At the end of a rainbow

Lucy found her diamond sky

A gardener’s muse

I let things grow, I am a gardener.
I am in a relationship, and it’s not ‘complicated’;
It is interdependent.
If I were to stand long enough,
the fragile tendrils would wrap around my fingers,
gently coaxing me to focus, and tune in.

I usually give in.
As a favour to my senses,
that begin to stir from the artificial slumber.
I hear the leaves fluttering the wind,
as if shaking their heads at my ignorance.
Yet, they are patient and keep pace with me.

I notice the urgent chatter,
Like lovers kissing each other goodbye,
between the flowers and the bees.
For it seems both their lives may end soon.
I worry, because I know they are right.
The Spring in their step is gone.

Instead, come the Mowers; claiming to be growers.
Turning meandering paths into dead rows,
symphony of voices into an ugly drone.
“We want more output”, they say.
and then plot graphs throughout the day.
I just smile, and scatter some seeds along the way.

For when all is done, and the time is right.
the Earth will crack open to see the light.
The path will curve again, as the tendrils grow,
and other creatures will follow, for they know,
The abundance of life, beyond the pitiful graphs.
And then you’ll see how the bees can laugh.

Source: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/08/10/the-little-gardener-emily-hughes/
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Cry, Heart, But Never Break*

I am not sure where to begin, because I don’t know if this ever ends – The cycle of love and grief. No amount of intellectual understanding or awareness can combat the full-bodied experience of the emotional rush, flooding my being with memories of the loss. Elizabeth Gilbert aptly captures the overwhelming power of grief, surrendering to which, is probably the only way to survive it –

“Grief is a full-body experience. It takes over your entire body — it’s not adisease of the mind. It’s something that impacts you at thephysical level… I feel that it has a tremendous relationship tolove: First of all, as they say, it’s the price you pay for love. But, secondly, in the moments of my life when I have fallen in love,I have just as little power over it as I do in grief. There are certain things that happen to you as a human being that you can not control or command, that will come to you at really inconvenient times, and where you have to bow in the human humility to the fact that there’s something running through you that’s bigger than you.”

Mourning the loss of a more-than-human being perhaps invokes even greater visceral pain. Maybe, because caring for another creature requires us to be attentive, listen, and feel things that can’t be linguistically communicated. One has to actively listen and participate in worlds rather than words. Every sensory memory comes to life as I remember how her body snuggled up close to me, the low-pitched comical growl, the high-pitched musical howl, the soft under-belly that she would show for an occasional caress, and, that feisty hell-broke-loose bark. She couldn’t ‘talk’, being a dog, but she taught us volumes, nevertheless.

In her relatively brief existence of six years in this world, Button, as she was christened by the person who first rescued her from the cold streets of Delhi on a winter night, expanded our lives in unimaginable ways. While my mother had grown up around dogs in her family, my father’s family were not known to be animal-lovers. So, we never expected my father to go beyond tolerating an extra animal (counting me and my younger brother) in the house. We had never been so wrong in life. Button awakened in my father, the rationalist, a love that knew no logic. Till the end, he was the reason that she survived as long as she did.

I know every dog owner will attest to the unique personality of their dog, and there is every reason to believe them. However, Button, really was an oddball. In hindsight, I think she just picked up on the irreverent style of our rather dysfunctional family. She would allow herself to be petted (not cuddled) only when she felt like, or else the good-intentioned hand stood the risk of being bitten off. With time, we intuitively knew what to expect from those ‘cute psycho-looks’ as titled by my brother. In the early days, when my brother got a nip by her for the first time, he cried. I tried to console him by saying that it was hardly a wound, but it turned out that he was more upset because he felt that she didn’t trust him. He moped around like a jilted lover for the next few hours, till she came and licked him on his hand, almost like saying, “Oh, you foolish boy…”. The scene was oft-repeated with my father too, until it almost seemed like some well-versed romantic drama. My partner’s first encounter with her included a vicious leap at him because he wanted to surprise-hug me from behind. “Back off, dude!”, she barked I think. That’s a family welcome.

Though I and my brother moved on with our lives, and left home, Button never allowed the ’empty nest’ to feel as such. In raising her, my parents found anew subject to fight over. They also discovered an overlap of love, that spilt into many creatures living around them. They carry dog-food wherever they go, in case some street fellow comes their way, and managed to rescue over 6 puppies, all the while Button barking and howling at them for showing charity to her brethren. That spoilt brat never liked her own kin, because she hadn’t been socialised into the doggie community. As an Indie breed, she wasn’t treated too kindly by other dog-owners (who treat their dogs like a car brand, both parked in the garage), or even the Veterinary docs who couldn’t quite understand why we were spending so much on her treatment. And, they say that the caste system doesn’t exist.

Towards the end, it was clear that had to put her to sleep to end her suffering. We kept talking, and putting it off for months, mostly because of vehement protests by my father, who went to the extent of procuring medications from the U.S, and demonstrated his legendary debating skills to their custom dept. who have strict rules in place for such cases. He won the argument, but we still had to lose her, for there is no arguing with the finality of death. We are shattered, but we are also enriched through the sorrow that reminds us of our capacity to feel, and love.

As a species, perhaps, in originally the first dog over 10,000 years ago, we first learnt to love something different from us. Here they are, still keeping the historical promise their ancestors made. The world would be a better place if we could honour the friendship too. After all,

If dogs run free/ then why not we,

Across the swooping plain?”

*The title isborrowed from a lovely children’s book by Glenn Ringtved

Image courtesy: ‘Beloved Dog’ by Maira Kalman
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An anatomy of a climb

I am a reluctant academic. The intellectual games of linguistic reasoning don’t excite me, even as I am forced to learn the rules of the game to critique it. So, it is hardly surprising that my interests gravitate towards theories of embodied cognition that have been arguing for the rightful place of the body as constitutive in meaning-making rather than being subservient to the mysterious workings of the brain. As it turns out, this also becomes an important ecological argument, in terms of valuing sensory encounters (with)in the environment. Legitimising and valuing body-based interactions paves way for a fuller experience, the beginning of kinship through acknowledging the intertwining of our senses, sensibilities with the environment.

Slowly, the weight of the bag begins to bite into my shoulder blades. My feet are closely mapping the contours of the ground, and even the slightest incline sends a shiver down my thighs. The varying textures of the ground allow me to move forward or send me slipping down a few steps back. I am no longer walking on the ground, as much as I am walking with it. The occasional streams provide respite to the burning feet, yet the stones along the water are treacherous. Stepping on them is an act of faith. I am learning the language of stones, asking them to be kind.”

Our cities are designed for disembodied interactions. The abstraction is necessary for the psychic numbing because if we were to hear the “the rustle of corn leaves while opening a box of breakfast cereal”(Kimmerer, 2012) we would also hear the scream of the animals dying in the forests burnt for palm oil. Once a relationship is established, one can’t be indifferent to the other’s fate. So, we live in the paradox of an increasingly networked world, and diminished capacities to sense the interdependencies. We are under the “Spell of Discursive” as described by philosopher Heesoon Bai; We mistake the map for the world and are continuing to build technology that can sustain the illusion forever. Rebecca Solnit (2001) comments on our collective atrophy of senses using the example of transport- “In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.” In a world choking with automobiles, even the simple act of walking can be a radical protest against the designed sensory impairment.

The cold moss soothes the fingers bruised through grasping of the sharp rock faces. Breath comes in abrupt gasps as the slopes become steeper. Protruding roots and branches lend a helping hand. The afternoon sun makes its presence known through rivulets of sweat flowing down my face. I realise they are following the contours of my body, just as I am following the ridges of a dry stream up the hill. The water sculpts my body, and I follow its path. The sight no longer reigns supreme, I need to feel my way up, groping for footholds. I reach a ledge and lie down for a while. My ears touch the ground, and I listen…”

The increasing confines of artificial comforts require that even more be taken from somewhere else. The sensuality that rests on the reciprocity of love and care instead turns into a brutal lust for materials. Beings turn into commodities, relationships turn into transactions. Education legitimises the enterprise, by valuing supposedly intellectual pursuits over sensory experiences. Anthropologist Tim Ingold (2018) argues that the “promise of education lies in the capacity to respond and to be responded to: without such ‘response-ability’, as we might call it, education would be impossible.” Yet, the schooling continues. How else would one learn to live in abstractions? We were not born this way.

Time is inconsequential in the forest. Enchanted by the glossy back of a beetle pushing a ball of dirt uphill, I can empathise with its efforts as I carry my load along. Ants form a busy line. The leaf litter now seems animate as myriad insects form an underground orchestra. Every footstep of mine adds a beat to their song. I am no longer a witness. Through attending to my participation, I am re(member)ing and acknowledging my ancient kinship. Reaching the summit of the hill, my legs quiver with effort, but a sense of satisfaction flows through my body. I didn’t make the journey; the journey made me.”

In age pervaded by ever-increasing alienation, perhaps the first step needs to be a literal one. Step outside, and let the body attend to the world. Ingold writes, “ if education is about caring for the world we live in, and for its multiple human and non-human inhabitants, then it is not so much about understanding them as it is about restoring them to presence, so that we can attend and respond to what they have to say.” I feel we have a long dialogue pending.

Pictures from the trek to Karoli Ghat and Ratangad, a part of Sahyadri range.

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At crossroads

Some events in life can really bring those existential questions to the fore. I think, in India, crossing busy roads is one of them. No wonder, we are so philosophical by nature, given the rather frequent road-crossing exercises. I seem to have a special connection with the roads and its bountiful menagerie of vehicles, people alike. My parents were knocked off their two-wheeler on the New Year’s Eve of 1991, as a drunk driver decided to try Tokyo Drift even before it was made. Also, it was an ambassador, or as I see it, military grade tanks made for civilians. Our scooter neatly crumpled into a metal ball, my dad broke his leg, and my mother, who was six-months pregnant with my baby brother had her ankle smashed to smithereens, but miraculously gave birth to a healthy boy a couple of months later. Although, I am sure that the X-rays she was submitted to, due to the gross negligence of the hospital staff (they didn’t notice she was pregnant), did end up doing some cool X-men shit to my brother. Describing his mutant abilities will be the subject of another blog post. Where was I during all this drama? Sitting between them of course. However, I had somehow managed to remain completely unscathed except for losing my shoe in the spectacular family cartwheel that we did. As a three-year-old, finding that shoe was my immediate concern, though I didn’t fail to observe that my parents were lying sprawling on the road in different directions. Thankfully, the people and police helped in getting medical attention. Life was back to normal in a couple of months (whatever that means).

Gradually, however, I realised that my skills of road navigation seemed a bit off. I had come to understand crossing roads as some ultimate flight situation, where one had to run from one side to the other in the least amount of time while dodging everything from stray poop on the road, to the traffic onslaught, and stray cattle. Given the general confusion around traffic lights, I could never trust drivers to be doing what the traffic light indicated. Traffic signals are, like Trevor Noah puts it, “a suggestion” in most ex-colonized countries. It is an artefact imported without the necessary context and trust that is needed to make it operational. So here, folks can pretty much decide whether they want such automated unsolicited opinions. Mostly they choose otherwise.

I also came to respect the power of crowds. Random strangers can form a solid group with the aim of crossing a road, and then vehicles have no choice but to slow down. Quite a fearless group, random people. So, if not sprinting, my next best option is to join one of these groups. Then, there are these loners who can calmly calculate the speed of various things hurtling their way and cross with precision. This isn’t your conventional “look right, look left” nonsense. It wouldn’t work here anyway, because there will be that one motorbike coming on the wrong side of the road, intercepting your path, and give you the “look where you are going!” stare. My mistake, I am no ten-headed demon god after all. A more daring category of people can walk alone, their arms extended showing a ‘Stop’ sign, and make their way across the busiest streets. Middle-aged aunties are especially good with it. The funny thing is how it works most the time, with cars slowing down, allowing the lady to pass. Traffic signal, no; hand-stop lady, yes. I think we really believe in face-to-face connections as a community.

The only vehicle that probably strikes the fear of God amongst even the most courageous of road-crossers is the city bus. These buses can drive past you, within the space of your shirt-fluttering in the wind. Amazingly accurate, and deadly. They can also swerve with a swag that would put F1 racers to shame. Additionally, they are least mindful of the boundaries of the road, and you would do yourself a favour by not showing undue confidence while walking on the curb.

I would probably never have given all this a thought, like the proverbial fish in the water, if not for some trips abroad where a completely new situation was presented to me. The unquestioned authority of traffic-signals is a marvel. A zebra-crossing that is actually treated like one?! And here we thought it was just to add some jazz to the roads, or actually indicate some potholes ahead. The icing on the cake was a button on the signal pole that could be pressed whenever a pedestrian wants to cross the road. I did it many times to check if it actually worked and then felt so empowered to see cars dutifully stop, bowing to the all-powerful stop-light. I also realised it’s pretty boring. No drama, suspense, sense of accomplishment, crowd solidarity. No connection. Just a bunch of folks crossing the street in unerring regularity. Of course, I am back to the cursing, sprinting, and staring-back contests in India. Yet, watching a dog happily give me company while crossing the street, a small smile makes an unlikely appearance on my face along with furrowed brows. Even they seem to enjoy the challenge. Indian streets are the stuff of philosophy, after all.

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The journey of re-enchantment

“Bael?” My ears pricked up when I heard the word, my thoughts flooding with memories of Dadu cracking open the fruit, and removing the orange fibrous pulp to make a delicious drink later. It had been years since I had tasted the fruit, but somewhere, the memory had been patiently waiting for me to relive the experience.

This has been happening to me frequently. In the past 7 years, or so, since I have deliberately decided to distance myself from the rush of “bigger, faster, better”, the slow, complex, symphony of relationships, of both human and more than human beckon me. As political theorist Jane Bennett describes, the world can open up in unexpected and delightful ways if we’re willing to be enchanted by it. After all, didn’t we all once live in enchanted places, when we spoke the language of stones and trees, rivers and hills?  Only when I slow down, can I see the wild growth of cherry tomatoes by a busy roadside, or hear the distinct sounds of different leaves fluttering in the wind, or spot the native green vegetables that many people have abandoned in the favour of exotic, expensive options… each time, I feel like I am gathering ancient wisdom, while also travelling down a familiar path with a new sense of gratitude. I ask my mother for recipes of vegetables that might cease to exist if we forget how to eat them. Food has become that thread of connection, weaving its way through my sense of identity and purpose. How easy it is to break the long line of culture and knowledge? Just by forgetting an ingredient of a meal. But then, the remembering is also a way to restore, and revive the lost voices; Of the birds, animals, trees, rivers, and our ancestors.

It is a humble beginning, but when I see my students, all excited to munch on raw Ambadi leaves they have just plucked from their own farm, I believe it is a good start. An ethics based on care and generosity must begin with a sense of wonder and respect. As they begin to care for their beloved sour-tasting plant, spending their time peering into its pink calyx, admiring the shape of the leaves, they are drawn into a world of reciprocity and dialogue. Now, when the plants speak to them, they slow down to hear it murmur.

 

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Travel ke log

Part I: The arrival of the tempest

Sometimes, a situation is normalised to the extent that one’s unique perception simply doesn’t count. I felt this way regarding my maiden voyage to the U.S.A a couple of months back. It is so commonplace an event that even sounding out loud my reservations and fears seemed embarrassing; someone would invariably exclaim, “even 10-month-old babies and 80-year-old grandmas travel happily, you’ll be fine!” Well, for starters, that is my problem; Having the aforementioned group as travel companions. The best part is the ease with which co-passengers, especially females (all assumed to be bursting with indiscriminate motherhood), are expected to completely understand and give endearing looks to the irritated, seemingly possessed scream-bags because, well, babies. The situation seems only slightly better than a bus, where, at any moment unoccupied female laps like mine could be arbitrarily handed a child if the mother didn’t get a space to sit. But then again, bus rides are rarely 16 hours long, and I could get off anywhere in between!

Anyway, once I was aboard after what seemed like an endless immigration queue and multiple security checks, I slumped into my seat in sheer exhaustion. It seemed only minutes since I had closed my eyes when I heard an “excuse me” and a simultaneous poke near my shoulder. It was snack time at morning 3 a.m, duly served by the flight stewards. Before I could mumble a “no, thank you”, the snacks were shoved on my tray table, and the steward moved on. My co-passengers were expectedly an elderly Gujarati couple and seemed quite familiar with the routine of the in-flight services. They enthusiastically began watching the movies available on the screen, as I later realised, for almost the entire flight duration. I opted for a meta-experience by standing near the rear of the aircraft and watching multiple screens flashing at any given time of the journey. As luck would have it, my screen wasn’t functioning so I, alone, had a blank screen for entertainment. Thankfully, I had enough sleep to catch up with so didn’t mind napping whenever I could. However, as it happens on long journeys, especially with Indian co-passengers, a lone woman traveller of “marriageable age” will soon be asked to reveal her entire life history. I wasn’t going to be spared either. Sure enough, the next time food was served, I heard the dreaded opening question,

Aunty: “Aur beta, kahaan se ho?”

me (in my mind): Shit. (Aloud) Mumbai se, aunty.

Over time, I had learnt the trick was to keep answers as short as possible, and agree with whatever they said if one wished to have a relatively short conversation.

Uncle: “padne ja rahe ho, America”?

Me (in my mind): Damn. (Aloud) Haan uncle, ek conference hai.

Aunty: “Hamaari Beti New Jersey mein rehti hai. Hum jaathe rahte hain, har saal. Bahut acchi jageh hai.

Me (in my mind): Why the hell am I supposed to care about that? (aloud) Haan aunty.

Uncle: Aap akele travel kar rahe ho? Family hai aapki U.S mein?

At this point, somehow mentioning marriage and relatives seems to quell all curiosity and fake concern.

Me (in my mind): Damn. (aloud) Haan uncle, mere husband nahi aa paaye. Mein relatives ke saath rahungi U.S mein.

At this point, further interrogation was mercifully stalled with the arrival of the steward to offer tea, coffee, etc. I spent the rest of the journey with earphones plugging my ears irrespective of whether I listened to music or not. Finally, the claustrophobic nightmare came to an end, and the aircraft landed amidst the grey surroundings of Newark airport.

Like typical Indian passengers, most people were jostling into a queue even as the aeroplane was taxing on the runway. Habits die hard, even if in a foreign country. I eventually made my way to the baggage collection area and went to collect a trolley to stash my suitcases. However, I realised that I had to pay only 6 dollars to avail the trolley. Convinced that I had misunderstood him, I asked the guy if the money was refundable once I returned the trolley since I needed it for just 5 minutes till the car parkway.

Guy: “No, ma’am. It’s 6 dollars.”

Fresh off the Boat (FOB) is the term used to describe immigrants that have arrived from a foreign nation and have not yet embraced the host nation’s culture, behaviour etc. I, for one, had not, and would not for the rest of the journey assimilate even the currency value. So, an alarming Rs. 400 to avail a trolley (which costs nothing in my homeland) briefly knocked me off my senses. A false sense of self-esteem and embarrassment won that battle though, as I kept a straight face and paid up quietly, even managing a constipated smile later. So, this is how I was ripped off even before I got out of the airport.

Part II: Of action-scripts and bus journeys

Ever felt like the world is a great theatre? Turns out that it is a truer statement than mere expressions of romantic writers. We do ‘act’ all the time. In fact, action scripts is a cross-disciplinary theory which describes that “people organize their experiences in script like formations they can refer to in the future to understand the same, or similar new, situations. Scripts contain instructions for how to behave, what is expected, and what to expect. Scripts are acquired through experience, interaction, and observing.” As it happens, travelling in a foreign country is the best way to realise the embedded drama of interactions, especially when you haven’t mastered the role yet. My greatest fear for the first few days involved walking into a restaurant to buy food. What they call friendly customer service (“Hi there! How can I help you today”) sounded like an alarming, “Haven’t you decided your order yet?!” to me, and I would invariably stutter the first item I could lay my eyes on. Of course, that was not the end of the ordeal. Next, the person would rattle a range of options that I mostly had no clue of and would quickly nod my head, feeling all eyes rest on me (mostly my own imagination). The result? I ate some really weird sandwiches and burritos there. So, I decided to discreetly observe other people ordering, and gradually made sense of the intricate affair of placing orders in restaurants. The same story played out while commuting in the local metro trains of NY. However, I am not sure if my panic-stricken face at such times evoked extra pity, because people were rather helpful. Within a couple of weeks though, I knew I had become a pro when I started travelling without having to consciously think about where I was heading. My brain had already relegated most of the job to my legs, which did a pretty good job of it. I still avoided ordering food until the last day though.

When travelling on a shoe-string budget as a student, cheap accommodations are a high priority, and free ones are to be accepted with no questions asked. It also means opting for an affordable commute, which in the U.S is their notoriously inadequate bus service. The automobile sector here makes sure that individual cars remain the most viable option, so public transport in any place apart from NY, and few college towns is abysmal. It also means that only people who can’t afford a car would opt for the private bus services, thus earning the mode of transport an even more dubious reputation of being ‘unsafe’. It is ironic how the marginalised communities are associated with being dangerous just because they can’t afford the gentrifying commodities of middle classes. In so many ways, the expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I, however, managed to have completely uneventful long journeys, so much so that I was secretly hoping for some action to take place. The only disturbing thing that I could notice was the driver munching on an excessive amount of mints for the entire duration of the ride. I think she finished a big bag of those. Another leg of the journey involved someone taking off their shoes off to elicit a rather nauseous wave of odour, resulting in the driver bringing the bus to a screeching halt, cursing no one in particular, and spraying the entire coach with an equally horrendous air-freshener. I am guessing I blacked out for a while, because the next time I opened my eyes and unclasped my pinched nose, everything seemed normal. Life goes on.

Part III: Of beds and hosts

If someone were to ask me to summarise the hardest part of the trip in one sentence, I would do it in just a word – bed. I live in a tiny hostel room, but I love my bed, pillows and cover. My partner is a witness to the satisfaction I derive from making our bed every day, because I look forward to sinking into my earthly heaven every night. Small pleasures; and I sorely missed it. My partner was right in his suspicions that the “I love you” at the end of our phone call every night was meant mostly for my bed. My rather nomadic itinerary in the U.S meant that I had practically slept in a different bed every week, in rooms ranging from attics to places that looked like abandoned museums, with one similarity – an extra springy mattress that had me feeling like I slept on a trampoline.

In my defence, I would say that my sleep deprivation played a major role in my diminished capacity for friendly social interactions. My brother tends to disagree by saying that my social skills are abysmal, to begin with. Anyway, for the better or worse, I did try. One place I stayed for a couple of days was a nice suite with two rooms provided by the university. I was happy to have a room by myself. I was sharing the suite with a nice Finnish girl, who had arrived a few days before me. As soon as we exchanged pleasantries, she asked if I had any issues if she exchanged her room with a guy who wanted to stay there with her friend. The conversation went something like this:

FG (Finnish girl): So Deborah, are you okay sharing room with a boy?

Me: What?

FG: Oh! Is that a problem?

Me (head abuzz with random thoughts, including a discussion with my partner about polyamory): Well, I usually don’t share beds with strangers. If there is some issue, I’ll try an sleep in the living room.

FG: Oh no! Not your bed. Ah ok, I meant this apartment. He will sleep in my room. I will be sleeping with my friends somewhere else.

Me (relieved): Oh ok. Sure, please go ahead.

FG: Ok, great. My friend may join him.

Me: Cool.

We were soon joined by an American guy and her friend. I was too tired to hang around for dinner, so I bid them good night and said that I was going to have an early night. The next day, I was up pretty early and was almost finishing my breakfast, when the guy woke up and casually asked me if I slept well while making a cup of coffee for himself. I just jokingly remarked that I must have slept well because I didn’t hear him jumping on his bed. It was supposed to be a dig at the flimsy common walls in American housing and the springy beds. However, he then turned red and remarked there might have been a little jumping. I just laughed it off and didn’t get it till the girl came out and asked the same question. Stupid me. For the rest of the time we spent together, I steered clear of bedroom conversations and noises.

As days progressed, and I spent time in different places, I came to realise the stark loneliness of the typical American life. In India, ‘personal space’ ends about 25 inches from your body, and you can never be too far to ignore your mother shout for dinner. American suburbs, on the other hand, look like rows of abandoned, and eerie, doll-houses. I could literally hear some ghoulish version of Pete Seeger singing “ticky-tacky houses” somewhere around the corner. On the other hand, during this trip, I finally made sense of sitting in coffee shops. Till then, I always wondered about people sitting alone in cafés. However, one afternoon as I found myself sitting with an expensive cup of mocha, and wistfully looking outside the window, I knew. I couldn’t bear to sit alone in my room, and had braved the snow to sit alone in a café, surrounded by people doing their own stuff. And, it was much nicer. It seems, the warmth of human company, even if not directed at you is not a myth after all (But filter coffee is much better). I also realised that the ‘almost equal’ ratio of cats and dogs to human population has more to do with a desire for a company than anything else.

One AirBnB place I stayed at, was owned by an elderly lady, who lived alone with her three cats. Now, I don’t judge cats but I am pretty sure they have nothing but contempt for our species. I would often hear the long monologues she had with the cats, encountered only with baleful looks from their end. The numerous rooms in the house had quaint Victorian interiors, that I may have admired if I didn’t have to stay in them. The house itself was apparently almost 80 years old, and the boards creaked like rheumatic limbs, adding more suspense than I would have liked for the night. Mostly, it would be a pair of gleaming eyes and scary portraits of sadly over-dressed people that would freak me out. So, when a couple came to stay for a few days along with their dog, I was far happier than I usually am when it comes to sharing space with strangers. As it happened, one evening they asked me if I could babysit their dog, Cassie for a while. They had noticed that I was extremely warm towards her, mainly because I have a dog back home and was missing her notwithstanding zero resemblance physically or character wise (mine is a bitch, in the meanest sense possible; but the eyes!). Anyway, the weak moment of nostalgia and homesickness won as I said “sure” far too quickly. 10 minutes into the job, Cassie soon helped me remember details of doggie anxiety that I had chosen to gloss over when peering into those puddles of innocent eyes. Soon, her small whimpers turned into anguished howls that no amount of petting could lessen. My bribes of dog treats did little good; instead, she learnt to time me so that I was punctually handing her the treats every 10 minutes to stop her from dramatic doggie overtures. Her tiny size also made her the perfect target for the cats, who would smugly come just near enough to quickly slap her before hopping onto a comfortable high chair and purr in content. I spent the next two hours literally carrying her around in my lap, feeding her way too many treats than she was supposed to have (Yes, I know I won’t make a good mother; never added it to my resume). Her human parents finally came back and promptly handed me a gift as a token of appreciation. Now, that was unexpected and nice! “I did want some nice American souvenir”, I thought to myself and opened the box. The next moment though, I am not sure how twisted my smile seemed as I mumbled a “Thank you so much!”. It turned out to be a box of Assam Teabags. The guy said, “I knew you would like it! It’s Indian tea.” Yeah right; ‘Indian’ tea, as if it were a thing. I eventually bought myself some souvenirs; They had nothing to do with tea.

Part III: Food

Food is a touchy subject for me. The journey from being a ‘fussy eater’ to an ‘environmentally conscious fussy eater’ has involved many ideas, discoveries, farm visits, and recipes. Thus, the army of junk food flooding American markets in shiny, ‘easy-to-eat’ packets is a nightmare that I, unfortunately, see unfolding in many Indian cities as well. Such food items are also cheaply available thus making it the only option available to many marginalised communities in the U.S. The places inhabited by poorer classes may not have a single fresh vegetables and fruits market for miles around! In response, many such communities finally decided to take the matter into their own hand to grow their own edible gardens on empty lots. In the era of Monsanto and seed patents, growing one’s own food is a supreme act of rebellion, and it is one that I completely endorse. Of course, cooking the vegetables grown is another matter altogether. One of the things I noticed very early on was the lack of cooked food in a typical American meal. Copious amounts of salad with chunks of meat thrown into it form a major part of the cuisine (if there is any). Now, as a Bengali, the art of cooking is especially dear to me. So, seeing the entire spread of typical American food reduced to flavours of sweet/salty/pepper withered most of my taste buds. A few of my hosts kindy took me to different Asian restaurants but, the Americanised version of most cuisines just meant that an ‘extra spicy’ food item was sprinkled with a few red-chilli flakes (face-palm). So, while staying with some American hosts, I offered to cook some Indian food, much to their happiness and my relief. I made a decent four-course meal with whatever spices and vegetables I could find in a nearby Indian store. As it turns out, my hosts were most surprised by the ‘rotis’ (flatbread) I made using make-shift cooking vessels of pizza rolling pin, wok etc. Apparently, the dough ‘spinning’ under the influence of the rolling pin was pure magic. Looking at their excited faces, I came to think it is.

Anyway, in the end, I discovered that ‘Uncle Sam’ wasn’t that scary after all, African-American braided women look exquisite, sunsets and clear skies are indiscriminately beautiful, and Google maps are a unique combination of helpful and irritating. When it comes to people, differences are plenty, but similarities many more. I ended up sharing smiles, hugs, maybe a bottle of wine too many, and all to a good end. I’ll never get over the American fetish for sparkling water with generous amounts of ice though…Um, and the huge cups of black coffee, the creaking floors, and the horrible public transport, yeah, and add the excessive use of tissue paper to the list…!

P.S Some photos along the way: https://www.flickr.com/photos/140987662@N03/

 

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For the love of the earth

Though my ears were still ringing as I got off the patent rickety state transport bus of Maharashtra, it didn’t miss the crackle of dry leaves carpeting the dirt road. I have grown up amidst the crowded lanes of Delhi, and as a result was the typical urban millennial until a series of experiences convinced me that restoring our relationship with the land that sustains us lies at the foundation of healing our abused bodies, minds and the surrounding environment. Nowhere is the interdependency manifested as vividly as in the act of farming, where the reciprocity of food, nourishment, and care goes all the way down to the sweet-smelling soil teeming with micro-organisms. However, there is much that our generation has forgotten. As botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer explains, the restoration depends on re-story-ation. What are the narratives we can rewrite for ourselves and others? The stories we choose to believe and enact have adaptive consequences; perhaps now is the right time to change the dominant narrative. In some small part, I have tried to do so by exploring multiple alternative threads of city life in the form of urban farming. The past few years in Mumbai have been spent in learning the intricacies and miracles of soil, only to realise we don’t know much about it. We can, nevertheless, share an intimate relationship with it by growing plants and watch life take roots.

My journey has also connected me to kindred spirits who like me, share an abiding love and awe for the complex web of natural processes. One such person is the SundayFarmer (SF), whose endearing blog about his experiences at an acre of a farm owned by him caught my eye. Though he calls himself a weekend farmer and generously credits his Man-Friday, Mangal for a lot of the leg-work, it was easy to see that he would prefer to spend much more time ‘far from the madding crowd’ if circumstances allowed. We got in touch and decided that I could visit the farm whenever he went next, except that I didn’t know that my decision was jinxed. A series of unfortunate and unexpected events ensured that I had to wait for almost a year-and-half before I finally made the trip on Christmas Eve. My uncle, a retired forest officer decided to accompany me at the last minute, and as a result, had his first rendezvous with the crowd of Mumbai local trains. I must admit, he was pretty game about the experience though.

So, here I was, trudging on the dirt track after nearly 3 hours of travel, to finally set foot on the SF’s weekend farm. You don’t have to be a nature enthusiast to observe the stark difference between his patch of earth and the nearby plots; the latter forced into artificial rows of identical trees or crops, surrounded by trimmed grass. His one-acre patch on the other hand, blooms with diversity. What may seem like a disorienting sight for anyone accustomed to the uniformity and monotony of industrial culture, is actually a model for resilience. Diversity ensures that a single pest doesn’t damage the entire farm; it ensures that a ‘pest’ doesn’t become one in the first place because there would be a suitable habitat for its predator. ‘Weeds’ don’t become a nightmare because they have their own role to play in the ecosystem as live mulch or nitrogen-fixing properties and co-exist with desired plants. Termites scuttle around in hordes slowly decomposing the abundant leaf litter, creating conducive conditions for plants to grow. Everything thrives and dies, only to be born again. SF introduced us to each plant and tree on the farm as if introducing a relative, with a warmth independent of their ‘productivity’ in terms of bearing fruits. After all, they are family. Over the years, he has experimented with growing a variety of plants, and has had his share of failures. His recent attempt of bee-keeping also ran into a number of issues, though “each time there has been a different problem, so I learnt something new” he commented with a wry grin. Years of decomposed leaf-litter made the ground soft to walk on. So, it was difficult to imagine that the area is actually a very rocky terrain. “I bought this place because it near the river, then I realised that everywhere I dug there are stones to be unearthed!” he chuckled, pointing towards heaps of stones found on the farm. “But it is ok, the plants manage, and we are also learning how to grow different crops in such a terrain”, he continued. We walked through the banana grove, and were generously blessed by its giant leaves trickling cold morning dew on our heads. We stopped to admire the fragrant flowers of gandha-raj, the giant bamboo groves, the abundant papayas, the beautiful flowers of rose-apple tree, the bare branches of a tree that he has nick-named as silver oak, and a kaleidoscope of butterflies among the many others sensuous attributes of the farm. Be quiet enough and one can hear the flow of the stream and walk towards it. I was delighted to dip my finger and watch tiny fishes gathering around it like a curious bunch of school children.

As we parted, he gifted me some seeds, a raw papaya, and some banana stems. Kimmerer writes, “The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity.” How rich would we be to enjoy more of such relationships rather than empty transactions of plastic money signifying nothing except the symbolic power of greed. My uncle, though appreciative of the place, later whispered into my ear, “Wouldn’t it be better to build a room in some corner and open this up for tourists to spend some time etc., they can see the farm, enjoy the river and he would earn a lot!” I whispered back, “Yes, but that’s not love.”

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A sunset

I see you
in the glistening wet glades.
Even hardened woods
blush into pinkish shades.
I long for you to stay
and bring the silhouettes to life.
But you cast the last ray
as I turn my eyes to the sky,
murmuring a promise of tomorrow.
And, I wonder, could you ever lie?

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Reanimating the world

“Ah! there you are!” I exclaimed to a flat bean and plucked it gently while looking for more. The colour of the beans blends ever so perfectly with the leaves, that they seem to be playing an eternal hide-and-seek with anyone interested in harvesting them. I often lose time when hanging around plants, and trees. In retrospect though, it seems I just temporarily refuse to chase those ticking hands, a mirage of desires that snatch the present reality. Or, more aptly, plants sometimes allow me a peek of their world, where time no longer calls the shots. When I read Sumana Roy’s lament about post-colonial civilization as robbing us of living in tree-time, I could instinctively feel what she meant. Growing up in a typical urban space where movement is the order of the day, a pause is just that – a break from the animation, not a legitimate space of its own. I stare at the earth I dug up to plant a sapling. A few months back, it was a mix of decomposing organic matter. Now, the sweet smell of black humus envelops my senses, and a few moments later I see the heap of soil literally crawl with life. Who said it was “dust to dust”? Seems to me, it is life to life. Perhaps, just not the kind we usually acknowledge. Tiny tendrils quiver in the wind, looking for support that would help the plant climb. Roots search for water beneath the surface. The plant grows, as does the life around it. So much happens, yet we make children classify plants as “non-moving”.

As I walk down a street lined with trees, I inevitably slow down to admire them. The act of slowing down allows me to see some tiny red insects. One, two, many, and then many more. I see their dead bodies strewn across the pavement and feel as if I am walking through some place that was bombarded by violence. That violence being that of indifferent walking. Today, we walk through dead insects, tomorrow it would be axed trees, and then perhaps other suffering beings, all reduced to a fuzzy background one couldn’t care more about. This “psychic numbing” as Arne Johan Vetlesen puts it, seems even more dangerous than active aggression, for the latter still indicates a frenzy of passion which could be rectified. How do you rectify something that isn’t there – the inert vacuum of empathy?

Animism – the idea of attributing life to all things in the environment has been conventionally viewed as backward or childish. Our neat categories and increasingly compartmentalised lives extend the Cartesian duality of mind and matter all the way into our being, till we literally become ‘the ghost in the shell’. But then, we are not. Observe any child’s innocent wonder at a frog hopping by, or their sorrow for having lost a feather ‘gifted’ by a bird, or delight in the wooden rhythm of bamboos knocking each other in the wind, and the world seems more alive again.

I dig the soil, the warmth of its life breathing heavily in my hands. KN, a 13-year-old boy, is digging along with me. A few months back, he didn’t want to touch anything ‘dirty’. Well, how can you admire the flowers without nourishing its roots? So, began his weekly stint at gardening, and when seeds sown by him began to sprout, there was no looking back, only looking in. A few moments later, he unearths a sweet potato, and his face lights up with joy. My thoughts light up with hope.

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Forgiveness

Amidst charred ruins, a seed takes root.
Flags hang in shame, for the carnage in their name.
Generals stripped of their arrogance, what can clothe them now?
Maybe a common embrace, and the shared pain of loss.
The astronaut still finds the Earth draped in light,
even as the night wears on.
Sunlight doesn’t flinch from touching the scarred skin,
Perhaps there is a right for every wrong.

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