Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dev Anand, or Celebrating Life

Dev Anand died yesterday. I feel more alone than ever. But then I remembered the funeral procession in Akira Kurosawa's film 'Dreams' where people sing and dance behind the funeral cortege, with flowers in their hands. They are celebrating the fact that that they got to meet such a man during their lifetime, receive the immense gift that was him. It is a procession of gratitude.

October 2007

"As long as you are excited about things, you're young!"

So he said, arms flung wide, eyes blazing, during the release of his autobiography - "Romancing with Life" - here in Bangalore today. Dev Anand just turned 84 last week. Actor, living legend, inspiration to millions.

I celebrate this man's birthday every year [reminded of the exact date by my dear friend Srini]. I haven't seen half of his films, I don't have any memorablia. What I celebrate is his spirit, his enthusiasm, his energy, his belief that as long as one is alive, it's never too late. 

A spirit which he displayed on stage today, so that you soon forgot you are looking at a bent wrinkled old man of 84. If this is youth, I don't think I meet many young people these days.

While signing the book of the man in front of me, he suddenly looked sideways and met my eyes in the crowd milling around him , and smiled at me - for no reason. A deep warm eye-holding smile.  As if he knew I was ashamed that I was losing my enthusiasm, me who used to be called Dev Anand at my earlier workplace.

Last week, on 26th Sep, on his 84th birthday, I had treated my friends to dinner. The waiters were so taken up with the fact, they brought a lit candle and sparklers and a free drink, as if he was present there. I did not tell him that when I met him, when he was signing my copy of his autobiography, as I had planned to.

I need to continue living his spirit, his excitement for life. Like the old handicapped asthmatic man with crutches, who sat next to me in that roomful of complete strangers. He thanked Dev - for he had been living by his inspiration for the last 60 years, and had therefore succeeded in living a normal life,  struggling beyond his limitations, led by the never-say-die spirit of this man he finally gets to shake hands with.

That is the only celebration worthy of this man.


Photos of this meeting, and our many Dev Anand birthday celebrations, here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Drop of Water, that Knows its Ocean

A beautiful pristine village sandwiched between the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve and the Kabini river. A place where you close your doors at 6 PM and stay inside while wild animals reclaim their territory. Where you cross a river and reach the land of plenty, while you do not have electricity, safety or basic earning prospects on this side. Where girls are married off between 11 and 18, and become mothers when they are still children themselves. Where tribals who trace their ancestry thousands of years back and speak the original form of Kannada, have been asked by the Forest department to re-locate elsewhere.

Where a young man from New York who gave up a lucrative job offer from JP Morgan, struggles with a new language, cultural barriers, poor amenities, and loneliness, to teach the villagers healthier, more sustainable, profitable ways of living.

This was just part of the huge life-changing experience that was our Rang De field trip to Machur, 220 kms from Bangalore, on the border with Kerala.

Rang De, the social investment-based lending organization that funds rural low-income entrepreneurs across India, (which won the Manthan South Asia 2011 Award for Digital Inclusion for Development) has tied up with Gramothan Foundation, which helps disburse their loans to the villagers in that area. Seven of us volunteers/social investors went to meet up with Gramothan, which is now manned by Abeer Desai, who grew up in Singapore, studied in the US, and has chosen to immerse himself in ground reality to affirm his belief in Development and how it should reach the poorest of the poor in India.

His blog says it best (he’s a brilliant writer) -  his passion for bringing the benefits of capitalism to the ones it does not always reach, and his willingness to throw himself into wherever his convictions take him, because nothing else will do -  A cycle that generates electricity, compost and natural pesticide generation, smokeless chulhas, health care training, were some of the ideas we saw being tried out at Machur. For details read Abeer's posts, here, and here.

His post on how he got this job in the jungles of Machur speaks volumes – “I got this job with a heartfelt cover letter.”  You remember what it is to be young and wanting to throw yourself over the edge, to believe in that moment “of feeling the wings you've grown, lifting.”* You are so happy that such young people continue to exist - they make up for all the apathy you encounter, so often.

On the way back after a tour of the whole area by Abeer, and meetings with a few of the local people, we also stop at the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement ( briefly, to be blown away by the committment of a group of doctors, who, 27 years ago, vowed to live the vision of Swami Vivekananda, and dedicate their lives to rural and tribal upliftment – and have succeeded in ways that you cannot imagine possible. A one-hour conversation with the highly articulate Dr. Balasubramanya and his colleague has all of us so filled with awe we don’t know what to say. Are these people for real?

At the end of the day, you realize that in these people, you have just witnessed the height of human evolution – a total understanding of our inter-connectedness, that none of us will win, if all of us don’t win. A branch that is keenly aware of its tree, a drop of water that is intensely aware of the ocean to which it belongs.

After traffic jams and a long journey, we reach Bangalore post-midnight. We are not the same people who left Bangalore at 4.30 AM the same day. Nothing will ever be the same again. We will never be able to join in when our colleagues/friends speak cynically about our country, at idle coffee-table conversations where the responsibility for change is always left to “someone else”.

When you have Seen, you are never the same again. The Sufis were right.


Visit to Machur - photos here, and here.

Video of Abeer presenting the smokeless chulha implemented at a villager's house:


Knock out Poverty. Become a Social Investor.

Rang De:
On Facebook:

This was a preliminary trip by core volunteers - if you become a Rang De investor, you will be invited for regular field trips.

If you live in Bangalore, do try to attend the Rang De box office screening of "Bonsai People - The Vision of Muhammad Yunus", and the discussion afterwards, on Dec 4, Sunday. Details here.

* Jelaluddin Rumi

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Alice, in Wonder Land

My Desktop, thanks to Vladstudio

Giraffes flying away into the blue shedding their spots, multi-coloured elephant-balloons in a happy girl’s hand, luminous creatures in the sky, an orange striped octopus playing the piano under the blue sea, ethereal scenes of snow and Christmas colors, quirky characters and images from Alice in Wonderland, a topsy-turvy map, with all the oceans as countries, fantasy putting reality to shame – this was your entry into the magical world of  Vlad Gerasimov, a graphic artist from Irkutsk, Siberia, where once upon a time Russian intellectuals and artists were sent into exile. (“..And much of the city's cultural heritage comes from them; many of their wooden houses, adorned with ornate, hand-carved decorations, survive today in stark contrast with the standard Soviet apartment blocks that surround them.”)

A friend introduced you to Vlad’s site, and in no time you had taken a lifetime subscription to his art, which is available as wallpapers, e-cards, posters, T shirts, and post cards – perfect gift items. You mail him to show your appreciation (“All that is not given, is lost”), and get a reply.  In July 2010, his little daughter is born, and you are not surprised to learn he’s named her Alice :)

Much later, you come across this beautiful lullaby, Nindiya Re, by this Pakistani band, Kaavish, and you send it to all the people you know who have small kids. You of course remember Alice, though you hesitate for a moment – will they like this, in Russia? Then you remember Mera Jootha Hai Japani and Raj Kapoor and the woman from Kyrgyzstan that you met briefly one morning in France, who spoke of her town’s love for Indian music – and you send the song to Vlad too.  Vlad absolutely loves the song. He searches for other songs of the band, and sends you some of his favorite Russian songs in return.

And then the other day you get a mail from him, with the lines:

Thursday, November 3, 2011

There is more to admire in men than to despise

Albert Camus (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1957)

Docteur Bernard Rieux, "about thirty-five-years-old, of moderate height, dark-skinned, with close-cropped black hair". You have never seen this man, he is a character in a novel. But he is real to you, a person of flesh and blood you almost hope to cross paths with someday, the profound influence he has had on what you have always strived to be, unparalleled.

When you first read Camus’ 'La Peste' (The Plague), you did not “get” it, you thought it was too “bleak”. You were too young, and as with so many books, you read them all too early, and had to return to them much later, emptier and thirstier, to really drink deep. You were probably 21 then, and experience had yet to break you into openness, into a state of receiving that comes only after your vulnerability has been laid out bare on the cold floor, and you have watched the world trample over it, unfeeling.

And then you have to teach 'La Peste' as part of the MA French program at the university where you work. You start on the research, three months in advance. (Pre-Internet days, you pore over book after book, search in the few libraries that have French books). And you are blown away. This is the most positive, pragmatic, life-affirming book you have ever come across. It is classic literature, by its sheer depth and universality. And you realize Bernard Rieux is here to stay, in you, in the choices you will make hereafter.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

And life slips by like a field mouse...

And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.....

Ezra Pound

You remember noting this down sitting on the floor next to one of the many book cupboards at C's beautiful house. Settling down on the floor, that's what you usually did the few times you visited C and her husband, German expats living in the city since many years. Their penthouse flat was full of huge wooden cupboards, filled with books collected from across the world on their many travels – your dream house.

It was also one of the most tastefully decorated houses you've ever seen, but then for you, those book shelves were it, the lodestone that drew you. You rarely spoke to anyone once you entered the house, almost to the point of rudeness - :) - from cupboard to cupboard you moved, often settling down on the floor with a book, while people moved around you, talking, glasses in their hands. You were relieved if you didn’t know anyone in the group.

You were never very good at small talk, and books were the straw you always grabbed at, to escape into. It was there, on that floor, that you remembered that you always did this when you were a painfully shy kid/young person, forced into company – grab at any printed material lying in the room, and keep your head in it the rest of the evening. The scariest place on earth was a house without books or magazines :)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Go to the ant

Every time it rains, ant houses must be flooded, right? And so throughout the rainy season, do ants spend most of their time choking with rain water and mud, having the roof come down on their heads, struggling to get out, watching their families die, their carefully stored food all washed away, and then when the rain stops, go down and bring out all that mud in small lilliputian mouthfuls, without pausing to grieve - and then go through the entire process again and again and again? (Any myrmecologists out there who can answer this?)

You mean they live through this destruction and reconstruction and destruction, ad infinitum, all their short lives?

And is it easier for them to be Sisyphus-es because they cannot think or remember, and therefore cannot despair?

"Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways, and be wise"*.

Is there another lesson here apart from hard work?

*Proverbs 6:6. The Old Testament

Picture from Google Images

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Phase 2

2006. On weekends, you sometimes go to Nani Cinématheque on Miller's Road, the film school with a small hall where film societies screen movies. You are usually the first to enter. And then maybe around five people come. That's it. The rest of the world has more exciting things to do on Saturday evenings. For you, all these foreign films are ways of traveling across the world and observing other ways of living. Even if the film is not wildly exciting, it's okay, you get to see another country, another culture, you get to learn something new, your world is that much broader, your mind that less narrow.

What you have been fearing has finally happened. They can't afford these screenings anymore. Not enough members. This is the last screening by Vikalp. Film by a young German director Lukas Schmid, called Phase 2.

So you go to watch this film, heavy-hearted. The lady from Vikalp introduces you to Lukas and his wife and a friend, because they came up with you in the lift. He speaks good English. You go and sit alone in the hall as usual. You quite like this time you get to sit by yourself, on one of the black minimalist chairs, a stage in front of you, beyond that the screen, with dim back-lighting, the silence an unobtrusive presence, the outside world shut-out, non-existent.

Six thirty comes and goes. No one. And then Lukas and his wife and the other lady come in and walk straight towards you and sit next to you. You are taken aback. It appears that you are the only person who has come to watch the film! So he wanted to know whether you still want to watch it, and if you want to hear about the film. You feel terrible for this man. You are not going to sadden him any further by making him feel that no one in Bangalore cares to watch his film. You say, “But of course.”, if it’s not a bother for them. He smiles, he’s happy to screen it just for you.

My Picture in Ant Heaven :)

Sitting at the back of the house, at the door facing the well - your favorite place at your parents’ house -  and removing skins from roasted groundnuts to make chutney powder, one sunny evening. You can watch and hear birds, squirrels and butterflies from here.

And then you see a big black ant dragging half a groundnut which had fallen from your plate. You watch it drag the huge piece [in proportion to its ant-size], and go quite some distance, towards the car-shed wall on the right. You are waiting to see where its house is. And then you remember that this was one of your major occupations during childhood. Watching ants, following their trails to find out where they lived. (Well, we didn’t have TV in the 70s :))

And then you see him trying to lift it up a straight wall [just an enclosure for plants, in human terms]. He struggles up, walking backwards, dragging huge groundnut. At the third attempt he makes it to the top of this wall, after much falling. Then he has to climb again, this time a taller wall. You watch with bated breath, stopping your groundnut work.  By this time, this has become your problem too :)

He climbs and he climbs - and when he is right at the top - he falls all the way back - to the ground, even below the first wall! Shucks. And he tries again. The second time he falls, just when he is almost there, after much effort and change of angles and tactics, you cannot take it anymore. You go get a dry jackfruit tree leaf, try to scoop him up with the half-nut from the mid-way he had reached. You get the nut, but he leaves it and runs away down. You are disappointed, but keep the nut on the top of the wall where he wanted to take it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Not so very long back, one gray rainy freezing cold morning in Québec City. The family you are staying with has not yet woken up. You are wandering the deserted wet streets. A city reminiscent of old Europe, with its cobbled streets and small shops and cozy restaurants.

Wrapped up in all the warm clothes you have, you walk up and down the steep roads, occasionally pausing to look at the St. Lawrence river down below.

You are not walking completely aimlessly. It is Easter Sunday. You need to find a church. You are not Christian, but you have always been moved by the concept of resurrection. You have always been moved by this young man, who bears on his shoulders not just the weight of the cross, but the burden of watching so many innocents slaughtered in his name - again, and again.

A young man who had thought that his agony would end with the nails.

You have been seeing ancient churches along the way, but with their doors closed, not welcoming to strangers as they always are. Then it finally strikes you - it must be because of the biting cold. You stop at the next ancient church. You gently push open the huge door. The church is packed with people. Easter Mass is going on. And it's in French. You understand that in all languages, suffering and hope sound the same.

You stand shivering alone at the back, slowly absorbing in the warmth. And you smile at the crucified figure. I am here. Today I have not come to ask you anything. Though I am homesick beyond any known definitions of the word. Today I am here for you, not for me.

When you step out, you notice that this is April, that Easter coincides with Spring, in the Northern Hemisphere. The first few buds are coming out on the trees, even though the cold still has not left for its kingdom far up north.

It feels right, that Resurrection and the arrival of Spring happen at the same time.

Dec 2006

Friday, October 14, 2011

An island life

Easter lunch at the the F… family reunion, on the beautiful island of Ile d’Orléans, in the St.Lawrence river, Québec. You are the only foreigner in this 40-strong crowd of French Canadians. M himself does not know most of the crowd as they meet very rarely, and this is his rich uncle’s house by the way. You are slowly getting used to the weirdness of it all. Especially enjoying the high regard people now seem to have for India. No more mention of elephants and kings, like during your visit to France 10years ago.

After lunch, served at a huge table with a vast variety of dishes, many of which you have to ask M's wife A to explain, you go Easter egg hunting with the kids in the huge beautiful garden outside.

When it is time to return to Toronto, M calls a taxi for you to go to Québec City airport. Stéphane, the young taxi driver, has his small baby strapped in a baby seat in the back. He is delighted to know that you speak French – and that too “original” French, not the Canadian one. You are also happy, when you realize that your French hasn’t rusted as much as you had feared. So we no speaka any English at all.

Tripping on Oxygen

On the back-breaking, nerve-wracking two-day journey in a mini-bus from Manali to Leh in Ladakh (in the Himalaya mountains, on the border with China), we Indians are a minority in a motley crowd of foreigners. After hours of steep climbing up to 14, 000 feet on the first day, you are rapidly succumbing to altitude sickness, but struggling against it, since everyone else seems to be all healthy and fit.

What the hell, how can they all be so happy and cheerful and talking and laughing? How come they all can breathe? Idiots. The heat is killing. Dry desert mountains all around. No human habitation anywhere. The chattering of the Korean girls ahead is driving you mad. You have just had some Maggi noodles and biscuits the whole day, that’s more or less what you get in the few tent stops along the way. 

Just when you think you can’t take it anymore, you look at the Israeli woman sitting on your right. She is reading a book from back to front. Yes, from back to front. The back cover of the book is in the front, facing you, and the front page is at the back. 

Oh God, you have started hallucinating. Oh God, this can’t be happening.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian, the Nobel Prize winner, narrates the story of a man who is falsely diagnosed with lung cancer and is given only a few months to live. It is part autobiographical, part fictional. He decides that he will use this time to search for Lingshan, the mythical mountain, supposedly situated at the source of the mighty Yangtze river, a last attempt at living a “real” life. He decides to walk all the way up the river, he crosses many villages and lives, and enters and fades out of so many stories, myths, and folklore, often bizarre - and meets himself at every turn of the way.

This book shakes you up, for reasons you are not entirely sure of. It alternates between the second and first person singular, suggesting two sides to the same character, an ego and an alter ego. You are drawn into, nay dragged into the novel, at the very first sentence, and you walk along with the protagonist, across mountain ranges, streams, suffering all that he suffers, living through all his highs and lows, drowning in his desperate seeking, and coming up again, with him.

In some way, you realize he’s a brother, Someone Like You. Somewhere you are at peace, walking along with him. And the lessons we learn together on the journey teach you detachment, at the same time.

Many years later, you find yourself suddenly in a hotel room, in a cold foreign country, the windows opening on to bare treeless open dry land and a few concrete buildings, and the lights of flights taking off at the airport nearby, the only sign of life. The total isolation, the lack of friendliness in people, the absence of sunlight and trees, everything depresses you no end. You miss home, home where the sun shines all year, and the people are friendly.

A Story-telling

So three-year-old niece digs up a box full of kiddy books from the big tub full of playthings. Says something akin to "Let's go read these". You are so happy, there's nothing you love more than reading to someone, of any age. You are in your element here. So she waddles to the sofa where we settle down for the reading. When you reach out for the books, she grabs them from you. And opens a book from the last page, and starts telling you the story.

Yes, apparently the plan was for her to "read" to you, you got it all wrong. And so you get read to, in a gibberish language you cannot understand a word of, though there is much throwing around of arms and rolling of eyes and raising of eyebrows, while pages are turned at random, and we move from book to book really fast. And you thought you were a super-fast reader.

Her elder sister sees your bewilderment and translates for you. Apparently you have been listening to the story of the three little bears intertwined with stories from her everyday life. The fact that she cannot yet pronounce the sounds r, p, and ch and has to use other random sounds as substitutes, does not in any way slow down the machine-gun pace of the story-telling.

Kill them all with your tales, baby, kill them all. Your aunt strongly approves :)

Much later, another day, on the phone, she speaks to you - and you understand every word. And you feel kind of sad. She is crossing over, to our world, and will soon speak like the rest of us, her private language lost forever. At each frontier, you abandon something, to receive something new. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011


Part 1 here, the previous post.

Nov 15, 2006. Yet another beautiful sunny day at the Bannerghatta Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. The grass has grown higher. Tension and Sonja, the dogs, come running to greet you.

Cleaning, and cleaning. You thought you were stubborn. Until you met dried bird shit.

You realize you are small enough to fit in the mongoose cage. The small snake has recovered, and has been set free in its habitat in the Sakleshpur ghats. A rat snake is trying to catch a rat above the monkey cage. Much drama.

Saleem has been ill, with a slipped disc - he is overworked. Today he is out and active, narrating stories, cracking jokes, eagerly showing me his stunning collection of bird, insect and snake photos. All his photos are taken within that half kilometre of wild grassy land, in which no one other than him can spot anything at all. Saleem is a lesson in seeing.

The Healer of Broken Things

The Buddha, when he was a small child of seven or eight, was once taken to watch the annual Ploughing Festival, where his father, the King, ceremonially guided the bullocks in plowing the first furrow. At the end of the day, they find the little child seated upright in the same position they had left him, deeply disturbed by the plight of the tiny creatures who lost their homes and their lives in the plowing.

It is this story that came to mind when you spent a morning with Saleem, who runs the Bannerghatta Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre. Day in day out, he looks after wounded animals brought from all over the city and outside, with an indescribable gentleness. Hardly anyone to help him, practically no comforts in this remote overgrown small place near Banngerghatta National Park. But he lives there all by himself, facing the dangers of wild elephants and hostile villagers.

You first met him when you went there to transport a wounded kite with a friend. The image of Saleem calmly putting his hands in and lifting the huge wild bird whom we had spent 30 mins gathering the courage to touch, never leaves your mind. You know you will return.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Train to Bangalore

On those long-distance train rides to Delhi in the 90s, to the French Embassy/UGC, you often met people from many walks of life. On one such return journey to Bangalore, a Haryanvi farmer and his son get in from a station after Delhi. They are clearly poor villagers, their faded-white clothes, their unpolished language, their lack of confidence, set them apart from the rest of us. Some of the middle-class families in the compartment do not look very happy at the thought of spending the next two days in such close proximity with them. There is a slight tension in the air.

The father and son sit huddled close to each other in the corner opposite you, trying to make themselves as unobtrusive as possible. When it is time for dinner, they are uncomfortable, and finally open a cloth-covered parcel in embarrassment (a parcel I imagine the mother carefully packing for her husband and son) to take out dry rotis, which they eat with an onion, and nothing more. (You remember the beaten rice wrapped in cloth that Sudama takes for Krishna, and then hesitates to give him, ashamed of his poverty). That is their diet for the next two days, two meals a day.

When the time comes to sleep, we all realize that they have only one berth booked. The TTE comes in and threatens to throw them out because the boy is 16 and is riding ticket-less. The father pleads with him, begs for mercy, says he couldn’t afford more than one ticket. Finally the TTE relents and lets them share a berth. For a change you are grateful to live in a country where rules can be bent, where kindness could triumph over rightness.

A Handful of Rice

The other day I ask my friend S who does wonderful work teaching small kids, whether she can use the Ugly Indian’s videos and photos to teach kids about not littering the city, about taking responsibility for their surroundings.

And she replies: “I keep trying, but it's so difficult nowadays since the parents themselves don't have these values. Very tough to get through to the kids when the parents themselves throw stuff out of the car window, you know."


A few years ago, on a Notebook Drive by the Dream School Foundation to some rural schools outside Bangalore, happened to sit next to this young boy from Infosys, on the way back. The whole morning I had seen that he was the life of the group, the most active volunteer. Since I was the lone outsider who didn’t know anyone in the volunteer group, every conversation was a learning.

Especially the one with this boy. He tells me that he learned social responsibility from his mother. She is an uneducated woman, never completed school. But all throughout his childhood, he grew up seeing her keeping aside a handful of rice every single day, before cooking food for the family. At the end of the month she would take all the rice in that tin and give it to one of the poor families who stayed nearby.

He said that was the most powerful lesson he ever learned in his life, without a word spoken.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Dancing with Strangers

Walking down the bustling East Nanjing street in Shanghai that beautiful November evening, you are instantly drawn by the jazz music being played somewhere down the street, the trumpet opening up to the clear blue skies in joy, arms outstretched. You walk faster trying to find the source, excited, you love live music on the streets. That is where music should be, rubbing shoulders with routine, offering brief glimpses of abandon.

A struggles to catch up with you. You, apparently, walk very fast – which you are usually unaware of until you notice people anxiously moving out of your way :)  She is relieved when you finally locate the source of the music – on the second-floor balcony of a huge building, a live orchestra playing. And in front of us, amidst the milling crowd, a middle-aged woman dancing to the music, all by herself, smiling.

Of course you have to stop. You are amazed by her confidence, her happiness at twirling around by herself, unmindful of the crowd who give her space. This is the woman you always wanted to be. You stop and watch, smiling from ear to ear. And as was bound to happen (sigh), she notices you in that crowd, one among the two Indians – and reaches out, asking you to dance with her. You are embarrassed, try to explain to her that you cannot dance, that your eagerness to learn is only matched by your incompetence, as many dance teachers and friends would confirm. Of course she does not understand English, and your embarrassment just adds to her mirth.

On the road

One morning while driving down the busy road from Mekhri Circle, you see this man on a bike moving very slowly in the fast-moving traffic. Then you notice the tiny little stray puppy running between him and the road divider. The man was purposely riding slowly shielding the puppy and preventing him from moving left into the traffic where he would be crushed to death without a doubt. 

And the puppy unaware of danger so close at hand was happily running a marathon in the straight line he was forced to run in, once in a while turning to look at this funny guy keeping pace with him, smiling, with that bungling innocence of all small animals.

"There is more to admire in people than to despise". So says the character of Bernard Rieux in Camus' "Plague", after 9 months in a plague-ravaged city. (A novel you had the good fortune of teaching for 3 years, a life-changing experience.)

Goodness is all around us, though it rarely makes it to newspaper headlines.

30 Oct 03

Pass the ball, Camarado!

It is 5 PM on a Friday evening, and time for the office Football Club to get together again. So stepping out of the air-conditioned, cold-tubelight-lit office, I go to reserve a place in the public playground, after sending mail to the group – "Come to play football NOW!"

Outside, I notice that September, as it is leaving, is bringing in that beautiful clear winter sunlight - which gives me a high nothing else can.

There is not enough place in the ground – already there are 2 cricket teams and 2 football teams, and also a huge tent being prepared for Dussehra [Hindu festival] celebrations. So we use the strategy we've learned, and convince the group of hesitant young college kids to play a match with us. They are not very well-off, they wear poor clothes, they look thin and under-nourished. No one has good shoes; in fact most of them are barefoot. The disparity between our teams is glaring.

I am made goal-keeper. I am usually made goal-keeper because I am no good at playing. I know that I am no good, and everyone else knows it too, but since I am the catalyst, the one who gets it all going, I am held in fond respect. Who said young people aren't kind?!

The game starts. We have mixed the college kids with our people, they didn't have enough numbers, so it is not us against them. They are absolutely brilliant – agile, fast, impressively co-ordinated, untiring. We are completely wowed by them. My boys too are good – and as always I am almost moved to tears by how these normally serious sober youngsters, some of them so quiet and shy at office, are suddenly transformed into fired-up, passionate, intense people. It is a miracle. Just watching them, I know it was all worth it, starting this club, which everyone told me won't take off.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Si, si, Indio!

On that hot summer day in Strasbourg (Aug 1997), you are unable to walk anymore with the group, your asthma is acting up. Pollution levels are high, the TV had warned the previous night. In front of the ancient Strasbourg cathedral, many things are happening to attract tourists.

Among them a small group of short South American native Indian men are dancing in a circle, in their colorful ponchos and long braided hair. One of them is playing a flute with many reeds. You are captivated by the music, there is something primordial and familiar about it apart from its haunting notes. You sit in the circle of people standing around them. You tell your friends to go ahead, you are staying here the rest of the afternoon.

So people come and go, but you are still sitting, watching the dance, entranced. The dancers have noticed you, and are now smiling at you as they pass you in the circle. Their faces are deep brown, their skin is polished and taut, their smiles are very warm.

There is a break in the dance. They all come around to you, you are taken aback. They start speaking in Spanish addressing you as Senorita, they thought you were South American. Had to do the No speaka Espagnola bit. They are disappointed. Then the leader of the group comes over, he speaks French and German. Voilà! You tell them that you are Indian. They are excited, they are also Indians. You clarify that you are a different kind of Indian. It didn’t matter, their smiles are just as warm. Through the interpreter, we converse a bit.

They are from Ecuador, they are part of this group traveling across Europe, playing their native music at different tourist spots. [You wonder how much of the earnings they actually get in hand]. They are terribly homesick, wandering around in places where they cannot talk to anyone. They feel that you are from their place, though you aren’t, they feel a certain connection to you. You understand what they mean. You’ve always had this doubt that in a previous birth, you were from a tribe that was very closely connected to nature, spoke to trees, understood the language of the wind.

When you finally have to leave, you buy a cassette of their recordings. [Proyeccion Inka’s Musica Tradicional] They insist that you take it at half the price. All of them turn to you in the middle of the dance and wave to you, smiling from ear to ear and bidding Adios, Senorita!

In the midst of strange cities, the strangest of people sometimes connect, in the most curious of fashions. For we are in the end human, and so vulnerably so?


If an ant got into your food packet and you travelled hundreds of kilometers and he had to get down in a strange place all lost and bewildered how would he start his new life in a place where he does not know anybody, since ants have been genetically programmed to live in communities?

Or are ant communities good Christians and will they welcome him warmly and just say "Step in line, pardner!" because they remember that "I was a stranger and you took me in" (Mathew 25:35 ), and "Whatsoever you do unto the least of these, so also you do unto me" (Mathew 25: 40), and "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Hebrews 13:1-2)?

Have been wondering about this for years.

Jan 2004

Landscapes, Mindscapes

Does the landscape we inhabit enter our characters, define the people we become? Do mountain people know patience, and the humbling truth that you cannot control everything? Do forest people know courage, that buds break forth from ravaged trees? Do farmers know waiting, that there are things that you cannot hurry? Do river people know change, that you "step and not step into the same river"?

And in what way does the city enter us? Would we have been different people if we lived by an ocean and knew the endless comings and goings of the tide, the quietness of moonlight on water?

Oct 13, 2003

Different Worlds

The other day at the GPO, it was a Sunday afternoon, there was this crowd of poorly-dressed men crowding and jostling at the counters and preventing the rest of us from getting any work done. Was irritated and trying to find other free counters when I realized what was happening - they were apparently laborers and had come to send their wages to their families perhaps, and wanted to make money orders. And none of them could read and write, so the counter people had to write each one of the money orders one by one while these people gave addresses in broken language, sometimes repeating them many times anxiously, perhaps worrying that their hard-earned money would get lost somewhere because there was no way they could check if the man at the counter was writing them correctly. Thought of their families far away in small villages waiting for these slips of paper.

Most of them did not even have slippers and looked rather lost in the huge vaulted GPO hall with its majestic dome and giant pillars and surrounded by the rest of us educated well-dressed confident city people.

What different worlds we inhabit, living shoulder to shoulder in this vast country.

Oct 06, 2003

Ordinary People

Walking on the road, you pass so many people. Some look confident, purposeful, well-dressed, well-maintained. But the majority appear so ordinary, wear ill-fitting clothes, unfashionable footwear, have too much fat or too little, nothing remarkable about them, nothing attractive.

But yet someone somewhere eagerly waits for this unimpressive man to come home every evening.
Someone's entire world turns around the strength of this frail-looking woman.
Someone's very purpose in life hinges on this brash youngster cutting through traffic.
Someone knows only the shelter of these old arms each time their world begins to crumble.
Someone will count hours, minutes, and weep like a child when this pock-marked face alights from a long-distance train.
Someone will cave in, crack up, and never be the same again if this one person disappears from the face of the world.

There are no ordinary people.
Drive carefully.

A Ramzan Gift

There is this Muslim electrician who's been doing all our repairs since a few years - Barkhat bhai. Very honest, reliable, and hardworking. My husband talks to him in Hindi and makes tea for him when he comes to work, and they get along very well. Barkhat struggles to make both ends meet, and travels huge distances on his bike to do multiple jobs the same day. Sometimes he brings his young son along too.

I remember the day after the Bangalore bomb blasts, he and his son were here repairing a lamp in the drawing room, talking to my husband, while the TV news was on. The contrast was so jarring - on the TV, much to my embarrassment, the newsreader started speaking about rising Muslim fundamentalism in India and the increasing mistrust between religions - while this poor illiterate Muslim man was inviting us Hindus home for Ramzan, telling us that we must taste his wife's biriyani, a man who can hardly afford to splurge on such generosity - though I know for a fact that generosity is a prominent Muslim trait.

Last night he comes home with his son, with a huge multi-layered tiffin box full of the promised mutton biriyani, along with curry, salad, kheer, and some home-made sweet.

The news on the TV, when they walked in, was yet again about bomb blasts, this time in Delhi.

And yet, in the room, so much of positivity, that will stay with us for a long time to come, and will show in our actions. See, I am already tempted to spread it around.

Perhaps, as Borges said in his poem, "These people, unaware, are saving the world"....

16 Sep 2008


In your grandfather's house in the village, there was this small room near the kitchen where fruits were kept to ripen. Mangoes carefully laid in baskets full of hay. Jackfruits kept standing up in the corners so as not to rot. Banana bunches hung from rafters all over the room so that you had to make your way among them to reach the shelves on the walls. All windows closed, little air coming in through the gaps in the old four-paned wooden windows. The thick smell of ripening that hung so still and full of knowing that you felt guilty for having opened the door and trespassed into a private space.

As a child you would stand there quietly with eyes closed hoping to hear the sleeping fruits breathe. And sometimes a lizard would chirp suddenly from one of the wooden rafters of the ceiling startling you out of your intense listening. A space of quiet waiting, of gradual ripening, a space speaking of maturity and readiness that cannot be forced, of sourness that will change to sweetness, of hardness that will change to softness; but all in its time.

Now when you are surrounded by this haste for experience, this frenzy for acceleration, this dark room sometimes passes in front of your mind's eye, and disappears again, leaving behind the smell of ripe mangoes and changeless truths...

A Christmas Memory

Singing Christmas carols on the streets of Bangalore

I dedicate this to Jean Tubridy, who truly lives and spreads the spirit of connection I spoke about in this post, and who has made strangers friends. Thank you so much, Jean. (
24 Dec 2011


Dec 2000. One freezing cold windy afternoon around Christmas time, I take the subway to Harvard Square in Cambridge, Boston. Freezing cold windy afternoons usually find me inside heated houses remembering the warmth of the Indian sun and its people. This afternoon, I brave it all in layers of sweaters and caps and socks, the cold still cutting through the skin of my soul, because at The Coop bookstore, I had seen a notice about a storytelling session. I find my way up to the second floor landing. There is a small group sitting on sofas chatting and nursing hot cups of coffee. I take my place among this group of strangers. And then comes the storyteller, a man in his forties perhaps, big warm smile, books in his hands. And without much ado, he starts reading Christmas stories to this motley group of adults, of different nationalities, most of us strangers to each other.

And we listen to Truman Capote's A Child's Christmas, a story about a young boy's memories of Christmases with a crazy old aunt, his best friend. Christmases going into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree, and baking cakes for all the people who have been good to them, like the bus driver who went out of his way to drop them, and all the people who were spending Christmas alone.

And then a story by Dylan Thomas about childhood memories of Christmas in Wales. Within no time, we are feeling the snow crunch under our feet in bright fir-lined countrysides. Listening to the sound of logs crackling in warm fireplaces. Smelling fresh plum cakes just taken out of ovens. Tasting heady wine. And raising a toast to the spirit of Christmas - the spirit of forgiveness, renewal, and everlasting compassion in the face of all dryness, indifference, and betrayal.

When the one and a half hour session is over, there is a pause before everyone bursts into applause. And then people smile and laugh, tears in their eyes, and look at each other with warmth, and oddly, no one seems that foreign anymore.

As a French storyteller told during a session here last month, stories are not just meant to make little children sleep, but to make grownups think. And perhaps feel again what we lose touch with, in our haste to fit in with the world's definitions of success.

Stepping out into the darkness, the cold no longer seems so terrible. I stop to watch a group of youngsters doing a rap song and dance on the footpath to make money "to go perform in New York", a handwritten board says. Pretty weak performance by all standards, but I put some money in their collection box with a smile, so what if they just make it to the nearest pub and have a jolly good time - youth and laughter and joyful winter evenings rubbing shoulders with friends are still wonderful things in our fragile lives, and therefore causes worth supporting!

The cold returns to us every year from the faraway places it goes to during the summer, to remind us how precious warmth is in all its forms, and how it must be created and preserved for our sustenance and continuance, now and forever.

Asha (Editorial for Winter Solstice, Winter edition of the office newsletter, Oct 2003)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

While the world is going places..

"Pretending, walk beside me
for some time in the streaming crowd,
stranger: while the world is going places."

Taposh Chakroborty

So this is an attempt to collect all the stories of my various encounters with people, some who stayed on to become friends, some whose paths crossed mine only for a brief moment.

And it is also an attempt to remember all that the light reveals, when it gets in through the cracks in everything....

Anthem, Leonard Cohen: