Thriving Mindfully

Author: Sreenath Sreenivasan (Page 1 of 23)

Zabaan Sambhaalke!

If there’s one organ of perception that we are almost criminally indifferent towards, it has to be the tongue.

‘Tongue? An organ?’ would be our usual response after reading the above sentence. But this flexible muscular organ plays roles way beyond what we consciously credit it for.

As an organ, it has an almost ironic presence. We can barely see it with our eyes (without making a fool out of ourselves), yet we use it almost at all times in the state of wakefulness. It is the only internal organ that can claim to have seen a little bit of the outside world. In a way, it’s safe to assume that the tongue is light sensitive, for whenever we open our mouth, it knows there is work to be done.

The irony in its character is captured best by the Sanskrit language that names the tongue as ‘Rasna‘ (Ras- Na), which means ‘the one with no taste‘. While it acts as the grand arena of all the epicurean delights, the tongue, indeed, has no taste of its own!

Remember the map of the tongue from junior school, when we were led to believe that the tongue has different zones of sensitivity for different flavours? That myth about the demarcation of taste buds – sweet at the tip of the tongue, bitter at the far end etc. – didn’t need any busting, for whenever we’ve tried to gulp a bitter medicine in an attempt to bypass these sensory territories, we’ve always met with a pungent failure.

It is interesting to see how we get introduced to the five flavours – salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami. A toddler knows only one taste, one that none of us grown-ups remembers – that of mother’s milk. But beyond the adventures in mother-dairy, the first solid foods given to babies are often starches that feel sweet after mastication, and fruits that are naturally laden with sweetness. Sugary are the lives of kids. Most baby syrups taste like sherbets. Even in illness, there’s an element of sweetness.

Kids remain aliens to the range of flavours for much of their early life. It takes a naughty uncle to inveigle a child into tasting a citrus lemon or to introduce it to the bitter world of dark chocolate. And it’s around that moment that the seeds of caution and distrust are sown in an otherwise artless little human.

With age, the palate builds a tolerance to more deviant flavours. We begin to appreciate chaats with raw mango, sweet and sour candies (Hajmola anyone?), some spice in our curries, and of course, more sugar in our desserts. At some point in a young boy’s life, he prides in his ability to eat spicier food than everyone else on the dining table, as if tolerance to spice confers him with unimpeachable manhood. And as we enter adolescence with our raging hormones, we imagine the tongue to be a doorway to an altogether different sensory pleasure. How intensely do we crave for the taste of a lover’s tasteless ‘rasna‘?

More than just being a red carpet for flavours in the museum of teeth, the tongue serves the vital function of enabling speech. Think of speaking without using your tongue for a moment and you’ll realise its significance. But even without speech, the tongue manages to communicate several of our primal expressions.

Remember how we hold the tongue between our teeth to add endearment to our apology? How we lick our lips to express the greed in our hunger?  Or the blubbery expulsion of air with our outstretched tongue in a proud exhibition – that childish gesture that communicated our fleeting animosity.
The tongue’s quick slip and slide in and out of the mouth intended to irk an opponent, or that ‘tchu-tchu’ sound that we make with a firm belief that it attracts a forlorn puppy; or that high decibel whistle that summons the friend who lives on the third floor, into the balcony – Is any of this conceivable without the athleticism of our tongue?

But despite this astounding dexterity, nothing exemplifies the capacity of folly on part of our species more than the act of biting into our own tongue while eating. With the amount of daily practice we get, why we still mis-bite a morsel is a mystery as old as humankind itself.

The tongue has an undeniable personality. Think of the caution it displays when tasting something new, the openness and love with which it welcomes a familiar flavour, the helpless hissing when it entertains a spicy pickle; or the way it licks clean the lips after a pleasing flavour makes all the taste buds blossom.

And since we subconsciously attribute a personality to the tongue, it comes little as a surprise that it takes the blame on part of the failure of all its accomplices in normal bodily functioning. The collective failure of the vocal apparatus in repeatedly saying ‘she sells seashells on the seashore’ is called a ‘tongue twister’, our inability to withhold a secret is blamed as a ‘slip of the tongue’, and ‘mind your tongue’ is what they say when our words teeter at the brink of propriety.

However, despite all the blaming, it must be stated for the record, that the tongue has nothing to do with a bad taste in music!

And speaking of personality, did you know that every tongue has its unique tongue-print? Imagine a world where a tongue print is used as a biometric authenticaton! Would popsicles and ice candies be banned in such an event?

In many cultures, the tongue of animals is enjoyed as a delicacy. As cannibalistic it sounds, (a human tongue enjoying the taste and texture of a Buffalo tongue!) there are cultures that swear by its taste.

However, tongues, apart from being tasted, can be spoken too. Think of the first language you learned. Most likely it was your mother tongue, wasn’t it?

Tongues speak of our health too. Think of every visit to you’ve made to your family doctor when your tongue was under the spotlight of the doctor’s torch.

But apart from being in the spotlight at the doctor’s clinic, the tongue prefers a private, reclusive life. It only expresses itself with fervent passion in our private moments, under dim lights, with our beloved. Is an erotic union even conceivable without the profuse use of this sensual organ? Any sexual congress would be rather dry, wouldn’t it?

As diverse as this organ is, it serves even more functions in the anatomy of other animals. It’s a carpet cleaner for the feline family, a slingshot cum prey catcher in chameleons, a smell receptor in snakes, a temperature regulator in the canine.

In us humans, it serves two primary functions-
a) aiding in ingestion of food
b) enabling expression of thoughts

Most of the problems of modern life are rooted in how we use our tongue. It’s easy to become a slave to flavours and inflict the body with calories stripped of nutrition. And just as mindlessly, we can inflict painful wounds in the hearts of the ones we care about with our carelessness with our tongue. As they, words can wound deeper than a sword.

Then perhaps, how wisely we use our tongue holds the key to our bodily and social health.

Who knew of the versatility and significance of this elegant pink muscle!  
We can be sure that even the tongue, at this moment, after reading through all of its merits, is tongue-tied!

The hearing aid

‘Tell me a bedtime story, bhai,’ pleaded Radha to her elder brother Raman.

‘I hope you remember you are going to get married tomorrow! And here you come with the same pleading as you used to as a child!’ said Raman with unmistakable affection.

Raman had shouldered the responsibility of their household since he was merely 10 years old. He’d never had the opportunity to go to school. Nevertheless, through his diligent industry, he had managed to provide well for his widowed mother and aurally-challenged sister. He’d had to grow up far too soon under the looming shadow of responsibility. But it was his sister who still had access to the child inside Raman.

Owing to her hearing disability, Radha suffered from learning issues early on in life. It was only after Raman could afford a hearing aid did her education take wing. With this elegant device, she could listen clearer than ever before. Gradually she learned to comprehend and converse in her mother tongue, Hindi. She began her formal studies in a school when she was 10. Today, at age 23, she was the only lettered person in their ancestry. She’d managed to find work as a teller at the local co-operative bank where she’d met her fiancé, Govind. She’d enabled other little girls in her village to dream big. She was the light of the household.

Radha, still a little girl around her elder brother, wanted to enjoy the last day at home before she gets married and leaves for her husband’s place, as was the custom in the village.

Raman was resting on a coir bed in the veranda of their freshly painted pucca house, one of the few in their village. She sat on the floor, rested her cheek on the bed and wore a look in the eye that she knew would melt her brother’s heart.

Radha had heard her first story only when she’d developed her aural comprehension to a fair degree, at around age 14. Perhaps the belated foray of storytelling in her life was the reason for her fascination for tales from lands far and beyond. So, on every visit to his village from the city, along with the gifts he would bring for his family, Raman would also lug a satchel full of stories for Radha.

The faint aroma of drying henna glistened Raman’s eyes. Hoping to find expression through a story than a teardrop, he took a deep breath and asked,

‘What kind of a story would you like to listen to tonight?’

‘Tell me about your childhood. What is the first visual memory you have? What’s the first sound that you remember hearing? Something that you will never forget?’ asked Radha.

‘Don’t you want to hear a nicer, happier story?’

‘No. Today I want to learn about my brother’s childhood.’

Raman wondered how to evade this innocent inquiry. That familiar expression, of a restless search for an excuse, surfaced on Raman’s face. Radha could read him like a book.

‘Come on, bhai!’ she wheedled.

‘It is a long story.’

‘I am all ears,’ she said, trying hard to muffle a yawn.

‘Look at you. You will fall asleep halfway like every other time!’

‘No, I won’t, I promise!’

‘Why the sudden curiosity about my first memory?’

‘Well, because I was wondering today, what my first visual and aural memory in life is. And I remembered the day when you’d finally managed to ride a bicycle without holding the handle bar. How boastful you were! And that day, while showing off to me, you’d bumped into the neighbour’s bull and gotten flung into a pit full of cow dung. I can never forget that image. And that squealing that even my deaf ear was able to feel! Your artificially amplified cries did little to help you gain any sympathy. How useless was that gimmick!’ Radha shared amid irrepressible bouts of laughter.

‘As much as I’d like to forget that, you would not allow me to, would you?’ asked a red-cheeked Raman.

Radha tried hard to stop laughing but the fruitless effort only magnified the mirth of the moment.

‘Shh… You’ll wake up Maa!’

As she recovered gradually, she said, ‘And the first sound I remember is hearing my name in your voice, at the doctor’s clinic, right after I got the hearing aid. The first time I heard laughter, yours and mine, at the clinic. That is a priceless memory.

I wanted to share this with you. My first visual and aural memory is of you, bhai!’

Raman smiled as he reclined onto the comforting cushion of nostalgia.

‘Does your first memory have something to do with me? My birth perhaps? You must have been a 5 year old then!’

‘Well, that would have to be my second memory in life, the moment of your birth. My first memory is of a day before you were born.’

‘Tell me about it!’

A solemn silence filled the void in the moments that followed. Raman seemed as if in deep thought. Not because he was trying to think hard about his first memory. That memory was indelible. He was wondering if it would be right to share it with her sister, a night before the auspicious day of her marriage. But he felt Radha deserved a peek into the recesses of his childhood. He heaved a sigh and spoke.

‘I was living with our father in Nagpur during that phase of my life. He used to work as a labourer at a food processing unit. One day, father received a message from a fellow-labourer who’d just returned from a visit to our village.

Our grandfather was not doing well at that time. He was due to leave the earthly plane anytime soon it seemed then. Our mother was nearing the end of her third trimester while she was pregnant with you. Father had borrowed beyond his means from money lenders in the city and had no money left to buy a train ticket back to the village. So, in utter desperation, he decided to bicycle all the way to our village. Since he couldn’t leave me alone, he strapped me onto the carrier of the bicycle and I became the clueless pillion rider.

I don’t remember much of the week-long journey to the village. I was semi-conscious for most of the journey due to hunger and exhaustion. It was on a rainy evening that father and I reached home, two days before you were born.

Our mother was overjoyed to see us back at home. She could barely walk at that time, with you in her womb. At that moment, she must have thought that the days of pain, sadness, and separation were finally over. But fate had other plans.

The rain grew intense with each passing hour. The thatched roof of our house was bravely fighting the onslaught of the wind and rain. But soon, father realised that the roof had to be secured, else we’d end up without a roof on our head in the middle of the night. Father, even with his deathly exhaustion, worked all alone and secured a tarp over the roof, aided by the flashes of lightning on that dark night.

He came back inside the house and went straight to see our grandfather. In the feeble light of a flickering oil lamp, he tried to converse with his ailing father. Their shadows shivered ominously on the weakening mud-plastered wall. Our grandpa could hardly see anything. He touched and felt my face and a smile surfaced through all the creases of pain engraved on his face. Our father sat on the ground and watched over grandpa all night. Mother and I fell asleep watching that pious union, with a hazy picture of a complete family in our memory.

The next morning, the whole neighbourhood woke up to a deafening cry. Our mother bawled hysterically while trying to wake our father and Grandpa from sleep. But both of them had transcended to the plane of no return.

I remember being whisked away to the neighbour’s house through the slush of mud on the streets, in an attempt to shield me from the horror.

Our mother was inconsolable. The whole village had come to a standstill.

Later in the day, I remember being handed a burning log of wood. I lit a fire on two piles of wood on the banks of the Saryu river. I stood there quietly and saw the flames engulf the cold bodies of my ancestors.

That visual is the first vivid memory of my life. An inferno that roared to reach the sky. And the first aural record is my mother’s spine-chilling scream that I woke up to that morning.

The next morning, after painless labour, she delivered you. It seemed as if pain, as an act of compassion, had decided to not inflict itself on our mother anymore.

In a few months, it was discovered that you couldn’t hear so well. Some villagers saw you as a bad omen. The legend grew that the absence of cries of labour pain during your delivery, our mother’s still silence, was the reason for your near deafness, for the silence in your life. But mother never saw you the way the villagers did. She believed that you will learn to hear and speak soon.

She felt guilty for the silence in your life. The whole village was convinced of the reason behind your deafness. But mother knew, as I did, that the reason for your deafness could well be, her deafening scream the day before your birth.

But the hearing-aid has changed everything, hasn’t it, Radha?’

The bride to be had succumbed to a night of beauty sleep. Raman added a number to all the stories that Radha had never heard in its entirety.

He gently took off the hearing aid from Radha’s ear. Bearing a satiated soul, he fell asleep looking at his sister’s seraphic face.

On why cleaning is therapy

If there were any godliness in cleanliness, then the sorry state of our rooms have long proclaimed us as non-believers!

Isn’t it fascinating, how a room that feels perfectly habitable to our eyes is deemed as an uninhabitable island by our irate mothers?
Perhaps the bias is in the perspective, for we often fail to see the disarray around us. We see the overflowing laundry bag as if it had an undeniable aesthetic relevance in the room. It takes another pair of startled eyes to make us realise that sooner than later, we must wield the broom.

And once we decide to wield the broom, how deeply do we wish that we were the menacing witches in cartoons who could leave behind immaculately clean premises while sailing under the ceiling on their magical wooden brooms. Alas, such witchcraft eludes us.
But isn’t the discovery of the resolution to start cleaning magical enough already?

We look around and wonder where to begin!

That complacent colony of cobwebs, a civilization that was weaved with an unremitting trust in our lethargy, tries to hide in plain sight. The ceiling fan ails for our attention. It curses its distance beyond the reach of our outstretched hand, a moot justification we’ve been humouring us with for its dirt ridden dilapidation.

We are reminded of the day when we stopped looking under the bed when we learned that there were demons dwelling in that dungeon. And today, after aeons, we must finally confront that neglected underbelly. We pray for bravery.

We begin our ungainly dance with the broom and are faced with our diminishing range of motion. Amid thoughts of the apparent endlessness of the task, a cool bead of sweat plummets from behind the ear, and we know we’ve switched to the right gear.

A newfound zeal snowballs, and we get the rare feeling of wanting to dust the carpets out. We move around the furniture and try reaching corners that haven’t seen sunlight in years. We dwell in the archaeological wonder of finding the old museum of lost articles behind the study table – a forgotten batch of stationery, an old sock, a toy we believed to have been stolen all these years and that dinged up orange Ping-Pong ball that doesn’t smell of camphor anymore. If there were a zip code for all things lost, this would be it!

We shift our gaze to the shelves. The books feel moved as we touch them after ages; as if still nursing the wish that we’ll keep the word of lending them our time. We find a layer of neglect on the bookshelf. We think of dusting the room after we’ve swept the floor, leaving no doubt how little we know of the chronology in cleaning up.

Once we’ve dusted the room, we catch a breath. A shaft of sunbeam pierces through an opening and the dust motes dance a slow waltz. Intermission.

With a heave, we get up again, step on a stool and glance the corners of the room for gossamer. As the ceiling fan feels close enough to us, we do what’s due, and it relishes in a rare clean-up.

We change partners and now it’s time to dance with the mop. After moving about so much, this feels easier now. The aroma of the disinfectant makes us feel a sense of cleanliness. We choose to believe it.

After we’ve been through it all and we put everything back in its place, we sit back and wonder how we could do it all.

And we realise a presence in the room – the presence of the room itself! We realise how we’d allowed morbidity seep into the living entity our dwelling place is. We regain intimacy with our room.

In the stillness we find after cleaning up, we wonder what exactly it is that we did.

All in all, we’ve swept away a few grams of dust,  a layer of grime evaporated away with disinfecting water, a few tufts of hair that swirled in the corners have reached the bin, and the shelves shine a shade deeper…

In material terms, we’ve displaced merely a fraction of matter that existed in the room.

But the workings of cleaning happen on a psychological, and dare I say, mystical paradigm.

We feel uplifted from the slow release of happy hormones. We bask in the feeling of potency once we see we’re capable of changing the world around us. Depression melts away, and the energy within and without buzzes with positivity.

The act of cleaning burnishes the soul. The arena inside feels airy and light. A tide of tidiness tip-toes on our shores. We feel consecrated, just as our revived dwelling-space.

But after all that cleaning up, we feel a bit dirty. We resist the invitation of freshly laid bed sheets and jump into the shower.

When we’re back into the room, with droplets dotted as dewdrops on our body, we turn on the switch to the beaming ceiling fan.

A torrent of air fills the room.

The water on our body disappears slowly, leaving behind a cool sensation.

We smile. We feel rewarded. We sense purity.

We feel good.

Isn’t that akin to godliness?

The Little Heart

When Sheela held her hands up to undo her hair from a bun, her blouse could hardly contain her tender voluptuousness.
Kartar Singh, seated on the bed with her, was sweating profusely. And that wasn’t because he had never been with a woman before, or that he was in a brothel for the first time in his life.

While Sheela had ample experience in the sleeping business and was due to undress at any moment now, Kartar felt underprepared and overdressed for what he had come to accomplish.

Nervously, he got up and checked if the door was properly bolted. Sheela couldn’t contain her fountain of laughter on seeing the flustered rookie. She was used to men with raging hormones who’d be spent within moments from when they stepped on top of her. But this case would be much longer, she surmised. Maybe she’d have to undo his pants herself, so she thought.

She dimmed the lights of the kerosene lamp. In a slow, inviting manner, she undid a hook of her blouse.

There had been a power outage in the neighbourhood. The dark room smelt of damp wood, betel nut and cheap perfume. The growling clouds in the sky gave an ominous forecast for the night.

Sheela took Kartar’s hand and put it on her chest. The wayward wind rattled the ageing windows, startling them both. The rain felt just moments away. Sheela got up with a sigh and turned around to close the window.

When she turned around, what she saw made her shriek like a frightened mouse. Kartar Singh had lost a garment.

It wasn’t his pants. It wasn’t his shirt.

It was his beard and moustache.

Sheela was shocked to find the greengrocer across the street, Vinod, seated on the bed. For long had he been watching her in hope from his shop across the narrow street in this damned red-light district of the city. They’d never spoken before. Sheela didn’t speak Hindi. But what does language have to do with communicating an intense longing? She had been observing his furtive, love-filled glances for far too long. Their eyes had been meeting merely once a week, the only time when she came to dry her laundry in the balcony. Mondays at noon.

Sheela could understand why he was on that bed. But couldn’t understand why he had to come in a disguise. Confused, she sat on the bed.

Vinod took her hands in his. They were cold as ice. He rubbed them gently to warm her up. She didn’t breathe a word. The cold nonchalance in her being had deserted her.

She shivered from the draft seeping through the cracks in the window. Vinod undid his bright red turban layer by layer and draped it around Sheela’s half-naked body. It was the same shade of red as her saree.

The sultry seductress felt a nakedness she’d never experienced before. She shed a tear, then she whimpered, and then it began to rain.

Amid blinding lightning and deafening thunder, she cried.

Vinod put his hand on her thigh. It had a tender touch that had no intention of venturing anywhere beyond. It was a touch of reassurance, from a gender that had only broken Sheela’s spirit ever since she’d known life.

She was crying not because she’d been robed respectfully for the first time in life. She cried because she realised that she’d begun to see everyone in the world, especially men, as heartless beasts. She had begun to look at herself the way other men did, as a body meant to be derived pleasure from.

Through Vinod’s gesture of draping her in the turban’s cloth, she felt the possibility of having dignity in life. She felt the weight of all the men she’d had to sleep with, on her soul. She breathed heavily amid snuffles.

Vinod smiled. He took out a tubular plastic toy from his pocket. He uncorked the top of the cylinder and took a little plastic handle out of the toy. It was dripping with a soapy solution. As he blew into it, a flurry of bubbles floated in the room.
Sheela felt distracted and attracted, from and towards the right things.

Vinod dipped the handle in the solution again and held it in front of the crevice in the window. The incoming winds gave rise to more bubbles in the room. The wind was changing.

Vinod dipped again and held it in front of Sheela’s face. She breathed deeply, perhaps for the first time in her life, and blew.

Thus they played, as the rain pelted on the roof above. They felt as if they had spent a distant childhood, in a distant life, together. That’s what bubbles do to a suppressed soul.

It took them an hour to finally embrace each other. It was a new feeling for both of them. Vinod had never embraced a woman, and all the men Sheela had been with had never bothered to embrace her. Had it been an ordinary night with a customer, Sheela would have had to undress and sleep with a stranger, like a draining day at undignified work. But today, she curled in the warmth of the long red turban, and Vinod’s shy embrace.

What was this feeling? Was she ready to accept it the way it was?

Time flew. But Vinod had only reached halfway in the execution of his plan. He had his eye on the clock. He took a letter out of his pocket and presented it to her. It was written in Telugu, the language Sheela spoke. But alas, she couldn’t read. All she could understand was the little heart scribbled at the end of the short message in the letter.

For the first time that night, Sheela looked straight into Vinod’s eyes. Vinod allowed her to read him. His gaze was a disarming surrender. To Sheela, it felt like an invitation to a place called home. After an eternity, she nodded and held Vinod’s hands wanting to never let it go. That was all Vinod had been seeking all these years.

It rained all night, flooding the entire red-light district. The next morning, as the brothel owner came wading through the water on the street, he felt a rude shock. Not from the electric wires dangling from the poles into the water . It was a different kind of wire. A red saree and a red turban were tied end to end and fastened onto the window sill of Sheela’s room. That garment just managed to reach the puddles of water on the street. A familiar slipper was floating near the runnel.

In a frenzy, the brothel owner hurried up to the first floor to check on Sheela’s room. A pair of fake beard and moustache lay on the floor. A letter blotted out by tears fluttered on the bed.
Only the little heart at the end of the letter remained.


ये कलयुग है ये कलयुग है यह रोना रोते नहीं थके

अपने पापों का बोझा हम जो ढ़ोते-ढ़ोते नहीं थके

इस भीड़ में भी रीढ़ कहाँ काणों में अंधे हैं राजा

जो स्वार्थ के तलवों तले हम सच कुचल बढ़ते चले

ये साधु सभी ये संत सभी क्यों आँखें मींचे बैठे हैं

मन-परिजन की पीड़ा पर क्यों पर्दे खींचे यह बैठे हैं

कलयुग के कोलाहल में अब करुणा की भी कौन सुने

ईमान की नीलामी से सिक्के हम ऐंठे बैठे हैं

कोई धोबी हो या धर्मराज, लत जुए की सबको है प्यारी

इस अंधकार की वर्षा में हम ढूँढ रहे हैं गिरधारी

नेत्रहीन नृप कईं हुए, देखे हमने धृतराष्ट्र कईं

पर न्याय की यह नायिका क्यों बन बैठी आज गांधारी?

चाहे कलयुग हो या हो त्रेता नारी का हर-पल हुआ हरण

हर राजभवन की छाया तले होता आया मर्यादा-मरण

चीर का एक छोर आज भी है हथेली में तेरी

ज़रा मन टटोल और खुद से पूछ, तू देव है या दैत्य है?

संकट है ये, विकट हैं ये, पर छोड़ना ना तू आशा

पिछले कर्मों पर क्या रोना, है व्यर्थ ये निष्कर्म निराशा

रौद्र राग को त्याग तू भज हौंसले की हंसध्वनि

है दृष्टिकोण का खेल सब चल बदलें कलयुग की परिभाषा

तू स्वयं में ही ढूँढ़ कृष्ण न मूरत को मान बैठ मुरारी

तेरे चित्त की चिंगारी से रोशन हो यह दुनिया अँधियारी

जो हर मानुष ढूँढ ले अपने भीतर दसवाँ अवतार

तो सत्त्व की सरस्वती से तृप्त होगी सृष्टि सारी

PHOTO by Pawan Sharma via Unsplash

A Tribute to Pencils

There’s a good chance, that the first time we wrote ‘Once upon a time’ on a piece of paper, or the time we traced our left palm with the right hand during school, our foray into the world of creation was enabled by our dainty dear friend – a humble pencil.   

It has seen us grow from compulsive scribblers who loved to run across the hall while tracing the path of the furthest reach of our dominant hand on the freshly distempered walls, to inspired artists who could enliven a piece of paper with controlled strokes, as we captured the beauty of worlds without and within. From joining the dots to make a frog (that most likely had a name) in a children’s book, to sophisticated geometric constructions in high school, hasn’t the pencil aided us throughout on our learning adventures?

The most pleasant trait of a pencil, is its forgiving nature. For little children taking the first steps towards literacy, it serves as an agreeable companion that lovingly makes allowances for mistakes along the way. A misspelt word or a miscalculation doesn’t feel fatal, for there is always room to erase and make corrections instantly. The eraser seldom leaves traces of the error and all seems well by the end of the page. The eraser does loose its sleek edges with use, but it still preserves its saintly white colour despite all the ashen taints through erasures over time.

A pencil and an eraser share fascinating chemistry. Even though an eraser wields the power to expunge everything written down by a pencil, one could never imagine an enmity between the two. The pencil, a suave dancer with black heeled stilettos, and the eraser, a chubby doll draped in snowy white, while being opposites in shape, footprint, and function, never seem to have nursed any conceit inside. They willingly share the bed and sleep side by side in their camper home shaped like a compass box. They serve as enablers, to each other and to the tiny fingers that are just learning how to draw and erase.

 A pencil and an eraser – a paragon of a perfect partnership.

Pencils feel like our friends, and erasers too, through association, are a chum in our directory. So entwined is their existence that pencils and erasers are usually branded under the same name by manufacturers. And at times, the pencil dons an eraser as a headgear on the non-writing end, further coalescing their identities. The composite unit reminded one of an elegant ballerina swirling on the icy white rink of a notebook. I guess my bias for imagining a pencil as a dancer is influenced by the famous brands of pencils that were named after dancers from Indian mythology, Natraj and Apsara.

Part of the romance we feel for the pencil could be because the first thing we did with it was to draw. Our first instinct as a child was to give a tangible form to our unfettered imagination. A pencil invited playfulness, for all mistakes, inadvertent or deliberate, offered the latitude for correction. It isn’t surprising then, that on discovering that we’d have to switch to the unforgiving pen in Grade 5, a pall of dread surfaced on our chubby cheeks and dimpled chins in Primary school.

The non-judgemental and accommodating air of the pencil further helped us develop trust in it. It leaves little doubt that every literate generation’s first love letter was scribbled in pencil, its amorous carbon footprint still resting solemnly in the yellowing graveyard of an old middle-school textbook. The pencil, perhaps, was the only one privy to the surge of emotions at the cusp of adolescence in our little heart. And after all these years, should that love have proven to be a mistake, it still offers you comfort and closure through a cathartic erasure.

The way we perceive the age of a pencil is peculiar. Somehow, it never feels old to us. Every time it emerges from the cavern of a metal sharpener, it seems new and empowered. It leaves an elegant woody carnation behind, that we’re pained to throw away for its fleeting artistic value.

With each visit to the sharpener’s den, we can see its life shorten, which perhaps adds some animation and verve to its material form. It works as a translator that conveys our intentions with sincerity. Unlike the pen that speaks in one colour, one thickness, blots the paper in one fashion; the pencil lends its usage depending on the mood of the artist who wields it.

It is easy to shade and tint even with an HB pencil, and there are many gradations of pencils available for people who fancy the shady business. The pencil can render a bold streak or a meek ruffle on the paper depending on the effect desired by the artist. And if one uses colour pencils, those 12 fountains of magic can transform a grayscale world into the Technicolor extravaganza as seen through the eyes of a mantis shrimp.

A stoic calm is the hallmark of a pencil’s character. It never breathes a word about its diminution. It’s often chewed up at one end, treated as cheap and dispensable, relegated, neglected, but the moment you need it, it’s around. Despite being taken for granted endlessly, it is ever forgiving, just as a mother.

A pencil invites sparks of creativity. That doesn’t come as a surprise, for it is anatomically designed to aid that electric flow. It has a perfect cylindrical conductor wrapped safely in a wooden insulator that ensures a safe and ceaseless torrent of electric ideas, as if all the creative electrons are just waiting for the moment the lead meets paper, thereby completing the circuit of creation.

As we grew up and embraced ink, the pencil kept showing up in the guise of a pen. It began with a lead-pen that held a rod of graphite with a forceps-like end. Then came the pen-pencil (clutch pencil) that remains in vogue to this day for its sleek design. And remember its exiled contemporary? The hideous florescent-cased 10 lead wonder, where you could remove a spent lead casing and push it at the back of the pencil and bam! –you had a fresh lead. Loud as it was in design, it also ushered in the woeful world of disposable stationery.

For the record, pencils have always been sustainable, way before it became a buzzword. Think about it!

And a pencil is reliable, for the ink never dries up, it doesn’t smudge the fabric, and it gives a fair warning about its life cycle, unlike a pen that can whimsically put its papers down in the middle of an exam paper. A pencil is an elegant device, that’s foolproof, has no moving parts, and has an infinite shelf life. It is indeed, a design marvel.

The tragedy in the tale of the pencils is that nobody remembers its end. They either meet with oblivion, or a speculated theft, or some mystical transmigration. There must be a better home, a parallel universe where they enjoy their ripe old age, a place teeming with stories about the art and artists they enabled thought the times.

A theoretical physicist would be well advised to keep equal attention to both his cosmic ponderings and the coy pencil resting on his ear. The proof of a parallel universe lay either in the appearance of a theory through the pencil, or in the mystical disappearance of the pencil to that speculated parallel realm!

In the era predating backspace, pencils were an accountant’s right hand, an illustrator’s weapon of choice, a carpenter’s indispensable tool. But with changing times, technology has started to offer attractive alternatives to our loyal friend. An array of styluses and touch pens have been accepted by the tech-savvy pioneers in the industry. Learning has transitioned online, needing kids to smudge their fingers on a screen instead of engraving their lessons with a pencil. And with most of us used to typing our feelings rather them writing them down on paper, backspace has become the de facto eraser.

There was a magic in the transference of whatever we wrote down with a pencil into our memory. Think of the first script you learned as a child. Whether such a transference exists with our digital swipes across the screen remains to be seen. It’s an experiment that’s underway without the subjects having the faintest idea they’re part of it. Will our departure from the freewheeling friction between pencil and paper leave us with a fainter memory, a blander romance with the nostalgia of learning?

Is the slow disappearance of ads about pencils in media a sign of their impending oblivion? Can the genius of its design become irrelevant in the times to come? Perhaps.
But when the ink runs out of our digital pens, or the touchscreen runs out of charge, the pencil would still be waiting for us where we’d forgotten it.
Most likely behind one of our ears!

इस रात की सुबह कहाँ?

उस शाम, हर बीती शाम की तरह

मैंने सोच को संजोए शाम बिताई
और उस जतन से ही मानो
कुछ सुंदर पंक्तियां उभर कर आयीं

मैंने शब्दों के इस संचय को कागज़ पर उतारा
और उस रात बेशक बड़ी मीठी नींद आई

सुबह हुई तो मैं मेज़ पर ही सोया हुआ था
और कागज़ पर मेरे मस्तक की लकीरें छपी थीं

सूरज चढ़ चुका था, नशा उतर चुका था
और कल की कविता अब कुछ फ़ीकी सी लगने लगी थी

मैंने हताशा में उस कागज़ को मसल कर गेंद बना दिया
और एक भावी रत्न को कूड़ेदान का स्थान दिखा दिया

विचारों के मंथन से कविताएँ हर रात उभर कर आती थी
पर नसीब ही उनका ऐसा
कि सुबह के प्रकाश,
पंक्तियों के प्रकाशन,
से वंचित रह जातीं

फ़िर एक दिन
मैंने मीनार पर चढ़े एक दीवाने को देखा

होगा नाश ज़िन्दगी का जो उसने कोई दायरा न देखा
ऐसी कोई भीड़ नहीं जिसमें उसने मुशायरा न देखा

और बस अंदाज़ में पिरो के शब्दों का पांसा जो उसने फेंका

कि बाज़ार में गूंज उठा मंज़र वाह-वही का
जैसे दीवाने की कविता हो पानी प्यासे राही का

शायद काव्य रस की तृष्णा मुझे उसके मंच तक खींच लायी
भीड़ में उसकी बुलंद आवाज़ मुझे दी सुनाई

पूरे जन-मंडल को कविता आयी बड़ी रास
पर उसकी पंक्तियों को सुनते ही हुआ विचित्र सा आभास

ये कविता मुझे न जाने क्यूं लगी जानी पहचानी
अरे! बेशक ये मेरी कविता है, जो इसने अपनी बना कर सुना डाली !

तालियों से तिलमिला कर मैं घर की ओर भागता चला गया
पहुंचते पहुंचते ही सूरज मद्धम सा ढलता चला गया

कमरे में पोहोंचा, पाया खाली उस भूखे कूड़ेदान को
जैसे हज़म कर बैठा हो मेरे कागज़ की गेंदों को

मैं रोया
फिर सिस्का
फ़िर होश संभाला
और मुस्कुराया

और मदिरा की शीशी को कूड़ेदान का मेहमान बनाया
कलम को थामे मैंने कुर्सी पर खुद को जमाया

और प्रण किया कि यह कलम तब तक चलती रहेगी
जब तक इस रात की सुबह नही होगी…

The music of the wind

If music came through the wind
Each fallen bamboo in the forest
Would hum with a melody
As the breeze tunnelled through its hollows

If music came through the wind
Then each cluster of seed pods
Would chime and rattle
As the wind weaved through the willows

If music came through the wind
Each dreadlock of the banyan tree
Would buzz with a solemn drone
As the draft bowed on a hundred cellos

The wind longs
To make music

And so it blows
In search of a catalyst

To amplify the song in its heart
To carry it along as a psalm

On its endless journey
Through the timeless flow of time

The wind offers the bird
An element of itself
To inhale and exhale
And a song hitches a ride on that ennobled gush

And with this alchemy of breath
There is born a rhythm
As the woodpecker pecks its way home
As the dove coos gently, from a canopy lush

And magically do the hollows of the tree trunk
Have the calfskin sit tight on it once
Do the fallen bamboos find holes punched in
At that perfect distance

And the bamboo is breathed to life
The Djembe is struck to the pulse
Of the pecking bird

And thus is born a movement
A dance
As if unfurled
To the wind of the music
To the music of the wind

The creator is the alchemist
The wind an element
Breath the reaction
Consciousness the catalyst
Music, that golden
Life saving by-product.


We are clouds.
Thick and grey,
brimming with rain,
brimming with potential.

We are aware, that a single droplet we contain
can send ripples of revitalization in a placid pond.
We have the energy to share.

We’ve done it before.
We know this.

Yet, we hover in the skies above.
We look eagerly for a pond to rain into.
But there’s none in sight.

Meanwhile, time elapses.
The wind, and life, not caring for our indecision drift us aimlessly.

We fail to realize that we have to rain down first to create the pond.

But, for once, we decide to act.
To precipitate.

The immutable law of the universe,
gravity, aids us on our journey.

We fear the contact of the Earth,
the impact on the crust, on the rocks,
But we have no choice.

And we rain down without inhibition.

Drops turn into rivulets, and lakes,
ponds, and streams.

Before we know, we become a river,
chiselling the rocks smooth on our advance,
The very rocks we once feared.

And from being a nebula of meek, diffident droplets
We culminate confidently into the might ocean.

We rest in deep satisfaction.

Soon, the sun shines on us.

We rise up as vapor, ready for another challenge,
another downpour,
across the Pacific.

So, I ask you my brooding cloud,
I ask you, my tiny droplet of promise,

‘When are you going to rain down?’

THE KEY TO THIS LOCKDOWN – A message from an artist

In this period of a lockdown, this is a simple message from one artist to another. Now, you might be thinking that this message might not concern you because you might not see yourself as an artist.

I can empathise with you for this ‘non-artist’ self-image that you’ve cultivated over the years. But I would like to make you believe otherwise.

We have become experts at reducing the magnificent scope of our creative energy to a badge or title that we believe represents our identity. The chances are that you refer to yourself as a coder, a teacher, a marketer, a manager, or the underserving frown inviting ‘housewife’.

And in doing so, in closing the door, on drawing a circle around yourself with this identity, you are reducing your capacity to grow and embrace the 3-dimensional sphere of possibilities you hold (or thought once held, likely when you were a child).

The prevailing time of a total lockdown—where you have 24 hours that seem to feel miraculously too long, when there’s no one breathing down your neck, pointing to a work deadline, when you have time on your hands— present a wonderful opportunity to re-evaluate who you are deep inside.

We usually associate all social prestige to our occupation, rightly so because that’s how we keep ourselves occupied during a typical workday. But today, when there’s an infinite duration of hours to pass, how would you keep yourself occupied?
And would the way you spend this time tell something about what you have turned into while toiling away in your work-life?

It is a revealing time; indeed, when no online streaming service is capable of satisfying your stream of consciousness. When, in these moments of quietude, the conscience knocks gently on your heart and asks,

‘What could you do to add beauty and meaning to this seemingly unforgiving hour?

With a strict curtailment of all ‘non-essential’ forms of work—when you find yourself sitting at home and realise how dispensable your occupation has become in the light of this tragic humanitarian crisis— you will wonder what counts as an essential form of work.

When you’re past all that period of resting, you’ll wish to be a part of the task force that is currently and rightly so, essential. The feeling of wanting to be meaningfully engaged is deeply human, after all.

As you think about the question, of what counts as essential, I invite you to peep into the bedroom of a writer, who writes still, late into the night. I welcome you to the studio of a painter, who still paints and brings a canvas to life. Come and watch the dancer who still sways to the beat of changing times, or the poet who, even in this dark hour of our lives, pens down songs of hope.

All of these people who we see as artists are still following a discipline they used to every day for years. They practice and perform as usual, in the pall of a looming threat, in these times of a complete lockdown.

This period of gloom has only seen the artist to have taken a more proactive step towards making art and sharing it with the world. Suddenly, the real importance of art is shining through in this dark hour of humanity.

Whom one would usually deem as a struggling singer-songwriter, is adding a priceless value to our time when they put out a grainy phone recorded video of a song that springs from the heart, as it always did. Why are people choosing to watch them instead of the mundane cute kitten videos that would usually relegate the artist to the bottom of the stream?

Perhaps we are learning to find the essence, of what’s true and beautiful and most importantly, human.

These times of a lockdown call for three things from us—

1) Validation to art, its value in our life, and the respect every artist, no matter where they are in their journey, deserves.

2) Gratitude to our brothers and sisters who are working hard to secure our future, and making sure that our lives still run smoothly.

And most significantly

3) Acceptance of the artist in you, who’s struggling to break out of the cocoon of conformity that’s loosening as you squiggle in discomfort to find the butterfly in you.
Your work may have been deemed non-essential at the moment, but your life is still every bit essential. Art can help exalt that life.

It is an opportunity to make something with your hands. Go don that apron and try to make an omelette, even if you haven’t set foot in the kitchen, ever. Dust off the layer of civilizational history that’s sitting on top of your old musical instrument. It has been longing to channel a song through you. Do not worry about how good the art you create would be or how functional or relevant it is. The value of art is in the process, not in the outcome.

You might forget the importance of art when things normalise, but if you emerge out of this lockdown with the acknowledgement that you are an artist at heart, art will blossom in the rain of that realisation.

I invite you to switch off the internet* for a few hours every day and apply yourself. Make art. It is therapy.

Stay safe. Stay healthy.

P.S. *Really! Switch it off 🙂
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