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 Fran├žaise, 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....