No End to the Circle

“Once this whole place was a buffalo pasture”; Alpeshbhai informs me. We were nearing the suburbs. He was one of our office jeep drivers. A Gujarati, who grew up near Ahmedabad. The year must have been 2006; He was dropping me home; in the borderland of two districts in Gujarat- Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar.

Buffaloes, yes, I thought. And now, this is suburbia- this dull brown and dusty earth. Middle income, working class people live here. And earlier? An outpost of the Indus valley civilization? Lothal, one of the southernmost cities of those people, is not far from Ahmedabad.

And even before that, this was dinosaur country. Central/ Western India was the second largest nesting sites of dinosaurs in the world, including Tyrannosaurus Rex. Studies estimate that at least thirteen species lived here, possibly for 100 million years or more. One of largest carnivorous dinosaur species carries the name of the mighty river Narmada- Rajasaurus Narmadensis- the regal dinosaur from Narmada. The fossilized dinosaur eggs found in Gujarat are among the best preserved ones found across the world.

In the mid- 2000s, buildings were slowly coming up in the former buffalo pasture, which was rapidly getting citified. The landscape of Gandhinagar was lush and verdant with many species of trees. There were still four lines of trees spreading their dappled shade on both sides of the Highway, planned and planted by some long forgotten visionary. A lone mall was under construction right besides the Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar Highway. “ Mall” was a new word for me then; I wondered how it would look, finished and occupied.

In summers, Ahmedabad being in the West coast of India and the time zone being what it is, we get daylight till almost 8 p.m, IST. Each evening, when dusk fell and the scorching heat subsided a bit, my two small children and I would walk up to the half built mall, now empty of construction workers, and sit on its cement steps; talking, eating potato chips, watching cars speed along the Highway. We spotted ministerial cavalcades occasionally, jetsetting in convoys with the accompanying wail of sirens, travelling between the happening city of Ahmedabad and the lush green, but laid back Gandhinagar, the state capital. The present Prime Minister of India, was the Chief Minister of Gujarat State in those days.

Slowly the tree cover started to thin; the highway was broadened. Progress came marching to our suburb, taking the form of more buildings. Each day, to and from office, I saw majestic trees being felled and carted away; at least a good percentage of them unnecessarily. Today, walking along the highway, I see the stumps of those long dead trees, and remember, a tree once stood here; and inexplicably, tears sting my eyes.

We walk regularly now, my son and I, a throwback to our North East Indian days at Agartala, when we used to walk long and then sat watching the starry sky, an inverted black bowl over our heads, warily looking around us for snakes- silent and deadly, and monitor lizards- with their distinctive Koki-koki call.

The monitor lizards in Tripura are feared but elusive creatures, rarely spotted outside, even though I have heard stories of them sneaking into houses, scaring the unsuspecting inmates half to death. One evening, we saw a dead monitor lizard, a road kill victim, and stood around, examining it with morbid curiosity. Khokhan, another driver- this time a Tripuri, came up to investigate. “ Pity it is dead” , he said. “ Had it been caught live, you know, how much it would have fetched?” Saucer eyed, we shook our heads in the classic Indian head bobbing gesture. We have no idea on the going rate of live monitor lizards. “Deyd Lakh Rupya” , he says, enjoying the ignorance of the mainlanders. One and a half Lakh Rupees! For a live monitor lizard! To probably find its way to China, I suppose, like the horn of the Rhino. I suspect aphrodisiac properties are falsely attributed to this poor creature too.

Our evening walks in Ahmedabad once used to be along the Highway, but that was many years ago. Vehicle population has multiplied many times in the past ten years. Even worse, Amdavadis do not care two hoots for traffic rules, which only losers follow, anyway. At any major traffic junction, one has to grow at least four pairs of eyes. All this resulted in a sad goodbye to those long highway walks.

Still, we are fortunate. A public space has been created nearby, at the center of which is a huge empty cemented pit, which was originally supposed to be a lake. There is not enough surplus water available with the city waterworks to fill it and actually create a lake, so it is still at the aspiring stage. There is a walking track, bordered with shrubbery around the “lake”. The track is layered in red laterite soil, finely powdered, which is not indigenous to Gujarat. We walk along the red track, mother and son, along with similarly inclined souls.


There are young parents, with their babies in strollers and toddlers running ahead. Old ladies, walking slowly and with difficulty, accompanied by daughters. Fitness freaks contort their bodies into unnatural twists. A man goes through his rounds of Pranayama under a tree. Ladies of a certain indeterminate age, sit on a cement bench, engrossed in (what I unilaterally and somewhat meanly decide), what must be gossip. Two young men, attired in shorts and loose Tshirts, with earplugs glued to their ears are focused on their run.

A young couple, school age- if my eyes are not deceiving me- sit on an isolated bench, hidden (or so they like to think) by shrubbery, talking animatedly; he with such an expression of adoration in his eyes, that it breaks my heart. A young woman talks passionately, but in hushed tones, on her mobile phone. Two men, walk- discussing their office and co workers. A man argues on his mobile, with someone who could only be his boss. “ I have been flying for eighteen years”, he says in an annoyed but controlled voice. He must be a pilot; the Sardar Vallabhbhai International Airport is close, which means that we have a fair share of pilots, flight attendants and people connected to the airline industry in our suburb.

I overhear a young woman’s anguished voice; in conversation with perhaps her mother or sister- “… but my ovaries are normal”. Her voice is sad and defeated.

A babel of languages- Hindi, Gujarati, English, Tamil, Bengali and Malayalam.

A variety of clothing- sarees worn in traditional Gujarati (pallu back to front, over the right shoulder) and Bengali (pallu front to back, over the left shoulder) ways, Salwar-kameezes- complete with demure dupattas, occasionally old men in dhotis- worn the Gujarati way. And then the universal attire of younger people, who have rejected their traditional, cumbersome (to be honest) regional wear in favour of the uniform of trousers/jeans/ Tshirts/loose kurtas.

Ordinary people, going about their lives. Each with their private world of joys and sorrows- barricaded behind normal, everyday, public faces.


Dusk falls; a large orange moon rises from behind multistoried concrete buildings.

The lanky teen, who was once a little boy, with pudgy little legs which tired easily, who used to force his mother to hoist him on her hip and then walk, now looks back at me with barely concealed impatience. “Walk faster, Mummy”.

I remember his teetering first steps into my waiting hands. And then the joyful practice of this new skill, like forming complete sentences with new words; walking like a drunk, weaving from side to side- then collapsing into a surprised heap on the floor.

Further back in time, two other people- a girl and her mother- walk home from church on Sundays. Walking for them was not for fun, relaxation or fitness, but because it was the only form of transportation. A country road, no traffic, few people. The hot sun beats down on their heads, despite the unfashionable black umbrellas they carry. The girl walks ahead, then stops, impatient; “Walk faster, Amma”.

Full circle.





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.


(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?

A Year of Goodbyes…..

The tersely worded transfer order from my employer was the start of winding down of life, as I knew it, for the last nine years. I was then based in the west of India, in the city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, which had been home.


It was also the start of new beginnings, however reluctant.


It is tough saying goodbye, both to the living and the non-living beings. The house we lived in had been built right before my eyes. I still remembered the un-plastered walls and the banister-less staircase, which I had climbed with trepidation on the early visits during construction. One wall held a record of the heights of my children on their respective birthdays as well as random days. Neighbors, strangers at first, later friends, with always a smile and a kind word. Trees- Ashoka, pomegranate and guava- which ringed the perimeter of the property.  The Madhumalika creeper which climbed up to the terrace of the house and filled the summer nights with the heady perfume of its pink and white flowers. 


And most precious of all – the Kadamba tree by the gate… favourite of Lord Krishna in mythology, under which He played the flute. My favourite too; somehow over the years, it became  so dear to my heart,  like another  child.  I first saw the Kadamba  as a tall, gangly sapling with construction debris strewn all around it. Slowly it grew, in height as well as diameter; strong and sturdy. The leaf cover so dense that even in the height of summer, (Ahmedabad summers cross 40° Celsius) it would be cool under its shade. 


However difficult, they need to be said, goodbyes. Time robs away the unhappy memories and gives the sepia tint of long ago photographs to the good ones left. The kindness of friends as well as strangers.  Colleagues and their warm farewells. The smile, which used to light up the pretty face of the vegetable seller lady. The boy who used to push his handcart laden with leafy green vegetables- spinach, fenugreek, dill, coriander and mint- who asked me to teach him number names in English and who grew up to a young man sometime in those nine years. The kind lady doctor who became more a friend than a doctor over the years of doctoring the children’s ailments. The sweet old lady who lived next door, whose stories of her life in Dehradun were a treat to listen to. The indefinable aura of books and the cheerful décor of the British Library. Many faces, many memories.


It was also the year to say goodbye to my daughter, who at eighteen, went away to University, four hundred kilometers away. Children need to find their feet and spread their wings, which in turn need space, yet that knowledge does not keep mothers from feeling heartbroken.  


Two long cross country flights and a world away, in a part of the country where the standard time and the actual time do not really match, I learnt that change may indeed be a destruction of life as we know it, but change is also life affirming, forcing us to step out of the comfort zone we all unconsciously fall into. Change is growth!