Friday, June 9, 2017

Johatsu: The Evaporated People of Japan

Nothing has moved me as much as this book in a long long time.

So why do I read "sad books"? Of course I flinch. I am not any tougher than any of you - on the contrary. :)

"But aren't we all in this together?" asks Joseph Grand, the dim-wit clerk in Camus' 'Plague'. The book that still defines who I am, the choices I make on a daily basis, even after 25 years.

The least we can do is to acknowledge another's pain?

I believe this helps me become more human - to willingly stand in the stream of another's suffering, and say: "Yes, I may never live this - but I feel you." Does not have to be everyone's way, but this is mine.


"In Japan, thousands of people each year became johatsu — “evaporated people” — driven underground by the stigma of debt, job loss, divorce, even just failing an exam."

"A hundred thousand Japanese will disappear every year, not counting the eighty-five thousand evaporations reported by the police. The families who dare consult private eyes increase, says Sakae, "their dishonor".

...Sakae sees his country as a pressure cooker. Its inhabitants slowly boil, constantly being tested. Once the pressure becomes unbearable, they escape. This taboo subject points to the very foundations of Japanese society, just like the 33,000 suicides documented annually, or 90 every day.

"A man worthy of the name never runs. Running is for faucets." Boris Vian once joked.

In Japan, the philosophy is reversed: a man worthy of the name leaves."

'The Vanished: The 'Evaporated People' of Japan in Stories and Photographs' (2016)
Léna Mauger (Author), Stéphane Remael (Photographer), Brian Phalen (Translator)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Once on an early morning ride back to Calcutta airport a long time ago, this Bihari taxi driver brought us masala tea made by his wife. Because the previous night we happened to mention in passing how we have to leave so early we would not get tea at the hotel where we were staying.

He stopped at the airport, and to our surprise, pulled out nice cups and saucers from a cloth bag and ceremoniously served us delicious freshly-made cardamom-flavoured tea his wife had gotten up at 3 AM to prepare for us...

Saturday, April 22, 2017


Just when the heat becomes unbearable, the rain trees and hongais fill up with leaves, sheltering us in their thick green cool shade.... we are granted mercy too at times, whether or not we deserve it.


Where have we reached in our evolution if we are embarrassed by someone breaking down in public, and turn away instead of reaching out and holding them?

We empathize with hunger, poverty, disease, disability – but we do not want to acknowledge anyone “losing it”, cracking up mentally, emotionally. Why?

Why is it the greatest shame, to cry in public? Why does it destroy the entire edifice of our respectability in a second?

What is so shameful about suffering?


 “When I tried to hug her, she’d tell me it was too hot for hugs. So I learned to stop trying. We never had conversations. I thought it was normal. It was all I knew. I always thought the relationship between a mother and a child was about giving and receiving orders.

But when I was ten years old, I went to a friend’s house to do a school project. At first I remember feeling sorry for him. His family was so poor. There was almost nothing in the house. But when we walked inside, his mom gave him such a big hug. And she was so happy to see him.

And that was the saddest moment of my life. Because I never knew that was something you could have."

(Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), Humans of New York


Every morning for a month, I was woken up by the incessant chatter of the rosy starlings, who must now be on their way back to Europe, flying across thousands of miles, passing over so many landscapes, always together ....

To have been placed in the path of such beauty……… 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


For Patrick, who passed away before I could show him this, the most ordinary and predictable of miracles.


Stop. And listen:

Stop. And listen.

Early in the morning, when all is still, you can hear the honge flowers falling, like the first drops of approaching rain.

Stop. And listen. Isn't it amazing that you can hear flowers too?


Saturday, March 4, 2017


“If you walk down a street full of hongai trees every day you’ll never fall ill – the air is so good, you know? They protect you, like a mother’s womb.” Says the old park sweeper, the friend of my mornings.


All those years of reading various philosophies, so much poetry, wandering alone, observing. Maybe they prepared me to be this person walking down the entire length of a street looking up and smiling, following a squirrel as it moves from one hongai treetop to the next, not worried about anyone watching.

Yes, I am an idiot. But I am prone to ecstasy.  :)

I am slowly beginning to understand the swirling dervishes....


Coming across a small tree full of red small clustered blooms in the park, literally quivering with hundreds of birds chirping and jumping from branch to branch, I stop in surprise. Who are they? What is this tree? Then I see an old man also watching this miracle along with me, and ask him if he knows. [I have decided I will not hesitate to talk to strangers anymore. We share the same planet – isn’t that introduction enough?]

And he tells me this amazing thing, lapsing into the local language – these birds come every year only when this tree blooms. He doesn’t know the name of the tree or the birds – but he knows that there are three of these trees in this park, and a couple in Lal Bagh. And he picks up a flower and shows me how it is filled with water, literally.

We watch this amazing sight for a while, standing together under a canopy of bird chirping, and then go our separate ways, hoping to be around next year to see this again.[With the help of friends, I find out that the tree is Schotia brachypetala and the birds the migratory gray-headed starling, or chestnut-tailed starling. They pass through Bangalore every year in this season.]

Twenty-six years of familiarity, and yet a city can still hold so much magic, revealing new sides, new wonders. Just like all the people I think I know since years ......


The season is changing, so visibly. The dry leaves of the mahogany and the hongai fill up the streets. And the new leaves are budding, opening, resplendent in the perfect light. The rain trees are already filled with fresh green oily leaves shining in the sun, their delicate pink filament-like flowers nearly lost among the green. The yellow tabebuias are going crazy lining our streets with gold, and the pink ones have just begun.

To think I am still here, yet another year, to see all this. How did I get so lucky? So many did not make it.

"How terribly sad it was that people are made in such a way that they get used to something as extraordinary as living." 

Jostein Gaarde


All around I see people dreaming of leaving the city and living peacefully in a quiet place far away, away from all this madness. But I seem to revel in it. I don't want to go away. I am peaceful right here.

I walk among crowds, listening to barbets and random bits of conversations, rubbing shoulders with strangers, aching for their loneliness, their myriad hopes for a better life, their thirst for connection and belonging, doing what I can to help make the journey a little bit easier. I feel like a drop of water returned to its ocean*.

I find my Zen in the middle of the market place.


"How can one prevent a drop of water from ever drying up?*
By throwing it back into the sea."

from the film Samsara by Pan Nalin

Saturday, February 18, 2017

You give, you take

For you, Patrick

However loud the sounds around, you can always tune into your own station. Try it. Like I am always tuned into barbet station. :) :) Wherever I am in Bangalore, above the loud traffic sounds, I can still identify a barbet. You can always hear what you want to hear. I hear birds. I hear barbets. The city is still a magical place for me.


The white-cheeked barbets live only in the green area in the map above, in the entire world. Imagine! They are frugivorous, and can be found all over Bangalore. Proof that we still have so many fruit-bearing trees.


Patrick used to talk to me non-stop, in French, during my monthly haircut. Stories about the South of France, his high-spirited mother and her many sayings, his grandfather who could predict the Mistral by the colour of the sky, his own wanderings alone, life lessons. And he used to teach me Tai Chi in the mornings in the park, the ancient martial art. Explaining so beautifully, in French, how everything about Tai Chi was about balance. You open, you close. You rise, you descend. You give, you take. And you repeat, again and again and again. You stand with your feet firm on the ground, and move slowly, gracefully, barely displacing the air.

The day before he died after a brief vertiginous fight with cancer, I gave him water. A small offering for all the warmth and generosity he never failed to show.

His daughter brought him the smells of his hometown, from the Southern coast of France.  Lavender oil, Marseilles soap made of olives, traditional sweets. He left with the smells of his childhood, half-conscious. Maybe that was closure in one way. You go out into the world, you return.

Au revoir, Patrick. I still practise Tai Chi every morning, without shoes, feeling the earth, like you taught me to. The barbets, the koels, the squirrels, and my Brahminy kite, they keep me company.


The Hongai trees are turning yellow and brown, rapidly losing their leaves. In preparation for that most stunning event of the year, the budding and blooming of their tender green oily-shiny leaves that let the light through, each vein standing out in its perfect glory. That time when I go berserk, run late for appointments because I am standing by the roadside, looking up, smiling, risking death by suddenly stopping my bike whenever I come upon a new tree. :)

I can barely breathe. This in-between time between seasons, the expectation in the air everywhere.

The old sweeper at the park says that he comes in at 5 am every day and sweeps once, but in a few hours it already looks like he’s not done any work. :)


I am doing my favourite thing again. Sitting alone in coffee shops, occasionally catching random bits of  stories going on around me. “That was SO not me!!!”, she says, her eyebrows and hands raised in total surprise. 

 "At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

...The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless."

from 'Four Quartets', T.S.Eliot

Saturday, February 11, 2017


I wake up and have no pain anywhere in my body. I can get up and walk freely. I can see. Thousands, nay, millions, wake up and can't say the same.

I am giddy just thinking of my good fortune today. And I know I will not always have it.

I am going to smile like a fool all day.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Moving through the Universe

 For S, who chose to leave us on a cold dark February, four years ago.

In the pond in the centre of the park, the tall white egret moves, quietly, without disturbing the water. I am fascinated. I stand and stare every single time I visit. His reflection is unbroken, not even shaken, but he's traversed the pond, feeding. I barely breathe, watching him.

Ah. To move through the universe like that, not disturbing anything …

The old fish-man who’s been coming to my parents’ house, for over 30 years. I ask him about how fishing is done these days, my usual search for stories. He tells me about men who go into the mid-sea for 3-4 days to find fish. 30 men cooped up on a boat with ice storage boxes, cutting across choppy waters. As soon as they catch the big ones, they sell them on Whatsapp to vendors back on land. But he says, I’d never be able to do that, such a scary thing, accidents happen, these are not the best boats.

That was a few months ago. But the picture remains imprinted in my mind. I keep imagining 30 men crowded on a small boat, ordinary fisherman for whom this is survival, not adventure. Lifted up and dropped down by giant waves, again and again, watching the light and the darkness come and go, surrounded by a million stars at night, and hoping to survive the journey, not knowing. I wonder what goes on in their minds…

“I don’t watch films about bad things or social inequality. Makes me frustrated that I cannot make any difference. So I just focus on my family and my hobbies.”

You can make a difference. Just by being kind, to anyone you meet. Every little thing counts.

And sometimes it takes only a smile.

“I’m walking to the bridge,” begins a Golden Gate Bridge suicide note he cites. “If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.”

I am walking to the bridge