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

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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.

 

Spiritual Punk 2–security in anarchy

Evenings, I close myself off, draw the curtains against the dark, and put myself into a capsule removed from the world outside.  I float through the ether, crawl across the glowing laptop screen in black words, or creep through layouts, options, displays, WordPress webs.  More bot insect than human, I am caught up in discussions on Al Jazeera, You tube, blogs, feeds, the web.

Where am I now?  The ashram lies outside my window, but I live spaces inaccessible to the time before. Before the unthinkable happened and my Merlin died. (Reading sagas of Merlin as a child, I used to wonder even then how Arthur carried on.) When people outside my window bustle along to bhajans, routines, preoccupations of their own, I am journeying into nebulous spheres, inner and outer.  The darklight of inner vision impels me to re-discoveries, past memories of a quicksilver being, into webs of interconnected worlds.  Paradoxically, that inner urge leads me outwards, out of safe communal haven, into realms often anti-social, chaotic, anarchic, miraculous.

People taunt me, rebuke me,
they call me crazy
but I see
the whole world is crazy–
Yes, friends, I am crazy.
The agony is now insufferable,
I am driven to destroy all
like the thunder and lightning,
torment and energy.
O friends, I’m crazy.
Bulleh Shah

Saved from years past, the yellowed scrapPhoto on 21-04-13 at 8.18 AM attests to a time that I sat in the big hall, morning and evening, to have darshan, a word now reified, empty of meaning.  In Sanskrit ‘darshan’ means sight, although Indians, especially Hindus, use the word to connote seeing the divine.  Visiting temples, we receive darshan of the particular idol (god) present. Often the devout see the symbols as real, possessed of miraculous powers. To visit one Shiva temple is not enough, another may offer different benefits. Ideally and philosophically, of course, the icon is only symbol for a God (a form describable in words) endowed with particular attributes. But,that God or form (Rama, Krishna, Lakshmi etc) offers a bridge to the formless, through faith. Outside the pale of human cognition, that formless Other is unknowable through reason or language. A three step process, Hindu worship moves from idol/icon to idealized form to formless Other outside the bounds of language.

The intricacies of Hindu philosophy are beyond me and this blog, but I suggest that acts of worship are never simple. Swami, living breathing body, was himself a symbol. Unpredictability and mystery framed his life, but so did massive social projects such as supplying water to outlying villages, relief to drought/famine victims, institutions like free hospitals, free schools and colleges.  The paradox unsettles easy formulas for his followers.  Though people remake his daily utterances into prophecies, their human reason writes these narratives. We sit secure in the confidence that we are the Chosen, privy to divine mysteries. World religions are constructed on such premises, why not particular communities?

In seamless social transition, the devout receive darshan of the marble tomb, now the center of the big hall. Tomb=avatar=god=formless brahman?  But, what if one step (the initial step) of the process is enough?  For the good devotees, the marble tomb is now harbinger of miracles and signs, a sanctified sight, metonym of the (dis)embodied Avatar.  The concrete symbol assuages doubts, affirms the codes of correct spiritual practice.  Having lived , fought, cried, argued with, and loved, a Magical Being, I spurn the cold concrete.  Societies need to continue along regulated tracks, as do those who require human shelter. Limping, fifty, and menopausal as I am, I do not.  I fight the good fight, punk to the last.   I struggle to rediscover the adventure of a living Merlin, the uncertainties of  a human god.

That god booted me out of the ashram on my mother’s death, but just as inexplicably called me back a few months later.  And, years down the line, he packed me off again–to sell our house in Chennai, falling down and decrepit–ten years after my Mum’s death and two years before his own, so ensuring my financial independence when he was gone.  Three years before Swami died, I wrote to him (sending the letter as usual by courier, one among hundreds of others) that the games in the hall were too much for me. I’d rather sit in the flat without darshan but in solitude.  In reply, he started coming by for drivessai_baba_car_darshan in the Prius, right by my garden.  Standing there, looking down at my Merlin, I found myself surprised often by his secret smiles, acknowledgement of a covert anti-social pact.  This, the same god who earlier used to question Mum if I so much as missed attendance in the hall for a couple of days.  Process is all, “kaalame devam” or “time is god.”  Swami was never static, he danced along with time, never missing a beat, a minute. He danced through life’s different stages, gleeful youth, solemn middle age, painful decay, but through it all those brown eyes darted ironic grace, joy in process, in entropy.

Knowing me better than I do myself, he spoke my unspoken self into being.   “You have no use for society, have you?”  Merlin observed once, his eyes compelling truth.  Bereft of words, I looked back at him, mumbling “nooooo  Swami.” He nodded in return.  That exchange warms me now as I type these words, disaffected by the world he’s left behind.  Who is to say that Swami is not punk? Sacrilegious and far out as it may sound, punk nihilism is an Other face of god that human societies cannot acknowledge–the terrifying Kali of Hindu mythology, the dancing Juggernaut Nataraja destroying all–the dance of  destruction contingent on the work of creation.   G-O-D=Generation-Organization-Destruction, in my Merlin’s own words.
Kali

This post continues in “Spiritual Punk 3″….

 

Wake up bell–a welcome home

Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad: whether from . . . just an all-night drive, we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen.
John Le Carré

The lonely places that Le Carré mentions are experiences that seize us with solitude, not those that are geographically remote. My Goan stay had me mapping places within myself that I had lost over the years.  On my early morning stumbles along Varca beach, I had the sea for company: the sea was interrogator as well as friend.  Even the act of writing, except for occasional poems through the years, had strayed  beyond my reach, morally  and mentally.

Now, sitting here in my tiny apartment, I look out of my window onto an ashram world, wondering if these new-found words will wander away once more, lost in routine and busy work.Photo on 10-04-13 at 6.26 AM #2  Even at half past six in the morning people bustle by,  men dressed in white and women in different hued saris.  At five am the wake up bell tolls, though buildings in the  ashram have far exceeded the reach of its sound.  Cement and mortar blocks absorb the chimes:  the inhabitants of this community are now free to sleep as long as we please, only roused by individual choices of devotion, or work, or family, much like any society in the wide world outside.

‘Home’, and its attendant importunity, clamors with the bell to be heeded. I live alone here, yes, but the familiar zoo of acquaintances insist on rituals of greeting and camaraderie. I set out to source drinking water. A mere five minute walk, but I take more than half an hour. People stop me on the way to greet me, asking me, “where did you go?” Curiosity is a great inquisitor, especially when I have not moved out of the place for almost sixteen years until the death of its founder.

An older woman stops me,

“you have returned. Don’t you know what’s happened to me? My son, my son died. Suddenly, without warning. Now I’m alone. We came together to be here. Imagine, three years before him my younger son also died.”

Shrunk from the woman I remember, indomitable, loud, and authoritative, she had served coffee in the main canteen for devotees.  Wrinkles adorn her face, her hair is  grey and unkempt, the folds of skin on her neck hang loosely.  I am shocked, and sympathetic, but bereft of words.  What comfort do I offer, and in Telugu?  Fortunately, she wants more to be heard, her loss reaffirmed, the cruelty of life.  “I wait now for death to take me.  What have I to live for?”

Aptly, she buttonholes me in front of a friend’s flat, someone I have to visit to condole on the death of her mother. After hearing her out, I’ll enter there, and pay my respects. Already, the heat and the emotions of the day have worn me out although it is not yet noon. Returning ‘home’ I battle with various encounters, each fraught. An old doctor, someone I remember from childhood, accosts me during my morning walk through the various gardens and flats, “Where did you go? You have it easy, unlike us worker bees. You can do what you want.” Irritation flares. I reply, “aah, this is the reason I ran away. Everyone here has an opinion on everyone else!” For the rest of the walk, I wonder why pious judgmentality is so rife in a spiritual community.

The foreigners I see, along the way, adopt a special gait with measured steps: their white faces are calm with far away eyes. Ashram hopping is a particular kind of tourism. Readily classified on travel sites like Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and TripAdvisor, the different ashrams are graded according to what they offer–meditation, yoga, community volunteering, gurus etc: [http://goindia.about.com/od/yogawellbeing/tp/popular-ashrams-in-india.htm;   http://www.iloveindia.com/spirituality/ashrams/] In a chatty blog, John Falk sums up the history of such holy communities, through western eyes:

In ancient India, ashrams—a name derived from a Sanskrit term meaning “religious exercise”—were cloisters set in nature where swamis, or sages, sought spiritual enlightenment through, among other sacred disciplines, the practice of yoga. Over the centuries these swamis began hosting commoners seeking spiritual instruction. Ashram life remained primarily an Indian phenomenon until after World War II, when Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and others began blazing the ’60s Hippie Trail across Central Asia. But it was in 1968, after the Beatles retreated to an ashram in Rishikesh, on the banks of the Ganges, that the ashram concept shot straight into the Western mainstream. By the ’70s terms such as “ashram,” “guru,” and “karma” had become commonplace in the West, and yoga an accepted form of exercise. Today tens of thousands travel annually to ashrams in India. [http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/john-falk/indian-ashram.html]

We Indians are not immune to its allure. Each seeker nurses the hope that s/he will prove special to the guru, bestowed with unique insight, yogic powers and visions.  Entering the fray about consumer spirituality in India today, Javed Aktar, Bollywood screenwriter and poet, roundly condemns,

the emergence of supermarkets for “spiritual fast food,” where people can buy “crash courses in self-realization – cosmic consciousness in four easy lessons. . . .Our Marxist friends used to say that religion is the opium of the poor masses. I don’t want to get into that discussion, but spirituality nowadays is definitely the tranquilizer of the rich.” [https://palakmathur.wordpress.com/2009/05/09/speech-javed-akhtar-india-today-conclave-session-on-spirituality-halo-or-hoax/]

Looking about me, I notice all too obvious proof of Aktar’s pithy aphorisms. An electric blue Audi sedan rolls past my apartment, another Merc follows, both on their way to the hall for darshan or sight of the tomb if not of the guru, now dead.

When I circle the hall in private homage to its creator, I glance over the walls that surround it: the elect congregate just in front of the marble tomb, ensconced in white plastic chairs. Those chaired few sit far in front of the sundry devout seated on the floor, the cross-legged, public crowd. Biliousness rises to my gorge at the scene. Earlier, much earlier, under Swami‘s eyes, the front stretched empty. Seated on the floor, the devout formed an heterodox hierarchy, comprising a shifting, vast crowd of worshipers mixed with staff. Chairs were banished to the extreme sides and back. None could foretell who would be out of favor the next time, with no option to sit at front. Unpredictability ruled. No matter the time we sat among the chosen elect, we remained at the mercy of Swami‘s arbitration. Bereft of any such apprehension today, society rules heavy handed: distinctions between VIPs, mostly moneyed, and the rabble are clearly drawn.

I remain an outsider even as I live here over the years.  Suspicious of social edicts queitly enforced behind his back (perhaps his acquiescent back), I remained a spiritual punk, a sort of court jester, a Falstaffian counterpoint to a community that grew increasingly rigid over the years.

[T]o be a true punk of any sort is to live experimentally, to live in love with emergence, with the unexpected, the chaotic, the improvisatory, to live with your arms wide open to complexity, guided by your own star, fueled by a good measure of playfulness and well-intentioned rebellion. [http://geropunkproject.org/gero-punk-manifesto/]

“Love my uncertainties,” Swami famously remarked. His capricious will induced a necessary apprehension in his presence, an apprehension mingled with awe. But, confining himself to a wheelchair in his last years, Swami  ceded to human society.  He transformed into an icon to be worshiped without trepidation, a living body that mutated, whilst alive, into a religious idol.  Uncertainty is not loved in societies or institutions.  Even gods rest safe in religious sanctuaries–temples, churches, mosques, deserts or high mountains:  societies cannot tolerate much interference with their routines.  When gods mingle with humans, often violence ensues:  Christ had to be nailed to the cross, Krishna killed by his own cowherd community, the Buddha poisoned.
Pandora bert
[shared from Pandora Spocks https://www.facebook.com/wandarinn]

 

Ambassador of life–SUV of the Indian roads, circa 1970

I sit here, at home in an ashram, and type away at the white screen.  Crawling like black ants out of a crevice, the words that arrive prove unreliable.  They force me into spaces that I’d rather not touch, those hidden crevices in the house where unknown creatures lurk.  From Goa, the end of my great Escape, I returned to a Madras metamorphosed into Chennai, then back, back to this little room. The Great Escapes in my life have been flights off a cliff, headlong into empty space. I flee into an unknown land, forced to leave routines of thought and being behind, a journey without companions or plans.

Twenty years or so ago, I had accompanied my cousin in her army jeep to Goa without absorbing much of the surroundings. Then, after the death of a god, suffocated by the social strictures of a spiritual community without its guide, I ran again. The sea called me, the memories of long, empty Goan beaches. Marked by its dependence on tourist trade, Goa nurses a risky reputation. Indian newspapers report murders, rapes, drug traffic in the state. But, after being there for almost 3 months, I find it safer and less indian than the other states in the country. As with most of its counterparts in other parts of the world, tourist trade in Goa makes for a laissez-faire culture.

Breaking out of the ashram, I seek yet for the lurking, uncertain magic of god, for a being whom death has freed from constraints of society or religion. A symbol. Where do I run to? To a place that is the obverse of a structured community, to tourist haven. Traveling today is easy. We board buses, trains, cars, and journey to places we have researched thoroughly. Trawling through sites like TripAdvisor, I realized that hardly any place on the globe remains unreviewed by previous travelers. Comments, reviews and blogs render the destination familiar before I set foot outside my door. We live in a world of déja vu, the already seen, already reviewed topography.

Staying for almost three months in Goa, I grow another skin. I become Goan in part. My return here to Puttaparthi asks that skin to be peeled off, a process more than cosmetic. My tan has to fade. I have to dress differently, to cover my newly sensitive skin with more layers against the sun, and social morés. Despite the ease of my journey, travel has turned me foreign to the self who lived here. Coming back ‘home,’ to a place I’ve lived in, for almost seventeen years, I am blessed with a sense of difference. Puttaparthi, for fifty years of my life has evoked a sense of wonder in me, symbol of a world beyond human logic. Now, the spell has broken. Magic exists, yes, but not here for me. Through my childhood years, beyond memory, I remember the journeys to this place, always with a sense of expectancy, a churning stomach, premonitions of marvel.

Driving down, through the heat and the arid thorn bushes, we packed the car with necessities–rice, kerosene stoves, pots, pans, dishes, bedding, sheets, towels, buckets, mugs and other stuff now forgotten.  Trailing two young kids in her wake, my Mum had to plan for all contingencies.  Our car, a 1961 Ambassador, bumped valiantly over rutted, pot-holed non-roads.  When in Madras, I looked for Ambassadors, those solid iron boxes on wheels, but only spotted them seldom.
[Ambassador or Amby – the first car to be manufactured in India, has been running on the Indian roads since 1948.  Based on the British Morris Oxford it is now made by Hindustan Motors (HM)]
Sober grey white, with steel detailing, our Amby was a bit different to one in the image.  Sporting a catchy license plate with the number, MSR 100, the car, over the years it stayed with us, developed a character all its own.  Journeys to Puttaparthi, the landscape of semi-desert, were its forté: MSR 100 hardly ever broke down along the way.  We’d see cars of lesser determination stranded with their bonnets open, often spouting grey fumes of smoke as we chugged by.

Petrol stations were sparse and far between, so Dad had to watch the miles between. In the monsoons, old MSR 100 would face a different problem than overheating as freak floods would block the road. But, built to withstand indian terrain, the Amby’s ground clearance contested the SUVs of today. Without a sputter of protest, MSR 100 pushed through the rising water.  Today, the Amby’s rusted iron number plates stand memorial just before the front door of my ashram apartment, decorating my garden.

Having lived so long in an ashram, I absorbed the Hindu respect for all beings, animate and inanimate. Swami often remarked that even dead bodies have atma or consciousness. Tempted to believe that MSR 100 lived, fought, and had a being, I particularly notice the Hindu beliefs about vahanas or vehicles [Vāhana from sanskrit–that which carries, that which pulls].

The vāhana may be considered an accoutrement of the deity: though the vāhana may act independently, they are still functionally emblematic or even syntagmatic of their “rider”…. Vah in Sanskrit means to carry or to transport. [wikipedia: vahana]

Living here as I did, hindu-catholic mongrel as I am, brought up by intellectuals who never bothered to teach their kids any religious rudiments, I found my own interpretations for rituals unknown, as, for example, the worship of vehicles during Ayudha Pooja in September/ October.ayudha-poojaAs a child (and perhaps even now), I simply believed that MSR 100 was a special vehicle with a soul of its own.  If my god and Merlin said that atma or consciousness resided in all things, animate and inanimate, why not a car, particularly a car like MSR 100? Movies like Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang reinforced my views. And what about Stephen King’s Christine? She may be a car of evil intent, but ‘Christine’ lived and was destroyed. The cars that transport us, or trains, or buses, or planes, may be put together by us with steel, wires, rubber, and fuel, but they are greater than the sum of their parts.

That special magic of life with Swami opened my eyes. I wonder at the syntagmatic relationship between humans and created objects, the part (the car) leads to the whole (the ‘owner’). MSR 100 sat for years in front of our house “Sai Jyothi.” The house itself was a symbol, built for Mum by Dad. Theirs was a hard union: Catholic and Hindu, my Dad and Mum had been separated by parental edicts for twelve years. Ironically, Dad died a couple of years after moving in. But, Mum loved the house: it gave her the space and security she needed to collect her thoughts, and her actions. After Dad died, she sold her small car, the Fiat, but kept the Amby. Later, MSR 100 took me to college way out in the boondocks of Andhra, past Puttaparthi, into a dry dusty town/ village. At the last, when Mum died, decades after my Dad, MSR 100 carried me back and forth to hospital. It carried me back to “Sai Jyothi” one early morning when she breathed her last.

Another decade later, when my Merlin/Swami declared that the house was to be sold, I returned to see MSR 100 squatting on its deflated tires, stubborn to the end. Opening its bonnet to check on the engine, I beheld the skeletons of rats and mice decorating its bowels. I sold the car for scrap. When the they came to take it away, they towed the Amby by its back axle, its nose to the ground. Watching, I broke down and wailed for the first time on my return to Madras. MSR 100 departed in protest, dragged by its heels to be torn apart for scrap. The number plates, rusted with missing letters, bide still among the green tropic plants.Photo on 06-04-13 at 11.50 AM #2 Entering or leaving my flat here in the ashram, I notice the plates and remember the spirit of the past, my MSR 100, guardian of childhood, harbinger of journeys.

 

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.

 

In a tortoise shell–may I (re)possess ‘home’?

4:30 am. I lie in bed, dozing, after  being woken up an hour earlier by a dream of white flowers laid for worship of Swami.   In dream reality, as I sniff their dense white petals with brown-yellow centers, the flowers bloom afresh although they’ve lain in a bowl for three whole days.  As I bumble about on waking in the dark rooms, a refrain drums through my head:  “Flames to dust/ Lovers to friends/ Why do all good things come to an end, end, end…” Unable to identify the song, or the singer, I remember a nasal, insistent, woman’s croon.  Later, I identify the song as one of  Nelly Furtado‘s, an apt elegy for my Goan interlude. [http://grooveshark.com/#!/search/song?q=Nelly%20Furtado%20All%20Good%20Things]

Traveling I only stop at exits
Wondering if I’ll stay….
I want to pull away when the dream dies
The pain sets in and I don’t cry
I only feel gravity and I wonder why

Flames to dust
Lovers to friends
Why do all good things come to an end
Flames to dust
Lovers to friends

Why do all good things come to an end
come to an end come to an
Why do all good things come to end?
come to an end come to an
Why do all good things come to an end?

Well the dogs were whistling a new tune
Barking at the new moon
Hoping it would come soon so that they could….
Die die die die die

A dream of sacred flowers to background music from Furtado on barking dogs lends a surreal tinge to the pre-dawn scenario on the day I pack up.   Reaching Varca beach earlier than usual, I  find waves frothing at the white sands, high tide today.  The sea welcomes me,  waves rise to greet me.  As in all love, I have to find my boundaries–how deep in I am comfortable.  I let the water tug at me, but remain near the shore.

Rip currents are common along Goa beaches, pulling one straight out into the sea. Maybe one final day, all boundaries unheeded, I will let the seas engulf me, physically and mentally. But, no, I am not ready yet for that release, that great tide of love that will set me free. Still bound, I am not free of convention, or social diktat, no matter my private furies.

Standing there near the shore, feeling the the tide, I mark a lone fisherman pulling his catamaran out over the breakers, slowly with effort, out into the open sea. catamaran[The image shows two fishermen carrying the catamaran out to sea, but the boat seen is the nearest I could find on Google to the log boat that I saw.] I contemplate his lone journey, as he finally reaches deep water and clambers onto the logs, paddling, poling out out into the open sea. Out there, he is a speck, on his solitary quest for fish: all the other, bigger boats form an almost invisible line way out on the horizon. I wish, then, that I had a camera on my cellphone, that I may record the last sight of the beach for now, adorned by that small speck.

People here and elsewhere often ask me,

“why don’t you get yourself a smartphone? You can be on the net anytime, and you’d have a camera to take snaps.”

Another common query, particularly in this tourist state is,

“why don’t you buy a flat instead of wasting money renting one? That way, you can fix it up the way you want, and it would be an investment.”

Those ‘ands’ accent the common mindsets behind the two questions.  A smartphone and a flat may look unrelated, but, I am sensitive to the economy of ownership that motivates both queries.  Rather, I yearn to live like a tortoise, carrying my home in a shell on my back. At any sign of threat, I’d retreat into that shell.  When writing a earlier blog on shells [see https://quiescentbeing.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/spiral-shells-along-the-mindshore ], I happened upon J. Atherton’s observations on types of skeletons and societies,

The Skeleton view holds that people are normally expected to live on the basis of their own internal resources, contained within their own bodies. They find the basis of their self-hood inside themselves, and the structure for their lives from within.
The Shell view suggests that the individual can only find a meaningful structure for life with reference to something external, and that there is no adequate basis internally on which to base rules, judgements or performance.
These tendencies may be different, but they do not have to be in opposition. They may be complementary: Eastern societies have traditionally been better than Western at handling such complementarity. [http://www.doceo.co.uk/original/skeleton_and_shell_1.htm]

Atherton suggests that the labels of ‘skeleton’ and ‘shell’ societies may prove simplistic, noting also that the categories are complementary. But, when I attempt to explain why the tortoise is a personal symbol, his description provides a starting point. TortoiseLiving without possessions heralds freedom for me. Is this because I see a breathing universe which holds all beings, animate and inanimate, equally?  If  humans are merely one species amongst others, how may we, humans, ‘own’ things and ensure security?  Aren’t we perpetually dependent on the goodwill of a cosmos with its cycle of death, flood, hurricane, famine, tsunami? The pagans saw gods everywhere, in every tree, rock, and stream, and sought to placate them with offerings, human, animal, or plant.  In today’s industrial world, danger lurks in every corner, but, so equally, does joy.  Both unsought for, each seizes us most when we are unaware. How do we assure of ourselves of either, though we seek them under umbrellas of adventure or happiness?

I  possess a basic cellphone for my needs, to make and receive calls and messages.  Even if I carelessly leave the phone behind, the calls are duly recorded and displayed when I reach home.  Often, I’m not in a mood to respond to cursory chats, disinclined to talk about folks and their doings.  As for flats, houses, or bungalows, why, owning one is simply too much work.  I’d have to maintain the place, fill out paperwork,  file taxes, worry about thieves and so on and on.  A basic phone, I can leave around, I don’t lose much if someone bothers to swipe the thing.  I don’t need to think about it.  A rented flat, I don’t have to furnish it, nor do I need to dress it up.  To rent is to be able to move out without too much bother.   I am happy not to ‘own,’ to think about things that cost too much when I need much less to live.  ‘Owning’ less, I am freer to drift, tied to no-one and no-thing.

The sight of that lonely catamaran has me surfing Google for an image that others have recorded. I am grateful to the world wide web. I need record nothing.   I merely cut and paste. When I blog I leave my words free.   Grie Verd is content to drift in the cloud, my words open to different readers and different meanings.