Sreenath Sreenivasan

Thriving Mindfully

Page 2 of 26

Forbidden Love

I felt the tender touch of her hands on mine. She was scared, but I could sense the excitement in her quivering fingers. It was the first time we had held hands in public. And that too, with her parents standing right next to us. But we were standing in the planetarium, and the lights were dim. The shadows were our cover. Gradually everything was enveloped by a darkness as deep as interstellar space. A beam shot out of the projector and the story of the universe began. The roof of the planetarium became the theatre of creation.

‘It all began with the singularity…’

I felt a big bang in my heart as our fingers flirted. The gulf of intense longing was finally bridged. The darkness in the theatre helped us submit to pleasure that though innocent was forbidden. She was the only girl I ever thought about that way. I had loved her ever since I saw her for the first time. She was my best friend, my neighbour, my school bench partner. She was my everything.

I could feel her racing pulse. Our hormones fired in harmony. We clasped each other’s hands tighter, as the loudspeakers aired trivia about nebulae and supernovas. I cared least for the movie screened at the planetarium. I had found my universe in those fleeting moments.

Her shapely nails felt cold to the touch. Her slender fingers were every bit artistic. I dreamt of adorning it with a ring one day. There was a spiritual electricity between us. Our longing was magnetically mutual. We were the twin star systems projected on to the ceiling. Love was our gravity.

Her hand was slightly bigger than mine. And she was taller by a full four inches. I was still waiting for my puberty to hurry things up while she had begun to show signs of womanhood. I compensated for my fledgling manhood with an assertion in my grip that I believed girls loved to submit to.

When they began to project pictures of the moon landing, all I could think of was the nights we had spent being lunatics in our respective balconies, yearning to see each other in school the next day.

Her eyes had a lunar charm. And she’d teasingly call me a loon. I would always think that one day I would have the courage to tell her that I will love her to the moon and back.

On the ceiling, I looked at Armstrong hopping on the moon and felt that he’d fallen in love. He looked at me and felt as if I’d landed on the moon.

It was a mystery how a beautiful thing like her could be the daughter of the most uptight, unpleasant Uncle of the neighbourhood. If I had one wish, it would be for him to disappear forever. Could he float away beyond the solar system like the Voyager probe?
But imagining the grief of my beloved, I had never wished ill on him.

However, I also wondered how her charming mother could fall for such a crude, average looking man. That’s what happens when others arrange for who you must love, so I thought.

I trusted their daughter’s choice to be better than theirs.

Slowly the movie zoomed back to life in our solar system. The frigid extremes of Neptune, the hoola hooping Saturn, the Giant Jupiter, the traffic congestion of the asteroid belt, the red planet Mars and finally, to mother earth. They showed the evolution of life on the blue planet, the oceanic life forms, the first plants, glimpses of the Jurassic age, the meteor strike, ice ages, the age of the Neanderthals, the rise of Homo Sapiens, and finally vignettes of life in our current times.

I wished the movie to last longer. They could show a 3-hour movie and I’d watch it happily standing in the planetarium. I could finally understand what Einstein meant by relativity. Time had flown past like a happy memory. And in that mote of a minute I had found all the meaning in the world. I was the expanding universe.

We held on to each other’s hands. We felt reassured of the mutuality of our longing. Caressing gently, we sunk in the final moment before parting.

But the lights came on too soon.

Right opposite me, I saw my girl struggling to stay afoot. She fainted and fell on the floor once she saw me in the act.

Her flabbergasted father looked at me with the consuming gravity of his twin black hole eyes.

I looked to the left and pleaded innocence.

I was holding the hand of her mother.

Fearless Poetry

In an intimate moment
To a poem
I asked,

Tell me dear, of your solemn sanity
your grace, your poise and equanimity

Why nothing ever makes you dread
What makes you ever so unafraid.

The poem, ever silent,
she sipped on some ink
And revealed gently,
In a lettered link

I am the psalm of life, thus she said,
I’m worth that testing pursuance
I am artless art, born
At the confluence of all influence

And until every word, every influence
Has come together in an effortless stride
I have witnessed my laboured making
Without that senseless shred of pride

And what do I tell you
Of the incubation inside
A young poet’s doubting mind
That imaginary prison
For an imagined work of love
How needlessly does that cage bind!

How testing were all those years
I’ve waited as a footprint on paper
In the suffocating darkness where
the sublime sublimates, into a withering vapor

But in all those moments
Spent without any clout
I’ve never let inside
A flicker of doubt

I’ve believed in myself
To the heights of delusion
When nobody knew of
My spirited resolution

At times when nobody was ready
To pull me out of the shelf,
I have spent those nights quietly
Reading myself to myself
In the voices of all those
who might find some consonance
With faith in all words
That might find some resonance

I have heard voices that
have exalted me to the heavens
I have endured the voices
That have relegated me to hell

In all those pageants
Of my own imagined discovery
I have felt
anguish and agony
beauty and belittlement
curses and caresses
doubt and desparation
exasperation and emancipation…

In those murmuring moments
I have heard
Every possible reaction
Of a possible reader
From myself
In those lonely nights
Spent memorizing myself

And hence
Having been through
The game of long waiting
The test of self-hating
That dry run of delusional self-love
I’ve earned the freedom of a fluttering dove

And so,

When a poem
Finally reaches you
It has
No fear.

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!

The weight of water

The rousing beat of the temple kettle drum awakened the village out of its afternoon siesta. Shantu, the elderly weatherman of the village could hardly contain his excitement. Standing high on the temple square, he summoned the villagers and announced,

‘Listen up my fellow villagers!
The days of suffering are finally going to end. Count this as the last day of summer, for I predict that we will get the first spell of rain tonight.’

The crowd cheered in celebration. Shantu had seen the most monsoons in the whole village, and people trusted the accuracy of his intuition.

The women were especially happy. It cost them two blisters a day to walk up to the pond in the village nearby to fetch water. Soon, the pond in their own village will have water, saving them time and effort. The kids rejoiced at the idea of showering in the rain to their heart’s content. The seedlings of rice in the earth too waited eagerly for the first spell. Startled birds expressed their surprise for the celebration of belated news. Only if humans had instincts as honed as theirs!

Amid the celebration, Shantu’s granddaughter Gauri walked up the temple stairs hurriedly. Her pet dog Kalu followed her as usual. As she heaved herself up to the top flight, she asked Shantu,

‘Daddu, Daddu, can I go to the pond to fetch water today? I’ll go with the other village women. Please, please…’ she wheedled.

‘You little child. You are 8 years old. You’ll break you delicate neck with a huge potful of water on your head,’ he said patting her head.

‘I will take the smaller pot. I can carry that.
Please let me go.’

‘Did you ask your Amma?’

‘No, she will refuse for sure. But if you grant me permission, she will let me go with everyone else.’

‘Okay, but Kalu must go with you. For your protection, okay?’ Shantu asked lovingly.

‘Yes, there is no way he can stay without me. He will follow me!’

‘Okay, go and come back safely.’

‘Really! I can go?’

‘Yes. And here, take this mango. Enjoy it on the way.’

Gauri pocketed the ripe mango and raced down the temple stairs. She headed straight to her little hut nearby.

She took a small earthen pot and followed the village women headed to the pond for the evening shift of fetching water.
This would mark her first excursion out of the village. She was jubilant.

Kalu sniffed the way forward as Gauri’s little footsteps tried to keep pace with the women who were growing smaller in size every time she tried to spot them.

‘Aye, Kalu, wait for me,’ she hollered as Kalu paced away on the path. He must also know of the impending rain, like the birds.

She met a village lady who was on her way back to the village. Effortlessly balancing two pots of water on her head, she walked gracefully through the sun-baked road.

On spotting little Gauri near the pond, she asked,

‘Aye, Gauri, what are you doing here?’

‘I’ve come to fetch water with Kalu,’ she said with an eye out for her beloved pet.

‘Go and play in the village little girl. You are too small to make this shift.’

‘ I want to help Amma in the household now.’

‘Does she know you’re here?’

‘Maybe, I told Daddu…He knows.’

‘Okay, go quickly. The pond is right beyond that bend you see behind the Banyan tree.’

‘Yes, yes… ‘ she said and rushed to keep pace with Kalu.

‘Kalu, wait for me….’

She reached the pond to find a few village women filling up their pots. One of them helped her fill her little pot as Kalu slurped away from a puddle nearby.

One of the ladies said,
‘Don’t carry the pot on your head. It is heavy. Carry it on your hip…Like this’ she gestured.

With a little help from the women, she balanced the pot on her hip and started her journey back to the village.

She measured the distance back to her village with her tiny steps…


She ran out of numbers within a minute. On the way, she started to feel a bit hungry.
She tried reaching the Mango her Daddu had given her from the pocket of her skirt while balancing the pot on her hip.

But just as soon as she managed to pull out the mango, she lost grip on the pot and it came crashing down at her feet.

The pot was shattered. All the water in Gauri’s eyes poured out.

‘What will Amma think of me for breaking this pot?’ she wondered amid snuffles.

She felt a heaviness on her head, as if she was carrying a hundred pots.

She sat right by the broken pot, with Kalu licking her face of tears.

‘Do you want to have Mango, Kalu?’

Kalu never refused food.

The best friends shared the fragrant mango while coming to terms with the loss.

The mango helped her relax. Meanwhile, the weather had begun to change, just as her Daddu had predicted.

She stared at the wet patch of earth where the water from the pot had soaked in.

‘What will Amma say?’ she wondered.

Back at the village, Shantu had begun to get worried about Gauri. Most women had made their way back from the trip.

Shantu was as afraid as little Gauri now.

‘What will Amma say?’ he wondered.

With his walking stick in his hand, Shantu started walking briskly towards the pond.

The gathering clouds had painted the path all around in a gloomy light. For the first time in years, Shantu found himself running. He raced towards the pond in search of Gauri.

From a distance, he could hear Kalu howling back at the low rumble in the sky. He felt a bit relieved. Within moments, he saw the emerald of his eye and heaved a sigh of relief.

‘Gauri…Chalo.. Let’s go home!’

‘Daddu..!’ she cried out.

Shantu saw the broken pot and understood the whole story.

Gauri had mud all over her hands and Kalu had mango pulp stains on his face.

Shantu wiped Gauri’s tears. She held his hands and began to walk towards the village.
Kalu led the way, barking at the sky.

‘Gauri, don’t worry about Amma scolding you, okay?’

‘Hmmm…’ she whimpered.

‘Did you enjoy the Mango?’

She nodded.

‘Why did it take you so long to head back home?’

‘ I was digging a small pit Daddu…right where the water had soaked into the earth. Kalu helped me too.’

‘Accha? Why so?’

‘I buried the mango seed there.’

Her Daddu slowed down his pace a bit.
He turned to look into her eyes.

‘How could I let the water go to waste, Daddu?’

Her eyes were pure as love. Shantu had never felt more proud of his little granddaughter.

He hoisted her up and sat her on his shoulder. That was her favourite ride. Slowly, they headed towards their village.

Soon, it began to drizzle. Gauri smiled. Kalu howled in joy.

‘Daddu, the Mango seed will grow, right?’

Thunder roared in the sky. It was a resounding answer from heaven.

And every little raindrop said,

‘Yes, it will.’

What a butterfly says

I’ve lived up to witness the charming story
Sitting on a bloom of morning glory
The world, they say, slows down its pace
To watch me with a smile, on their face

When I prance around among fragrant things
With the bright symmetry of powder wings,
The traces of pollen in my flight
Bring one and all a supreme delight

Half my life was spent in a cellar
As the ravenous reeling caterpillar
Camouflaged in weeds in isolation
Unaware I’d be worth a celebration

But it isn’t just praise I’ve pandered to
My wings are often slandered too
When the ocean churns with climatic defect
They blame it on me as the butterfly effect

Do tornadoes turn, from the flap of my wings?
I’m too small to know of all these things
But in quiet moments of contemplation
I wonder if I can stir such a revolution

To you, I say, my patient friend
Life is but an enchanting blend
Of duality of oblivion and discovery
Of flying high and chewing mulberry

As children of creation, there are traits we share
Of longing to thrive in the hours to spare
Should you embrace the world with a loving might
You’ll know the beauty of a wingless flight

So let each little act, each tiny motion
Be an act of the deepest devotion
And you’ll taste dear life’s potent potion
And your awakening will usher
A revolution.

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 fakir with the flute

It was another bad day at work.
After all these years, I couldn’t understand whether it was the work that was bad, or was it I who was bad at work. Nevertheless, the pay was good, and that had kept me going.

My mind was a scramble since morning in my cubicle and I couldn’t wait for that hallowed half-hour of repose – lunch-time.

After a hurried lunch, I walked up to the chai shop across the street for the sake of maintaining at least one habit unfailingly.

It was a cloudy day and the usual clamour of the street was a bit subdued. As I sat under the Neem tree, rationing miserly sips of hot chai, a faint, evocative melody fell upon my ear.

Happy to have heard some music on the street, I looked around to find its source. Soon, I saw an elderly flute-seller walk up the street with a playful air.

He wore a black turban, a faded yellow kurta and flowing black pyjamas. A stick that leaned on his left shoulder was festooned with a bunch of flutes of different sizes. His traditional leather footwear curled back in at the front, much like his sinuous moustache.

With an easy, graceful gait, he approached the chai-shop. He played a familiar filmy tune that most of the generation on the street had grown up listening to. We measured our age with the breadth of the smile that the prized piece of nostalgia brought forth on us.

He slowed down his advance near the chai-shop and with that timeless melody, he slowed down the pace of the street.

Once he finished playing the tune, the hum of the traffic resumed, as a poignant, practical applause.

He gave himself the reward of a content smile.

Having subconsciously judged his petty life at first glance, I felt perplexed by the quiet complacency in his demeanour. Or should I say, a bit envious.

I waved at him and asked,

‘Aye, bansuri-wallah, chai?’

He nodded as if he saw the invitation coming.

As I offered him a cup of chai, I asked,

‘What’s your name?’

He gently swayed his head, like the topmost branch of a young tree, as if in no hurry whatsoever.

After a sip of chai, with a nod of approval, he said…

‘Kanha…My name is Kanha…’

‘Kanha, tell me, why is it that you keep playing this old filmy tune? Is that the only song you know?’ I asked with a hint of disparagement.

‘I can only play what people are ready to hear, Babuji.’

I felt I heard a part of me in his answer. How I had learned to sell what people were willing to buy, thinking that was the only way.

But what separated him from me? I couldn’t remember even a fleeting instant from my life when I was as content as this flute-selling fakir.

‘Why don’t you play something new, something original for me? If you do so, I might buy a flute,’ I said.

He smiled.

‘I have been waiting for a pair of ears that pine to hear a new message through music.
Do you think you are ready?’ he asked in his throaty voice.

‘Yes, I am,’ I said on the behalf of the street.

They say that the value of any thing is in the way it alters your perception of time and space. Whoever has been in love, has lived this truth first hand.

As he began to play, perhaps it was love that he weaved in those ennobled breaths.

The whole street stood entranced. All involuntary work suddenly lost its relevance. Hawkers, pedestrians, spent cows, orphans on the street; felt magnetically drawn to the caress of that tune. The wind flowed with a gentler hiss and the sun peeped ever so little to shine a spotlight where it was due. Just as lost as the street was in the music, so was Kanha, the seraphic source of those mellifluous moments.

The thousands of questions people had in their mind were answered, all the pain in their hearts was soothed, and everyone, for that hallowed span of time, learned to smile again without longing for a lasting reason.

As he held the final note on his bansuri, the clock began to slowly tick again.

He opened his opal eyes and invited me to lose all my guards. I looked into his eyes, those fabled tunnels with a blinding light at the other end.

I submitted to a hypnotic spell, and let him read the maze of my mind.

He blinked twice, and I began to sense my surroundings again.

‘Did you enjoy the music?’ he asked humbly.

‘Yes…Yes…It was… the truth…’

‘To answer the question on your mind, Babuji…
That music…
That’s the value of my breath.’

He had read my mind like a book. And I was glad he could read the script that I’d begun to forget.

He reached his hand to one of the other flutes in his collection and pulled out one with a pink thread at its end.

He handed me the flute and lovingly said,

‘Go find the value of your breath.’

I took the flute in my hand and looked at it with a hope that I’d thought I had given up on long ago.

Slowly, I looked up. Kanha was already walking away with his easy, nonchalant stride.

I couldn’t bring myself to ask him,
How much I owed him.

The Mother Asks

The air that the Buddha exhaled
When he realised enlightenment

The molecules that plankton infused
In the air since genesis

The final gush of breath of hunted gazelle

Is the air that you and I breathe
At this moment.

The bead of sweat on a farmer’s brow
The ever-dancing droplet on a lotus leaf

The wayward clans of vapour
that ride on the wind

Have reached our glass as water,
at some point in time

Each grain, each sediment,
Each fossil, each stone,
Every discovered gem
Was born
Out of degrees of temprament
Of Magma,
That Mother earth shelters in her womb

The water,
the earth,
the wind,
the fire
the sky

Have been the same
On Earth
Across ages

Humans have only tainted them
With the rationale of a greater good
Across generations

The water tastes of humankind’s
Cluttered chemistry
The sky coughs from the gathering haze
The Earth chokes under concrete
The wind and fire
Have gone haywire

Our collective derangement
Our spirited defilement
Is perhaps
A fleeting moment of discomfort
To the wholesome, ever-complete Earth

She can cure herself
She’s been through worse

The question she asks is,

Do we want to be the generation
Of hostile antigens
That she must fight against

Or are we ready
To be a remedy?

The Mother will do just fine

She asks us still,
Witholding a teardrop with patience,

Can we be worthy children
And aspire to live another
sliver of a sliver
of time
To dwell on the miracle
Life is.

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!)

Rags to Riches

There’s a mountain that has been growing steadily over the years in the outskirts of the city. Marooned in a corner beyond sight, this is where all of the city’s discarded things live. Welcome to the city’s ever-rising landfill, where unwanted people rummage through the unwanted refuse of a million people to make ends meet.

This burgeoning arena, is the pit stop on the journey of garbage, en route the mystical place called ‘away’ where we assume we throw our waste. The stench is unbearable, yet, should you ask a rag picker if it bothered her, she’d ask,

‘What stench?’

People have lived their entire lives here, picking and sorting waste. One among these indistinguishable many is Fareed. He celebrated his 60th birthday a month ago, and there were pastries to go with the celebration. After 5 decades of living in the rubble, he knew where exactly to find what. Finding the place where the garbage from the bakeries was dumped was a piece of cake for him.

He still had a few childhood friends in the dump-site. Most were the lucky ones who hadn’t succumbed to occupational hazards over the years. Many of his friends had while working at the landfill. His father died when a dump-truck accidentally buried him under a pile of garbage, muffling his screams forever. A woman he’d fallen in love with got poisoned by lead at the site. He still remembers her blue face, her lifeless eyes, when they took her away for cremation. It all felt like yesterday. But between yesterday and today, he’d lived his entire noxious life.

He loved to talk. Being one of the seniors at the site, he’d often find a huddle of young rag pickers around who’d plead for stories from ‘back in the day’. He didn’t complain of the sporadic bouts of attention he’d get in an otherwise punishing life.

Often, he would be heard saying his signature quote to youngsters,

‘Remember, half of the waste that comes here is still good. It’s usable. Yet under the weight of this labyrinthine landfill, even a good piece of ripe fruit starts to emit a foul odour.
Half of every person’s heart is good too, yet in this damned place, if it starts to rot, you should learn to forgive him and save the part that’s still good.’

The people found his unlettered wisdom and undeniable honesty endearing. Despite the resignation to fate, he still worked with pride, for he worked hard to earn a dignified living.
But in his quieter moments, away from it all, he still latched on to the hope of finding a treasure chest buried in the mound, a ticket to retirement.

Who can stop a man from dreaming?

Two days before, on a typical day at work, he had climbed up to the corner of a narrow stretch of the peak. On either side lay steep valleys that led deep into the whirlpool of waste. He sat down on an old computer monitor with his plastic bag of collected waste and took a good look around the place.

Generations of scavengers flew in circles over the landfill, as if waiting patiently for him to die. Flies preferred to perch on putrefying organic matter nearby, sparing him the discomfort. His mismatched shoes oozed gunk. For as far as he could see, it looked like a museum of the failure of civilization.

He narrowed down his vision and looked around to find anything he could sell for a good value. Magnets from speakers, metals, IC chips…

Scanning in this way, his eyes fell on a shapely hand jutting out of the mass. An eagle let out a shrill scream as if expressing Fareed’s horror. Amid the disgusting pile of garbage, the hand of a beautiful woman buried in the rubble only added to the wretchedness of the surroundings.

‘Who could she be? A victim of a drug war? A pregnant teenager? A trafficked girl from the village?’ he wondered.

Gingerly, he stepped closer. He saw a gem-studded golden ring on one of the fingers.
His eyes lit up. It was mid-afternoon and there wasn’t anyone around. He knelt and pulled the ring out of her finger. Her hands were cold as an ice-cream cup.

He quickly pocketed the ring. He looked around again. There wasn’t anyone within sight.

He thought,

‘Maybe she’s wearing a necklace too. Perhaps this is the jackpot I’ve been working towards all my life.’

In his mind, he had already pictured himself in a tuxedo, away from a lifetime of filth.

He held that cold-lifeless hand buried in the garbage and tugged on to it. He pulled as if his life depended on it. But the weight of garbage doesn’t even let the living people loose, what fate did the dead have?

Amid his desperate act of pulling with all his might, he managed to loosen the body out of the rubble. Suddenly, the garbage under his feet loosened out and he fell back and rolled down into the valley, still with the dead woman’s body in his hands. Both bodies fell as lovers in a romantic movie, deeply attached despite the illegitimacy of their bond.

And then there was suffocating darkness.

Hours later, Fareed woke up to such blinding whiteness that for a moment, he felt he’d died and reached heaven.

As his eyes adjusted to the lights in the hospital room, he saw the face of Sabi, a young rag picker who’d been working nearby when he fell.

He tried to speak but he found himself unable to. His head felt heavy from all the bandages. He blinked constantly.

Sabi wore a crescent smile on her face and said something, but Fareed couldn’t hear her.

On Sabi’s right arm, he saw a small bandage. Sabi pointed her eyes towards the pouch of blood hanging high on the right side of the bed. In moments, Fareed realised that he was being administered Sabi’s blood.

Old Fareed felt a sickness inside. He found a rotten part of him that had become selfish merely with the thought of a possible escape from his life at the landfill.

But he remembered his own quote that he would share with young rag pickers often –

‘….Half of every person’s heart is good too, yet in this damned place, if it starts to rot, you should learn to forgive him and save the part that’s still good.’

Somewhere between deep sighs, he found the heart to forgive himself for that lustful moment of pure selfishness.

With great difficulty, he moved a bit and felt the left pocket of his pants. The ring was still there.

He peeped into Sabi’s eyes as if asking for forgiveness.

Fareed pledged himself to give the ring in his pocket to Sabi.

He smiled. Sabi did too and held Fareed’s hand gently.

Sabi’s hand felt as warm as life.

Fareed remembered that the last thing he had held before his downfall, was a cold, lifeless hand.

Deep inside, he felt recuperated.

Little did Fareed know that the ring in his pocket was a cheap piece of imitation jewellery. He also didn’t know he had fallen from the top of the garbage pile, holding the hand of a mannequin.

But, in Fareed’s story, a fake gem and an ever-lifeless body, helped him find the jewel in his own heart, the gem of a person Sabi was, and, in some way the good part of in both their souls, that was still worth saving.

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