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Thriving Mindfully

Category: essay

Who is a friend?

‘Oh no, not again!’ I hear my little five-year old neighbour shout out in anguish.

I don’t need to peep out of the window to know what’s spoiling her evening. I’ve seen her grow into the angel she is. I know each inflection, every giggle, every whimper of her animated self.

I go to my backyard and get a long bamboo stick. I open the front door, and she’s already there, waiting for me.

She needn’t speak.

I prop up the stick and reach for the shuttle-cock stuck on the flower-studded Champa tree by the street. After some poking in the lush canopy, the florescent shuttle cock falls down in tandem with the little girl’s squeal.

She is back at play with her mother on the street. Her reclusive mom wonders about this telepathic understanding between her daughter and me.

While at play I hear her tell her mother,

‘I told you. He will come to help. He is my friend!’

And that gets me wondering too.
When did we become friends?
What does it mean to be a friend anyway?

Soon, I realised the most sincere of definitions of a friend.

‘A friend is someone who cares about something with the same love and passion as you do.’

Think about it.

The interruption in play from the stuck shuttle cock is as much a matter of concern for the little girl as it is to me. We both care about the continuance of childlike play.

And I come out to help.

And we are friends!

We both find it inconceivable to not dance in the first shower of rain.
We care about the experience equally.
And we are friends.
Without ever needing to say a word.

A childhood friend cares about you almost to the same degree as you care about yourself.
Your emotion for them is exactly the same.
There’s an element of truth in that relentless reciprocity.

This mirrored magic of caring is what sustains childhood friendships for a lifetime.

If you make a friend later in life, chances are you are interested in similar things. You care about the similar political and philosophical ideas. You are passionate about the same thing in some manner.
Or you make something with them in some work context. And that leads you to care about a common idea or product or art.

The hours spent together, help coalesce your conceptions of friendship and soon, you start opening up to each other.

All friendship is a measure of how much we care about the same thing.
All brotherhood is a deed in trust.

Sometimes going out in search of friends doesn’t help.

All one can do is open up to care.
Care for someone, or something, or an idea with deep passion.
And let a friendship manifest around that commonality of care.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make a friend.

Sometimes all you have to do, is to make the stuck shuttle cock fall down from a tree.

Once you’ve done that enough times, a little girl might call you a friend.

Is there an honour bigger than that?

With that thought, I wish you a happy friendship day!

Magic Moringa

It would be safe to say that during the testing times of the pandemic, it was the drumstick that became my saviour.
No, I am not talking about the slender pieces of wood that help me make music on the drums. I am speaking about the drumstick hanging like muted chimes on the Moringa tree in my neighbourhood.

Also known as Saragvo in Gujarati, Muringyakaya in Malayalam, this hardy fruit-bearing tree made sure my family never went to bed with an empty stomach during the lockdown.
As the days of scarcity, and uncertainty reeled on with subsequent lockdown extensions, the majestic Moringa tree in the park assured us of our food security.

The moment the sun beamed its first rays into our locality, my mother would silently make her way to the park with a long stick in her hand. After some hustling, she would be back home with a few drumstick pods and a bunch of moringa leaves.

Come lunch and we’d have a spread of sambar and rice. Without the succulent drumstick soaking in the lightly flavoured stew, the dish would pass off as dal. But its pulpy goodness, and the satisfaction of sucking on the last drip from its fibrous remains made us feel a sense of plenitude in times of utter scarcity.

However, the spice shelf soon ran out of the indispensable ingredient of sambar – tamarind.
But has the creativity of a mother ever failed us?
Each day, we’d get to taste a different kind of tanginess in our ‘sambar’. We tasted the flavour of dried raw mangoes, dehydrated amla, Malabar tamarind, lemon, or even Kokum, as a replacement for the usual tamarind spiced sambar. And each dish would outdo the one served a day earlier.

The drumstick leaves started featuring in plenty in our dishes, sometimes as saag,at times as a poriyal with grated coconut, as a leafy accompaniment in dal, at times just raw as a garnish on a cucumber and pomegranate salad.

It’s safe to say our home was suffused with the aromatic blessings of the Moringa tree.

Since we were consuming so much food from a single tree, we wondered if there were any side effects to it.

After some searching online, my mother said,

‘They say it’s a superfood. Do you know anything about this? What is a superfood?’

I could have looked it up. But after the generous care given to our family for two months at a stretch, could I deem its superfood status merely to some magical combination of micronutrients?

Towards the end of May, the drumstick on the tree began to dry up. Only a few dozen drumstick remained near the canopy. But when my mother’s height failed her to reach the topmost fruit, my father’s resolution helped bridge that slender distance.

We derived as much as we could from the tree, until the day it rained for the first time in the season. With a grateful heart, we let the tree heal and recover with the spells of rain to follow.

From the last few drumstick, my mother managed to grow a few saplings. They’re growing well, one each on either side of the entrance to our home.

I remember how during the summer months, our city would be full of drumsticks hanging from the ubiquitous Moringa trees. But all of that fruit dried up every year, without ever receiving respect through our consumption.

The dried seed pods would fall on the concrete pavements. Not one seed would manage to break the opaque, unyielding shield of modernity and reach a longing layer of soil beneath.

I haven’t been out on the streets lately due to the pandemic.

But I only hope that all other Moringa trees have been utilised as abundant treasures in times of scarcity. I hope all of them look like the resurgent tree in our park, one that’s grateful of having served its cause, of having saved a few lives.

And if there are other seeds that have blossomed outside the houses of our unknown neighbours, the hapless seedlings have finally found a fertile place in our heart.

On the good old Lunchbox

Remember that calamitous moment in school, when the class teacher asked for yesterday’s homework with a cold steel ruler in hand? And you slid your hand ever so slowly inside the school bag, feigning to reach for the unfinished homework. How you imagined the cold slap of metal on your tender hands on a cold winter morning. And somewhere between all of this, your hands touched the stainless steel lunch box inside your bag that nursed your hands with the reassuring warmth of homemade comfort food.

And we felt all was well in the world. We found the largesse to convince ourselves, ‘This too shall pass’ and we dared to imagine beyond the pain, about the feast that awaited us at lunch time.

The lunch box is the closest substitute for the warmth of a mother. It’s the quintessential pacifier for growing kids who need to be weaned off their mother’s constant companionship. The weeping kids at pre-school find some consolation in the taste of the lovingly prepared meal by their darling mothers. The lunch box somehow convinces us that we are still not too far from home.

In school, lunchtime was the much needed pit-stop we needed for a quick refuel, before we headed out to play in the carefully budgeted lunch period. Lunch was a substitute for a visit to our friend’s home. And more often than not, we visited them all in that hurried limited buffet in the class room. And how discerning was our sense of taste! We might have not even seen a friend’s mother, but we could recognise her from a blind tasting test!

Amid the sharing of lunch all throughout school, we also grew up with a conundrum that’s unsolved to this day.
If everyone ate only out of their own tiffin, everyone would be full. But if everyone shared with each other equally, nobody ever felt full enough!

And as we shared our meals, we took our stomach on a gastronomical Bhaarat darshan. Our lunch comprised of two spoons of Upma, Half an Idli, quarter a Paratha, a slurry of curd rice, a handful of Poha, a disfigured cutlet, and assorted snacks that we trusted to be edible. Sometimes we scooped a fistful of Maggi, a dollop of pasta, a morsel of samosa on that odd special day. A random piece of lime pickle, a smattering of ketchup, and an odd dip in the green chutney, all washed down with hurried gulps of water.
The stomach was prepared for resilience right from school days.

But there were also days when we forgot to carry that lunch box, or someone hid it to have fun with us. Who could we blame when all pilferers pleaded victimhood? But the hunters often become the hunted too, and in the end nobody ever learned a lesson!

There is something crucial that we did learn at lunch hour though – the difference between civility and savagery. All we had to do was observe how girls and boys share lunch among themselves.

Boys would remember being injured with their finger cut from a stainless steel dabba grab-fest, juggling a hot paratha, getting their fingers pierced by forks, and all the pushing and shoving involved in the pursuit of one mouthful. On the other hand, girls would sit in a circle and eat with grace, while finding amusement in the public display of desperation from the boys. Girls always wondered why the boys acted this way. And the boys could never fathom why girls seemed to be growing faster when it was the boys who displayed a more ravenous hunger.

The weight of a full dabba has a gravity of its own. On a long journey away from home the dabba binds us to our roots, giving us comfort in each redolent morsel.
The dabba has always accompanied us regardless of our age. The dabba meant that you’re still cared for. That someone at home still called you by an adorable pet name, no matter how old you were. In a busy city like Mumbai, there’s an intricate web of Dabbawallahs who promise to deliver home-cooked food to your office doorstep. That speaks of what we long for through the dabba.

While most of us have experienced the joy of a dabba full of delicious food, only few among us have experienced the unspoken joy of a mother who washes an empty dabba late in the evening.

She knows that despite her proscription, her daughter did share the ghee and nuts laden halwa with her friends. She’s happy still, knowing that her daughter had the heart to share a delicacy with friends.

Until the dawn of the millennium, tiffin boxes were made of stainless steel, the most iconic of them being the three-floored skyscraper of a dabba, a familiar cousin of the indestructible Hero cycles. We have come a long way from that era. Moulded plastic lunch boxes have replaced the heavyweight champion. In fact, lunch boxes have become modern and stylish. Kids carry Tupperware as lunch boxes, something that was unthinkable in the late 90s. There are insulation lined lunch boxes that keep the food warm until lunch time. I remember the only way to achieve that back in the day was with the aluminium foil, something that only classier kids could afford. Looking back though, I’m glad none of our friends could afford that, else in the grab-snatch game at lunch hour, we’d all have accidentally ingested foil for food at some point.

However, most mischievous kids ensured that they had their lunch warm by finishing it when it was still warm, just after the first period.
Who needs foil, they’d say!
Their marginal moustache almost always bore signs of ingestion, in stark contrast of their staunch denial. Need one explain the genesis of the old Hindi saying – chor ki dadhi me tinka?

Just as the design of the box is changing, so are its contents. Toasted bread, cheese sandwiches, reheated pizzas, biscuits, and convenience foods are increasingly featuring in the lunch boxes of the school going generation today.
The advertising industry has been convincing us into using factory-made substitutes of what we believed to be indispensable, healthy meals. And given the pace of life today, one can empathise with the overworked mother who rationalises the temptation of sending a peanut butter jam sandwich for lunch.

Not only this, the rules in the school are changing too. There are schools that decree students to not share their lunch. It’s every man to himself here. Some schools have a kitchen and cafeteria, which comes as a relief for working parents. All kids eat the same meal. There’s no avenue to share. As we dish out these convenient measures we end up promoting a mono-culture that’s individualistic and unsavoury.

What will happen to the sisterhood found through sharing food?

We are what we eat.
In my school days, my friends and I ate almost exactly the same meal (give or take a morsel) as we shared food uncompromisingly at every lunch hour. Perhaps that speaks for why we still feel oneness with those who we shared our school lunch box with.

But with the culture of being kept from sharing food with friends, or having to eat the same meal in the cafeteria (without having to share), one wonders how it will affect children in the future.

Where is this headed?
We can only wait and watch. But don’t be surprised when kids aren’t as eager to share as they once used to be. They’re the least to be blamed for this change.

However things shape up, we can be glad to be a generation that still savours the good old charm of slinging a lunchbox to work.
And if we still carry a lunch box to office, we can only feel grateful.


The Miracle of Indian Immunity

If a palmist were to read a common man’s hand today, he’d be baffled.

We have rubbed out the lines on our palms through the constant hand washing and sanitised our future of any trace of filth. As it stands, for a change, it’s the palmist who’s been made to feel insecure and desperate. With no lines to read and no customer who’ll rest their palm into a stranger’s hand, the palmist and his pet parrot are worried about their own future.

In fact, we are all worried about the future.
The pandemic has changed us fundamentally. Remember our sheer nonchalance towards basic hygiene? Well, as hygiene conscious we have become lately, we’ve virtually become ( hygienically speaking) indistinguishable from who we used to be.

Let’s take a trip back to those carefree days of our childhood.

We are the kids who’ve unfailingly danced in the rain every monsoon. Did we ever pay heed to mother’s shouting through the sibilant rain shower, asking us to get back home?
And today, we fret to set foot out in the open during a drizzle. We fear we’ll catch that dreaded cold. Alas, every little sneeze has now become questionable.

We are the kids who used to run behind the fogger that fumigated the whole neighbourhood with plumes of DDT. We’ve lived our dream of being a Bollywood superstar on a smoke-infused stage on those fumigant-clouded streets.
But in the past few months, some of us have had to sit in quarantine rooms, as health workers sprinkled disinfectant all around the house to contain an outbreak.

We are the ones who used to fall sick once a year from the irresistible indulgence in golgappas. We used to drink that mint and tamarind infused paani to relieve an ailing stomach. (as if secretly seeking the pleasure of golgappas in instalments)
And how soon did we head to the golgappe wale bhaiya again, once we felt fit!
The mother’s hand nourished us, and the bhaiya’s hand, just on that odd occasion, made us sick to our stomach.

We assumed the tangy paani to be a herbal sanitizer that effaced every trace of bacteria from those hands that have strummed at every questionable place.
That placebo only failed us once every year, and that, we’d all agree, is not a bad record after all!

Can we imagine having golgappas on the street today? Even the bhaiya is back in his village in U.P. anyway!

We are the kids who have trawled for chunks of clay in the sand. Our fingers did squeeze a few funky objections now and then, but we had the heart to condone it in search of a greater pleasure.

Today, we can’t imagine sending children out to play the same way.

We are the kids who have, once in life, run naked on the streets. We are the kids who made a mockery of the five-second rule for determining the edibility of a fallen piece of food. Remember dropping a paratha on the classroom floor and asking your friend, ‘Raam ya Bhoot‘?

A swarm of flies has never deterred us from downing a glassful of sugarcane juice.
Remember how we used to casually ingest that chemical-laden ice gola sherbet?
How, we mocked each other with pop-coloured tongues, as the food colour dyed the entire alimentary canal in a similar hue.

We are the generation that used to drink tap water from every tap there was in the locality. As they would say in earlier times, we have tasted ghaat ghaat ka paani.

I remember once while staying at a hostel in Bangkok, I’d casually gulped a glassful of water from the kitchen tap to the horror of my traveller friends. The water was only suitable for washing needs in their eyes. They’d predicted I’d be running laps between my bed and the toilet the following morning.

Just for the record, I bicycled a 100 kilometres every day for the next seven days. The only explanation my traveller friends had for this miracle was,

‘Well, he’s Indian!’

What could explain the Indian immunity?

Nonchalance for basic hygiene has kept us in good stead until now. But apart from our habit of enduring questionable hygiene practices on the streets since birth, there could be a positive reason as well.

Think of the Indian Kitchen, where each spice used, each condiment pairing, has a logical culinary significance. The simplest of examples being the simplest of dishes, Aloo Jeera. While it is a delicious food pairing, there’s some science behind it too. The generous use of Jeera (cumin) relieves us from the flatulence inducing Aloo (potatoes).
Ginger ignites the digestive fire, lemon adds a dash of immunity boosters, and turmeric with its anti-bacterial properties finds a place in almost every Indian curry. We’ve never stepped out of the house for seasonal illnesses.
The spice shelf is our medicine cabinet.

Remember that painful needle prick we had in childhood? That dreaded booster vaccine. That moment when the first existential enquiry entered your head –

‘Why would someone willingly inflict pain?’

I wonder if the vaccine was named ‘booster’ because it only boosted the congenital immunity conferred to us by the virtue of our Indian-ness.
(Apart from the legitimate medical reasons of course!)

Being a nation founded on faith, it doesn’t come as a surprise that faith healing and quackery still flourish in the country. What else could explain that Himalayan Jadi-Booti waalah’s tent, the white-bearded Hakim, and the peacock feather waving tantrics who even claim to be capable of scaring spirits away!

We’re innocent, optimistic people who take the problem of population density as an opportunity to ensure herd immunity. And given the allowance of casual, affectionate touch in our culture, we spread pathogens with alarming frequency. Our body learns to become a well-prepared army that is well-stocked with arms and immunitions.

And with the diversity of healing methods available in India, the country seems to be in good health.
Apart from chronic constipation and premature ejaculation of course, something that we blatantly advertise without a trace of cultural self-consciousness. Take a train ride to North India, peep outside the window, and the writing on the wall is bright, loud, and clear.

But it’s one thing to be cocksure about our own immunity and another when the government leaves us to the strength of our internal mechanisms to fight deadly diseases.

The magnitude of the tragedy grows in proportion to the callousness of the state. How else did we achieve pan-India malnourishment, a worrisome infant mortality rate, the anaemic state of women in the India beyond the reach of traditional media?

We boast of the most polluted cities in the world, of drains for rivers and a haze for what should be a clear blue sky.

While we’ve been genetically endowed by good immunity, we might just be pushing our limits here.

Even with the confidence in our immunity, the healthy spices in our food, the presence of a wide array of schools of medicine, and our long-practised herd immunity, we are, for the first time worried about falling sick.

The pandemic has scared us into a habit of hygiene. That is one positive change that has arisen out of the current state of emergency. Has it woken up the ailing governance system to regain its health?

We are a nation that believes in taqdeer, fate, destiny.
For how long could we be locked inside our houses? We will undoubtedly step out of the house soon, wearing our taqdeer on our forehead, a mask on our face, ready to face anything on the way. We need to help the economy back on the rails too after all. And given our acumen for jugaad, we will find a way to live with, and hopefully, win over the pandemic while we conduct business while minding healthy precautions.

Hopefully soon, life will limp back to normalcy and we will be able to stroll in the park again.  And as we walk past that familiar crossroad, we might find two tents of the Himalayan Jadi-Booti wallahs instead of one.

Both tents might already have a Himalayan immunity booster advertised on a chalkboard.

And I bet, one of the tents is run by the enterprising, out of job palmist!

On cultivating a sense of wonder

‘Come out in the balcony mummy, right now!’

‘What’s the matter? I am in the middle of cooking lunch.’

‘Come out in the balcony, just for two minutes. You don’t want to miss this!’

The excitement in my voice was at its peak.

Eventually, she came and found me wearing a strange pair of goggles and staring at the sun.

‘Eclipse goggles? Is it a solar eclipse today, son?’

‘Yes! Here, have a look,’ I said and helped her wear the eclipse goggles.

For the next minute, I saw my mother smile for the longest duration I’ve ever seen in my life.

As she shared what she saw through those tinted glasses, I came to know she hadn’t ever seen a solar eclipse before.

It came as a surprise to me since she had devoted 35 years of her life in service to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

She shared how in her childhood, people in the village used to watch the eclipse’s reflection in a shallow puddle of cow dung, for eclipse goggles didn’t exist back then.

In that abiding minute, as I watched the sheer awe on my mother’s goggled face, I felt a sense of peace dawn in my heart.

I’ve often felt guilty about travelling far and wide on my bicycle trip, but never really taking my mother to any place for a tour. However, sometimes, you needn’t leave your home to travel.

Watching that eclipse transported us deep in a world full of wonder.

This incident left me thinking –

Exactly how far away does one find a sense of wonder?

How far does one need to go to find a silent rush take over their being?

Most likely, it is just one person away.

The distance between a sense of weariness and a whirlwind of wonder is in the breadth of our openness for a fresher perspective.
And considering the fragile state of the world within us, isn’t sharing those fleeting moments of fascination with the people around us, an act of compassion?

And, as a corollary, doesn’t opening your mind to perspectives of others offer an avenue to understand, and at some level, love the people in the world around you?

Have a friend who’s frustrated with the rising binaries of political narratives worldwide?

Share with her how a binary language helped us achieve a technological revolution.
If she’s still vexed and the discussion ends with her saying, nothing will ever change, perhaps bring her a goldfish named Nemo, or a cute bonsai to keep by her windowsill.
When she finds herself tending to those, despite proclaiming that nothing will ever change, she might find some answers in those quiet moments spent still caring.

What if you find a foreign element in your morning cup of tea? Take a deep breath, spare your maid the usual reprimand, and share with her how a little grain of impurity has its own place in the world. How a minuscule amount of cobalt helped your chai-cup gain that royal blue hue. The emerald chandelier on the roof owes its splendour to strains impurities of iron oxide. Perhaps with that joy of learning something new, the maid will be more careful with cookware and your chai might be tastier in the evening.

Want to feel truly alive? Remove your earphones, don a stethoscope, and hear the sound of your child’s heartbeat. Help her listen to her throbbing heart.

Isn’t that a picture-perfect moment?

And while you are helping people see the world differently, be generously open to the perspectives of people around you.

Maybe that story recited by a child, that’s teeming with imagination yet happens to never end, might help you be at peace with the idea of writing a story, even if you don’t have the end in mind.

Before you dismiss the devotion of a village lady as superstition, try circling a banyan tree thrice, sink in its grandeur, and see if you feel a sense of gratitude that’s worthy of worship.

The way we see anything is the way we see everything.

We often forget to realise the magic in our world, its breath-taking complexity, its delicate balance, its poetic perfection beyond our perception.

Once we begin to see the world around us with a shared sense of wonder, we begin to accept our own existence with a similar sense of awe.

Lend me your lenses and let me lend you mine.

For once we learn to do so, we will only be kinder to ourselves, each other, and the world around us. We will realise the value of the time and space we’ve been graciously leased out by dear life.

Keep your mind open to perspectives, and an eye out for the skies.

Maybe when you hold your head up high, with an eye for wonder, it will rain a thousand blazing meteors.


The highs and lows of being a Crow

We have always imagined birds to embody a debonair charm. Being capable of elegant flights, birds have access to an aerial view of the world, a vantage we earth-bound bipeds deem to be divinely endowed. The lightness in their swooping motions, their aerodynamic group acrobatics, bring an uplifting feeling to every patient spectator.

Life on earth is blessed with a breathtaking diversity of these dinosaur descendants.

Tiny swallows, sailing swifts, hummingbirds, weaver birds, pastel-colored parakeet, ogling owls, saintly swans, flamingos, the flightless ostrich, emu, penguins…the diversity is immense.

Even the most mundane of feathered creatures, the ubiquitous pigeon, are accepted as one among the bird folk.
The classification of birds might seem like an open, all-encompassing idea at first thought.

But there’s one class among them that we have been subconsciously ostracizing for ages.

The crow.

The crow is seen as, well, a crow.
It feels weird to associate any avian attributes to it. Now that it’s been brought to our attention, one wonders why it is the case!

Perhaps it’s a function of the reputation they’ve built for themselves over the years.

They aren’t exactly the neighbours you’d pray to have. If you despise a rooster’s call in the morning, well, wait until you hear the auditory atrocity the crows inflict at daybreak.
Their rousing cacophony at the crack of dawn can awaken even the deepest of sleepers.
Perhaps it was due to the persistence in its cawing that we, in India, have named it after the sound of its call. In Hindi, it’s called the Cau-wa (The one who caws). It’s called a Kaak in Sanskrit, Kaagdo in Gujarati, and Kaka in most South Indian languages.

Unsurprisingly, it’s presence has permeated into our language and culture.

We’ve been tainting its physical attributes since childhood. Haven’t we grown up teasing a dark-skinned peer form the neighbourhood as a Kaala Cauwa, black as a crow?
And how about the way we discouraged people from singing in their Cauwe Jaisi awaaz. (You sing like a crow!) We’ve quashed the confidence of so many people with such slanderous simile.

But beyond the physical aspect, crows are known to exhibit remarkably sophisticated group behaviour. These gregarious beings in their jet black attire look much like a council of advocates perched high up on a towering tree. Why they haven’t sued us for defamation yet is a point in question.

Shifting between clamouring speculation and meditative reflection, they certainly seem like evolved thinkers.
In fact, crows are known to gather around a dead comrade and investigate the cause behind its demise.
Perhaps that influenced a philologist to name the collective noun for a group of crows as ‘murder’.
A murder of crows investigates the murder of a crow – a neat mnemonic device to remember that fact!

Crows have a noxious way of demarcating their dominion. They mark their territory not by aggression but by inducing a repulsion to the stench in their collective droppings. Early-morning-joggers are known to run a bit faster underneath trees colonised by crows, always with a prayer on the lip, wishing to be spared being an unlucky target.

Blackness envelops a crow to the extent that even its eyes are completely black.
It’s this pervading blackness and the negative white space that together fashion the poetic, yin-yang nature of its life.

There’s an inherent dichotomy in the way the mind of a crow works. Kids across the globe have grown up with stories of the clever crow who managed to drink water out of that pot that had too little water by dropping stones into it. We’ve been introduced to the potential in a crow’s intellect fairly early on in life.
And experiments have proven the amazing ability of a crow for logical thinking.

Yet, we all know how, for generations, it’s been fooled by the koel into bringing up its offspring. How such a sophisticated mind can be fooled in broad daylight is a deep mystery of nature.
Whether there is a connection between this congenital emotional folly and the fact that we always assume a crow to be male is up for debate!

Elaborating further on the dichotomy, crows have been traditionally seen as a bad omen in India, yet, we also see them as the reincarnation of our beloved ancestors and offer them the first morsel of food cooked at home.

But that tradition is slowly disappearing in cities as we disrespectfully drive our reincarnated ancestors to the outskirts of the city, where they scavenge in squalor at the landfill.
With the broad range of foods they can stomach, they still provide a vital service of consuming much of the organic matter that would otherwise rot.

The other day, I had the opportunity of witnessing the genius of a crow first hand. We had placed a bowl full of water in our garden for birds to quench their thirst in the summers. While many birds came and enjoyed the oasis in our garden, a crow-couple kept coming back to the bowl of water for an interesting reason. They’d been soaking parts of their nest one by one in the bowl until it became saturated with cool water. Then, they would take it back to the nest, place it there, and come back with another few elements of their nest. This way, they managed to keep their nest cool, humid, and habitable.
In another instance, I saw them soak dried up rotis in the water to make them chewy and digestible again.
How creative are these beings!

Having witnessed their wit first hand, I’ve begun to see crows in a different light. There’s so much we could learn from them.

Apart from their harsh-toned singing (which a majority of us learn quite naturally), we could also learn a lot more from these birds.

We could learn to sing our heart out despite the harshness in our voice. We could learn from their enterprise, inventiveness, and creative thinking. We could develop an immunity to disapproval and believe in our ability that’s beyond the apparent appraisal.
We could learn to be entirely comfortable in our skin (feathers in their case!). And most importantly, we could accept our capacity for blind emotional folly.

Dear crow, notwithstanding your annoying cawing, I do strive to be like you in many ways. I am not writing this for amusement or taking a dig at you.
I really mean it.
And dare I lie, for I know that if I do, I’ll get a fitting punishment from you.
As they say ‘Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaatey’. (If you lie, you’ll be bitten by a crow!)

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!



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?

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!

© 2020 Sreenath Sreenivasan

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