Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Scarecrow -55 Fiction

The scarecrow towered over the emerald sea of paddy, a menacing figure in dirty rags, a carrot for a nose. The silly birds wanted the grain. But they were frightened by the scarecrow. Thinking he was real, they fled to safety.  
Are we different from them? Don’t we fly away too, haunted by imaginary fears?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sweet Porridge for the Goddess - 55 Fiction

The priest offered some sweet porridge to the Goddess. Wasn't She payasaana priya, the One to whom it was dear?  After the ceremony, he went about his chores; the payasam forgotten. Then came the untouchable beggar, pleading for food. The priest disgustedly shooed him away. The abandoned payasam grew cold; the ants had a feast.

Post Script:
Payasaana priya is one of the thousand names of the Goddess, as mentioned in the Lalitha Sahasranama.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Horlicks

A couple of weeks ago, I was returning home from work at night, when I decided I felt like drinking a cup of Horlicks. So I went to one of the branches of a famous coffee shop here and got myself a cup. I was too tired to sit there and drink it, so decided to take it away. So there I was, trudging along the MRT, carrying my laptop and the hot cup of Horlicks which I unfortunately couldn't drink in the train. Then I reached my stop, and while waiting for the bus to take me home, I decided the Horlicks couldn't wait any longer. It had become cold by then, of course, but it was rich, and sweet, and creamy. And as I savored the sweetness, I realized with a pang, that the last time I had drunk Horlicks was a couple of years ago, while vacationing back in India, and my dearest grandfather, my Muthacha, had lovingly made it for me. And that brought forward so many memories once again.

People never really die, till you stop thinking of them.

Life goes on, of course. I am no longer a student in the strictest sense of the term, but I continue to learn. I've just started working as an auditor, and the learning curve for a fresh graduate can be quite steep. Meanwhile, I am also studying for my professional exams. As always, I sometimes find that staying away from home can be quite challenging. I relish the sense of independence it gives me, but sometimes staying away makes you lonely. Things around me are changing; I am changing too, but I think of you, Muthacha. Every single day. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Final Goodbye

Muthacha, busy brewing tea in the kitchen.

The beginning of August this year took my grandpa away, leaving an irreplaceable gap in my life. Of course, death is but inevitable, but only when it strikes, do you realize how fragile life is. 

Muthacha, as I've always called him, had always been rather active for his age (he was 89 when he passed away); constantly keeping himself busy with something or the other. With age, he became more and more delicate; he began to shuffle instead of walk, and the slightest variation in his daily food habits would cause him tummy upsets. But these things would often take care of itself in a day or two, and we simply attributed it to his age. Indeed, the only time he ever stayed in a hospital was the period leading to the last days of his life.

It still pains me to talk about him in the past tense. Why is it so difficult to say the final goodbye, despite knowing that that day will surely arrive? As a child, every time I returned to Bahrain or Dubai after spending the summer at home, I would tell my aunt (with whom Muthacha lived) to take good care of him. In my simple heart, it was just to reassure myself that Achema would be there, if anything happened. I never stated what 'if' stood for, although in the back of my mind, it was clear that it referred to D day.

As I grew up, I found myself drifting away; I couldn't go home to India quite as often, and even when we did go back, I busied myself with books, catching up with cousins, gossiping with my aunt, traveling around, and shopping. Of course, I did spend time with Muthacha; I would talk a while with him, about college and career plans, about life in Singapore and Dubai, and then Appa would start talking about his childhood back in the tea estates of Valparai. One thing would lead to another, and everybody would be talking, except Muthacha, who would have gently fallen asleep in his chair, his mouth open.

I think I had always assumed he would be there. I wish I had called him more often when I was a student at NUS (Oh yes, I have graduated! I should write about that, but that would be a different post altogether!) I used to call him for my birthday and his, before exams to get his blessings, and then occasionally, whenever I missed him and felt like talking to him. I do wish I had made it a point to call him every weekend. Each time I called, he would say, 'Aaah, it's Sruthi mol. Ethra naal aayi ninte shabdam ketite!' How long has it been since I've listened to you speaking! And I would think to myself, didn't I just call him last month? I hadn't realized that the only thing I could give my dear grandpa was a phone call, and even if I had just called him a week ago, it wouldn't cost much to call him again. How I wish I hadn't been so callous! I don't want to think of myself as an indifferent or uncaring child (and I hope to goodness I wasn't one), but I would give anything to be able to talk to him now. So strange this life is; we realize the worth of someone only when they're gone. 

Muthacha succumbed to his illness on 1st August. We all rushed to the hospital, and there he was, lying on the hospital bed, his mouth gently open. It was almost as if he had just fallen asleep. It took me a long time to come to terms with it; even today, my mind wanders to Muthacha and inevitably, to death. Is Muthacha with us, guiding and watching over us, in some inexplicable way ? I would like to think so! What really happens after life is snapped out of the body? I suppose I shall never know. As my favourite writer Ruskin Bond says, 'Such is the sweet mystery of life!'

After Muthacha passed away, the family mourned for 14 days, during which visits to temples or houses of outsiders were forbidden. Funnily, this did not apply either to Amma or me (neither did it apply to the other daughters-in-law and their children). Ours is traditionally a matrilineal society, and a child belongs to her mother's house; accordingly, a death in the father's house does not 'pollute' them, and there is no mourning period. On the 15th day, we all took a trip to Ivar Madom, a sacred spot on the Bharathapuzha River in Kerala. It is believed that the Pandavas, grieved by the death of their loved ones in the Kurukshetra War, visited this place and took a dip in the river in order to atone for their sins. We reached early in the morning, just as the sun was rising, and then began the elaborate and lengthy rituals. Dips in the water, numerous slokas, prayers that the soul should rest in peace. After an hour or so, the priest asked my uncle, Muthacha's eldest son, to don a pair of sandals and take seven steps forward. He said it was a symbolic representation of a Kasi yatra, a pilgrimage to Kasi, where the soul could now rest in peace. Then, my uncle took seven steps backward, symbolizing his return to the world, after leaving the soul in Kasi. A few more dips in the river, and the pot containing my grandpa's ashes was let afloat. 

Several other families had also arrived to perform the final rites for their loved ones; we noticed that someone had let afloat several medical reports and X-rays, along with the ashes. And that was it. Everybody, everything, boils down to this. A pot of ashes. And many cherished memories. 

Summer of 2010. A moment that I'll cherish as long as I live.
What is there to remind me of my dearest grandpa? A few photographs, an Agatha Christie book I had asked him to write in for me (I inherited my love for books from Appa, who in turn, inherited it from him), a tiny collection of quotes by Swami Chinmayananda that he gifted me, a pirated copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire which I bought off the streets and asked him to gift me, a mug that stated 'You're good at so many things, but you're best at being my grandpa!' That mug was the last thing I took home for Muthacha, and he was ecstatic when he saw it... and of course, lots of memories. Me sitting beside him and stroking his hair, Muthacha talking about his army days in Malaysia and his memories of the Second World War and the British Raj, me asking him to hold on to me as he slowly shuffled his way through the house, how he used to make tea every day without fail, how even at the hospital he blessed me and beamed at my graduation photos, how he scribbled he was proud of me since he couldn't talk through the tubes, how he would sit on the edge of his bed and recite Skanda Sashti Kavacham every evening, how he would call us for aarati at the end of prayers, how he clutched my hand at the hospital and whispered 'Don't go!',  how he would stand in front of the house waving goodbye...

Everything seems to remind me of him. I miss you terribly, Muthacha. Life is never quite the same without you.
'If tears could build a stairway
and memories a lane,
I would walk right up to heaven. 
and bring you back again.'


Monday, August 26, 2013

The Words

There's something therapeutic about reading Ruskin Bond. Simple, unpretentious, down-to-earth writing, laced with subtle humour. This summer, I came across Rain in the Mountains: Notes from the Himalayas, a collection of essays, stories, poems, and personal journal entries, dating back to the late fifties. A wonderful read, it reminded me of my childhood days in the Nilgiri Hills and the Doon Valley. I loved reading about interesting characters like Miss Bun (whom he once considered marrying), Sir Edmund Gibson ("I don't mind being dead, but I shall miss being alive!"), the old Tibetan lama slowly trudging along the stubborn mountain path, and a lone tea-shop owner scrambling for a livelihood in the Jaunpur range of the Garhwal Himalayas ("Hillman or plainsman, we have only our hopes to keep us going".)

Ruskin Bond clearly loves the mountains- there's warmth and tenderness in his writing when he describes the deodars and the oaks, the song of the whistle-thrush, and the music of hillside crickets and cicadas. I found his humility striking; we rarely come across people of his kind, who have accomplished so much, and yet are so unassuming! On pride, he has this to say- "Be proud. Be proud of what you are, and what you've done. But be proud within. Don't flaunt it, you will only offend. There's something obscene about a braggart". Truer words have never been written! Indeed, Bond is so modest, he states that even after 35 years, he's still trying as a writer.

He also writes about a boy he met late one night, on the deserted Tehri road, huddling in a recess, seeking some warmth against the bitter cold. As he is about to leave him, tempted by the prospect of a warm bed waiting for him at home, he is reminded of the wise words of an old sage:
If I am not for myself,
Who will be for me?
And if I am not for others,
What am I

And if not now, when?
And so, he takes the boy home, and offers him a place to stay for the night, the very least he could do to help somebody else. This humane element is what makes the book so special to me.

And yet, what struck me the most in this splendid book, was a little poem titled The Words. At the time I read it, I had just lost my grandfather. It's still hard to believe he's no longer with us! The first few days were the most difficult, but even today, we all feel his absence. As the entire family traveled to Tiruvilvamala, where we performed the final rites for my dearest Muthacha on the banks of the sacred Bharathapuzha, I thought it was all rather funny. We struggle every day for happiness, success, little joys, and triumphs; and yet in the final analysis, each one of us is reduced to a pot of ashes, a bag of memories. The profound truth of this poem hit me hard:

Observing Ananda weeping, Gautama said,
'O Ananda, do not weep. This body of ours
contains within itself the powers which renew
its strength for a time, but also the causes which
lead to its destruction. Is there anything put
together which shall not dissolve?'
Then, turning to his disciples, he said, 'When
I am passed away and am no longer with you,
do not think the Buddha has left you, and is not
still in your midst. You have my words, my
explanations, my laws...' And again, 'Beloved
disciples, if you love my memory, love one another.'
And after another pause, he said, 'Beloved,
that which causes life causes also decay
and death. Never forget this. I called you to tell you this.'
These were the last words of Gautama
Buddha, as he stretched himself out and died
under the great sal tree, at Kasinagara.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Scarecrow -55 Fiction

The scarecrow towered over the emerald sea of paddy, a menacing figure in dirty rags, a carrot for a nose. The silly birds wanted the grain. But they were frightened by the scarecrow. Thinking he was real, they fled to safety.  
Are we different from them? Don’t we fly away too, haunted by imaginary fears?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sweet Porridge for the Goddess - 55 Fiction

The priest offered some sweet porridge to the Goddess. Wasn't She payasaana priya, the One to whom it was dear?  After the ceremony, he went about his chores; the payasam forgotten. Then came the untouchable beggar, pleading for food. The priest disgustedly shooed him away. The abandoned payasam grew cold; the ants had a feast.

Post Script:
Payasaana priya is one of the thousand names of the Goddess, as mentioned in the Lalitha Sahasranama.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Horlicks

A couple of weeks ago, I was returning home from work at night, when I decided I felt like drinking a cup of Horlicks. So I went to one of the branches of a famous coffee shop here and got myself a cup. I was too tired to sit there and drink it, so decided to take it away. So there I was, trudging along the MRT, carrying my laptop and the hot cup of Horlicks which I unfortunately couldn't drink in the train. Then I reached my stop, and while waiting for the bus to take me home, I decided the Horlicks couldn't wait any longer. It had become cold by then, of course, but it was rich, and sweet, and creamy. And as I savored the sweetness, I realized with a pang, that the last time I had drunk Horlicks was a couple of years ago, while vacationing back in India, and my dearest grandfather, my Muthacha, had lovingly made it for me. And that brought forward so many memories once again.

People never really die, till you stop thinking of them.

Life goes on, of course. I am no longer a student in the strictest sense of the term, but I continue to learn. I've just started working as an auditor, and the learning curve for a fresh graduate can be quite steep. Meanwhile, I am also studying for my professional exams. As always, I sometimes find that staying away from home can be quite challenging. I relish the sense of independence it gives me, but sometimes staying away makes you lonely. Things around me are changing; I am changing too, but I think of you, Muthacha. Every single day. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Final Goodbye

Muthacha, busy brewing tea in the kitchen.

The beginning of August this year took my grandpa away, leaving an irreplaceable gap in my life. Of course, death is but inevitable, but only when it strikes, do you realize how fragile life is. 

Muthacha, as I've always called him, had always been rather active for his age (he was 89 when he passed away); constantly keeping himself busy with something or the other. With age, he became more and more delicate; he began to shuffle instead of walk, and the slightest variation in his daily food habits would cause him tummy upsets. But these things would often take care of itself in a day or two, and we simply attributed it to his age. Indeed, the only time he ever stayed in a hospital was the period leading to the last days of his life.

It still pains me to talk about him in the past tense. Why is it so difficult to say the final goodbye, despite knowing that that day will surely arrive? As a child, every time I returned to Bahrain or Dubai after spending the summer at home, I would tell my aunt (with whom Muthacha lived) to take good care of him. In my simple heart, it was just to reassure myself that Achema would be there, if anything happened. I never stated what 'if' stood for, although in the back of my mind, it was clear that it referred to D day.

As I grew up, I found myself drifting away; I couldn't go home to India quite as often, and even when we did go back, I busied myself with books, catching up with cousins, gossiping with my aunt, traveling around, and shopping. Of course, I did spend time with Muthacha; I would talk a while with him, about college and career plans, about life in Singapore and Dubai, and then Appa would start talking about his childhood back in the tea estates of Valparai. One thing would lead to another, and everybody would be talking, except Muthacha, who would have gently fallen asleep in his chair, his mouth open.

I think I had always assumed he would be there. I wish I had called him more often when I was a student at NUS (Oh yes, I have graduated! I should write about that, but that would be a different post altogether!) I used to call him for my birthday and his, before exams to get his blessings, and then occasionally, whenever I missed him and felt like talking to him. I do wish I had made it a point to call him every weekend. Each time I called, he would say, 'Aaah, it's Sruthi mol. Ethra naal aayi ninte shabdam ketite!' How long has it been since I've listened to you speaking! And I would think to myself, didn't I just call him last month? I hadn't realized that the only thing I could give my dear grandpa was a phone call, and even if I had just called him a week ago, it wouldn't cost much to call him again. How I wish I hadn't been so callous! I don't want to think of myself as an indifferent or uncaring child (and I hope to goodness I wasn't one), but I would give anything to be able to talk to him now. So strange this life is; we realize the worth of someone only when they're gone. 

Muthacha succumbed to his illness on 1st August. We all rushed to the hospital, and there he was, lying on the hospital bed, his mouth gently open. It was almost as if he had just fallen asleep. It took me a long time to come to terms with it; even today, my mind wanders to Muthacha and inevitably, to death. Is Muthacha with us, guiding and watching over us, in some inexplicable way ? I would like to think so! What really happens after life is snapped out of the body? I suppose I shall never know. As my favourite writer Ruskin Bond says, 'Such is the sweet mystery of life!'

After Muthacha passed away, the family mourned for 14 days, during which visits to temples or houses of outsiders were forbidden. Funnily, this did not apply either to Amma or me (neither did it apply to the other daughters-in-law and their children). Ours is traditionally a matrilineal society, and a child belongs to her mother's house; accordingly, a death in the father's house does not 'pollute' them, and there is no mourning period. On the 15th day, we all took a trip to Ivar Madom, a sacred spot on the Bharathapuzha River in Kerala. It is believed that the Pandavas, grieved by the death of their loved ones in the Kurukshetra War, visited this place and took a dip in the river in order to atone for their sins. We reached early in the morning, just as the sun was rising, and then began the elaborate and lengthy rituals. Dips in the water, numerous slokas, prayers that the soul should rest in peace. After an hour or so, the priest asked my uncle, Muthacha's eldest son, to don a pair of sandals and take seven steps forward. He said it was a symbolic representation of a Kasi yatra, a pilgrimage to Kasi, where the soul could now rest in peace. Then, my uncle took seven steps backward, symbolizing his return to the world, after leaving the soul in Kasi. A few more dips in the river, and the pot containing my grandpa's ashes was let afloat. 

Several other families had also arrived to perform the final rites for their loved ones; we noticed that someone had let afloat several medical reports and X-rays, along with the ashes. And that was it. Everybody, everything, boils down to this. A pot of ashes. And many cherished memories. 

Summer of 2010. A moment that I'll cherish as long as I live.
What is there to remind me of my dearest grandpa? A few photographs, an Agatha Christie book I had asked him to write in for me (I inherited my love for books from Appa, who in turn, inherited it from him), a tiny collection of quotes by Swami Chinmayananda that he gifted me, a pirated copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire which I bought off the streets and asked him to gift me, a mug that stated 'You're good at so many things, but you're best at being my grandpa!' That mug was the last thing I took home for Muthacha, and he was ecstatic when he saw it... and of course, lots of memories. Me sitting beside him and stroking his hair, Muthacha talking about his army days in Malaysia and his memories of the Second World War and the British Raj, me asking him to hold on to me as he slowly shuffled his way through the house, how he used to make tea every day without fail, how even at the hospital he blessed me and beamed at my graduation photos, how he scribbled he was proud of me since he couldn't talk through the tubes, how he would sit on the edge of his bed and recite Skanda Sashti Kavacham every evening, how he would call us for aarati at the end of prayers, how he clutched my hand at the hospital and whispered 'Don't go!',  how he would stand in front of the house waving goodbye...

Everything seems to remind me of him. I miss you terribly, Muthacha. Life is never quite the same without you.
'If tears could build a stairway
and memories a lane,
I would walk right up to heaven. 
and bring you back again.'


Monday, August 26, 2013

The Words

There's something therapeutic about reading Ruskin Bond. Simple, unpretentious, down-to-earth writing, laced with subtle humour. This summer, I came across Rain in the Mountains: Notes from the Himalayas, a collection of essays, stories, poems, and personal journal entries, dating back to the late fifties. A wonderful read, it reminded me of my childhood days in the Nilgiri Hills and the Doon Valley. I loved reading about interesting characters like Miss Bun (whom he once considered marrying), Sir Edmund Gibson ("I don't mind being dead, but I shall miss being alive!"), the old Tibetan lama slowly trudging along the stubborn mountain path, and a lone tea-shop owner scrambling for a livelihood in the Jaunpur range of the Garhwal Himalayas ("Hillman or plainsman, we have only our hopes to keep us going".)

Ruskin Bond clearly loves the mountains- there's warmth and tenderness in his writing when he describes the deodars and the oaks, the song of the whistle-thrush, and the music of hillside crickets and cicadas. I found his humility striking; we rarely come across people of his kind, who have accomplished so much, and yet are so unassuming! On pride, he has this to say- "Be proud. Be proud of what you are, and what you've done. But be proud within. Don't flaunt it, you will only offend. There's something obscene about a braggart". Truer words have never been written! Indeed, Bond is so modest, he states that even after 35 years, he's still trying as a writer.

He also writes about a boy he met late one night, on the deserted Tehri road, huddling in a recess, seeking some warmth against the bitter cold. As he is about to leave him, tempted by the prospect of a warm bed waiting for him at home, he is reminded of the wise words of an old sage:
If I am not for myself,
Who will be for me?
And if I am not for others,
What am I

And if not now, when?
And so, he takes the boy home, and offers him a place to stay for the night, the very least he could do to help somebody else. This humane element is what makes the book so special to me.

And yet, what struck me the most in this splendid book, was a little poem titled The Words. At the time I read it, I had just lost my grandfather. It's still hard to believe he's no longer with us! The first few days were the most difficult, but even today, we all feel his absence. As the entire family traveled to Tiruvilvamala, where we performed the final rites for my dearest Muthacha on the banks of the sacred Bharathapuzha, I thought it was all rather funny. We struggle every day for happiness, success, little joys, and triumphs; and yet in the final analysis, each one of us is reduced to a pot of ashes, a bag of memories. The profound truth of this poem hit me hard:

Observing Ananda weeping, Gautama said,
'O Ananda, do not weep. This body of ours
contains within itself the powers which renew
its strength for a time, but also the causes which
lead to its destruction. Is there anything put
together which shall not dissolve?'
Then, turning to his disciples, he said, 'When
I am passed away and am no longer with you,
do not think the Buddha has left you, and is not
still in your midst. You have my words, my
explanations, my laws...' And again, 'Beloved
disciples, if you love my memory, love one another.'
And after another pause, he said, 'Beloved,
that which causes life causes also decay
and death. Never forget this. I called you to tell you this.'
These were the last words of Gautama
Buddha, as he stretched himself out and died
under the great sal tree, at Kasinagara.