To Sleep with Trees: a small meditation on lives & deaths

To sleep like Rip Van Winkle for a hundred, a million years…and then to wake into the wonder of a world made new.
It’s not the waking but the sleep I crave.
I long to plunge into a deathly sleep, a sleep that transfigures my nascent, waking self.
I would be a changeling, stumbling bravely through a sphere seen anew.
A sleeper who wakes not herself, but another altered eye/I.

neemtreeAs a child, I used to creep out of the back door of the bath room, out to sit under the Neem tree in the night quiet. [http://www.organeem.com/neem_tree.html] Sitting there, I would let the minutes and hours slip away, breathing in the sentience of non-human earth. Way back in the bowels of the house, caught by human anxiety, Mum would hunt for me, “Grie, Grie, where where are you?”

The faint echoes of her voice cautioned me into total still, under the leafy neem scented starlight. Though our house lay in the center of Madras, three roads bordered the bungalow:  our back yard only connected to old lady Achutha Menon’s front yard, separated by a wall and yards of shrubbery.  Mum, moreover, had planted trees all about the compound wall, cutting us off from neighboring lives.

On the ground, seated beneath the Neem, I, small Grie, shared a reality that humans, bustling about their lives, missed. Feeling the earth breathe, the insects bite and rustle, small creatures (rats?) stir about me, I touched G-O-D, unknowable mysterious process that, even then, reassured and brought me curious strength.

Years later, Mum referred to those ‘catatonic’ states of mine. She’d been worried, she said, but Swami put her mind to rest, though he counseled me not to sit alone when he sent me off to his women’s college in Anantapur, about six years down the line.

Dad had died by then, so my mind tunneled into different spaces of grief and loss, crevices disparate from my dark Neem shelter.  In the scrublands of Andhra, I discovered, at the farthermost edge of playing fields, a rocky outcrop that I could sit atop to consider the barren, stony hills.  None of the other girls ventured close, scared off by tales of surrounding graves and their attendant ghosts.  But, the quality of solitude was different: with dad’s death, complexities of adulthood came creeping over my soul, trailing in its wake, romantic fantasies, sexual infatuation, and existential confusion.

Photo on 24-06-13 at 5.52 PM #2Only now, sitting in this little semi-open patio, with the Rain tree’s [Albizia Saman] branches spreading overhead in the green company of shrubby foliage, I wake from the thrall of an unplanned two hour sleep to chanting from the hall, and feel a sudden breath from the child I was.  [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albizia_saman]

Now, with Dad, Mum, Swami departed into the past–
now, stressed by a recent encounter with my ninety years’ old aunt who revels in the busy, petty minutiae of human interactions,
who still plays one human against the other,
have I woken to unspeaking child’s awareness.  Now, the little dog lies on the doorstep, a squirrel dashes from shrub to tree, a butterfly hangs from a flower, and only the gusting breeze bustles.

My father died in his fifty-third year, the earliest of my loves to depart, Mum in her seventy-fourth, and mysterious Swami in his eighty-fifth.  I envy my Dad his exit at the height of his human achievements.  Me, I’m 52.  My soul, and body, tire of interaction, I long for sleep in the bowels of the earth, next to the Rain tree’s roots.
Saman1744

Literate encounters: rural women and educated me

Deeply suspicious of institutions and organizations, but unable to rest easy with my own little nest-egg, I look around for folks I can help in any way– financially mostly, but also with a bit of personal involvement.  Here, in Puttaparthi, most village folk (even those in their thirties) are either illiterate or literate just enough to read labels with difficulty, having just scraped through high school, about tenth grade.  Exploring various definitions of ‘literacy,’ commonly accepted as the skill of reading and writing, I came upon the following by the U.N.:

“[This] view, responding to recent economic, political and social transformations, including globalization, and the advancement of information and communication technologies, recognizes that there are many practices of literacy embedded in different cultural processes, personal circumstances and collective structures”….‘Literacy’, throughout history and across societies, has encapsulated a varying range of skills and erudition, but its antonym, ‘illiteracy’, has always been synonymous with disadvantage. It is this definition that, perhaps, elucidates the concept best.  [http://www.unric.org/en/literacy/27791-the-evolving-definition-of-literacy]”

Photo: S.B. Krivit

Photo: S.B. Krivit

Even here, in rural, backwoods Rayalseema, I commonly notice all manner of villagers talking busily into their mobile phones.   Sitting on a bullock cart, jogging along with a stack of hay on tarred roads, the ‘driver’ wields his mobile phone while he urges on the skinny, underfed bullock.  Inside the ashram, too, I’ve come across maids and  sweepers chatting importantly on their phones.  I knew that they probably weren’t ‘literate’ but couldn’t figure out how they managed until a ‘dhobi’ or washerwoman wanted my phone number.

woman phoneSaraswati fished out her phone, laughed, and asked me to enter my number.  “How are you going to know that its my number when you want to call me,” I asked. She told me that she’d assign a symbol to my number, so that she’d know it was me.  Showing me different symbols, dots, dashes, asterisks, she reeled off the names behind the numbers.  Remembering symbols is impossible for me, my educated mind and memory used to the alphabet, but Sarawati had formulated her own personal code. Living here, I’ve learned not to label folks easily, even ‘literacy’ becomes an unclassifiable spectrum.  As in the UNIC quote,  strategies like Saraswati’s are part of “”many practices of literacy embedded in different cultural processes…”

Although I’m not actively searching for girls who want to study further,  I stumble across quite a few without looking, given where I live.  In Rayalseema [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayalaseema] a district that suffers perennial water scarcity, the villagers eke out a bare living from seasonal crops.  Thanks to its founder, the ashram provides free schooling, but getting into college after that is impossible for the villagers as they possess only very basic English language skills when they make through from high school.  atp-frontOffering free education, Swami’s women’s college in Anantapur nearby, is now part of a whole university.  Ironically,  the standard of literacy required is beyond the locals.  In fact, I studied for 5 years in his college, and graduated with a Master’s which got me free education in the States!

The villagers, or original inhabitants of Puttaparthi before it became a bustling tourist town thanks to Swami, depend on the infrastructure of the ashram (and its attendant free hospitals, colleges, schools, canteens) for employment outside that of the land.woman farmer   The ashram proper employs a number of yard sweepers (also block janitors), a sweeper for each block of tiny apartments.  Most of them have been around for years.  Hard as the job is, it comes with benefits, and so prized, often passed down through generations of the same family–mother to daughter/ son, or even husband to wife.  Non-gender specific, the women actually outnumber the men.  Gangamma has been doing the job for years, arriving in the ashram at dawn, going home to her house in the village for lunch, and returning in the afternoon for another stint until about 5 pm.

Technically she’s not assigned to my block, but on the ground floor as I am, with a little private garden, I’m a face made familiar through the years.  During festival seasons, especially when Swami was alive, the place gets a noisy influx of pilgrims from the outlying areas.  Out for a spree with the excuse of religion, farm workers themselves, they don’t look for toilets but search for any semi-private spot to squat and do their business, more the women than the men.  At such times, I keep a wary eye out for such offenders.   Sure enough, a couple of years ago, I found a fetid pile of human feces in the corner, under some plants. At a loss about how to clear it up, I was glad to see a trio of sweepers cleaning up my neighbor’s yard in the absence of the regular guy.

sweepersNoticing me and my quandary,  the women wished me and assured me they would deal with the mess.  Curious to see how they would clean up human excrement, I hung around.  The two who had assured me most vociferously continued to sweep, but the third, the one I was least acquainted with, the quietest of the lot, disappeared.  Returning with a cardboard carton in hand, she proceeded to flatten it and, then, neatly swept up the stinking pile and deposited it in the waste bin.  Impressed with her wordless efficiency, I asked for her name and tipped her well.  That was how Ganga (the ‘amma’ is a suffix denoting formality, i.e. Gangamma) and I came to be acquainted.

After that incident, I would run into her sweeping elsewhere while returning from my morning walks.  Always quiet but smiling, she wished me on sight.  Dark and sloe-eyed, I find her the epitome of Indian womanhood, her hair oiled and coiled up in a bun, clad in a simple working woman’s sari.  Every so often, when the irregular worker assigned to my block failed to show, she appeared to sweep out my yard, so we got acquainted over a couple of years.  But, returning after a gap of two months from my Goa hiatus, I saw her no longer until she turned up at my door, suddenly one day.  Immersed in my writing, I was impatient, and told her to return when I was free.  Only later, when my composition was done did her words and appearance hit my consciousness, prompting a wave of guilt.  Teary eyed and hair in disarray, she’d appeared to tell me that her mother had died with no warning, just fourteen days after the death of her father who’d been ailing for some time.

Artist N.S. Abdul Rahim (Kerala, India)

Artist N.S. Abdul Rahim (Kerala, India)

Kicking myself for my selfishness, I inquired after her when I came upon the other sweepers.  Thankfully Ganga showed up to meet me again, and I could hear her out.  Weeping inconsolably, she repeated that the death of her mum had been a total shock. Bedraggled though she looked,  she’d returned to work.  In the weeks that followed, her face grew lined and she lost weight in her grief.  There no way for me to console her, I could only tell her that she should watch herself, that time would heal the pain a bit, even if, at the moment of loss, sadness overwhelmed all thought.  Diffident in the face of her loss, I presented her with a couple of my own mum’s saris and some money, poor consolation.

Over the troubled course of a month, Ganga continued disturbed and weary, but slowly her face regained its old contours.  Approaching me again, she said that she wanted her daughter to meet me.  Her daughter had recently finished high school, and wanted now to go on to study for her intermediate,  a two years interim course before graduate college.  Wondering if her daughter liked studying, and if her grades were any good, I questioned Ganga, unwilling to assume responsibility on hearsay.  “She wants to study further.  She’ll be the first woman to study beyond school in our family.  Anyway, please amma, I want her to meet you.  She looks like you, her nose, her face.”

I acquiesced.  What else could I do?  I warned Ganga, however, that I wouldn’t finance her daughter’s studies completely, although I could help out a bit if I thought the girl was serious.  She smiled at me:  “I’m not asking for any financial help.  I just want her to meet with you.”  So I did.

Pramila, her daughter arrived with together with Ganga,  and two small, restless kids, one her younger sister, the other a cousin.  In India, the concept of family is rather different from the West:  even cousins are commonly referred to as sisters or brothers. Until they clarify the relationship for me, I routinely get misled and assume they are all part of one family.  Although Ganga has four daughters, one older than Pramila and the last younger, she’d brought her niece along rather than her other two kids.  Looking far younger than her years, Pramila was quiet when I questioned if she was the oldest:
“Hey Ganga, I wanted to meet your oldest daughter, the one who is going to study.”
“My eldest is at home, my family has decided that she shouldn’t continue.  She’ll stay home and look after the house when I come for work.  Anyway, her eyes are weak. She wears spectacles.”
“But, glasses are not a big deal, I wear them too.  I’ve been wearing glasses since I was eight years old.”  I assured her.
Ganga remained unconvinced, “When she was about 10, the doctors slit a stye on her eyelid.  Then, they told me that she couldn’t see too well, that she’s to wear specs.  It’s better she remains at home.”
“What are you planning for her? Marriage?”

Source: The Times Of India Group © BCCL

Source: The Times Of India Group
© BCCL

She nodded hesitantly, “Pramila’s the one whom we want to send to Anantapur for further studies. My younger brother is checking colleges now. They ask for a capitation fee* of about 2 lakhs (ie about 200,00 rupees), then we pay fees of about forty thousand.”  [on the controversy about capitation fees charged by colleges and schools for entrance in India, see http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/keyword/capitation-fee/featured/4 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitation_fee ]
“What subjects do you want to take for your major?” I ask Pramila who looks totally out of it.
Like a parrot, she responds, “CEP.”
girl studentsI’ve no idea what the letters stand for, so I ask her to explain and learn they stand for “Civics, Economics, Politics,” one of the majors possible for an intermediate degree. On questioning Pramila if these are her favorite subjects, or the ones in which she gets the highest grades, she replies in the negative. Her cousin, studying for a degree in Anantapur at present, has told her she should choose this major.
“What do you want to do after this?”
“I’ll go to TTC.”
More initials, here they stand for “Teacher Training Center.” And at the Center, what is she training toward? A degree, a diploma, a certificate? She doesn’t know. Is the major relevant to entering TTC? She doesn’t know. “My brother has told me,” is her invariable response.

Gradually, I get her to come out of the shell of wordless disinterest, goading her with questions on her favorite subjects, on the papers she written best in her exams. Pramila has given me the certificate of her overall grade in school finals, a C-, but she doesn’t know her individual grades in different subjects. Finally, she admits that she feels that she’s done best in Physics and Biology. Surprised by that, I ask her to meet me again. After she checks, she’ll know for sure the subjects she’s done best in, and I’m curious if they tally with her own estimation. Poking her further out of her shell, I prod,

“do you want to end up doing housework even after your studies? If you don’t have a goal in life, if you don’t decide where your interests lie, and just listen to your brother, or, later, your husband, what is the point of your parents spending so much money on you? You’ll be the first woman in the family to do further studies, you shouldn’t let your parents or yourself down.”

Unfortunately, without proper guidance academically and emotionally, there’s an all too real possibility that Pramila could end up later in life as a maid or a sweeper.

Graduating from an ‘English medium’ school, Pramila doesn’t speak English, not even broken English. When I speak in English to her, I’m not totally certain that she understands me. But, by the end of the visit she’s more animated, and promises me to talk to her cousin, go to the Teacher Training Center in Anantapur, and to check her grades for individual subjects. I don’t set too much store by these promises. I’m not sure how long the enthusiasm will last, though Ganga assures me her daughter will meet me again. At the last I spell out the word g-o-a-l to her, explain what it means, and tell that she has to define some goals in life for herself.

Artist: Loui Jover

Artist: Loui Jover

I’d like to help further her education, but only if she will help herself, will attempt to become a woman who thinks for herself, and works towards some (any) goals in life. Motivation is hard to sustain in her circumstances. I doubt that Pramila will come by, but pray she will!

A woman and her bitch: an INDog and I

A scared little dog decided, one day some five years ago, that I was the one to feed her.  When she turned up in my tiny front yard, she was skin and bone, her dugs hanging down, her ribs all too visible under the skin.  As with most female dogs who were not spayed, she ‘d given birth somewhere, hidden her pups nearby, and gone out to forage for food.  Less than a year old herself, she was an awful sight.tippy1

What instinct led her to me, I can’t fathom.  Frightened of the big bad world at large, loud noises, even the sound of a dropping leaf, she ate ‘Marie’ biscuits’ from my hand, shying away if other folk came too near or dogs barked too close.  That behavior hasn’t changed.  If anything, she becomes more worried when people walk into the garden.  As the garden lies in the heart of the ashram, I cannot fence it about though it is ringed by a row of concrete planters. For Tippy, however, this openness makes for an anxious feeding. Constantly on the look out for other dogs, she runs at first bark to take secondary refuge under a red mini-van yards down the block.

Abs not ME!!

Abs not ME!!

I’ve always been quite companionable to dogs: “Hello, how are you today,” I greet any stray on my way.  Merely an acknowledgement of co-existence, I ask them how the world is and themselves. Most dogs respond, staring at this stranger, me, with the expressive dark eyes common to the breed. Sometimes they even follow me about for a while. Indeed, there have been a few dogs who have taken my greeting as a sign of uncommon friendship, jumping on my shoulders and attempting to lick my face. Such exuberant outbursts leave me worried about hygiene as I am a believer in washing my hands after canine contact. As with my interactions with my own species, humans, I’d rather a quiet, occasional camaraderie with no expectations on either side. Mostly, this approach works well.

At a juncture in my life, when any attachment seems too much, Tippy is a one off for me. She’s not really my kind of dog. I’d prefer a more confrontational bitch, a more muscular female, less the pretty dog she’s turned out to be. But, I must admit, when cornered, Tippy snarls and fends off the biggest prick among those who set on her. A particular set of noisy, boisterous barkers claim my garden as part of their territory unfazed by my shouted invectives. At sight of Tippy, they give chase. She can turn on them abruptly even if she’d rather hide.

When I set about driving them off, unfortunately, Tippy is the first to run, though recently she’s hung about, and watched their retreat. In the last couple of days, I mutter away to her as she sits in the yard outside my window, and my mumbled nonsense seems to calm her down a bit. Anyway, she’s definitely healthier.Photo on 02-05-13 at 11.15 AM #3

Tippy chose me, and I let myself be chosen. Now, I’m caught. Thankfully, she’s been seized and spayed sometime after her first overture to me Although she turns up on three days and disappears for the next three, I know she will return. Sometimes, her absences have been as long as ten days, but she re-appears eventually. The day I returned after my three month sojourn in Goa, she bounced out of the bushes, as startled by me as I was by her. I refuse to ‘own’ Tips. She is not my dog, much as I worry about her. In her own timid way, she asserts her independence through her regular absences, through her cautious approach, through her darting escapes out.

As my unwanted attachment grows, I find her beautiful–dark brown eyes ringed with black, short light brown coat fading to a blonde ruff over her neck. Not one of the elect, pure-bred kindred, she belongs to the ubiquitous ‘pi’ dogs that populate every Indian city and village. Wondering what strain these ‘pi’s had descended from, I googled them the other day, my usual resource when I’m at a loss. I’d assumed these dogs were mongrels like me, composed of a mix of different breeds. But, I’ve no company here. I learn that these dogs are a domestic breed, as distinct as any of the pedigreed breeds.[http://indianpariahdog.blogspot.in/search/label/articles] “INDog” is the label now officially recognized for these dogs. On the definitive site for the INDog project [http://www.indog.co.in/], the breed is described in detail, and archeological evidence given to prove that this dog breed was the first to be domesticated, despite the insult of their nickname. ‘Pi’ the label from my childhood is actually short for “pariah” a tamil word for the untouchable, scavenger class in India.

Interestingly, the scavenger class extended to comprise these dogs, looked down upon as the lowest of the low of dogs. No self-respecting Indian of the upper and middle class would own one of these in those days. A pure-bred Lab, Pom etc. signified status, much like cars, watches, or even the schools we attended. But, the INDog is gradually coming into its own [https://www.facebook.com/pages/INDog-Club/]. Though not recognized by any “Kennel Club“, the breed is ironically admitted to the ‘primitive’/aboriginal breed of dogs. Racist classification of the human species bleeds over into the labels for dogs. More ‘civilized’ perhaps, the Western dogs can lord it over the primitive breeds!

Wikipedia cites Gautam Das who is part of the INDog project–

 Indian Pariah Dog Club logo

Indian Pariah Dog Club logo

“The type represents one of the few remaining examples of mankind’s original domestic dog and its physical features are the same as those of the dogs whose fossil remains have been found in various parts of the world, from very early remains in Israel and China to later ones such as those found in the volcanic lava at Pompeii, near Naples in Italy. In India these were the hunting partners and companion animals of the aboriginal peoples of India. They are still found with the aboriginal communities who live in forested areas. Since these dogs have never been selectively bred, their appearance, physical features and mental characteristics are created by the process of natural selection alone. The INDog has not been recognized by any kennel club although similarly ancient or ‘primitive’ dogs have been recognized such as the Azawakh and the Basenji both of which are also sighthound and Pariah…. It has been recognized by the Primitive and Aboriginal Dog Society (PADS), a worldwide grouping of enthusiasts which is based in the USA. It is extremely alert, very social dog. Its rural evolution, often close to forests where predators like tigers and leopards were common, has made it an extremely cautious breed and this caution is not to be mistaken for a lack of courage. They make excellent watch dogs and are very territorial and defensive of their pack/family.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Pariah_Dog]

Chacha ChaudharyEven in Puttaparthi, or the outlying villages in Rayalseema, I’ve seen the Indian pariah sitting proudly in the little courtyards before the small houses, standing up to bark fiercely if an unknown comes too close. [On Chacha Choudhry, the comicbook villager, and his dog Rocket, see http://topyaps.com/top-10-indian-comic-book-heroes/]   But, I’ve come across a number of dogs with their ears cropped, and often their tails as well. I asked my dhobi (laundry woman), Saraswati once why the villagers did that. She replied earnestly, “Dogs listen to our secrets. They hear our whispers and family problems, and carry them around the village. So, we have to lop off the tips of their ears. Otherwise, it’s not good for the family.”  Cut off the dogs’ ears the villagers might, but the dogs receive as good a meal as their children.  Last year, Saraswati’s son carried their dog in his arms to the animal hospital in the neighboring village when it refused to eat.

I’ve seen INDogs herding groups of sheep and goats being taken to graze, nipping at their heels to keep them in line.  In Chennai, my friend Ganesh is in the process of training Mani, the street stray, to sleep within the compound. Now, Mani duly scares the courier boy, though a large coterie of his friends tempt him with biscuits to get him outside Ganesh’s gate. Perhaps Tippy turned up in my garden to keep me socialized, a borderline human.  It takes a woman her bitch to keep her womanly…?

Barbara Shermund. I'm Sorry! between 1945 and 1955.

Barbara Shermund. I’m Sorry! between 1945 and 1955.

 

Watering the garden–Madras now & then

At the fruit stall, the ubiquitous “Pazhamudir” fruit/ vegetable supermarket in Chennai I browse bananas.  Deciding, as usual, on the yelakki variety, I pick up a few of those small, but flavorful, variety.  Ganesh is diabetic and, spotting the fruit, is liable to consume them at will.banana_shopWarned by Rohini, his wife, I confine myself to just six, each fruit merely a mouthful.  All us Indians from the southern states, Kerala, Tamilnadu, and Karnataka, must have bananas about the place, within reach as a snack.

The bigger variety of fruit, nendrakkai, is often steamed for breakfast, gooey and sweet with a faint sour undertone. Bananas are part of any Indian household routine (the raw fruit is a staple in savory dishes) as well as sacred ritual (the long, broad leaves are tied to house gates and to vehicle fenders). An agricultural site suggests, “The banana culture in India is as old as Indian civilization” [http://www.ikisan.com/Crop%20Specific/Eng/links/ap_bananaHistory.shtml].  Over 200 species exist in the country.  Choosing which banana to serve at what occasion is a matter of some thought. Although, varieties still abound, Indian banana species in the wild, particularly in the hills of the north-east, run the risk of extinction.  [http://www.nbcnews.com/id/12702822/]

Settling down to write in Ganesh’s sit out, I draw my chair under the shade. Supporta, Guava, Neem, Banana, and Coconut trees share space with each other.Photo on 29-03-13 at 8.31 AMAs I look about me, I am disinclined to face my Mac Book.   I wish rather to absorb the particularly ‘Madras‘ (not ‘Chennai’) feel of  a childhood long left behind.  Memories of school days in the heat drift back–long afternoons at home that I spent under the shade of trees in another backyard.  Nostalgia for that atmosphere particular to the tropics,  of heat and growing things, renders my head heavy, resistant to embark on any analysis.  I’d rather focus on those fragile yet heavy banana saplings, still thriving in a Madras turned  Chennai of  black dust and smog.

When I’d dug out the six yelakki bananas at the bottom of the bag, from under the rest of the fruit, Rohini had flashed her sudden, toothy smile and darted out of the back door;  she bustled past the well in the yard behind the kitchen, past mosquito nets hung to be washed, past sundry coconut palms, and had rounded the corner to exclaim in delight:

“see, see, I’ve planted yelakki banana trees.   Can you see the green bananas?”

I couldn’t, even to please her, spot them then, but, now, seated here, I look up and notice a bunch of them.Photo on 29-03-13 at 11.48 AM #2Unripe green as they are, the bananas play into the muted symphony of greens about me, in contrast to the gray, dusty pallor of the trees and shrubs that front the busy road.

I probe, later:  “how often do you water the plants?”

Rohini specifies that she watered them each day with water from the well, although now the duty has been taken over by Ganesh.   As the well is not connected to an electric pump, watering is a chore.  Each evening I’ve been here, Ganesh procrastinates as he dislikes lugging buckets of water around the yard.  But, as I wash dishes the first evening, he hovers over me:

“Hey, don’t waste water. I save the rinse water to pour on the plants.”

When I press him about how often he actually waters the garden, however, he evades me. Despite his lackadaisical watering, the garden is healthy, though the grimy foliage at the front demands attention.

Madras/Chennai endures, now and in the past, perennial water shortage. The Metro Authorities have already warned the city’s inhabitants that water will not be supplied for the next two months, April and May, as the rains have failed this year. Living in an independent bungalow as they do, Rohini and Ganesh, will need to buy water, delivered to them and fed into their sump (underground tank) by private companies. Most houses and apartment complexes include a bore well, drilled to enormous depths to reach water.  Despite this measure,  they buy tankers of water as well.  With bore wells constantly sunk in most cities,  ground water tables have diminished all over the country. In the newspaper, I read that the city council will sink new bore wells to depths of 100 feet to replenish dwindling reservoir levels.  [http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/borewells-to-be-revived-to-augment-citys-water-supply/article4559183.ece]  “The major reason for declining water tables is due to more water extraction to sell to urban areas,” a researcher informs me through the web.   [http://www.worldwaterweek.org/documents/WWW_PDF/Convernors/2012/ACaseStudy.pdf]

As cities get bigger, and living standards more luxurious, the threat of drought and water scarcity lose their menace.  City dwellers extend their budgets to include the cost of buying water even as they grumble about it.  We may adjust our routines to save a bit more water, but buying more is easier.  The poor don’t waste much water as they have to carry buckets of it from a common pump or Metro tanker back to their homes. The sheer labor of the task forces them to save water.  Ganesh grumbles,
“people are soooo dirty in this city. Get on a bus, and, gosh, the smell. They don’t bathe every day.”
He continues, “I prefer the West coast, the streams and the rivers there. No water shortage. People are cleaner.”
I live in a universe that is inextricably interlinked, the shell to sand to the human foot to the stars. When I brush an ant off my sleeve and it tumbles down dead, I must set in motion an event which causes another. Who is to say that the death of an unknown ant has no effect? As humans progress, we colonize the world in our name. But, the world may rebel; we, as a species, must also be kept in check. Water taken from the ground must find its way back to the earth.

jefferson-25-feet-525x351[One of artist Nickolay Lamm’s images of what the United States’ landmarks might look like in 500 years, when sea levels are predicted to rise by 25 feet.   http://flavorwire.com/385231/disturbing-photos-of-landmarks-ruined-by-rising-sea-levels/]

“…groundwater depletion adds about 25 percent to projected rates of sea-level rise, making it the largest contributor from land to sea-level rise other than the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Even the melting of glaciers in the world’s high mountains won’t contribute more to rising sea levels.” [http://news.nationalgeographic.co.in/news/2012/05/120531-groundwater-depletion-may-accelerate-sea-level-rise/]

The poetry of such reaction sets me gasping for god. Process is all, everything in the universe lives and dies, and is equal in its being to another. If I spray a cockroach dead, I cannot ask that earth protect in my turn from what awaits, destiny, process, reaction, the cosmic/anarchic verse!

I sweep out my room, but black dust accumulates each day. In crevices under cupboards, on window ledges, on the soles feet, I spy that black grime. My car has settled under its cloak of dust in the front. Even before I begin a fight against dirt, I relinquish the battle saving my energy for skirmishes in traffic, scrimmage with financial accounts, and allergies that flourish. Much as the back yard beckons, I resist dreams of the old Madras life. I am child in the vast playground of sand and stars, good and bad, life.

 

Leaky bucket days–life dripping down

“Water not only moves around a rock, it actually moves through it,”
Larry Fleinhardt in Numb3rs

An eccentric genius, Larry is a physics professor who cannot get his ‘self’ together. In certain aspects of his life he is highly organized and anal retentive as, for instance, in his food habits, he eats only monochromatic foods. But, Larry has his anarchic  side as well; he sells his house and, now, beds down wherever he feels unthreatened.  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0888290/   The episode opens with Larry scurrying out of a steam tunnel, bedding in hand, watched surreptitiously by a Senior Professor.   Although he has been offered a space in Charlie’s garage, he moves out after a few nights, preferring the tunnels.larry Larry’s is a more borderline personality than Charlie Epps, the math genius who, though he may have commitment problems, lives in his own house albeit with his dad. Watching the show at night, having had a few pegs of ‘Honeybee’, that wonderful Goan brandy, I sense Larry in myself.

So far the day has been a leaky bucket, my resolve to write, my good humor, have both dripped out through the hours. An all too familiar mood of futility and desperation flows in instead.  I hear my own voice, shrill, high, and loud, berating the service people who delay the car’s return until the afternoon.  The heat today  is like an unwanted blanket, it presses down and renders me numb and nerveless.  Aware that the world is at odds with me, I don’t want to move.

Sure enough, my voice hits the heavy air again like a harpy’s. I shout at Francisca, the housekeeper, who forgets to bring the sticky tape I need to mend a carton. And, I am constantly on the phone to the service people who whine,
“we are bringing the car, just now, bringing the car ma’am.”
They have now been bringing the car for four days.
“Brake pads are worn down, ma’am, we don’t have a driver, ma’am, the car is in the body shop, ma’am.”
Sung in inimitable Indian cadence, the refrain drums through my head. The customer will never be God here, s/he has to grateful for any favors done.

My harangue, in response to their ditty, removes me to another time and place–the ashram of two years ago when its founder died.  The note of hysteria that inflects my voice summons up those days:  Swami dead, people, pilgrims, gawkers, and thieves bound together in the sweat of mass emotion.  Me, in my tiny flat, I cower amid the thick of things, hidden behind my walls but I witness all.putt  I don’t venture outside, but my room rides the gusts of hysteria and hypocrisy. My apartment is a ship, battered by a cyclone of mourning.

I lock myself forcibly inside, and attempt to eat myself into immobility. My legs lock up.  They ache because they have nowhere to walk. [FYI:news video Devotees mourn death]  Today, two years later, the legacy of locking myself in for eight months endures, physically and mentally.  I write to release myself from that immuration within doors. Physically, I am free, I have the means to move where I please–to be in Goa, to meet folks, to walk on the beach.  But every so often I feel the weight of  those mental shackles.  I allow myself more latitude now but grief still bears down on my mind. I will not move out of this room in Sunlife Residency today, although my voice beats at different doors.

Scrunched over my little MacBook, I hear a scooter start up, and Shalini, my neighbor goes by with her year old son balanced in front of her.  She looks up and waves, plump, with shoulder length black hair, large dark eyes that crease up when she smiles. Her round face, as well, creases into goodwill. In her black skirt and printed blouse, she looks the perfect mum.
“You must have heard me screaming,” I tell her, “horrible day, guess how much the service cost?  Thirteen thousand rupees.”
“Ooh,oh, my Gawd!” she exclaims.
“Fuck them. Ba-a-ad day.”
“Yes”, she agrees.

I’ve been bled dry.

 

Snakes of the sea–a catholic-hindu mongrel on the beach

“Le hasard, c’est peut-être le pseudonyme de Dieu quand il ne veut pas signer. [Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he does not wish to sign his work.] —Théophile Gautier [http://www.phraseculte.fr/phrase-culte-hasard-theophile-gautier-18.html]

I never knew who wrote this until right now when I trawl the web for writings on coincidence. These words, like so much other literary miscellany, jitterbug through my mind at odd hours, waking me up when I need to sleep. Coincidence rests in the realm of the miraculous.

Surfing the net a few days ago, I read that sea snakes are common to Goa‘s seas.[http://indiamike.info/india/goa-f23/sea-snake-t180518/#post1493182] sea-snake-in-goa-beachhttp://indiamike.info/india-images/pictures/sea-snake-goa-beach The very next morning I see a dead sea snake coiled up on the sand at low tide. Today again, I enter the beach at extreme low tide, walking onto exposed black sands, and I notice on my right, just about a yard away, a sea snake. Only, this snake is alive, opening its mouth and attempting to make its way back into the sea. I watch it for a while, wanting to help but queasy all the same. As I make my way along the shore for my morning stumble, the thought of that stranded serpent remains at the back of my mind. On my return, about an hour or so later, I look around but see no sign of it. Hopefully, the snake has regained the sea.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but also a sign from the god that follows me about, a whisper from the universe,

“You are not alone, detritus on the shores of life. The snake and you, god holds you both equally, process without hierarchy.”

Evolution or not, the plankton on the waves, a dense frond of seaweed on the shore, inanimate sand and animate human foot, we are interdependent, we create G-O-D together. Shell studded beach, star studded sky, neon studded cities, will I learn to hold these together equally? If my prayer is listened to, what about that breathed by the cockroach I spray with Baygon? At unprompted moments, this catholic breath blows through my being; at others I am empty, washed clean, like that spiral shell on the beach.

Yesterday, I had to take my blue Jazz for service to Verna. A long drive, but I follow my friend, Gerry, in his little red Zen to the service center. Leaving my car there, I hop into the Zen, accompanying Gerry as he does a few errands. Then, we drive to his house in Orlim, where the carpenter and his assistant are replacing the tiles on the roof. They remove the red terracotta tiles one by one, then, they clean and replace each: their activity writes a poem in color, labor, and sunlight.

Underfoot, the black dust from the tiles sprinkles the mosaic on the floor. Inside the kitchen, Preethi is at the stove, busy with an Indian breakfast delicacy, pooris. Deep fried, true, but ambrosia to a hungry person. Gerry has a headache which he attributes to a hangover from a peg of vodka drunk the night before, but we, Preethi and I, are sure that the pooris will prove a remedy. Sure enough, the headache vanishes, and he holds forth on his projects for the day. Standing up to leave, he remarks casually that he’ll see me later.

“But, Gerry,” I hesitate, “should I come with you right now, otherwise, how will I make my way back?”
Surprised, he looks at me: “Ah, no, you’ll have the car, so you can leave later.”
“What car, do you mean you’re handing over the car to me?”
“Yup, keep with you in ‘Sunlife Residency,’ you’ll need it to go to market, or beach.”
He mutters, “I prefer the scooter to move about on, any way. What traffic in Margao, you know.”

His unforced kindness bowls me over. My interactions with others over the past few years have been fraught; his simple goodwill renews my faith in our species. Preethi pipes in, “keep it, keep it. You use it.” She’s got a lot to do after Gerry’s departure—-wash the dishes, sweep, dust, and mop the house in the aftermath of the roof cleaning. As she moves round to the back to free their two enormous blonde Labradors who have become entangled with each other, I follow to see pails and pails of clothes soaked for wash. Freed from his chain, Tyson jumps on me, tongue lolling to the side. I push him off, fearful of my legs. Meantime, Bruno, still chained, starts wailing.

I take my leave, not wanting to get in the way of Preethi’s chores. Outside, the small house faces a vista of fields, the neighbor’s place is well beyond a banyan tree. Gerry and Preethi have cleared the ground about the house, and planted decorative shrubs. To protect the emerging shrubs from the depredations of the dogs, Gerry’s brainwave is to circle them with upended, Tuborg beer bottles. Everywhere I look, those beer bottle butts wink greenly back at me. The Zen is parked facing the narrow dirt track that leads up to the house, making it easy for me to maneuver it over the rubble.

I start the car which is in first gear, but, before I get it to move, the clutch jerks and the engine cuts out. Under the grinning gaze of the tile cleaner who is watching me closely, I try a couple more times. No go. Finally, I raise the engine in frustration, and the tiny car moves down the track. I am off in Gerry’s car but it is a tense and jerky ride until I get used to it.

Anxious though I am at driving a vehicle so different from mine, a sense of felicity envelops me. Later, the same evening, I visit my neighbor, Shalini, to genuflect before the icon of Mother Mary in her living room, decorated with a crown of electric lights above and a burning taper below. Mother Mary travels from house to Catholic house in Varca. (Every local church sends their particular Mother Mary from house to house in their neighborhood). Each home welcomes her, keeps her for 24 hours, and celebrates her visit with fireworks and prayers. I am blessed.

So, I consecrate my private togetherness with god and the vast anarchic totality of Being. For now, a divine, fugitive order of coincidence directs my steps. Tomorrow? Who knows? Certainly not me.

Spiral shells along the mindshore–solitary thoughts on Varca beach

Stumbling along on Varca beach in the morning, about 7 am, I realize that my dress is inside out. Earlier in the morning, drinking my coffee, I noticed that the pockets were hanging out, but had absentmindedly pushed them back in. Now, I comfort myself that the sundress is black, in a dye so runny that the rinse water stains the floor during the wash. The label is probably dyed by now; anyway, I’ve knotted the dress up on one side, and other side I’ve pinned up with a nappy pin. Surprisingly, this early, the beach not empty: beach walkers and joggers, wave paddlers and wallowers move by.

Sunday today, so perhaps the weekend tourists are getting in their fill of the sea before the sun beats down.  Only mid March, but the heat during the day prevents any strenuous physical activity. We Indians, phobic about the sun’s effect on our skins, are the most visible on the beach. Foreigners tend to get here after 8 am, wanting to take in the heat. Some turn a boiled red through the days, some a glorious golden brown, others a kind of in between brown-red.

Along the far horizon, laid out in a line, fishing boats dot the sea: they are further out today as the tide is coming in.  Only one lonely catamaran, a contraption of two huge logs bound together, rides into shore. Its sole fisherman, in baggy black trunks, poles through the breakers, and, at the last he has to get down and push it into the sand. Watching him, I look to see where he has placed his catch on those two logs, but all I can find is a plastic bundle. He must have wrapped the fish up so they wouldn’t fall back into the waves. Curiously, as the tide laps in, the sea remains calm, the breakers that ride in with crests’ foaming are still gentle. Behind my back, the sun rises behind a fringe of eucalyptus trees. The sea is red gold, a color that invokes an atmosphere of legend.

If reality and the physical world exist, they must exist hand in hand with the legendary, a mystical otherworld where knowledge is built on the miraculous. I ask myself if belief, or faith, functions in that world just as rigorous analytic thought functions here. Other minds, other perceptions–agreeing with me, the tide throws up an orangey brown spiral shell at my feet. The shell comes with a tiny blob still clinging on.
spiral shell  When I try later to identify the shells through Google,

I come upon Ivars Petersen’s article on sea shell spirals.  Describing the nautilus shell (not this orangey elongated shell), he writes:

the growth process yields an elegant spiral structure, visible when the shell is sliced to reveal the individual chambers. Many accounts describe this pattern as a logarithmic (or equiangular) spiral and link it to a number known as the golden ratio….Starting with the observation that shell spirals are logarithmic spirals, many people automatically assume that, because the golden ratio can be used to draw a logarithmic spiral, all shell spirals are related to the golden ratio, when, in fact, they are not. http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/6030/description/Sea_Shell_Spirals

 

Are spirals magical or not? Does it matter if all spirals confirm or not to the golden ratio, or the Fibonacci sequence (popularized by Dan Brown)? Can magic or miracles ever be caught in a net of scientific proof?  The shells lie in the black tidal sand at my feet, some sections of the shore are shell studded, and some parts of the sand are bare. I find occasional small starfish, and big, glossy, black mussel shells. Pelecypods, or bivalves, I assume.

Caught though I am in reverie, a sharply trilled, “Good Morning”, shocks me into polite response even before I raise my head. When I look up, I see a sari clad, plump worker woman, hair neatly caught in a bun and oiled. She smiles cheerily at me, and strides on. As I watch, I see that she wishes nobody other than me. Inspired by her stride, I move faster, limp determinedly on, pushing my legs through the water. Every so often I move deeper into the sea, and let the salt water wash over my swollen knees. My body’s deterioration seems part of some process where my physical self and mind move together: as the body slows down, the mind must seek an equilibrium. As long as possible, I will stave off surgery that refashions my aging body and fixes me up with ‘new knees’. No, I am not against science, or progress, or rational thought, I just need to believe that these are not the only ways that humans can live.

Heeding those aching legs and creaky knees, in the meantime, I look for a sandy ledge thrown up by the tide in order to lever myself down on the sand and do a few stretches. I sit awhile, looking at the horizon and the near breakers. A black bird, maybe a crow, flies high overhead, heading out over the waves and into the open seas. I watch until it is a speck in the sky and a gull distracts me. Where did it go, I wonder, did it head out to the fishing boats on the horizon in hopes of a stray catch off their decks? The crow’s solitary flight triggers the memory of other flights. I remember butterflies fluttering alongside the breakers, seemingly out of place, far from any vegetation. These butterflies are huge, warmly red, or red and black, almost minute birds. Remembrance prompts their arrival, a red butterfly hovers now above the waves, and I realize they are always solitary beings, never in pairs.

Movement along the shore attracts me, though I sit with legs half buried in the sand. I stare bemused at the lone jogger: the woman now has her sari hiked up, and jogs plumply along. As I smile at her in wonderment, she grins back. I notice that she even has a black thread tied about her ankle (usually part of some Hindu ritual), and sports the red dot on her forehead. Joy seizes me. The spontaneity of our camaraderie is miraculous, two beings who are joined for a moment in their eccentricity. Yes, yes, I believe in an anarchic world, a process where Generation-Organization-Destruction invokes the universe. And that particular phrase, or definition, G-O-D, is courtesy of A magical Being, Person, Human, Sage, and my very own Merlin.