Saturday, October 03, 2015

Travelling Thoughts

We always seem to feel a license to suspend the everyday disciplines when we're on vacation.

I always wonder what that context would be where I am truly myself. Would I get up and dance, or run through the streets in my pajamas or lie on the beach...or simply sleep through the day?

Why is it that I contain myself inside the bottled expectations of what we call "normal life"? I often feel I need to express myself in anticipated ways, to stay "true to [a] form" drawn by others (not without my own collusion of course). I find it hard to break free of that. And no one else to blame but myself.

But there are also things you encounter in yourself on a consistent basis, those things that might be the "true form". Like the fact that one of my "essences" is housekeeper. I find myself tidying surfaces, putting things away, folding clothes, making neat piles of get the matter where I am.

It is so easy to be away from the structure of one's everyday. The job, the family, the house, the routine--the scaffolding that holds one's life. We tell ourselves that routine is what sustains us but one has to wonder whether the only agency we will/can ever feel is that which comes from controlling or sustaining that routine.

The pockets of time that we discover in the lost spaces of our routines suddenly present themselves to us as opportunities for discovery--of the world-as-yet-undefined and of ourselves-as-yet-unrealised.

Without the maps of the "have-to" and "ought-to" and "plan-to", we are lost, and so lose the chance to break free from that scaffolding and find ourselves in the world.

Perhaps this is why we prefer the conducted tour, the Blue Planet led holidays, the organized vacation. Where the postcards we send are never from the edge of discovery, but from the centre of expected experience.

A friend told me a quaint story about a neighbour in San Diego, California (where it's mostly beautiful weather and there's plenty of sun and sand and palm trees) who went to holiday in Florida (same difference) and posted on Facebook pictures of sun and sand and palm trees, with the comment "In Paradise!" My friend quipped: "It looked a lot like home."

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Reality intrudes

Holidays are meant to be happy. They are times for celebration and deliberate forgetfulness--of routine, of duty, of cares. They are about getting away from the despair that stares at us everyday from the pages of a newspaper and the big problems of the world: climate change, the care of the elderly, poverty and the arms trade, among many others. Some destinations might offer a true "getaway" but many of the more interesting places in the world are fascinating places just because they do not shut the world out, they draw it in.

So here I was, in Istanbul, one of the more favoured destinations for travellers and tourists alike. Its syncretic culture, the links with a past that connects to so many strands of history, and the beauty of its mosque-lined riverfront make it a continuous journey of discovery. Not to mention the great food and the beautiful people.

This was my second visit to the city, made more special because I was sharing it with my daughter.

But something was different this time around. The difference was Syria.

The heartrending image of Aylaan Kurdi and every other fleeing Syrian mother, father, child and grandparent that we have encountered on our small screens speaks to us again and again of the huge tragedy that is modern warfare over resources, identity and means of livelihood. But because of the exigencies of daily life, we sigh, we shed an inward tear, we take note of our passing heartbreak, and we move on to manage our present. There's not much that most of us can do except stay aware and stay sensitive and donate a bit when there's a chance--and of course stay on top the micro-causes that we have control over.

But once in a while the stories jump off the page of the paper or screen and enter your own everyday space. You come face to face with the people making the news, the nameless thousands who are experiencing the tragedy of displacement and disenfranchisement, those who are rendered homeless by the circumstances of a war not of their making.

On the streets of Istanbul, the fallout of the Syrian tragedy stares you in the face. Mothers and children foraging for food, little boys hanging on to the sides of pedestrian walkways and begging, clumps of people of all ages huddled in public parks. You're warned by tourist guides to "watch out" for the refugees, to avoid the darker side streets where they may be seeking shelter.

Syria has been more than a news story to us in my University department as well. One of our second year MA students is from Syria. Her parents are among the many who have stayed in the country despite the difficult conditions. Her brother has been missing for close to three years, and as conditions worsen, her parents refuse to leave, holding on to the hope that their son might return. Life is hard, and precarious, with militant groups barging into the house and taking things with impunity, acting like looting marauders. Still, they will not leave, and back in India, many miles away, their daughter suffers silently, wondering what the next day's news will bring. Her continuous yet very understated, heartbreaking anxiety filters out to us in some measure, and we are reminded of the huge human tragedies, the very personal stories of loss that are the real measure of conflict.

We in India are used to scenes of deprivation and displacement, and of loss created by conflict of all kinds. We may respond (or not) to it in different ways, but it is impossible to ignore and to not be affected to some degree, even if we don't actively think about the reasons for poverty, war and the everyday violence of hunger and homelessness. Sometimes, we're shaken out of our habitual apathy by the scale of tragedy, such as the Nepal earthquake or the floods in Assam, or the riots in Muzaffarnagar, and we write a cheque or parcel a box of clothes and blankets.

But in Istanbul it felt different. As it feels different when I walk into the office and see this young woman looking at her phone or lost in thought between the busy-ness of classes.

In Istanbul, maybe it was the contrast between what I thought I should be feeling (the sense of a holiday) and what I was forced to confront. Maybe it was the sharp awareness of the privilege of travel as opposed to the punishment of fleeing home. Maybe it was the hollow hopelessness on the face above the outstretched arm of the big-eyed boy, or the tired calling of the mother who simply sat on the street as her toddler ambled around, and tourists dodged them on their way from one sight to the next.

Maybe this is how tourists feel when they visit my country?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The art of losing

Still Alice (2014) Poster   
In a pivotal moment in the film Still Alice, the protagonist, a professor of linguistics (played by Julianne Moore), desperately searches through her mind for the word "lexicon", and not finding it, deftly substitutes it with "wordstock." We're all familiar with that sense of not getting the right word at the right time, and most of us don't have the vocabulary (or presence of mind) for such a quick replacement act. I had a similar "elder" moment a few weeks ago when the word "traverse" escaped me completely, and made its way back into my head almost a full week later, when I least expected it.
In the case of Alice, losing words was a sign of early onset Alzheimer's, but in most cases it is just normal (or chronic) forgetfulness brought on by having too many things in one's head. I often complain to friends that I feel like my mind is a basket full of unnecessary shopping while in my hand is a list with less than one-tenth of the items checked off! Losing track of appointments, forgetting where things have been put, mis-remembering people's names, forgetting birthdays, anniversaries, addresses and phone numbers...the list goes on. And then of course there are all the things I have lost, including money (and I don't even gamble).

So chronic forgetfulness it is.  

I decided to take stock of all the things I have lost. At least three purses, full of money, in quick succession (the joke in the office used to be that lightning never strikes four times), books (some have walked off my shelves in friend's hands in the guise of borrowing), jewellery, particularly earrings (I am left with many without a pair), cellphones (my upgrades are forced upon me by loss)... you get the picture.

But there are different kinds of loss and different levels of intensity of loss. These are all just things, after all, and the regret they bring about is usually fleeting, a pang of material absence that is quickly resolved. I pack away with a little more care the memories these things hold and console myself that it was really the memory that I treasured, not the thing, and get on with my life.

And then there is the other, deeper kind of loss, that we can neither avoid nor prepare for. The loss of people from our lives. We all have our share of that kind of loss, some, tragically, earlier than others. That's a loss that has no compensation other than, again, memory. And perhaps we should not think of it as loss, because we are left with something because those people were part of our lives, something that would not be there if not for the person who left us with those memories. As one of my friends so beautifully put it, "much of life is lived in absences". But the physical absence counts for a kind of presence, one that is often much more keenly felt that the touch of a hand or the pressure of a shoulder against yours.

So maybe the real wisdom about losing (and much else) is to be found in the words of an old Simon & Garfunkel song: "preserve your memories, they're all that's left you."

  And when, like Alice, one doesn't even have those--maybe that is  when we are truly defeated.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

When dog bites person (or the confessions of an ambivalent dog sympathizer)

This morning I set off on my usual morning walk, at the quiet and beautifully cloudy hour of 6 a.m. and took my usual route, along a street I have walked on many times before, at different times of the day. Listening to one of my favourite podcast series, I must have had a silly smile on my face as I walked past a tight group of three dogs sitting (in what seemed to be a peaceable manner) in just off the road in a space that would have normally counted as a sidewalk. Quite mindful of the proverbial advice to let sleeping dogs lie I made sure to give them a wide berth as I walked past, thinking to myself that the large white female in the middle looked like she was happily pregnant. All of a sudden, the female dog began barking loudly and rushed at me, and before I knew what was happening, she clamped her jaw on my shin even as one of her two companions ran ahead barking and lunging at me from the front. I managed to shake her off and walk away quickly and fortunately they hung back, continuing to bark but not pursuing me beyond a couple of yards.

I don't make any claim to bravery, but I found myself strangely calm, even unperturbed by the whole event. I checked my leg and found that she had indeed drawn blood, and there were clear teeth marks apart from one long tear in the skin. But I went ahead and completed my usual 45 minute circuit while continuing to listen to my podcast (which, incidentally, was about Killer Robots!) and possibly continuing, to smile foolishly (a matter of perspective of course) from time to time at the anchor's macabre humour.

The dogs were clearly being territorial, and felt threatened possibly because I looked at them (perhaps had not encountered a benevolent gaze and so interpreted all human looks as malicious). I had learned in the past year from a friend and colleague, ardent animal rights activist and dog lover, about the politics of dog life on the street and the complex dynamics of the human-animal interaction (better termed as conflict). I had found that my attitude to dogs on the street, and my understanding of the realities of their lives had opened up considerably because of the long conversations with my friend, and reading about the wonderful work some others are doing to make life bearable for street animals.

Strangely enough, I felt neither neither anger at the dogs nor fear, only a bit of perplexity and some wondering about how one could avoid such situations. And yes, my leg did hurt a bit.

When I spoke about it to others, reactions varied from "see, this is the problem with street dogs--they've become a menace" to advice about how I should protect myself the next time around. Animal rights is a hugely divisive issue, I am told, and the protective instincts of those around me tended to veer towards a huge animosity toward the dogs. But as my friend said, that's tantamount to labeling and marginalising an entire community because of the actions of a few (or one).

Many of us have been bitten by dogs, and what I encountered this morning is by no means unique or even excessively traumatic (my injuries were minor and all I need to do is take the five shots). I am not an animal activist, although (like most people) I am fond of some dogs and cats and I am happy to support such activism from afar. But I also do understand the annoyance people when packs of dogs roam a colony and make it difficult for the elderly or young children to use the street freely. I admit I am confused at times. But I can't get away from the fact that there is seems to be something hypocritical in professing compassion for humans without an attendant sympathy/compassion for other animals.

No easy solutions, I know, and the biggest problem is the mindset that sees the planet as the domain (and dominion) of a single species--human beings. As our cities grow bigger and eat into habitats that used to house other animals, we need to think seriously about how we can share our spaces with other (by and large friendly) species in a way that is safe and pleasant for all of us.

This morning, one of the reasons I did not panic and bolt (and possibly avoided upsetting the dogs further and inviting meaner reactions) was because of the opening up of the conversation in my own head about the complexities of living on the street. It's hard for me to look at the dogs and not wonder about their lives, their everyday scrounging for food and water, their battles for survival in the face of odds weighted so heavily against them. Being bitten is NOT a pleasant experience. But neither can it be pleasant to constantly be on guard, to not know who means well and who doesn't. For both of us.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Stories embedded in things #dailydiscard

Letters, birthday cards, notes scrawled on torn out notebook paper, entry passes and I sift through the pile of paper on the first shelf I have decided, in my new-found resolve, to clear out, I find a messy mass of memories.

Driving in to school, communing with other harried parents
A wish and a dream, still unfulfilled
The beginning of something, and something ended
A bouquet of affection bundled into thoughtful gifts

Thursday, July 09, 2015

What can I give up today? #dailydiscard

I woke up this morning feeling a sense that my life was the wrong kind of way. Yes, it is full in many ways, in all the good ways, but in addition to all that love and friendship and professional fulfillment (please note: I do not include material wealth and that house by the lake), there are reams of paper of various description, sarees requiring starching and ironing, fabric lengths waiting to be tailored, forms of legacy media to be either digitised or thrown out, broken cups and other memorabilia that have outlived the get the picture.

A recent conversation with a friend brought up the idea of leaving a "light footprint". We had seen others struggle with getting rid of their parents' and grandparents' things, and were assailed by these visions of our offspring sitting in the middle of all this (what they would most certainly consider junk) and wondering which things to throw away and which to keep, any possible grief they may be feeling at your passing offset by their irritation at having to deal with the material wake of your life.

Since then, I've been wondering where and how to begin the process of lightening the load. Last week, in a sudden fit of un-nostalgia, I told my daughter that if something happens to me, she should blindly throw away all the paper in my shelves and desk drawers. No rifling through, no sorting, just a simple handing over to the raddi-wala. "Don't get me wrong," I said, "I have no intention of dying on you right now, but I just wanted to make it clear--there's nothing of real importance in any of this paper!"

If that's the case, then why not begin the process of clearing out right now? So here's what I plan to do over the next few months.

Discard something every day.

Not just the paper and junky memorabilia, but other things too. Like rancour. And regret. More difficult to do, but just as important, plans that haven't materialised (so maybe new ones need to be made). Clothes that haven't been worn in a year, including those silk sarees that seem to grow more precious with age (the operative word being 'seem'). Just like the #100sarees campaign, I will try to record my saga of load-lightening. But as I throw away stuff, I'll keep the stories that go with them--where there are stories. If the thing doesn't have a story to go with it, clearly, it should have gone a long time ago.

Yes, I know, some time ago I did write a sentimental piece about how things were not just things. But wisdom does dawn. Sooner or later.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Rediscovering radio

I hardly notice the hour long commute any more; the honking speeding drivers who whiz past me as if they are rushing to save lives, the sneaky two-wheelers that sidle by me in the narrowest of spaces  grazing my already bruised car, even the big burly RTC bus that pretends to be a slim sports car as it sweeps its way through the traffic. I owe to this to the treasure made accessible through my smart phone, those podcasts that keep my brain focused on the wealth of intelligent ideas that can still be found amidst the tedium of dealing with stupid or inconsiderate driving and the inexplicable rudeness of city life.

Disclosure: I am one of those US-returnees whose nostalgia for NPR remains undiminished, and while I do enjoy the occasional show on AIR's Rainbow FM or my very own campus radio, Bol Hyderabad, I miss being able to tune in to a local public radio station and listen to smart conversation or good music or stimulating interviews done by an un-gushing radio anchor. I remember listening to Eric Caarle talking about the process of creating those amazing children's books, and JJ Abrams describing how he came upon the idea for a different sort of dead-tree book in an age of digital, having almost serendipitously chanced upon them on a morning radio show.

Back to those podcasts. I've been scouring iTunes for things that I can listen to, and over the past few years have built up a list of favourites. BBC Radio 4 Analysis and Documentaries, Weekends on All Things Considered (which recently has been repackaged into NPR's all in one app, NPROne), the wonderful first season of Serial, and, most recently, a delightful show called Invisibilia on (no points for guessing) NPR, again.

Invisibilia in particular brought back for me the amazing medium radio can be. The show has an interesting and ambitious premise: to understand the invisible forces that shape our lives. This morning I listened to the first episode in the series (and the third I had listened to), titled "The Secret History of Thoughts". For those who might doubt that cinematic quality is inherent in good radio, the show does everything right in the best possible way. Context-establishing ambient sound, segues that are great narrative transitions, voices that are comfortingly everyday yet dramatic in what they other words, great radio.

Queen's prophetic "Radio Ga Ga" reminds us that there is always a time for radio. It keeps us sane in the middle of mad traffic. It comforts us on insomniac nights and lonely mornings. It energises us when we're running that last lap, sweating and out of breath. And it makes us smile with the unexpected song, the happy or thoughtful chatter when we are about to give up on our neighbours on the road.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Jacaranda morning

March in Hyderabad

Every so often
I wish I were born
In a simpler age
(as if there ever were one)
when one could lose oneself
in the beauty
of the purple haze
offered by the lace-like blossoms
smudged across the blue summer sky
as I battle my way to work
through the emissions
of an information economy on the move.
One wonders
where the sentence breaks
to accommodate the parenthetical pause
for noticing
such moments of transcendence
in the midst
of everything ongoing, never stopping
(lest the traffic lights change on you).
Big words
Climate Change
Global Inequality
Sustainable Development
Communal Violence
are allowed to fade
into the background
as the bright yellows
and flaming oranges
of the flowering trees
that we retain
despite those Everythings
a capacity for happiness.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Requiem for a mango tree

For the better part of two decades it bore fruit
swung a hammock
served shade in generous quantities
while those mangoes, green covering rich yellow
were pickled, pulped,
sliced and pureed
made a salad a bit saucier
and a milk shake smoother.
Yesterday I came home to find sun streaming into a kitchen
that had known a dappled green light
This year's Ugadi pacchadi
won't be made with mangoes
from my tree.