Sunday, December 30, 2012

Aavaaz Do!


Haruki Murakami, the well-known Japanese novelist, in his speech about the creation of nuclear plants in an earthquake-prone country, and the inability of the government to enforce strict regulations, talks about the importance of rightful anger. "I don’t know why Japanese people rarely get angry. They are good at being patient but aren’t very good at getting angry."


Those of us "Shiva-worshippers", who routinely turn Anger into Energy, know something about it. It is easy for us to understand that if there is an outrage for which protest has to be Visibly Registered, to begin with, you go stand at street corners, with placards and candles, shout out Aavaaz Do! (Speak Up!) with the crowd - because not being Present, failing roll-call, is failing to help with the ultimate tangible Tipping Point of all Change - Public Protest, Physical, Real, Powerful.

We didn't need an Egypt to prove that physical public protest works. There once used to be a Man amongst us who got up and said, Follow me, we will walk together, our sheer strength will be the Message. It all began with us - remember?

Your deepest regret, that you weren't born at that time, that you were not around to leave everything and follow him, to join in the quiet assertion of what it means to be Human, to claim Freedom.

A life of Cowardice, Indifference, is but Death, known in advance.

Today, while protesting an outrage that only brought to light the deep-seated fault-lines of a disturbed society in turbulent transition, ironically standing next to the statue of a brave queen of yester-years, you remember Murakami.

Rightful Anger. There isn't enough of it - out there, on the streets, where it counts.

So what have you learned, through all these years of standing at protests?

Standing with strangers, whose words you repeated, you finally understood the essence of all those philosophy books from all over the world - that we are all Connected, that the same Life Force runs through us all, that the height of Evolution is finally understanding that there are no Walls.

What happens to Another, happens to You - You, as in not just the lone physical body you inhabit, but the Collective Soul whose existence, until then, was too esoteric for you to comprehend. That, if you fail to speak up for Another, you fail to speak up for Yourself.

Standing there, amongst strangers, you saw that Activism is Philosophy in action. Lighting your candle from the person next to you, you redefined the word "Stranger". You learned that every little step counts, that every positive action transforms you - and you, are Society.

"Aavaaz Do! Hum Ek Hai!" (Speak Up! We are One!)

Presence. The Biggest Gift, as always. The one that as you give, you also receive.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


On a bright sunny morning in the mountains, when you walk under the trellis of a bountilful harvest of bitter-gourd, you feel you have walked into a house of light. The golden rays trickling in through the thick foliage of leaves above you, lighting up the wavy ridges of the bitter-gourd, the glow that permeates this safe space, the arms of gold and green within which you are enfolded. Where no harm can possibly come to you.

You were on a most unusual walk that day, in the Nilgiri mountains. You'd gone to visit an old friend who belonged to an organization that works for the ancient tribes of those mountains. You do not remember why and how the walk was planned, but she said let's go to my friend's house in the coffee estate tomorrow, she’s left the key. And so the next day morning we find ourselves setting out on the winding forest paths, my friend Anita, François, a young Belgian doctor who was volunteering at the tribal hospital, and Manoharan, who worked at the NGO with my friend.

You notice the tremendous sense of ease you feel walking in a group that was mostly strangers. Conversation is easy, you are drawn into it as if they always knew you. Up and down the rolling hills you go, an easy chatter punctuated by comfortable silences. Manoharan has a million things to say, he is funny, he is bursting with stories, and recognizes a listener. You know that feeling. O Brother, you think, your heart melting.

In a valley you come across vegetable fields. You stop to admire them. And then you see the thick-leaf-covered trellis, with the bitter-gourds. You walk into this house of light and stand for a moment, transfixed. You have no words. It is like standing in the flow of grace streaming from heaven, the radiance. You feel this huge connection to the universe. 

Walking back up another hill, you pass a village, and stop to pack food. Kothu parottas, a snack you love. And then you enter the long winding roads into the coffee estates. At the old white estate house, Anita searches under a flower pot in front of the main door. Yes, the key is there, where the owners said they’d left it. You are amazed. You city-dweller, stranger to trust. The house is old, with old furniture, books, spaces of warmth and coziness. You sit in the verandah at the back and unpack the parottas, while François has us all in splits, pronouncing each punctuation with funny sounds, like this man.

Later on we go back into the house, and each of us settles down in a different room, reading, looking at things. You remember lying down on the cool red-oxide floor in an almost-dark room with old furniture, and falling into a deep sleep like you have not known in a very long time. When you wake up, you notice this huge happiness flowing through you in the absolute stillness, a happiness that had to do with space, and connectedness. And a feeling safe, like you’ve never felt, before or after. Silence, but somewhere in the house, the others, all kindred souls. It was enough.

For the second time, you feel like you are standing in radiance, in the path of grace, washed over by it. You remember thinking, you can never be this happy again, your quota of happiness is over.

Later on, you get up, you have more conversations, you walk to the stream full of rocks and gurgling, you watch a Malabar squirrel. And then you return, the long walk home. Manoharan continues his stories. He had planned to go back home, but at the last moment he changes his mind. “I’ll have dinner with you, since you’re leaving tonight”.

We have dinner at Anita’s place, delicious food, as always. Later, you start your return journey. Replete. You’ve never had a completely perfect day in your entire life until then. You just had one. A day when you possessed no one or nothing, but you stood in the stream of life, you belonged. 

Manoharan sends you the newsletters of their NGO for a long time afterwards, with small notes written in all the margins, like he couldn’t just finish telling all he had to say, he was bursting with stories, overflowing, he could not be contained. You understood. You know that feeling. You who are known for your long silences now.

 Last month, you learn that Manoharan passed away of cancer this February. And that he used to ask about you. Manoharan, whose sense of humour stayed with him through it all, who kept up the spirits of others throughout the ordeal. “He made such fun of his cancer and laughed his way till the end.” (

A friend once tells you, with all the wisdom of youth, that he’s seen you happiest when you’ve had a friend to listen to your stories.

I hope you were done with telling all the most important ones, brother. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012


At 5 in the morning, the streets were deserted, at the Tibetan Refugee Camp. The four of you are up, wandering the lamp-lit streets, to be in time for the early morning ritual prayers they said happen at the main monastery. And from the darkness, this old monk in maroon robes walking into the light, to stop in front of you. Big warm smile. And he invites you home for tea. He says he’ll take you for the prayers, but "first have tea". The others hesitate, but you gravitate towards warmth, as you always do, and say Yes, we will. He is absolutely delighted, his soul flowing out to you, mingling in the mist with yours.

So we walk in the darkness from one yellow pool of light to the next, to arrive at his small house, set tightly among many others. We bend and go into the cluster of small rooms. In the semi-darkness, photos of the Dalai Lama everywhere. Old furniture, old vessels, old relics from Tibet. The Buddha and the Taras. The infinite beauty of Tibetan art, an abundance of colours. Old black-and-white family photos. Carpets. He brings in a huge flask full of tea, and pours it out in small old ceramic cups for you. All the while chattering away about his home in Tibet, the Dalai Lama. The majestic mountains. The snow. The prayer flags. The ancient monasteries. The colors.  His parents. The very air. Home, the most beautiful place on earth.

Then we go out again, with our self-appointed guide. As the dawn slowly breaks in thin orange slivers at the horizon, he takes us to the main monastery, opens doors only accessible to a few, takes us to rooms where the ancient musical instruments are kept, rooms where the Dalai Lama holds audience whenever he visits. And then from a balcony within the massive building, we see the huge hall below with hundreds of monks in maroon robes sitting in long lines facing each other, chanting their morning prayers. Goose bumps are probably the only befitting response.

Looking out of an upstairs window, he pauses, points to the acres of fields all around, on undulating hills, and tells you, “Beyond that, is India”. There is a silence. You who had not for a moment felt not-at-home, standing on soil you believe have every right to be on, your birthright. Which you have never imagined anyone will take away from you. A security you have never for a second questioned. You who otherwise never take anything for granted. You are struck dumb by the enormity of what you have, and what he doesn’t.

By now you have become his most eager listener, the only one who keeps pace with him. And he is talking non-stop, the stories flowing out of him like a dam suddenly opened, you are one river without boundaries now. The others are tiring of his non-stop chatter, in an accent difficult to follow, they lag behind. You know this want, this need to make your stories come alive in the narration. For everything that is uttered, at last, attains reality, it is no longer something you just imagined. You will not deny this kind stranger this joy, this comfort. You will not set conditions for this connection.

He takes you all around the refugee camp, the various temples, the shops, he wants you to experience the best of Tibetan culture. And when the sun is firmly up in the sky, he finally takes leave. You feel you have lost family you have found after years.

A few minutes after he says his goodbye and leaves, another monk stops us on the road. He asks if the old man was bothering us. We are puzzled. He says, “I’m sorry if he was bothering you, he does this to all strangers. He’s mentally imbalanced, he’s not well. He’s been in this camp since he was a young man, and had to flee Tibet, walking across the mountains for weeks. Ever since he’s realized he can never go back home again, he’s not been okay.”

It tears you up. You want to go down on your knees and cry. Home. A wish you can in no way help him fulfill. You cannot even just buy him a ticket, because that, you would’ve done instantly, wiping out all your savings if need be, without a second thought, to hell with reason. You are fighting against forces so powerful that can so mindlessly crush an innocent man’s desire to go see if his parents are still alive, or have been killed, whether their souls have departed without the necessary last rites of passage into the other world, unprepared for the bardo of Fear.

Madness, the only way out of that desire to go home. And a reaching out to people, who will listen to your stories, people who will help you recreate that space into being, people who will watch over you kindly while you trip over words, clearly not in control of yourself.

Many many years later, when you listen to the fiery young Tibetan activist, Tenzin Tsundue, at a film screening at Nani Cinématheque about a march to Tibet, you remember the old man walking around at the Refugee Centre, desperately seeking a kind ear who will watch over him while he re-builds his sand castle called Home.

Before the next wave washes it away. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

I was a Stranger, and You took Me in

"I will tell you a story that will make you believe in God", the old man tells the narrator, in the opening chapter of Yann Martel's novel, 'Life of Pi'.

Let me tell you a story that will make you believe in Kindness. Well, probably just for a short while, before the soot of skepticism settles down again :)


So my friend's cousin's 84-year-old father-in-law goes missing one fine morning, from their flat in Delhi. His wife had died a few weeks ago, and he'd gone into depression. They had not taken him for the cremation because the cemetery was far away, and he was unwell. He'd walked out with no money, and no sweater, in the freezing January cold. Searching, police complaints, media ads, nothing yielded any results. The son and daughter-in-law go to pieces, not knowing whether he was dead or alive, or suffering. The only clue they get is from the cemetery watchman who said that yes, an old lost-looking man with no sweater had come there a couple of days ago.

A few days later, an auto rickshaw driver finds the old man fallen down at a bus stop, dehydrated, frozen. He takes him to a hospital which gives him basic first aid, but refuses to keep patients "with no bystanders". The police arrives, and tries speaking to the old man. He has no idea who he is, where he is from, where he needs to go. After many futile attempts, the policeman tells the rickshaw driver (who waited all this while) to just drop him at the bus or railway station, he'll find his way back.

He cannot bring himself to do that. What if this had happened to my own father, he thinks, what would he do? So he takes the old man home. The auto driver stays in a slum, in a small room he shares with 4 other rickshaw drivers. He makes place for the old man, gives him a blanket, and a share of his own meagre meals, for the next 2 weeks. He tries speaking to him every day, but the old man spoke hardly any Hindi, and the rickshaw man does not know English. And anyways, the old man does not even remember his own name, he is lost in another world.

In the meanwhile, the young man moves heaven and hell, trying to find ways of finding the old man's relatives, but has no idea what to do. And then he asks this lady, who works in an IT company, one of his regular passengers, if she could come home and speak to the old man in English. She agrees. She spends a lot of time cross-questioning the old man - all he knows is that he used to live with his son and daughter-in-law, and that he has two grand-kids. She asks him their names. The old man suddenly remembers one of them, "Govind", he says. And then he remembers that they stay in Govind Apartments. That was it, he retreats into silence again.

The lady googles for Govind Apartments in Delhi, and finds so many of them - Delhi is a vast, sprawling metropolis where millions live. She makes a list of all the Govind Apartments in Delhi, with their addresses, and gives it to the rickshaw driver. And tells him that if he does not find the old man's family, she will put him at an old age home that she knows.

The young man does not want to give up easily. Every day, for a few hours, he takes the old man in his rickshaw, to one Govind apartment after the other, across the huge city, driving hundreds of kilometers up and down, and asks the Security guards at each gate, whether there was an old man missing from there.

After many days, he finally lands up at the correct apartment block. The Security guards immediately call his son. The old man is back home, though still disoriented, with hardly any recollection of the weeks that had gone by.

The overwhelmed son tries to pay or recompense the rickshaw driver for all the money, time and care he has so willingly spent on his father for 2 weeks. He does not accept even a penny. "If this was my father, would I not have done so much for him? Just because he's your father, not mine, should I do any less?" - was the simple logic that made this a most obvious thing for him. He could not imagine taking money for that.

He goes back to his slum, leaving behind a stunned family, forever marked by a kindness that cannot but transform the way they view the world.


While millions sit in spirituality sessions, struggling to understand "Universal Soul", "Universal Consciousness", the "Spirit that links all Sentient Beings", our inter-connectedness is seen, and preserved, in the most unexpected of places, as the most obvious and ordinary thing.

I often think - every day, in the mad rush of our busy lives, we cross people who could’ve changed our lives, if only we could hear their stories, or see the lamps that light them from within.

* "I was a Stranger, and you took me in": from The Bible, Mathew 25:35

Friday, June 15, 2012

Live, while you wait for the end!

Old piece, but this is exactly how I feel about life, still! :)


Once upon a time, a few days after the Gujarat earthquake (2001), the office building authorities got a call that an earthquake was predicted at 2 PM in the afternoon. So all of us employees were asked to vacate the 8 storey building and get out and go die elsewhere. I mean, they put it very nicely and all!

Then some of us thought Hey, what's the point in going home because home could also fall on our heads and we could die just as easily at Divyasree Chambers as in the comfort of home full of unwashed clothes and drying teacups. Wasn’t it better to be outside where buildings won’t fall on us? So we went around and collected more people who succumbed to our unbeatable logic – “If you really got to leave, leave laughing!” - [okay, okay, I am the office bully!] - we took the office cricket kit, Sajid and I went and bought tennis balls from the corner shop, and we went and sat in Richmond Park under a nice flowering bottle-brush tree, so nice we didn't mind it falling on our heads.

Then we played many many rounds of antakshari and dumb charades throughout the nice sunny warm afternoon with yellow Spring flowers all around, and we laughed and we laughed like crazy mongooses out on a school picnic. Once in a while someone lying on the grass would say, did I feel a vibration or what, but when there really is nothing to do [like can we make the fattest guy sit on it and keep the earth from shaking or what?], why panic we said, so we went back to playing and singing with a vengeance.

In between we called up our colleagues sitting petrified in front of their TVs waiting for the announcement to come [like football commentary - "There it is, the Earthquake slowly making its way to M.G Road, narrowly missing St.Marks' cathedral, swerving left towards Victoria statue.....and.. before you know it….it’s a GOAL!!'].

When the sun came down a bit, we went to the playground and had a fantastic cricket match, including me, who had never held a bat in my life before but managed to hit the ball once, and was so stunned that I stood there staring openmouthed in utter shock, until someone shouted Runnn!!!!!! I got 2 runs, and the game ended, because my fellow batter, star cricketer Abhishek, ran when he shouldn't have runned, and that was that!!!

After a really good game, at 6 o'clock, with no earthquake in sight, we walked down to the juice shop tired and happy and hungry, and had tons of sapota juice and watermelon juice, I still remember how good and satisfying that tasted. Then we all wished each other a safe earthquake-free evening and went back home with the memory of a fabulous afternoon in the sun.

Waiting rooms need not be filled with dread. They can become living rooms too if you fill them with some Good Strong Happy Living.

March 2006

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Offering of Food

For my dear friend Peter, on his birthday:

Old friend from university days. She comes to meet me during my visit to a far-away city for a wedding. She takes a taxi and travels 2 hours up and 2 hours down with a fidgety son, to just spend half an hour with me, before I go away. And before leaving, she gives me two jars full of the ripe mango curry she made especially for me. She remembered that I loved it so much when I visited her place - and that was 16 years ago.......

A memory that returns every year, when I cut the first ripe mangoes of the season, in April. And like the April rains on parched earth, it refreshes me, reminds me that all is not lost, there is hope, there is still so much caring, so much giving, all around us.

I am always deeply touched by the offering of food. It moves me more than any other gift. A strongly etched memory from my favorite Amar Chitra Katha comic book of childhood days, 'Sudama' - the powa (flattened rice) that the poverty-stricken Sudama takes when he goes to meet his childhood friend, Krishna.

Sudama and Krishna were classmates and close friends at the sage Sandipani’s gurukula, for many long years. At the end of this period, they part ways, each to meet his own destiny. Krishna to become king, and Sudama a teacher, as befitted his caste and station in life. Later, Sudama and his family fall on bad times. The children are hungry; his wife has been borrowing food and money from the neighbors to get by.

Then one day she suddenly remembers, and asks hesitantly, "Maybe you could go and meet Krishna? Weren’t you very close?". She borrows some powa from the neighbour, which Sudama had told her was Krishna’s favorite food in childhood, so that her husband does not go to visit the great king empty-handed. Sudama sets off with the powa wrapped in a cloth bundle, tied to his waist.

Krishna sees him from the distance, from the palace balcony where he was enjoying the evening breeze with his consort Rukmini. This poor Brahmin in old clothes walking to the palace gates hesitantly, as if he feared being turned away. Krishna runs down with great excitement and rushes past surprised courtiers and guards, and embraces Sudama. While people watch in amazement, he makes Sudama sit on his throne, asks his wife to bring water, and washes his feet with great affection, like one does with an honored guest.

Overwhelmed, and surrounded by splendour, Sudama is embarrassed to offer his humble gift of powa to the mighty king. He is astonished when Krishna grabs at his bundle playfully, 'Hey, you have brought me something!', and then pounces on the poha greedily when Sudama offers it to him with great hesitation. Krishna is overjoyed, deeply touched that his old friend remembered.

"Sudama", he says, "the poorest of gifts given to me with love are dearer to me than the richest of gifts given without love."

All those who have fed me, with so much warmth, thank you so much. You have given me so much more than food.

What is your favorite memory of being fed, receiving food, from a friend or a stranger?

*Photo from Google Images

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Rang De!

A sea of gray and brown. Descending to Nagpur, you see trees and shrubs burned by the scorching sun. And then, five hours of passing dried-up fields and denuded forests, with occasional patches of green. There was no way you would have guessed that bright pink and blue and green would be the colours that would define Pusad for you from now on. That the dreaded 42 degree heat would not seem like much. That you would return energized, not tired.

Three of us volunteers/social investors were on a Rang De borrower evaluation trip to Pusad, near Nagpur, Maharashtra, last weekend. Pusad, in Yavatmal district, where the cotton farmers kill themselves, unable to repay loans. We were to meet with women who had taken loans from Rang De, and evaluate their experience.

What we saw was empowerment. And so much positive energy and grit! Slum women speaking with confidence and pride about buying a buffalo, setting up a grocery shop, starting a tailoring business, a tiffin centre, a spice business, sending their daughters and sons to school, becoming decision-makers at home – freed from the fear of moneylenders, and the humiliation of being ill-treated by them. And we saw such selfless dedication – from the workers at Sagras, the field partner who distributes our loans and educates the women on managing their money better.

And we also saw tiny shanty-houses of wood and steel which the women had painted pink and blue and green inside and decorated with brightly-coloured pictures of gods and goddesses. And huge welcoming smiles and warm hospitality, and an amazing sense of community and togetherness - no one was alone among them. (All that we traded for individual wealth and personal space…)

There are still many issues they need to tackle, for example, the size of their families because of the social pressure of having a boy child, poor sanitary conditions etc. But the confidence they now have, that it is possible to be in control and change their families’ lives, to dream of a good future for their kids, that there are strangers who care for them - has already brought them many rungs up the ladder of progress.

On the way back, you think of Ram and Smita, the young couple who founded Rang De, giving up a comfortable life in the UK. 13,298 people (and growing), mostly women, now live better lives because they dared to dream. And followed it up with action.

It is mind-blowing, how far kindness reaches, whom it connects you to. The women of Pusad already have so much colour in their houses. And Rang De has brought them the colours they lacked.

Yet again, you are struck by the sheer amount of positive energy in this country. So many amazing people choosing to give. To share. To lead change. There is so much colour here, in every way. Add yours to it. Rang De!

Friday, February 3, 2012


"Kabira khada bazaar mein, liye lukati haath
Jo ghar bhaade aapno, challe hamare sath."

"Kabir stands in the market, staff in hand,
He who can burn his home, can come with me."

Kabir, Indian Mystic, 15th Century
So says the introduction to Sepia Leaves, Amandeep Sandhu's first book. Aman, of the effortless spirituality, who understands that it is in the seeking that one is truly alive. Aman, the wanderer, who teaches you detachment, and connection, in the same breath. Aman who is both a flowing in, and a flowing away.

Aman, whom you crossed paths with in a rather unexpected way. At the end of a long job interview where we strayed into many non-work-related topics, he insists that you have to stay in touch, even if you do not accept the job offer. You who understand such intensity, such spilling-over, went for the release of his first book, Sepia Leaves, a searing account of his childhood growing up with a schizophrenic mother.

You who re-discover this review you wrote for the book, a long while ago, and wonder yet again, at his resilience to plunge into life, again and again. To narrate more stories of those who have no voice. To let the world in with such deep kindness while learning to walk the long lonely path of the pilgrim. 

“We who need to constantly classify, know, "figure out" so that we can be secure in our grasp of the world, tend to dim certain dimensions of the people we meet so that we "understand" them better. Aman's strength is the ability to keep all the dimensions of his characters equally in the light, as people are originally meant to be seen, before we adjust our lens on them and dim the edges.

His relationship with his mother, who lived in a world where our understanding can never penetrate, is a very powerful lesson in going beyond our narrow definitions of love. You wonder how many of the "strong" relationships we see around us will survive such tests. At the end of all the detailed descriptions of her unpredictable and often violent behaviour, after all the fire Appu walks through, this is what stays in your mind when you close the book:

"I stroke her hair. She does not cry, nor do I. I stroke her hair out of habit as I have done for so long. She has always been my child, though I am her son."

Sympathy is the sentiment you expected to feel. But something bordering on envy is what you are left with."

Aman, who has just met you twice, but comes with a huge bag of Keenu oranges for you from Punjab, and remembers to meet you each time he passes through Bangalore. Aman who honours you by seeking your feedback on his writing, his ideas. Aman, to whom you can ask in agony how it is possible to ever find a balance between letting the world in, and the need to protect oneself, Aman who understands pain.

"How do you protect yourself? I don't know Asha. Do I protect myself? I do not even know that. But I do see myself layered like an onion, by the time I get to one point of exposure I realise there are other concealed points. To think about it my way, it sort of becomes a game where something is eternally elusive and all hunts yield results which don't quite nail the self."

Aman, who tells you that “the only thing that elevates us from our insignificance is our capacity to love.” Aman, whom you agree with, so much.

Thank you, Aman. And happy birthday. Because you were born, and because you live, and because you drew me into your world so warmly without waiting for permission, because you called me friend after meeting me just once, I return to the knowledge that "there's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in", every time I forget.

An interview: 'Engaging With Life, Amandeep Singh Sandhu':

'Sepia leaves' is available on and

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Looking out at the distant airport lights in a hotel room in a cold country, that long-ago day, listening to the clock ticking away in the absolute silence, “the desire to be barefoot and sitting on a doorsill worn black and shiny by all the people who have sat upon it”* rises up like waves of unacknowledged pain, like a metaphor for all that you ever really wanted, but did not know...

Because it is indeed in the rightness of things that we needs must go searching all over the world to find what we really want, and come back ripe and ready at last to find it waiting patiently for us to return, by the side of the old jasmin tree which bravely survived the harsh summers with grace even when no one remembered to water it…

Maybe this is all that you really need, this everyday miracle:

Monday, December 08, 2003

Light creates and recreates the house constantly. Perky morning rays coming in through the kitchen window onto the polished place next to the stove. Lighting up the dust on the black dining table through the half-open balcony door. Casting a moving shadow of the wind-chimes near the door. The bedrooms on the other side are still dark if you keep the curtains closed as if day has not yet completely broken there. Quiet awakening.

As the day progresses, the glow in the drawing room brightens, which even the curtains cannot stop. The grains on the wooden monkey on top of the TV are more visible. The bedrooms come out of night country.

And then the kitchen is in gentle light that doesn't quite reach the corners near the window. The coconut tree outside the drawing room is radiant in the golden evening light, with squirrel babies playing on it. The gentleness of tea-time settles on the red cushions. The light on the old cane sofa invites quiet reflection. The bedrooms on the west are now brilliantly lit, the meroon flowers on the curtain blazing away.

Then as the show comes to an end, the open balcony door lets in a warm glow that lights up the red Christmas stocking and the black and white Paris postcard on the shelf above the antique bed railing. Everything has a shadow. Gradually as you watch the red stocking lose its shine, and the light moving up on to the book shelf, you turn to look outside, watch what is left of the light silhouetting the bird nest on the acacia tree.

And then you close the balcony door as it is mosquito-time, and switch on the table lamps. Pools of light transforming the rooms and calling for music. A pale unchanging weak substitute for the sun, but until the next day when the miracle will repeat all over again, this will work its quiet magic.

* From 'Soul Mountain', Gao Xingjian

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti

Going for a walk in the freezing cold (for we must not break our rituals come what may, the only constants in our unpredictable lives), I suddenly remembered going for guitar classes in this cold, a long time ago. An overwhelming love for music is no guarantee of any sort of ability, sometimes love is not enough, as I discovered -:) - but then the path to happiness can also be paved with small victories, and sometimes that is enough.

The other day I asked a friend to get me a glass painting set, a suncatcher to hang against the light at the window. I have to paint the feathers of the bird in there and I am likely to ruin even that, I have never painted in my life, but then what gives me the courage to still try it is this memory, this Do Re Me Fa So La Ti from so long ago. I didn't learn to play the guitar, but I did learn something after all, I guess.

And oh yes, there were more rewards, priceless ones - the teacher loved me though he could clearly see I was not going to bring him any renown whatsoever -:) - he could discuss Bob Dylan's poetry with me with great emotion, and feel understood. The day he actually lent me his sacred book (The Collected Poems of Bob Dylan, an ancient yellowing copy), I felt I had succeeded in paying the gurudakshina, the true fee of reciprocity I owed my teacher...
Tuesday, February 10, 2004

You have had a bad night. You go to sleep late. In the night the power goes off. You are wide awake and cannot get back to sleep. Then you doze off later, and have bad dreams in which people you love ignore you. And then you are rudely woken up early by the alarm clock as it is your guitar class day. It's an exceptionally cold morning, just when you thought winter had lost its bite. The heater is not working, so you have to heat water on the stove. And as you sit drinking your tea in the half-darkness, groggy and head-achy, a slow sadness and hopelessness seeping in, you wonder why on earth you had to join for guitar classes. How are you going to handle so many things. Will you ever be able to learn anything, it's just too technical, all those alphabets and lines and numbers and strange squiggles. And you have to get up and run like this early in the mornings, when you could use that extra sleep. Why do you get these brainwaves, why have you not "settled down" like other people your age? You've got it all wrong.

Today is going to be a Bad Day. Yes, Sir, you can see it coming.

And then you drive in the freezing cold to the teacher's house. Your fingers are frozen. And then he tries to teach you how to read the notes, and then play them. C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. 3rd fret, fifth string. No fret, 4th string. 2nd fret, 4th string. 3rd fret? What? Oh my God, oh my God, you will never be able to co-ordinate this. Your brain hasn't learnt a single new thing that requires such co-ordination in years and years. And now he writes all of them numbers on the lines and says you have to identify and name the notes for the next class. This is it. You are finished. Your brain is too old to learn this. Why on earth did you take this up, you stupid fool. The depression is setting in. Loser.

And then he asks you to play Do Re Mi. Look at the notes, start with C. C? Oh, 3rd fret, fifth string. You pick up the guitar, gingerly. Oh, you hope he gets a phone call, you hope his wife calls him in. You don't want him to see you struggle. All your dignity down the drain. Then you start. C. Pause. Struggle, search, where the hell is the second fret? And you have to use the second finger of the left hand for that. Second finger? (No, don't count the thumb, please). And then, yes, you ascend 4, 3, 2. Start again, with lesser pauses. And then once more. You are getting the fret and string correct. Yes, try again.

And then you realize. You are Actually Playing Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti. Did you hear that? You are playing slowly, with pauses, but yet, You are Actually Playing Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti!!!!!!!!!!!!! Anyone who passes by can listen and say oh she is playing Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti. You cannot believe it. You try again. Yes! And Yes!!!!! You are actually producing a tune out of a musical instrument!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You, stupid old uncoordinated you!! And that too, within minutes!!!

You put back the guitar reluctantly at 8.30, and walk out. The fog has risen from your head and disappeared. Today is going to be a Good Day, you know it. Yes, Sir!! You smile like an idiot inside your helmet, all the way to work, you sing old happy songs of sunshine and love.

And now you understand why it is worth all the early mornings and the fatigue and the getting over mental blocks and memories of old failures and the voices in your head that call you an absolute goner, a poor old bungling fool.

Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti. That's why.

Photo: At a Swiss jazz concert at the Alliance Française, the double bass, a favorite instrument.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Read to me...

In the Iranian film 'Blackboards' by Samira Makhmalbaf, the scene you remember the most is of an old Kurdish shepherd grazing his sheep high up in the mountains, stopping the teacher and asking him if he can read a letter for him. He slowly pulls out a carefully folded piece of paper from his pocket. His face opening up in a smile hearing that his son is doing well though he cannot visit him now. A face still smiling when the teacher continues on his way, suspecting the truth, that the son is perhaps in jail, like so many other young men from this region. (But kindness, more important than truth...)

You read about postmen in the Himalayas who walk long distances, climb up and down hills, cross rivers, to carry letters to remote villages. How they also serve as the reader and writer of letters to people there, and are much awaited, like family. A job you would’ve loved to do, a role you would’ve loved to play? Long moments of walking alone, and then connection and meaning, and words, and then a walking alone again. A pendulum of perfect balance.

The Reader’ was heartbreaking because it was all about reading and being read to. You walked around wounded for a long time after that.

So great was your need to read to someone once upon a time that you walk into an Old Age home one day, and ask the Mother Superior whether any of the inmates there would like to be read to. She says yes, but then they try not to let them interact too much with young people because that would make them remember the children who abandoned them a long time ago, and the carefully constructed living-in-the-present would come apart in mindless, endless grief.

While you are talking to her, an old man comes in to ask if his son’s money order has come. His son hasn’t sent anything in years, nor bothered to come to see his father or call him or write to him. But this is a ritual the old man follows every day to retain what is left of his 'sanity', and the kind nuns indulge him.

You walk out, old, abandoned and bent, you do not go around offering your reading anymore. You remember the teachers in 'Blackboards', traveling from place to place with knowledge that no one wants to learn. What is worse, having riches that no one wants, or having nothing to give?

And then one morning, you get "read to" by your three-year-old niece, and a whole new dimension of reading opens up before you :) 

You remember those sessions with storytellers/readers, and how you were in tears every single time even though the stories were of joy and belonging. You remember feeling that you were reliving a sacred ceremony from a very distant past. That if you reached out, a circle would form, and you would be part of it...

You would like to think that reading to another, is yet another form of giving. Listening, a gracious act of receiving. And the whole event, an ancient ritual of connection....