Saturday, July 18, 2015

Saying goodbye

How many of you have difficulty saying goodbye to objects? I do. I wear clothes until they really should not be worn at all. I hold on to gadgets long after others would declare them obsolete. I used never to give away books until I saw how much others yearned for them. And I have had cupboards built to house old letter and cards.

When I was really, truly young, out of every letter pad I bought, I kept one sheet for posterity. So obsessed was I over the idea of posterity, that I would date my book purchases with an 'AD' in order to help the material culture scholar of the future date my books to the right historical period--the period of purchase and enjoyment, not the period of publication, that is.

In recent times, I am learning that objects are no longer created for a lifetime's use--not shoes, not phone, not computers. And the idea of quick disposal (as in the earliest possible cremation of a body) is acquiring great appeal. For reasons of economy and in order to leave a diminishing footprint on my world, I am beginning to try and limit my wants--a lifetime of financial struggle and delayed gratification greatly help.

I am beginning to think of tearing up all those diaries and letters--the historian is losing this battle to the person who wants to say, let me be gone with the  moment. I think that perhaps I am learning detachment.

And then today, copying files out of my previous laptop, I feel miserable that I am forcing that friend into retirement. The Toshiba laptop has stood me in good stead for almost eight years. Eight years of photos and blogging. Eight years of Prajnya planning--all of Prajnya's funtional life actually. Eight years of research and consultancy projects as varied as can be. And many years of teaching myself how to write for newspapers and websites--as opposed to academic writing and blogs. I feel like I am betraying a really good friend. And this, despite the fact that I will still use that laptop for work meetings on Skype--at least for that.

I guess I am not even on the road to detachment yet! After all, last year, when I gave away three boxes of clothes that had been in storage for 12 years, I took photos of everything that wasn't coming home with me.

Parting, even with (especially with) objects, is indeed such sweet sorrow. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Yellow River

Today's musical companion for my evening walk was a lifelong favourite, the Yellow River Concerto. I first heard it in my dorm room in Syracuse, sitting with my room-mate from Macau (via Hong Kong, which still existed back then!). Agnes had a large collection of Chinese music, as I did Indian, and it was the music that played as we both fell asleep. There was something about the still dark Syracuse night and the sound of Cantonese opera that seemed made for each other.

But of all the music Agnes played, and that I taped from her, the Yellow River Concerto remains special. I brought back a cassette where I copied it and as I walked around the Fort or Colaba running errands or getting to class, it played loudly in my ears, reminding me (as it still does) that my world is larger than the place where I sit, that all this too belongs to me.

Reluctant to wear out that precious tape further, I was delighted to discover that Lang Lang had done performances of the piece and that I could buy a recording on CD as well--which is what I played today.

As I sat down to write this post, I finally Googled the Yellow River Concerto, I learned that this piece I love was commonly reviled. That must have something to do with its origins as the composition of a collective in the Cultural Revolution era. There are also suggestions that parts of it were plagiarised. I don't know enough about music to pronounce a judgment on the matter.

I can only tell you that this piece of music has always spoken to me.

In school, studying Chinese geography, we learnt that the Yangtze was the source of both life and sorrow to the Chinese who lived along its banks. Frequent floods and changes of course had a dramatic impact on people's lives and livelihoods. The image I took away from geography class of a large yellowish river, so large you could not see one bank from another, rolling, swelling and rising in rage to consume all in its wake found its background score in the Yellow River Concerto.

Sitting in our little room in the International Living Centre, blasting the Concerto on the boombox, or walking across Flora Fountain with it playing on the Walkman, each time it was (and is) as if a story unfolded before me in four parts.

The first part is loud and dramatic. The river comes at you, all sound and fury, and like a horror movie, you run as fast as you can, but the river is just faster and more determined. Like tsunami waves more than a swelling river, the disaster sweeps everything away.

In the second part, you watch a little toddler sleep. The day gone by has been full of tantrums and tears, and much tearing around in between. The household is in a shambles and its other members are wrecked. But the toddler sleeps gently and peacefully, a cherub. You imagine a calm Yangtze after the floods and fury are spent, utterly still as you pick up the pieces of your life.

In the third, the music reminds you that rivers are centres of life--civilizations grow around rivers. You see the bathers, the swimmers, the people washing clothes, the livestock quenching their thirst and the canals that take water out to the fields. You think of what Will Durant wrote: "Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river." 

The first few notes of the fourth part are dramatic, as if a storm weather warning has sounded. All parts of the concerto, all the moods and movements of the Yangtze come together. Some are sanguine, some are scurrying. This is life. 

I think I am fortunate to be able to enjoy music without making every session a game of Trivial Pursuit and Technical Excellence. I am able to close my eyes and imagine the Yellow River, something I may never see in this lifetime, just by listening to its eponymous concerto and cantata--unfettered by other concerns than this journey in my head. 

Watch a performance of the four parts of the Concerto here

This is a recording of the first movement of the Yellow River Cantata, from which the Concerto is said to borrow a great deal. 

This links to the playlist comprising the full Cantata. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

The humble bougainvillaea

I grew up surrounded by bougainvillaea bushes that covered every adjacent wall with their magenta blooms in abundance. The bushes flowered so generously that one ceased to notice them at all. They were as nondescript in my view as the grass or the weeds growing in the cracks of those walls.

And one could neither wear the flower nor use it in decorations.

The orange and off-white or white flower had some value in my eyes but not the unapologetically abundant magenta.

And then sitting here in Asia Plateau, I realise that the humble, shamelessly prolific magenta bougainvillaea is the perfect accessory for the rough-hewn, messy-looking, volcanic remains that make up the terrain of the Deccan Plateau. This is a plain, no-frills, even drab landscape if you are accustomed to your nature coming to you in conventionally pretty looks. The vivid sprays of bougainvillaea are like a beautiful bright shawl thrown carelessly over ratty jeans and an old T-shirt. You look at them and think, "Why, it's the very thing!"


Of course, just as every human is beautiful in their own way, the Deccan Plateau is also quite spectacular to the discerning eye. I still don't have words for it, but if you look closely, you can imagine the rock-faces of the hill-sides are sheets of lava frozen in time. Look on the ground--no one cleared after the last eruption--or the last horse-ride. Grass grows on some surfaces, not others. There is little tree cover, except where the Tourism Department has landscaped the terrain, planting mainly... bougainvillaea.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Because compassion is all that counts

I will tell you the truth. I did not really think about the word 'compassion' for the first two decades of my life. I knew it, and had some sense of its meaning, but it did not figure in my universe as often as words like 'kindness,' 'consideration' and even 'gentleness' did. And then, someone described me as compassionate--something that surprised me (still does) and that also made me wonder what the word really meant.

Today, I cannot stop thinking about compassion. It seems to me to be the only thing that really matters. I've never valorised human physical appearance, nor even appearances in general. I thought being intelligent was important to me, and I valued it in others, until my years as a graduate student introduced me to an unbearable amount of intelligence. Intelligence came in a package with arrogance, rigidity and self-importance and I came to think it was overrated. After all, life is not a seminar. Compassion, however, undoes me. Kindness, consideration, the ability to notice another person's situation, to notice and give before being asked, generosity and empathy--now I think this is all that counts. And I know this is what every teacher or prophet has preached.

For me the word 'compassion' evokes two images from Buddhist art most of all.



I had seen photos of Ajanta's beautiful Padmapani Bodhisattva all my life, having grown up in Maharashtra. It was only when I saw the actual mural did I understand the power of his compassionate gaze. It sees and it understands and it looks for ways to help. The bronze Avalokiteswara from the Colombo Museum I first met and fell in love with at the Smithsonian. I could gaze at him forever, for his stillness and beauty. But the more I thought about that Avalokiteswara, the less the icon mattered and the more, the compassionate promise he represents. "I will be there for you," a promise friends make to each other. When I was in Class 1, I sat next to Ranee, who is still my friend. Ranee and I had this thing--because we were friends, we would write the same word at the same time and if one of us got ahead, we would stop and wait for the other to catch up. Avalokiteswara is everybody's friend, deferring nirvana until all of us catch up. 

But this is about compassion, of which Alice Walker writes, "if compassion be freely/ Given out/ Take only enough." Give compassion freely, without measure, without thought, without expecting a return, but take only enough. "Stop short of urge to plead. Then purge away the need."

As I have come to treasure compassion as an individual trait, I also wonder what compassion means in the public sphere. How does it come into play in the state and its institutions--or does it not? What does it mean for society? How do we create a compassionate society? Does compassionate mean charitable or equitable or inclusive or something else? What are the attitudes and behaviour we would identify with a compassionate community? I am looking for the questions that will give me the right answers.