Saturday, December 3, 2016

Letterbox Resistance: A Campaign after my heart!

I want to cross-post this from Campaign Chronicle, the Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence blog. 
True confession: Through the first three decades of my life, I was what one might call an inveterate, unstoppable letter-writer, where letter was a composition written by hand on paper. You might say, therefore, that the Letterbox Resistance activity was bound to be something I enjoyed.
First, the preparations! The design of the little cards with the campaign logo. The campaign logo stamp. The colour paper and envelopes. The bonafide 50 paise postcards. This may count as the most fun campaign prep ever!
 This was the first activity of the 2016 Campaign. Ragamalika and I were the core group of letter-writers that went through all three sessions on the 25th.
We met the first group at Chamiers Cafe, where we ended up occupying two long tables. Enthusiastic and full of ideas, we churned out a variety of letters here--postcards addressed to specific offices, letters addressed very generally to categories of people, posters and flyers. Some of these needed to be sent to the addressee, but a few were tucked away here and there, to be found by other diners. One participant handed over a letter to another group explaining what we were doing. And we also shared cards and stamps with some of the staff. We hope everyone wrote the letters they were planning to write! Most of the group then disbanded.
Our second stop was Coffee Central, a cosy cafe in T.Nagar. A much smaller group met here, but the words continued to flow... mostly! We wrote reflective notes, we wrote apologies and we wrote to our kids. We also got others in the cafe to write a note, addressed to parents around the world!
The third stop was at the Food Court in Phoenix Mal and by now, there was just the core left. We were joined by Prajnya's Administrator, Santha. As we settled down with our papers spread out, a security attendant very politely requested us to please leave. People were not allowed linger in the Food Court doing anything other than eating and taking selfies. Out of consideration for her, we packed up sooner than scheduled, quietly placing some of our letters around the mall.
I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this activity and on how many levels. First of all, picking out stationery is always delightful. Then, the physical pleasure of writing deliberately on a sheet of paper--taking trouble over both the words and their transcription-constitutes an almost-meditative experience. Third, the process of identifying what you want to say, who you need to say it to, how you want to phrase it and the tone you want to adopt, and finally putting it down on paper is an empowering one. It cuts to the heart of the helplessness we feel faced with something as huge as 'one in three women face abuse in their lifetime.' It gives each of us a sense of agency. Finally, it reminds us of the geneology of online petitions. They began with letters that were copied by hand laboriously and mailed to decision-makers and editors around the world. This power remains with us. We should exercise it more often! 
To read all the letters we wrote, see our Facebook album.
What did I write? You should join us too!

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. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

What to write about

This is inspired by Naina's post last week on 'What to blog about.'

I woke up this morning intending to write an article for the website that kindly gives me a platform. And then I logged into Twitter and realised everything had been said. Everyone knew everything already. And everybody was right so I couldn't possibly even argue--although a less adda-argument-loving person you will not meet! And yes, I could write about how annoying I find the Southasian love of long-drawn out discussion. Makes me feel hot and tired and dehydrated.

Now, there are notes I have waiting, but I cannot summon up the discipline to fashion an article out of them yet, and I am also reeling from a young person's pronouncement that I am paid too little for my articles, so I won't go there yet. (Now, this money and negotiation thing, I could blog about.)

I could write something based on the travel diary I just finished writing by hand. But those images and words feel too precious to share as yet. I could share instead the rediscovered pleasure of writing by hand in a notebook. From watching the words form to witnessing how different my handwriting felt and looked at different times on the same writing day to the long-forgotten (if ever known) pleasure of sitting in a coffee shop with an open notebook and pen to just being able to start and stop the writing anywhere, without regard to power outlets and clunky laptops and Internet and so on. Writing in a notebook is a pleasure without parallel at the physical, emotional and intellectual levels. I could write about that.

Or I could share a photo and write about it. I could do that, I guess.

I have things to say about the TV shows I watch. I could tell you about them but there should be something in my life that is not in the public domain.

And I love it when other people do lists of music clips. I could do that too.

I could share with you the brown-and-grey depths of the funk I am in. But you have your problems too, I know.

I could even venture to write about something political. That was how this blog started out; I thought I would write about the things I was trained to write about. You might find out I actually know a few things. That would never do. The admission of ignorance is very liberating and suits a lazy person like me in the marketplace of egos.

I could write about how lovely it's been to meet old friends this week, one from graduate school and one from college today. But that's like a Facebook post.

But for now, my writing is like water in a pipe full of air-bubbles and noise and ego and worry and self-censorship and self-doubt. I have to let the words run for a while before they will flow. And I have to remember that I really don't care whether you read this or not, whether you like this or not.

Monday, May 16, 2016

It can't possibly be that simple! (Could it?)

This morning, I stood in the shortest queue ever to vote. It was all smooth sailing. The cop at the entrance told us which queue to join--no second guessing, waiting and finding out it's the wrong one! The queue was blessedly short; so short it was single file! People were relatively quiet.

Prior to the election, I was wondering about the candidates. No one had bothered to canvass in our neighbhourhood except the BJP and then too, it was not the candidate but one of those autos with a megaphone attached. The ruling party had changed candidates on us--not that we got to meet or learn about either.

We stood for a brief moment and looked over the giant EC poster with candidate photos. It was an easy decision as we looked at those interchangeable faces.

I thought the queue would be discussing candidates, mainly because they were on my mind.

But the conversation in the queue was far more pedestrian and predictable for a middle-class Indian neighbourhood. People had come clutching all kinds of paper--the Voter ID, booth slips, receipts from the EC, ration cards, even Aadhaar.

There was great consternation because the parties had not distributed booth slips. Why? All that information is on your voter ID! But I did not say, because I have never learnt to sound authoritative about paperwork.

The Election Commission has banned these slips, one woman voter pronounced. The others said, it's going very slowly because the slips are not there. I wanted to say, they have to check against all their registers so that no one votes in your name. It does not matter how many pieces of paper you bring. But I said nothing.

Then the couple behind murmured about first time voters. I was curious. The queue was full of people 40+ and senior citizens. She said (also the one with the EC ban information in the previous para) they have the most awareness and want to vote. He said, "The EC is trying for 100%." I couldn't resist, so I asked, "Will they manage it? 100%? What are the chances?" He said, "75-80." Then with the tone of an expert (because all men are experts), "75-80% is also good." She added in support, "100% is not possible. They don't allow postal and Internet voting." Then they got into a discussion about government officials and who had the postal vote. I lost interest, as I usually do when men acquire that expert-voice.

Senior citizens in their 60s and 70s kept cutting the queue and entering the booth to vote. At one point, the entire family in front of us entered with them. There were ten people in there at one go and polling officers could not function. They turned to my mother, 80+ and standing obediently outside the room, and said, "You cannot crowd the room." I said, "She is standing outside. We will not enter till you call us." Although another queue-cutter was pressing into my back as if it were a stampede. (What is it with us???)

The conversation between her and the couple behind me resumed.

Voting is our duty. It is alright to wait 15 minutes for your turn. Your sambar will not curdle and you can miss 10 minutes of the Vijay film for this.

These people are my age. Do they not remember what it was like in the pre-Seshan elections? The rough and tumble of the campaign. The noise. The violence. The booth-capturing. The dumping of votes. The hit and miss of being able to vote or not. Having voted in a January election but disappearing off the voter registry in May. Whole buildings appearing and disappearing. Dead people showing up in registers but those who voted last year not being found. Don't these people remember what elections and voting were like?

I was so proud to be voting with someone who had canvassed door-to-door for the Congress in the first election and worked as a polling agent. She was posted by the Press Information Bureau to the Election Commission for counting during the next election and has voted in every single election since Independence. She stood there quietly, in spite of having been unstable on her feet this morning. She had water with lime juice in her bag, Vertin, a fan and a towel, and no complaints.

And there was this twitchy lady who must be barely 60, cutting the queue and pushing me to get into the polling booth.

 From the voting mark on my finger,
you might conclude I had not voted but made a splash! 
The policeman said nothing to her, but addressed my mother, "Don't go in now." I was so annoyed. "She has worked in the first election. We know the rules and won't break them." He was a little startled.

In the queue, the second-guessing about what ID was acceptable, what procedure to follow, continued.

We stepped in, and had voted in under two minutes.

It really was that simple. Thank heaven, the people in the queue were not allowed to make rules--they would have set up an obstacle course where there was none! 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Am I really a writer?

Yesterday, I did a radio interview that was surreal for more than one reason. I thought I was going to talk about a Prajnya project. It turned out to be a literary show. I wondered what I was doing there but thought, and was reassured that we would still be talking about the project. Then, I got there and it was about paperbacks--which I have never written. But at that point, inertia set in with disbelief and while I kept trying to insert our agenda into theirs, somewhere along the way, the second layer of surreal set in--were they really interviewing me--ME?--as a writer?

Sure, I write. And someone told them I inspire others to write (thank you, you know who you are!), whereas I seem mostly to beg or bully people into writing. I write a lot--tweets, FB posts, email, SMS, blogposts, work writing. I said in the course of the interview, that I wrote 1000-2500 words most days. That may be quite inaccurate, but if you count the words I write in my head and the words I want to be writing, you would overshoot that number.

I do have publications to my credit--but yesterday, when she asked me, they seemed quite lame!

"What do you blog about?"
"Honestly, mostly about blogging! Or not writing! Or not having anything to say!"

"What is your beat for the column?"
(Should I confess it's hardly a column for how infrequently I write it? I let that pass!)
"Gender, politics, IR." O-kay, that's kind of true.

"What are your academic interests?"
Finally a question I can answer without pretension.

"What is the title of your upcoming book on disasters?"
The true disaster--I cannot remember the exact title! I am not expecting to promote the book but rather an election checklist for voters. I cannot remember and I cannot access the Internet from that studio.

Am I really a writer? Or am I just a person in love with words and with the act, the process of writing?

I went with the flow, quelling a sense of dishonesty as I sat there, because I was curious. I wanted to see what the masterplan was and I would never find out by resisting. I thought about the last year or so and how much writing has come to matter to me. I thought of the great joy I got--and get--from wandering around with a notebook and pen, writing down my travel notes. I thought of the longing I feel for those very rare times when I can do that. I thought of the thrill of saying, "I am going off to write this morning," which I could and did say in Colombo at least once a week and I never do in Chennai. Here were these people, who knew seriously less than nothing about me, calling me a writer and forcing me to admit that I was one, in spite of my misgivings--what is the masterplan?

Each time I have said, "I am going to write," or when I say, "This is my writing desk," I feel a happiness that nothing else gives me. Writing belongs to me as no other part of my life does. It's the only thing I own--the process and pleasure of writing.

As we talked, I mentioned the joy of writing as I travel. Seemed like a safe thing to do; after all, I post many of these travel notes on my website. Then, she asked me about the places I had kept notes on--Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Portugal--and it was like slipping through some subtle layer into another world. I forgot all about the election checklist, and just wanted to share the magic of those moments. The trees of Peradeniya Garden. The wind at Cabo de Roca. The memory of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing in an open-air amphitheatre.

If my joy in finding the words for those experiences makes me a writer, then I might be one.

But then it could have also been the old person's joy at finding a captive audience. I have lived here for over a dozen years and not one person has asked me about my own experiences in life--which have been very interesting and varied, and many, quite unusual. People here are content to transact, broadcast and leave. I remain to the most people in Chennai as featureless as a wall of plain acrylic--useful, practical and forgettable. The invitation to share unforgettable moments was irresistible.

When I write--truly write--I actually don't care about readers. I am quite sure no one is interested in my writing and so I write more or less for either the joy or the relief of the process itself. Because I don't expect people to read, I actually am freer in the moments when I write (like this) than when I do almost anything else. That freedom is addictive. I crave it.

I love the framing of an idea or an experience. I love choosing words. I love to arrange them elegantly and simply. I like to re-read and re-live.

But am I really a writer? None of these takes away from that feeling of being a rank impostor in the interview yesterday. I hadn't solicited the interview. I kept trying to correct them. And then, I gave up and enjoyed myself, talking about writing.

But that does not make me a writer. Or, does it?

There is a secondary question: Do I want to be a writer? Do I want to be a writer with everything that it means today--writing, pitching, rewriting, promoting, partying? Isn't what I love the act of sealing myself into a shell with just my thoughts and words? Who the heck are all these people milling about my words? That is the topic of another post!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

52 (Or, the Full Deck of Life)

52 cards in a pack. 52 weeks in a year. But my thought a few days ago on turning 52 was, "Does this mean I now play with a full deck?" The thought makes a strange kind of sense because at this point, you've probably got yourself together more or less. What-what (as we say) can you see, learn, think, do, experience in 52 years?! A lot! I thought I might write about those things but I cannot.

As my birthday comes to a close, I am filled with great gratitude for the abundance of affection that has marked these weeks, this day in particular. People who did not need to have taken the time to think about my birthday, about my being away from home and about my tastes and preferences, and put together a day that I will not forget.

From the birthday cake that friends brought upstairs early this morning (and I do mean early!) to the phone calls people took the trouble to make--trouble for local friends because I am not usually around for them to call and trouble for friends and cousins who had to figure out a new location--to the profusion of balloons and handmade cards that greeted me at work, every single act was performed with caring. The plan for lunch, the careful and secret scheming and the office cake and song ceremony. There was no need for any of it but people thought about me and went out of their way.

The real birthday present tucked away in the middle of this warmth-filled day is to be able to start this new year feeling that abundance is real and grace is infinite and expressed in countless small acts of giving. The real celebration is a day when your heart brims with gratitude and your ego is diminished by the generosity others show.

My heart is too full to pontificate about anything.

(And maybe 52 means that even though our blogpact is stuttering, I can still embark on a scheme to write at least one blogpost a week for the next 52 weeks--all of which will of course, count towards the blogpact 100!)

A little art and beauty

I have come to Colombo a few times over the years but I have not really taken the time to be a tourist here. This time, I wanted to make that effort.

I learned online that Colombo has an art street. I don't know much about art, but I was curious. The "Art Street" is right across from Vihara Mahadevi Park and its offerings compete with the magnificent trees on that road for one's attention.

The stretch actually begins with the National Art Gallery which is a crying shame. It's a medium-sized hall with about 30 paintings, mostly portraits that are dusty and in disrepair. There are a few landscapes towards the end of the collection, almost like someone forgot to pack them when they moved. A few busts stand in a row in the centre of the room. Really, Southasia's museum spaces, the official ones, are something we should be ashamed of. Of course, there are exceptions but they really only prove the rule.

I have been reading about all sorts of interesting art movements and moments here since Independence, but if I were to judge just by the art gallery, I would think this was a country with zero visual arts sense.

Anyway, you just have to walk a short way away from the gallery, which, by the way, has some pretty flowering trees along its walls, to arrive at a stretch where artists bring and display their own work.

Again, I should say, I don't know much about art. Hanging out with my sister and brother-in-law, I am marginally less of a philistine than I ever was. 

The paintings on display vary from fairly stock images of perahera elephants and fishermen perched on poles against a twilight background, to what seemed to me more interesting work. Why it is interesting, I do not have the depth of knowledge or the vocabulary to tell you. But I chatted with the artists, and then took advantage of their generosity to take a few pictures so I could share them here. 

 I loved these. I loved the colours and I found the technique eye-catching. They are by Rohana Kumarasiri (Rohana Kasthuri Arachchi on Facebook).

I also really liked these lotus paintings by Rajakaruna B Ananda.

Both artists are on Facebook, and you can contact them that way.

But a walk down this little stretch is totally worthwhile, even if you feel intimidated by "art" as I sometimes do. It opens up another person's creativity. In their desire to do something creative and expressive, you find reflections of your own. You are refreshed by the memory of that desire even if you walk in sweltering heat under the scorching sun.

Go. Look. If you like something and can afford it, buy. At the very least, you can ask the artists about their work, and learn something you didn't know before.

And these are the young artists who were indulgent enough to chat with me and answer questions during my visit.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

This land is mine...

These words were written for the musical, Exodus, but they really apply to the insects and reptiles of Sri Lanka. This land does not belong to the Sinhalese, or the Tamils, or the Muslims, or indeed, any other life forms than insects and reptiles.

I have, over the years, hardened my mild, polite 'eeks' to an utterly robust horror of these creatures who traipse around, going about their business, uncaring that I cower and very occasionally, seek to stalk them with a can of anti-insect spray.

At a thousand times their size and weight, I am afraid of them, and yes, I appreciate that this can be funny.

I know ants, roaches, lizards, etc. are as important--more important--to the ecosystem than I am, but even so, I must confess they gross me out. I think about where they've been as they hover around kitchen counters and I shudder to touch books they have walked over.

The other day, one strolled in through an open kitchen window and looked up with interest as a rice-cooker sent off fragrant steam. I could not scream, and I knew boycotting the rice was not an option, so I said gently, "There is a lizard next to the rice-cooker." "Oh, it must have come through the window." Indeed.

In other places, I am sometimes allowed the conceit that they walk through my space. Not so in Sri Lanka. Vividly recalling evenings in Delhi when I would watch as two lizards wander upside down (my perspective) on the living room ceiling towards the speeding fan and imagine with dread their falling on those blades and the resultant debris, I monitor the movement of each lizard with anxiety here. My very intelligent friend makes some very intelligent observations and I note that there are three identically sized lizards running around on the opposite wall. I am the only one who cares.

As a curmudgeon utterly unenthused by most animal forms, including increasingly the human, the only space left for me is inside a discreetly ventilated but sealed plastic (okay, make it posh: fibre-glass) cube with wifi and pictures of plants on the walls. Food, water and other supplies will be supplied and waste removed by some magical system of osmosis invented by some clever but compassionate dog or lizard lover who wants to lock me up. There, I can indulge in still life photography that expresses my mystical philosophy of love for all life-forms... at a very safe distance. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Coming home to Colombo

It's almost one week since I landed in Colombo. It's been a long time since I visited, since I stayed here. Yet, this is a familiar place--one of my cities. 

That sea. Tranquil--no doubt deceptively so. Everywhere. In so many shades of blue, that consort with as many different shades of red at twilight. Suddenly visible from the most unprepossessing street corner on Galle Road. 

That light, harsh and gentle, at the same time. Or maybe it is harsh all the time, but my affection for this place and its people makes it seem gentle. Gentle in recollection, that must be.

Those trees. Old trees. I still haven't been past Reid Avenue where my most favourite trees used to stand, and I hope the flowering trees in BMICH have not given way to parking or another building. 

The narrow lanes that wind everywhere, like secret passages
between houses, whose trees hang over the walls, to catch the word on the street--or so it seems. Especially the bougainvillaea, so curious to know who's coming, who's going, who's saying what to whom about whom. Curiosity kills the cat but leaves the bougainvillaea flourishing, it seems!

I'd forgotten how hilly Colombo is, especially suburban Colombo. Up, down, twist around, then down you go, then twist again and look, it's an uphill climb. I arrive with every intention of walking to work, remembering a more-or-less flat Colombo 4, but these hills are daunting. How will I climb Sigiriya?

Of course, the Sigiriya staircase will have nothing like this monstrous vehicular traffic. I used to laugh that traffic jams in Colombo were caused by everyone leaving early to avoid the rush-hour (and school-bus time). But today, there are so many cars on the road that they spring up everywhere at all times. The hills are more daunting when you sit in their narrow lines, with single-file traffic crawling. It seems as if the car is moving slowly because the hill is hard to climb, and your faint-heart says, "I can't do it." 

And the food. Okay, let's not write about the food. Except to say that it makes me very sad to know I will never again eat karavila in the many different ways that Lorna made it, nor her cashew curry, nor her kola kenda. 

It's the people. Colombo has always felt like home to me because of the people I know here. And too many of them are gone. With each loss, this town feels a little less like the home it used to be. I become more of an outsider than they ever let me feel. 

Still, I am happy to be here. For now, this is still a homecoming. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The call of a sharpened pencil

There is something inviting about a sharpened pencil. It calls out to me, "Write, draw, assemble words into verse... or at least,  doodle. Cover this page with my life-blood. You can do it!"
But nowadays,  the pencil is wrong! Sadly.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A jungle amid the concrete

I love Bombay for many reasons, but the one thing that catches me by surprise again and again is how green the city is. I grew up in Colaba and long assumed that is why I remember so much green, but on this last stay when I was based in a suburb that is new to me, I marveled at the pockets of green that just spring up everywhere. Most of my photos are actually photos of trees and other plants that frame buildings (or vice versa), but nothing captures Bombay as this photo does.

This is a tree I spotted from the Eastern Freeway, on one of my many trips to Colaba. I fell in love with the statement it could not be bothered to make: "A chimney? A disused chimney? Whatever! I'm just going to grow here! If you don't like it, you can lump it. Oh, you don't think I can make it from this location? Well, I don't really care what you think and I won't bother with the 'I told you so.'"

It speaks confidence, defiance, resilience, nonchalance, drive, imagination, resourcefulness, survival and individualism to me. Bombay. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Mired in the dregs

I am struggling with these "blogpact" posts. Finding the time and finding the bandwidth are always challenges, but this time it seems impossible to go beyond the personal to write about anything else outside. I am mired in my own daily life, unable at this moment to even get to basic (and now urgent) office tasks.
This may be a gender thing. It is probably safe to generalise that women get stuck in family and household responsibilities far more than men, even if they try to find ways around them.
This may be a life-stage thing. It is harder at this stage to walk away from responsibility than ever, and quite frankly, sometimes it is just physically harder to fight for a balance. The energy runs out faster and candle doesn't burn too long.
Either way, this time, it is not a struggle for words, nor even for time, but it is a challenge to write enough words that they are not about me and my thoughts and my day all the time. The churning does not sustain long enough to go beyond the dregs of the daily. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The rocky road of the independent professional

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
(The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost)

In the last two years, I have re-connected with a lot of people, a good many after more than three decades, and there has been some story-telling on everyone's part. With each reunion, each of us customises the narrative of our lives to suit our surmise of what the other person's journey must have been. We are usually correct. Age will do that--improve your ability to guess. 
My choices have not been unusual, or rather, are not unusual among people who are today in their 20s and 30s. But for my school cohort especially, they have been a little off-beat, I suspect. It's hard first of all to describe what my work entails; after all, who knows--even among the card-holding, licensed members of the profession, what political scientists do? And then, I run an NGO that does not offer services to anyone. I did not get married and I have no children. 
These are all, however, easier choices to explain than the conscious choice of a road that yields no predictable income. At this point in my life, I barely understand it myself. Truly, truly, though, when I was in my 20s, I did not think about work as related to income generation. I knew that you got paid for work sometimes, but work was also something one did in order to achieve some feeling of fulfilment, in order to be useful or in order to make a difference. I was fortunate to be able to think that way--I recognise that and am grateful for it. As the years went by, I devoted my attention to studying and to learning the skills I would need, and I sought work, largely for its own sake. I did look for jobs, of course, but I also took on a lot of pro bono work at each stage. I made really silly financial choices, I expect--actually, I know.
Emerging, like Rip Van Winkle, into this new liberal, all-is-money, cost-benefit analysis age, I am at once disoriented and discomfited. Around me, everything is measured in monetary terms. Everything does cost money--however simply you live, everything costs money. And the longer you live, the more it costs. I worry now about being able to afford longevity (having never thought about pensions or life insurance before this).
I now work independently, partly by choice and partly because I live in a place where there are no suitable jobs for someone like me. I have become used to autonomy, to answering to no one and to flexibility in the way I work. A good part of my time is still devoted to non-remunerative work. I write as often as I can manage and sometimes get paid for it. Much of my income comes from consultancy projects which come in unpredictably, which I sometimes cannot take on because of my pro bono commitments, which pay at widely varying rates and often, quite late. I have not been very strategic--you might say, professional--in my quest for paid work.  As a result, I oscillate between acute financial anxiety and my natural state of nonchalance regarding these matters. 
I eavesdrop on the world around me through social networks, and I realise that this is a very strange way to live. Strangest because notwithstanding the financial challenges, I might make these choices again, and again.
This life brings with it freedom. I choose my work. I choose how I work. I am not answerable to anyone for small things; I am remembering this year how much I relish that. I pay for this freedom everyday that I worry about money. But still, this road, which forces me to re-tool at least thrice a year, and to think about all sorts of subjects, and which gives me autonomy and creative freedom, is my road. Rocky, uncharted, unpredictable, lonely and filled with challenges, but like innumerable others today, most days I claim this road as mine to walk (or not), solely on my terms.
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

Friday, January 15, 2016

Praying for Peace

"In the wake of Pathankot attacks, we need Indo-Pak peace like never before. Based on the idea of the power of prayer when done in numbers, Pray for Peace Day organizers ask people to take the time to pray for peace between India and Pakistan and spread the word. Open to people of all faiths and ages.The idea is to stop what you are doing and focus your thoughts/ meditate/ pray for peace and better relations on Jan15, for just 1-3 min between: - 8-9 am US west coast - 11-12 noon US east coast- 9-10 pm Pk time- 9.30-10.30 India time- People in Australia etc please join at the earliest time you are awake on Jan 16."

This event, promoted by friends on Facebook, is underway as I write. This is not a time when I can stop for three minutes and expect not to be disturbed. So writing this post is my meditation and my prayer.

We're just people. All of us. We delight in the same things and differ just as predictably. When we see each other as people, we seek out the things we have in common. When we imagine each other as collectives, we dwell on the divergences. Right now, in this month, in this year, if we could increase the moments in which we can see each other--across any markers or borders--as individuals with stories and struggles, it may be easier to remember that we are bound by a shared destiny on this planet. Perhaps. I hope.

My prayer is that we should be able to find those moments, that positivity and optimism and the strength to ignore the omniscient and cynical realists in our midst, everyday. 

Peace depends on the power of my imagination and yours, and on the depth of our empathy. To borrow from the famous Peace Prayer (although you do not need to be a person of faith to live this prayer everyday and work for peace.)

"Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life."

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Memory lane and posterity

When I was a teenager, I would date things with 'posterity.' I am not sure what that meant to me. It's hard to imagine 30 at 17, leave alone posterity. I am not even sure now what I intended that to convey to those who would read the date--say, on a book. I may have just wanted to connect in some way to something larger than my life, something distant, another time.

Since we left Bombay, there is another journey always underway in my mind--nostalgia. My dreams are often located in our Bombay home. Places--and people--in Bombay evoke special warmth. Even though I know that nostalgia paints reality in pretty colours, because on trips back I see that the underlying colours are also pretty, I do not discount that warmth.

Last month in Bombay, I took photographs as if to hold on to this great city. I bought little things--tea-strainers from our old plastic shop, oranges from our fruit vendor, pistachios and hand-made paper--as if taking them with me would transport the city to my present location. I took selfies with old friends, photos that maybe in a while neither of us will have time to look at.

Does any of it matter though? As we march into posterity, each of us, we are simply creases, temporary impressions on something constant that we do not understand.

As we dealt with the possibility of having lost many of the NGO's files when the computer stood in water during last month's floods, I reminded myself that through most of human history, our remains have vanished without a trace. It is sad not to have records of other times and peoples, but it does not make a huge difference to most of our lives, does it? In our time, we over-document, archive and back-up but to what avail? Does any of it matter?

Time flows through our fingers--our lives--like sand. Nothing stops. Nothing can be held back.

And yet, there is something special about walking down memory lane. It is a way of bring past and present together, blending nostalgia with our sense that there is a 'posterity.' That integration, however fleeting, restores context to our lives. It helps us remember why we do things the way we do. We are not leaves adrift. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The hardest commitments to keep...

...are the ones we make to ourselves.

Like this promise to write everyday. It has been so easy to let the mind fill with a hundred thousand details about taxis, milk, vegetables, office, this, that... and feel at the end of the day, that my brain was too blank (or too full) to write. It was not about time. This little daily exercise takes barely thirty minutes once I sit down to it. It was about filling the mind with so much minutiae that I could say, "I am too tired to start a creative exercise." Despite the most minimal terms of this commitment--that I should write everyday, without specifying content or quality or length.

This is also true of the promise to exercise which I have made a lifetime habit of evading. I have modified that too (don't fault my creativity on these counts!) to the most palatable formulae--I walk inside our flat to an "eight" route I have charted that keeps me constantly moving, and because I walk in the house, I don't have to change, I don't have to wear shoes and most important, I don't run into random people I have to smile at. Walking at home also allows me to listen to music without sweaty earphones.

I move to the music, which I vary with my energy level. Sometimes it's a slow, persevering stroll with a classical ghazal. Sometimes it harks back to my ABBA days. Sometimes it's something in between, like Madredeus. And the walk slowly builds from the first to the second to the third kaalam, building more movement into every beat.

And still, I find reasons not to walk.

My yoga practice too falls by the wayside. It is a personalised routine, combining movement with the chanting I love. Sometimes my heart will not lift enough to speak out the chant--which defeats their yogic purpose. Sometimes the struggle with an intermediate position makes me skip an asana. Sometimes I just do the pranayama, thinking, there are not enough of them in my practice to make it meaningful. Everyday for almost three months, I have found reasons not to do yoga. And believe me, it is not my first lapse in practice. (This is why my first post needed to be about that persistent Spider.)

But why is it so hard to keep promises we make to ourselves? I am not so bad at keeping even the promises I do not make to others. I remember what they want. I remember what they need. I remember what they once appreciated. I try to enable their commitments. So why is it so easy to renegotiate the promises I make to myself? Even the ones that renew you--like writing, walking and yoga--enough to keep your commitments to the world.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Life-lessons (from Incy-Wincy Spider and other heroes)

Incy Wincy Spider climbed up the waterspout.
Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
Up came the sun and dried up all the rain.
Incy Wincy Spider climbed up the spout again.

Simple rhymes and stories hold lessons all of us need to learn early in life. Take Incy Wincy, whose efforts since time immemorial to reach the top of the waterspout have been in vain and who still continues to try, generation after generation. (See Wikipedia on its origins!) 

My New Year's Resolution, insofar as it is one, was a pact with a friend to blog everyday. On the very first day,  I could not settle down in the morning, and by the evening, had forgotten all about it. Taking heart from Incy Wincy's endless endeavour, I am going to start over this morning and catch up with myself.

And what better way to start than to reflect on the abiding utility of nursery rhymes and children's stories? I am quite sure that their lessons (unabashedly called 'morals' in my time!) shaped the way I live. Incy Wincy prizes effort and process over outcome. In this corporatised age, even those of us engaged in work whose gestation is lifelong--like teaching and social change--get asked: What are your deliverables? What are your measurable outcomes? From Incy Wincy, who would be judged a failure by these standards, I have learned to more or less tune out silly questions like that.  

Another favourite, that I realise most people have never heard, is Samathur Sandhai. This is the story of a scatterbrained villager who is hanging out with his neighbours near the big road outside the village. (We've all seen them, the groups of idle men that hang out together, watching the world go by.) A caravan of cattle-drawn carts ambles towards them. They watch for a while till someone says, "I wonder what that's about." Our hero sets off promptly. Returns with an answer: "It's a caravan." The rest chuckle and one says, "We can see that. A caravan of?" Off he goes, to bring the answer, "Brinjal." 

"Oh, brinjal? What for?" 
"Sale where?" 
The caravan has passed by their village now, and it's a longer run.
"Market." (Sandhai)
Exasperated, "Market where?"
After a long time. "Samathur." Then accusingly, "I had to run all the way to Samathur to find out."

Now, if our hero had asked all these question on the first trip, would he have had to run all the way? Yet, so many people we meet function in this pointlessly tireless, and ultimately, common sense-less, way. What a waste of life! 

Incy Wincy and the Samathur Santhai (anti?-)hero mark two points on the effort continuum. One remains focused on the process of doing and the other is so unfocused that his effort is a waste. 

In the last year, I have found myself narrating the Samathur Santhai story over and over again, and usually to adults who have never heard it and who therefore function exactly like its hero. They say, in spite of having grown up in Tamil Nadu, that they have never heard this Tamil folktale. Some have never heard folktales at all and narrate TV and film stories to their children. That makes me want to cry--a little for the loss of heritage and mostly for the loss of common sense.  

If we forget these rhymes, these stories, where will we learn these small but critical lessons about how to live? Today, recall your favourite childhood story and share it with someone else. Maybe even write it into the comments on this post?

PS: A counterpoint to this is the compulsion writers of children's books in India seem to feel to deliver a moral with a story rather than a story with a moral. But that's the subject of another post!