Flash Fiction: Raindrops and Summer Wine

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As the raindrops fell — one two three… infinity — the woman looked out of the window and she drifted back to the past, a past that had been filled with the magic of childhood.

How the little girls in their white soft muslin chemises would prance in the rain on the roof and laugh for sheer joy! They would be drenched. She really enjoyed it. The water would pelt her face and run down in small rivulets from her shock of curly hair… the smell of the wet Earth… a lingering fantasy for a lost world.

The lost world that would never disappear from between the pages of the thick hardbound Complete Works of Shakespeare she had bought with her first salary and carried everywhere with her. It rested on top of her book shelf wherever she went … with all those flowers she had picked from her parent’s garden — roses and tiny jasmines like pressed stars, tucked securely within the pages of the book. They caressed her fingertips with the brittleness and delicacy of an age spent away from the nurturing plant. Her hands lingered between the pages. The flowers and the leaves were now of an indeterminate age where freshness, to live or to die did not really matter. Her hands picked up the delicately veined skeleton leaf of an old Peepul tree she had sat under with the boy who faded out of her life like a memory…

They had sat and talked about a life they could have had as the Delhi winters wove sunshine into her hair. She remembered the feeling of thrill as his voice drifted to her ears, but the words muted themselves… silenced by thirty years of hectic over-paced life where she moved like a whirlwind from role to role till Bollywood was her only reality.

What had he said that she felt he loved her?

Rain always made her misty-eyed. She needed one more drink. How the cigarette and the alcohol lulled her, calmed her senses.

She turned on the stereo. Her favourite Bach started to play…

As she slowly sipped a Cinzano, she moved to her balcony and listened to the rhythm of the rain against the backdrop of Bach. It was a strange mix, but she liked it. It heightened the silence of the night, the madness of the storm as the lightening streaked across the sky, searing it, tearing it into two.

She felt the waves beckon her.

She walked out of her balcony towards her private beach. Her thin white muslin dress was drenched within minutes by the pelting rain. It clung to her shapely figure. Her thick curly hair that fell between her waist and shoulder gathered the rain and stuck to her forehead creating small rivulets that ran into her face, just as it had when she danced in the rain in her chemise as a child.

Her drink was spoilt by the rain. She threw the glass away. And then walked with unsteady feet towards the sea.

She wanted to be a part of the elements, maybe a mermaid on a distant rock… and she would sing, sing like the heroine in La La Land— how she loved those songs— and the boy, the boy from the past — not the others who had flitted in and out of the glamorous part of her life. Not the men with bowties who had escorted her to premieres and brought her back drunk with success and of habit and put her to sleep… they bored her with their adulation, ardour, or, was it lust, and slimy lips…

Oh! How she longed for him with his pure heart and bass voice which always rang through her spine and caught her somewhere near her throat. She had always wanted to touch him…and then, she moved on … and he, what happened to him? She did not know…

But now she longed for him… the way she had longed to be an actress and the way she longed to be a mermaid and part of the sea.

She was upto her shoulders in the water.

The rain beat harder and harder as the waves took her into their folds.

She woke up a mermaid singing on a rock and her prince came on a sailing ship from beyond the sparkling sun and picked her up…

 

 

 

 

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Where has all the laughter gone?

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There was a time when limericks and humorous poetry made us laugh, when ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine!’ brought tears of merriment to multiple readers of Readers’ Digest, when PG Wodehouse was digested by youngsters by the dozen and when everyone loved a good laugh. There were no laughter clubs. There were no sleep clinics. There was spring and happiness and childhood…

That is how we grew up back in the 1970s and 1980s.

That was the time when bell bottoms were in fashion, people still listened to Beatles, Carpenters and Julio Iglesias; Agatha Christie and Perry Mason were mystery fare and people read only books with pages.

Then with internet revolution swinging into action, things changed. Things changed in a way that made living more challenging! On one hand communication was eased; on the other the tech savvy and the non-tech groups replaced simple divisions of caste and class. For some time, people could say what they liked across all borders drawn by mankind. And then power brokers made rules to regulate the flow of thought in the guise of curbing negative output online. Some of it was necessary, especially where people were inducing riots with Facebook exchanges, but some of it created borders in communicating ideas.

There were alternatives that crept up and people still found ways of communicating across borders with blogs and social media, though some governments banned even those. Voices were raised… but the tone had changed from one of happiness to one of darkness and challenge.

What was bad kept coming into focus over what was good. Laughter dissipated!

Limericks gave way to haikus reflecting the darkness of existence, which were rare earlier because people and ideas could not travel across borders easily long, long ago… fifty full years ago…

The span of time like our focus has shortened. Reading what others write has become a luxury. Writing what one has to say and publishing in social media has become the norm. Yet reading evidently creates an empathizing individual, an individual who can emote on behalf of others and spread kindness and smiles through the world. A research by Kingston University in London highlighted how readers make better and kinder friends. The report states: “Specifically, when broken down by genre, they (the researchers) saw that readers of comedy were the best at relating to people. Romance and drama lovers were the most empathetic and most skilled at seeing things through other’s eyes.”

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Sukumar Ray’s sketch

Perhaps, dwelling on the results of the research, we should look for not stand-up comics on you tube but for books that make us laugh, whether in English or some other language. I still cannot stop laughing at the nonsense verse of Sukumar Ray ( film-maker and writer Satyajit Ray’s father) and those are verses I have been reading for the last forty years or limericks or stories by Wodehouse. And yet, they seem to be rather out of fashion now. In today’s world, we are all writers and readers in the landscape of social media. Presidents ‘tweet’ as do Prime Ministers and Ministers! Social media has gone viral as did American Idol and a bunch of programs that cropped up around it in the early 2000s.

An article in The Atlantic explains: “Yet in many ways Idol … was ahead of the pop-culture game. It was one of the first shows that understood both the emotional nerve that connects people to music, and people’s innate desire to see others succeed despite enormous odds. It excelled at creating a personal link between artists and viewers, compelling the latter to take action by calling in and voting…In this sense, Idol foreshadowed today’s social media-driven society, where fans have the power to mobilize and impact the pop-culture landscape…”. Huff post came up with the heading “American Idol Made Us All Critics”.

And now, we dot the social media landscape with critiques and comments on everything possible from a pair of shoes to poetry (for those who still read or watch what has come up in a big way, Performance poetry in You Tube) or a new scientific development. Yet, are we all qualified to comment on everything? Is it right to give precedence to public outcry over expertise?

Looking at the current trends, democratization has taken over all oligarchic institutions. Democracy works but to what point? How democratic are we as individuals? Individuality is also an after all an important component of all art forms and now is much emphasised in the comments section of social media. How many of us flash our prettiest pictures on Facebook in imitation of models? Does everybody want to be a celebrity?

One of my friends, a simple soul told me that in FB everyone looked so happy and successful! Another told me he withdrew from FB due to all the flak he faced when he voiced his opinion. Perhaps, decency fell prey to democratization for some. And yet a third one suffered a stroke and a heart attack and was told by the doctor to keep off social media and internet as the content upset him!

While democratization helps masses come to the fore, inventions or creations are always that of an individual. When we traded privacy and dignity for equality, did we really think of the consequences?

IMG_0526I still recall the expressions of the statues in the Memorial of Early Red Army in Beijing. The statues looked angry and discontent. These people definitely did not enjoy limericks or Edward Lear’s funny poems, but they believed in what they were taught to believe. Was it right to have a revolution by people who had no vision but were influenced to have a vision by pressures of external forces and the thin booklet of communist manifesto which was a handbook for all believers?

When the ‘Me-too’ controversies flared on FB, one friend told me that though she did not agree with the movement, she had not the freedom to voice her difference of opinion. If she did, external forces of FB would perhaps reduce her to pulp or jelly for daring to oppose popular opinion. A friend of mine speaking in favor of social media said it prevented bar room brawls. A good point. But it did not stop from inciting people to riot as result of which FB decided to take down posts inciting rage, hate and violence.

But has it been effective? A million-dollar question which yet remains to be answered with posts that threaten to unfriend friends if they do not paste the post the posters (not paper but people who publish on FB) have on their wall on their own (the friends’) FB page. Rather a complicated process to explain but you all are probably familiar with it. Perhaps people who avoid reposting prefer privacy and can continue without giving opinions. Should their hand be forced in the same way as my friend who was forced to write a post in favor of the ‘Me-too’ because otherwise, she would face social ostracization?

While ground rules keep evolving to mediate social media, one wonders if this has an impact on the dark overtones that have been coloring the literary world? Why is it writers feel that darkness needs to engulf readers before they change their way of thinking and become more positive in their output? Why has the world of literature been infected by dystopian literature that highlights the negative in the hope of a better outcome?

Haruki Murakami, a popular seventy-year-old Japanese novelist, whose books are often surrealistic and dark, says: “Only novels can make people feel through words that they went through actual experiences. Depending on whether or not people experience those stories, their thoughts and ways of seeing the world should change. I want to write stories that will penetrate the heart. I have a lot of hope in the power that novels hold.” Murakami’s books introduce “jarring elements to alter his characters’ lives, skewing reality and upending their worlds, to illustrate his recurrent themes of alienation and loneliness.” Murakami himself said: “Obsessions can help people survive this intense loneliness.” Is this loneliness what makes writers sense darkness all around?  Is this feeling essentially a negative one?

“His (Murakami’s) writing process requires ‘stepping into the darkness’, where he observes, remembers, and writes down what he sees. His early books, he said, originated in an individual darkness, while his later works tap into the darkness found in society and history.” Is that why dystopian fiction, which in itself is not the happiest read, came into being?

For an ordinary reader like me, happiness makes me feel fulfilled. I fall back on literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth century often. The pre-world war literature. Though time moves fast and waits for nobody, why is it we are not able to move on? Why are we still allowing the past, the holocausts that dot twentieth century history, to bind us into an everlasting aura of darkness?  Though the wars left us scalded and scarred as a race, why do we not realize that we need to move on to create a happier and more wholesome world for the next generation? That will be a world where sunshine is uninterrupted and children interact, laugh and reach out to each other as friends with the innocence of lambs. With a passion for such a future, I lose myself in the pages of a book and listen to the 1980s song from Karen Carpenter, Yesterday once more…

“Those were such happy times and not so long ago

How I wondered where they’d gone

But they’re back again just like a long lost friend”

 

— Carpenters

Baboo and Sonia

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The person Sonia most wanted to tell the news to was Baboo.

He had been so scared, so apprehensive when he had first heard.

He had called up all his friends in a state of panic.

Baboo was what Sonia called her father. He had been a doctor, a well- known and prominent one in his own field. After retiring far from the city to revel in Himalayan grandeur for the rest of his life, he became a widower. That is when Sonia first started interacting with Baboo on a daily basis. Everyday she would call up and they would talk.

“ How are you Baboo?”

“ Today my blood pressure was normal. I had coffee and Sita made me some mushroom soup with oats in it.”

Sita was his housekeeper. She cooked, cleaned, looked after him. In fact, her whole family who lived in the outhouse helped take care of him. They were a hill family, from Nepal. They had no identification or money when they had come to Baboo and his wife for work. Sita and her husband were illiterates. Their children started school as they worked in Baboo’s house. Their children learnt to read. Eventually, Baboo had them register for an adhar card (identity card in India) and had seen to it that they had a bank account when the prime minister initiated the bank wave for the downtrodden.

“The papayas have ripened in the garden. And the mali (gardener) harvested a few kilos of litchi… I will give some to Jaya Das and Captain Singh,” he would go on to say.

Jaya Das and Captain Singh were his friends.

Sonia would just listen.

Another day would be full of complaints.

“ I do not want to live. I feel very alone… very lonely without your mother.”

Sonia would listen with a wringing, helpless heart.

“Do you want to move back to Delhi like Saurabh suggested?” Sonya would ask. Saurabh was her cousin in Delhi and the person she felt closest to in India.

“ I cannot afford it. And physically it is impossible you know. I cannot walk.” Baboo was fiercely and proudly independent. He would not allow anyone else to spend on him, not even his daughter and son-in-law or his nephew.

Sonia would say, “We can organize everything for you.”

“ How? While sitting in Singapore?”

Sonia lived in Singapore with her husband and two children. She had moved back from Bangkok two years after her mother died. Sonia and her husband had been out of India for more than two decades, shuttling from one country to another.

“Saurabh said he would do everything…”

“Impossible! Impossible!” Baboo would shout into the phone. “I came here for spiritual succor. I do not want to move. You will not understand because you do not read Ramakrishna or any of the scriptures…”

Yet at some other times, he would complain of high blood pressure, dizziness and sometimes, he even said he fell down.

Sonia was worried. She did not know what to do…

She spoke to his doctor friends. They recommended scans. But he refused to go for scans and tests. He would say: “I just want to die.”

One Sunday, Sonia had acute pain in the stomach. Her husband rushed her to the hospital. They found a growth in her kidney. Probably cancerous, the doctor said. They did not want to do a biopsy for the fear of infecting other parts with the deadly cells.

Baboo had to be consulted because the urologist spoke of removing the affected kidney. Baboo agreed that was the best option. But he was scared. He did not want to outlive his daughter. He did not want her to die.

In five days, the surgery was performed. Sonia’s brother- in- law, her husband’s younger brother, flew in from Nigeria to be by their side. Friends poured in. At a point, the nurses grumbled because there were ten people in Sonia’s room the evening after her surgery.

But Baboo, he struggled with his emotions alone. He wanted to be by his daughter. Physically, it was impossible. He could not walk because of the huge fibroid on his spine. He felt shattered and helpless. He had called up his grandson during the surgery. His son-in-law had spoken to him later to reassure him. But not his daughter!

At last she spoke to him. He wanted her to rest and recover.

Sonia felt she was doing well.

Two days after her surgery, Sonia sent birthday wishes to an old school friend. They had all crossed fifty. He too was a cancer survivor. And the next day, she discovered, the announcement of his death on Facebook.

That stunned her a bit! She sent her condolences.

She still remembered the date 18 th August.

Sonya had drifted into nostalgia… recalling how in high school, they had all travelled to Almora and had a whale of a time during their school trip… and suddenly, he was gone. She had a surgery but he died. Strange were the ways of God!

A few days later, she heard her one of closest friends from University had died of breast cancer. She had been so out of touch with her friends that the news came to her as a shock. Whenever she went to India, she was visiting Baboo or her mother-in-law who was a widow. She had no time for friends. She spoke to her mother-in- law too every other day. She did not tell the old folks about her friends’ deaths. They would just get upset!

When Sonia returned after the surgery, Baboo spoke to her for long.

“ It may not be cancer you know. After all, you had no symptoms till the pain. And cancer is normally not painful…”

Two weeks later, the doctor met Sonia and her husband. He confirmed the tests had shown the growth to be cancerous, “T2 stage with a focus on T3” read her report. However, the cancer had not spread anywhere else by all parameters tested. The doctor urged her to send the report to her father so that he would not worry anymore. Of course, she would have to do PET scans for the next five years. The pain had been from another intestinal infection which had been treated by antibiotics during her hospital stay.

Sonia returned home jubilant that she was going to be fine. But Baboo could not let go of his apprehension… what if… his child died? His mother had died. His wife had died and now his daughter…

Sonia tried to convince him on Skype.

“Baboo, I am not going to die. I have been cleared off cancer. I sent you the report. You yourself have seen I will be fine. Many people live for years with one kidney. I am a survivor.”

Two months after the surgery, the ‘survivor’ went for a walk at night with her husband, she again had an acute pain. This time, she noticed a lump near the wound. The next day the doctor sent her for a scan and a hernia was confirmed. It seems there had been a rupture in the mucus membrane when the doctors moved her intestine to pull out the bagged kidney during the partial laparoscopy. She would need another surgery four months later. They needed to give six months time for the wound to heal.

Baboo was furious. “All this would not have happened if they did an open surgery. I had told you to tell the doctor not to do a partial laparoscopy. It is entirely the doctor’s fault…”

Sonia had no choice but to agree to go through the surgery. She could not fight medical decisions. She was at the mercy of the doctor’s scalpel. She did not even want to get into the blame game. The doctor put her state down to her obesity. Sonia had more than doubled as had her chin in the last almost three decades of happily married life.

This whole medical journey had been stressful for her whole family. But she was proud of the way her children and husband had handled it, making her feel cherished and wanted at every point, yet not weighing her down with a sense of helplessness or fatality.

Sonia just wanted to get well and be out of the hospital.

“I just want to get well doctor as fast as possible,” said Sonia during her pre-surgical visits. “I have no time to die.” The doctor was amused.

Baboo continued inconsolable. He felt he was being punished for not having stayed by his mother as she breathed her last. It was retribution, he said. He still remembered her crying and begging him to stay back. But he had to take his wife back to Dehradun. He had always chosen his wife above all others, but he had not attained moksha (freedom from cycle of birth, a Hindu belief) and now, he had the additional burden of worrying about his daughter. He wanted to die, to die before his daughter… He was scared that cancer would creep through her entrails to snatch her away from him. She was all he had!

Baboo wanted to die but most feared death.

He always worried about what would happen after death. He tried giving detailed instructions to his daughter when she exclaimed in exasperation, “In my current condition, I am more likely to die than you!”

That day Baboo was very sad and worried.

Sonia insisted Baboo come to her every year for a couple of months so that she could look after him in her own home ever since he had become a widower. It was impossible to move him out of India at eighty permanently, given all the health issues and his attitudes. (He liked to tell the doctors what medicines to give him without conducting any tests and hated to be crossed!) This was the best she could do. Baboo had his passport renewed and tickets in his pocket when he flew to Delhi.

Sonia’s surgery was done and she would be back home in a couple of days. It was a big surgery with thirty per cent of her guts sticking to the wound. Two hours is what it took for her to be out of the surgery, which was still lesser than the five hours that she faced during her last surgery.

Baboo had reached Delhi. He was fine.

Sonia had asked her Indonesian housekeeper to buy three kilos of fish as Baboo loved fish and would be with her in a couple of days. She felt elated. She was being released from the hospital that day. She was going to get well! Her father would be with her as she recuperated and all would be well soon!

And then, a call came from her uncle. Her father had collapsed!

Sonia’s happiness collapsed!

Baboo was staying in the hospital he had made in Delhi to get his medical check up done. The night after he reached Delhi, he was found senseless on the floor by a senior matron. The doctors said severe septicemia. They tried to revive him. He spoke to his daughter when he could. His family, largely in Delhi, cooked his favorite foods for him. They stayed at his bedside as did his friends and staff. Everyone loved him, adored him and cherished him… He spoke to Sonia… she said she would come… as soon as she could.

Baboo collapsed again. And then he was in the ICCU. Sonia flew down with her husband, three weeks into her surgery… there he was. She had been given three days by her doctor — three days to see her father.

She tried to talk to him, to wake him up. But he just lay there with all the pipes sticking out of him — once he opened his blue grey eyes but there was no acknowledgement in them. The doctors said that it was a reflex. Sonia felt she saw a glimmer.

Did the pipes hurt him, especially after they drilled a hole into his neck to pump out the phlegm? Was such a procedure necessary… the desecration of his body? Would he want it? Sonia wondered.

After those three days, Sonia had to fly back to care for herself. She did not know how much longer he would linger… or maybe, recover… If he were well enough to come back to his senses, what would they do to the hole in his neck, the pipe inserted by tracheostomy? Could he live with that? How would he talk to her on the phone? Or talk to anyone?

As the airport staff in Singapore, wheeled Sonia on the wheelchair, she checked her what’s ap. There was a message from her cousin, “ Baboo has passed on peacefully.”

Had the cycle come full?

Sonia was not there when he died as he was not there when his mother had died. Had he been scared? Did he know he was dying after the last collapse?

Three months after the second surgery, the doctor announced Sonia cancer free following a PET scan. She still had four more scans to go… but she was sure she was a survivor.

But where was Baboo the person who should have been jubilating her cancer – free results?

 

 

To believe or not to believe…

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John Barrymore as Hamlet (1922)

To be, or not to be, that is the question

— Hamlet, Shakespeare, Act 3, scene 1

 

To believe or not to believe has become the dilemma of the twentieth century intellectual with Stephen Hawking paving the way to disbelief.

As we bow down under the weight of existentialist dilemmas and develop six packs and slim abs, we profess not to believe what we cannot see. Some even trace it to religion being divisive, creating barriers and brainwashing humankind with ritualistic and typified role playing.

The term atheism has its etymological roots deep in 5 th century BCE. However, it came into play only around the French revolution. And then as the disbelievers grew in numbers, people did surveys. According to studies done in the last decade, less than fifteen percent of the world population do not believe.

Looking at the historic evolution of disbelievers, I would say they have been and continue to remain a minority, except perhaps in China where the red revolution wiped away all gods except communism. Even if the current government is restoring holidays during older festivals along with Mao’s birthday and Chinese new year, the wounds that lacerated the theists will take time to heal. After Mao and free thinking took its toll, a survey taken in 2015 stated 61 per cent of the population were atheists!

I feel in most of the non-communist world,  disbelief has remained the privilege of those who have the education and time to debate and question.

However in China, where I spent eight years, my Ayi ( my housekeeper, literal translation aunty) from Xian told me how she remembered the soldiers coming and destroying their family altar and asking them to replace it with Mao’s picture. That must not have been a very easy situation for believers. The post Mao university educated youth in China mostly informed me they were ‘free thinkers’. I really do not understand what that means since all of us are free thinkers. We are all free to think what we like. Though I did notice one thing, the mass sterilization of religious beliefs made people more docile and tolerant; or was it centuries of subservience, first to emperors and then to political ideology( twentieth century guru Harari called communism a ‘religion’), that had made them docile?

I wonder if Mao could have converted all of the population in the area we label India now into becoming disbelievers or free thinkers as in China? Would the people have forgone centuries of belief and spiritual quest to take on the yolk of a new belief system?

The vehemence with which people react to belief and disbelief is in itself astounding. Mobs form, political parties make it their agenda. There have been Klu Klux Klan-like reactions all over the world towards religion or the lack of it. The nineteenth century white supremacist group was not only anti-black but also developed sentiments that were  anti-Catholic and anti-immigration. Though there were laws to subdue the hate group, did these sentiments die out or are they still simmering secretly?

The rise of Modi in India has brought to the fore the large divide between the formerly voiceless non-monied and the monied with loud voices. In The Billionaire Raj (2018), James Crabtree talks of how the non-monied masses reacted to speeches directed against the divide that existed between the unschooled non-affluent masses and the elitist, affluent population, who despite being lesser in number were more vocal. Religion or perhaps, we should say practices and rituals, for the non-monied was a way of life and continued being so; the fanning of differences already having been instilled by the divide and rule used by the the erstwhile British Raj.

Dominique La Pierre and Larry Collins in Freedom at Midnight (1975)  talk of how independence for each Indian meant a different thing. Some rejoiced. And some wept. Eminent lawyer and journalist Khushwant Singh who had lost his home in the other nation recalled:“I had nothing to rejoice about. For me and millions like me (in both India and Pakistan), this Independence Day was a tragedy, They mutilated Punjab, and I had lost everything.” In this case, it was called religious rioting.

Did the difference in beliefs exist all along and, therefore, could be fanned leading to a state of orgiastic frenzy that ultimately led to mass killings? Was it any different from what the Red Army did in China? Historically, is it differences in faith that lead to war or is it a lust for power, land and wealth cloaked behind a system of beliefs?

The thing that frightens me most is the intolerant violence with which people believe or disbelieve — perhaps much in the tradition of big Endians and little Endians (from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels).

In China, the Red Army has been quietened. There are no strong reactions or mobs. These have all been outlawed. People seem happy. Once, in a while, the government subdues protests or anger against some people or situation. But, more or less, all is quiet on the Chinese population front, with due apologies to Erich Maria Remarque. But on the other hand, few young university educated free thinking Chinese friends told me that dilletante activities like writing books had also been purged in China… Intellectuals had been purged…

While my atheist friends continue to disbelieve, I wonder, is it only in God, or in things related to creation myths, to the existence of light and dark, to the existence of anything they cannot see or invent themselves? It is good to question. However, I do not fancy reinventing the wheel or the alphabet. I would much rather use one for travel and the other for writing out my ideas.

Sometimes, I wonder how ideas come into my head? Who creates thoughts? Who or what puts it there? Why is it I have an urge to write and Madonna sings like a lark? What is the phenomenon that created DNA? Who decides how and when life forms are created  to populate earth? Who or what made the Big Bang happen so that we all came into existence? Who or what creates and destroys life? Do we have right to destroy that which we cannot make?

 

 

 

 

 

 

In quest…

Vibrancy, warmth and colors are what Indophiles find in the India they love. Ruskin Bond, who went as far as to become an Indian, adds to it the love of the hills and the interactions he has with people in that region. He talks of tall swishing trees, hills that beckon and how he made a concerted efforts to return to the India where he spent his childhood from Jersey in the Channel islands, somewhere in between France and England, in his book, Rain in the Mountains:

“One night I was walking alone along the beach. There was a strong wind blowing, dashing the salt spray in my face, and the sea was crashing against the St Helier rocks. I told myself: I will go to London; I will take up a job; I will finish my book; I will find a publisher; I will save money and return to India, because I am happier there than here.”

Ruskin Bond’s own return to India was in quest of happiness much as Indian youth leave their country to adopt USA in their mythical search for a better life, and in that sense contentment. There was a time when those who dreamt big came to India for spiritual succor before conquering the world with the their humongous visions; Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were among these. I am not one to critique moves to different countries in search of happiness, for learning new things or just for survival. Think of it, if everyone stayed forever in the country where they were born, all the human race would have continued in central Africa forever with great to the power millions grandmother, Lucy, and her family…

Recently, I read an article in Hindu, which started with a blurb saying “Travelling in the 50s and 60s, Odia writer Chittaranjan Das realised that the only way to become an Indian was to first become an Asian and then a world citizen.” What a fantastic holistic thought from a writer who thrived in an era where mankind started to stumble under the narrow walls of partisanship and political nationalism!

The article on Chittaranjan Das makes me wonder what I, an Indian-born, consider to be the attributes of those populating the country of my birth.

The simple answer is I do not know.

With a cultural diversity that houses thousands of mother tongues (19,500 in 2018), India remains an enigma to me. Most cultures would have their own distinct rituals and beliefs and each one of them cannot be called anything other than Indian. A simple example would be the stories behind each festival. I know a few around the major Hindu festival of Diwali; some Ram centric, some Krishna centric, some Vishnu centric and, in Bengal, Kali centric — all these are different deities in Hinduism itself. Jainism and Sikhism have celebrations around the same period for different reasons. India hosts more than half-a-dozen major religions with myths and legends modifying the  rituals and customs by local needs. Indian cuisine too is of such a wide variety. It includes an IMG_0384indigenised interpretation of Chinese food, which can be had nowhere else in the world and is a favorite with many in India, a fusion of cuisine developed by Chinese who migrated during the Opium wars and Mao’s regime. Then how can one define food, values or a composite culture that is Indian?

When I read the travels of Marco Polo, I was struck by his mentioning Russians in India and how many races thrived within the region. Of course his concept of India has to be taken with a pinch of salt. We also need to understand his concept of the country could not be what was defined by Radcliffe five hundred years later and accepted by the billions living across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the rest of the world without a question. Polo probably felt all cultures outside that of Italian were novelties when he started travelling at the age of sixteen. However, having spent a long time in the Kublai Khan’s court before making it to India, he was more likely to be open than most, even if he is regarded as a bit of a charlatan. But one thing that I understood with my reading of Marco Polo was that India was the melting pot of diverse cultures and the geographical definition of India varied, thus making it more a concept than a national entity.

Nationalism as a concept started to develop only around the eighteenth century in England and Europe, after industrialization and French Revolution became a reality. When Marco Polo adventured into Asia from Europe, such travel was rare and long- drawn. With the onset of jet travel, time has ceased to be a constraint for crossing distances. Now it is borders drawn by nationalism. All the borders, of nations, cultures, religions and races are ones that are defined by man, by what twentieth century guru Yuval Noah Harari would probably call ‘orders‘ or ‘tribes’.

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Sphinx-like and griffin-like carvings in Ellora?

The other thing that struck me in my travels within India were sculptures of griffins and sphinx-like creatures introduced into the ancient frescoes of Ellora, an architectural marvel hewn into rocks between 600 to 1000 CE. In the midst of sculptures depicting Hindu mythological lore, a few odd looking creatures that resemble griffins and sphinxes blend into arrays of elephants. How and why did these get here? Did at some point a worker travel across to India from Africa or Europe, carrying with him the concept of a griffin or a sphinx and hew it into the rocks of Ellora? Was such travel to find work in multi- cultural India a norm in those days, when even Marco Polo had not set foot in China?

Again, I do not know… but I do love Chittaranjan Das’s perception that to be an Indian is to be a citizen of the world; Tagore’s perception of the mind being a fearless entity that would look for larger answers than just nationalism, being above narrow, parochial thought processes; Bhupen Hazarika’s concept of being a wanderer which he put to words in his well known song, Aami Ek Jajabar(I am a wanderer)

And in this spirit of openness and multi-culturalism, I celebrate my own humanness…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baboo

 

Old people live with memories…at least that is what Baboo did at eighty.

He had a daughter in Bangkok, two wonderful grandchildren and a son-in- law. His wife, Shyama, had been dead for the last five years.

She went just like that…

Shyama had served him dinner and cleared up before retiring for the night. She herself had had her dinner earlier because a late dinner induced wheezing. She was asthmatic.

That night, they lay down in bed. Baboo fell asleep watching TV. Shyama was still reading when he woke up around 1 am. Sometimes, Shyama read late if she had mild wheezing and then when it stopped, she dosed off. At 1 am, Baboo had asked her if she needed an injection to breath normally.

Baboo was a celebrated surgeon and Shyama, an anesthetist… that is how she had survived into her seventies despite her severe asthama. Baboo could treat her, inject her whenever she got an attack and Shyama was quick to catch her own symptoms. This time Shyama responded to her husband’s query saying she was fine. At four in the morning, she went to the bathroom and Baboo woke up to a loud thud.

She had fallen in a crumpled heap on the floor.

She was dead, dead, dead…his companion of 49 years…

Baboo was lonely. He lived with his memories… his daughter was too far away. She had come for her mother’s funeral and for the first anniversary of her death. But, she preferred to have him over in her own home. Relatives and friends came intermittently, but it was not the same. His daughter encouraged him to have guests.

He just wanted his daughter to come. She would not and sent others instead.

When his daughter critiqued his choice of place for retirement, he was angry. To hurt her, he asked her not to come. Sometimes, he did not want to talk to his daughter, especially because she thought differently. She did not understand him. Despite that she would call him. She loved him and needed the reassurance he was well. Baboo knew that. He fought but he needed his child desperately.

Baboo’s housekeeper and her family kept him company. He did a free clinic three times a week and chaired committees in a mission but it was incredibly quiet and lonely.

Baboo had retired and moved from Bombay to this house near the hills. His wife and he were supposed to live out their old age, close to the hills, nearer to God and eternity. For eight years, they did have an idyllic retirement, at least from Baboo’s standpoint.

Occasionally, Shyama had complained of boredom to her daughter. She missed her life in Bombay, the gaiety of concerts and the glamour of city life.

Eventually, she reconciled. She liked the hills and did not mind the life Baboo immersed himself in. She seemed to mould herself to his needs, also this retirement gave her the advantage of living away from her in-laws. Shyama, like many daughters-in- law, could not stand her husband’s family.

Baboo and Shyama read religious books in the morning, held discussions through the day. Some days, of course, they had the free clinic. Then they went to the temple in the evenings, prayed and discussed the Vedantic way of life with a select few… for almost a decade.

And then came the blow. Baboo had thought he would go first because he was four years older. But his wife cheated on him. She died first…just went off… like that. She was and then she wasn’t!

Baboo found it difficult to move as he had a huge fibroid at the joint of his back and hips. He was bent double now.

Another place, another time…when he had been young, people compared him to Omar Sharif. He was a medical doctor with degrees from Scotland. He had a job offer when he finished his FRCS in Edinburgh. However, like a good, filial elder son, he had returned to India to care for his father who was retiring then. But his child did not return for him. He had only one… a single daughter. She continued living away… in another country.

She telephoned him every day. But who would clear out Shyama’s cupboards… not his housekeeper… it had to be his daughter. There were termites finally but his daughter could not come…

He needed to close his bank locker, pay his online bills… His son-in-law helped him pay the online bills from Bangkok. He needed them both to clear his out his bank locker. But they did not come.

His nephew and daughter spoke of a smart phone. That was impossible for him to handle. People spoke of what’s ap; but he was too old. He just wanted to meditate and pray…

Or, did he? His wife had died on him. It was an unfair trick!

He was supposed to be the first one to die. After all he had had a stroke, high blood pressure, fibroid and once his guts had spilt out…hernia. That time his wife had saved him. Shyama had called a doctor friend. Baboo did not like him… but still the much-critiqued doctor had saved his life.

Now, Baboo watched his blood pressure twice daily. He discussed it with his daughter on phone everyday. When he visited annually in Bangkok, his son-in-law tried to force an automatic blood pressure machine on him. But he did not want it. In India, he had taught his housekeeper to take his blood pressure. He did not want to become an invalid. He still wanted to do more. His physical inabilities made him feel helpless. That upset him and he wanted to die.

His neighbours told him, he was old. He must leave action to youngsters. He needed to pray, to attain moksha, freedom from the cycle of birth.

But his daughter asked (on the phone),

“Why do you want freedom from the cycle of birth? Life is so beautiful. The world is so wonderful, why do you want to leave it?”

Baboo saw suffering on television, in newspapers and around him. He himself was suffering life… and yet, she said: “Life is beautiful…” Would she do that at his age? At eighty?

There were so many deaths. And yet he lived…

His daughter never read the scriptures. She was immature at fifty. Old age had to be one of renunciation and drawing closer to God…. and waiting to die…

His wife had left for her heavenly abode. The first few years after she departed, he dreamt of her…

Now, he wanted a companion. It was so difficult not to have anybody to talk to when he wanted to discuss the scriptures… His daughter called up.

But she did not understand…

Moksha, old age, physical handicaps.

 

Why do people grow old?

Why can they not continue young and die at the age of hundred?

 

 

 

Book of the Year

 

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Title: Educated

Author: Tara Westover

 

Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, struck me as an unusual read because it touched my heart. It had to do with people, their reactions and their ability to override adversities and find their way in a world very different from the one they were born to. Philanthropist and tech giant Bill Gates summed up the most important thing in the book in his review in Goodreads. “Her dad taught the kids that they could teach themselves anything, and Tara’s success is a testament to that.”

Born into a conservative Mormon home that rejected even basic civic services like education and medicine from the state, Tara and her six siblings received almost no schooling except how to fend for themselves and survive in a difficult and hostile environment. Three of the seven children, including Tara, despite not even having regular home schooling, went on to earn PHDs. The urge to learn came from within. The only schooling they had was from the lessons taught by life.

Transcending the limits and boundaries laid out for her by her parents, rebelling against odds, trying to dance in a sweatshirt instead of a tutu, attempting to conform to be like her peers who attended school and went for movies, Tara earns the sympathy of the reader as she finds it natural to love and battle for acceptance from all the members of her unusual family, a family that could have been termed abusive in their use of children in the current day context. The children were made a part of her dad’s “crew” and would labor under unsafe conditions, so much so that her brothers and father ended up with permanent scarring through life and her mother ‘changed’ after her head injury went untreated in a car accident. Her mother was a healer. The whole family turned to herbs and energy healing for medical needs and avoided hospitals and conventional health care. The father would hoard food for the advent of a hypothetical apocalypse when all the modern systems would collapse. While Tara studied in university, she discovered her father could be having psychiatric problems. Yet her love, tolerance and kindness towards him, though he refused treatment, remains unparalleled. That she could find love and learn from every adverse situation she faced with the family is fantastic and admirable.

It is difficult to sum up a memoir that journeys into a world that is so unusual, one whose parallels for me lie in the fifteenth or sixteenth century witch hunts described by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter and by Arthur Miller in his play, Crucible. To find strength and emerge unscarred from a world that is dark with misconception and yet a critique on what our current beliefs and way of life are, is an amazing feat that has been successfully performed by Tara Westover. It is an education to learn that such an island of belief systems still exist in the heart of America, a set of thoughts and lifestyle which are perhaps as unique as that of indigenous tribes that stay removed from modern life. That basic humanitarian needs are often flouted by such a group within a leading philanthropic, charitable country is amazing.

The transition from her family’s world, the movement away from staunch Mormonism to being a liberal educated thinking person is stretched over a long journey into which Tara Westover is pushed by her siblings, and perhaps, her mother too. Finally she emerges into an independent entity, a scholar from Cambridge. She describes this process as “selfhood”. The last lines best describe what she feels she has become.

“You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.

I call it an education.”

To talk of stylistic perfection and literary devices in a book of this stature would seem superfluous. All one can say is that the book is so perfectly conceived and written that it is an unstoppable read, one that cannot be put down till the last page is reached. It has won the Goodreads Choice award for Memoirs and Autobiography. It has been a finalist for a number of awards and The New York Times listed Educated as one of the top ten books of 2018.

What I see myself take away from this classic is a lesson in tolerance, innocence, humility, kindness and love, the values that create a human being; an education in human excellence and what wonders unstructured learning can do for people, despite the risks the Westover family children faced on a daily basis.

This is one of the most impactful and wonderful books I have ever read.