The Cradle of the High Peaks

Yesterday I had an epiphany about man’s eternal pull to the mountains. It was triggered, fittingly, by the words of a Bhutanese landscape planner on Youtube. He reinforced something already felt in the deep dormant layers of my own knowing, never quite fully understood and owned, unsaid by me so far.

The man from Bhutan talked about how he can never fully physically feel at home anywhere else the way he does in his mountain kingdom. That the body makes its home as a part of the physical landscape and sometimes so does our soul. And how mountains, to his mind, did this precisely because of what seems their distancing features.

While they are no doubt difficult to get to, and beset with a lot of natural extreme conditions and access problems, it is these very qualities of impregnability that lend a sense of a charmed, protected and even secure sense of self to those who live in the cradle of the high peaks. I was pulled back to just such a discovery I and a friend had shared, years ago, to our own surprise. We were on a long road journey in the relatively remote and wild Central Himalayas, driving down to the plains through high, rugged peaks on roads that on one side hugged steep slopes going up and on the other side ended in deep and sharp drops into a raging river below. Tough as the terrain was, we found ourselves in a sort of flow after a while, and the winding road and the constant turns of the wheels became nearly as normal and natural to us as our breathing. We were one with the land, with the road and with the journey, and it was a happy time.

Then after a whole day’s drive, the road  stopped curving quite so much and  started stretching out straight in front of us. The cliffs and drops on our sides gave way to small mounds  and rocks and then endless vistas of flat green and brown and man made blocks placed together.  Almost at the same time, my friend and I looked at each other and wondered aloud, that though the driving was now easy, what was this odd sense of loss, a sense of being adrift that we were experiencing?

What we felt missing was the physical embrace, the cradling, the scaffolding of the ever-present looming massive bulk of earth, the rock solid presence of those peaks, and not just the beauty, not just the grandeur and snowy brilliance or the verdant bounty of the mountains.

Listening to the Youtube recording, I heard the landscape design expert say that for him and his country folks, the terrain of their mountain kingdom was their biggest source of sustenance and SECURITY! And he further went on to say that those mountains were indeed the protectors of the people in a very real physical sense in olden times, and today the culture still sees them as such. Well, I say !! This was just so like what I had felt – that the mountains were somehow holding us safe, enclosed, enfolded, with all their curves and highs and recesses and valleys, and when we reached the plains we were left wide open and on our own – so distant from the large, benign, overarching physically powerful entities that are the mountains.

I wonder if any of you have also felt this way, or feel a connection with what I am saying. The mountains, to me seem to be about arriving, settling in, and falling into rhythm.  They are about being rooted, about being one with something solid and unconquered and perhaps never fully conquerable. They are also about a certain surrender, a certain acceptance. They are saying, like little else can, that this is it, this is here, this is now.

So tell me, do you feel that any place, any physical landscape that pulls us, pulls us for a similar reason, or is the pull of every kind of landscape feature a random matter of simple sensual or sensorial appeal?  What would those of you say who love heading out to the sea rather than the mountains? For me, the sea is all about another kind of a trance, about losing sense of time and boundaries. It is about being literally, adrift. The mountains are all about being rooted. Present. Is it the same for some of you, and how is it different for others? Do keep the thoughts flowing…..

Something Sacred

Sacred places, sacred objects, sacred rituals. Sacred symbols. Even sacred ‘roles’. ‘Mother’. ‘Bhartiya Naari’.

We have all seen these, heard of these, been part of the interactions that happen around them. Today I got wondering anew about the meaning of what it means to us, and what it does to our thinking, when something is considered ‘Sacred’. And what is the relation of the sacred to the mundane and further, to that realm of things considered ‘profane’.

Things we often hear in relation to the ‘Sacred’ are a whole lot of ‘don’ts’ a lot of barriers, a lot of distance. Taboos. Forbidden in part or fully. Or approached only through a mediator, a complex ritual or with loads of fearful  consequences in case of a breach of protocol. The Sacred is all very admirable and good and pure, but not quite part of our concerns in a real, here and now way. Maybe it is this way because what is put out there as Sacred is perhaps all the messy stuff that we have no way of figuring out? Best to treat it from far, with kid gloves and some sophisticated denial?

Things we can touch, feel, enjoy, interact with, be our natural selves with, use our force over, control and direct to our wishes, are usually not seen as  ‘Sacred’. There is a distance, a gap between us and the ‘Sacred’ , a gap not always of higher and lower perhaps, but certainly one of difference and separation. And in that gap lies a sense of ‘don’t mess with me’ perhaps? Cut that gap out and it gets to be open season for everything and everyone.

The mundane is what is necessary .

The Profane is again something I can cut off, suppress, reject and refuse to deal with. From a position of power. Unlike the Sacred, which carries some power over me.

Thoughts of this kind were specifically triggered today by a conversation I had about the portrayal of women in Hindi cinema. I have begun to wonder if by making a woman character a somewhat regular, ‘Mundane’  persona and not an exotic, idealized ‘Sacred’ being, movie makers have pricked a hole in the aura of Sacred that enveloped the image of the feminine in the Indian psyche? By making her more real, have we also made her more vulnerable to the fears and attacks of those who do not understand or wish to engage with her as an equal?

To me it seems that some in the audience have clearly made the leap to her being seen as ‘Profane’ once the Sacred pedestal was knocked off. The Sacred is beyond tampering, but when the mundane is a complicated mess I have no wish to deal with, and perhaps more critically, no skill sets of thought and attitude and action, to cope with, It is easier to push things to the Profane and then deal with them?  Is that how the human mind works?

This line of thought started from an exchange today with a film script writer who said to me that she was disturbed to note how today the portrayal of women in Hindi films was so objectified, (read Profane) when in real life women had more freedom and more power in worldly matters (Mundane?) than some decades ago. But in those times, when the movie world was considered taboo for decent women, the portrayal of women in movies was in fact rather noble, strong and inspiring (Sacred?).

The writer said the shift in the depiction of leading women characters could be attributed to the fact that while today women had come a long way, men still had not truly adjusted their sensibilities to the changed reality. So the dominating male had to get his kicks out of subduing or objectifying the woman on screen, in his art (making Profane).

Does that somehow imply that the visible, the in-your-face reality can hardly be handled by the overall sensibility of our society? Does it mean that engagement, involvement, negotiation and debate, which are hallmarks of an alive, healthy interactive – and therefore ‘mundane’ – relationship, are not part of the man-woman equation in mainstream Indian culture and arts today? Pretty much seems so, sadly. Why do we give no space to the vital and life supporting ‘Mundane’ in our discourse and in the play of gender relations? What would make for a changed equation then, an equation of respect and a constructive engagement with the other?

Coming into being. The Birdsong Cottage story. 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 making. I did have reservations and goosebumps about its remote location and how very back of beyond the place seemed to be, lost- almost suspended- in those really high ridges. But these same features also made it unique, one of a kind and 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, what it would take 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 a remote interior village of Uttarkahand. 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 beautiful? And 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 al wrong due to weather or airline mess ups. 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 Birdsong Cottage story. Part 1.

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The story of The Birdsong Cottage 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, India

The neighborhood

The first look

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, marveled 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 mountain bliss which now we offer to share with the world.

 

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 Birdsong 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 The Birdsong Cottage 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 earleir FB posts. So here we go again….

The title of my blog today is taken from the metaphysical poet John Donne’s work. I encounterd 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 himslef 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 coying 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 happend. 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 abberation? 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 monetory 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 joing them. There are those complaining of having only kichdi 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 arguements 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 responsibilty to ourselves, to our families, to take cahrge of our own safety? To know if we are fit enough for an ardous trip to a difficult region? Why no attempts to educate one self about where I paln to go, rather than be herded like some subjugated domestic animal?

What of the disconnect from roles and resposnsibilty 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 mangement, 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 counterbalme 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 palce. 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 conections 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 expereince 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 expereince of a place can come to us.

I take your leave now, with a powerful postive 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 or Praying to the Land. The very first strike of the workman’s tools on the ground,  literally breaking of the ground, to dig deep for a foundation, to then start raising a structure for a dwelling or any other use. I don’t know if other cultures treat it as anything other than a happy material development, but in our part of the world, in India, it is the most crucial first step and no home or workplace or any building would ever be deemed alright and ‘sanctioned’ to exist by the forces of nature and more importantly by something even beyond nature without the Bhumi Pujan being performed. I had always found this to be a bit of a empty ritual, and like most rituals carried out robotically, empty and disconnected from its essence in practice. Of course, I did not fail to notice how strong the force of the belief in and the need for this ceremony was all around me. Every MNC that has ever worked in India knows this truth and all ex-pat executives posted here have surely been to or even presided over at least one Bhumi – Pujan in their career here, no matter what they felt personally about it.

So, when we started work on The Birdsong cottage, we also had the Bhumi – Pujan for our cottage. Interestingly, the site supervisor on the cottage was our local contractor from Gurgaon, who had worked on our residence here, and he is a Muslim by religion. He was as much part of this supposedly Vedic, Hindu religious ceremony, familiar and at home with all the aspects of it, comparing it at times favorably, at times not so favorably , to other such ceremonies he had seen (this last, to the irritation of the local priest! ) and playing a leading role in the proceedings, as any of the others- the preist, the neighbors, the village children and anybody at all who happened to pass by. Secularism does run in the blood here, even though to make good sense of it politically appears be yet out of our grasp.

So, yes, we did have a Bhumi – Pujan, conducted by a local priest. But there is more to the story than meets the eye…I could not bring myself to blindly enact something in the context of my dream holiday home that was rather meaningless and therefore pointless to me. I wanted something very specific, meaningful and personal to me, and to my family, if anything at all did need doing symbolically, to augur well for the house. Something that with its symbolism expressed our underlying intention, that related to my vision for this project of a mountain home. I wondered how to put my feeling and wish into action within the structure of a conventional, traditional ‘Bhumi – Pujan’ ceremony .

As I quite often do when working through an issue in my mind and finding no clear sense or direction among all the thoughts and ideas floating around, I talked to my friends. One of my friends suggested I speak to our common mentor-guide, a young life coach and spiritual teacher we all discovered around the same time in our lives. That sounded like a great idea and I immediately called Nithya in Pune. He so well undestood my dilema, and asked me to hold clear my vision, my 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 we wished to create it and what we saw as its future and our relationship with it, and its relationship to the place,the local life and people, to the people who we hoped to have visit there. These were the ideas to be affirmed, set as intensions, 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 this started to look very interesting and finally I was glad we did go ahead with the Bhumi – Pujan in a syncretic, somewhat original way.

Already, by now, in 2011 we were 4 years further down the line from when we bought the land, and many trips with family and friends had given shape to certain ideas for the future direction of this new home. From all of this- my dreams, the hopes of family and friends, and some new ideas that had lately been arising, I worked out a ceremony of intentions and goals, visualized by me and articulated through the symbols and acts of the Vedic Hindu ceremony conducted by the local priest. To give you a simplified sense of what I mean, imagine that a if rich prosperous life lived at the cottage was my intention, we expressed it through the invocation to Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity and plenty. A great wish for a joyful sense of learning, discovery, exploration, self knowledge and connection was symbolized and articulated through the Goddess of all learning, Saraswati, and so on.

I find, on observation and reflection, that ceremonies, rites of passage particularly, are really a familiar part of village life.  Everybody understands their meaning and is deeply connected to them. And in fact, 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 perhaps. 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.

Meanwhile, the ceremony was over and the priest symbolically hit the first blow on the field, after which the workers took over and digging started in earnest. Digging for the retaining walls, to bolster the edge of the plot, to make it stand firm and strong so that further foundations could be dug and a building made to stand . 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 team, my project team as it had become. 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 guest annexe.

News from The Birdsong Cottage

Its been a long time since I wrote here, and for many reasons. The main one being that I was away at Birdsong Cottage without my laptop . When I got to the city, the backlog of things to do just got me off track from my intention of writing every week.

The biggest discovery for me these last 2 weeks perhaps 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 so they could see the novel house in the neighborhood and meet the city folks who had opted to come and live amongst the villagers. The bride was a friendly girl, not a shy sort at all, 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 ready 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 then the cottage when they came to meet him one evening, as 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 that I discovered in the form of a wandering ‘holy man’ who 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 and worse than human refuse, literally, in so many words . Angered and 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.

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. Here too the youth are caught in the crossroads of tradition and modernity and a whole lot of change. Even in terms of  social mixing as youngsters, boys and girls have such an unreal world without known signposts to negotiate, what with changing social and moral mores where neither the old certainties and norms hold true or deliver well, and neither the new freedoms and ideas lead to 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 its 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….Any suggestions for her, anyone??

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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 !!

An Open Letter. In the open season on women.

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Dear lady speaker on Women’s Day program, and those multitudes who wondered ‘how could she’, when she came on the scene,

This is in reaction to statements made by the first, in public, on the occasion of a media event to mark International Working Women’s Day. Statements which I feel owe something to the said lady being once picked on quite publicly for her choices on personal matters.

I wonder lady speaker, what made the media geniuses invite you to be a speaker? What are your credentials as a Working Women? Or is being a woman enough? Or being a privileged homemaker, wife and mother of a few months? Or being a star wife? I guess the point of it was to have you speak about …women, I suppose? How  women must be themselves and do their own things… like, maybe, reach for their dreams, and so on? Only, I do not see you being yourself. I see you mouthing platitudes unthinkingly, unless you have really given careful thought to what are the ideals and tradition you speak up for. At age 20, seriously? You are wiser than most humans then, I suppose. I know, I am being so ageist, no?

I still wonder what makes you a speaker to dole out opinions on IWWD.

It befuddles me.

Maybe the media felt they had to balance the act, after printing all sorts of things that were not always complimentary to your decision to opt for an early arranged marriage? That was stupid of the multitudes who said ‘how dare she’. Why? Because it is her life, her choice, people. It was none of your business to get at her in public, whatever you may think of her choices personally. It is a tough world out there, and we all need to support and wish each other well. Even those who might not easily understand what we do, and in their narrow minded self-absorption, not realise the gaps in their views.

Celebrity bashing, and paparazzi interest in their weddings and babies and so on…it doesn’t catch my interest, much. I ignore it. I felt bad for you, but I put it down to the down side of being a star-wife.

But pronouncements to run down serious socio-political causes on a public forum from a celebrity does become a big deal. People listen. It has impact, so it is important to hold it to high standards of examination.

Is it really your reasoned choice, lady speaker, to decide and declaim publicly that unless a mother can be there full time with her baby she’d be better off with a puppy? Does every working mother have the luxury to stay at home? Does every stay at home mother want to? Not everyone’s dreams are the same, just as their reality is different, as are the options available.

I know about the life and times and work of the feminists who gave us this Day as a marker, and what they did, and stood for, makes sense on every count of humanity, justice and peace. I am sure you would say you believe in these values, and perhaps wanted to use the opportunity your privilege gives you, to speak and share your views. Many young and not so young, impressionable and not so impressionable women listen to such messages, and many of them do actually try to take meaning out of them, and use those words and claims as lights of direction in their own life. It is a huge responsibility to use a public voice. I wish you had used it to say what might not cause harm or reinforce self-defeating cultural indoctrination.

I have some more questions for you, lady speaker.

Did you ever consider reading up, understanding the issue of IWWD before agreeing to be a public speaker on this occasion? Did you read up anything on the term Feminazi before using it? Did you mean to be abusive? Or does you privilege just make you blind and insensitive to others’ reality?

Do you have any idea at all why 8th March is important to the women’s empowerment issue? Do you even have a clue about women empowerment? Were you told to play by a script?

Imagine a scenario, in your own life, which is not entirely about you. Imagine your cleaning maid had a baby. Imagine your cooking lady too had a baby around the same time. Imagine how much you wanted them back at work. They both delivered human babies. Not Puppies. Yet they come back to work after two months of un-paid leave which you generously gave them. How could they do this? Why did they have the babies at all, if only to leave them to come to work? What are they chances they will not have their jobs for long if they keep taking days off? Not all women can afford to stay at home when they have babies. It s not only dog mothers who need to get food home.

To defend your personal choice of, and bliss about marriage and being a homemaker and mother at a young age, in the face of some misguided judgement, will you abuse a just cause? Why not stick to speaking up for your choice, and telling the critics to mind their own business, or engage them in a debate, to call out their unfairness as you see it? A fair fight, won’t you say? Why throw out the baby of feminism with the bathwater of judgement you were washed with, as it were?

Imagine another scenario. Nothing to do with you at all. Another girl your age gets a job with a multinational company after working very hard through her college course. Her parents are lower middle class people. She does well in her job. She gets posted abroad. She helps take care of her parents. She buys a home for herself. She marries. She has kids. She manages both roles with the help of her parents, and her company HR policies on maternity leave, paternity leave, child care leave, day care facilities and health care and health insurance. You know what made a lot of these things a part of the organized sector? Feminism. The education and employment opportunity she had access too. Even the right to buy property. The right to take care of her parents. All of that.

Ask this girl, though, Mrs. Smug Star Wife, why did she have the baby. Why didn’t she wait till her ‘responsibilities ‘ were taken care of , to build a career? What responsibilities were you referring to , when you said once you are done with them, you have your whole future open? The responsibility of bringing up a baby with all kinds of support and facilities? Not everyone has that luxury and privilege. A lot is needed before many more women can talk so comfortably as you of being able to prioritise things so glibly and smoothly. It is feminism that called out the change needed, and showed the way to that change. Just because you happen to be safely up the ladder, as you think you are, is no reason to kick the ladder and make it useless for others.

How much time do you think Karan Johar, as a single working father, will be able to devote to his new born twins ?  Are Roohi and Yash puppies or what?

What the Puppy mother will have to say to this, is another matter. Or any puppy pet-owner.

70,000 babies are born everyday on average in India. You know how many of those mothers can afford to just sit around with a baby, take selfies and look cute, and talk about having their future ahead of them, wide open? Are they Feminazis, out to wreak destruction on this world order?

Most women have hard working lives, whether in the home, on the farm, on a road-work or construction site or an office or anywhere else. You know how many of them want a better deal? MOST.

Ask yourself, what would make their lives better? Try to see who speaks for them. Yesterday, our Parliament approved a bill to raise the benefit of maternity leave to six months from three. You realize it is years of slog by feminism that leads to changes like this? And that this is still just a tiny blip, because the majority of women and men who suffer because of unjust systems are not working in the organized sector where these rules apply. So there is still along long way to go, and a lot of work to be done. Statements of ignorance like yours are harmful, biased and abusive.

I am happy for you, that you get to bask in the warmth of newly wedded bliss and motherhood, which must be even more wonderful when it comes with the trappings of wealth, luxury, glamour and privilege. Such as yours. Maybe you do feel humbled and thank your lucky stars. Maybe you take it for granted. You know, people will say all sorts of thing to individuals, for their luck, their choices, for whatever happens or does not happen. But to take personal criticism to heart, and then to attack a critical and vital human rights movement is short-sighted and narrow minded.

You are lucky. Why stretch your luck by being judgy about others who make choices different from yours? Or those who have no choice?

Why do women with all the privilege like you fear the F-word so much? Do you know the term you used – likening a feminist to someone who supported the mass murder of millions because of their identity, is a slur of the worst kind? Why would you want to use such a term, and then speak of it in a warped context? Do you realize you owe your own relatively ‘safe’ position as a wife and mother without a job or the qualifications for one, to the hard work feminists have put in for women’s rights in marriage and annulment of marriage? Feminism is the reason those like you can still hope for a fair settlement in case your marital bubble bursts with infidelity or abuse or worse.

So please, dear young blessed girl with stars in your eyes, go use the reading and comprehension and thinking skills that your very elite education and background might have instilled in you, and study these topics. Understand that you made a choice and so do others and there are valid reasons on both sides of the fence, and that defending your choice does not have to be at the cost of dissing the very very vital forces that in fact help keep you safe and empowered. The personal, after all, is also political. We live in social systems. What goes on around us comes home to roost.

Respecting diversity of choice is a foundational belief of feminism and of any call for equality. And choices can only be made by the powerful. And power has to fought for, earned, built up, when the starting point of the game is highly skewed towards one party. As is the case with those who speak up as feminists. Someone has to speak up, fight the good fight. You may not want to, and that is fine. But you will enjoy its fruits. So know that the warriors, the radicals, they all work for your rights too, and you would have not much without them. When the status quo of power is shaken, there is always backlash, and some of it takes the forms of abuse. Terms like Feminazi come up, and are mistakenly adopted by some who have not cared to learn any better.

Grow wise, be informed. And then maybe you will not let derogatory slurs pass your pouty lips so casually. Do not demonize a struggle for basic human dignity. It is denied to too many. Please do not let your youthful lack of perspective  and good fortune make you gloat. Do not look down on what you have not much idea of. Do not abuse. Be Woke. Go look that up, because you have no idea what it means, I am sure.

And those multitudes, can you leave people’s personal lives alone?

“Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play. “

How beautifully and simply Pullman puts this need for art in life.

“It’s true that some people grow up never encountering art of any kind, and are perfectly happy and live good and valuable lives… Well, that’s fine. I know people like that. They are good neighbours and useful citizens.

But other people, at some stage in their childhood or their youth, or maybe even their old age, come across something of a kind they’ve never dreamed of before…Nothing prepared them for this. They suddenly realise that they’re filled with a hunger, though they had no idea of that just a minute ago; … it almost breaks their heart. … welcomed by this utterly new and strange experience …they needed this as a starving person needs food, and they never knew. They had no idea.

That is what it’s like for a child who does need music or pictures or poetry to come across it by chance. “

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

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Wise words from Philip Pullman, who received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2005:

Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play. If you don’t give a child food, the damage quickly becomes visible. If you don’t let a child have fresh air and play, the damage is also visible, but not so quickly. If you don’t give a child love, the damage might not be seen for some years, but it’s permanent.

But if you don’t give a child art and stories and poems and music, the damage is not so easy to see. It’s there, though. Their bodies are healthy enough; they can run and jump and swim and eat hungrily and make lots of noise, as children have always done, but something is missing.

It’s true that some people grow up never encountering…

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Phoenix Rising. Writing contest, reading meet & workshop

New contest and event coming up.

Write & Beyond

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The second annual Write & Beyond writing contest is all about the idea of destructive desire. How does wanting turn to wasting? We invite entries of up to 3000 words in any form of prose writing on this theme, from today till the 31st of March.

The two entries that most impress us will be announced on 7th April and win a place at our next writing workshop.

On 8th April we meet with Saikat Majumdar for a reading of his novel The Firebird – that has at its dark and disturbing heart the very idea of desire turning to destruction. Saikat is Professor of English Literature and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Ashoka University. He earlier taught at Stanford University, and writes critically acclaimed non-fiction, and startlingly unique locally rooted fiction page turners. Saikat will also help in workshopping the writing of those attending the meet…

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When Ashes Are Dust

Write & Beyond

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The paperback edition of Saikat Majumdar’s moving and brilliant Firebird was released by Hachette yesterday. Saikat is a professor of English literature, and currently runs the creative writing course at Ashoka University. He will be talking about the novel, among other things in his talk “Literature as Sin’ at JNU on 28th Feb, 2 p.m – 4 p.m. Come along.

And here is my report on reading the book.

“The idea of the phoenix is the anti-thesis of death. It is a picture of hope, of renewal; the anti-dote of ashes to ashes.

The phoenix is also the firebird.

But in a novel marked by the macabre, the enactment of the play called Firebird is a mere frayed thread in a fading tapestry. It is part of all that is dying; one of the images to depict the end of the ways things were. The death of the culture of…

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The Wealth of a Common Story

Write & Beyond

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To mark the passing of 2014 and 2015, I had made and shared a list of my favorite books read for that year. That did not happen at the end of 2016, and I am going to do it differently in 2017. No year end lists, but a regular update on some of what I am reading, and reviews of some books that leave their mark.

Starting with my review of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth.

This riveting family saga meanders back and forth over nearly half a century. It held my attention like a limpet. The enormous simplicity of what I read has left me shaken and comforted.

Patchett writes in a straightforward, clean style. There are no words you need to go look up in the dictionary. There are no complex metaphors and sentences you need to decipher and detangle after a re read. Nothing tremendously mysterious or strange takes…

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On Being Good

This one says it simple and well, good.

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I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t preoccupied with my own goodness .

Am I good?

Am I good?

But am I good enough?

Good is a word that children hear early and often. A child probably hears the phrase “be good” – as an exhortation, a command, a plead – several times a day from several different adults. They might hear it so often that they won’t really be sure what good means except to know that they categorically aren’t.

By the time I was in kindergarten I thought that goodness existed as part of a binary, in the sense that either you were or you weren’t. It didn’t take me long to figure out what side of the equation I fell on; no matter how hard I tried to keep my thoughts to myself, to stay at my desk, to model myself after the prim little girls who sat so still…

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Desperately seeking Romance. The Spin on Karwa Chauth.

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Most ladies of my mother’s generation never called their husband by name. Most women in my generation have not held hands with or made willing and happy eye-contact openly in public with their husbands, except to glare or signal something urgent. Many of us in any generation before or after my age cohort have not had a romance before marriage, and even less had a ‘love-marriage’.

But to watch our films one would think every street corner had a dozen love stories blooming. Actually, they may have bloomed in secret, but the path of true love never did run smooth in our part of the world.

Into this culture of romantic lack comes the glamour of married, fully legitimate and socially approved romance, with the filmy version of Karwa Chauth. It is the stuff of dreams. What is not to like? And then, along comes liberalization and the big push on consumerism. A heady cocktail of unarticulated, burning  desire meeting unlimited supply. A match made in consumerism heaven.

Thus unfurls the yashchoprafication of an old, outdated, regressive and cautionary tale of patriarchal control.

Today, I wonder how many of the modern, financially well off women who fast and feast on this festival know the story that forms the bedrock of the rituals they follow in the name of celebration?

When they say they should have the choice to celebrate their marriage and the love in their marriage, do they know what their choice endorses?

The Karwa Chauth story I know is a cautionary tale for women. It stresses in no uncertain terms how marriage was a woman’s sole security and refuge, under the benign grace and fidelity of her husband.

This grace and fidelity though, is most precarious, the story warns. It could be lost at the slightest slip. So you have to be very careful you never let your devotion falter, least of all in favor of your own physical needs or your paternal family’s ‘misguided’ concern over you. Husband comes first, last and everything in-between. After all, you derive your existence and role and validation only as his wife.

So, the story goes…

Once upon a time there was a girl named Veerawati.

She married a brave and handsome chieftain and was delighted with all her finery and the position of a chief’s wife. But this was a spoiled and pampered girl, the little sister of seven doting brothers.

The brothers often took her to visit them back in her parental home. And there, during her Karwa Chauth fast, this girl was going to faint with weakness and hunger. Her brothers, concerned for her, tricked her into believing that the moon had risen, when it had not, and made her break her fast.

Barely had she taken some food and drink, that her misdemeanour brought a curse on her marriage. Her husband fell ill/ was wounded in battle and fell into a coma. Veerawati realised her mistake, and repented and prayed and begged gods and goddesses …and they said ok, he will not die but after many years, if you are good and fast well, he will awaken to life again.

So, began the PUNISHMENT of Veerawati, and her penance.

She took care of the husband, fasted properly every year…and took out the pins which pricked his body. When the last pin was left, she went out to arrange for her fast…in the meanwhile, the maid came and removed the pin, and the husband woke up and in his jumbled up memory, mistook the maid for the wife (maybe it was part of the continuing curse of punishment for the wife). Darn!

Now, the wife had the husband alive, but not with her! The maid became the wife, the wife now was the maid. Still Veerawati devotedly served him as a maid, and sang a song all the time about the switching of two dolls…at length, the chief asked her what this meant, and she told him the whole story. Then finally, he recognised her , and all her seva bore fruit and the husband – wife were re-united.

Bad Veerawati. Bad brothers who led her astray from her devotion.

What do we choose when we sing this katha as we pass the thaali around in the Karwa Chauth Puja.

Are we Veerawati? Should we be? Do we want to be her ?

If the modern KC following woman has no truck with this story, I wish she would drop the Veerawati song and katha from her thaali round  and her moon gazing ritual. I wish there was no ‘touching the feet’ of the husband.

I wish we were a society more open to romance in our lives overall and did not need the cover of filmy fantasies which glamorise misogyny, to fulfil our dreams.

Write it Out. Without Fear. 19th Nov.

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So what is our next Write & Beyond workshop about?

“Where the mind is without fear….into that heaven of freedom…” let all writers awake. Fear is the quicksand. Fear is the block. To be fearless is the most fearful idea for many of us. Certainly was for me.

Writing came naturally to me. I was told I wrote well. But it was only a certain kind of writing. School essays that had pros and cons. Work reports that took tons of data apart and then put it together with insights.

Nothing personal, you see. There was no need.

Letters to friends were a different matter. Descriptions, details, stories filled page after page. Of where I was, what had happened in school, what I was painting, which party had I gone to, which college I was applying to. But not what any of it meant to me, not really. Not what I felt inside. The fears, the longings, the highs, the lows. No, that was not what a sorted smart girl like me did. I had it all together, I knew what I was doing , why and where it would get me. There were no questions, no doubts. None I would admit to, at any rate.

The fear was so huge it could not be named or owned.

And then, under the influence of some friends, I wrote a few poems about something in the news. They frightened me with their power. I met my pain on the page for the first time. I had not known I had such views, or that I felt so strongly about certain matters. I felt I had met myself more fully for the first time, because of those poems. And that is how I continue to feel with most of the writing I have done since. In my journals, in my blog, and in the few published articles and poems and short stories I have sent out, I come closer to myself with each written word.

Our next creative expression workshop at Write & Beyond charts the steps to writing beyond fear.

Come join us and know the lightness of rising above much that holds us  stagnant. If you struggle to find our voice, feel a dearth of ideas, or are just stuck in that plain old ‘writers’ block’, find the freedom to flow into writing that is joyful and fun.

https://www.facebook.com/events/533949100144090/

Why Does Chetan Bhagat Get Your Goat

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I am no fan of Chetan Bhagat (CB). The mediocrity of craft in CB’s books keeps me away from them. His tweets and columns and speeches are often terribly offensive and rather unintelligent and crass.

I cannot wish him away just as I cannot wish away the reality of Dengue and Chikungunya. Some try, of course.

UK-based journalist-writer Salil Tripathi says “He exists for readers who are new to the English language and new to the idea of reading.” Author-columnist Santosh Desai agrees, “It marks a breakthrough of sorts – writing in English becoming popular in a mainstream sort of a way, moving away from a desire to exclude, speaking to a new set of aspirations with simple but resonant stories, cocking a snook at elitism.”

Moving away from a Desire to Exclude! I am not going to focus on the Desire, but lets just go with the word Exclude. Along comes CB and INCLUDES. Of course he has devoted fans, won’t you, if you spoke for and to someone, about things that they mull over, dream of, and if you took their thoughts as worth any attention? When the arbiters of ‘taste’ and ‘art’ and ‘culture’ made these multitudes feel not quite ‘suitable’, not quite ‘in’and ‘just like them’?

Ranting against CB might do a lot of things for the one who rants, and for those who go “yeah!” with those rants. It does not change anything for those who are his fans and readers. It makes them love him all the more. It shows, in fact, a rather close-minded, one size fits all mentality of entitlement among the ranters. A smugness that comes from a lack of any examination of their own position.

A refusal to understand or acknowledge that there are logical, real reasons behind his success, and not CB’s magical ability to ‘fool a generation of readers’ is an arrogant refusal to face colossal shifts and new fault lines in our nation. It is a refusal to see who holds what kind of cultural, economic and social power.

So, I‘d go beyond. I’d like to offer explanations, understanding, and hold out a hopeful call for a more creative response to the world’s realities.

I am a compulsive student of society. So I take an interest in what makes CB click so well with millions of my desh-waasis (English and non-English reading), and many in foreign lands too. (Yes, his books are translated in to many Indian and foreign tongues- French and Japanese included). He opened a new market segment for books, created a new breed of readers. He does not necessarily have to be the one who helps them evolve as well. Bacche ki jaan loge kyaa? He is not God, even though his stamina and self-belief might make him a demi-god to those who don’t know better.

In sneering at CB, we also sneer at his readers. Why be so snide and superior about us versus them? What do we have to offer them, instead, that will be resonant and connecting? Which voice will speak to their yearnings, and can someone help them find a more sophisticated and refined, nuanced awareness of that yearning?

Respect another’s experience and life view, because it comes from a different place. Would you be you had you been in their place? Too much to ask, I know. I got carried away. Why be so serious? WHY ever not?

Market forces understand consuming power. Money talks. Sales figures are the kingmakers. What is to rant about? Don’t like what the system throws up? Want to rant against the real root of things, and not the symptoms, maybe? Rant against the forces of consumerism, which turn everything into a market product. Give it a thought.

Sadly for the ‘English’ types, CB got on to the hotline too easy. And then the gods of the market put all their armies at his disposal. He keeps going. It pays him handsomely. Why would he do any different? Once he hit the mark, non-book markets came to cash in on him. He sold out. Given his clout should he choose better? Maybe, maybe he can’t. Would you? Have others? Give it a thought!

Look at the basic premise that the advertising and marketing industry works on. Seriously, GIVE IT ALL A THOUGHT. A lot of thought.

It is a free world, people. No, it is a ‘free’-market world, specifically. When CB first came into the market he had a unique and novel product. Five Point Someone spoke to a segment of youth about things no one had publicly talked about, but which were ripe for articulation. He did it soothingly, gently, without making the reader uncomfortable. In the newly liberalizing Indian middle class, comfort was at a high premium.

My neighbor told me excitedly that on reading this book, she felt she could understand where her husband came from, a little better. And she thanked CB for it. This was a Loretto school educated Delhi University girl married to an IIT IIM boy. That segment may not be his core audience anymore, but give the devil his due- he spoke to someone’s heart.

CB has moved on to other topics. He picks the stories carefully; with studied deliberation I am sure. Then, he plays the market. He touches on pain points but does not go for the jugular. He gives you resonance, but does not break your heart. That is his choice. And the reader’s too. We cannot rant against that. C’mon, not everyone wants to be shown all the skeletons in their cupboard. You cannot give babies real knives and scissors to play with. There are a few who are born to high art. For the rest it takes growing into. The consumer society public discourse and media does not help that growth. It wants to paint a utopian, no difficult questions scenario, where every answer is achievable, every problem solvable with something readymade off the shelf. Like it is with the situations and characters in CB’s novels. Or it wants to scare you about impending doom. There is no nuance.

Give it a thought.

Having seen that he could catch reader’s attention, and a slice of the book market, CB turned bolder. Tier two and tier three towns, the lesser known engineering colleges and regular graduates with dreams fuelled by liberalization and globalization of the job-market were a big market hungering to hear about people like them. People whose young lives had changed in unimagined ways in a matter of very few years. The narratives of their parents were a misfit in their new world. Nor could they relate to the writers who wrote in ‘elite’ English for the elites readers. This was the setting ripe for One Night @The Call Centre. Lets not forget, this was the time when “most people like us’ sneered at those taking up call center jobs.

How judgy is it of some of us to decide that people different from us must adhere to our tastes and not like what connects with them?

The thing that strikes me most about all the vitriol raised by the CB haters is how little of it is actually useful literary criticism. Quite lacking in anything educative for the seeker of good reading guidance, or for someone looking to develop a higher order taste in reading, and offering nothing to help readers understand what makes CB a poor writer. There is word in Hindi that I think of when I see the outrage against CB. ‘Tilmilahat’. It captures the essence of the reaction.

I saw the film Two States with a ladyfriend who loved the book and the film because it was the story of her life. Who is to judge the value of her fondness for what holds meaning for her at such a personal, deep level?

I found my tailor reading Half-Girlfriend. I asked him what he thought of the book. He said he found it realistic, and enjoyable. I got a copy and read it (it was a drag, honestly) to know what was working for this book. As a piece of art, and for its craft, I could trash the book. But I admired it as a product. Could have been better. But then, CB never claims perfection. Just that he sells. DDLJ sold. Dil Chahta Hai sold. Both left me cold. But they were cult hits, I keep hearing. Why? Give it a thought.

On a recent visit to the parlor, I was reading Ramachandra Guha’s massive tome, India after Gandhi, while getting a pedicure. The boy attending to me was a young lad from Madhubani, sweet and curious and confident. He talked in English, and asked me to correct him if needed, so he could improve. He asked questions about the topics in the book. We discussed the role of mass media, book publishing, the role of English as the language of power and knowledge. And I wondered if there was a simpler, easy to read version of this history book I could recommend to him. I am sure the same boy could read CB. And that is the underserved market we have in this country, hungry for so much. Junk will be lapped up as greedily as long as it is available and somewhat understood. As of now, all this pedicure boy can perhaps reach for, in English, is CB. Will there be a better book for him to read in English soon?

I want to end with this old quote from … http://danieldmello.blogspot.in/2010/03/why-we-hate-chetan-bhagat.html

“CB’s work is mediocre….it isn’t snobbishness to find a piece of work mediocre and reject it for being so. But as to the question of holding the creators and their fans in contempt for patronising mediocrity, and denying them any form of attention, that’s just wrong, and could well be snobbishness….. Some of them read his books because they don’t know any better or they don’t enjoy reading good Indian fiction or contemporary international literature, or even the classics. No wonder then that they worship Chetan Bhagat. …. Is this Chetan’s fault? Of course not. He didn’t force all these millions of Indians to buy or read his books. He simply used his natural talent to write within his capacity, and the masses happened to love his work. Why blame Chetan for the reading habits of the masses? Our anger at Chetan Bhagat’s success could actually be our displaced anger at the masses….. if you’re a lover of good literature, and are amazed by the constant attention CB gets, my advice is to ignore it. That’s right. We are an evolving society. Until we all evolve to a point we we appreciate good literature, we should realise that there will always be some people who will enjoy reading CB. What’s more, no one’s forcing you to read his books. “

For those who still want to stay angry, is being angry and full of hate all we can do? Can we instead turn our anger to something more positive, creative and better?

Give it a thought.

 

 

 

 

Fiction by Chance.

Musings as we head into another writing workshop this weekend.

Our next workshop is round the corner. ‘Tick- tock it is 30th”. On Sunday. A full day of inner connect, discovering one’s voice, and learning the art and craft of writing. Mentor author Milan Vohra will be with us to share some readings from her works and to discuss romance writing in the current urban Indian set up, YA writing and much more. She will also of course review the writing we do during the day. I have a piece all ready to be reviewed and critiqued. And I plan to write some fresh pages too, while at the workshop itself. Because the energy, the synergy, the sparks flying off and igniting our creativity have to be simply experienced first hand to know their power.

In eager anticipation of what unfolds anew for all of us on 30th August. In this process, truly, the journey is also the destination.

When I think back to how much I have learnt and grown in terms of my writing skills, in the year and half that we have been running Write & Beyond workshops and events, my mind boggles at the results.From being a person who could only ever think of writing in terms of non fiction, and not even ever be able to write a simple short story for a school assignment, to now penning my debut fiction novel, I have been through an incredible progression. Last week I completed a short story of some 3000 words, and shared it on a public forum. This was a first for me. All I have written for public consumption till last week – save an extract from my WIP first novel, as a entry for a contest at the Bangalore Lit Fest 2014, has been non-fiction;  articles, reviews, feature posts, blog writing and professional, analytical non-fiction writing.

And I only have the happy happenstance of Write & Beyond to thank for my venturing into fiction, for being the seeding ground of my tryst with fiction writing. Things come together and shape you path when you are ready. I was ready without my knowing it. But ready I was, and something, some power out there knew what was needed. The dots connected. Passion found purpose. Purpose found supporters. And a whole new movement was born. And I marvel as I see it grow every day. A path was shown and I walked. And here I am now, thrilled that I can write in ways I thought were not ever going to be mine. And even more thrilling and satisfying is the fact that through Write & Beyond I share my learnings with others on a similar journey. And that makes me learn more, better and deeper.

Hail happenstance and hail holding on to a dream. And here is wishing our ‘Tick Tock It is 30th’  writing workshop all the best.

Write & Beyond

Our next workshop is round the corner. ‘Tick- tock it is 30th”. On Sunday. A full day of inner connect, discovering one’s voice, and learning the art and craft of writing. Mentor author Milan Vohra will be with us to share some readings from her works and to discuss romance writing in the current urban Indian set up, YA writing and much more. She will also of course review the writing we do during the day. I have a piece all ready to be reviewed and critiqued. And I plan to write some fresh pages too, while at the workshop itself. Because the energy, the synergy, the sparks flying off and igniting our creativity have to be simply experienced first hand to know their power.

In eager anticipation of what unfolds anew for all of us on 30th August. In this process, truly, the journey is also the destination.

When…

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The power of comfort food. And why we crave it.

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Whole whaeat pancake with fresh fruits and yoghurt. Rishikesh.

Comfort food. A very sought after experience, aptly called so as it gives us much succour  when we are out of our comfort zone, be it with the changing seasons, our low key health, the crisis points of daily life or bigger, epoch making tumults of the times, or just the long winding road of a holiday.

Any food can be comfort food, if it evokes the emotions of wellbeing, familiarity and cosiness. I am told comfort food is food we grew up with. food that mom made. I disagree. Comfort food may be all that, but it is also much more, for me. It is all food that can bring me comfort. A sense of ‘ all is Well’. Of being safe, of being tended to with gentleness, of being in a warm embryonic comfort zone.

As I felt with a plate of sizzling, fresh off the oil french fries made during a mini cloudburst, in the warm and dry comfort of our mountain home when we were forced to be homebound by the forces of nature. The taste of those fries took us out  to wherever we wished to be, while the roads remained blocked for days, and our plans of a trek and a chopper ride into the higher reaches of the mountains remained elusive. Then again, comfort food for me need not be food at all, it can be a drink too. Like the ice cold lemonade made with fresh spring water which is sold at Teen Dhara, the mandatory halt for refreshment on the long drive uphill on the NH 58 from Haridwar to Badrinath, which we also pass enroute to The Birdsong Cottage. The tangy seasoning of that drink takes away the dull tiredness that by that point in the long and heavily winding road journey begins to seep into the muscles. And comfort food can sometimes be totally alien too, something you have never known or tasted and yet, when you have it for the first time, it feels like having come home. Like the time I had the typical Bengali dish of fish curry with Panch Phoron tempering. Nothing in my Punjabi upbringing had prepared me for those flavors. I had never tasted Rui machch before. And yet it was love at first whiff and a life long commitment at first bite. A dish of fish curry made that way will make up for almost anything for me, anytime.

Journeys, being a step outside our set routine life, are perfect settings for comfort foods. Travel takes us out of the familiar, and off the beaten track travel takes us more and more into the unknown. Connecting with comfort food is one way of establishing touch with the familiar, the enfolding cosiness of being loved and cared for, which can sometimes be missed by travellers crossing the frontiers of the known, while seeking the unexplored.

Friendship’s many shades. For a sort of introvert.

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Its always been said about me, in various shades of judgment/ criticism ranging from approval to outright condemnation that I am a people’s person- a friend, a connector, a hanger-on, a compulsive social-iser and so on. Also that I have just too many friends, or that I make friends in all sorts of unlikely places, with unlikely people.

Though I have never been able to motivate and sustain myself to be a group-member in any very structured socializing forum, like kitty parties or lunch-clubs, I am blessed with a lot of personal friends, and maybe I still can’t have enough of them. I just so love being a friend and having friends. But my friendships may not be quite visible to the naked eye. Rarely do I share pictures clicked with arms around my friends on social media. I am cutting down on partying in big groups- there being no chance to connect one on one at such dos. and when I do party with close friends, it is again a very private affair, so it might look to the wider world looking at friendship from a certain lens that I don’t quite make the cut in the ‘friendly’ way.

Being by nature a rather curious, attentive, connecting sort of person who is also in a way rather introverted, and one who lives a lot of her life in her mind, I don’t know what to make of these black and white classifications of social/ non-social, introvert-extrovert, your type- not your type labels. I am what I am – and that essentially for me has come to mean being an open minded, open hearted person. I make friends with all kinds of people, and some of my friends find the other friends I have, quite a handful to handle, or at best an an enigma. And thats ok by me, and thats their stuff to deal with.

What I care about is that these are people who have each accepted me and in turn found acceptance with me. with all our differences and our divergent paths. It is a bond that holds tight even when it uses no ties at all.

What I find most fun, exciting, happy and happening and helpful about having so many friends across places, life situations, professions, cultures and age-groups is that I have a full range of experiences to dip into which on my own I would not go seeking. Friends who never married or chose not to have kids are my way to voraciously live my once strongly held belief of not marrying, not being a mother. A friend who lost a child on the baby’s first birthday and yet can smile when she tells the tale  has redefined the term ‘joie de vivre’ for me.  Friends who held on to jobs through thick and thin are leading the life I opted out of some years ago. Those who gave up on the love of their life to marry someone chosen by parents for ‘bigger’ reasons give me peep into a choice I doubt I could ever make. Those who have romantic or ‘just physical’ liaisons outside marriage show me a life I am no longer mystified by. The one who left it all to be a monk in a forest monastery made me look at my spiritual needs in a totally new way. And most surprisingly, for a non-runner like me, my marathon running friends are finally making me feel so restless about sitting on my butt all day…..

And of course will all these vicarious lives to live and share in, I never feel alone, or cut off from the big flow of life around me, even though I have banned TV from my life 🙂

I have a home in so many different parts of the world because a friend from sometime is somewhere, happy to open her heart and home to me, should I want to drop in. I have a dozen experts in different walks of life to consult on matters I know little about. I have a rich range of recipes and culinary feasts to indulge in at various festivals, and just like that too, like the time a friend married into a South Indian household sent me my favorite Rasam when I was down with Flu. Or the time my friends from Bengal got me my favorite saris- Dhakais and Jamdaanis, from Calcutta because I so love these and haven’t been to Calcutta in ages…or how my Assamese friend serves me only fresh garden plucked tea at her home, since she knows I love it and wont get it anywhere else…the list is endless. And not just for food and goodies; the treasure trove is even richer and more valuable when it comes to life-crises, emotional issues, relationships, health care, lifestyle, guidance and learning. Almost all the good things I learnt outside books, school and college, and even while in formal education, have come to me via friends  – gardening, cooking, alternate healing, investment advice, even business help, mentoring and networking.

So this is my thank you and salaam to all of you, buddies from across the years and from all over. Thank you for looking out for me, listening to me, sharing your lives with me, and holding and supporting me in your loving, gentle embrace with your strong and capable arms. You are a treasure I feel blessed to have in my life.

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She is your DAUGHTER – NOT your son! And sooner you accept & like it, better for all of us!

My encounters with TV entertainment are limited. But just very occasionally I do tune in to the popular trending shows. If only to have the chance to say, ‘Yes, I too saw this”, thus asserting to self and others that I still belong to the world here and now. That I am not quite a dinosaur already.

So, when it comes to Indian Idol Junior‬, ‪I have learnt to ignore the painful drama of the presenters, the silly, sanctimonious and repetitive script of the judges, and the sheer pointlessness of the format. Take what you like and ignore the rest is my approach most of the time. After all, my taste in art, music and entertainment is not the Nation’s taste, and if the Nation seeks to see a gladiatorial decimation of young talent, who am I to rail against it?

But today even my serene, accepting, let-it-go attitude has had enough! Hence this post. From a rattled and ranting me. On the raving lunacy I perceive being playing out on a widely watched iconic show. In praising one of the contestants, a young girl called Naheed, Sonakshi Sinha prattles thus : “I noticed what your Dad said to you right at audition time, and that is what my Dad says to me, and it makes me feel very proud. That you are not my daughter, you are my son.” Or in Hindi, ” Beti nahin, Beta ho Tum”.

So, we were being told again, on TV, at PrimeTime, by a young working woman, a daughter of a famous yesteryears cine-star, that being a daughter is after all a cross. And when your father can see you as a son, you are so blessedly redeemed! Just as she was. And if that happens, count your lucky stars for the wonderful, progressive and great man you have as a father. A man who can so magnanimously let you step into the shoes of a son!

I only wish we were in a time-capsule and this scene was taking place at least 40 years ago. or even 20? But we are in 2015.

I felt sickened to hear Sonakshi do this. I felt the toxic touch of a deep rot that seems embedded into the psyche of so many of us. I wonder if Sonakshi has at any time felt bad that her Dad is not proud of her as a beti (daughter)? Did it ever ever bother her, as to why there is even a need to bring in the beta (son) comparison ? What is the sub-text of these statements made so blithely and so proudly? Do Sonakshi and the millions who mouth the same kind of lines realize that by deigning to respect a girl only by accepting her as a beta (son), you invalidate her very being, her very natural state? You deny her a valid existence in the skin she was born with. It is as if only when the taint she carries- her daughterhood, is relegated to irrelevance,  supplanted by her being seen as a son, that she can truly make everyone proud, and truly be one with her worldly achievements and glory!

The fact is that in the rule book, things have moved on. But in our minds and in our ways of framing world views, we are still lagging behind. A show like Indian Idol allows all genders to participate as equals. It is not like some places having rules that forbid certain things for a girl. Like driving. Or working in many fields along side males. But no, we have to still act like we are in the times of the ‘abla naari’ – the helpless, victimized and weak woman.  We are like this only, and we will extol misogyny! Being a girl is still not congruent with worldly success in our minds. Else why the need for the imagery of a son, to tell the tale of a daughter’s glory? I doubt I can wrap my head around this one, but I promise you I am trying very hard!

Naheed did well because she is hardworking, talented and so on. She should not have to bear the ignominy of being validated as a son she is clearly not, and being invalidated as the daughter she naturally is. Can we respect our daughters just as daughters, without the need to see them as proxy son‬s? Can we stop stripping them of their natural birth-given identity and sense of self in moments of their greatest triumphs, by not saying about them ‘beti nahin beta ho tum?’

At the birth of a girl, many so called modern, progressive parents decide to be really good to their daughter. By asking her overtly to not do ‘girly’ things. By drilling into her how she is the beta, and is therefore free to do all the great things a beta would. What about telling her instead, dearest daughter, you are a wonderful new life we are blessed with, go live your life to the fullest, chase your dreams, and let us be the wind beneath your wings?

Oh, the people you’ll meet

From a very helpful and interesting blog I discovered about Writing! So, tell us, what inspires your writing?

What Inspires Your Writing?

Home, for Lori Rensink, will always be the farm she grew up on, where she spent her summers careree and barefoot. Fortunately, she never had to move during her childhood, so for all those years, turning onto that long, gravel driveway always meant one thing: she was almost home. But since the age of eighteen, this paralegal and possible future law school student has found herself moving twice a year. In fact, she says, she’s become quite the expert at packing and moving.

Not that that’s a bad thing?she’s just restless. And that restlessness has taken her far and wide. Whether she’s helping build houses in Mexico, attending a conference in Philadelphia, or just relaxing on a boat in Eufaula (Whofaula? It’s in Oklahoma), Lori obviously enjoys the company of the myriad people she meets along the way. And the time she spent working in a coffee…

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