The Great Wheel turns….

Here in Agartala,  the weather starts to change from mid- October. Darkness starts to fall noticeably earlier. It rains occasionally- light but stubbornly continuous; and when it does, the sun refuses to show its face for many days in succession. Foreshadowing the shape of things to come, a white mist sweeps in from the West on some mornings and most evenings. The evenings also have the edge of chill in them- faint initially, growing more insistent as the days shorten.

Even though the flaming Autumns are absent, leaves start to fall, leaving some trees totally bare by January. Since the sweepers have better things to do with their time than compost the fallen leaves, they just wait for them to get reasonably dry and light fires. The birds do not set up their usual chorus in the mornings. There is a definite lull in the atmosphere- of silence and waiting.

One notable exception is the Parijata trees, which grow abundantly here. Each day I wake up to a fresh and fragrant carpet of last night’s blossoms. But these too peter out by December.

My home state, the one which I claim to be from, even though now I have spent more years living outside it rather than within its boundaries, lies to the South-West, nearer to the Equator, and is edged by the sea. The happy consequence of this geography was that I grew up an utter stranger to Winter, which (for me) existed romantically only on Christmas cards, depicting snow covered landscapes.

Later, tossed to a town in the foothills of the Himalayas one October, I became the owner of my first  woollen sweater at the age of twenty-three. Thick blankets and a room heater quickly followed. That first winter of North India, caught me off-guard; but then, I had the resilience of youth with me and emerged quite unscathed.

But today, another twenty three years later, I am in no position of resilience. The cold, damp mist and the absence of sunshine takes a toll on both physical and mental health. I am a sitting duck for stray viruses cruising around; my last birthday was spent in bed, unable to sit up or keep the eyes open, hallucinating wildly, BP dipping down and with a wild thirst ravaging the body. I remember nothing of the journey to or from the doctor; and had to force myself to tell him what was wrong with me. Mercifully, he asked very few questions; being a Homeopath, neither did he prescribe tedious blood tests and antibiotics to subdue the virus;  just a tiny vial of medicine- two drops to be taken every two hours. I was fine the day after!

Depression and lack of enthusiasm is the other side of the story. Whatever glimmer of warmth or sunshine the day has to offer,  is over too soon. The days become an endless procession of chilled greyness. Melancholy tightens its grip- trying to squeeze out all joy and there are days when I fear it will win. Like the Last Leaf in the O Henry story, what sustained me last year was the sight of roses! The rose bush in front of my house, a hardy local variety, blooms every single day of the year- rain or shine. I do not pick flowers- cannot bring myself to do so- and am content to admire the blooms from afar. So pale pink roses it was, not only in December, but January and February too.

Autumn and then Winter following on its heels, both seemingly merged into one marching army of depressing days, varying only in the intensity of the biting cold,  are also a space for reflection. A time to face mortality and also a reminder that the Great Wheel is turning. A time to hold up a mirror to ourselves and to see how much, if at all, we have progressed.

I live one day at a time in winter; trying to be friends with my dark shadow self, feeling the absence of warmth and sunshine, yet fighting to stay above it.

The last days of sunshine

The last days of sunshine

Random Ramblings……….

I have always been mortally afraid of spiders. The sight of a big one, generally saucer sized, never fails to give me palpitations. My eyes dilate, I have difficulty finding my normal speaking voice, my body trembles. In fact it was quite late in life, that I found out that this is a “condition”, which has a name as well as definition and that Hollywood even has a movie named after it!

But in my childhood, growing up in an old house, hailing from a long line of tough, strong and sharp-tongued women, it was nothing but a weakness worthy of contempt.

Our house was at least a venerable seventy-five years old when my father purchased it (circa mid-1960s) and the place was rumoured to be haunted, which was probably the reason my father, an unsentimental Catholic who did not believe in God, let alone ghosts, could buy it for a song. (Nevertheless, he did take the precaution of getting the house “blessed” by the parish priest, who sprinkled holy water all around, while murmuring prayers.) As the story goes, the house had belonged to a local Nair family, whose pretty daughter committed the unforgivable crime of falling in love with a man of a different (read lower) caste. (In the Kerala of those days, this ranked quite high in the scale of stuff-that-is-taboo!) Her family took the corrective step of murdering the young man and staging it as a suicide on the huge and shady jackfruit tree on the upper slope of the property. The heartbroken girl, quite predictably for those times, committed suicide by hanging herself on the same tree. The spirits of the star-crossed lovers haunted the house and property, making life hell for the family who were then forced to sell and move away. Personally, my feeling is that it must have been their guilty consciences, rather than ghosts, since none of us were ever favoured with a visit. Either the holy water did what it was supposed to do or the determined ghosts too went away with the poor Nair family to haunt them afresh!

This house was built in what must have been the current fashion of the early 20th century. Tile roofed, cool in the hottest of summers and a verandah running all along the perimeter. A lot of wood had gone into the building, the beams of the ceiling beautifully carved with flowers, not an identical pair among them! There were two giant doors, constructed from some long ago felled jackfruit tree, somewhat like the doors of fortresses, noisily swinging on their wooden hinges, and with equally huge wooden bolts, the likes of which I have yet to see in any other place. A basement and an attic (accessed by a rickety ladder), both dumping grounds of unwanted and less used things, like the huge bell metal Urulis (taken out only during weddings feast preparations) and which could easily accommodate a decent sized child,  and scary in their different ways. As a bonus, they also served as the breeding grounds of my nemesis- the spider. Located between the two, there was the “Ara” or granary, at the heart of the house, totally constructed out of wood and as I know from experience, pitch black and airless inside, once the single thick wooden door was closed. Our granary stored no grain, but pungent pepper instead, sun dried and tied up in gunny-bags, waiting to be sold and taken to the Cochin port for export. It also was the storage space for another antiquity, the huge thick walled and green-hued glass bottle, which would be filled with coconut oil once a year, extracted after sun-drying the summer coconut crop and stored.

The Urulis played an active role in frightening little children, since their doppelgängers in Hell were supposed to the vessels in which the bubbling hot oil would be waiting for disobedient little children, to be nicely fried by the devils and served up! To this day, I cannot look at the cute and bright miniature Uruli, filled with water and pretty flowers, mandatory accessory in magazine photographs of immaculate drawing rooms,, without remembering those giant vessels in that cobwebby basement (both long gone) and their purported alternative uses!


Anyway, coming back to the topic, I am a closet Buddhist.

The Government questionnaires which demand “Religion?” causes me a lot of angst just as the question “Gender?” might cause a Transgender! I am definitely not a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Jew because I was not born one and has not converted to any of them. I was born a Kerala Syrian Christian, with ancestry purportedly going all the way back to AD 56, which was when St. Thomas (perhaps accompanied by a team of men in search of adventure, since it seems unlikely that he sailed all alone all the way!) landed on the Kerala coast, but it is wishfulness at its best to imagine that this religion will look upon me with favour, since it has been decades since I have conformed to any outward observation of it. (In other words, the Pearly Gates are forever closed off to my poor soul!)

Buddhism, with its emphasis on meditation and non-violence, attracts me. When I start living in my head, spinning glorious tales and alternately, worrying about the future, or re-enacting past dramas, casting myself in a much better light, Buddhism reminds me gently, to live in the present moment.

It also teaches me that all things shall pass. And that all life is sacred!

So far so good! But I live in another ancient house now; and ancient houses have all sorts of hiding places for primitive life forms. Most door and window frames are termite infested; I even had the ignominy of the back door frame falling on my head one day [luckily light, having been almost totally eaten away by termites leaving the painted shell intact], because I had postponed the painful job of catching hold of the carpenters and extracting work out of them, a tad too late. I have made peace with the legions of noisy lizards, darting every which way, and who have worked out among themselves as to who lives where.

But yesterday evening, faced with a big, wicked-looking, black, hairy, eight legged friend and with two shocked children cowering behind the door, my Buddhist principles, unfortunately, deserted me! The phobia faded into the background, still there, but pushed back by the even stronger instinct for safety.

Later, picking up the crumbled body of the spider, (wrong place, wrong time-RIP), I could not help but wonder, what right did I have to take its life? It never harmed me or mine. Yes, the potential for causing harm was present in it, but is it not there in all of us?

As I write this, the world is still coming to terms with the news and visuals of the Malaysian flight MH 17, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which was shot down over Ukraine, killing all on board. While my heart goes out to the unfortunate passengers and their families, I cannot help but feel sympathy for those unknown faceless men, responsible for this tragedy, whose fatal error in judgement caused it. It will not be easy to carry this burden in one’s heart, of having been an unwitting Angel of Death!

On Coffee Blossoms…

The aroma of coffee is a much advertised one. A lovely hot cup of coffee wakes one up, energizes; one faces the day all set to make a success of it. Café Coffee Day outlets in India are tastefully decorated and offer an idyllic setting to catch up with friends or a loved one. I guess it would be the same in any other country too, with variations in the names and themes of the chain.

But I am not marketing coffee;  just sharing a memory.  I was lucky in that I grew up in a small village in Kerala. I was also lucky in that in my childhood, in the season when the few coffee bushes we cultivated were in bloom, I would wake up to the sweet scent of coffee blossoms. It would permeate my dreams- the gentle, happy and innocent childhood ones – and would slowly wake me up with its sheer sweetness. And I would run out to witness this yearly wonder.

Coffee blossoms are small and white; they bloom in the early mornings and are really not much to look at. They form in clusters on the branches of the plant. But how does one describe their perfume? Sweeter than roses or jasmines- poignant, reminiscent of long gone times.

For obvious reasons, no one picked the blooms, which later transformed into clusters of green berries and later ripened into cherry red ones. They would then be picked, dried and sold.

The coffee bushes are no more-   I am no longer the eager child who jumped out of bed and ran to them. But somewhere in a corner of my heart, the now-non-existent village, bushes and the child remain!

The weather of Kerala is highly suitable for growing spices. There was a rich trade as early as 3000 B.C in spices, which were famed in the Western world. My parents grew coconut, pepper, coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg and cocoa in our land. Our lives, my entire education, were paid for by these exotic spices, which found their way to foreign lands from the Cochin port.

The Cinnamon tree, which brought forth the most wonderful pink young leaves in spring, sacrificed the most. The spice cinnamon  is not the berry, but the bark. The tree would be shorn annually and the twigs would be dried in the sun and then the bark removed carefully.

Today the demands of urbanization have transformed my village beyond recognition. Like many Indian villages, mine too continues to live only in cherished memories. Important as progress and development is, despite the strides made in the quality of living, sometimes the nostalgia for things gone by, falls over me like an old, worn and soft blanket.