Friday, April 29, 2016

Gazing at the Stars

We are all looking at the stars,
And some are content just with looking.

For it's easier to look than to dream
It's easier to dream than to act

It's easier to stop than to struggle
It's easier to flow than to resist

It's easier to drown than to survive.
But why should one settle for easy?

We are all but dreaming of the stars
A few are content just with dreaming-

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Wasp behind the glass

There was a wasp at the kitchen window one day. (Not the usual golden kind of wasp, this was smaller and sort of greenish. Perhaps it wasn't a wasp, but it did remind me of one.) It was stuck at the mosquito net, unable to go out. Must have come in through one of the open doors. I wasn't particularly keen on electrocuting a wasp with a Hunter racquet (and paying the price) so I gently opened the corner of the mosquito net and tried to coax it outside. Wasps are more difficult to convince than say, mosquitoes or flies. The reason being the obvious bite factor  - the wasp may not quite understand that my intentions are honourable, and it may decide to take the offensive.

One pane of the kitchen window was open and the other closed. As luck would have it, the corner of the net that I had pulled aside was at the closed pane. In my defence, that was the closer corner to the wasp. Somehow I urged the wasp to make its way out of the gaping hole. You should have seen it. It was like a little child being dragged to school. It reluctantly, hesitantly made its way to the other side only to encounter the closed glass pane. It looked lost at the new obstacle.

Then it began to explore the new shiny, slithery surface. One could tell that it was by no means comfortable. It crawled up and down, left and right. The open window, the path to liberty, was a few inches to its left. I waited. There must have been a slight breeze blowing. I hoped it would take the hint and go looking for whence the wind blew. Escape was just an arm's length away. Minutes passed. The wasp kept searching. I began to panic. You're free, I thought, but you think you are still imprisoned. You think I sent you to a harsher jail whereas my intention was to set you free. You aren't seeing broadly enough. Your vision is limited. Look around, look around. The door is wide open. Can you not see the blue, blue sky and the trees and the miles and miles of open space?

It came close to the edge - I held my breath - and it went back. Did it not see the open window? Why did it go back to the slithery glass pane?

The truth (or my version of it) began to dawn on me. What if it doesn't want to go out? Maybe it's weary of the world around it. Maybe flying isn't all that it is cracked up to be. Maybe gliding up and down the glass was fun enough. Maybe it had decided to live in my house, spending its days exploring the mosquito net or the glass pane. Why should it go out and get caught in the wind, trapped by the leaves or lost in the vastness of the sky? What did a lifetime of trying give it, any way?

I went away, perplexed; unable to decide whether the wasp was so short-sighted as to not see freedom one step away, or if it deliberately chose to stay behind the glass despite everything. Much much later, I returned and found it gone.

But it is a fact that the next day, I found a wasp (absolutely no way of knowing if it is the same) behind the glass at the very same position, calmly gliding up and down. Did it get lost again, or had it returned to its retreat for a sniff of peace? I guess I would never know. I like to think it was the latter.

Because, sometimes - not always - I like that too. To peek at the world from behind the barrier through a pane of indifference; to admire the sky and the moving clouds, the rustling leaves, the cars and people, but not to wade in any of it. As though none of it belonged to me. Nor I to them. On those days, I would rather be safe behind the wall of glass than to expose myself to the fury of life. And when it is time to come out from hiding, to face reality, there would still be the memory of the glass pane to keep me from breaking to pieces.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Vishu

There is a Santa Clausian presence to my memories related to Vishu. Most of our summer holidays long, long ago were spent with grandparents. We would be woken up at four or five in the morning, and we would be walked with our eyes closed to the hall.

When I open my eyes, I would see the hall transformed. I was supposed to be looking at the Gods and the kani, but in reality I would be wondering, where have all those framed family pictures gone, which used to hang from the wall? Where did these Gods come from? And all these vegetables and konnappoo and the assortment? Who did all this during the night? (If I had known about elves I would have given them the credit.) For a long time I thought there was some kind of magic behind this transformation until it began to sink in that the magician was my own grandfather. I suppose I believed that my parents and grandparents also woke up and found the Vishukkani ready.

So after the kani kaanal was over and we got our kaineettam (beginning at twenty paisa or twenty-five paisa) from the elders, we would quickly go back to where we came from - our beds. No point in wasting more sleep. The coins and notes would be scattered on the bed when we woke up. The next step was to pick them up and compare.

I used to see the same wonder in my son's eyes when he was still tiny enough to think that there was something quite miraculous behind the brightly-lit lamps and the pictures that made their appearance on Vishu morning. Now, at ten, he is a grown up. He asks me if he can help me arrange the kani. Then he thinks for a while and says, "Or maybe not. You arrange it. So it will be a surprise for me."

The transition from the world of magic to a world entirely without, and the clinging to the old memories of wonder.


Read: Vishu then and now

Friday, March 18, 2016

Bravery

I had not realised until recently that bravery is not an absolute truth. It is a perception.

I suppose we all figure it out in our own ways in our own time, but it never struck home to me in all its clarity until now. It is somewhat similar to physical beauty. Beauty is not absolute. A person is considered 'beautiful' when some basic guidelines and expectations are satisfied. The impression varies from person to person, and even changes with the viewer's developing mind. A picture you consider beautiful today may not appear so gorgeous five or ten years later.

Bravery is not a fact. It is not set in stone. It is an idea that comes out of a person's actions. It satisfies some predefined principles. A brave person does not go around the world calling himself brave. (Then he becomes something else!) It is his actions that make him appear brave to us. On the other hand, if he goes around the world repeating, "I am not afraid," then yes, the world does conclude that there is something to him.

Being afraid is not the opposite of being brave. Fear is a very human aspect. Everyone has it. Time and again, I have heard people say "He is not brave. He is afraid." The speaker even seems to gather some satisfaction from that statement. Of course 'he' will be afraid. Because it is human to be afraid. The only difference is how we go forward, despite being afraid. How others see us going forward with that fear. Bravery is just a label, like many other things.

Bravery is about how well you conceal your fear and display courage. You are quivering inside, but you put up a 'brave face'. (If your tell-tale fingers tremble, you are done for.) You keep the terror from appearing on your face, from your eyes. Everyone else calls you brave. If you confess that you are afraid, they call you weak. Afraid. Not brave. If you confess you are afraid, but smile and laugh when you say it, they call you courageous. But don't overdo it. The difference is subtle.

I said, "they call you". Because that is what bravery is. - How your actions are seen by the eyes of the world around you. God did not write on the wall that "this woman is brave" or "that man is a coward" for us to see. We made that up. From what we see. From what it appears to us.

A lady told me she was afraid of what was coming. Why did this happen to me? she repeated. Her face was drawn and tired. She was sad and miserable. She began to withdraw. Nevertheless she took each day as it came; some were rewarding, some were punishing. She cried, she smiled, she talked, she sighed, she got angry, she swung from this extreme to that. She didn't run away - but only because there was no way to run. There was only one path - forward. I do not know if she is brave or not. One day, someone told me in confidence that this lady "was afraid, she was not as brave as..." This judgement came just because she had admitted that she was terrified and she did not put up a show of defiance or bravery.

There was another person, who had a rather terrible fate. He chuckled even when speaking about his situation. I thought he was handling it rather well, considering that his life had just turned upside down. Days later, his son tells me, "Father is not as brave as he pretends to be." No one is! I wanted to say. It is the pretension that helped him get over every single minute of his never-ending misery. It was his way of telling himself and others that he wasn't beaten yet. Probably he just hated the show of sympathy from us. Is that courage, or is it a weakness? Anyone in that state would be horrified, because there was no revoking that fate. It had happened. Life, however unbearable it had become, had to go on. The best he could do, despite everything, was to appear cheerful in front of others. And he did. Was he brave? I do not know. People who saw him smile said he was. His son, who saw his lonely, gloomy interior, said he wasn't.

Think of a person you consider brave. What makes you think she is? Her actions? Her reaction to a situation? Is she "really" brave, or just good at handling her fear? What's the difference? Aren't they two sides of the same old coin? How do we define bravery then?

Everyone is brave. Everyone is afraid. Everyone does some or other act of cowardice, and some or other act of courage.

There is courage in putting up a bold face. There is courage in silence. There is courage in weeping. There is courage in losing control. But the only bravery we see and accept is the one that is well-contained.

Sadly, what is perceived is what lasts. You need not be brave. You only have to appear to be. And only if you care about what the world labels you.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Women's Day message from history

I don't think any adult could have put it as well as this fifteen-year old did. From the Diary of Anne Frank, dated 13 June, 1944. (Please click on the images to enlarge)



Thursday, February 25, 2016

Limited Time

When you know you have limited time-
I am not saying
Your time is limited (which it always is)
But that you have limited time
(which is slightly different)-
You see each day as new...

Suddenly it begins to make sense;
Each full moon-
How many of those will we get to see here?
How many more monsoons?
How many more sunrises and sunsets?
How many more times
would we get to complain
Of the hardships and the struggles?

The conveniences, the comforts
Spring to view, brilliantly.
Today is not the end, but
The countdown has begun.
The ground we had been standing on
The once-firm, rock-still, earth
Is giving way beneath our feet.

Things may never get better
We might as well get used to the "new" normal.
Lest some miracle should happen.
But miracles are shy; they don't
easily come to us.
We must go looking for them,
Dig the ground and drag them out
Scour the skies and dive into the ocean.
Then we call them fruits of labour.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Badges

There were these three badges when I was in fourth standard (which un/fortunately I never had to wear) - each a different colour, for first rank, second rank and third rank. I suppose one was green, another red and the third orange or yellow. My memory fails me, I just recall that they were colourful and attractive and jealousy-invoking. After every term exam, when the results come out, the badges were given to the first three rank holders, and they got to wear it on their shirt. Proudly.

I remember the first and second rank holders, they were always the same people, just that they kept exchanging their badges every term. But the third rank holder's name or face evades me.

A few days ago, my son came home with a badge, his face brimming with pride (but struggling not to show). It was the badge of the school "Safety Marshal" - the children who were responsible to maintain the "safety" of others at school. Whatever that may be, his badge reminded me how much I had longed for one of those three rank badges, but how I never got any close.

Anyway, during my son's PTM, the teacher did not seem very concerned about his grades and I quickly asked if they were okay, and she said "Yes, Yes, he has good grades for most of the subjects; he is doing well." Funny how the focus has shifted so far away from red, green and yellow. It's good of course, no pressure on the kids, and no pressure on the parents, but then I began to wonder if things would come full circle again and one day the teachers would find out that the students have lost their competitive spirit and it would be good to give them some boost with red or green badges. I must insert here that except for a little envy for those girls wearing badges, no amount of competitive spirit was awakened in me when I was ten.

I do not know what happens in my son's school, what he thinks, what he feels, and he sure has no inkling of how I survived mine. That's the best thing about the generation gap. We don't understand each other and we get to explore everything new. One day someone would come up and say, Look, I think we should give colourful badges (or whatever is the latest fad) to children who perform best in class, so that the others can aspire to be like them. Besides, it is good to encourage the hardworking, talented lot. Now we ignore the performers, say that everyone who participated is a winner, and so those who actually have done outstandingly well will get demotivated and think, "Why should I do it? I am considered the same as that kid who knows nothing." Wow, what an idea. That would so motivate them to perform. Let's bring in the badges.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Auto ride

There was no obvious reason why I wanted to go out like that – without bothering to change my dress, without halting a moment to see if I was leaving everything all right behind me, without telling anyone. No looking for the child, no locking the door, nothing.

The auto came, and I just left grabbing the tiny purse. I glanced at my kurta, it was faded and old. It would have bothered me once, but did not today.

I muttered something to the driver. He was an old man with tired eyes, the face I have seen before in the stories I wrote. He had the same towel thrown across his shoulders, and he wiped sweat from his face with it and covered his mouth with it when he coughed. Just as I had written.

My mobile beeped and I noticed that the battery was running low. I wondered how much longer it would beep, how long it had been beeping. Not much longer, I thought. The beep connected the real world with the unreal.

I swayed when the auto turned to the left and went down the slope. The slope from twenty years ago. The old buildings and discoloured walls. But I did not look up from my phone. 

When I did, I said good-naturedly, “Oh, this is not where I wanted to go.” Good-naturedly was important because I did not want to upset him. But his reply was grumpy, a snort of complaint that I did not tell him when he made the turn off the road.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I wasn’t looking.” I smiled and spoke in a friendly way, hoping to ease his annoyance. He paid no heed. He was doing a job, he would have to go home and take rest after it was done. A long rest.

He turned the auto around. I glimpsed his face, tired and drawn and haggard, all words that mean pretty much the same but appearing different on the lines of his face. With perhaps a touch of boredom on it as well. It was not as though he loved driving an auto or it had been his ambition in life.

We climbed back up the slope and went on our way. It was not raining at the moment but it had been. Both sides of the road were submerged. We were on a path across the river. There could be no road for all I cared. The mobile continued to beep. Something like a boat appeared in the distance on the water. This monsoon was severe than usual. How could monsoon be severe? Summer is severe, not monsoon. Harsh, perhaps. But the water was real, or as real as in a meaningless dream.

A little ahead, I panicked and wanted to get out of the auto. I wondered what I was doing. I was a mess. I think I bent double and clutched my stomach and retched. There was no one anywhere so I did not try to hold it in. Nothing came out but retching sounds.

I straightened. The confusion had not cleared, but the water was gone. A bus came towards where I was standing. When it came very close, I realised that it had been approaching in reverse. I waited, unmoving, uncaring, wondering if it would reverse far enough to throw me down. It stopped a little away from me and a girl stepped out. She was wearing very colourful clothes as though she had been at a performance. Dance or something. Too colourful though not fluorescent, but loud and full of flowery designs. She swirled and twisted as though she was still dancing.

The auto driver sat there smoking, paying no attention to anything. He was within himself, lost long ago and never revived. He had drowned and survived, he had lived and died, his outside was now inside. As I looked at him, I saw the water of the monsoon behind him.

“Let’s go home,” I said.