At the end of a rainbow

Lucy found her diamond sky

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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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.

hands flowers

 

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A strange silence

It is not the screams that keep me awake at night,

Nor the haggard faces in a queue.

Animals being killed numb me not,

Nor the bruised bodies nursing broken minds.

The apathy, however, sickens my being,

It numbs my senses to know

That there won’t a helping hand for those who fall,

Nor a sigh of grief for those gone.

No anger for justice long lost.

Not even a pause to see if we are at fault.

Only a strange silence echoes in the dark.

A quiet horror of a blinkered life,

till it blinds the soul out of us.

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Gaps, holes and windows

“So, there seems to be a gap from the year 2005 to 2006?” The interviewer looked at him reproachfully; a look he was rather tired of getting every time he applied for a job. He cleared his throat and said, “Yes, but I did not have any arrears, I just took a drop to prepare for engineering entrance exams.” “Ah okay” replied the interviewer satisfied with the explanation, as if preparing for engineering entrance exams is the only honorable rites of passage for any Indian teenager, and sacrificing a year in that pursuit could be forgiven. The conversation carried on, but for the umpteenth time he wished that he could just sit back and say, “Well, I initially wanted to prepare for exams just like all my peers but I found many other interesting things to do, and so spent a year learning tabla, reading classic novels, and heck! even tried penning a small novel about my insipid life. Honestly, it was quite enjoyable till I had to get back on track and enroll for an engineering degree…”

This is an all too familiar story, but it is incomplete and deserves a better ending. The word “curriculum” is derived from the Latin word curricle which refers to carriage horses on a race course. No surprises that only being on “track” is seen as a virtue, and stepping off it as useless or even dangerous meandering. For the growing Indian middle class, formal education is seen as the authorization for a monthly pay-check, and duh, isn’t that supposed to be the “good life”? However, that certainly doesn’t seem the case when you work to pay bills to stay in a place from where you can work. Roundabout, right? Not just that, it is a downright vicious cycle, and yet we cling onto its empty promises of freedom dutifully shackled by expectations of the society.

By the time one realizes this quagmire of a dream, inertia of a certain lifestyle keeps dragging on. So, there is really no other way to reflect unless one consciously steps off this conveyor belt of an education system and tries to figure alternative directions for oneself. Interestingly, in the west, this is termed as a “gap-year”, and is meant to give an individual time to think, travel, learn or earn according to one’s agency rather than follow dictates of any institution. It is widely accepted as a logical space and time required to get a grasp of the direction one would like to take in life. However, in the Indian context, it is seen as some inconceivable wastage of time that would lead one to start work later than others and they would supposedly always lag “behind”. I have met many people proud of the fact that they finished college a year or two earlier than they are supposed to, and got placed in the usual monotone jobs immediately. I have also met people defying this push into glorified labor and instead choose to travel, write, dream, draw, paint and work freely towards a world they imagine to be better than one they live in right now.

Education, for what its worth should open these windows of possibilities, and gaps need to be seen as crucial to one’s development as a person capable of reflection. Then maybe, instead of being the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, who keeps singing I’m late / I’m late / For a very important date. / No time to say “Hello, Goodbye”. / I’m late, I’m late, I’m late, We can be real protagonists of wonderland waiting to be created.

costume_sketch___white_rabbit_by_aliceinwonderland

 

 

 

 

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I speak fluent Emoji?

Call it the priggishness of convent education or more sympathetically, some love for words that have always left me uncomfortable around the SMS lingua franca. They say language is as much a living organism like anything else; growing, evolving, aging and dying. However, I mostly imagine natural deaths unlike the violent strangulation that words undergo when people find most vowels unnecessary and random exclamation marks sufficient to communicate entire sentences. No wonder divorce is so common nowadays, or more simply I am just growing old and grumpy (Both are true). I am not sure about you, but when kids write, “2b or nt 2b…”, I can only imagine the ghosts of Victorian poets tearing their ghostly white wigs in alarm and despair.

True, this is not the Victorian era, but why should writing increasingly resemble the transcript of a kid trying to talk with its mouth full of bananas? We may be getting smarter, but we seemed to have kicked eloquence right outside the window. Of course, eloquence never helped save any time; time is money; money is a way to buy more time? Things are complicated around that corner. Coming back to violent deaths of language, there is another trend that makes even the scarce typing of words unnecessary. Welcome to the age of Emoji, now so essential that messages sent without one is considered impolite or downright hostile. Indeed, some of you may even find it odd to imagine phone conversations without the range of Emoji available today, but this epiphany is as recent as 1998, and was first developed in Japan (trust the weirdest fads to come from there). It soon became so popular, that serious research went into documenting and drawing expressions that could be culturally universal. That’s perhaps the simple yet profound realization; a smile is same in any language.

As usual, I hadn’t really gotten used to the Emoji affair till my messages were construed as unhappy/curt/unclear unless there was an appropriate cartoon face appended to it. It is interesting to note the widespread use even in official mails, the apparent stronghold of formal language. It has seemingly functioned to ease the tone of official conversations, though left to me “Please report to my desk tomorrow at 9:00 am :)” looks plain creepy with that face in the end. Well, that’s just me of course.

Studies show that emoticons such as smiley and sad faces are changing the way our brain works by triggering parts of the brain usually reserved for looking at real faces. i.e we have different areas in brain to process words and faces. Before the advent of emoticons there was no reason to process a colon followed by closing parenthesis 🙂 as a facial expression but now it does because we have learnt to represent this as a face. So, while the heydays of literature had words evoking a variety of emotions, now we have Emojis standing in for a number of words. The Oxford Dictionary named 😂 (Face With Tears of Joy) its 2015 Word of the year. Welcome to the era of Emoji Dick (yes it exists; the emoji version of Moby Dick). Now, is that good, bad, ugly? Well, in all truthfulness and brevity, it just is. Love it or hate it, it will be around till the Japanese come up with the next global fad. 😉

Emoticons have become massively popular, being used in text message and online conversations, along with art projects such as this Banksy Exhibit

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O laugh, will you?

Humour, it would seem is most difficult to describe, and anything serious written to explain it would definitely lack the topic of discourse itself, unless of course it is meant to be seriously funny. Hungarian writer and satirist László Feleki writes, “The term ‘humor’ itself means fluid or moisture, indicating that already the ancient Greeks must have known both moisture and humor. Humor as a fluid probably served to dilute the hard facts of life making it possible to swallow and digest them.” So, it would seem that humans have evolved an ingenious defense mechanism to counter the hard-blows of life, by quite simply laughing at it. But that can’t be the entire story because you could end up in an aslyum for considering a funeral real fun. Rather, scientists explain that humour probably stems from a “benign violation of the way the world ought to be.” So, harmless incongruous things put together in way that challenge our notions of ‘normal’ are prone to get our lips twitching. It is the subjectivity of ‘benign’ that makes the matter trickier. I have been often chastised by my partner for finding rather serious situations funny and thus hurting someone’s feelings (he being the hurt person in most cases). It has led me to reflect if in reality a few of my brain circuits are cross-wired such that my first reaction to mishaps ranges from a grin to uncontrollable laughter. Now, I am not talking of funerals (I am yet to attend one), but there are enough disasters and tragedies in daily life too. The other day, the door to our one and only bedroom got stuck with both of us stranded in the living room. My partner, who had to rush to office found himself in a formal shirt and boxers, the pants lying in the bedroom. Somehow he managed to find a towel to wrap himself up with while we called the carpenter to fix the door. He was fuming at this unexpected event, but he only had to look in the mirror to realise how hilarious he looked. My chuckles quite predictably incited him further though I unsuccessfully tried to explain the absurdity of the situation. I could see the truth in the chinese proverb, ‘there is no pleasure so great as watching a good friend fall off the roof’. This doesn’t translate into a malicious intention, but rather an outcome of our paradoxical nature that encompasses empathy, sorrow, relief, happiness, wickedness and much more that translates into the inscrutable emotion of humour. After all, in the madness of it all, the least one can do is have a good laugh; Let’s hope the jokes keep coming in!

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Of grubs and gourmets

Michael Pollan wrote in his book, Cooked, “ in almost every dish, you can find, besides the culinary ingredients, the ingredients of a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end.” And what more a fascinating tale can be, than that of the human culture taking birth thousands of years ago around a humble fire- an event that fundamentally altered the course of human history. Thousands of years hence, the act of cooking in many ways has turned into mass food production, destroying in the process the creativity and ingenuity responsible for the birth of myriad cuisines, and more pertinently, devouring the culture that was once a quintessential part of any culinary endeavour. Meals aren’t shared, talked about and appreciated anymore. Instead, one is greeted with vacant stares and stuffed mouths eating out of ‘ready-to-eat’ food packs, as though they resemble anything palatable. Thankfully, this still seems to be a western disease and while urban India seems to be inching towards the disastrous lifestyle, there is still hope that the likes of KFC and McDonald’s pale before the vastness of Indian cuisines (if there is term like that!). Far outnumbering the linguistic diversity of the country, India is home to gazzilion variety of dishes that many a time may have the same ingredients and yet taste different due to cooking styles. There are spices, techniques, and traditions of cooking that are often zealously guarded as family trade secrets and faithfully transmitted to the next generation. Even amongst the Indian cuisines, it is perhaps the Bengali dishes that set a benchmark in sophistication and culinary design. Given the rather fertile plains and temperate climate that Bengal grew upon, the bounty of raw food would have provided ample to experiment and cook with. As a result, there are mind-boggling varieties and ways to cook a particular dish. The unintended by-product of this phenomenon are the usually picky, fussy and finnicky Bangla lot, who it would seem are born with innate abilities to comment on food. Even the poorest household would not suffer the indignity of a three course meal, so let’s not start with the typical middle-class. Hybrids like me, who have vague ideas about their ‘roots’, while having grown up in distant locations are bound to find the Bengali fetish funny, especially when you are supposed to be one of ‘them’. There have been endless nights when me and my brother have happily gobbled bread and soup, our favourite as kids while dad would glumly look at his plate, mumbling something about posto and rice. Rajma and Chhole was on our good-food list too except that dad would scoff at the idea of making a dish out “stuff meant for horses”. Obviously, nothing could match the eloquent, subtle taste of Sukto, a unique milky stew of vegetables or the pungent yet mouth-watering taste of Bhapa Ilish (steamed fish), but dad was always on the lookout for something new to tingle his taste buds. Thus, he would inevitably find himself drawn towards the weirdest sounding dish on any menu and promptly place an order while the rest of us preferred treating our stomachs to known palettes. However, we also knew that as a family, we would have to share the treat irrespective of whether it was a delicacy or a disaster. Thus, each one of us begged on behalf of our alimentary canals for our father’s choice to be bearable. Now, the only way to explain human miseries is the fact that someone or something ‘up there’ is a sadist. So, ‘fisherman’s catch’ would turn out to be an exquisitely carved but inedible piece of pineapple, ‘green chilly idlis’ would be served as a pseudo-Chinese abomination that might have been invented when a south-Indian cook went raving mad in China, and many other oddballs. Dearest father, in such moments of peril would try and eat what he could with a straight face, making the  best out of the trauma by iterating how bad restaurants are and why one should stick to home food. His efforts haven’t been in vain for I inherited his interest in food with the addition of actually knowing what to do in a kitchen, and in the insatiable attraction towards culinary exploits, this time in my own kitchen rather than restaurants. Well, what to say–“Coquo, ergo sum”!

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An eulogy for a life well lived

“I may be alone but I am never lonely.” This simple yet profound statement by U. aptly described her life. Her warm smile and ever so compassionate heart could reach out to melt the coldest of beings. Yet, her spirit radiated not from bounty of fortunes but had been forged in the harshest of tribulations that life could offer. To a passer-by, U. might have come across as as an ordinary teacher who lost her husband and only daughter earlier than she should have; She might look like another life that snuffed out too suddenly, but that would just be the partial truth. Dr. Ikeda compares death of individuals to the cosmic drama in the universe, explaining that by sharing the same fundamental particles that stars are made of, we too die like them. However, it is for us to choose what kind of star we would like to be. People grow old, immersed in their petty achievements and worries till death comes knocking at their door and drags them silently to their grave, a shriveling dwarf star that the universe would have no memory of. There are others like U. who could embrace death with open arms since she had no regrets about life. Such a death is like that of a brilliant supernova, a death that becomes a cradle for new life of other stars. U. spent her days encouraging those around, and in her death she continues to inspire people who knew her. Her life is a story of living by giving, a poem of beauty through love and a light that kindled the flames of hope in so many hearts. In her simple, profound manner she showed that death can be a celebration of life. They say that one’s entire life flashes like a movie before one’s eyes at the time of death. She made her’s a movie worth watching. Death, after all isn’t an event that one encounters when everything is over, it is the culmination of moments, choices and thoughts that are a part of us since the day we are born. I am grateful for a beautiful reminder to live more fully, freely and joyfully by realizing my unique existence in this world; by being part of a most colourful fabric called humanity. “Day by day I am renewed, today I am born again.”

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