Obedience and Disobedience

Birthdays make one introspect – not too deeply; dangerous ground there, but somewhat skittering along the periphery. And in one such introspection, I realise that it has been forty years now since I have been a vegetarian.

Voluntarily. Stubbornly. Mulishly, even.

Of course, at the age of nine, it was not compassion towards the suffering of sentient beings, that prompted me. It was heartbreak!

 

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(Image courtesy: Pixabay)

But then, as always, some background intro becomes necessary.

I was born into a Syrian Christian family of Kerala, South India, in which vegetarianism was quite unheard of. Even Hindu families, traditionally vegetarians in Kerala, religiously speaking, had gravitated towards the other end of the spectrum almost a generation ago. Save for a few who stubbornly clung to tradition.

My mother’s meat dish preparations were famed as something to die for; most Syrian Christian women are excellent cooks. So there I was, happily munching away, blissful in my ignorance!

We were somewhat self sufficient in those days, food-wise. Vegetables were grown in the yard, near the well from which water had to be drawn by hand- a cool and moist spot- Ladies fingers and brinjals, chillies and  gourds of many varieties grew in profusion. Coconuts,  a staple in Kerala cooking, grew on our own coconut palms. No store-bought, branded cooking oil for us in those days. Each summer, a month’s coconut crop would be dried in the hot tropical sun and taken to the oil press, and  behold! Coconut oil- cooking medium, haircare, skincare – all-in-one wonder product!

Multicoloured and shaped local hens, (hardy but lazy), not the White Leghorns and Plymouths who later replaced them, roamed the land, hectored by one cocky (no pun intended) rooster. The hens provided a steady supply of eggs, broods of chickens and meat for special occasions and guests.  A cow – supplier of milk and manure, who also kept the grass from growing too wild- and her calf lived placidly in the stable, always kept scrupulously clean. Keeping the manger stocked, from the nearby haystack, was sometimes my job after school.  In my young mind, that stable was as holy as any church- Christ was born in a manger and I could easily imagine the Christ Child sleeping peacefully in that hay-filled manger of ours.

A pair of dogs- because the house was remote from its neighbours. That about completed our menagerie.

The house sat on the edge of a wide stretch of rice fields. (The current house – a newer one, not the old eccentric house with lavish wooden construction and carvings, which also supported a thriving colony of termites- is still in the exact position it was, but the paddy fields have given way to housing pressures).  Every summer, when the paddy had been harvested and the fields were left fallow, herds of skinny cattle, oxen mostly,  would descend, terribly thin and emancipated, and quite painful to look at. I remember asking my father about them. They are brought from a neighbouring state, he said. Once they have outlived their usefulness, they are sent here to be fattened and slaughtered. I am embarrassed to admit that I never made the connection between these sad creatures and the meat relished so greedily. But then, I had never seen a slaughter-house in those days.

Coming back to the cow (she would have a name of course, a nice traditional Indian name), a calf weans off milk by the time it is around a year old and then naturally, the cow stops producing milk, till the next calf is born. This presents a problem. In order to provide the owner with a year round supply of milk, it is essential that the poor cow has to birth a calf each year, with clockwork regularity. So that was how it was.

If the baby was female, all was well. The little one would be assured of a long and productive life, never mind if it was boring, exactly like that of its mother, either in the same household or in another, for there was always a demand for milch cows. But if the calf was male- not that easy.

There were only very few job openings, so to speak, for a bull; and today those too must have dwindled away to nothing. Even the traditional ones, like pulling a bullock cart and being yoked to a plough for tilling the rice fields were already on the decline with the introduction of motor vehicles and tractors.  The cushiest job of all in the village for a bull was already occupied by his father; who would soon be made redundant by the White Revolution of India, which made artificial insemination of cows, thereby introducing high milk yielding breeds, the norm.

All said and done, a bull calf was born to be led to the abattoir, sooner, rather than later.

That year, forty years ago, a tiny bull calf, cinnamon coloured, with a  brilliant white patch on his forehead and with large, dark, liquid, innocent eyes, was born to our cow. And me, a lonely, nut-brown coloured, bookworm of a little girl, fell in love with his playful innocence!

He and I, what a simple life we had! On holidays we would play most of the day.  On days when I had school, I would fling my satchel to the corner the moment I got home and run out to meet him. He would prance around in joy, kicking up his hind legs high in the air and when hungry, would run to his mother. Tiny soft horns started sprouting on his head and he butted me or whoever was nearby whenever he could, or failing that, tried his new horns out on the nearest tree. And he slowly grew bigger and plumper.

Oh, ours was a doomed love, not that I was unaware of it. Still I hoped that my begging, pleading and cajoling may prevail on my father to keep him. It did not.

One evening, back home from school, I was greeted not by my exuberant friend, but by  the plaintive lowing of the mother cow; I was no stranger to that wail. A cow mourns its lost baby for a few days, not more. Bovine memory is quite short. Unlike that of elephants.

I wept and begged my parents to buy him back from the abattoir-man. Rubbish, said my parents, whoever heard of such outlandish behaviour. There was nothing else to be done, but to  dry the tears and calm down. And decide, equally calmly that from that day on, I will not eat meat, throwing in fish too, for good measure. The family laughed, thinking it was a passing fancy; it was not.

Being in a minority is  always difficult. I was scolded and derided. My mother despaired of me and scolded non-stop. You are a girl, she said. You will be given in marriage into another family in ten years. What would they think? she asked. (In the generation she grew up in, that was the only imaginable future for a girl child.)

Nobody will marry you when you grow up. Who will want a wife who neither eats nor prepares mouthwatering meat dishes? prophesied an assortment of aunts and relatives.   Remember that you are a girl, they warned. Obedience is the first and best quality in a woman- obedience to parents and later to the husband (whatever he may be like!).

A child cares neither for the answers nor for mindless obedience. All I could remember was my little dead friend with the tiny horns peeping up from his head and his total affection.

Probably because  I was the last born and therefore slightly favoured child and could memorise and spew out long English poems (thank you, Lord Tennyson, yours were the easiest) for the benefit of visiting guests, thus making my father justifiably proud,  a sound beating did not come my way!

When the heckling of immediate and extended family became too bad, especially at social occasions like weddings, I would defiantly bring out my trump card- Mahatma Gandhi! There was no counter argument to that!

Mahatma Gandhi was the Father of the Nation. Everyone accepted the fact that if it was not for him, chances were India would still be ruled by the British and would have had to still suffer the “No Entry to Indians and Dogs” indignity. His image is printed on currency notes and hangs in every Government office of India. Invoking his name carried some weight.

And everyone knew that Gandhiji was a vegetarian all his life. In my child’s  mind, I was quite the equal of Gandhiji! That shut the opposition up. The logic was irrefutable!

It was much later that I started to understand the other aspects of vegetarianism, including its spiritual significance.

Compassion to all living beings- not just in not taking their lives, but in their lifespans too. It is estimated that ten billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption each year. And, unlike the farms of yesteryear where animals roamed freely, today most animals are factory farmed: crammed into cages where they can barely move and are fed a diet tainted with pesticides and antibiotics.(Source: www.vegetariantimes.com).

I had absolutely no concept then of greenhouse gases produced by cattle reared for human consumption. Nor was I even remotely aware of the health benefits of a plant based diet.

The tiny lamp of compassion ignited in me on that long ago day- it has survived steadily and continues to throw light on my path. Today, I understand the sentience of all living beings- human, plant or animal. Before cutting Aloe Vera from the plant thriving in my handkerchief sized garden, before picking a sprig of curry leaves from the Sweet Neem tree, I pause, close my eyes and silently ask permission and give gratitude.

That little creature, my childhood playmate who was served up as the delicacy of the day on someone’s dinner table, he was no playmate at all.

He was a teacher who shaped the life of that ignorant, headstrong, brown skinned little girl, so long ago.

Fine Lines

The greatest epic of india is undoubtedly the Mahabharatam, to give the proper Sanskrit name, also called Jaya, or Mahabharata, as it is more commonly known.

To give a rough idea of its size, it is four times as long as the Ramayanam, the second epic poem of India,  and ten times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey combined! The Mahabharata is described as the longest epic poem as well as the  longest poem ever written in the world. It is divided into eighteen Parvas or books. The work which is well known in the West as the finest example of classical Indian thought and which is also the holiest book of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, is an episode in the Bheeshma Parva- the first part of the great battle.

Put very simply, the Mahabharata is the story of the great battle for the throne of Hastinapura, fought between two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the circumstances which led to this battle and the aftermath. The former were a hundred in number and the latter just five. As is the way with epics, it has stories inside stories, convoluted and interwoven, old rivalries which refuse to die and the narration moves between cities and forests, heaven and earth.

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(Image courtesy: Pixabay)

But paradoxically, while most literate Indian Hindu homes have copies of the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita, not necessarily in Sanskrit but translations in their respective spoken languages, it will be difficult to find the Mahabharata. If one were a pious Hindu and if one were on the deathbed, the Gita would be chanted aloud in the house, so that its message accompanies the departing soul on its journey across the Vaitarani river, (the Indian version of the river Styx of Greek mythology, makes one wonder), which all souls who have sinned need to cross; meaning almost all souls. The Vaitarani marks the boundary of the kingdom of Yama, the god of Death. No water flows in the Vaitarani; what flows is a revolting mixture of blood and filth. The Holy Cow comes in handy here- if the sinner has ever donated a cow to a Brahmin, then the crossing gets easy; just hold the tail of the cow and your crossing gets easier!

Despite its epic status, in India, the common man still keeps the Mahabharata at a distance. Probably no religiously inclined Kerala Hindu home keeps a copy of this (purportedly) strife-filled story of bloodshed. Hardly any Indian little girl is named after Draupadi, the beautiful queen of the Pandava princes. One will find a few Indian men who are named Arjuna and  Karna and probably none at all who are named Yudhishtira and Bheema. And absolutely no Duryodhanas and Dusshasanas, which is understandable.

I grew up reading random stories from the Mahabharata- some heroic, some funny, some inexpressibly sad. Somewhat politically correct snippets, but never the original.

Stories of  Yudhishthira and his conscientious adherence to truth, Bhima, who could turn a block of iron to powder with his bare arms and his great love of food, Arjuna winning the hand of Draupadi at her Swayamvara with his archery skill where so many great archers ahead of him had failed, the dark skinned beauty- Draupadi, who was wife to not one, but five, valiant husbands, all of whom stood silent after gambling her away, while she was disrobed by Dusshasana at the Kaurava court (quite an easy task- the saree is an unstitched garment and one good tug is more than enough)  but who had forgotten that she was as beloved as a sister to Krishna, in whom she sought refuge; Dusshasana pulled and pulled and finally collapsed in exhaustion on a mountain of fabric; Draupadi’s saree was still intact! Of the eldest Kaurava, Duryodhana, embarrassing himself at the palace of Maya- designed to trick whoever looked at it with jealousy- by hitching up his lower garments where the floor was so finely polished that it resembled the surface of a pool and failing to hitch them up where there was actually a pool. The fearless Abhimanyu, darling son of Arjuna and nephew of Krishna, who was taught how to enter the Padmavyuha, the most formidable formation of an army, designed like the petals of a lotus, but not how to exit it, who broke open an entrance to that supposedly impregnable Vyuha; Abhimanyu singlehandedly fought all the great and battle scarred heroes of the Kaurava side and kept them at bay; he was ultimately killed by deceit and unfair fighting, six armed veteran warriors against one weaponless boy in the end- he was all of sixteen years old!

I could read the Mahabharata in its entirety, only in 2007. Not in Sanskrit, sadly having never learned even the rudiments of it, but a very wonderful and true translation to English by the late Mrs. Kamala Subramanyam, published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, described as a “free translation” by the author in all humility. It is not a literal translation; many Sanskrit terms do not lend themselves readily to another language. For example, a lovely woman would be described in Sanskrit as Gaja Gamini- which in English would be “she who moves with the gait of an elephant” which sounds totally ridiculous, but would make perfect sense if one has seen the slow, majestic, even graceful way an elephant walks.

As I see it, the Mahabharata is special among epics as it is not entirely about good and evil guys; there is no single hero or lovely damsel in distress who is in need of rescue. Come to think of it, there is not even a happy ending, even though good did triumph over evil ultimately. There is logic and there is fuzzy logic, there are moral dilemmas, there are situations where the line between right and wrong is blurry!

What we do have in this epic is a vast tapestry of humanity in all its glory, failings, good, evil and the in between, uncomfortable situations, and a rainbow assortment of personalities. Here is an unwed mother, Kuntidevi, floating away her baby son, born of the Sun God, down the river in a fragile wooden box, who then marries an impotent king, Pandu, and presents the world with three more sons, all valiant heroes, all born from a different father. Collectively, the Pandavas, the five sons of Pandu, three born of Kunti and the twins born of Madri, embody the five qualities of a perfect king- honesty, strength, skill, beauty and wisdom.

The Mahabharata features probably the first transgender in an epic, Shikhandi, born a woman, raised as a man  and who later changed to a man, borrowing the manhood of a Yaksha, vowing to kill Grandfather Bheeshma, who had spurned the love she had offered him in her earlier incarnation as the abducted princess-Amba. Shikhandi faced Bheeshma in the last laps of the Kurukshetra battle; Bheeshma, knowing the truth of his birth, would not fight a woman and lowers his bow. Arjuna, who stood behind Shikhandi, waiting for this moment, shoots a hundred arrows into Bheeshma’s body, suspending him on the Shara-Shayya, or bed of arrows!

There is the evil, lame genius, Sakuni, uncle to the Kauravas, who masterminded the game of dice, which cost Yudhishtira his kingdom, brothers, wife and all possessions, including clothes. The dice were doctored, made from the finger bones of Sakuni’s dead father, filled with his rage and which would turn only the way Shakuni willed them to turn.

The comforting thought during difficult times, that everything has a divine purpose, even though it may not readily be apparent to the sufferer, is also wonderfully illustrated in the curse of Urvashi, the lovely Apsara, on Arjuna. Apsaras, heavenly nymphs, are amazing beauties- dancers as well as ageless beings. Arjuna was the son of Indra, Lord of heaven, and had gone to meet his father. Now his fame as an archer had already reached the heavens and the man himself in person was so handsome that Urvashi, the most beautiful of all Apsaras, was smitten by lust. Unfortunately for her, Arjuna respectfully addressed her as “mother” because in a way she was in the position of an ancestress to Arjuna in an earlier descent to earth. All Arjuna’s efforts to make her understand were in vain and the spurned Urvashi cursed Arjuna, manliest among men, to become an eunuch and spend his days dancing in the midst of women, entertaining them.

The anger of Urvashi cooled down a bit and while a curse is a curse and cannot be withdrawn, on the combined request of Indra and Arjuna, she reduced it as effective for just an year instead of till the rest of his life. The curse ultimately served poor Arjuna in good stead during the last year of the anonymous exile that the Pandavas had to undergo after losing that fateful game of dice. And so it was that the brave and mighty warrior Arjuna, unchallenged archer in the three worlds, the twang of whose great bow, the Gandiva, would strike terror into the heart of the most ferocious opponent,  was transformed into the eunuch  dancer Brihannala, half man-half woman, with long dark tresses and feminine curves, ruby lips and fluttering eye-lashes, draped in red silk and adorned with pearl and coral jewellery was assigned to teach dance to the young princess Uttara and her companions at the court of the Virata king. A foolproof transformation indeed!

But the central figure of the Mahabharta is Krishna, who is supposedly neutral, who donates his army to the Kaurava side and himself to the Pandava side, with the stipulation that he would not lift a single weapon but will just act as the charioteer of Arjuna. This is Krishna with many celestial weapons at his command, the battle rallying conch- Panchajanya, the deadly, serrated, spinning disc- Sudarshana, the heavy mace- Kaumodaki and the divine sword- Nandaka, yet deploys none except the conch.

As the story progresses we see that Krishna, the God incarnate, is most certainly not impartial and bends rules without actually committing Adharma, so as to ensure that goodness and truth triumphs. When Arjuna vows to kill Jayadratha, the chief architect of Abhimanyu’s death inside the Padmavyuha before sunset, or else immolate himself, it is Krishna who darkens the face of the sun with his Sudarshana Chakra, fooling Jayadratha to think that the sun has set and drop his guard in jubilation. In the very second in which Arjuna releases his arrow to find its target, Krishna uncovers the sun; it is bright daylight- there is no Adharma involved, technically. It is Krishna who sits watching the equally matched Gada-yuddha, mace fight, between Bheema and Duryodhana, senses the indomitable Bheema tiring before the superior skill of Duryodhana, looks Bheema straight in the eye and slaps his own thigh. Bheema understands; his  mace strikes Duryodhana below his waist, shattering his thighs- a clear violation of the rules of war. Justice needs to be established,  despite the means, says Krishna.

The Mahabharata does not hold up an impossibly high standard of behaviour to the world- not even from Yudhishtira, the ultimate righteous man who uttered a lie as an aside!  It rather reminds us that as humans we are ever fallible and need to be vigilant. That we are constantly making choices which determine the course of many lives, including ours.

Mahabharata also poses wise questions, the Yaksha Prasna, as asked by the Lord of Death, masquerading as a gruesome Yaksha (celestial being, not necessarily benign) to Yudhishthira on the banks of the magic lake, where all four of his brothers lay dead. He answered the questions correctly, thus redeeming the lives of his dead brothers. The questions and their answers are so profound in their wisdom.

What is faster than the wind? asks the Yaksha. The mind, answers Yudhishtira.

What is more numerous than grass? The thoughts that arise in the mind.

The most valuable of all possessions? Knowledge.

The best of all gains? Health.

The best of all kinds of happiness?  Contentment.

Greatest deed? Non-violence.

Renouncing what, makes one wealthy? Desire.

By what does one become a Brahmin? Behaviour? Birth? Study? Learning?

Behaviour.

What is true ablution?

Washing the mind clear of all impurities.

And the most profound question of all-

What is the most amazing thing in this world?

Every day, countless beings enter the Temple of Death. Even watching this spectacle, those who remain, believe themselves as immortal. What could be more amazing than this?

The Mahabharata speaks of eternal truths in the Bhagavad Gita, Song of the Lord, the conversation between Arjuna and his charioteer, Krishna, in the midst of battle. It speaks of the soul, which does not kill and which cannot be killed, which changes bodies like we discard worn clothes; the ideal man, the Sthitha-prajna, One whose consciousness is constant,  for whom joy and sorrow, good and evil, a clod of earth, a stone or a piece of gold are all identical and about the roots of any action- which determine whether it is worthy or unworthy.

The Gita also states the ultimate promise of the Divine- Sambhavami Yugay Yugay…- when there is a dearth of righteousness in this world, when lawlessness becomes prevalent, the Divine incarnates. The Divine is born Yuga after Yuga to protect the good, to destroy the wicked and to establish Dharma or righteousness.

The world is a very disturbed place, violence, unrest, corruption- all types of Adharma abound, as I write this.

There is slaughter in Syria, even of small children, which goes largely ignored in the mainstream media in the rest of the world while leaders of powerful nations resolutely look the other way.

The President Elect of the US has actually got a significantly lesser number of votes than his opponent, yet the system decrees him as the next President. So far he has been handpicking to positions of power in his Government, mostly Christian, rich, straight, intimidating looking, white men.

There is a huge and abrupt demonetisation drive in my own country, ongoing still, which the government says will strike at the root of counterfeit currency notes and black (non-tax paid and/or illegally earned) money but which has severely inconvenienced ordinary, non-cyber savvy citizens. There have been quite a few reported deaths of the old and infirm, queuing up in front of helpless and empty handed banks and dry ATMs.

Sambhavami Yugay Yugay….    Perhaps the time has come to redeem that old promise, Lord?

 

Baby Steps….

The daily newspapers bring nothing but depression to the reader these days and it is difficult to shake off the sense of unhappiness which is the aftermath. So like any good escapist, I do my best to avoid reading the Times of India, flung to the doorstep each morning by the newspaperman.

I pretend that there is nothing wrong with the little urban cocoon that I inhabit.

But on some days, it becomes difficult to continue being an escapist.

The other day,  the newspaper carries a story about a fourteen-year old girl, who was sold into prostitution by her parents, because apparently, they had no other means to subsist. It is reported that she was raped by eight men in a single night, four of whom were students of an unnamed Engineering College. This happened in no godforsaken hinterland of India, but  in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, the Indian city I live in.

It is all the more shocking because Ahmedabad had always been a conservative city; ancient and graceful.

The same edition also carries more “cheerful” news of an old woman being clobbered to death at her home by thieves who then stole her gold ornaments, a refinery fire- carefully edited, I am sure, regarding the number of casualties, a staged suicide of a young woman, the results of a survey which says that  a whopping 41% of Indian women face violence of some sort before they turn eighteen and details of arrests at a con call center, here in Ahmedabad, from where calls were placed to unsuspecting  Americans who had defaulted on their loan paybacks.

All this is too close for comfort. And the International news is yet to be read!

I wonder what has happened to that voice, that small, still inner voice, clearly distinguishing right from wrong, truth from falsehood, which most of us know as our conscience. How has it been silenced on such a grand scale? Has it been so consistently ignored that it has lost heart and has fallen silent?

Most people shrug and go on with their ordinary everyday lives. So did I once; but now, it is becoming more and more impossible to ignore the unhappiness, sorrow and callousness happening all around .

There is not much that one person of no particular significance can do; but there is indeed something- mindfulness and meditation.

I hold all these wounded, wronged people and our Great Mother Earth, the most wounded of all- in my thoughts. And sit on the  olive green mat and breathe. And watch the monkey mind- see it get bored, run from one disjointed thought to the next, replay scenarios, prepare sarcastic come-backs, worry about someone’s silence or someone else’s words…. And then gently bring it back to the breath. And try to stay in Metta- Loving Kindness- radiating it to all in need.

No hermit in the Himalayas this; just an ordinary  householder, mired in Samsara, with all the associated householder worries. Yet, trying with baby steps to practise mindfulness in action, it feels like coming home; it feels like living and not just existing.

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(Image courtesy: Pixabay)

Rolling out rotis on the floured wooden board, a daily and mundane task, I see the board as if for the first time. It is carved from a single block of teak wood, the trunk maybe, and notice the patterns of the wood and watch the slim rolling pin go back and forth, back and forth, in my hands. Washing and chopping vegetables, I observe their form, texture and scent and feel the steel knife cutting them into fine, coarse, large or small pieces, depending on what is being cooked for the day.

I make it into a ritual, holding in my heart, with gratitude, the individuals whose efforts have gone into the preparation of this meal.

Sorting the bitter Fenugreek leaves, picking the leaves from their stalks, I am amazed by their symmetry, nothing short of divine; the pattern in which the leaves grow is identical in each stem. And the same holds good for the fresh Coriander and Mint leaves too, which release their scent  first in the small kitchen and then to the entire house…

It is not easy, the mind has a thousand more interesting things to which it wants to attach itself.

While washing up the vessels piled in the sink. I try to see them individually; the old cast iron, round bottomed wok, one of the  legacies of the trade relations that the Chinese had with my part of the world more than six hundred years ago, [this cast iron wok is an indispensable component of the kitchen of any Kerala woman; manufactured locally, but still known by its ancient name- Cheena- Chatti, (Chinese Vessel). It has two more cousins in our language;  Cheena Bharani (Chinese jar) and Cheena Vala (Chinese fishing net)], the dented, temperamental stainless steel pressure cooker, the Corelle bowls, with bluebells winding endlessly around them…

This exercise, it anchors the mind in the present moment- briefly!

But the monkey mind is quite the expert in giving the slip. Yet, I am glad that some progress has been made.

This is quite open to criticism; that the world is not going to suddenly turn into a better place, just because a few people may pray, practise mindfulness or sit meditating randomly.

But just consider the possibility- all these practices refine the self and transform us into more aware individuals. They make it easier for us to stay in kindness, to understand and stay in integrity, to recognise the Divine in every being and to be honest- both to our own selves as well as others.

Reading the mystic, Eknath Easwaran, I remember being introduced to three questions  which need to be asked to the Self before we speak- Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

Imagine how different a place the world would be if there were to be if a critical mass of people were to practise Metta and mindfulnes? And were kinder to each other? And if that small, still, silent voice was audible again in each human heart?

Enduring Passions

There are some loves which never go away; no matter how old one gets or how far one travels along the roads of life. My personal theory is that like the colour of one’s hair or eyes or skin, one is born with them. They are in the blood. Woven into the life sustaining strands which make us what we are. And definitely, they are not inherited!

Each of us knows what  we are passionate about. Perhaps known only to us, perhaps also to our family, perhaps, if one happens to be a celebrity, to the public at large. We may ignore this passion and not acknowledge it; thinking, no, this I cannot afford to indulge.  Yet, it remains, dormant, deep in the stillness of our souls.

For me, the love of my life has been words. Or more specifically, languages and the written words. I spoke my first words in Malayalam; a Sanskrit based language with a rounded script- all curves and no angles. One which is apparently difficult to understand and even more difficult to learn, as I have been told many times, over the years, by non-native speakers.

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(Image courtesy: Pixabay)

The singular fortune (or misfortune) of being the youngest child with a huge gap in ages with all others, made my childhood a solitary one. It also blessed me with a fertile imagination because I was my own playmate. And there were shelves and shelves of books at my home, discarded and outgrown textbooks, yet the language text books of Kerala’s schools and colleges, taught during the sixties, which I inherited, were a dream.

By the time I progressed to reading in English at Primary school, the higher level books were already waiting. I remember reading books published by Blackie & Son, a publishing house based in Glasgow and London, which was functional from 1890 to 1991. They published educational texts and children’s books, and perhaps they had some sort of an arrangement to cater to India too. There were excerpts from Dickensian classics, which made me hungry (like Oliver Twist) for the full work. There was Robert Louis Stevenson, who drew a dazzlingly vivid picture of  the sea, pirate ships and  adventures to a landlubber village child. And by no stretch of imagination could I understand the acrobatics involved in “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum…”. There was even an excerpt from the Shakespearian tragedy, Coriolanus, passages I went around declaiming in solitary splendour.

By the age of ten, there was nothing left at home to read.

We were neither rich nor very poor, but the uncomfortable in-betweens, with an old family name, of which my father was ludicrously proud of, and not much else. Money was scarce and naturally there was a never ending demand for more pressing needs. We lived off what was cultivated on the land- coconut, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa, coffee, ginger and turmeric (a veritable spice garden). We also grew native vegetables for our needs, which meant I met cauliflowers and cabbages  (these came from other states; not grown in Kerala’s hot and humid climate) quite late in life! So spending money on books, which can neither be eaten nor worn, was out of the question. There must definitely have been libraries around; but since no one else at home was a reader, the acquaintance was never made. There was one book shop in those days, near the venerable St. Berchmans’ College, which did have  a children’s corner; I remember a few precious visits, around Christmas and my mid-January birthday – a sort of two-in-one treat, where I discovered Enid Blyton! (It never entered my head that there are supposed to be  racist elements in her writing- the  coal-black Golliwog was just himself and not a derogatory depiction of a person of colour.) But, as I said, money was short and buying books was a luxury.

I kept making up stories in the head. A rock became a throne, a fortress and a king, respectively. The trees were wise beings to whom I communed, but not in words. While entrusted to the job of watching over the newly-hatched chickens, I would wander to far flung mythical kingdoms  and the net result would be a round scolding from mother because the hawk, crow or mongoose (whoever chanced to be there) would have carried off a precious, though bird-brained, chicken again.

Being afflicted with the disease of tongue tied shyness which bodes ill for friendships, I had few friends; and anyway had nothing to say that would interest people. In the depths of solitude and absence of any other reading matter, I started reading the Chamber’s Twentieth Century Dictionary! This tome also had Latin phrases, the Greek Alphabet and Phonetics among other interesting things, apart from the actual dictionary part. I learnt the definitions of ad infinitum, aqua, ipso facto, ibidem, carpe diem, and mala fide among other similar worthies.

(My children hooted with laughter when I once told them this. They are the smart phone generation, who have access to knowledge at their fingertips and so tends to undervalue it; what do they know of the struggles of their elders!)

This strange reading  also brought something else sharply into focus – the similarity between the two unrelated languages. Path in English was Patha in Malayalam, Serpent was Sarpam. Being ignorant of the existence of Sanskrit at that time,  it took me a long time to make the connection..

Confession- I still read the dictionary for entertainment – having discovered a forgotten gem, which must have been required reading for any self respecting young Englishman, or Scot, venturing to his new assignment with the East India Company; “Hobson-Jobson- the Anglo Indian Dictionary”,  first published in 1886! And what a gem it is! It is not a dry dictionary; word meanings are a minor part. The lore associated with words makes Hobson-Jobson an engrossing read. Looking up “ginger”, I see that the root words shown are the Arabic “zanjabil”, Portuguese “gingibre” and Latin “singiber” among others. But paradoxically, ginger was not grown in either Arabia or Portugal, so how come they had a word for it?  So wandering further we read “Though ginger is cultivated all over India, from the Himalaya to the extreme south, the best is grown in Malabar, and in the language of that province (Malayalam), green ginger is called “inchi” and “inchi-ver”, from “inchi”  root”. The Arab sailors who had monopolised the spice trade with Kerala, (before the Portuguese sea farers, Pedro Alvarez Cabral and Vasco da Gama broke the monopoly, cleverly playing on  the rivalry between the powerful Zamorin of Calicut and his reluctant vassal, the King of Cochin), carried the name of the spice with them. Then some other Arab, sitting in his Arabian head office, must have got misled by the form of the name and mistakenly attributed it as “zanjabil” or “zinjabil” – pertaining to the coast of Zinj or Zanzibar, even though ginger is never recorded in history as a product of Eastern continental Africa!

But I digress- sometime in the Seventies, a young man named Johnny entered my life. Before you get all the wrong ideas, let me hasten to clarify that I was ten and Johnny in his mid-twenties. He was a graduate on the look out for a job. At that time, my father’s youngest brother was a senior officer in the Reserve Bank of India, Bombay. Johnny hoped for an introduction to the RBI big shot through my father. Prospective favouritism expectation aside, I remember him as a kind hearted young man, who really talked with a little girl, not talked at her, a common mistake that most grown-ups make.

He became for me a substitute brother, substitute for my gentle big brother, Simon, former owner of the Blackie and Son text books, who was lost to jaundice, at the age of twenty or so.  When he died in 1970, I was too young to understand death, and have just two clear memories of him; one is of being held up in his hands, high in the air, and looking down from that great height, delighting in the unfamiliar view. The second is that of a hospital room, which had a high white metal cot. He was sitting up in bed; I was examining the strange room and even stranger contraptions, wondering why he was quiet and not making the usual affectionate fuss of me, and finally trying to clamber up the bed to be held by him. Someone saying, “take the child away”, and someone else’s hands prying my limpet fingers from the railings of the metal cot. I do not remember the funeral.

One day, Johnny, who recognised his little friend’s insatiable hunger for reading, came bearing priceless treasures! They were old issues of Reader’s Digest, which had started publication in India in 1954. (I have no idea how he sourced them, because the elite, who read in English for entertainment, were few and far between in those days, in my part of the world).  They opened a whole new window to the world to me and I was lost! Most of the content was from the American and British RD editions and I read about Shetland ponies, the Wright brothers and the medically informative series, “I am John’s heart/eyes/nose/…”,  stared open mouthed at the  paintings in an article on Picasso and got an introduction to a wonderful world, unimagined before!

It is unlikely that my old friend remembers any of this today; he  did  get a job in the RBI and soon left Kerala. Over the years, as it generally happens when time and distance intervene between people, he lost touch with my father. Then I too grew up and left the village behind, yet remember him today with deep gratitude.  As the young man who watered the roots of a child’s quest.

This love- it sustains me over the years. The vistas which an author opens up and in which the readers wander to their heart’s content, have never lost their charm. They are my refuge and escape. It is sometimes an idiosyncratic love too- Of dusty bookshops with ageing books, yellowed pages with whimsical illustrations, of reading the publishing history ahead of the actual book… but in the end, an enduring love.

And you, dear reader? What has been a constant for you?

Of Waterfalls and Rainbows…

 

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Cherrapunjee

Some questions out of the blue, especially from children, jolt one awake. And inevitably, answers have to be found which leads to another stream of thought, altogether.

Which is the tallest waterfall in India?, asks my fourteen year old. I am brought up short- everybody knows about the Niagra and the Victoria Falls, the big names, but neither are in India. My memory comes up blank and I can hardly blame the head injury- after all, one can forget about things if only one has known them in the first place. I am forced to admit, with much reluctance , that I do not have the faintest idea.

But we live in enlightened times- our dear friend, the teenager Google, is close at hand. My generation and the subsequent ones too, have become accustomed to confide our biggest morbid fears (am I having a heart attack? palsy recovery chances? pain top right abdomen-cancer?, death, dying, afterlife? symptoms clinical depression?) , to ask our silliest doubts and seek advice on anything real or imagined, under the sun (health, sex, relationships, God, religion, spirits) from Dr. Google, who by now probably knows more about ourselves and our secret inner lives than we ourselves do.

Anyway, coming back to the important matter at hand, we find out that the honour of being the tallest waterfall of India goes to Thosegar Waterfalls, Satara district, Maharashtra, a segmented type waterfall, falling from a height of 1600 feet. But it is another name on the page which catches my attention- Nohkalikai Falls, Cherrapunjee, East Khasi Hills district, Meghalaya, which at 1115 feet is the tallest plunge type waterfall in India.

The name, the place, the thunder of water falling a thousand feet down- I am transported to that wet day in April, a lifetime ago, when I was blessed to see four rainbows in a day!

But first, a story. Not any story but the legend of Nohkalikai Falls.

Translated from Khasi, the word Nohkalikai means the jump (Noh) of Ms (Ka- The female gender prefix in Khasi) Likai.

Most legends of East India are tragic- this one is no exception. Ka Likai was a young woman belonging to the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya, who was left destitute when her husband died. She had a little daughter, whom she loved more than life itself. Eventually, and reasons are not given here, Ka Likai remarried. Maybe he was handsome, maybe he whispered sweet nothings in her ear, maybe she needed a baby sitter, or even maybe she foolishly hoped (as many women do) to “find happiness” with him.

One thing that the legend does tell is that Ka Likai did not love her daughter any less. And that this caused the new husband a lot of heartburn. So much heartburn that he decided to do something about it, rather than just sit around.

Now Ka Likai worked as a porter and would reach home tired at the end of the day. One day, at home as usual, Ka Likai found the house empty. Neither her husband nor the little daughter were around. Since both were missing, the tired Ka Likai thought, much like any average mother would have thought, that Papa must have taken the little one out for a treat. Food was ready in the kitchen- a meat dish, as is usual in the North East. Ka Likai could not  quite identify the dish, which tasted  somewhat a bit different from their usual fare, but as she was too hungry and tired, finished her meal.

It is also customary in many parts of India to chew betel leaves, with all sorts of garnishings, after food. Ka Likai went to get the tray of betel leaves and to her shock found there, among the betel leaves, a tiny finger- the finger of her little girl!

A lot of answers must have flashed in her brain then- like a puzzle being completed when the last piece is put in place.

The horror then dawned on Ka Likai. Mad with anger and grief, she took out her sharpest “Wait” (chopper) and ran out in search of her husband.

She ran and ran but unfortunately she did not find him. And in the end finding herself at the edge of the waterfalls and too desperate to think, she threw herself down the precipice.

And from that day, the waterfall came to be called Nohkalikai, and the sorrow of the grieving mother Likai, who unwittingly ate her darling daughter, touches our hearts across centuries.

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(Image courtesy- Wikipedia)

The name Cherrapunjee is proudly etched in the memories of generations of Indian schoolchildren, over the past many decades, as the wettest place on earth. However, since perhaps a year or so ago, this distinction has gone to an upstart, the neighbouring Mawsynram, also in Meghalaya. Still, Cherrapunjee remains unchallenged in its world record of having received the highest recorded rainfall in one day in one place [1563 mm in 24 hours on 16th June 1995].

As we neared Cherrapunjee, the car travelled more through clouds than through plain air. The fine day which had dawned down below, receded more and more into the background. At Nohkalikai, visibility reduced to a few feet. The thunder of the falls was audible; but where are the falls? We, plains people, hailing from a land bordering the Arabian Sea, a stone’s throw, so to speak, from the Equator, looked blankly at each other. I noticed the tiny droplets of moisture condensing on the eyelashes and each strand of hair on the children and worried that they may take ill. The driver, in his dual role as our guide, shook his head sorrowfully.

So in the end, we never saw the Nohkalikai Falls, after all. But we heard the majesty of its sound; The water cascading all 1115 feet down the precipice.

But then again, coming down the winding road, originally constructed by the British many centuries ago, I saw rainbows, not one but four, bridging the East Khasi Hills across the narrow valleys. Beautiful, ethereal and majestic!

If only I could have taken one home; to hold on, while drifting between lucidity and unconsciousness. But ignorance was indeed bliss and that is another story for another day.

 

Passing On…

For as far back as I can remember my mother, she wore gold bangles on her left hand. They are at least as old as, if not older, than I am. There were five of them to start with- thin and hand made, but hiding an unbelievable strength. The cuts are not in perfect synchronism as in case of modern ornaments; imperfections are clearly visible.

She never got gold ornaments replaced periodically to match the current fashions. So the last two survived intact; the other three having gone on to become thinner, fashionable and more elaborate avatars for her daughters’ marriages.

And she continued to wear these last two bangles, till she no longer had any use for them.

They are not glittery; gold does not tarnish, they say- but these, they are old and do not shine brightly like their younger, more modern cousins; nor do they call attention to themselves. They are self-effacing, like she was.

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There was a time when her voice used to be my personal news bulletin every Sunday- who died, whose son or daughter got married and to whom, what the wedding was like. Babies born. Whose child did well at school and whose did not. What the rains were or were not like that year. How the summer temperatures kept increasing (in her opinion) each year. How the weather was becoming unpredictable, like people themselves. Enquiries as to my children and how they were performing at school.

Being very less educated herself, she set a great store on education. “What is Malu doing now?”  she would ask. (In those days, my daughter was studying at her Plus Two levels and was glued to her text books.) “She is studying, Amma”, I would reply- a response which met with her approval. “And the little one?” “He is playing”- would be the standard reply. (Which is the truth even today; he has just moved on from toy cars to CoC). “Always playing, whenever I ask. Doesn’t he have anything to study?”, she would retort. I would mumble, “Amma, he is young.”

She never wavered from the faith of her ancestors; finding peace and solace in the familiar prayers, intonations, rituals and hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

As dementia claimed more and more of her memory, the range of those conversations kept shrinking. I trembled inside- what would this be like? this loss of brain cells, loss of identity, loss of perspective? She also lost weight; yet her skin remained amazingly soft to the touch.

Those last two bangles- I wear them today on my left hand- barely distinguishable from the skin tone of the wrist; they are tarnished, flawed, imperfect- like their present owner.

Have a safe journey, Mother.

On Grace …. and Compassion

In her book “Eat Pray Love” Elizabeth Gilbert describes the chatter of her mind, when she is trying to meditate; chatter which goes something like “Yeah, but you are such a failure, you are such a loser, you’ll never amount to anything”. Then right there, cutting off this flow in the middle of this sad litany, comes this lion’s roar from within her heart- “YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW STRONG MY LOVE IS!!!!!!!”

Elizabeth writes, “the chattering, negative thoughts in my mind scattered in the wind of this statement like birds and jackrabbits and antelopes- they hightailed it out of there, terrified. Silence followed. An intense, vibrating, awed silence…… and in that regal silence, finally- I began to meditate on (and with) God”.

I believe her- totally; because I too have heard this voice once.

In 2007, a strange fancy struck- I realized that even though I have lived in India all my life, I have never seen the holy river Ganges -Ganga- ever. I worried that if I were to die in six months, it would be without the Ganga darshan, which seemed a pity. Suddenly it became of vital importance that I had to see the holiest river in India, right now.

My husband looked at me as if I had lost my mind. And refused to come haring across a vast country, on a whim.

“Okay”, I said, “I will go alone- I have to do this; I will leave the children with you. You take care of them.” He agreed- the children did not. From their point, they seemed to be missing out on a lot of fun. My daughter was twelve years old and son, five.

The destination was Rishikesh- located in the foothills of the Himalayas; to a small Ashram, where the teacher was a lady, a scholar of the Bhagvad Gita, who dressed in lavender robes. The month was December- the harsh North Indian winter was nearing its peak. Not exactly the right time for a visit to the Himalayas.

My son, small and frail, coughed continuously on the long train journey, despite all the bundling up in warm clothes. We reached the Ashram, this strange trio, and were received with love and kindness. The weather was bitterly cold.

That night, I lay awake in bed, listening to the laboured breathing and continuous cough of my sleeping son. It broke my heart; it scared me. I was alone with two small children, for whom I was solely responsible and whom I had carted halfway across India, headstrong as always, despite the disapproval of their father.

As far as negative chatter goes, I am second to none; I am the sort of person who does not need an external critic, because there is one always with me, living and breathing inside my skin. My critic is extremely intelligent and knows what exactly to say and when to say it, so that she has me in a sorry heap in no time, in silent uncontrollable tears. “You are no good; never was, you are a fake, a lousy mother/ wife/daughter…. stupid too- all said and done, nobody loves you, not responsible/knowledgable/good enough….” .

So this was a good time! My thoughts ran in circles. I should never have left home. What if he worsens? What do I do? Why did I want to see the Ganga? Thoughtless, selfish… as always.

And then suddenly, interrupting that mad race of thoughts, I heard a voice. “Heard” is the wrong word, because it was not an earthly voice. It was both in my ears and inside my heart. It was a voice with an amused and indulgent smile in it; it felt like the voice of a man. And it just said, with that smile- “I am the Lord of the Universe; you have come all this way to Me. Why do you worry?”

My thoughts stopped as if a curtain had been drawn across them. I stared at the darkness in utter disbelief- where did That come from? Who is This? I thought I had come to see the Ganga and the lavender-robed teacher, who had spoken on phone with such an abundance of love- “my daughter”, she had addressed  me. It was a long time since anyone had spoken with so much love… But to whom did this voice belong?

Then suddenly, I experienced a peace, a compassion in my soul, as if all the weight on my weak and quivering soul was lifted and tossed aside in a moment. A peace that truly passed all human understanding.

That night, held in the comfort of that smiling voice, I slept. And in the morning, my son had no trace of the cough at all. He skipped along in the Ashram gardens, a thin but happy little boy, admiring the flowers and birds.

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The Ashram overlooked the Ganga. There were rocks on the river bed, just below the Ashram, where there was a slight curve in the river. The Ganga had a music all of its own at that point, flowing turbulently over the rocks. The water was greenish blue, almost the shade of the Shivaliks in the distance.

I did see the Ganga- and I did hear my Lord’s voice.