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!