa writes…”

“What do they mean, HOMEMAKER? What sort of term is that, anyway, to describe anyone? Because I do not have a paid full-time job, outside the home? But I don’t do any of the chores of a so-called ‘homemaker’… Tell me, who isn’t a homemaker? What is so specific to anybody being a homemaker? Is it really a job description? If one is not a homemaker, is one then a home breaker? Bet you, that editor wouldn’t be calling herself a homemaker. Why does she think I can be called a homemaker, and she gets to be called editor? Who is she to decide this for me? And why are all the homemakers only women?”

I pondered over that. Monks and nuns in a monastery or ascetics meditating and meandering in the Himalayas may well say they were not homemakers. For the rest of us, aren’t all of us homemakers? Why then, are some of us labelled with /use the term as a descriptor, and not some others? I have never called myself a homemaker, even while I love few things better than creating and keeping a comfortable, cosy home and a lot of my energy does stay invested in nurturing connections and relationships that centre around my home/ homes. And there must be those who are slotted as homemakers who say ‘domesticity is not their thing.’

I don’t see the term homemaker as a particular, specific enough label, to use it to convey my life-situation or work status. Unemployed sounds more real and precise. Stay-at-home mother is specific enough. As is the term wife. As is householder, which conveys ownership and rights. Homemaker, in comparison, is such a vague category with no clear boundaries and differentiation; a sound bite with no substance. The term ‘householder’, interestingly, comes closest in my mind to the Hindi term gharwala/ gharwali. Does it mean the same thing as homemaker? Can we use the two terms interchangeably? Apparently, not, because the householder was historically the owner of the house or the one who paid the rent. By that logic of ownership/ rightful occupancy following payment of rent, a householder was also the head of the household. The status of homemaker, on the other hand, has no such legal claims or rights.

I don’t see the term homemaker as a particular, specific enough label, to use it to convey my life-situation or work status.

Nor is there any uniformity in the definition of ‘homemaker’ itself, as it plays out in real life. Neither does the term accrue anything positive in terms of social and cultural cachet, leave alone monetary benefits. Would it get the person so described any leeway, say like what happens when it gets known in a public situation that one is a doctor or an investment banker or a teacher or a writer?

If ‘homemaker’ is to be used only for married women who supervise a home’s upkeep, and tend to the care and needs of its members, what does it make the other household members? What does it make my neighbour who is single, works as an air hostess and owns and runs her own home? Householder, or homemaker, or both? Or just a single working person? What of my two single cousins who share a home? One of them works in an office, travels out a lot, and pays most of the recurring household bills, while the other is an artist who works from her home-studio and thus by default takes care of more of the home chores, and pays some of the non-recurring bills as and when her non-regular income allows. If we call them working women, are we ignoring their homemaking role?

If ‘homemaker’ is to be used only for married women who supervise a home’s upkeep, and tend to the care and needs of its members, what does it make the other household members?

I grew up in a home where my father and mother shared household chores in a non-gendered way. Both cooked, baked, gardened, cleaned, did our hair, taught us, helped with homework and school projects, dropped and picked us from school, stitched our clothes, helped each other with their coursework when both of them pursued further professional education while running a household, working at full-time jobs, and bringing up their children. Till his retirement, Daddy had a continuous professional career outside the home, but Mummy sometimes did not work outside the home. Did that make Dad the lesser homemaker, even though he was the one who best handled any home-maintenance issue, staff issue, party planning, cooking disaster or emotional breakdown? Did it make Mummy less of a homemaker that she was more passionate about political theory than about the different kind of bhaghaar for different dals, had anxiety attacks before and after hosting each party that their social situation demanded, and could not be bothered shopping for the best bargains for home-decor? Now, retired and mostly at home, would you call both of them homemakers, given how they both tend to their home and to each other, and to those they are connected to? But would calling them homemakers now be the truth about their primary identity?

Daddy had a continuous professional career outside the home, but Mummy sometimes did not work outside the home. Did that make Dad the lesser homemaker, even though he was the one who best handled any home-maintenance issue, staff issue, party planning, cooking disaster or emotional breakdown?

When I really start to think about it, ‘homemaker’ seems to be an empty euphemism for a default condition. A convoluted term with limited attributes, assigned rather thoughtlessly in an arbitrary manner. I am glad Vanessa made me relook this societal and personal frame of confusion.

Reclaim Your Life. Book Report

December 2018 Book Report.

Reclaim Your Life. Shelja Sen. Westland Books
#mentalhealth #depression #anxiety #narrativetherapy #mindfulness#nostigmanoshame

Closing another year of posting about books that have made me learn, grow and live. In this series of monthly posts I almost always write about books which have left a lasting impact on me, are meaningful personally, and are therefore books that I will go back to again and again.
Reclaim Your Life is definitely one such book. It is my good fortune that I also happen to know the psychologist- therapist-author Shelja Sen and her work at Children First through my two children. But that connection apart, this is a book that stands on its own merit, and is a refreshing mix of the personal and the professional in talking about mental health issues. Specifically, the book is about looking at depression, anxiety and other related matters with the belief in personal agency, and potential for change inherent in all of us. It is also a book very much aimed at ‘normalising’ the fact that that people with mental health difficulties are faced with a particular set of disability, but that their life is not just the disability. To thrive and cope well, their difficulties needs acceptance, not silence and shame, and they need coping skills rather than stigma. I would also say that this book would be great read for those caring for loved ones with diagnosed, labelled difficulties, but falling in the ‘normal’ category themselves. Because these difficulties lie outside what is accepted as the typical way to be, they are difficulties not just for the one with the issue, but also for those they are in relationships with, and frequent contact with. So as much as it is a guide for the person with anxiety, depression and so on, it is also a manual for those not diagnosed but still affected by these issues by proximity and emotional labour.
Using her grounding in Narrative Therapy, Situation Focused Brief Therapy and the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and loving-kindness Shelja Sen shows us what is meant by the principle “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem”. With this kind of an empowering and positive lens, she has structured the book into seven sections of Lightposts of COURAGE, which is her acronym for the tools and means of coping which are expanded on in specific chapters.
The author argues her case with the help of her own lived experience with depression and with the stories of her clients. Throughout the book she affirms her unalloyed hope and acceptance of the magic possible despite the dark and painful destructive episodes that visit each life, some more devastatingly than others. She offers many practical and simple ways to practice reclaiming one’s life, be it Owning your Light or Change the Channel or tuning out the Radio of Negativity and switching to the Mindful Brain, for example. She shares the progress and triumph of her clients and her own successful negotiations with anxiety and depression.
While it tells us about the horror of abuse, of depression and the disability it brings on, of anorexia and grief and guilt, it also shows us that it was possible to come through those and heal, with the right kind of interventions. The book is free from heavy jargon and impersonal labels and expert-speak. The accounts feel personal and compassionate, are imbued with care and dignity, and therefore all the more appreciable and believable. The simplistic acronym-making and light bantering tone of the book also helps make a heavy, little known and disturbing topic accessible and easier to come to grips with. Above all, Shelja’s personal experience as part of the story makes the powerful point that while we are all – in varying degrees- less than perfect, we are all deserving of life’s richness and beauty, and capable of reclaiming our lives, re-scripting our stories, no matter what.
Do yourself and your friends and family the good deed of adding this book to the Christmas hampers. This is a gift of love.

Champagne & Caviar Woman

I’d say I am that woman. Not literally though. I don’t even like caviar. But it is the symbolism of the idea that I like. I think it gives an irrepressible bohemian tinge to my commitment to self-care. Today, when Gunjan Pant, a writer friend posed a question to her readers, I was reminded of the time I first thought of myself like this. Did we manage with mismatched leftovers for a meal if we didn’t have someone else to cook for, Gunjan wrote and wondered. Were we bread and sambar women, putting ourselves last, essentially, in catering to the needs and preferences of everyone else in our care? I was travelling on a much longed for, much planned for family holiday. We had already lost a week’s booking in Spain because of Visa delays. Those were high-pressure times for us. My son was almost nine years old, and my daughter almost two. I had a full-time job during the weekdays, and carried home lots of office work. I was chronically sleep deprived. I’d leave home before 8 am and reach back around 8 pm. After dinner, I’d clear the kitchen, prepare for next morning’s breakfast and tiffins, then get back to dealing with office work, before turning in for the night. I was struggling to keep everything in control, and was on edge all the time, because nothing would stay in control the way I wanted it to.

I was struggling to keep everything in control, and was on edge all the time, because nothing would stay in control the way I wanted it to.

I was a kind of superwoman wannabe, most concerned that my house be picture-perfect, my children be fed the most balanced meals, and their time be spent in the best-planned manner with the right kind of activities, interactions, stimulation, rest and recreation. My husband who had as busy an office schedule as mine, would somehow just slip into the relax-at-home mode once he entered the house. How he absolved himself of most ‘domestic’ chores by some automatic inherent programming, while managing to also gain a reputation for always ‘helping’ is one of the great mysteries to which I no doubt subconsciously contributed. We had only part-time house help and a part-time Nanny for the children. I wanted to relax, and yet felt guilty about the tiniest of self-indulgence.

How he absolved himself of most ‘domestic’ chores by some automatic inherent programming, while managing to also gain a reputation for always ‘helping’ is one of the great mysteries to which I no doubt subconsciously contributed.

Inside the airplane, the first in-flight meal service had started. Baby girl was in my lap, our meal aprons were in place, the tray table was open, and the pasta smelled delicious. My son sat separately from us, wanting very much to be a big boy travelling on his own. I lifted the spoon to baby girl’s mouth, and she simultaneously lifted the tray table up and slipped off my lap. As the pasta arrabbiata fell on her shoes, my lap, and on the plane floor, I tried to stop tears of helpless rage. Baby girl was howling and struggling to get away from the mess, but I was immobile. There go my grand holiday plans, and how the other passengers must hate us, I thought. That’s when the tall blonde senior air hostess saved me from myself. She picked baby girl up, and gently offered me a wet towel to clean my dress with. Then she told me to drop my soiled apron next to the seat, and she led me to the washroom, while she took baby girl off to the pantry area. Strangely, baby girl had stopped howling by now. When I returned to my seat, the air hostess was waiting next to my now spotless seat. “It is my job to make sure you enjoy your holiday, Madame. Stop worrying. Have a glass of Champagne. With caviar. Your daughter is enjoying her meal with the cabin crew. Then she will watch a film with her brother.” She held out a champagne flute for me, and pointed to a bottle of authentic French bubbly. The holiday had begun. This post was first published on my new monthly column OutLoud With Kiranjeet, in SheThePeople.Tv on 13th November 2018. https://www.shethepeople.tv/top-stories/startedair-hostess-offered-champagne-caviar?fbclid=IwAR0VkRJOSxLrjYd701e8idKttFiIkuGniVANq-hW6w295eeNOLl-nxdzNHE

September 2018 Book Report : Island of A Thousand Mirrors By Nayomi Munaweera

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Nayomi Munaweera is the author of two books. The first, Island Of A Thousand Mirrors, won the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region in 2013.
In this book, the story builds around the lives of a Sinhala and a Tamil girl in Sri Lanka, growing up in the shadow of simmering societal strife that soon turns to a bloody civil war. I was a school girl when news of the war in Sri Lanka used to be on newspaper front pages in India, but it was still always a far away matter, at least in our circles. Today, among most people I know Sri Lanka is a cool, more-affordable-than-other exotic location for a holiday. But apart from the holiday pictures of friends and family, and very cursory reading of some fiction and non-fiction about our neighbour, I was pretty much tuned out of any realistic contemporary story about the place and its people. After reading this book, I can never think of Sri Lanka just as a tourist paradise or a shopping destination. As I reader I relish Nayomi’s exquisite descriptions of Sri Lanka- the verdant beauty, the rich sights and smells of a Sri Lankan home, the delightful ocean. But now I can see it as much more than a stunning backdrop for holiday pictures. I can see it as a real place with people whose lives I can imagine – to the extent one can imagine reality from fiction.
Reading about the politics of war, even politics sans overt war tires me and enrages me, and I avoid books with such themes. But Nayomi’s book is not like that. There are no big heroes and no very specific villains in her telling of the story and no complex plot lines to tie up. She leaves the politicians and the war lords and their specific machinations mostly at the periphery of the telling of her tale. We meet the foot soldiers, the mobs, the ordinary man turned hero, the ordinary village girl turned suicide bomber, and we see them as humans in search of meaning, driven by love at times, and hate and revenge at others. Stark in-your-face brutal violence never leaves the reader for long in this book, and neither does a sense of beauty. We see the play of old prejudice, stereotypes and we see how they can be overcome or fed, even in the same people.
I am no longer the school girl who didn’t look beyond the headlines, and now I relate to the horrors of war anywhere as if it could be happening to us, to me and to my loved ones. I read about Yashodhara and Saraswathi and Shiva in the book, but I imagine many others… in Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nagaland, Manipur, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, on all sides of the conflict, in every such conflict. I read about a family leaving their war-torn homeland, and settling into new lives abroad, and I think of the displaced everywhere, and their stories. In so many big and small ways, at so many levels, this book speaks of our times and our world, and about the universal nature of human pain and human redemption.
I would count this as one of the most necessary books on our times in my fiction collection.

AUGUST 2018 BOOK REPORT

I have been writing and reading a lot of women focused work the past two months. My essay on a related theme has been published in the WE Anthology Equiverse Space this month. I have been explaining a lot of stuff to my daughter about hidden bias and the erasing that women face in reporting on news and in documentation of our lives and times. This is also the time I have started work with a small group of women on exploring our deepest selves as beings, sans, societal roles and frameworks.

Most apt then that I also read Shaili Chopra and Meghna Pant’s Feminist Rani (Penguin 2018) at this point, just after I finished Interrogating Motherhood by Jasodhara Bagchi ( Sage Publications, 2017; Theorising Feminism series). Feminist Rani is a collection of fourteen essays based on interviews with fourteen remarkable and often time pioneering persons from many walks of life. Most are well known names, a few somewhat less known. While I do think it is arguable if they are, as the cover tag line says, ‘India’s most powerful voices of Gender Equality’, it is no argument at all that these are vital voices that need to be documented. These are stories that need to be household talk in our homes, in our friends; circles, if we want to see a better dawn for all genders and gender relations.
The fourteen life stories come from Kalki Koechlin, Gurmeher Kaur, Sapna Bhavnani, Aditi Mittal, Tanmay Bhatt, Deepa Malik, Malishka Mendonsa, Ankhi Das, Aarefa Johari, Rohini Shirke, Rana Ayyub, Sorabh Pant, Shree Guari Sawant. Some of the pieces are written by Shaili, some by Meghna. The essays in the Prologue and Introduction by the two authors are also very direct, personal and jargon free. Overall the book is immensely readable, relatable and relevant. It brings the often times vexed topic of Feminism into the day to day discourse of life, and takes a very necessary pluralistic editorial approach to the matter. Reminiscent of Roxanne Gay calling herself a ‘bad feminist’, Meghna Pant’s writes, “India’s inherent heterogeneity has led to multiple patriarchies, which has led to multiple feminisms. Feminism in India does not abide by a singular narrative, which leads to dissension within ranks and outside. This weakens the movement. Even if my feminism is not your feminism, it is still feminism. We are united by a singular cause’.
The subjects tell their stories, and there are a series of common themed questions they authors ask them, and weave into the narrative. There are some revelations, some epiphanies and a lot to make the reader pause and ponder. The stories – honest, varied and memorable, will stay with you long after the slim and fast reading book is back in the shelf. As you read about how the fourteen people in the book resurrected themselves, found and spoke their truth, I hope you too will find in yourself a Feminist Rani, whatever be your gender. As Shaili Chopra says in the Introduction, “This book is a rich and powerful source of experiences and stories by people not afraid to be different, to voice an opinion, question current beliefs, and posit a new, more inclusive future. Regardless of their gender, complexion and sexual preferences, these people believe in equality of all. For them, feminism isn’t a poster on the wall, it is an unseen, empowering belief and force.’
And then, if like me, you want something more grounded in academic rigor, theory and history, there is Interrogating Motherhood. This slim and richly packed volume unpacks the complex construction of the modern day Mother archetype in India in the context of our past, Hindu mythology, social structure, colonialism and the Nationalist struggle, and does all this with the lens of Feminism as a global movement refracted locally. As Series Editor Maithreyi Krishnaraj puts it, ‘Bagchi’s contribution is an admirable approach on the joys of motherhood as against the agony of motherhood embedded in social structures. …A puzzle in the social construction of motherhood is the contradictory delineation: veneration in the one hand, and on the other hand, deprivation of actual living mothers of enabling conditions that would reward their dedicated service in bringing forth the regeneration of the human being.’ This is a puzzle and a paradox at the heart of my examination of my gender and its place and enactment in society, family, home and my own psyche, and this is reason enough for me to recommend the book as a must read.

Solo. Slower. Inward.

I travel slower, I travel inward. When I travel solo.
 
 
Yesterday a journalist messaged me to ask if I would speak to her about my experience as a solo woman traveller, and also share contacts of other woman who travelled solo. She was interested in Gurgaon residents only for the piece. It was fun reliving some of my experiences in talking to her, though I am sure she would have liked some more sensational or sound byte friendly stories than what I could offer. I also realised that so few of the people I know actually go solo when they travel. Women or men.
 
My solo travel experiences have been the mellow and miraculous type, by and large; never very newsworthy in clickbait manner. Also, the whole issue of ‘woman’ and ‘safety’ has not connected in my mind in a big way in this context. Touchwood. Actually I haven’t felt any different or been faced with situations too different on my solo travels than what we go through as a family, when we travel. In fact, overall, solo travel is far easier and simpler, for the sort of person I am.
 
I know some of you are going to say I must be super protected and super privileged or super blind to be able to say something like this. Maybe, Maybe not. All I know is that I have been super lucky to be travelling solo and to have the kind of experiences I have had.
 
Not that I don’t notice how my existence as a solo woman traveler in places where clearly I have no ‘work’, evokes certain questions, concerns and behaviours from others. But they are not my business to be bothered with. At best, I am amused or touched by the concern shown; at worst I put it down to just how the world is, and carry on.
 
Though I travelled solo for work for years, the almost agenda-less personal voyages of my more recent past have been the real deal, by way of a vital rite of passage to being my own person. I believe that travelling solo, to a more or less unfamiliar place, with a very open-ended program, a very rough itinerary and some loose ends, without a work agenda, minus a visiting so and so plan as the central purpose, is a wonderful way to get to know yourself. It can be transformational in the most pleasant, memorable and lasting of ways. I say this for both men and women.
 
When I was young I travelled with an outward focus. It was so much about the place I went to, the people I met, the things I did. Now, while all that is still of course part of the picture, I travel slower, and inward. It helps that being older I am more at ease with the novelties I might encounter. I have less at stake in being a certain way, in presenting a certain front or holding on to an image of who I am.
 
Not surprisingly, the journalist who messaged me was someone I met on a recent solo sojourn in the hills. She had been sent on assignment to the local bureau of her paper. I was breaking a long journey with a stop-over. We met and talked over lunch with the BnB host family, and she took down my name, saying she was interested in a few things that I was doing. Two months later she gets in touch again – she has this story to write and she remembers me, the solo woman traveller she met. She tells me that on that same assignment soon after we met, she too went on her first solo trek. A certain story lead had not worked out, so she had time on her hand, and the trail beckoned. She says a local tea-stall owner told her she was so bahadur to do this. I tell her how a sister-in-law called me Jhansi ki Rani for taking off alone into parts unknown, on my own. We agree there is nothing brave or warlike in this. And yet, we realise, as we talk, that this – you are so bahadur, you are such a Jhansi Ki Rani- is just the sort of thing so many will think is needed, when they think of venturing out as they are.

July 2018 Book Report

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Love And Marriage In Mumbai- Elizabeth Flock
 
This book had me intrigued. Its coverage in the press had me waiting to lay my hands on it. But having started reading it, I almost didn’t want to finish it, and almost gave up on writing this report. But then, a disappointing, baffling book too needs talking about. Maybe someone else has a different point of view, and will share that in response.
 
This book a hard one to classify. It is reportage, it is creative non-fiction, it is sociology, anthropology and ethnography, and all round confusion. Probably inevitable, given that the topic it covers is in the throes of some of its greatest upheavals and confusions. On top of that, it is written by an American, for whom Mumbai and India are new territory.
 
Elizabeth Flock comes to Mumbai, just out of college, and is fascinated by the filmy, ritualistic, larger than life notions of love and marriage she encounters. She wonders if there is something new and deep that Indian marriages and Indian couples in love can teach her. She is looking for such perspective in the shadow of her parents’ multiple marriages and divorces. And she has a book idea. About the kind of book she feels no one has written about India, about Mumbai. She decides to write that book.
 
Mumbai and its middle class are caught in economic and socio-political transformations. Middle class marriages seem to be going through tectonic shifts. It takes her almost ten years of repeated visits, months of being immersed in the lives and homes of her three case studies, and hundreds of hours of interviews and observation, to create this book. In the process she realizes that the impressions she first formed about love and marriage did not stay the same over time. This book is her deep deep dive into what happened to three couples through that period, and even before they became couples. There is plenty of show, and some tell, about their lives. But there is little else.
 
In the story of Maya and Veer’s surreal love affair and runaway marriage one sees a desperate grabbing for the fantasies of Bollywood. In their arriving at some sort of peace after experimenting with an ‘open’ marriage does one see pragmatism, or fatalistic resignation? Is Shahzad and Sabeena’s arranged marriage (and later issues with infertility, and a crisis of the man’s sense of self) the more typical case, closer to the reality of millions, and not just in their particular sect of Muslims, but almost all Indians? Ashok and Parvati are well-educated, professional, urban upper middle class Tamil Brahmins who get married through a matrimonial portal. Parvati is haunted by the memories of her Christian boyfriend. Ashok has never quite been able to hold on to a girl friend, and has a broken engagement behind him. Both understand that marriage is something that takes work, and that love is not always the best beginning for it.
 
The book opens with great promise, and feels unique and refreshing. But as the couple’s marriages grow and change, the narrative seems to drag, and get repetitive. The excruciating details and stretched out sequence of things tends to get boring, rather than interesting. I felt much irritation at typical ‘firangi’ mistakes in writing about India. Sharp and careful editing should have taken care to remove those bloopers. Also, Suketa Mehta’s claim on the cover that it is “Easily the most intimate account of India that I’ve read…” makes me wonder about how little he really reads about India, if at all.
 
All in all, the inside picture of love and marriage in the life of three Mumbai couples, as written up by Flock, is likely to fascinate Westerners. As an Indian having had my share of the laddo of marriage, and heard hundreds of inside stories of friends, relatives and strangers on the matter, I was left wondering as to the point of the book.

Book Report: May 2018

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.

New Office and Some News

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.

Conde Nast features us as in its Secret Homestays series.

https://www.cntraveller.in/story/whos-up-for-fresh-mountain-air-and-birdsong-at-this-uttarakhand-homestay/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=CNTIndia-SocialShareConversions&utm_content=42B0BBAE-2803-414E-C144-5435079B0BC0

 

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

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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.

At Birdsong & Beyond in the Himalayas

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.

Photo: Birdsong & Beyond

Food

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.

Go camping close by. Photo: Birdsong & Beyond

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.

Prices:

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.

Lost Connections: Johann Hari. May 2018 Book Report.

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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. 

Book report – Home Fire By Kamila Shamsie

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I read A God in Every Stone four years ago, and found it stunning and unforgettable. It is a very complex and layered book, contains centuries of history and references and literally digs into archeology and archives to tell a story of people caught in geo-political shifts and between betrayals of a more personal kind. It is staggeringly well researched and well imagined tale.
 
So I expected a lot from Home Fire. And it has lived up to the expectations, but it has also surprised me with how different it is from A God In Every Stone. It is very current story – an adaptation of Antigone’s story to this period in time, and it takes the old concerns and conflicts of ties of family, love, religion, and nation states, and places them in today’s world of immigration, terrorism and Jihad, and Muslim identity in the West.
 
Home Fire was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, and has everything that a smash hit must have, and it is presented in great style. There are strong, memorable characters- the three siblings Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz, the love interest Eamonn, and his politician father. Isma is the much older sister who had been almost mother to her younger twins in London for years since their mother died. Their father had been a Jihadi, long absconding from their lives. Free at last to go and pursue her own dreams independently, in America, Isma can never be free of the fallout of her family’s history.
 
Isma stands by the rules of the country that is their adopted home, above all. The younger twins are closer to each other than to their elder sister, and Aneeka is willing to go against sister and country and ‘use’ her lover to save her twin when he seeks to undo his ‘mistake’ of trying to be his father’s son. The story feels like a true life narration because of wonderful characterisation, and because of the contemporary nature of all that goes on.
 
We move through the story with trepidation through airport immigration security hold up, attempted and aborted romance in small town America, politics and fiery love and guilt in London, and Jihad in Istanbul and Syria and the climax across London and Pakistan played out to the world over television.
 
The story steps up in tension as it progresses. The choices keep getting starker and the characters more and more desperate as the plot unfolds. The ending is one of the most heartbreakingly bleak ones I have read in a novel in recent times. It is so real and yet so fantastic that it could certainly be tonight’s news.
 
The book raises eternal questions about the nature of love, and the conflicting claims of family, lovers and the state, to our loyalty. In the life and deaths of its characters, we also see the longing for home, and the craving for a fixed identity. The author is masterful in braiding all of it together powerfully, and unforgettably, in a bravura piece of elegant and refined storytelling.
 
This is a memorable, classic novel you won’t forget in a hurry, and will go back to again and again to find new stories with each new reading. I really cannot add a negative point to artificially try to be more balanced in my view. I think Kamila should have got the Booker too.

About a Birthday

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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.

To Mr. Shiv Visvanathan: About MeToo & the Chilly Justice of The Gulag

 

“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 :

http://theladiesfinger.com/shiv-visvanathan-chilly-justice-gulag/amp/

Your Views are Extreme, I Am Told.

Choice
There is a lot of talk these days of what do you tell your children about the miserable atrocities of this world. I am thinking of what makes it so hard for us. Is it that we want to stay cushioned in some sort of safe-zone and pretend that these things like child abduction, rape, murder, sadistic rituals as cover for ghoulish actions, greed for land and power and money over-riding more humane considerations, do not happen much? Or that maybe they do happen, but as long as we don’t hear about them it does not have to disturb our conscience and consciousness?
It could also be something else. That we know it is a part of who we are, and what we do, in some form or the other. And so we cannot be coal calling the kettle black. We must say evil is always someone else, some others, people not like us. Of course, a lot of us do call it out among ourselves, and feel very self-righteous. But a lot of us hesitate to speak with our children about how evil is real and here and not just something in films and stories and mythology. We should get a lot more real, and out of a lot of unexamined cliches and prejudices, if we really wish to have an honest understanding of what happens when evil is fostered, and why and how it is fostered. We must talk of this openly with our children, and with each other, without the crutch of propaganda and inherited untruths. We must examine motives behind every story or explanation we are fed, and think for ourselves ab initio.
We must teach them about politics and power games, and talk about all the ways women and children have been pawns of war, and wars have been fought over control of resources. We must make this connection very obvious. With real life. Not as abstract things mugged up from books for exams with no real life context. We need to link it to the question of moral choices.
Why does a little nomad girl get abducted? Why is she a good choice for the land mafia to use as a tool of intimidation? What about her identity makes her the pick? Female, powerless child, minority…discuss all that. Discuss the history of the conflict in the region. first, actually, educate yourself beyond propaganda. Why hide her in a temple? Ask yourself about the role and symbolism of that space. What advantage it affords the abusers? Get over your own sentimental thoughts about the idea of temple and look at it anew. Look at the history of land rights and displacement and settler-nomad conflict in the Indian context. Educate yourself. Educate your children.
Do not give in to the temptation of convenient cliches, to talk of bad persons doing bad things and move on to a distraction.
Talk of moral corruption that allows a human to sell his soul for power. Educate yourself about literature on this, movies on this. Delve into art. Delve into philosophy. This is the human condition. And rising above it too is human. A matter of choice, also?
We can choose silence or we can keep trying to voice our values. And live by them. By aligning our thoughts, words and actions. I am sure all of us have at some time or the other wished someone dead because of where they came from. But we know even as we think that thought, we don’t mean it. But then comes a time when we stop knowing. Or turn a blind eye to that knowing. When from it being a passing thought we dismiss, it becomes something we call being practical.
We may say that forest rights need rationalisation for industry. That if human progress calls for tragic but inevitable extermination of endangered flora and fauna, so be it. If dams displace people, tough luck; they happened to be living in the way of development. There is a price to pay after all. There are no free lunches. We forget though that the one paying the price is not invited to the lunch. Nomads don’t matter. They need to be shifted. Spread fear so they leave. Weapon of choice – the weakest ever. A child. A female. Drugged. Unable to resist unable to even scream to cause you later nightmares. Passive and untouched. Till mammon and blind power landed on her like vultures.
We need a Truth & Reconciliation Commission of our own in this hurt and bleeding country where we have othered and hated and ridden rough shod over so many for so long. We need to talk about our pain and forgive what can’t be forgotten, instead of devouring our own. But first we must see them as having a stake to what we claim as our own.
If the Rajsamand killer’s supporters could lay siege to the DC’s office against his arrest, and it was not a matter of national outcry why would things not get more brazen the next time? If Godhra and 2002 go by with the perpetrators being deified as saviours, if 1984 killers are not convicted and removed from public life, if riots are part of political tactics, if 1947 stories are only black and white if ever aired but mostly remain unspoken….certainly there will be a next time. And a next. And so on.
There was talk of eggs have to be cracked to make omelette in 2002. I wonder if people ever imagine themselves and their loved ones as those eggs when they talk like this. I was in class XII when two Sikh bodyguards shot Mrs. Gandhi and thousands of Sikhs paid the blood money. There is chain of who did what to whom going way back from there. Communal distrust and hate are fostered and used as fodder to grow power. We allow ourselves to be cogs in the wheels of the juggernaut that rolls over us finally. In Calcutta in 1984 a top level political decision was taken and announced that there coud be no harm done to anyone following the killing of Mrs. Gandhi. Which means that those leaders clearly knew what is standard procedure in such times, for whichever desired outcome. The situation can be very much under control, no matter how tanaavpoorn. It was fortunate for the Sikhs that at that time the choice was made for peaceful co-existence. For whatever ideological or tactical reasons. Those reasons are the key choice. Can we influence that choice with our individual and collective voice?
When Mahatma Gandhi was killed too peace prevailed though the public grief and sorrow was large scale. He was a far bigger tree that had fallen, yet his persona itself eschewed some choices for those left to grapple with the shock. On the other hand, there was definitely enough intelligence available that he was a target on killers radar and after few failed attempts another one was going to be made. Somehow that attack wasn’t prevented. Maybe some eggs outlive their utility. That is also a choice.
But when you have a point to make by saving some eggs, then you get your act together accordingly, like Jyoti Basu in October 1984 in Calcutta. It isn’t like the public had any nobler thoughts than the average Indian anywhere else. I was at someone’s house and they didn’t know I was Sikh and the radio and TV were announcing that there had been some unruliness on roads. Police was called out. The ladies of the house spoke up to say that it was a shame such unruliness was being spread. “Just attack the Sardars. Leave others alone. Why bother them”. I kept quiet. Took me years to talk about this to anyone. I regret my silence then. It is such silences that power evil.
After three days at home I went to school and found that the girl I shared my bench with had moved to a different place. No one, really no one talked to me or even made eye contact or said hello. For days. No one shared my tiffin for days. There were two more Sikh girls in my class. Neither came to school for a whole week. Such fear and silence also feeds evil. The class teacher, Ms. Doita Dutta was the only person who spoke about what had happened, and appreciated my coming back to school. She spoke of the constitution and of rule of law and not scapegoating innocents. And of not playing the communal identity game in politics. I took solace from her words. The bad stuff didn’t seem random aberration or a sudden spontaneous rise of evil; it was a choice made in cold blood, with calculations, is what Ms. Dutta implied. Her words did thaw some small gap in the ice. Still, I didn’t quite understand the enormity of my classmates’ silence or the absence of the other Sikh students from school. People like Ms. Dutta are our bulwark against evil. She also made a choice that day and has made such choices all her life.
People like the classmates who shunned me and those who stayed away and those ladies who said let them attack only Sardars are kindling too weak in themselves but given the right hawa they help stoke the fires of hate. I lived in Calcutta and we didn’t hear much about the real horrors in Delhi and other places till a bit later. But while AIR and Doordarshan played stooge to the government, there were journalists and citizens recording the genocide and protesting it and at times preventing it and also organising help. They were the ones who did not look away. They kept truth alive, they show us how gangs were organised, how evil was given strength and how those who could have checked it made a choice to look away and also encourage the spread of evil.  The work they did then is helping us know the facts even today. It also told the victims that at least someone else saw their truth. In the absence of any other succour sometimes knowing you are heard and seen is the only straw keeping someone afloat.
A few months ago there were house guests visiting us. The Rajsamad murder had just happened. The defence of the accused had mounted an attack on the District administration office building to protest his arrest. I spoke about this and said a culture of lawlessness was being promoted in the guise of the resurgent pride of so called beleaguered identity of the majority. I was told I was exaggerating. I asked them, have you seen the videos? They hadn’t. I asked them if they l condoned such actions? They said no no, that was a bit extreme. Itna nahin hona chahiye. They couldn’t say kitna is acceptable. Point is, there is no naap tol and kamm zyaada when you decide that certain people are impediments and dispensable others. It is only a matter then of latak ke marega yaan kat ke.
The relatives asked me if I didn’t see the vikas all around me. I asked them for facts and figures. They had none. I found some and they did not stand scrutiny. They said this Sarkar really gets what needs to be done to make us developed and free of corruption. I asked them if they were ready to condone repression of minorities as the price of development and if they saw moral corruption of the soul as a fair trade off. They said I had become very extreme in my views.