Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Ending the silence || Bolero

I first heard it in my cousin's home. They had a new "two-in-one" and a batch of new recordings. This was one of them. It was raining outside, that July rain in Bombay that comes down with the dedication of a Mumbaikar on a mission. I was heading back to Colaba and had a long bus-ride ahead. I simply could not leave the music behind so I taped it--I still have that cassette--and listened to it non-stop on the bus, looking at the rain and feeling the music sink into my soul.

I don't know much about Western classical music, but 'Bolero' to me is a feeling--sad, haunting and completely unsettling. There's always a vestige of it in my spirit, even when I have not listened to it in a long time.

In the last ten years, writing and talking about ending the silence about gender violence, I know exactly where I have heard that song before--Bolero.

Silence. Then, a lone, sad, quiet voice, almost absent so that you have to strain to hear. And then a couple of others. And then, a few more. The solos blend into a chorus, a brief harmony of many sections in the orchestra. A perfect musical moment, that then escalates into something angrier, more urgent. The movement gathers strength, new voices and momentum. It is unstoppable. There is just one message but it is delivered with ever-greater intensity. The beat is hard to ignore, and everyone starts to fall in line, walking, moving together. Insistent, assertive, buoyed by unity, the orchestra effaces the last vestiges of silence. Music speaks so loudly it dances on the brink of cacophony. You reach out to turn down the volume but the message has now entered every part of your consciousness. It is irresistible. It is becoming you. The instruments, so different from each other, are speaking with one voice. There is nothing else left. No other sound. No other thought. No other idea. The scale changes. Change is here. Now there is triumph where there was lonely anguish. We have overcome, as the music has taken us over.

Ravel's Bolero.

I have come to see this as the perfect soundtrack for all of us who want to end gender violence, and to end the silence and stigma that surround it. Every other year, we talk about getting someone to perform a 'flash-mob' dance and I suggest Bolero, but it is too long. Too long. Social change takes time. We cannot spare fifteen minutes for this composition to unfold. I understand. It remains the song of the struggle for me. I know that this journey too will gather its people--that is happening as I write--and that it will culminate in change--I can see that.

Here is Ravel playing his composition on the piano, a more mellow sound but taking nothing away from its beauty.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The things I cannot write

I have been coming here as often as I could for a very long time. In these decades, I have been like a student, learnt like a sponge... I still am. I see, I hear, I absorb... more than you would guess. The things that I am told... in passing, in confidence, in explanation. The things that I see... the things you try to hide, the things you do not notice because you live here, from my location in the world between the tourist's and the local's. The things you mean me to know and the things I find out. 

A hundred thousand million things that remain in my thoughts or words in my notebooks that I cannot actually write here or anywhere someone is meant to read them.  

I could not tell you why this is so. Or maybe, I could. Maybe the words I write down will overstate what is there. Maybe being written will amplify feelings people are hiding for a reason. Maybe a careless outsider's words will upset a fragile applecart. Maybe I am wrong. Or maybe, I am right. 

What is this silence about?

I carry it like a gift and like a burden, waiting for a sign that I can give it up.  

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Colombo, again

Driving into the city from the airport, for the very first time, I am not filled with anticipation and excitement. Partly this is because I am ravenous and tired. But I wonder if I am finally jaded about this city that has always felt like home? Or is it that it is home, where you don't greedily consume the view as though it's your only chance?

Monday, September 5, 2016

Siddhi Vinayak memories and other reflections

A few years ago, I dragged my friend who lives in Worli to Siddhi Vinayak temple. My family had a mannat (vendidal) to complete--an offering of many coconuts--and I was the courier. She had rarely been to this place that was an integral part of my childhood.

I must have been four or five, maybe a little older, when my father learned about the temple. Many Sundays were spent driving to the temple in the morning from Colaba, having a vadai breakfast after that and driving back.

I remember that Siddhi Vinayak distinctly. It was a small neighbourhood temple with a shaktishali Ganapati. We would first stop at a tree with a Hanuman on the way in (or out? I was really very young then!). The temple itself was really small, with just enough space for a single file circumambulation. I remember the light in that little courtyard, dappled with sunlight and the shadows of leaves from what must have been the sthalavriksha. The air was both warm and cool in that Bombay way--yes, I do remember those details.

I want to say we went every Sunday but that is probably not correct. We went often enough that it was a preferred Sunday routine for me. Sometimes we drove back by the Portuguese Church which continues to fascinate me. (The vadais remain a draw, as well.) But it was hard not to love this little temple even when you were pretty much holding someone's hand and dragging along to keep pace.

Then my Mama, never perfectly healthy, became seriously ill, far away in New York. My father would wake up on Tuesdays when it was still dark, bathe and start walking to Prabhadevi. He would return at around 8. I don't know how many weeks he did this. Ganesha did help. He ended the pain and the suffering and gave my Mama peace. In exchange, he gave us a great grief that we still feel after decades. This was 1973.

We continued to visit the temple but less and less frequently as my parents' responsibilities grew and Sundays became days to finish secondary school homework. As teenagers, my sister and I developed our own routines--and politics. I went through a very long phase of questioning and not-believing because I was still questioning, and then I thought temples don't matter--in a way, I still think that.

In those years, the little temple became richer and more powerful as people invested their faith. My mother (and great-grandfather) explained temples and idols this way to me: It's not the idol. It's not the space. It's not the architecture. It's the energy. Not intrinsic to anything physical but brought in and invested there by hundreds and thousands who believe. They believe it is there, and by their belief, it becomes real. By the belief of hundreds of thousands (and their offerings), the little Siddhi Vinayak temple acquired layer after later, shell after shell, structure after structure, to become this grand palace we see today. The sanctum too grew more splendid and the worshippers more celebrated. Could Siddhi Vinayak have time for simple people like us who knew him way back when?

In my heart, though, he is still that little guy I visited when I was a little girl. And so I know he listens to me. In a crisis, I think of him. He and my other Bombay people--Mahalakshmi, Mumbadevi, Haji Ali (whom I have never visited), St. Joseph from my school church, Mary from the Mahim Church, the Hanuman on Colaba Causeway... this is my A-Team in bad times (as if they were separate from other such repositories of energy and faith who are here and everywhere). And  as they belong to me, so I belong to Bombay/Mumbai.

On my own journey, I have followed my questions, then my need, then my faith in other people's faith and then my own experiences to the point where I do go to temples without coercion. On my time, in my way, with whatever ritual my heart makes up for that moment on that day. But some temples you carry within you. Siddhi Vinayak is one of them for me.

On this Ganesh Chaturti, I wish for:

No obstacles to non-violence.
No obstacles to peace.
No obstacles to justice.
No obstacles to compassion.
No obstacles to learning.
No obstacles to understanding.
No obstacles.

For everyone.

For me, I write this blogpost as a prayer. Let me be able to reclaim enough health and sanity, enough peace of mind, to be able to be calm and compassionate, creative and constructive. Let me travel inwards and outwards at once, learning and teaching along the way. No obstacles.

PS: Do I believe that the offerings determine outcomes? Of course not. I think however that the time and attention they make you divert from your self-centered anxiety may help your morale. (For me, writing is an offering that transforms my energy.) If you make a charitable offering, then noticing other people's suffering puts yours in perspective. In the moment you make the promise, you give yourself a little hope--that tomorrow will dawn, better, because you have a promise to keep. It re-commits you to something concrete. And like my father, walking to Prabhadevi at the crack of dawn, it mitigates your helplessness in the face of something beyond your control--at least I can walk, at least I can do this. That's good enough, I think. We do the best we can.