Saturday, February 26, 2011


There was a banyan tree in the middle of the park. Nobody knew how long it had stood there. Its branches had spread in all directions, embracing the universe. And, as is typical of banyan trees, its roots have sprouted down from its outstretched branches, perhaps to retain and strengthen the wisdom that the tree has collected over the years. Legend had it that the tree had seen more than two hundred summers. Perhaps, that is the reason the resort people left it untouched, as an ultimate symbol of legacy, when they renovated the gardens.
Maya was sitting under the banyan tree. It was an early summer evening and she had been sitting here almost the whole day, alternating between reading a book and napping. She had chosen to sit here and ‘waste’ her day doing ‘nothing’ while her husband and twelve year old daughter were out, exploring the countryside. And as she sat, the number of missed calls in her mobile went on increasing, but she wasn’t bothered, she did not even care where her mobile was. She had carried her laptop into her vacation as there were urgent mails to be answered and clients who needed to be addressed. But now the laptop slept peacefully under a pile of folded clothes in the wardrobe of their hotel suite. On any other day, Maya would have bothered about how her daughter was getting on, whether she had eaten, whether she had remembered to put on her hiking shoes, but today she trusted the moment and forgot to invite the worries in her mind.
She sat, complete in herself, embracing everything and everyone who had ever been or ever will be a part of her life. She was light of the baggage of her past, and of the illusions of future possibilities. She was living the only time one can live...that is now.
And the banyan tree provided her shade and silence. After a long while, Maya became aware of another person approaching her space. It was a woman. She was wearing a pair of brown trousers and a cream shirt with soft, brown buttons. The woman was taking a walk through the garden paths in and around the banyan tree. Something about her struck Maya as vaguely familiar. Just then, a breeze blew as if on impulse, scattering the leaves of the banyan tree all over. One leaf gently landed on the woman’s hair and at that instant everything was clear. Maya realised that she was looking at none other than her own self fifteen years ago.
The woman was crying, inwardly. She was drowning in an unfathomable sea of pain. She had just lost her three year old son. It was one of those intrusions of fate which come without warning, when there is just a pause, a blink of an eye, a single breath between the smiling face of the baby she was feeding and then...a pool of blood on the floor, and her baby, no more. There may have been a small yelp, a last cry, but she was not sure, it had happened so fast.
Maya longed to reach out to the woman. But there was a wall that shielded her wherever she went. The wall would not let any small reason enter that could inspire any meaning in her life. The woman screamed, inwardly. “I have lost him, I have lost my baby.”
“No you haven’t”, said Maya, quietly. The woman, startled, looked around, but could not see anyone. Maya smiled. She could penetrate the wall.
“Your baby, like you, is a child of the Universe. He is here, he is happy.”
“But where is he? He is no more with me”.
“Oh, look around, will you? What do you see?”
The woman looks around quickly.
“Okay. I see a tree, a banyan tree. I see green grass, some flower beds which I suppose are pretty, over there in the corner I see a swimming pool, some shades, and I guess that’s it.”
“Okay, close your eyes and see again what you have just described to me”.
The woman, intrigued, shuts her eyes.
She remains like that for a long time and finally speaks. “Yes, I see him now, my baby.”
“Why here, of course, running around the tree. And there, splashing in the pool and here again, rolling on the grass. He’s so happy.”
“Of course, he is. What made you think that he would not be happy? Just because he chose to end his play in one place and run to another?”
“But he is not with me.”
“Don’t you see? He was always with you, like the stars and the rain, and will always be there with you. Both of you are strands of the different threads that are woven together, with each other, to complete the blanket of the universe.”
“But why was his time with me so less?”
“That is only your perception. Your time here is no more or less than your baby’s or anyone else’s for that matter. There is no time. Just intensity. Feel it. Can you see? The time that is fleeting is elusive. Withdraw from it, and what remains is eternity. That is where you just saw your son, that is where you can find him, always.”
“But I long to touch my baby, hold him, love him.”
“You can do that only when you get rid of your useless pain. Your pain takes up all your space, you whole being. It makes you an invalid. It cripples you. Throw it away, and all you will have left is pure and joyful love. Share it with all forms of consciousness, and you will feel your baby in your arms, always.”
“Who are you?”
“I am you without your ego.”
“How can you be me? You don’t even feel my pain.”
“I understand your pain. Your ego feels it, not you. You know there is no pain. That is why I am here.”

“Why can I not see you?”
“You will see me only when you chose to, but for that you have to first die.”
“If I chose to die, will you take me where there is no pain, where I can see my son happy?”
Maya sighed. She knew she had no choice. She had to kill the phantom which believed it existed. She slowly got up and left the shade of the banyan tree to stand in the glow of the evening sun. As she did so, the banyan tree bowed and whispered a few words of wisdom.
The woman looked up and saw Maya for the first time. And as the light of recognition dawned in her eyes, she surrendered her life with the full force of her acute will and felt the shadow slip away with the pain and the hurt and the anger, all useless remnants of a useless ego.
When you belong to the Universe, and the whole Universe is contained in you, how can you ever lose anyone?
Maya brushed some leaves off her dress while the sun set in the distant horizon as it should.
Half-way across the globe, the first rays of dawn woke her up with love. It was time to embrace another day.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Perfect Cup of Tea

Its 2am. My doorbell rings. I don’t hear it at first, as my mind and body are too busy erasing the stress of the previous day. Then the bell rings again and takes the form of temple bells in my dream. I drift off seeing the white pillars on a hill top. And yet again. This time, it is more like my morning alarm and I have to pull myself up. Weary though my mind is, my body clock tells me it’s not morning, yet. So I drag myself off bed as the doorbell rings again. I have no choice but to answer it. My heart beats fast; I’m on the verge of panic.
It’s Sonal, my maid, the woman who comes part-time to take care of my younger child and help me with the housework. She stands at the door, scarred and injured. I take a look at her, and the clock, and summarise the situation. This is not the first time that she has been beaten black and blue by her unemployed, alcoholic husband. I’m sure this won’t be the last. Her seventeen years of marriage has seen many scars, yet, for reasons unintelligible to me, she still lives with him.
She finds refuge at my place. She stays on, she will never return, she vows through my disbelief. I do all that anyone in my place would do....take her to the doctor; make her file a police complaint against her husband. (The latter gesture is more to protect myself actually, so that later he doesn’t complain that I have tortured her). Such things happen.
A week passes, she stays on. She doesn’t have a home or parents or siblings. She doesn’t think of the future. I am glad. I feel I am helping her, but secretly I am enjoying her services round the clock. I can watch some television, while she puts my daughter to sleep. I can sneak an early morning walk, leaving the kids in her care. I don’t have to square up the kitchen alone at the end of the day. I know this will not last. I buy her the medicines; take her for check-ups. Beyond that, I have no idea what to do.
Two weeks pass. I am sitting alone, browsing through some old photographs in my laptop. Sonal asks me if I miss my husband whose profession keeps him away from home most of the year. I don't pay attention; I am so used to that question by now, that I hardly acknowledge it. My loneliness goes so much deeper than any question or answer.
Suddenly I stop at a photograph of a snow covered mountain. I see myself standing outside the army quarter with my son and husband beside me. I am holding a cup of tea, savouring it with all my life.
I must have smiled for my maid looks at me bemused. Oh it had been so cold. We had been to Nathu-La Pass in Sikkim at the border of India and China. While my husband and five year old son had effortlessly climbed the last hundred yards, I was huffing and puffing and out of breath, gasping for oxygen in the thin mountain air. My saviour had been an army lieutenant who helped me sit, relax, and get my breathing back in order. As the day progressed, my family had struck a friendship with this guy and on the way back we took a detour to visit his army lodging. The fact that it was illegal, added to the appeal.
There, in the middle of no-where with snow stretching from horizon to horizon in all directions, I was surprised to see a low, tin accommodation, somewhat like an elongated kennel. So this is how our soldiers lived on the border!
We had to bend to enter. We found ourselves walking through a tunnel like room used to store things into a tiny room at the back. In the light of the single lantern we could see two bunk beds, a small stove, some utensils and books and few clothes hung here and there.
We were introduced to a young guy of about twenty and two, who was our friend’s room-mate. This young fellow offered to make us tea. So we sat on the bunk beds and asked fascinated questions while the kettle boiled and our new friend sorted the right mix of tea leaves with utmost precision. As my husband got busy with the camera, my son started feeling nauseated, so I took him out for a breath of fresh air. Our friend soaked the leaves on the hot water and with great care opened a jar of powdered milk.
Outside it was freezing, yet my son insisted I remove his jacket number 3. My army friend appeared on the doorway and pulled a chair for me to sit. He explained how the whole place gets buried in snow at times. I love the cold, and crave for the tea. My friend lights a cigarette just as my husband appears to click more photos.
The unique combination of my strange company and solitude must have hit a strange chord, just as our young friend appears with a tray of four steel, steaming mugs and a plate of biscuits.
I take care to treasure the moment, this fleeting moment in time, far away from civilization, on the top of a snow clad mountain in the border. He must have taken the same care to prepare the tea for unexpected guests, who presented a fresh touch of life and enthusiasm amidst endless days that all looked and felt the same. The first sip of the tea sealed a bond of unnamed connection with the mountains, the brave soldiers, the journey, my loved ones and me.
My maid Sonal points at the picture and animatedly breaks out into a series of questions. Snow in Mumbai is like Niagara in a desert.
I suddenly miss a good cup of tea. I realise that I have never had a single cup since that day that I cherished so much. I go to my favourite shelf in the kitchen. It’s loaded with all the labels one can dream of. Orange Pekoe, Darjeeling, the best of Earl array of local spiced flavours, lemon tea, ginger tea, cinnamon tea, a variety of herbal...and of course my favourite mint tea for the summers. Yet I have never savoured a single cup.
Sonal comes behind me asks me whether I would like some tea. I look at her as if for the first time. I see a badly bruised woman with no past, no future. I see a woman who can laugh at my memories, who can sing with devotion to my baby. I see a woman who has left her kids with distant relatives and is waiting here to make a cup of tea to serve me. I suddenly crave for that perfect cuppa. I pull out a local masala chai and ask Sonal to put the kettle to boil. Then I leave the kitchen to hunt for the perfect ingredients.
In the balcony I arrange two cane chairs. The city bustles by down below, each sound and movement carrying a different kind of loneliness. Hell, the city is lonelier than the mountains which at least connect to the sky and the snow and the life there. I place two steel mugs for Sonal and myself and load a plate with crispy pakoras.  She brings in the tea just as I snuggle on the comfortable chair, discard my reserve and loneliness, and prepare to actually talk life with another woman. As she pours the steaming tea, I know it’s going to be the best cuppa for a long, long time to come.

After all, its the context, rather than the contents that would give meaning to my tea.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Man Walked On

89127721, Jean-Luc De Zorzi /Photographer's Choice
The man wore ordinary clothes... a pair of grey jeans and a nondescript shirt. A haversack was flung over his left shoulder. His shoes were old but of good taste. He carried with him a pungent smell of sweat and dirt, a smell of being a man.
The roads were almost empty. It was long past midnight. But this city never sleeps, so the occasional indifferent car would whiz by oblivious to the man and his path. The night was warm with a hint of a damp breeze. Monsoon was approaching; the first showers of the season would burst forth to embrace the longing of the thirsty earth, anytime.
The man walked, his pace neither slow, nor fast. He walked in a steady rhythm that perhaps matched the beats of his heart. He walked with a purpose shared by the breeze that spoke of the rains to come.
The wind that blows across the sea, also rages havoc in the desert. The wind belongs to no-where. It touches the soul of every speck of creation, but belongs to no-one. The wind cannot be possessed, neither can it own anyone. Perhaps the wind understands Love.
The man walked tirelessly. From time to time a cab would pass by, and on seeing the solitary figure walking on, would slow down in anticipation of a night passenger. Fares are always one and a half times more after midnight. But the man paid no heed, he just walked on.
The ink-blue sky was studded with a million stars tonight; some lonely, some clustered, all embracing infinity. Each may have had its tale to tell. Each may have sung its song a million times; and the notes may still be found floating somewhere in the universe. A whisper may have reached the man’s ears, for he paused for a moment, without any apparent reason. Were the stars talking to him? Well, that was for him to choose, and not the stars. But the strange note that had reached his ears and caused him to pause, must have been Love.
Silence held a blanket over the streets he traversed. A deep blanket which the faraway sound of a passing train could not penetrate. There were hungry children of the night and their cries seemed to stir the soul of silence. The silence spoke to the man and told him to open the chains that bound him. It told the man that he was free to choose his own destiny. The Silence must have spoken the language of Love.
When the first rays of dawn tentatively caressed the sleeping earth to wake it tenderly, the man was sitting on a bench in the pavement. He had placed his haversack next to him. The Sun’s rays touched him with the same devotion that it touched every blade of grass. The man felt a profound joy within. Somewhere in that touch, there must have been Love.

 He was hungry. Across the lane, an early vendor was setting up his makeshift shop on a wooden platform on wheels. He sold peanuts and tea and biscuits to early morning walkers. The man waited till the shop was set up, the kettle was placed on the fire. He ordered some tea and biscuits and gazed in anticipation as the water started to boil. The vendor poured him a steaming cup and gently handed it to him with a smile. The man reached into his pockets and held out some coins, and returned the smile. They talked of the impending rains and cricket scores. The man refreshed his body and mind with the humble cup of sweet spicy tea, and a couple of home-made wheat biscuits. Perhaps he tasted the labour of love.
The sun shone brighter now. The city woke up to a flurry of activities. The tea vendor watched as the man, with careful precision flung his haversack over his left shoulder and began to walk. He wondered idly who the man was. He did not look or dress like any of the early morning walkers he knew. Where was he going? Perhaps he was going home. Or perhaps he had left his home for some other destination.
A young girl cycling by in shorts and T-shirt looked at the man. She found him attractive, he reminded her of a lover she once had. Perhaps this man had a lover.
The man walked on the side-walk. There were other pedestrians now. They were rushing by; each had a chore or task to attend to. Each was buried in his thoughts. The man let them overtake him. He knew his pace, he knew his city.
That day there were twenty cases of rapes, fifteen murders, and thirteen accidents in the city.

There were also infinite gestures of love, some visible to the eye, others visible to the soul.
And the man, the ordinary man, who may have been just about any man anyone ever knew, kept walking on. His story, after all, is the pivot around which the history of the universe revolves. So somewhere in that story, there must have been love.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Rag Doll

The boy stood, fascinated by the jiggory – topies all around him. They hung from the sky on laser fluorescent threads. Some of them smiled and cheered him. One threw him a lolly pop to suck. He was spoilt for choice, but he could buy only one. He had a smiley with him, which was the only currency accepted in Twinku Land. As he stood with wide eyes, trying to make up his mind, his Mamma came and pointed at a rag doll dancing in a circle. Maybe that’s the one she would have chosen when she was a girl. His Papa came & nodded, rag doll is fine.
So, not knowing better, he threw his smiley at the ring, and the rag doll stopped its dance. She was actually awkwardly poised with one toe pointing up, like a ballerina. She could not have been comfortable; she may have wanted to complete the dance.
The boy brought the doll home and kept her with him all the time. After a few days, the rag doll decided to dance again. The boy was watching Tom & Jerry and it irritated him. He broke the doll’s leg and continued to watch.
At night, he kissed the doll with the broken leg, and fixed a teddy’s leg in its place. Then he went to sleep blissfully, dreaming of cars that fly.
A few days passed, and his vacation ended. The boy would go to school now. In evening he would come home, finish his home-work and rush off to play football with the other boys.
One day, he came home to find the rag doll singing. It amused him, and he smiled. Thus encouraged, the rag doll composed note after note in her mind, and tried to sing them whenever the boy was around. He never noticed. Once, when his friends had come, the rag doll took it in her head to sing her most special song. This embarrassed the boy and he picked up the doll and stuffed it in a drawer amidst some broken bits and pieces from where she could never be heard again.
He must have forgotten about the doll but one day he saw a similar rag doll in a book, and suddenly remembered about his doll. So he searched the whole place out and when he finally found her, the doll was crumpled and torn due to days of neglect. So he told her that he loved her and ventured to ‘fix’ her. He gathered some odds and ends from here and there. He cut off her brown plaits and tied some golden thread. He coloured her face pink. He tore apart her orange buttons and glued blue ones in their place. When he saw the transformation, he was thrilled. He loved his doll and he knew it. He would never neglect it again, he vowed.
Ever since, he has been taking special care to shield the doll from the big, bad, world. From time to time he would change some little thing about her. Every night he hugged and slept with the doll and assured her that he loved her.
But she never could dance or sing anymore; actually she was no more the rag doll.