Book Report: May 2018

I am two weeks late, by my own rules, for the monthly book report for May. The first and only time I am allowed to do this. (Promise to self).

Knot for Keeps – Writing the Modern Marriage. Edited by Sathya Saran

Any attempt to dissect and discuss marriage is bound to be mired in complications, contrasting viewpoints, and dollops of hope and despair. Pretty much like the thing itself, it can follow no simple trajectory or denouement except a clear beginning and an uncertain end. So this book is an ambitious project in every way.
It gets sixteen writers together within its well designed, prettily packaged and bound pages, offering readers different perspective and stories on marriage. In that diversity of approaches, content and concerns, readers can find plenty of information and insights, and possibly a connection to their own unique situation vis a vis the idea and practice of marriage.
The stories, essays and a lone poem together offer a general overview of the modern state of marriage, and at times the telling is refreshingly at variance from the more popular presentation of coupledom in entertainment and art.
Sharanya Manivannan leads us into the book with a stellar essay that both questions marriage and posits the singledom as a state of arrival. Most poignant, incisive and deeply personal, this piece asks us to reconsider the idea of pairing as the default adult mode of existence. As she says, ‘…the first thing I must tell anyone about finding a meaningful paradigm for an unpartnered life : It is possible’ …..’Consider the absurdity of the term ‘pre- marital sex’. What is that except the presumption that sex before marriage is out of the norm because marriage is an eventuality?’
The book ends with an assessment by Vijay Nagaswami, of the nature of the recently emergent New Indian Marriage and its participants, the New Indians. Based oh his work with couples he holds out hope of a uniquely Indian response to the changing contours of individual expectations in the evolution of marriage.
In between the challenge posed to inevitable partnering in the first chapter and the hope held out in the last for an evolution to a better form of marital bliss, there are varying shades of marriage stories shared.
Milan Vohra‘s recounting of a husband and wife’s breathless, racing complaints against each other entrances us into their love story, only to leave us achingly heartbroken in the end. This story captures beautifully the ‘gusse mein bhi pyaar’ notion in its most positive expression, in my view.
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli and Chitra Viraraghavan offer us fictional glimpses of marriages navigating infidelity and incompatibility, but the absurd games of one-upmanship the stories move through are not too far fetched for many a real real life marriage as well.
Neha Dixit’s piece on the rigmarole and harassment that goes with a ‘court marriage’, specially in the case of ‘love’ marriages of interfaith and intercaste couples, is something Hindi films never show.
Abha Iyengar writes with searing pain about the lot of a girl of a certain age in our culture, where her marriage is deemed more important than her selfhood.
Further heartbreak, as also warmth awaits us in the real life story of a married couple living with the foreknowledge of death of one partner, cherishing each other and their time together. (Rita Mukherjee wrote this piece and did not live to see the book in print).
On the other hand, Noor Zaheer’s piece lays bare the inherent biases and blocks to the dissolution of the most prioritised and protected of social and religious institution – that of marriage – across cultures and political systems even today, with her focus in particular on the struggles of Muslim women.
Wendell Rodrick’s touching personal essay on same sex couples being forced to the margins of love and legitimacy is another pointer to the long march ahead in the transformation of marriage towards something more just, equitable and in keeping with the progressive individualistic values of the modern world.
Not all is serious gloom and doom though, in a collection as varied as this. There are essays on the imperfect pairing of a chhottoo and lamboo as the Hindi term goes, the winning over of relatives and their prejudices in a Bengal-Punjab pairing, and the choice of marrying late and finding it surprising suitable and enjoyable, after being opposed to the idea of marriage for years. There is the heartening story of Aparna Sen’s marriage to Kalyan Ray as told by the husband – a long distance second marriage for both, of over two decades, across continents.
On balance, this is a book for keeps, for reading in small doses and large, as mood dictates, and thinking over, as your married or not married life throws curve balls at you. I wonder if the absence of a divorced or widowed contributor was a choice or an oversight. After all, what the once married and now single have to say about the modern marriage is also an important reflection on the subject.

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March 2018 Book Report .Ghachar Ghochar.

Ghachar Ghochar

 

By Vivek Shanbhag. Translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur

Meeting Mr. Shanbhag recently made me go back to his internationally acclaimed, translated into English novel. This is also the time I have been paying more attention to translations in general, and I must say that if you haven’t been reading outside the borders of English language originals, please start to do so.

Ghachar Ghochar is a masterpiece of subtle storytelling. The nonsense title phrase is easily understood as something terribly tangled, and needs no translation. But the rest of the book could not have reached non-Kannada speakers without the brilliant trans-creation. And that is something all discerning readers can be grateful for. Because this a novel that is not to be missed if you appreciate a finely crafted, solidly rooted story of large themes and concerns, that is as subtle as it is disconcerting.

Ghachar Ghochar is a scathing social and moral indictment, a detailed empirical study, and a precise self-reflection of the unnamed narrator on himself and his rather toxic, enmeshed family. Nothing is quite as it seems, in the claustrophobic life in the narrator’s home. The early privations of the family and its later wealth change something in the nature of power, loyalty and obedience between them. They remain a unit ready to defend and attack as one, through the change of fortunes, from attacking and crushing ants to breaking any intrusion or opposition in any form from anyone inside or outside the home. Into this tribalism comes the wife of the narrator, an outsider who refuses to assimilate and become a cog in the system of daily cruelties and blind obedience. Her independent stance and critical eye on what goes on around her are the undoing of much, in horrific ways.

The novel leads us to the edge and then does not tie up any lose ends. The reader can form their own conclusions with a mix of dread and hope against hope.
At 115 pages this is one of the slimmest books you can find so go get it if you haven’t yet. I am sure you will be left reeling.

Not A Missed Connection

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Amit curses the Delhi summer. He has been away for two weeks in misty Arunachal Pradesh, and his body seems to have forgotten how to transit back. Endless heat and dust and paseena, and the Metro carriage full to bursting are not conducive for a man to keep his cool. The thought of the new semester at college from tomorrow doesn’t hold its usual eager charm. Not after the setback to his doctoral plans. He doesn’t really even want to do the PhD; it isn’t the label he cares for. All he wants is to read, to discuss, and to teach. But he has to earn his keep in this world.

“Thand rakh yaar” is a lofty idea favored by his trek guide Dorje, back in the mountains, but that is so impractical here, velcroed to each other’s reluctant bodies as they all are. It may be better to get off and wait for another less crowded train, thinks Amit, and steps off at the next halt.

Peak hours in the sky too, he notes, looking at the airplanes that streak across the kaleidoscopic evening sky, up above the Qutub Minar and the Mehrauli forest. It is almost sunset, and the hydrogen fireball that powers all of life is slipping out of sight. It has been twenty years since Amit had his first look the Qutub Minar and the fascination has not faltered. He still gets his students out here for quite a few lectures, and spends winter weekends at one or the other monument lawns across the Capital.

Amit slips his backpack off, and sits down on a bench. The bag is beginning to weigh him down in the heat. It has been a long day since he left Itanagar early in the morning. The Pepsi he bought at Delhi airport is still somewhat cool, and he sips the leftover before chucking the bottle in the dustbin. The trains come and go, blasting him with a rush of hot air. The crowds of passengers are thinning, he can see.

“No extra baggage. Empty what’s no use.” Dorje’s words come back to Amit as he opens the cover of his bag and lifts out a thick spiral bound document. This is the useless baggage he has carried all through his holiday in defiance of Dorje’s instructions and checks. It is his PhD proposal. The one his HOD has rejected two weeks ago. Amit has not opened it these two weeks, and he has thought of little else, while in the midst of awe inspiring earthly wonders and novel experiences with different man-made systems in a new place. He knows he will not be doing anything with it now. What use is it to dwell over what cannot be? The deadline for submitting a proposal looms ahead in a few days. His HOD has left the university, handpicked for a place on the Council of Historical Research. Some committee to re-look Indian history or something such, Amit heard, after his proposal was rejected and the HOD’s leaving was announced, all on the same day.

Amit knows a new HOD joins tomorrow. Someone from Oxford, relocating to India. Some Dr. Amandeep Sandhu. Amit has not bothered to read the circular in any detail. How does it matter now? He wonders if it might be the time to move on, to apply for a place in a university abroad, what with the ghar wapsi of so many from there. But for now, he still has to find and submit a new topic for his PhD thesis. Brave New World may be his favorite book, but using it as part of historical scholarship seems too brave an idea, even in this new workplace. Amit is sure he cannot – or does not want to – think of something else soon enough to make the deadline. He is not a quick turn around person, in most things. Almost everything about Amit is slow, considered, and gentle. “Thehrav hai ladke mein”, as his Daadi used to say.

Amit leaves the document on the bench, closes the bag, and lifts it on his shoulders. Adjusting the weight, he scans the platform. A train is headed his way, its headlight dancing a racy number on the tracks. The pages of the document flutter in the powerful draught pushed ahead by the speeding train. Amit watches the pages straining against the hot air. For two weeks Dorje has urged him to drop all that is not needed. Dorje knows all about survival, about what to carry and what to leave behind. Amit lunges for the document, and flings it on the tracks. He boards the almost empty compartment.

Amit has always been happy to be outside the limelight. Doing his work quietly, doing it well, and finding the time to indulge his pet hobbies of trekking and sketching monuments. As a history lecturer in a government college till recently, he has been quite out of the race for publishing in professional journals, and is never found jostling for a seat on the conference circuit merry go round. He is popular with his students, as he is a kind and concerned teacher. He is liked well enough by his colleagues, and is a great cook and keeps a well stocked bar at his rented flat. But everyone senses there is an Amit they can never touch. No wonder he is still a bachelor, they say when he is not within earshot. Who spends their free time always in the library, always at bookshops, always reading at home? And then not even publish papers?

Amit keeps his fiction ambitions to himself. He cannot face the endless questions any mention of his one published historic fiction brings. You wrote a historic love story? Are you a romantic? Why aren’t you married? When are you getting married? What are you writing next, why don’t you write more? Why don’t you focus on academic writing more? Why don’t you do your PhD? Hardly anyone he knows outside his students’ circle has read the book, though.

Everyone has ruled out that he is gay, finding he makes no distinctions between the way he is equally courteous to both men and women. But they all agree he is too fussy, and a bit strange. He has opted out of all whatsapp groups even though he has a smartphone. He objects to jokes that laugh at men, women, married, single, queer, Punjabi, Madrasi, Gujarati, Bengali…. Irish, Jews. Well, some people are just born serious, they say. But he is a nice sort, they all agree, Means no harm. So they leave him alone, except when they invite themselves over, and he lets them come and feast on his food and drink his wine and then politely asks them to help him do the dishes. They don’t mind, not particularly. At the university he has now joined, in fact, he is a sort of trendsetter. At every party at all faculty homes he is invited to, the guests help clear up and do the dishes. He has so far avoided moving to campus housing. The Metro is a boon.

Amit stretches his tense and tired body. Legs outward, back against the seat back, arms upward. The coach is empty, practically. The contained spaciousness inside the carriage feels soothing and cool. There is one woman seated near the exit. She is reading a book. He cannot make out which one.  Amit finds it fascinating that she hasn’t looked up at all from her book since he has stepped in. He hasn’t been able to take his eyes off her, though he is trying to be very discreet about it. The train has slipped underground and the windows face a black emptiness. Amit makes himself turn his face in the opposite direction.

He must think of what he has to do from tomorrow. Now, this HOD, who is coming in. He must be savvier and sense the ideological leanings of this one before he does anything about the new proposal. The thought feels like a heavy burden. A stifling of everything Amit lives by. He does not wish to put anyone under a microscope, to feel them out like a hunter. He feels cornered himself, shrinking with the familiar sense of being held back. His father and his uncle pressing their hands on his shoulders, and shaking him. “Why can’t you help out in the summer holidays? When will you learn this work if all your time will be spend stuck to a useless book?” Surrounded by cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents and neighbors in their modest chawl room near Opera House, Amit has spent a lot of his childhood outdoors, walking the streets of South Bombay, and then indoors at the dark and cool public library a few blocks away, and in the Irani Café across the library after library hours. A studious boy, who preferred to discuss books about imagined scenarios that didn’t involve buying and selling fast moving commodities, he has been secretly pitied and publicly scolded for his lack of smarts all his childhood.

“History! Who studies history, for Narayan’s sake…what will you do, be a school master? And live in a village?” The family had been shaken by his choice of a college out of town. “Delhi? Junglee place it is! They eat non-veg all the time, and drink whiskey and beer. Why are you doing this to us, haven’t we let you do your silly book worship without making a fuss all these years? Keep reading, keep writing your little articles. Peanuts you get paid for them, but we don’t want money from you. Why ruin your life now? Correspondence B.A. is possible, why don’t you do that, if you really want the degree so much?” It is hard for Amit to feel his own breath. He stands up with a small jump. The woman’s head jerks towards him. “You alright?” She stares at him with questioning brown eyes. Her voice is like the flow of the rivers he has been boating across till just yesterday. Perky, and quick and sweet.

Amit glances around. He is embarrassed. He sits down again and shakes his head at the woman. “I am sorry”.

“No problem. But are you okay?” She pulls a bottle of water out of her bag and stretches her arm towards him. He gets up and walks towards her across the compartment. The water is chilled, the bottle is some sort of thermos. It feels lovely. Comforting.

“I am a bit stiff. Just back from a long trek.” It feels nice to stand, to stretch up a bit on his toes, to flex his hands and arms at the holding rail.

“My station is up next.” The woman is standing next to him now, putting her book into her bag. The red spirals are scribbled over, but there can be no mistake. It is the book he hasn’t been able to get of his mind, Brave New World.

“You are reading my favorite book in the whole world.” Amit hastens to tell her, as the train slows down. His own voice is quickening, his heartbeat racing.

The woman smiles and her eyes shine at him. “Wow, it is my favorite too. I go back to it all the time. I am Amu.” Her skin is soft, her hand small and her grip firm, and Amit catches a whiff of khus. The doors slide open and she takes her hand away from his, and steps out. The doors slide shut even as Amit takes a step forward and shouts out his name.

She is waving at him and laughing as the train moves away, and Amit hasn’t felt this light and happy in years. He will meet her again, he is sure. She will find him. He will look for her. She seemed to be an office goer, from her rather formal blue pantsuit. Back from a business trip from somewhere abroad, going by the airline tags on her bag. He pulls at his earlobes. His station is two stops away. He begins to hum a tune. It is the first time he has actually talked to someone on the Metro.

—-

Amit’s morning lectures are over. The new HOD had called a staff meeting over lunch. Amit is the first to arrive, a little before the said time. The office assistant is arranging chairs around the large worktable. In his Bengali accented Hinglish he tells Amit, “Woh bahar gaya, phone ka signal bery bad. I go tell you here. ” The office looks completely different from the last time Amit has visited. There are books piled on the wall mounted floater shelves. The walls are otherwise bare but have a new coat of bright yellow paint. Cartons still unopened are crowded into one corner. Amit moves towards the pile of books. He cannot stop his hand from reaching out. It is incredible, but there can be no doubt. It is the same book. The same scribbles on the red spirals. He opens it. In black ink, well-formed words proclaim “For Amu. With hope, love and blessings, Dad.” Amit is shaking, holding the book close to his chest. A faint whiff of lignin, and then khus. A voice he has not forgotten since last evening whispers softly in his ear. “You didn’t tell me your name in the train, so shall we start with that now?”

“Good afternoon Dr. Sandhu”, calls out Amit’s colleague Sameer’s loud voice. Amit turns from the bookshelf and watches the woman from the train move to a chair around the table. The HOD is about to start the meeting with her staff.

 

January Book Report.Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. By Gail Honeyman

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
By Gail Honeyman

I picked up this book the favourite way I like to explore and buy books. I regularly walk into bookstores and browse many volumes. Linger over blurbs and jackets and flip through the pages. And then buy some because they make me want to spend more time with them than just the moments or hours possible in bookstores.
Anyway, coming to the book. I picked it up because of the catchy curious title. And something about the way the blurb was framed. I could sense this was a story with an emotional load I was going to savour. And I was right.
This debut novel set in modern day Glasgow is so refined and polished and subtle that I wonder how long the author held the story in her mind before it actually got published. And what a story it is. A gut wrenching tale of loneliness, soul damage, social anomie and being saved, of being on the outside and wanting to fit in while being clueless; at the same time a story filled with gentleness and warmth and finally, hope. And keeps a genuinely light funny attitude to things without sounding clever or over sophisticated.
Eleanor is the narrator who is an odd one who leads a lonely life of fixed routine and simple habits. We realise soon enough that this is her safe holding phase after a traumatic childhood and an unsettled youth. She wants to be left alone and yet she longs for love and can get pretty delusional about it too.
The story starts with Eleanor attempting to make a change. And then relentlessly keeps bringing change and novelty to Eleanor, and with ever so natural nudges the house of cards that holds memories and emotions in check comes tumbling down.
Eleanor is by chance pulled in to help save a stranger’s life, and then into befriending his family. In all this, she also becomes friends with her office colleague Raymond. All the while, she also has an almost delusional crush on a no good musician. From a recluse and office robot Eleanor starts shifting into someone who meets people, goes out and starts to dress well and groom herself more stylishly. She cries without warning. She takes risks. She is ready to be different, she thinks. She wants her life to be different, to mean something, to be fine. She is desperate for something to change, for the ‘correct’ love to rescue her somehow. But of course life is not a simple wish list. Eleanor’s delusions come crashing to the ground as soon as she tries to make them real. But while she breaks down along with her dreams, she is finally able to come to grips with the truth about herself, and reach out for help offered by her new friend, and to overcome a lifetime of fear and fabrication.
The author shows immense control over a suspenseful narrative while threading a plot through past and present. I don’t want to say more about the story as that would be giving away too much, but I can talk about the intelligence with which the narrative unfolds. It is a lesson in crafting a gripping drama in the first person. The voice is intimate yet never lazily familiar, and helps each of the characters become real people we know and care for and cry for and hate and feel scared of. I love how the book remains light and nimble and conversational while it goes at difficult themes and macabre minds. In the end it feels like a simple good versus bad kind of story that leaves the reader full of hope for the characters, and with a paisa wasool feeling for themselves.
A recommended read if you want an old fashioned drama with innocents and villains and good samaritans and a few twists, and a redemptive closure, laced with wit, intelligence and lots of warmth and grace.

November Book Reading Report

The Whole Shebang – Sticky Bits Of Being A Woman

By Lalit Iyer

Despite the somewhat misleading title, the book is really not about women in general, or even some women. It is a series of personal opinion pieces sorted into seventeen chapters on varied aspects of being Lalita Iyer, the woman. The author herself is at pains to point this out in the Prologue, which I would recommend as necessary first reading on picking up the book. Above all, it is a book for anyone interested in how a particular woman thinks of her life and herself.

This slim 142-page compendium based on earlier columns and writings, connects, soothes, provokes and preaches, and manages to feel mostly likeable and a just a little unsettling. There are the usual suspects- bitchy schoolgirls, teenage angst, breast longings, and infatuations based on nothing but a look…and then there are unconventional storylines playing tug of war with the standard issue memo on being a woman. There is frankness, wit, courage, confusion, confession and hope. And listicles in some chapters, with authorly gyaan and tips.

Claiming to be still figuring out “How to be a woman’, Lalita lays down her belief that “being a woman is a serious amount of admin.” And talks of the sense of things “left undone” and “checklists crawling beneath our epidermis, reminding us” of this. The rest of the book then unravels the author’s sense of being a work in progress through puberty to middle age, to be an independent person, in delightfully devilish detail.

Being pre-millennial, her recollections of childhood and youth bring to life times and images we have almost archived into non-existence, like the compulsory chemise worn under the white school uniform, wax-coated paper packed Parle-G, mixed tapes as courtship, and Ovaltine. A serial job changer, a science-y working as a journalist and writer, a woman who married later than most, and became a mother at almost forty, and is now at forty nine a single mother to her son, Lalita’s stories bring an unusual lens to the common and uncommon issues of her and every woman’s life.

I for one could not see the merit of so many pages devoted to getting one’s period, the travails with ill-fitting bras and the cruelty of thongs. But some of these, along with body size and image are topics I see many women of all ages obsess about almost forever. In Lalita’s blunt and vivid telling of these issues lies a comment on the tyranny of conflicting forces acting on women, and the cinch women are in, ironically, all at once, of seductive fashion, modesty dictats and a deeply conditioned desire for approval.

“Every once in a while, I muster the courage to walk into a Mango or a Zara or a Promod and try on clothes which fit one part of my body but don’t fit another and I tell myself – I am totally out of proportion. What I don’t tell myself is that these clothes were made to squash me into someone else’s shape.”

In the personal stories and stern guidelines of sorts, many readers will recognize how they don’t take themselves seriously as a person; beyond the relationship they have to significant others in their life. And how ambivalent they are about owning their careers and especially about money matters. And how they lose themselves even in the role that is supposedly their identity- that of a mother, or a wife.

“Mother love was not enough for me to feel me. I needed more, and I went after it. That was the only way I could retain my selfhood. That’s the only way I want Re to remember me when I am gone. Not someone who lost herself in him.”

The Whole Shebang has a bold, specific and contemporary tonality to its slice of life writing. There is vulnerability and openness of voice and individuality of details that draws the reader in. With confessions and intelligent wit it also exudes hope and sisterhood, and give wings to the reader’s imagination. The reader is likely to be comforted with a realization that she is not alone in all that confuses and confounds her. Someone else has been there too, and lived to tell the tale.

The most enjoyable bits of reading this book for me were the chapters on love, marriage, money, friends, the in-laws and the future. It is here I felt the writing acquired the most natural, most nuanced richness and depth. With engrossing self-deprecation and eyes open wide practicality Lalita reflects on the changes in her own thinking and the changing ways of the dating game. The affliction of imagining love stories is examined threadbare. The Idea of self-love is embraced.

“We are constantly examining our imaginary love stories in our heads – constructing and deconstructing scenarios – decoding what he said to reveal what he really meant, looking for signs, seeing signs while none exist: in text messages, whatsapps, Facebook, Instagram, and in all avatars in which it is humanly possible for one person to exist.”

I also specially liked the fact that topics like money, work, and motherhood are covered in a matter of fact way, without getting heavy handed or frivolous. Like in these lines from “Planning for retirement’.

“You need to have a nest egg both as assets and savings for retirement irrespective of a spouse or lack thereof or whether your parents are going to leave you a nice inheritance. … You will be surprised how few women factor this in. I have already budgeted for a halfway house with my friends when I am sixty. I don’t believe children should be treated as old-age insurance.”

Given the book’s chapters covers a wide span of time in a woman’s life it can grow along with the reader’s experience, and be a sounding board for the long haul, as well a companion for a brief fling. Rather like a combination shampoo-conditioner, unlike the dichotomous category of men someone put across to the author – that of being either a shampoo or a conditioner. (The shampoo is meant to leave, the conditioner meant to stay….read the book to know moreJ)

“When relationships are depleting, it’s friendships we turn to for replenishment, connection, a shared sensibility and laughs. Our women friends help us raise the bar; we look up to our friends more often and in more ways than we think. … How many times have you told a female friend, “You know, I should have so married you!”

The Whole Shebang is just one such friend every woman could commune with at least once.

 

Making of friends as making of self

I mostly made acquaintances and not friends in my 20s and 30s. On the matter of friends I was settled for life, I thought. I didn’t need new friends. Not the real, know you inside out type, at least. Deep intense friendships from high school and college were enough. Who had ever heard of grown ups making new friends anyway, back then? With the old friends we had wondered at the world and its puzzling, often scary ways. We had shared dreams and fears. We had been vulnerable and strong together. Now was the time to make something of ourselves in the grown up world. 

Most of my friends were not geographically close anymore, and I missed their constant unplanned presence in my life outside campus. I had moved homes and jobs. That made it harder to not miss my circle of close buddies. I did hang out with new people. There was the office gang, and a fun boss with whom I discovered so much of Delhi’s cultural heritage. There were the old college friends and new colleagues I went travelling impromptu with.

But something was shifting. The new connections had an adult formality to them. I made friends in the new neighborhood too. They were girls who had nothing in common with me in background or education. But we liked each other. With them it was all about learning to fit in and not stand out. It was nice to not be always alone but it was not fulfilling at all.

I call it the year of my anomie. It was horrible.

was buried deep in books, preparing for the civil services exam. And commuting hours daily in a chartered bus across New Delhi to another new job. I remember sharing my sense of missing the constancy of close friends with my best buddy from university. She had also been my co-worker at our first job. Now we worked in different places. She told me it was childish of me to hanker after old friends. I should focus more on making a career and not yearn for friends, she said, with some irritated puzzlement. In today’s parlance I guess she meant I had a lot of adulting to do. She herself was busy with a new job, an old boyfriend and an impending marriage and had no time for reflections on the lost rhythm of old friendships.

On a visit to an out of town college friend I met her new circle of colleagues and friends. Finally, after two years, here was the atmosphere I craved. The collegiate camaraderie. The company of people like us. The sense of home-coming was strong and seductive. And of course, delusional. But I had fallen in love. Suddenly it didn’t matter that all my friends were far away. Romance has that way of filling you up. The web of your connectedness feels expansive like the ever-stretching universe, complete with its own black-holes of no return. A misunderstanding around the new developments pulled a common friend down the vortex of non-friendship. New constellations were formed. Possibilities loomed.

I married and moved to another town after a tumultuous year of courtship. The only friends there were his work colleagues and their collective (mostly new) friends. The work of adopting them as my/ our friends began. From a very individualistic, one on one friend maker I tried to become good at being a part of a gang. Letters and then email and then mobile phone calls became a lifeline back to the ‘real’ friendships of a simpler more innocent time. For the first time I started holding back from sharing with my old friends, even while staying in touch. I guess I was hiding from myself in a way. A wifely loyalty and mother’s guilt fought to censor friendship’s candour.

Over time, across the world, I kept making up and and breaking up with more new friends. The ones who knew me only in the avatar of wife, mother, home-maker and corporate worker. For years, through my 30s I honed the art of making and keeping ‘situational’ friends. One of those bonds has lasted for over twenty years. But most served to fit in a specific sphere and time of my life.

In my 40s I reconnected with a lot of old college and high school friends. I found it was like we had not moved away at all. The years in between and all the highs and lows of life we had faced seem to make us like each other more. The acceptance seems to have turned more authentic, the trust stronger, the wish to stand by and for each other even more spontaneous. Even black-holes yield to the pull of friendships formed in one’s youth. After more than twenty years, friendship has triumphed over misunderstandings, strongly rejecting lies and meanness. Censorship has been put aside. Candour rules. You don’t fake it and you don’t make time or space for the fake-ness of others. 

In my late 40s I have come full circle about friendship. I have begun to make new friends just like I did in my high school and college days. By being just me, sans roles, sans reserve, sans censor. The most active churning of friends in my life is happening now. I am also finally my own best friend, which makes it so much more fun to be friends with others.

 

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

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

In Hot Blood. By Bachi Karkaria. A Review.

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I have not watched a single one of the Nanavati murder trial and ménage-e-trios inspired movies, not have I ever been remotely curios about this so-called national sensation. Yet, after this book came out last month my book club decided to go for it. That compulsion, rather than the topic made me read it. And it turned out to be more than worth the time and effort. An enjoyable, educative and thought provoking read, in so many ways this turned out to be.

 

Bachi Karkaria has gone through exhaustive and extensive research to make the story richly detailed, in-depth, and almost a full sociological treatise on the times (1950-60) of the events, their background, context and aftermath on various aspects of the nation’s judicial systems and particularly Bombay’s socio-cultural life. From interviews with those who were around in those times, and those who can tell us something new as well as retell the old facts, she presents a fresh look at one of the most talked about murder cases in the history of modern India. Not a simple task, this, which Bachi carries off with élan.

 

The facts are supposedly known to everyone, but I will recap. Kawas Nanavati is being cheated on by his wife, Sylvia. She confesses to the husband, and tells him to be careful – she fears for his life as her lover, Prem Ahuja has a gun. The shattered husband is a naval commander. He too can get a gun. Which he does. And he then goes to confront the lover- to ask him what his intentions are, and if he plans to do the honorable thing by marrying Sylvia and taking care of the children. Kawas is seen going to Prem Ahuja’s room. There is no witness to what happens inside. Three shots ring out from behind closed doors. Nanavati walks out, his white dress unblemished and surrenders himself to the naval police for having shot a man. Ahuja is found dead with gun shot wounds.

 

In court, Kawas pleads not guilty. On purely circumstantial evidence the jury too calls him not guilty. Throughout the trail, Nanavati is the hero of the masses and the media. The jury system earns its nail in the coffin with this case and is never used again in India. Nanavati is found guilty on appeal, but again pardoned by the state governor.

 

These are the facts. But behind them lies a fascinating maze of coincidences, manipulations, prejudices, class and community networks of allegiance and privilege. Partisan media uses its power of mass opinion making, and forgets journalistic neutrality. The Blitz goes all out to defend Nanavati and runs petitions for him. How did all this actually play out? What factors could have worked behind the scenes to move which levers? Why was murder not seen as murder but a point of honor? What made Nanavati the hero he seemed to be viewed as? What made Sylvia not a vamp but an object of sympathy or even indifference? What made Ahuja a villain who no one shed tears for?

 

All this and more is the focus of Bachi Karkaria’s elaborate delving into this old story. Her recreation of the Bombay of the late 50s is picture perfect, in all details. The courts, the Navy areas, the localities of posh Malabar Hill, the cinemas, the markets, the streets all come alive as if a movie runs in real time. The dialogues, the imagery, the aura and ethos of the communities that play the main roles are all vividly and precisely depicted.

 

The writing does get over the top at just a very few places, in typical Bachi style, which I (in a case of absolutely subjective aesthetic preference) found a tad out of place in reading a serious book of investigative/reconstructive journalism, but I can’t say it took away much from the book. For a case as sensational as this, hyperbole and drama is part of the territory in the retelling. Bachi manages to keep the drama alive while she remains almost clinically detached in the retelling. Nothing is assumed or taken at face value, and the alternate possibility is considered and the alternate voice is given a legitimate place. Through it all if the author tends to lean towards anything, then it is to constitutional values and the spirit of constitutional law, and a sense of fairness and open minded questioning.

 

It can tend to feel repetitive and maybe slow reading for those looking for the more juicy kind of sleaze and gossip, but that is not the author’s intention, though she does not shy from presenting all of those facts too.

 

After all the points of law and constitutional propriety and Naval and Parsi privilege are debated and understood, the book still leaves me with the biggest mystery unsolved. How does a couple pick up the shot to hell pieces of their relationship after a man is killed in hot blood, over the matter of the wife’s infidelity, and go on to build a new life? The author does reveal a lot of factual details of the Nanavati’s life after their move to Canada, but those chapters lack the insights and depth of the proceedings of the trial, or of the context around it.

 

How did these people later forgive each other, if not totally forget the tragedy? I guess that will remain for us to guess and for them to know. Or food for another book.

 

 

 

It Ends With Us – A novel by Colleen Hoover. A Review.

My April Review. Kind of late, but still within my target of the month. Triggered by some things read recently about the abused wife of an Indian-born Techie CEO in USA.
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“Why did she not leave him?”

“Why do you stay on?”

“If you take it, you deserve it.”

We have seen statements like those above. In the media. We have heard them from friends and in the family. We may have made them ourselves.

Judgments. Opinions. Rarely based on personal experience or insight. Rarely made with any degree of compassion. Often, a one up-manship. Or, a satisfied smugness, born of a safe place. Or, a resentment, born of denial.

Colleen Hoover is a New York Times best selling author who writes entertaining, contemporary novels about a certain kind of people in a certain milieu. ‘It Ends With Us’ though, is a very different kind of book from her; a work of fiction that derives directly from her own life. It has a message and a life lesson woven into the plot. With this book her avowed goal is to help people see things in a different light, and possibly find a way out.

This was not a book I had particularly wanted to read. It happened to be the selection of my book club group for March, and then they changed their mind. I already had a copy, and had started reading it when the change happened. So I carried it with me on my solo holiday to Kerala, not really intending to read it, but to give it away to a friend I would be meeting there.

And then, one night while it was raining and a rough high tide rolled up on the beach across my room window, I picked it up with a vague idea of studying the author’s plotting technique. I had a notebook and pencil ready.

I ended up reading the book over the next few days, carrying it with me to a fisherman’s home, to a beachside diner and around the hotel grounds. While Colleen Hoover plots smoothly and writes in a breezy, witty, chatty, easy to read style, those are not the reasons I kept reading this book. To me, the book is worth reading and worth reviewing for the compelling story it tells about the pernicious cocktail of love and abuse. And it is told with sensitivity, insight and honesty, coming from the author having lived that life, and her generous and kind decision to come out in public with it.

In her twenties, Lily bloom is trying to find her place in the word as an independent professional adult. She has come a long way from a childhood spent watching her mother being abused at home. The story starts right after the funeral of her father, whom she hated. She has refused to say anything in his praise at the funeral. It pains her that her mother never had strength to leave her abusive husband. She has her own past sorrows, and a journal where she has recorded her teenage turmoil in letters (never sent) to TV host Ellen. She is sure her life will be different from her mother’s.

Lily comes to live in Boston, works hard, falls in love, dreams of marriage. She is a girl with spunk, and a sensitive and kind heart. She is a girl who once sheltered and fed and fell in love with a homeless teenage squatter. She sticks to her ideals and values herself and is a loyal friend. Life seems to be finally offering her all her wishes on a platter- her dream of owning a florist shop comes true, the handsome, rich and brilliant neurosurgeon Ryle Kincaid agrees to ditch his aversion of a committed relationship to get engaged to her. She can start to put her difficult childhood behind her.

Typical to a bestseller’s arch, and maybe real life, this is all too good to be true. There are horrible things that start to happen. Shadows emerge. Past secrets get exposed. Trust is broken and fears have to be faced. The present seems to resemble a forgotten nightmare. Love is put to cruel tests. There is a price to be paid, sacrifices to be made. What will you stay true to – to the one you love, though they hurt you, and let the cycle of abuse and indignity continue? Who has to take responsibility to heal themselves? Does being in love mean giving up responsibility for your own integrity? Does being in love also allow for boundaries? When do you know it is time to back out? How do you deal with the fear of losing all you craved for and have found?

The author takes you through the tortured back and forth of a relationship that stumbles from extremes of passion and commitment to jealous rage, mistrust, violence and regret. Lily starts to find a new understanding of her mother, once she finds herself in the same shoes. She can relate to what, as a child had seemed sheer cowardice and a shameful lack of spine. She can understand why her mother had stayed on. And she has to ask herself- can she be the person who will be different? Can she muster what it will take?

The author does a commendable job of presenting both sides of the picture, when it comes to the perpetrators and victims of abuse in loving relationships. There are no pure black as sin villains, no pure white as driven snow victims. Just real people with real problems, real hopes, real personalities, who are making the best they can of the cards dealt to them. People who decide they have a choice, to change the way they play those cards. Or not. And we are made to feel like we can see why each of them does what they do.

Lily comes into her own finally with her brave choice. And for that, she is willing to pay the biggest price. Because, somethings cannot be allowed to continue, no matter how much you love what they bring to you, and how much it pains to let them go. Therefore, the title, It Ends With Us.

Colleen’s skill is in making a story about the most painful choices in life seems like a feel good read. There is no shying away from the gore, and yet, there is a happy ending. The only issue I have with the way the book is the way the story ends. Lily’s bravery and her difficult choice seems less of a stand-alone act of strength with the twist at the end. In the novel the author has clearly tried to make things seem easier and rosier for her fictional characters than it was in the real life inspiration for this book. Most people in such difficult situations stay on because they fear the unknown outside the walls of the known hell. They keep hoping the better moments will prevail more often. They cling to every kind word, every positive thing that happens. They cannot imagine being on the other side, which looks like an even darker void. I wish the author had not gone for a neat tying up of all lose ends, and left Lily unclear about the shape of her future, yet firm and clear about the choice she made for the present.

Except for this one cop out at the end, I still think It Ends With Us makes a very important point. That we are the only ones who can chose to break legacies of abuse – as the ones who heap it on others, or as the ones who are its targets. It is never our job to be another’s punching bag, or to keep hoping against hope that their ‘better nature’ will prevail in the face of all proof to the contrary. And while making this point about taking responsibility for one’s choices and actions, the book also shows us why so many of us caught in situations of abuse in intimate relationships are helpless to break out of the cycle of enmeshment. It shows how difficult it is to gather back a sense of self, when enmeshed in toxic love. It lays bare in beautiful excruciating detail the guts and self-discipline required to honor one’s own dignity, the fears to be dealt with on the way. It brings a lot of insight and wisdom and empathy of a survivor to a topic laden with much judgment and prejudice. By sharing her own life story as the starting point for this novel, Colleen Hoover offers redemptive hope for all who dream of a better tomorrow in their intimate relationships.

I hope this book makes many more people feel brave enough to decide that It Ends With Us. It must.

Friendship, like Wine

 

Its has been said about me, in various shades of approval, praise, judgment, criticism or condemnation that I make too many friends, and too easily. I can only see this is a blessing. Friends have been my go to for too much for too long. Friends across all spectrums of age, interests, personality and life situations have played a big role in all I am.

Friends come in all types, and friendships come in all shades. Some last for a few fleeting encounters. Some are seasonal. Some come unbidden, and leave of their whim. Some seep into you like breath. While I like and enjoy all connections, I cherish most those bonds of  fondness that last beyond situational exigencies and fleeting personal tastes and trends. Friendship that can hold its centre when time and circumstance make past certainties unfamiliar, is an elixir.

I have been told forever that I am an introvert. I live a lot of my life in my mind. I do not belong easily to groups. I am not a party person, certainly cannot be a social butterfly. But when I meet with an old gang of familiars, it is not just another social formality to structured around small talk. A shared past breeds comfort. It reaffirms acceptance.  There is support offered, trust treasured, help given and help taken, fears faced and courage acknowledged. Co-travellers on this journey of life, we look out for each other. We walk different paths but we seek similar destinations. It is a bond that holds tighter with time, even while it uses no ties at all. In its maturing mutuality we each find recognition and a reflection.

Almost all the good things I learnt outside of what was taught to me by family, books, school and college, have come to me via friends  – gardening, cooking, health support, alternate healing, investment advice, even business help, mentoring and networking. But the maturing of old friendships has brought the biggest treasure of all. The gift of acceptance.

So this is my salaam to all old friends. For looking out for me, listening to me, sharing your lives with me, and holding me in your acceptance. Yes, you are a blessing.

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.

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.

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

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Now that the list of the World’s Most Honest Places is out,  and Mumbai ranked an admirable No. 2 in it, of course a debate has ensued as to whether other places in India can ever share the same glory as Mumbai.

The list makers tell us that the results were arrived at after carrying out the ‘”Wallet Test” to see how often a dropped wallet was returned/ attempted to be returned to its owner. While I am happy for all those ‘lost and found wallets’ and for Mumbai, I do know that I once lost a bunch of very important office papers on the suburban train in Mumbai and never got them back 😦 Wish they were doing these lists then- perhaps my papers would have been treated with more respect. Anyway, that is besides the point, really, and not the reason for writing this piece at all. Its the idea of returning things to their owners – connecting them back, as it were, that touches a chord with me, as I am sure it does with eveyone, including the folks who designed the survey that got us this list.

So today I want to share two stories of honest to goodness kindness of near strangers to me, because of which I too was re-united with things I had lost or left behind by mistake.

In December 2006, just about a year after buying the plot of land where Birdsong & Beyond now stands, we went on a road trip through north Garhwal, touring in a sort of circle around the Birdsong location as its sort of centre. We had another friend and his family with us , and it was a great long trip with lots of lesser explored places to visit. The vehicle we rode was new, the route largely unexplored, the drives long and full of discoveries at every turn. The cold crisp air, the clear sharp winter sun and the morning mists all added to the enjoyment and thrill of the journey.

One of the early stops was the Mandakini Magpie Birding Camp, a timely discovery on the banks of the Madakini river in a one tea shop village named Kakragaad. This is a place just about a couple of hours downstream from the base point of the trek to Kedarnath shrine, and there is a birding camp there run by an expert local birder, Shri Yashpal Negi (Negi Ji to all). I had found references to him on the Delhi Bird pages on the net and was excited and curious to explore what he was doing, as birding was a budding passion I was engaging with, and Negi Ji happened to be located practically in our backyard.

Negi Ji turned out to be an absolute find, and we had the most thrilling explorations with him. He is an excellent birder and guide with an immense range of knowledge and an uncanny knack to spot and identify birds out of thin air or dense foliage as the case may be. He is also very much the storyteller, sharing captivating nuggets on the local natural history, and local heritage. It was all a unique experience , more so perhaps because we had no idea what we were in for.

We had anticipated that the place and arrangements would be simple and minimalistic, and we had overcompensated to an extreme degree- having packed every possible supply into the car ! Sleeping bags, towels, flasks for hot water, food supplies…we were an army on the move. However, things were not so dire on the ground and we did get warm clean quilts and fluffy white towels to use. And while the washrooms were draughty and cold, the food was warm, fresh and somewhat exotic in being rather different to our usual fare. To accomodate more guests in the peak birding times, Negi Ji had put up two tents on the grounds and the younger children in our party decided to make a tent their sleeping place, and use our sleeping bags rather than the beds laid out, to make the experience even more camp like.

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From Negi Ji’s place we went on to Chopta Meadows, and attempted the Tunganath temple climb on New Year’s eve. The shepherds who graze their sheep and goats here on the lush spring and summer grass were all gone, leaving behind their ancient stacked stone shelters  available for interepid trekkers to camp around. There were parties of locals here and there, with their mobile kitchens and rations trailing into the forests and wilderness all through the day, all around Chopta Meadows and in the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary’s surrounding areas.

Anyway, to move on, in a few more days we we were on the return leg of the trip, from Auli to Rishikesh. While counting the luggage in the boot at Auli, it semd to us there was something missing, since the boot just looked so much more spacious than before. A quick review revealed that 3 sleeping bags were missing! A rushed check of the hotel room showed up nothing, and then it hit us that the sleeping bags were last used at Negi ji’s place only. There being no signal on the mobile phones, and the hotel phones being down due to a snow storm in the making, we drove off,  and called Negi Ji from the first PCO we came to and asked about the sleeping bags. Negi Ji said he had been desperate to hear from us… He had found the sleping bags in the tent after he went to ready them for other guests once we left, and had been so worried as he could not get us on the phone. He was thinking of getting hold of someone going down to Delhi and sending the bags with them to our address as a last resort, but it was difficult to find people travelling to Delhi in those parts!

So now that he had spoken to us and knew our plans, he offered a most generous and kind suggestion to get the bags to us. Our route to Rishikesh would bring us to Rudraprayag on the National Highway, from where the road to Kakraagad branched off. He would meet us there and give us our stuff. This meeting point was more than an hour’s journey by local bus from his home, and he offered to do it just so simply for us! His logic for not letting us take the detour and come pick the bags was that it would add hours to our travel time.

Needless to say we were totally floored by this wise, pragmatic and kind gesture of his. In hindsight, I realise how important it is in those areas to stick to tavel time estimates, keep mindful of the weather and to drive within daylight hours as far as possible. By offering to bring the stuff to us, he was not only returning our things to us, but also ensuring our journey stayed safe and as short as necessary.

A lot has changed in those hills since 2007 and I have been travelling there every few months in the last 3 years. I am very familiar and at home in these mountains and know a lot more of the locals. The Birdsong Cottage is now a reality and in in April 3013 we again had a wonderful trip up there with friends, combined with an overnite camp and trek to Deoariyatal lake. Located in the mountains just opposite the Chopta and Tunganath slopes, just off the Kedarnath- Gopeshwar highway that runs through the Kedarnath Musk Dear Sanctuary, this is an alpine lake in the middle of a forest, where the forest gives way to gently sloping alpine meadows that end into a bowl like depression on a mountain top, and in this depression sits the mirror lake. It is a sight that simply takes your breath away, leaving you grappling, a bit dazed, to take in all the beauty and the stillness around you .

There is no settlement here or buildings save two forest officials’ cabins there, and alpine camping tents are the only accomodation for the night. Its an amazingly well managed, clean and well protected site, with stunning snow views, teeming wildlife and birds and flowering trees of every hue. At Deaoriyatal I found myself wanting to be for ever outdoors, connecting with the tremendous presence of the universe every single moment. Even taking a break to eat or drink or go to the wahroom was a tough call to take – its that hard to break away from the spell of nature’s majestic and magical presence there.

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Anyway, we could not linger in this Shangri La forever as we had a time bound plan….so off we were again by mid morning,  trekking back downhill to the base point at Saari, in the glare of a noon day sun of the high altitudes. On the way down from our trek, at the base point, I felt a bit dehydrated and dizzy so took a time out from the group while they had tea at a local dhabha point and then went off settling the children and the luggage in the car. Meanwhile I took a 5 minute shut eye and a long drink of ice cold water, and then went off to wash my face. When I returned the car engine was running and the others were waiting for me to join them. I got in to the car and we started the drive back to Birdsong.

It was afternoon already and we had delayed so much at the lake, mesmerized by its beauty and peace, that we had totally ignored the the day’s timetable. Changing the planned lunch at Birdsong to dinner was no big deal in comparison, just a matter of a phone call back home. So we made our way down hill and reached the Kedarnath highway along the Mandakini river. By now all of us were pretty much starving and looking for a lunch break. The GMVN rest-house on the banks of the river at Syalsaur was our halt for a late late lunch and as soon as I started to step put of the car my head reeled again – this time not with dehydration but with the knowledge that in my confusion at Saari, I had forgotten to pick up my camera bag, and personal bag with my wallet etc…and nor had I asked the others to, and nor had they thought of it!!!

I was in a panic now, thinking of my cash heavy wallet, all my IDs and credit cards, ATM cards, and my precious precious camera gone for ever …or at least in grave danger of being lost to me….when calmer sense prevailed and I called our trek guide Raghubir. He was not at the tea shop where we had stopped but promised to go check immediately and call back. Soon he was back on the phone to us, saying the tea shop owner had noticed the bags and kept them aside safely. Now he was watching over them for us and where were we and was it possible for us to come take them, and when would be reach the place?

We told him our location, about 50 kms downhill of Saari and said we would start immediately, but if there was someone he knew in the village coming down was it  possible to send the stuff with them? When Raghubir realized where we were, he immediately told us not to make the trip to Saari, telling us that he would find a way out and call us back. Within 5 minutes he was back, informing us that he had found a relative’s motorbike and was coming down with a friend to personally hand over our valuables to us! We were just dumbstruck. These guys would ride down 50 kms and then ride back 50 kms to prevent us from doing the same, as it was safer and more practical for them to do it than for us!!!  And within less than an hour, Raghubir was there, at the rest-house, handing over my things to me and being so gracious and sweet and kind….. And on top of that, he refused to let us pay for the fuel , saying it was no big deal, anyone would have done the same and so on. And mind you, these are people who do not really have decent sums of cash to even meet their daily needs, leave alone spare cash to run uncalled for errands of kindness for strangers.

So when I read about the “Wallet Test” and the honest places ranking, my mind goes back to those panicked moments when I realized we had left our stuff behind and then the sense of enormous relief and gratitude toward the men who personally made sure they came and returned our things to us, wherever we were.

Building connections; Journeying to Oneness.

First, I am reposting this, as some friends told me they are not able to get the link on my earlier FB posts. So here we go again….

The title of my blog today is taken from the metaphysical poet John Donne’s work. I encountered these lines first while reading Hemingway, and they have made a lasting, haunting impression on me. It is telling that Donne used them in a series of writings while he was himself recovering from a near fatal illness- as meditations and prayers, actually- on health, pain, and sickness. These were published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Here I am copying from Wikepedia, with the original spellings, as printed by them. BOLD highlight by me. 

“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the SeaEurope is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

What is it that would make more and more of us think as Donne felt? When will we realise that the bell tolls for all of us ? This thought comes to me repeatedly these days, in many different contexts. What would it take to connect peoples’ hearts at a deep, abiding level, and make our world reverberate with one universal beat, at least for a bit?

The aftermath of the floods and devastation in some regions of Uttarakhand has been disturbing  me at a very deep level, and I am still coming to grips with the incredible enormity of what has happened. Maybe soon I will write on that, as a separate blog post. Today I am just touching upon some instances of nasty human indifference, or worse that showed up in the crisis. There have been wonderful stories of help and support too, but then should not those be the norm, and anything else an aberration? When will we realise we are but One, ‘no man is an island…every death diminishes me”?

Looting the fragile hillsides, raping and gouging them out for short term greed and monetary gains, without thinking of the risk to others, to the earth itself- how disconnected can we be? Refusing to listen to science, refusing to use better technology, refusing to admit to mistakes and correct them- why this disconnect?

Looting helpless lost people – obviously, some very very deep disconnect with humanity. In this havoc there are hardy and helpful people, taking great risks to go out and organise relief for others, and to help re-build lives. And then, we hear from the ground, of others, who are hampering their work, rather than joining them. There are those complaining of having only kicchdi to eat for 4 days, when there are those who are forgoing their rations to feed others, and some are with no food or water for days on end. There is shouting and shoving to get to the rescue chopper first, and then fights and arguments with the army guys. The same army guys who are risking their lives to save others, who have already lost colleagues in this operation. Are we so out of touch with our oneness as bits of the same, unified creation? Why? Why do we not rally around and work as one?

Then, why the huge disconnect from our own responsibility to ourselves, to our families, to take charge of our own safety? To know if we are fit enough for an arduous trip to a difficult region? Why no attempts to educate one self about where I plan to go, rather than be herded like some subjugated domestic animal?

What of the disconnect from roles and responsibility of the officials, who allow the yatras to be so unregulated- why no connect between the numbers of visitors and the region’s carrying capacity? Why no connect between what will be a safe and low impact tourism infrastructure suitable for the locations? Why no connection was made between the terrible, ravaging rain of over 2 days and its likely consequences in a region of glacial lakes and debris dams and landslide?

Closer to home, why do I have more than 5 scores of people applauding my efforts at organic living, at community waste management, and barely a handful of them actually doing any of what they so solidly cheer me on for? What does my being an ‘Inspiration’ mean to them, if it does not bind them in common, similar action to the source of that ‘inspiration’? What is this disconnect between their words and their deeds?

Why do we get so much blame and counter blame in any crisis situation rather than a resolve to team up as one and actually handle the situation, to find ways to overcome? Why be divided forever, like debating teams, rather than be connected like links in a chain? Team work, anyone? Common purpose? Common values? A common sense of humanity? What is the journey that takes us there?

Certainly I don’t see connectedness of any authentic, lasting, deep kind emerging from the most commonly made journeys. Not in the journey that gets the migrant hill dweller to the plains for a better and regular income . Not in the journey made home every few months to look in at the family and / or farms/ homes left behind, or festival to mark back in the native place. Soon, the journeys grow fewer, the ties become weaker. Those left behind also look for when they can escape.  And soon the only connection binding the place that was home and the place that will be the saviour is that of cash.

Certainly connections also do not bloom on the journey made in package tours by groups of friends , family, cocooned in their sameness and familiarity even when in an unfamiliar geography and culture. There is a sensory pleasure in the novel sights and foods, and crafts, there is shopping and picture taking, and a sense of ‘I too have been here, I too have seen the world’ . But I doubt if seeing the world is the same as really having an experience of what is the connect between a new and different place and its people with any one of us, beyond the differences? The connect in such journeys is with one’s ego, with one’s vanities perhaps, and with a sense of consumption. It is only when one stops seeking to consume, and lingers to absorb that a deep and authentic experience of a place can come to us.

I take your leave now, with a powerful positive intention that my words have connected with your deepest essence, and your journey of connected oneness, and mine, will be stronger.

News from Birdsong & Beyond

Its been a long time since I wrote here, and for many reasons. The main one being that I was away at Birdsong without my laptop.

The biggest discovery for me these last 2 weeks has  been the large number of responses evoked by a call for summer internship at Birdsong & Beyond. I asked friends in the field of Architecture and Planning to help spread the word, and within days the applications and Resumes started pouring in. Facebook and the good old College Notice Board had a big role to play, as also the personal influence of the friends who spread the word originally. Finally we had 3 students staying in the village for over 2 months, and we all ended up making new connections and discoveries along the way. About old pilgrim routes, lost recipes, local animals and plants, house building styles, geology, ourselves, village folks and so much more.

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Another encounter and discovery centres around the beautiful bride pictured above. It is an encounter which typifies what big city folks will find to be a ‘lack of privacy’ and disregard of  ‘personal space’. What it really comes from is a rather distinct sense of ‘being at home and familiar’ with all around them that Indian villagers live with, when they live in their village. Where community is clearer and stronger, and intertwined with every aspect of life.

A nearby homestead was hosting a son’s wedding and we were invited of course, with a band of village boys delivering the card and asking us to definitely come for the ‘baraat ‘and other ceremonies. The day after a night of song, dance, revelry and rituals, to our surprise we discovered that the bride, with her old and new relatives, was at our door! She and her entourage had come by to meet the city folks who had opted to live amongst the villagers. The bride was a friendly girl, and she happily posed for pictures with her camera wielding relatives in all our rooms, and with us, and our guests, who were still semi asleep and not at all prepared for wedding album pictures.

The visits didn’t end with the bridal procession. A local school teacher brought his 2 colleagues from nearby schools and colleges to show them the cottage.  They had always seen our place from far, from the road on the downhill side of the valley and wondered about it.

So far, all was good and friendly, but there was something not so pleasant too. A wandering sadhu sauntered in to our verandah one morning. His persistent knocking was unwelcome as was he, but I opened the door and went to deal with him. The usual exchange of blessings and demands for alms followed, after which whatever I offered was deemed too unworthy by him- to be exact, worse than human refuse, literally. Disgusted by him, I unleashed some tough words of my own to send him off and I am sure glad he scuttled off when he did. Both for his sake and mine.

Then there were the various village youngsters who came to just talk, about their life, their families, their hopes and challenges. And the lack of opportunities in front of them. Apart from the lack of career choices and windows to the world, which we do acknowledge and know of, it is  specially on the personal front that the lack of growth and exposure was a discovery to me. Caught in the crossroads of tradition and modernity and a whole lot of change that they can’t control, the young are restless and hungry for a chance at a bright future.

In terms of  social mixing as youngsters, boys and girls find themselves on Facebook,  a magical, exciting world without known signposts to negotiate. Messages from far-off media make them feel helpless and hopeful at the same time. Neither the old certainties hold true or deliver well, and neither the new freedoms and ideas lead to the promised happy endings.

Most are just confused and frustrated and have little by way of a sounding board, understanding or guidance. They are all rather friendly and warm hearted and open to learning, open to knowing, but also hemmed in by tradition, by taboos and fears of the unknown. There is a sense of helplessness, of being in a lost and forgotten world, of not being important in the scheme of things of the wider world. What would it take to open a window to the wider world for them that permits an easy movement between their world as it is, and the wider world out there? I am sure this question will be part of the driver for our future work in the region.

There are winds of change of a more progressive kind too, and this ‘off the map’ place is also getting embedded in the political map of Local Self Governance as I type this. The cluster of villages around us has just been formed into a “Nagar Panchayat” or rural council, and the first Chairperson elected. She happens to be our neighbor and it’s amazing to see the transformation this development has brought to the entire family.

Though the lady herself is a more of a figurehead or rubber stamp office bearer, who had to be nominated for the ‘reserved for women only’ seat, she is making efforts on various fronts to fit into the role. The kids are teaching her how to say her speeches, the husband wants me to teach her some social graces, she herself is looking to buy nice, formal cotton sarees to wear to office where she has to sit with officials of the government and so on…she also now says all the farm and animal work is too much to handle, how can she do all this and be expected to use her head to learn new stuff for the office.

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