Thriving Mindfully

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Does a rock have spirit?

Does a rock have spirit
Maybe not they say
Then why does a majestic mountain
Lift my soul away

Does water have spirit
Perhaps they say
Is that why a gurgling stream
Makes my soul sway?

Does fire have spirit
Nay! do they repeat
Then why does my soul
Buoy in the bonfire heat?

Does the wind have spirit
Yes there’s a chance
Is that why a breeze
Stirs my soul to a dance.

Some answers are beyond words
As wisdom is beyond wit
There sing those temple birds
Only spirit can awaken spirit

Then should we ever question
Whether an idol has spirit at all
Or should we ask ourselves,
Does the idol move our soul?

Half Pants

Little Manjunath could not think about anything else but his brand new half-pants. Having lived in a single pair of half-pants ever since he remembers, the new pair was a luxury.

And he had worked hard to deserve them too.

One day at school, all kids had assembled in the kitchen courtyard to have their mid-day meal. A stray lump of glowing coal had slipped out of the stove, lending the haystack nearby a reason to burn.

As the flame raged into an inferno, the kids screamed and ran helter-skelter in search of a safer shelter. Manju, on the other hand, ran up to the well and fetched a bucket full of water to douse the fire.

How could he let the pot full of halwa get consumed in the flames!

Soon, the teachers at school came to help and the fire was extinguished.

He became the hero of the third standard that day. All teachers celebrated his bravery. Everyone celebrated with the sweet halwa salvaged from the fire. But what little Manju remembered most fondly was the gentle way in which Dhaara teacher, had ruffled his hair.

Dhaara was Manju’s class teacher. She was a charming lady in her mid-20s who taught her students with deep involvement and affection. Manju loved her in the most guileless, young-boy-like manner possible.

The principal of the school had taken note of Manju’s bravery. He had announced a gallantry award for Manju, to be awarded on the 15th of August, India’s Independence Day.

Manju wished to receive the honour in a new pair of clothes. His clothing situation though was a bitter irony. While his father was the local village washerman, who dealt with clothes all the time, he could hardly afford two pairs of school shorts for Manju.

But on learning of the bravery award to be conferred on Manju, he had borrowed money to buy a new pair of navy blue half-pants.

It was the night of 14th August. The new pair of half pants were swaying to the wind on the clothesline near the village pond. Manju could hardly sleep that night.

‘What if the half-pants get stolen? What if they are blown away into the pond?

What if they fall off and get muddy?’

A hundred things could go wrong, and all of them pestered him equally.

The whole household was fast asleep. It was midnight. Manju heard a deep rumble from outside. And, another worry entered his mind,

‘What if it rains?

I won’t be able to go to school with wet pants!
And I won’t be able to receive the award from Dhaara teacher!’

He longed for his hair to be ruffled again, just like the day of the fire in the kitchen.

The rumble was back again. It felt as if the clouds were forewarning about a sudden spell of rain.

Manju had to do something.

Quietly, he left his own house like a seasoned burglar. Guided by diffused moonlight and his villager instinct, he made his way to the community pond nearby.

He knew where his father always hung the clothes of the family. The topmost clothesline from the bank, near the banyan tree.

The fact that he was more afraid of missing out on Dhaara Madam’s gentle ruffle than any dangers lurking in the dark, led the little 8-year-old through the eerie theatre of the night.

He needed little searching. He got hold of his half pants and felt the damp fabric on his cheek.

‘Would it dry by morning?’ he wondered.

He didn’t want to receive the award with wet pants!

The rumble of the night got intense. Manju tried to listen for the source of the sound.

A pair of luminous eyes shone at a distance near the pond. A padded tail, curved like a bow, dangled high above the patch of grass.

It was a big cat.

A leopard.

Manju gulped all his screams.

Just as stealthily he had come out of his house, he climbed up the Banyan tree to be at a safe place, away from the feasting Leopard.

He wondered whose cattle shed in the village was one sheep short that night.

He prayed to Lord Hanuman, under his stifled breath.

Manju sweat his shirt wet in the half an hour spent in cover on the Banyan tree. Once the Leopard finished eating, he walked past the tree slowly.

Now, both of Manju’s half pants were wet.

Satiated with the kill, the Leopard sauntered into the thicket under the guard of the night.

Manju fell unconscious hugging a thick branch of the mighty Banyan tree.

The following morning, when Manju opened his eyes, he saw the angelic face of his class teacher.

‘Is this a dream?’ Have I reached heaven?’ he wondered in delirium.

He saw the faces of his relived parents on the adjacent side of the bed. He had a warm quilt around his body.

‘You’re fine Manju. Don’t worry.

We are all proud of you,’ said Dhaara teacher.

‘Good morning, teacher’ he mumbled.

‘We were worried when you didn’t come to school for the ceremony. Then the school gatekeeper told us you were on a Banyan tree the whole night.’

‘I hope it wasn’t one of our sheep. The leopard….’

‘Sshh… Don’t worry about it.

Here, I have your medal for you.

To the bravest child in our village!’

Dhaara teacher lovingly put the medal around a supine Manju.

She ruffled Manju’s hair affectionately. The gentle sweep of her fingers was worth a thousand badges of honour.

Everything seemed to be ending well for little Manju.

A bravery medal home delivered by his loving class teacher!

Everything seemed perfect.

Just the warm quilt gave him an irresistible itch on the thigh.

He slowly reached for the spot under the quilt to scratch that itch.

That’s when he realised,

He was wearing no half-pants!

Manju slept through the whole afternoon, naked under the blanket, without a worry in the world.

Both his half-pants fluttered slowly on the clothesline by the banyan tree next to the pond.

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 plams 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 let their palm into a stranger’s hand, the palmist and his pet parrot are worried about their own future.

We are all worried about the future. The pandemic has changed us in a fundamental way. 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 danced in the rain every monsoon. Did we ever pay heed to mother’s shouting through the sibilant rainshower, 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.
Every sneeze has now become questionable.

We are the kids who used to run behind the the fogger that fumigated the whole neighborhood with plumes of DDT. We’ve lived our dream of being a Bollywood superstar on a smoke infused stage on fumigant clouded streets. Now, some of us have had to sit in quarantined 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. And we used drink the mint and tamarind infused paani to relieve an ailing stomach. (as if secretly seeking that pleasure in installments) And how soon did we head to the panipuri 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 sanitiser 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 even 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 trowelled for chunks of clay in 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 out kids out to play the same way.

We are the kids who have, once in life, ran 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-colored tongues, as the food color 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 taste 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 kms 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, Aaloo Jeera. Not only is it a brilliant pairing, the Jeera (cumin) relieves us from the flatulence inducing Aaloo (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 in we had in childhood? That dreaded booster vaccine. The moment when the first existential inquiry entered you 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 Indianness.
(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 flourishes in the country. What else could explain that Himalayan Jadi Booti waalah’s tent, the white bearded Hakim, and the peacock feather waving tantriks 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 a well-stocked with arms and immunitions.

And with the diversity of healing options available in India, the country seems to be in good health.
Apart from the 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 tragedy grows in magnitude in proportion to the callousness of the state. How else did we achieve pan-India undernourishment, a worrisome infant mortality, the anemic state of women ?

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 wide array of schools of medicine, and our long practiced 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 governance system to regain its ailing health?

We are a nation that believes in taqdeer, fate, destiny.
How long could we be locked inside our houses. We will undoubtedly step out of the house soon, wearing our taqdeer on our forehead, ready to face anything on the way.

The mask has been suffocating us. We will still wear one while we head out, hoping to live with the virus lurking around.

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 chalk board.

And I bet, one of them, is run by the enterprising, out of job palmist.


On a lost hill in the Western Ghats
There grows a silent shrub
that even the bees
have deemed as vile weeds

But there comes a day in 12 years
When the lost mountain finds itself
And the silent shrub finds utterance
In its breathtaking bloom of blue buds

And history remembers it as Neelgiri
The Blue Mountain

On a gurgling ocean floor at depths marine
There sleeps a hermit oyster
That even the sunken ship
Has deemed as lifeless.

But there comes a day in years
When it’s done nursing that grain of assault
And as a diver pries open its ageing curl
It smiles shining a star-studded pearl

And the world remembers the oyster
For its lustrous autobiography

Should you find yourself in the atelier
Chiselling away with blunt tools and calloused hands
Remember it’s going to take a while
Decades perhaps…

But as you find the art in you
Also find the heart in you
To forgive those who press to rush your symphony

Remember the golden meteor shower
On that moonless night
That dazzlingly informed you
Of the value of all those nights spent working

The world may call you lost
Do not let that din drown your song
Do not borrow their myopia
As they question your departures

For when you’ve nourished your calling
To its deserved destiny
The world will exalt you
The universe will absolve you

And like the beautiful bloom of blue flowers
Like the lunar charm of that priceless pearl
You won’t have to drum-up your arrival.

एक डोलता पहिया

आज अचानक मुझे वो बचपन याद आ गया
लगा मानो जैसे पलों में जीवन समा गया ,

थे वोह भी दिन भीगे मल्हार के
जब कपडे दो जोड़ी ; दोस्त हज़ार थे

एक लकड़ी, एक पंचर पहिये का था साथ
गरजते बादल थे , थी कुछ बूंदों की छांट

बस कोशिश नहीं करूंगा और याद करने की
बर्दाश्त की भी हद्द होती है
पिसती ख़ुशी की, रिसते ग़म की भी

बस घुटन में , चुभन में याद करता हूँ वोह पल सुहाना
कुछ ना चाहूं , चाहूं बस
आज को भुलाना, उस कल में घुल जाना |

और आज, इस बेसुरे से ट्रैफिक में फंसे हैं
वर्क प्रेशर ही होगा जो टायर तक की फूँक छूट गयी

स्क्रू जैक लगाये लंगड़ी गाडी है खड़ी
और सूट पहने खड़ा हूँ मैं, हाथ में पंचर पहिया लिए

बायें हाथ से फांसी के फंदे को ढील दी
इक लावारिस काठी ढूंढ़ लाया

और रास्ते पर मैं और इक डोलता पहिया
टशन में, तलाश में , आगे बढ़ते हैं

कि शायद कुछ दोस्त मिल जाएँ चलते चलते
कि शायद उस पार कुछ बारिश भी होगी …