Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review

The elegance of the hedgehog : Muriel Barbery

You know how some books are a ‘read’ and some are a ‘study’. Well, this book for me was a study. Next to Thoreau's Walden, this was a book that while reading, I felt like taking ardent notes and highlighting almost every single line. There is so much depth of thought and philosophy but unfortunately for me, many of them went over my head. This books requires much more intelligence than I possess to understand its nuances. When the author expounds on art, music, books and movies, though some of the works, philosophers and artists are familiar and some vaguely so and some that I actually read, I can’t say I remember much about them to grasp her analysis.

The protagonist, Madam Michel, is a concierge, in her 50s and is brutally honest about herself and those around her. She values great minds and is confidently aware of her acute intelligence and is in many ways a victim of her impoverished circumstances and society’s prejudices. She tries her best to hide her brilliant mind and tries to conform to people’s opinion of how a lowly concierge should appear, think, talk and behave. The author doesn’t give away, almost till the end, the reason for Madam Michel’s fear and insecurity of moving upwards to society’s upper strata which her keen intelligence and wit would have easily allowed.

The other equally important narrative voice is of Paloma, an intelligent, rich, 12 year old brat who is misunderstood by every one around her, including her family. She has an inquisitive mind and is in a constant quest for something profound and meaningful in everyday life that would help her find answers to existential questions. The third character is the new Japanese tenant Kakuro Ozu, a kind, wise and wealthy man. How this trio form an unlikely friendship is the crux of the story.

Initially, I found both Madam Michel and Paloma to be arrogant and prejudiced with an unforgiving attitude towards the rich and their mores, kind of like inverse snobbery. But as the book progresses, you can understand their reasoning. Their enlightened mindset brings light to the fact that richness isn’t about material possessions but is rather about one’s ability to take the time to appreciate and savor the simple things in life and to realize the beauty in them. They reiterate the importance of creativity and originality of human thought. And the value of being true to oneself without conforming to expectations - self-imposed or otherwise.

The author, through Madam Michel’s and Paloma’s musings, touches everything that adds beauty to life - language, art, music, literature, movies, aesthetics, culture and philosophy. There were many statements that moved me so much that I had the urge to commit them to memory forever and recite them every day. Especially this one... “..if you dread tomorrow, it's because you don't know how to build the present, you tell yourself you can deal with it tomorrow, and it's a lost cause anyway because tomorrow always ends up becoming today, don't you see?”  .   

In spite of the book tackling some serious and intense topics, there are many instances of humour throughout the book, like Madam Michel’s horrified reaction to the improper use of a comma in a note left to her by a rich and supposedly educated lady ; Madam Michel’s consternation when using Kakuros’ elegant and luxurious bathroom; Madam Michel’s efforts to dress up for dinner; Paloma’s opinion of her sister’s manic cleanliness; Paloma’s narration of her mom’s shopping adventure... and many more..

Though I finished reading this book, it is not something that I can cross off from my list of ‘must-reads’ as I was only able to comprehend some of the author’s expostulations on living. It is definitely a re-read or should I say a ‘re-study’ so I understand it better the next time around and more importantly, for the beautiful reminders of the moments of beauty one encounters in life if one is present.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Power Up

I watched a movie called Brassed Off last weekend. It was the first ever overtly political movie I have ever watched. It’s set in the 80s in a mining town in England. It’s about a brass band and its members, most of whom work in the coal mine. It shows the plight of the townspeople when the colliery is shut down in the name of progress.

The music was wonderful and the performances were remarkable. But apart from it being a great movie it was also (pardon the cliche) a thought provoking one. It made me wonder about all that we take for granted in terms of comforts that we unapologetically demand and expect. Electricity, for instance. Uninterrupted power supply is perceived as a right here. My perception though, always gets a jolt every time I make a trip to India, but I digress...

Other than the name of the company (even that took me a moment) that provides electricity to my home, I barely know anything else about it. From bits of news and reports I hear on the radio about problems with license renewals due to safety violations in a nuclear power plant around here or about yet another rate hike by the energy company, I gathered that most of the electricity produced by the power company is from coal and nuclear plants. Other than that, I have hardly given any thought to where exactly that coal is mined or who mines it. As long as the bills are paid (albeit with a grumble), there is not much interest in it. Now.. why should it be any different from knowing where your food comes from?

So I decided to do some googling:-) and found out that 82% of the electricity produced by the state is from coal. Though I couldn’t quite drill down to the exact location of the mine that provides electricity for my fan ( I guess it doesn’t quite work that way), I learned that there are multiple coal-powered plants spread all through the region that supply to the grid. Though the majority of the energy is produced from non-renewable resources, there are a few wind farms and solar energy facilities that are already in production and efforts are in place to establish many more. Initiatives and goals are set to produce at least 25% of the energy using renewable sources, in another decade or so. Which in turn leads to the unavoidable - the company is closing (or will be in the near future) ineffective and uneconomical coal-powered plants.

Non-renewable resources are exactly that - non-renewable. They are not going to last forever and they take eons to form. So for some time now, there has been interest in harnessing renewable energy like wind and sun to produce energy. All the research and scientific studies that support this is all very commendable. The benefits are for all to see - less pollution and (relatively) less invasive on the landscape. But that is only part of the equation. The rest of the equation is made up of people, policies and politics. How exactly does this transition happen?

Granted it will be a over a period of time. Every generation learns from the mistakes of their predecessors. Development in science and technology gives us the facts and information about how fragile and precarious our environment is. Loaded with the knowledge, we are aware of the damage we do to our environment in the name of progress and realize how imperative it is that we do something to rectify it. Some of us are shortsighted and view it as a compromise for financial growth and security while others look at the long term repercussions of constantly altering the physical structure of our planet. And then there are others, who unfortunately, merely use it for politicking.

The argument here is that every time there is a human being in the equation, everything gets a bit tricky. We cannot be clinical and insensitive to how it affects the people who depend on these energy plants for their livelihood. Most of the people who argue against using non-renewable resources for producing energy don’t rely on it for their sustenance. When a person, a community or a whole town’s economy is dependent on it, then the scales are tipped. How do you choose between providing food and shelter for the people versus preventing anymore damage to the planet (and in turn to its inhabitants)? When generations are trained to earn a living off of it, how can you displace them? How do you provide an ultimatum when it leads to children starving and going homeless?

In the movie, one of the options that the colliery provides the people in the town is a severance package. Understandably, it is such a daunting one for people who have their roots in that small town. Especially when they lack the skills to find another mode of earning when the money runs out. There are mouths to feed and hospital bills to play. And to make it worse, for many that’s the only world they know of. It might be possible for the younger generation to explore new means of living elsewhere, but those that are too old or too set in their ways, what about them? Would educating them sooner about good environmental practices have helped lessen the blow? It might not be feasible for the business to hold every hand until they cross dire straits, but some investment in helping them transition to a different job or skill set might have been more useful and human. After all, you can not just shut down a house like you would a colliery and that’s essentially what they did.

This is a field riddled with skepticism and imbalance and no clear solution in sight. And no, I don’t have any brilliant suggestions either, but the next time I turn a light switch on, the least I can do is learn to acknowledge the unknown faces who actually made it possible. How about you?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


My favorite natural phenomenon of all time - rain. It is always welcome. It could be because I have mostly lived in a tropical climate. Dark overcast sky, rolling thunder and the scent of rain touching the soil somewhere far (I was thrilled to find that there was actually a word for it : Petrichor) are all wonderful signs of what is to come. Usually nature’s action is not very discernible unless you see it in a time lapse video. But with rain, you can sense its force and energy as it is happening.

Gazing at a downpour is a favorite pastime of mine. Wonder what it is that makes the indoor space shrink and appear cosy when watching a rainfall. Everything in nature that rain touches looks that much more vivid. The foliage and blooms are greener and brighter, the air cooler and cleaner. It evokes a sense of something very nourishing and cleansing.

I find the sound of rain to be very therapeutic and I can wax poetic about it if I had the skills. When my kids were younger, there was a period when their bedtime music was a CD of just the sound of rain. Maybe it is a feeling of gratitude for having a roof over my head but nothing is more calming than going to bed listening to the rain pounding on the roof.

I am lucky that I have never been adversely affected by it. It might have been an inconvenience oh, maybe a few times. And that includes the time when I had to wade through knee-high water (flooded roads during rains were (and are still) common in India) to catch a bus to work. It was still a pleasant experience because I ended up going back home. A day off from work always makes for a pleasant experience in my books :-)  On days when I walked in a torrential downpour without an umbrella or a coat, when everyone else around me was rushing to find shelter, I might have seemed crazy, but it felt very liberating - a surge of joy to realize that there is no barrier between me and the beautiful raindrop from the sky.

I have been living in the northern hemisphere for some time now. It took me some time to understand why people here complained every time it rained. But I am still bemused by poems and phrases were the rain gets a negative connotation. To me, it never lost its magic. I still look forward to seeing those images of little slanted lines from a cloud indicating rain in the forecast. I will have to attribute my attitude towards rain purely to where I come from. Some of the most wonderful memories of my childhood were from monsoon evenings.

We had the wettest season in a long time here last year. Needless to say, it rained incessantly but I never tired of it. So yeah, I think I will be fine living in Cherrapunji :-)  (actually, it is on my list of places to visit before I die). This year though, there has been news of severe drought all across the US ( I hear about failed crops and farmers suffering huge losses, low water table levels, wildfires and effects of drought on livestock and wildlife. So, for the past few weeks, when the rain is playing catch-up with us, I feel like I am living in a blessed place.

Excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s ‘The Summer Rain’
Tell Shakespeare to attend some leisure hour,
For now I've business with this drop of dew,
And see you not, the clouds prepare a shower--
I'll meet him shortly when the sky is blue.

This bed of herd's grass and wild oats was spread
Last year with nicer skill than monarchs use.
A clover tuft is pillow for my head,
And violets quite overtop my shoes.

And now the cordial clouds have shut all in,
And gently swells the wind to say all's well;
The scattered drops are falling fast and thin,
Some in the pool, some in the flower-bell.

I am well drenched upon my bed of oats;
But see that globe come rolling down its stem,
Now like a lonely planet there it floats,
And now it sinks into my garment's hem.

Drip drip the trees for all the country round,
And richness rare distills from every bough;
The wind alone it is makes every sound,
Shaking down crystals on the leaves below.

For shame the sun will never show himself,
Who could not with his beams e'er melt me so;
My dripping locks--they would become an elf,
Who in a beaded coat does gayly go.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Scotophobia....or something like that

Like most people, I have a vivid imagination when it comes to things I am scared of. Fear of darkness is one of them. I wonder what causes this primal fear. Is it the fear of the unknown? Is it a feeling of vulnerability of not being able to see what is in front of you? Or is it an overactive imagination? Does it ever fade away with age? I don’t think so, at least not in my case. It has been the most tenacious of all my fears. If you are wondering what happened to rational thinking, well, I will have to tell you, apart from the fact that I am not very good at it, fear trumps reasoning every single time.

Growing up, we were in the habit of turning on the lights when we walked into a room (when it was dark) and turning them off on our way out. Saving energy was so ingrained in us that it was almost a reflex action. I didn’t mind that at all. The problem was when I had to walk into a dark room, alone. I was terrified.

In the house where I grew up in, there was this huge room at the back that had the outer wall covered almost entirely with windows. And they were left open all the time, night and day. You faced the windows when you walked into the room. The light switch was to the right of the door and you had to twist a bit and look away from the windows to find the switch high up on the wall. I always walked in with my heart racing, staring outside the windows trying to peer through the darkness to see what I can only feel - eyes that stare back at me.  I make a few frantic jumps to reach the switch and finally the room is filled with light. But now that I am very visible to whoever or whatever it is that is lurking outside, I steadfastly avoid looking out the window. Finishing up whatever it is I came to the room for, I leave the room as fast as I possibly can. On my way out, it only takes a second or so to turn the light off, but with my back turned to the windows, those are some of the longest seconds I will ever remember.

In that second or two, my mind conjures up images from stories. Eerie, spooky stories that I eagerly listened to during the day that become invariably baneful at night. These phantom beings that came to life (well, sort of) were out to get me. If nothing else, they were there to scare me silly. They materialized from stories I heard during summer vacations at grandma’s. From after school stories from an aunt who was an avid reader. These were mostly stories of little old ladies and lost forlorn souls, young and old, roaming the village, long after they were dead looking to torment anyone who passes by. And heroic tales of men and women walking home from farms in long lonely roads in the thick of night hounded by an indescribable towering shadow at their heels. The kind of creatures (if you could call it that) in these stories were as varied as the stories themselves. There were ghosts, goblins, zombies, spirits and if it defies description, was simply referred to as ‘that’. Not all of them were mean. Some were decidedly benign. But just the fact that they were not exactly alive (though mostly in human form with extraordinary powers that defy logic) make them less so.

Of course there are the more tangible stories. Alarming stories of burglars looking for easy access. It never occurred to me that if my parents were worried about burglary, they would never have left the windows (you know, at that back room) open at night. But of course, that part of my brain was never turned on and unfortunately, it still kind of remains so.  It is funny how during the light of day, those windows are the most innocuous things around. It is almost magical how they transform into a source of mystery and terror at night.

For whatever reason, normal or abnormal, my imagination runs overtime in every dark space. An aunt once told me that one is scared of the dark when one doesn’t have a clear conscience. I think she may have a point. She is no more. Now I am all the more worried because she is one of the apparitions I ‘almost’ see behind the dark shadow of a door at night ( you see, she used to play a game of ‘light and shadow’ with us a lot :-) and also, I am ashamed to say, I am guilty of throwing tantrums around her).

You know how we are all encouraged to face our fears. So, say I try that for a change. Then what would my plan of action be? What would I do if by some incomprehensible experience, I do indeed see these phantom characters (like something in the lines of ‘I see dead people’)? How do I meet their silent and menacing look of disapproval (I think they know exactly what goes on in my mind, hence that look). Now if only they said something, it would give me a chance to explain. No, wait!......that might lead to bigger trouble. Never mind.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


“The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.”
William Blake

There are very few beliefs that I hold onto that are beyond contention (for me that is). I don’t mind voicing them out, but seldom do. And true to the definition, they have been some of my ‘firmly held opinions’ for quite a number of years.

The rest is pretty much up in the air. It used to be that I didn’t have an opinion on most things. I could afford to turn my nose up at politics, be oblivious to social injustice and tune out everything that didn’t interest me. My involvement in the world around me was so narrow that I might as well have lived in a bubble.  

And then things changed. I found myself in situations where I had to ask, reply, chime in or put forth my opinions. Though expected, it rarely happened. I was mostly quiet. A smile, a nod and a word or two to acknowledge and show total agreement on whatever was being said. Mimicking someone else’s beliefs out of admiration or for want of imagination is not very original, I know. But I didn’t care enough to form my own.

But now, in this era of information, I find it increasingly hard not to have an opinion on almost everything. You can only ignore things for so long. In an ever shrinking world where we are aware of happenings near and far, there is a sense that they will somehow translate its way into our lives. So it is hard to resist the pull - the pull to be informed and in turn to form an opinion.

Except to a select few, I am hesitant to share my opinions and I am especially wary of shouting it over the rooftops (which is what social media feels like to me and ironically, which is what I think I am doing right now).  I am hesitant because I am still working on being open minded enough to listen to opinions that negate mine without getting all worked up about it. Also, there is the fear of alienating people whom I like, who just happen to have opposing views. Then there is the fact that there is no guarantee that I won’t change my mind in the future. I would rather not attract attention to how often I jump ship, lest I seem fickle.

There are times when my opinion varies depending on what time of day it is. It is maddening to not be able to make up my mind, to take a stance, to argue a point. Even if I do, I am not the one to argue when I realize that my opinion does not jive with the majority. On occasion, when I am brave enough to voice it, I worry that my words might seem biased, proselytic, prejudiced, fanatic, dogmatic or plain insubstantial. The minute I am convinced of a view, a faint doubt starts to sprout that maybe there is some truth and merit to the counter point. And midway through my statement, I hear my own words and feel the strength of my conviction withering. I hear contrary arguments forming in my head and then.... I go blank.  

As much as I like harmony, I do enjoy being a spectator of impassioned arguments. I love the energy of the people who can state their opinions with such force that you can’t help but see it their way. When disagreements are challenged, I learn a lot from them. However, I do not have the nerves to be part of it. The art of debating takes many skills (that I don’t possess), like being articulate, thinking on your feet and being able to take criticisms. If any of these skills are missing but you do have an opinion, you will just find yourself angry. If you have all of these skills but no particular opinion, then you will at least have fun arguing for the sake of it.

I think being rigid in one’s opinions stunts the emotional and intellectual growth. We are constantly evolving in our thoughts and actions. So how are we to improve if we are tied down by our perceptions? My approach has changed lately - it feels good to linger, to take the the time to stay on the fence for a while, to allow myself to be swayed by popular opinion, to learn, to think through, to be objective, to do an about-face if need be and eventually to believe what feels right... at that moment. So yes, it takes some time for my opinions to solidify as beliefs. That is not to say that my beliefs are immune to change. They are not. It’s just that it might take a bit longer for the wind to change its course.

Paradoxically, when opinions are strong enough to become beliefs, they have the power to galvanize people to action. They inspire people to take up causes, fight the status quo and bring about change. But when they are opinions, they are mere rhetoric. They are fillers to avoid awkward silences during conversations. Given a chance, they have the potential of becoming much more. But it is a long journey and has to be a mindful one.

Meanwhile, I am learning to ignore the uneasy feeling in my stomach when I hear opinions that contrast my own. If I can’t ignore it and if it is something I feel strongly about, I venture hesitatingly with what I hope is a non-confrontational and a pacifying affix........IMHO.....

Monday, August 6, 2012

A green scarf

Thank you my friend (you know who you are) for inspiring me to write this post.

Years ago, when I went to India on vacation, I shopped for silk scarves, to give as gifts to friends here in the US. I had bought quite a few of them, and over the years they had come in handy as a last minute gift when there was no time to get anything else. The scarves were about 3.5ft x 3.5ft square, soft, colourful piece of silk cloth with paisley patterns printed all over except for about a two inch plain border. They were all handmade and were in different colours  - red, green, turquoise blue, brown , orange, black...They were intended as thank you gifts, birthday gifts and christmas gifts. Last year, the stash of scarves dwindled to just a couple. All that was left was an emerald green one with black patterns and a mustard yellow one with red patterns.

One night, I was in a pinch to find a gift wrap for a couple of books I got for a friend, for her bridal shower the next day. Out of some rare creative flare, I used the emerald green scarf to wrap the books. I placed the books in the middle of the scarf and tied the opposite ends together. It looked pretty and stood out among the table of gifts at the party the next day. My friend loved the scarf very much and I was happy. She thought it was a neat idea to have used it as a gift wrap. I felt proud.

A few weeks later I was thrilled when my friend told me that she was going to wear the green scarf with an off-white suit for her wedding. When I saw the pictures of the event later, I thought she looked beautiful and noticed the green scarf wrapped around her neck. I felt wonderful that something I had given her was part of her special day.

She was a special friend to me. She was also my mentor at work. She was intelligent, kind, generous and compassionate with a wonderful sense of humour. Everything interested her. There was nothing that I couldn’t talk to her about. From arts to computer programming, to books, movies, gardening, cooking, education, travelling, philosophy, cultures, nature, health, name it. Whatever she did, she did with all her focus and energy. Her integrity, character and attitude amazed and inspired me. She lived life with zest despite her troubles and burdens. And yes, those, she had plenty of. She took them all in stride. When things got overwhelming and stressful, she never moped around. She was a doer. As the seemingly insurmountable odds piled up against her, she trudged on with determination and more importantly, she did it with a smile on her face. She wanted no pity. I am sure she had her moments when the going got rough, but she fought hard, never let on and appreciated every moment she had.

I can only aspire to be like her - to be genuine, in words and deeds. To care for nature, the way she did. To work hard, to live well, to love, laugh and live life as it comes. I can’t think of anyone in my life who was such a wonderful example to live by. Five months ago, the prognosis turned bad. She didn’t have much time. I wanted to tell her how special she was to me, but couldn’t. I was afraid that I would get emotional and didn’t want to make it harder for her than it already was. And it would also imply that I was giving up hope. Days wore on and our hopes were in a state of flux. Then it was final, time was indeed running out and we had to say our goodbyes. I grabbed the last opportunity I had to see her.

When I visited, she looked tired but peaceful. When nudged and prodded by another friend to say what I felt, I managed to mumble incoherent words through much tears about how much she meant to me. Her eyes closed, she softly said ‘You meant a lot to me too’. I clung to every word. My hope that I was able to give back even a little of the immensely beautiful moments I received from her friendship was some consolation.

The next few days were rough. Every thing reminded me of her. Every conversation eventually turned around to her. When she lay in state, I went to see her one last time. I saw it then. It stood out amid the off-white suit she was wearing. There it was - the green scarf, wrapped around her neck. I didn’t know what I felt - sadness at where the scarf had landed when it had been intended purely for a happy occasion or a feeling of connection that a rare thought of mine made it on her form as she bade farewell.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


Water, wondrous water
Crashing down with sheer force.
Exhilarating and humbling
Powerful and beautiful to behold.

The thunderous noise
drowning out my thoughts,

fears and sorrows
I am all present 
Alive in the moment.

Unwilling to leave the sight
Wanting to hear the roar forever
I gather it all
To touch it, hear it, feel it
All in my mind's eye again.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Murphy's Law

Every time we are on a long road trip, I have this perpetual fear of the car breaking down, stranding us somewhere before we reach our destination. It doesn't matter that we have a brand new car or that the brand and the model are reliable and have great performance reviews. It is especially hard to quell the fear of not making it to the airport on time. I have to fight the urge to be there hours ahead than is reasonably required. I conjure up every possible thing that could go wrong before we reach the airport and then worry about something happening that I hadn’t thought of or expected. I know it is irrational and I think it stems from incidents that occurred during my childhood while traveling in India in my dad's car. It didn’t happen every single time and there never was a time when we didn’t make it to our destination. But it has happened enough times to leave its mark :-)

Ok here is the flashback....Our journey always starts the same way and at mostly the same time - before sunrise. My dad is great at keeping everything on schedule for our road trips. We wake up in the wee hours of the morning, get ready, pack the car and leave when it is still dark outside. The intention is to beat the busy morning traffic and reach our destination on or before time. Dad is a great driver. He minds the traffic rules and still makes good time.

As soon as we leave the neighbourhood, dad (or sometimes mom) turns the religious music on - for an auspicious start and a smooth journey. I, on the other hand, would have loved to hear some upbeat, popular movie songs to get me out of the grogginess and enjoy the ride. But I have to listen through at least one entire side of the cassette tape (remember those?)  of these uninspiring (or so it seemed) songs. We (my sister and I) were reprimanded even if we merely suggest that we skip the incantations and move onto the fun stuff.

I love watching the stars sparkling in the light of dawn and then fading away as the sun inches up. The morning rays through the car window already feel strong and bright. And I can feel the heat of the day starting to rise with it. One of my favorite times of the day to be on the road has just ended. We are now listening to enjoyable music and I am happily taking in the scenery outside from within the comfort of the car. Despite the seemingly tranquil atmosphere in the car, I cannot help but feel the worry lurking right below the surface. A feeling that something is going to go wrong.  

Every kilometer without incident, we are that much more closer to our destination. Sometimes we would pack our breakfast from home and have a picnic at the roadside. We eat our breakfast in, out or around the car. Dad always picks a quiet spot, under the shade of a huge banyan tree or a tamarind tree. It feels good to see the highway stretching far ahead lined on either side by these grand old trees. There is a sense of peace and quiet except for some occasional vehicle whizzing by. On occasion, we would stop at a restaurant for breakfast instead and though it cuts down on our journey time, I look forward to the experience of enjoying some greasy food even if it aggravates my terrible motion sickness.

After all of us are satiated and energised, we start back again. And then it happens! Just when I am lulled by the food, music and the steady sound of the tires gliding on the road. When I am least expecting it. In a nice highway boulevard usually where there are no vendors peddling their wares and no shops but just an occasional motorist passing by. We hear a strange noise from the car or dad feels something strange about the car and he stops to check it out. It's either a flat tyre, an alternator problem, a fan belt rupture, an engine problem or something that I have no clue about. All our excitement of being on the road comes crashing down. Dad has to somehow find a way to either fix the car and get us back on the road or find an alternative to get us to our destination if the car can't be repaired fast enough. He either walks to the nearest town or stops someone passing by in a two-wheeler so he could hitch a ride and find a mechanic close by. During these times, I have never ever seen dad lose his patience or let out his frustration on us. He met our impatience with reassuring words - that gene must have become dormant in me. With me impatience begets impatience :-)

We wait till the car is fixed, usually inside the car itself while the hunt for the part is on.  Sometimes it would be over in a short while, like a flat tyre that my dad would take care of by himself, but other times we would have to wait longer. I wonder now how we passed our time. I don’t remember much about it. We didn’t bring any books along, didn’t have any music or gaming devices. Maybe we just talked, observed and talked some more.

Once the car is fixed, we would all quietly get back in and continue on our journey. Hoping that our car would take us through the rest of the journey without incident. We wouldn't have the music on in case we get distracted and miss any telltale noise of a breakdown, if it happens again. We are finally closer to our destination, either a hotel to stay for the night or thankfully, our final stop. It is with such relief that I realize that we will make it to the destination, after all.

Now, when we visit our parents and when my dad takes us on a trip, it is an uneventful journey - no car trouble, no delays. But I can’t seem to shake the anxiety of being stuck, somewhere remote.. far from any help....unable to make it to our destination.....

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Morning view

Waking up early is never hard when I am on vacation. So I am up at 5 and wait for the dawn to break so there will be enough daylight for the morning run. The path is a paved road about 6 feet wide and narrows down about halfway through and stretches for over 4 kms. It winds between acres and acres of farmland and ends at the base of a mountain. The terrain is uneven and the gradients feel higher than what I am used to. Or maybe it is the humidity that makes it seem harder or maybe it is all that food I have been gorging on for the past few days :-)

Before leaving for my vacation, this is the exact visual I had in mind (helped by my past visits) when I decided to sign up for the first 5k of my life. A perfect setting for a beginner runner - on vacation and with no stress of a work day. No morning rush, someone else taking care of the cooking and the cleaning and the best part, training to run right in the middle of nature. Perfect! Can’t get any better! At the beginning, I run in fits and starts but get better surprisingly quickly. The cool morning air helps keep my exhaustion level in check and I can run longer without stopping for a break. Every 50 yards or so, I try to spot something that stands out and set that as a marker, mentally, so I can run just a bit longer to reach that mark before I take a breather. Anything would suffice for a marker - a farmhouse, a lamp post, a bunch of potholes, a bend, a farm gate, anything. Anything to keep my gaze ahead and to keep running. I don’t listen to music during my run, not out of choice entirely. So I observe the surroundings and take in the sights, sounds and the smells.

All around me and in different stages of growth are the sugarcane fields, mangroves, coconut groves, vegetable crops, banana groves and corn fields. And something new I noticed this time, a brick kiln. There is a bustle of activity in some of the farms - a crop harvest, irrigation or preparation for the next round of cultivation. But most of the farms are quiet this time of day, when the vegetation is left alone, to do its part.

I pass a few people who are actually heading back from their morning walk just as I am starting out. I also pass people who are on their way to work (in the farms). But walking to work seems to be a rarity nowadays. People prefer to commute faster and so use mass transportation. They go packed in autorickshaws, motorbikes, tractors and vans with music blaring. Maybe all that noise helps them wake up. Some still go the old-fashioned way and are riding on bullock carts and bicycles. For the first kilometre or so, I have to move aside and give way for the vehicles on the road. Thankfully as I go further along, I hardly come across any. Some passers by cast a curious glance, some stare, some stop and say hello and inquire as to who I am. Once, I even got a suggestion from a stranger on how to walk effectively without resorting to running and getting all out of breath. I nod and agree with a polite smile. I try to follow the advice about the walking, but I certainly didn’t stop running :-)

I notice other sentient beings around - turkeys, chickens, goats, dogs and cows. Every time I pass a farmhouse with the turkeys wandering about, they seem agitated and aggressive. I see them rush and peck at the chickens with their feathers all spread out. They seem like such bullies and they scare me so. A couple of times, I stop and move around them making a wide arch just to increase the distance between myself and them and to avoid eye-contact :-) I wonder who is more scared - them or me. And then there are the dogs, plenty of them. The minute I see one, I freeze. They bark at me and in the quiet of the morning, their barks make me feel like an intruder. After the first few days though, I get bold enough to shoo them off. They halt, look at me, then just turn around and get back to the farm. Or they would just get off the path and into the farm even as they see me approaching. Maybe they are getting used to seeing me or maybe I don’t seem all that menacing anymore.

Further down the path, I take in the scenery without being distracted by the people, the animals or the traffic. The fields are framed all around by mountains. When the sunshine hits the ranges, the mountains have a beautiful orange-brown glow to them. On most days though, it is cloudy and the mountains have a grayish-blue hue with patches of green all over and these turn into tall trees as I get closer.

I am also acutely aware of the smells around me. A few of them are strong and offensive, like the vehicle exhaust. But some are earthy and fragrant even, like the smell of sugarcane, wet soil, sugarcane juice, smoke from burnt sugarcane stalks, almost ripe bananas and mangoes. Although, I have to tell you, I still haven’t made up my mind about one of them - I can smell it about 100 yards ahead. It is a big mound of organic fertilizer (a nice way of saying manure), by the edge of a banana plantation. I am glad that it is not a big mound of bags of chemical fertilizer, but I still try to hold my breath until I am way past it.

I am constantly glancing down the road so as to avoid taking a tumble over the obstacles strewn all over the path - dead coconut branches, coconut shells, sugarcane husks, potholes and puddles of water. And of course, I can't help scanning the ground for snakes and other unseen-but-never-the-less-existing crawlies. My suspicion gets a firm hold when I hear the sound of something scurrying between the tall sugarcane stalks. Now my ears are all perked up.

It gets much quieter except for the sound of birds. I don’t see them as much as I hear them - crows, ravens, mynahs, cuckoos, peacocks and other colorful birds that I don't know the names of. Once a while, I hear cowbells, a distant motor pumping water from the farm well, dogs barking, insects chirping, loud chatter of people working in fields afar and water gushing from irrigation pipes (another of those things that are a rare sight, signifying changing times, but this time for the better. It’s giving way to drip-irrigation - a popular and effective system for water conservation). But for these sounds, it is just the scrunch-scrunch of my shoes on the gravel and the sound of my breath. I wish I could capture the stillness, the wonderful sounds of nature and a sense of quietude that arises from such an idyllic setting. It is so easy to forget that I am just a few miles from the madness of traffic and the hustle of a busy town.

Just past the last coconut grove is a jackfruit tree. I see some ponies tethered to it, grazing. It is the end of the trail and there is no other option but to either climb up the mountain or to turn around. For now, I turn around. It feels good to have reached the end of the trail and the feeling of accomplishment spurs me on to run longer on my way back.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Book Review

A time to keep silence - by Patrick Leigh Fermor 

It is a book about the observations of travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor of monastic life during his brief sojourn in 4 different monasteries. Three of the monasteries are in France and the last one is in Turkey. The first 2 are Benedictine - St.Wandrille & Solesmus, the third is a Trappist monastery - La Grande Trappe and the last one is in Cappadocia.

The introduction by Karen Armstrong sets the stage for being open minded about religious traditions and the common pursuit of spirituality across religions.

The author’s description of the landscape, architecture, the history of the monastery, the monks and their philosophy is erudite. There is a lot of theology covered in such a short book.

It was difficult to read some of the conversations the author had with the monks as they were in French and I don’t know the language. Also, it took a lot of effort to follow some of the theosophical history narrated in the book. A lot of historical names were unfamiliar to me. I could only recognize a few names of canonical Saints and political figures. It helped to look up some of them in Wikipedia.

Of all the monasteries, St.Wandrille was the most appealing to me. I could easily picture myself there. Their peaceful quietude, benevolence and self-sufficiency is every one's quest - within or without the monastic walls. I am as baffled by the Trappist monastery as the author in trying to understand the reasoning behind the following of this branch of the Rule of St.Benedict. Though I can attempt to understand their vow of silence, their physical austerity is too exacting and to me incomprehensible. The Cappadocian monasteries, though not inhabited, are a must see place in my mind, if not for the amazing architecture by the earliest monks in Christendom, then at least for the surreal landscape and the cave paintings that transport one to a different epoch.