Kindness attracts me immensely. There is a quiet luminescent glow to it in comparison to which the brightness of wit and the radiance of genius pale.

Of course, I admire men and women of intelligence. We, of the human race, benefit from their curiosity and their inventiveness, the questions they ask and answer, pushing the frontiers of our knowledge. I wouldn’t be writing words, discerning and labelling each one of my thoughts and sentiments, typing them out on a computer and sending them to you to read, if it weren’t for the humongous advances that our gifted proponents of the sciences and the arts have made over the millennia, propelling forward that ongoing evolution of us sapiens. 

I also appreciate that genius doesn’t grow overnight. It needs accurate spotting, careful nurturing, and sometimes ruthless pruning, cultivating it along productive channels, much like that tree that bears bountiful fruit only upon the painstaking efforts of a dedicated gardener. Society invests heavily in genius for it is selfishly interested in its fruit. And that is only natural.

I find wit good company too. It is entertaining. It can also be rewardingly insightful and illuminating. A sharp pleasantry, an acerbic but apt comment may relieve many a dull moment and may alleviate an otherwise banal conversation. A chance or calculated pithy remark by the witty wise may open my eyes, opening up a person, a situation, hinting at covert agendas, and other such interesting details. Opening windows that were hitherto closed, prodding me to look beyond, probe further.

When talents are put to productive use society rewards them, handsomely at times. The size of that reward is, of course, determined by the relative scarcity of that talent: the scale and urgency of the need for its output vis-à-vis its availability. The everyday unavoidable market scissors of demand and supply that supposedly impartially decide price and thence incomes. The impartiality begins only after the initial distribution of resources, wealth and human capital, has been accepted as an unchangeable given. That could be cruelly unequal in itself. But that is a matter of discourse on equity. 

And that’s the thing. Equity, and similar goals that may render humans humane, is not the goal of unfettered market decisions. Our market and trade paradigms that explicitly or covertly hail maximisation of self-interest (read profits, incomes, utility) as the efficient guiding motive of decision making, don’t give a damn about equity. They are not supposed to. And that is only expedient. And then popular clamour to factor in humanitarian concerns prompts the powers that be to tweak the system, blunting those market scissors somewhat, trying to secure a minimum decent dispensation for the less privileged (including those that had been left out in the cold in that initial distribution of socio-economic resources). Welfare, subsidies, and so on. Beyond that the markets continue to do their work.  

So, that rare talent that could effectively carve out a monopoly of its much-in-demand produce, earns at a premium rate. A neurosurgeon will earn several multiple times what a janitor does, and that is but fair, given that the surgeon has invested that many years of sweat and money in training herself, to render herself worthy of people trusting her to do right by their ailments cerebral and neural. Maybe the janitor didn’t have the talent and/or appetite and/or opportunity for higher studies and specialised training. Though I could ask the surgeon if they have the talent and the appetite for cleaning office spaces every day for a living?

Yet, the market governed hierarchy of professions also determines the quotient of respect that they earn. More often than not, an investment banker will consider herself superior to the teacher in a municipal school. Money talks, as they say, and people listen. Respectfully. Earning that kind of money is the prime aspiration of many. And however much pastors preaching from pulpits and priests praying in temples may warn common folk about the shallowness of the lure of lucre, lucre does lure. And I am not convinced that that is sinful at all. 

But what I do question is the badge of respect it flaunts. Respect that even the most corrupt politicians command from their hapless constituents just because they are willing to flex their material muscles to squash them. Respect that celebrities earn because of the cars they drive and jets they fly, the diamonds they flash, the mansions they can afford, aspirational for so many. That allows them and their ilk to, for example, jump queues, because ordinary citizens accept that they deserve that preference and deference because their time is not to be wasted waiting, their time is money. 

It is this equation of respect and deference with material reward that I am not comfortable with. Just because my child is not as smart as yours, does not top the ranks, or win competitions, bag that to-die-for-job, invent the next life-saving medicine, search for life on a remote astral body, have that rare gift to do what you are willing to pay money for, does she not deserve to be respected? Not pitied, allowed for, consciously included, accommodated (read, lumped and dumped) in the lacklustre category of also-rans, but just plain respected for who and what she is? 

I could shout from rooftops that my child is loving, nurturing, helpful, empathetic and downright kind, but really who’s listening? Is she a professional healer? A life-counsellor? Does she have a CV or a list of achievements that define her worth? If not, well then all those attributes are near redundant. Not just because they are not accompanied with a societal certification of her merit which I accept is more valid than just my word for it, but more importantly, because none of those attributes can be monetised. 

Intelligence, genius, talent and so on are then proven to be so when there is a societally agreed reward attached to it, actual or potential. Seeing someone in need, lending them a hand to help them out of the hole they are in, giving someone a shoulder to lean on, lighting up someone’s day just by your attentive supportive presence, spotting all situations where you can help, being kind to a stranger on the street, are not slotted in the categories of recognised talents. There is no premium attached to them. They don’t command respect. 

But they are the backbone of our humanity. Of how we get through crises, swallow tragedies, heal ourselves and live fruitfully the next day and after. When an earthquake strikes, the janitor helps pull the neurosurgeon out from under the debris she may have gotten buried under. Free of charge. Maybe she was cleaning toilets when the surgeon was examining patients. And she was kind enough to risk her own life and help. Or, when the next Mumbai monsoon deluges us and we are stuck in our cars in unmoving traffic, the hand that knocks on our window and hands us that bottle of water and that pack of Glucose biscuits, is probably just the nondescript sweeper or unglamorous vegetable seller or even the failed derelict human living in a nearby hovel or hole, just trying to be of help. Or when our old helpless parents or grandparents are gasping for breath, their frail bodies blazing in a debilitating fever, and we are stuck in a frightening pandemic in a city far away from theirs, an out-of-work rickshaw-wala coaxes his vehicle back to life, braves contact with Covid and ferries them to the nearest hospital. So that they may breathe freely again and then so can we. These uncelebrated ambassadors of kindness respect us as fellow human beings and recognise our need. 

Do we respect them? Their needs? Equally? Enough?

Not just because they have been of service to us when we were in need, but because they have it intrinsically in them to be kind. They disregard the layers of neglect that their lives have been cloaked under for all those years, the wretched losers in the original distribution of socio-economic resources, and stand up for us when we need them to. How much are we willing to pay for that? 

And then when we’ve moved on from our tragedy or crisis or upheaval and are in the thick of shining things again, will we remember those kind hearts? Or will we look for them only the next time we are in need? Will they inspire us in turn to be kind? To reach out and help? Maybe, make us understand that all that we’ve learned and earned and are proud of in our happy lives is just a fraction of what this human race is about. That maybe we still have to learn that vital bit, the being humane bit. And learn to prioritise the respect we give that. 

Well, kindness and genius are not mutually exclusive. This is not a them and us situation. But the kindness that may rest in the genius even, how highly do we value it? On par with the genius itself? Not at all. In fact, the attribute of genius adds a sheen to the kindness, makes it a tad attractive. Which is why a good deed by the already celebrated is hailed whereas the same by a non-entity goes unnoticed. If the neurosurgeon from the example earlier were to rescue the janitor from the debris in an earthquake, that would make headlines. Not the vice versa.

What if it were the norm to shine the spotlight on the obscure good Samaritans amongst us? And the applause rang longer and louder for them. And these kind and nurturing humans were held up as examples to be admired and emulated. Above all else. The first among equals.

Well, every morning when I wake up, I tell myself: Be kind. Whatever else I may or may not be and do, I must try be kind. And when I see that kindness in you, my fellow human, believe you me, I become your fan. 

It was in the middle of the afternoon on a regular weekday. I was driving to school to pick up our daughter. Well, the car practically drove itself for I was hardly conscious of steering it. It was on its customary route, taking the usual turns this way and that with indicators flashing accordingly, stopping at traffic signals turning red, buzzing through those that were still green, honking a slow scooter out of the way. I registered none of its movements. It was as if all were on auto cruise and my car understood better than to disturb my mood. 

The sun was searing from up above, not a cloud between it and the wilting humans beneath. Pelting and melting as was its wont. But I felt it not. For I was in the land of Vrindavani Sarang, in the cooling shade of serene melody, listening hypnotised to those lilting notes and that majestic voice that called upon them with the love that only he knew, suffused with the like love and devotion that he inspired in all us acolytes. The sun was in veritable song. Tum rab, tum saheb, an ode to divinity in a languid loop of the ten beat Jhaptaal. 

I had been addicted to that voice ever since my childhood, it echoed from my earliest memories. My parents, both his ardent fans, buying their first LP with his Maru Bihag and Malkauns. Then buying another and yet another with every paycheque every month. As their record collection grew, there came more Ragas that he had sung, and then were added more voices and instruments too. A Pandit Paluskar, a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib and an Amir Khan Sahib. A Pandit Ravi Shankar, a Vilayat Khan Sahib and a Bismillah Khan Sahib. Our library of music grew richer over the years, my mother carefully choosing the programme for the evening, lovingly removing the jackets and carefully prising out those mysteriously shining dark discs from their sleeves, gently blowing away the rogue specks of dust she spied on them, positioning that sharp needle on the outermost edge and then with breath drawn in in expectation, lowering it to play. Aah! 

Rasiya! I would hear that voice call in earnest entreaty and I would listen as if compelled, as if nothing else mattered, as if that Maru Bihag was all that there was of any import. That stoic shuddha ma, the genteel ga, they had become my friends before I even knew them by name. Tadpat raina din, he would confess his yearning for a glimpse of his beloved and I, all of two years old then, would be in harmonious sympathy. 

The sun blazed on, my car was at the school gates, children were pouring out. Mine came too, satchel dumped on the backseat, door slammed shut and the music changed from the CD that had been playing to her favourite Radio Mirchi. I drew my car out from my parking slot and drove back home, listening to her excited chatter and the equally animated radio jockey.

Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the lustrous and illustrious gem of India. Swar Bhaskar, the voice of the sun and the sun among voices. Estimable and knowledgeable Panditji. Fond elder Bhimanna or simply Anna. We of this prosaic material world came to know and address that musical giant amongst us according to our closeness or distance from him. I knew him as my first repository of true music, the sachha sur, my own revered musical deity and my reference for all issues melodic. My ears had been trained listening to him right from my cradle. My sensibilities musical had been defined by him, resolutely in favour of the leisurely build-up of a Raga’s ambience in its khayal, the sombre and stately alaaps progressing measuredly against the protracted dhin dhin of the favoured ektal on the tabla, graduating to a quickened tempo and traversing through all three octaves in boltaans and taans, some in blinding speed, simple or complex, rolling with rumbling gamaks or cutting through like flashes of lightning. I was already familiar with it all before my formal training in Hindustani classical music commenced. And while I enjoyed the five-minute film songs that ruled the popular roost, I found that their flavour faded soon. In contrast, the Ragas that the maestros sang sustained and endured, resounding and resonating long after their last tihai.

I remember a concert from many, many years ago, a private mehfil that I had been privileged to attend along with a few dozen invitees. Bhimsenji had begun with a Darbari Kanada. Diving in introduction into the well of the lower octave, that all important mandra saptak in Darbari, he had at once drenched us all in its thick swirling currents. Enunciating each note with polished precision, clarity and mellifluousness, then blurring and merging them in gliding meendhs and Darbari’s trademark andolans or oscillations, and then standing poised and still on the bedrock of his reverberating kharja, he had woven his magic over us all, connoisseurs and laypersons alike. Then climbing up through the middle and higher octaves, steadily approaching and gathering in every successive precious note, he had structured layers and layers to that magnificent edifice of his khayal. Regal and assured yet deeply introspective, melancholic in some phases, caressing tenderly in some others phases, supplicating piteously in yet others, it was a continuing alchemy of overwhelming emotions and I listened mesmerised. His voice, the most robust that I have ever known, would roar in command and then whisper in intimacy and then again plead in all humility. There was heroic power, abject pathos, stark asceticism, all in a glorious and wondrous mix, transporting us to rare other-worldly bliss. I had forgotten myself, forgotten my surroundings, rapturously lost in the darbar of his majestic muse. I doubt any other singer I have ever heard could match the impact of that night’s rendition. It washes over me still. Darbari was his, his alone. 

But then so were Puriya, Marwa, Shuddh Kalyan, Mian Malhar, Miyan ki Todi and many more. Yes, I enjoy and follow other classicists’ interpretations of these Ragas too but I still return to Bhimsenji, not merely from fond nostalgia but with a sure knowing that in him I will find only the Raga in its purest and most sublime form, not a projection of he himself or his prowess. Whenever he sang it seemed as if he, his voice and body as also his spontaneity and virtuosity, were all possessed by the Raga itself, commanded unto its bidding. And the bizarre contortions of his face and torso and arms that became his caricatured personality, were simply in driven blind-eyed pursuit of the next magically musical phrase. 

Some of his contemporaries and critics would denounce the limits of his repertoire: “He sings the same few Ragas everywhere! And the same thumris and abhangs.” And his loyalists would bristle in anger: “No, his repertoire is wide enough! His reach in every Raga is the most profound! And his Teerth Vitthala is matchless!” Well, all I knew was that his every performance in any given Raga would be different every single time, revealing this face of a Miya ki Todi today, for example, another tomorrow and then yet another the day after. Yes, like all other artists he probably had his share of off days too, when his heart and mind refused to apply themselves to the Raga at hand, his mood refusing to submerge into the Raga’s, when magic refused to happen. And yet there are priceless recordings of a Yamani Bilawal or a Multani or again a Komal Rishabh Asawari and many more that I play and replay again and again, for days and months on end, unable to escape that magnetic pull, unable to pack in not only the strength of his notes but also the golden honey-like Kirana gharana sweetness that he doused them in. 

Two of my uncles had been privileged to be among his friends. Doctors by profession their hearts, I suspect, beat happier in tandem with the tempo of khayals and bandishes. I would be hungry for all the interesting anecdotes that they had to share, tales of his sharp wit and mischievous humour, of historic benchmark performances, of hobbies and interests. I would read all I could lay my hands on, his interviews, the stories about his formative years, his crazed obsession with music, his scouring through the length and breadth of the country in search of a Guru. The rigorous discipline and arduous training under the famed Sawai Gandharva, the Guru he was blessed to find, his long hours of gruelling riyaz, the swallowing of personal pride and notions of privilege to be merely allowed to remain in the vicinity of a handful of melodious notes, the unswerving loyalty to his Guru. His rapport with other luminaries of the music world, his encouragement to young artists. The commitment and dedication with which he organised the annual Sawai Gandharva music festival, inviting both established maestros and upcoming artists, looking after their comfort, tuning their tanpuras, listening to them in humble attention while they performed. And then capping it all with his own magnificent performance in the last session of the last day, his resplendent homage to his departed Guru. I devoured it all. I learned of his eccentricities, his failings too, but I judged him not for his human frailties. For all I ever saw in him was his divinely sachha sur, the sur that continues to reign supreme. 

The sun still sings for me. He still propels my day forward, guiding me through its gradually changing texture and complexion, showing me the fledgling streaks of orange in a day-breaking Lalit, a little more of light and warmth in a Ramkali. At burning noon, he coaxes me into the resuscitating shade with his Sarang, then shows me the morphing world in the evening’s Puriya Dhanashri. Later, he slips away beyond the horizon leaving me the riches of a Bihag, a Yaman, a Chhaya, an Abhogi, many and much more to revel and rejoice in, to nourish my searching soul. 

Many sang after him, many stake ownership of the stage, many have won millions in audiences and admirers. Yet to me none can hold a candle to him. The singularly luminous star that burned so unbelievably bright that he lit up all firmaments, the earth, the sky and the universe beyond. The one and only Swar Bhaskar.

Photo Credits : Sateesh Paknikar

It hasn’t been easy, has it? This year and more of struggling, surviving, losing, coping, adjusting, wrapping our heads and hearts, minds and bodies around the new emerging normal. All yet fluid and floating, unsettled and undefined, allowing this today, prohibiting that tomorrow, and then perversely changing everything all over again. 

At first life threatened to stagnate or worse, disappear. It began to stand still not just within our isolated spaces but also in the stoic scenes outside the walls of our confines. Birds sang, dogs barked, bees swarmed as busily as before, but our own species seemed somewhat stifled, somewhat muted. Justifiably so. Hunkered down. Waiting. Watching. Breathing. Praying that breath would not cruelly forsake us.

Of course, there were those who still continued to scream shrilly. Out of TV boxes, on social media, in newsprint, in living rooms and, shamelessly flouting all consideration to the vulnerability of others’ lives, in indiscriminate public gatherings. At each other, with each other, sometimes at the virus itself. Go Corona! 

Corona didn’t go. But jobs went. Bread on tables dwindled. Migrants marched home, some died on the way. Shops shut. Manufacturing reduced to essentials. Construction halted. Temple and churches and mosques became silent. Buses, trains and planes hung around in their depots and sheds and hangars. Schools emptied. Play stopped. Hope flickered thin. 

Hospitals burst at their seams with the bloating influx of the infected, the coughing, the gasping, the sinking, the dying. Beleaguered and bleary eyed, doctors and nurses struggled to piece together a line of treatment to fight a brand-new unknown variable. We thanked them sincerely, profusely, bestowed upon them bouquets of gratitude. Sometimes brickbats when they could not save someone we knew, was dear to us.

Breath faded quietly. Ventilators hummed loudly. We lost some of our own, some dear, some admired. We mourned. We looked on others of our species with suspicion, would they be the harbingers of our demise, we wondered. We clung to our old trying to save them from being snatched away. Then the not so old and then the younger. 

Somewhere in between those two pandemic waves many cast their vulnerability aside, refusing to get beaten by that frightfully microscopic parasitic entity that was looking to lodge in our lungs. They stepped out as before, meeting, gathering, thronging, a token mask dangling on their chins. Breathing in and out unconstrained, daring disease, daring death. Unto themselves as unto others. We called them foolhardy, myopic, irresponsible and so on. I guess they were all of that but they were mostly fed up of being cooped in. Of being idle, unemployed, un-fed. Many did what they did to survive. What if there is no roof over one’s head or means to earn food for the belly? Starve to death in fear of the virus catching one alive? Conundrum. 

Those fortunate and privileged to remain safely ensconced in their well-equipped houses became smarter. Children and youth, students alike sat glued to their screens, “Yes, Teacher! No, Teacher!” they chorused as the teaching community tried to salvage their education, teachers retraining themselves, learning new skills so that they could still faithfully discharge their responsibilities. Many woke up in the middle of the night to record lessons in the quiet that they were denied during regular school hours. Many pined for the tea breaks on campus, the chai as hot as the gossip that was shared. Most stayed the course.

Men and women continued to work from home, hunched over their computers, tapping away on their keyboards, calling, dealing, Zooming, beaming. Protecting their incomes. Spending and shopping online. Ordering in food. Insisting on contactless deliveries. Hygiene and sanitation and safety, they demanded. Some barking at delivery boys who scurried around fulfilling customers’ orders to feed their own bellies. Some whining about the number of phone calls they had to answer to confirm addresses, some about the bungling of orders, some suspecting that their food had been contaminated, perhaps sampled on the way or worse spit into. Congratulating themselves on doing their bit to save the human race: staying home, staying safe. Outsourcing danger to deliverers.

During the first few months of the nation-wide lockdown the great Indian middle class moaned and groaned about having to clean their houses, cook their food, tend to their gardens. They believed it their birth-right to outsource all of that to the underprivileged women and men who worked in their homes for a pittance. They now cursed the necessity of picking up brooms and applying elbow grease in scrubbing the burnt bits off pots and pans. The Indian diaspora in the west sniggered about how housework was not a new burden for them, perhaps privately welcoming the denial of domestic help to the brethren they had left behind in their motherland. As soon as it was legally permitted, we opened our doors and welcomed back our maids and cooks and gardeners and drivers. We sighed with relief. Husbands who pretended to have been harassed by belligerent wives turned their backs once more on the piles of dirty dishes and laundry, expecting all to be cleaned, sorted and stored again just as before, that is without their having to lift a finger. Yet the sexist jokes on women subjugating men into domestic chains continued to abound.  

Stories of domestic violence started doing the rounds. Whispers about the shouts that came from this house and that. A wife longing for the lockdown to end so that she could get some respite from her ever-present abusive husband. Children watching in fear as they saw their parents quarrelling, sparring, fighting. Staying safe from the virus but not from the ugliness that lurked within themselves. Tempers frayed on the enforced togetherness, small homes growing smaller, noisier. Tight budgets growing tighter as each child, each adult demanded their own exclusive internet access. Bills accumulated, savings shrank, patience thinned, words and objects flew. A few searched for a stretch of rope to end it all.

One wave receded and work resumed, shops and factories opened up, labour turned up at the gates again. Temples and churches and mosques opened their arms to their believers again. Roads grew crowded again. Festivals. Weddings. Funerals. Gatherings. Rallies. Protests. Melas and melees. Another wave washed over us taking away many many more. Oxygen grew scarce. Hospital beds were scarcer. Governments and their oppositions harangued, blamed each other and this and that and then slammed rhetorical what-abouts to silence already timid lay voices. Netizen and other volunteers stepped up to steer the sick towards healing, sending ambulances to their homes, securing admissions in hospitals, medicines for recovery, oxygen to breathe, food to eat. All moved by compassion. Experts warned of a third wave that could take our children away. Fear grabbed us by our throats.

Working quietly, whisked away from the everyday drama surrounding the virus, men and women worked diligently yet speedily in labs, decoding the enemy, mapping its structure, studying its behaviour, trying this, testing that. A process that normally took a half-dozen years was heroically squeezed into months. Brave ordinary humans offered themselves as guinea pigs in trials. Success, scientists announced, the vaccines were ready. Hurrah! Their pharma patrons rejoiced too, their investment was to bear noble fruit. Vials were packed and distributed. Hope consolidated. We hurried to immunise ourselves, outsmart that evil cunning Covid. We had survived, we felt lucky. We would survive, we were confident.

I watched it all from home. I swung from hope to despair to hope and all of that all over again. I wrote. I read. I sang. All with as much conviction and energy as I could muster. I laughed, I quarrelled, I reconciled. I brooded, I introspected. I talked to myself. I unearthed old memories, made new ones. I bonded virtually with a few old and new friends, some old and new colleagues. Checking and re-checking that all was well with them. For some it was not. I learned of them suffering. I worried. I learned of their passing. I mourned, I wept. I consoled, I comforted. I longed to reach out and hug, kiss away that hurt of loss. I didn’t. I stayed at home. I stayed safe.

I survived. As did you. Of course, I am no longer the same. Nor are you. But that’s okay. For this is our new normal. Whatever the hell that means.

Photo Credit : Copyright free images Canva and Pixabay

Sometimes the words dry up. Sometimes, ideas do, which is a darker prospect.

It isn’t as if the creative part of my brain has shrivelled away. No, I believe that it’s just taking some time off. Or, giving me a break, allowing me to focus elsewhere. Or, it’s allowing me to channel my creativity differently.

In due course, which is a comfortably vague length of time, the thoughts, words and the urge to record them start to itch again, and I reclaim my space as a writer. So, is the intervening unproductive period a manifestation of the infamous Writer’s Block? Not sure that it always is. Living life, the busy-ness of doing, the devouring of food for thought and the clamour of introspection, any or all of these might put words on hold for a while only to release them in a richer torrent at a more propitious time. Or I flatter myself.

But the Block does notoriously exist. In one such barren phase some years ago I had penned a few words about it, which I share with you again in this blog. The dry spells recur, but fortunately the wordless tilling and toiling yield rewarding harvests later. And it all happens in repeated cycles. Again and again. And again….

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AGAIN

I wish I could resume writing. Just pick up my pen and pour the entire melange of thoughts, sensations, memories and reflections onto waiting reams of paper. And that the streams that issue forth from my mind form beautiful shapes of their own, sorting themselves out obligingly, creating art in black and white, reason and arrangement in apparent confusion, a tidy ease in a busy melee. I wish I could portion out the bundles of joy, sorrow, anger, despair, contentment, hope, grief, all the emotions in their myriads of hues, interwoven, intertwined, flowing from and merging back into each other, seemingly seamless, yet distinct.

But before that, I wish I could know what I know. Be able to know each thought, hold it in my palms, feel it, look at it, hear what it wants to say, understand its intent. I wish I could separate all the strands that are swirling around, pick one before the others. Which one? They are all mine, my progeny. Born of me, yet each day, each moment moulding a new me. A new perspective. A different idea. A fresh twist to an earlier epiphany. Fresh colours to an old memory. And I hear myself, “Aah! That’s what it is about!” The excitement of small things.

But so much is lost in translation, in communication. Putting into definite words what are at best nebulous ideas. And my mind mocks: “Was that really it? How it really was?” And then a little more is lost on its way to its recipient, the reader. “Has she really understood what it was all about? Have I been able to tell her as it is?”

Yet people write, effortlessly at times. And I am envious. I search for my muse but she eludes me. She is elsewhere. She has forsaken me. I beseech her to return. I promise obeisance. All in vain. I fret. I despair. My old foe, self-doubt, returns. Maybe, I am not good enough. Maybe, I never was. Maybe, I never will be.

But then I find I’ve picked up my pen again. My heart beats. The rhythm divine. Life as I know it has begun again.

It had been a quiet, peaceful, uneventful, everyday sort of day. I had been winding up the routine chores around the house, clearing the last pile of laundry in particular, as I remember. The phone rang and I reached out to answer it in an immediate instinctive reflex, a half folded shirt in my hands. My father’s voice came through, “Hello! Rohini?” and I answered as was my wont, “Hello, Dada! Tell me?” Only, it wasn’t him, but an old family friend who had been trying to reach my husband. The spell was broken and I talked to the friend. Coherently, I believe.

 

My father had passed away years ago but at that moment it had been his unmistakable voice in my ear. Gruff, strong, assertive, distinctive. Not that friend’s. I tried to shake off the oddness of the incident as an auditory illusion and returned to the ordinariness around me. But something within me had been jerked alive. A tingling, unsettling sense of the extraordinary. And as I worked through the rest of my day a question flitted in and out of my head: Why would that friend’s voice which I was familiar with suddenly come masked as my father’s?

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That evening while sitting down to my customary riyaz, I embraced nostalgia like a warm, comforting shawl. Bandishes that my father had loved listening to surged through in my consciousness and I wallowed in them as one would in memories that are both vividly and vibrantly alive yet steeped in swirling sentiment. Dada had been a staunch Bhimsen Joshi fan, and the maestro’s Sakhi, Shyam nahi aaye in Chhaya Malhar was much loved. He would point out to my mother excitedly, “Do you see how he calls out to sakhi? A different approach every time!” and they would both listen to that old LP, over and over again, completely enraptured. I too tried to emulate Bhimseji’s sakhi but, of course, there is none like him and his sakhi was also equally unique. But that evening I came as close to him as was possible for me, remembering and reproducing the fine variations he introduced every time he sang the word, the lilting love, the sense of urgency, the insistence, or then the resigned acceptance of Shyam’s disappointing non-appearance. Hope and loss playing hide and seek, Shyam’s sakhi and Dada’s daughter swivelling from the one to the other, back and forth on the tides of unrestrained emotion. That night after dinner I ate a small bowl of mango ice cream, again a firm favourite with Dada. It felt appropriate, feeding myself, feeding that dearly beloved parent of mine who had reminded me once again that he had never really left.

 

Well, both my parents have passed on. I miss them, of course. That is the inescapable quotient of attachment and bereavement, being reminded of what once was when one’s dearly beloved were still by one’s side. In fact, I miss the air that they breathed with me, the sunshine that would bathe their skin and mine, the mildly fragrant breeze that fanned the summer evenings in our garden, the song of the koyal that we heard together. The sun rises and sets as always, the seasons follow each other as before, gardens bloom and birds sing, and I appreciate it all every day, yet there is that fine edge to all my experiences and emotions today, an awareness of the difference in the seeming sameness. The undeniable presence of loss.

 

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Both my parents, Ai and Dada, lived full lives, loved each other, their children and life itself to the fullest. In retrospect, I know and accept that their passing was inevitable, perhaps timely too. But I remain their child, a greedy one at that, still hankering for that one more moment of togetherness, wanting to bury my head in Ai’s lap, inhale the caressing love that she exuded with every breath, hold Dada’s hand and step out into the lane outside our old house where I grew up, step out into the world as it were knowing that he would always have my back. Hear them call my name. Hear their response when I called theirs’. Hear them talk, laugh, hear the sound of their footsteps, the rustle of the newspapers they read, the sound of their TV, their rhythmic breathing when catching an afternoon nap. Smell his eau de cologne, her fragrant hair oil. See the faint depression on the sofa chairs they vacated. Pick up the phone to call them, talk to them. Drive over to their place and see her standing on her balcony, waiting in welcome. Not to be. Not anymore.

 

But is it all really final? There are instances when I feel that all I need to do is close my eyes and call out to them and I know that they will be there. Friends tell me that spirits of people live on, that death is certainly not the end. There are philosophies I have explored that are based on the continuing existence of the soul, of cycles of birth, death and rebirth, where the body is the garment that the soul wears during a particular life period, that garments change over the cycles of birth and rebirth, but the true spiritual essence, the soul, lives on. Until it is absorbed into the infinite, supreme, divine power that is God. That nothing is final, that death is just a separating façade, that we need to look beyond it. That all is a continual ceaseless flow, that the sentient and insentient may metamorphose and evolve, but never disappear. That just as matter and all that is material is constant in its sum, the spirit is equally indestructible.

 

There are times when I am sorely tempted to imagine that the souls of those I have loved and whose earthly presence has ended, linger on around me, like a nurturing loving wrap or a protective guiding ambient light. But I stop short of belief. For I do not know. I remain a hopeless sceptic. But, and this is just as important, I do not disbelieve either. For while I accept that souls, rebirths, god, salvation and so on are concepts born of the human intellect driven by a striving to pierce through the limiting walls of our pitiably finite knowledge, to make sense of this world and our life in it, I do not know for a fact that they are fallacious. My Ai and Dada may still be there, floating somewhere in this infinite universe, hopefully blissfully. Or, they may not. The dear young nephew I lost a few years ago, and my dear dear sister, my dearest confidante, friend, philosopher and guide, who followed some months later, may still be floating too, perhaps still invested in those that they tragically left behind. Maybe. Maybe not. The fact of the matter is that I do not know. And I am mostly okay with that.

 

For the essence of who and what they were still lives on in me. I carry them with me in everything I think, feel, do. As time passes and the jagged edges of memories get rounded and smoothed, comfortable and mellow in warm sepia, those that live on therein grow more loving, more forgiving, more endearing. And I grow increasingly loyal to them, fiercely possessive of every word they spoke, stoutly defending or even espousing every value, moral or ideal they lived by, tenaciously guarding every single thing they left behind for me, be they letters, books, photos, sarees or memories.

 

There have been days when I have been preparing something in the kitchen, a recipe that Ai had taught me, and I call out to her. Aloud. Ai, dearest, come and taste this, tell me if this exactly how it is supposed to be. No, she doesn’t answer, but that has never really mattered. For I still hear the echoes of all her previous approvals and affirmations, her genuine heartfelt appreciation of every single thing I ever did, whether it was a cake I had baked or a plateful of pakoras I had fried, a Raga that I had been singing or a story I had just written. There are days when I look at my reflection in the mirror and I see my mother’s eyes smiling at me. I wave out to her quietly, happily. And we both smile. That umbilical cord that once tied me to her still holds on.

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I am still awash with the impact of an incident that occurred soon after her passing. Pune had been reeling under exceptionally heavy though late monsoon showers, I had been driving to my French class, the wipers swinging furiously to and fro, the radio playing old Hindi songs, and my eyes streaming unstoppable tears of overwhelming grief. In the secluded privacy of my car I hollered out to her. Ai, how could you leave so suddenly? How could you not even wish me a goodbye? This is so unfair! Where are you, Ai? Show me where you are. Now! The radio crackled and a rather inane song that she had been inexplicably fond of started playing, dheere dheere bol koi sun na le. Speak softly, else … My heart flooded with gratitude.

 

Memories, illusions, moments of willing delusions, there is nothing tangible or measureable about them, is there? It’s all in the mind, as they say. An intense yearning to reach out to those who have left, a bullish resistance to accepting that they are no more, a bewildering vulnerability in their absence, a refusal to accept that death is unshakeable or a wild hope that there may be ways in which we could outsmart it and continue to communicate with those it has taken away. Any or all of that could be responsible for the games that our minds may play with us.

 

But just because it’s all in the mind, is it less real? I agree that my random moments of connection with my deceased parents could well be mere illusions, but does that negate their validity for me? When Darcy insults Elizabeth in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I fondly and perhaps foolishly believe that the tears that gather in my eyes are actually my sister Pratima’s, the ones that she had shed for the wounded pride of her loved and admired Austen heroine. That may be completely irrational. But is the heartache that I feel irrational too? Is it unreal? That erupting anger against the arrogant young man, is it exclusively mine or is it laced with what was once hers? Every girl and woman who has read and watched this classic wants Elizabeth vindicated, I more so because Pratima wanted it too. And Pratima is not sitting here with me feeling angry or wretched or sad or relieved or happy or satisfied. No, she trusts me to feel all of that by myself and on her behalf too. That may be my self-deluding assumption, but is my enduring love and longing for her to reclaim her earthly space a delusion? No.

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Parting and grief teach one as much about togetherness as togetherness itself. More, I suspect. Loving intensely makes losing that much harder to bear. But we survive, don’t we? Beautifully and gloriously, I think. For there is then wrought in us a refinement of our very humanity. Our capacity for empathy and compassion grows. Our appreciation of all that life has to offer is keener, heightened, for we know that life itself is ephemeral, our experience of loss and sorrow has handed us that wisdom. We value and cherish all those who stay on with us, holding our hand, leading us from crushing grief to a lightness of being and then on to an embracing of our everyday joys with as much lust as before. To be ready to love and lose again. And again.

 

And every happy or bizarre experience that reconnects me to those of my family and friends that I loved and continue to love dearly, those whose love for me survives in the memory of every cell of my being even after their physical presence has faded away, is like a precious gift. My lurking cynicism warns me that I am probably gifting these experiences to myself. Maybe. But I see no reason to refuse those gifts. If there were to be another time when my father was to miraculously speak to me on the phone, I would not turn away from him or remind him that he’s dead, just a sentimental memory I am clinging to, a vestige of my attachment taking refuge in my head, and that he has no earthly business to call me from the beyond. If there is a beyond.

 

The beyond may not exist. But are we sure that the here and now is not an illusion too? All is Maya as our sages insisted through the ages. Well, give me the Maya, I say. Any day. Every day. It is my inalienable birth-right as a human, the Maya of fulfilling love and of equally fulfilling illusions. Then death shall not do us apart.

 

There was a time when I would appreciate the elegant beauty of a mathematical equation, especially its pretty economy when it would succinctly and successfully encapsulate a wordy essay in Economics. Of course, one needs to be equipped to be able to read/write that equation, explain its variables and defend the nature and direction of causation. But that thing of beauty would give me so much joy that it made the exploration of the caveats to it a pleasurable exercise too. 

 

Of course, my thing of beauty may be a mere ugly thorn to you, and vice versa. For aesthetics are essentially subjective. And I do not contest that at all. My point is that beauty could be anywhere and everywhere, not just in the visual but in every possible form and sense of the human experience. A scientist could find a perfectly designed experiment with its unique incontrovertible result her thing of beauty and joy. There could be an artistic elegance in the arrangement of a sequence of steps, be it in a recipe for a culinary dish or in a proof to a theorem or in a movement in a dance. Art pervades every aspect of our life irrespective of whether we are cognisant of it or not, and along with it come dimensions of aesthetics whether we perceive them or not.  

 

Today, as an artist and as an acolyte of musical notes and the written text, I see and am stirred by beauty every day. But I search beyond it. Musicians, writers, painters, actors, dancers et al can, when they are true to their calling, best be described as seekers. The term ‘seeking one’s truth’ has become overused and tired and cheap in today’s world, but it still epitomises an artist’s voyage, searching not only for the truth in the world as she sees it but also the nebulous truth that rests within her own being. Aesthetically marrying the two and then celebrating that marriage in the language she knows best. Through a musical composition or a building up of a Raga through a khayal or even a short musical phrase. Through the etching of a scene on the walls of a cave or through the strokes of a brush on a canvas or on the ceilings of chapels. An epic or an ode or an epistlolary offering. A ballet of power and grace or a single stoical stance capped with a precise mudra. An alignment of the entire body to depict the personage enacted on stage or in front of a camera, or a fleeting emotive nuance in the performer’s visage. Words, notes, colours, forms, textures, and so on represent the medium of expression, the subject of expression is always that essence of discovered truth. That thing of sublime beauty.

 

When I sing, I could be so immersed in the spell cast by the notes of the Raga that I lose myself completely, my mood merging into that of the Raga. All I see are those polished notes lighting my path helping me find my way through the melodic maze of the Raga. Irrespective of whether one sings to one’s potential or rises successfully to the challenge of the Raga, every presentation, performance or session of riyaz is a tryst with oneself, entirely by oneself. Secluded from the world around, wrapped up in a cocoon spun through melodic strands. There are times during riyaz when I am so in sync with the emotional content of the notes that I feel I could almost dispense with words. They appear to be superfluous or at best crutches that I lean on when too lazy to walk on my own. That the current of emotion seeking expression powers through, no, blazes through on its own sans the sub-titles of lyrics. 

 

To me, notes are complete in themselves, each one of them with a distinct personality of its own. Each appearing and behaving differently in different Ragas, revealing some facets of its personality here, hiding others. Just like us humans, opening up or bottling shut according to who we are with and where. Camaraderie with friends, formality with our boss, intimacy with our families, reserve with strangers and for those of us who believe, a laying bare of our very souls to the god we worship. So also with notes: sometimes a lover, sometimes a friend, a lord, a servant, a mother, her child, deity, devotee, each note dons the robes to suit the Raga it finds itself in. Each note then interacts with the others in the neighbourhood of its Raga and that builds up the emotional ambience that is that Raga. The words of the khayal or the bandish may annotate that swirl of emotion to the uninitiated, but they do not define it per se. In fact, there are compositions wherein I have found the words ill-suited to the temperament of the Raga, sometimes describing a visual that has no relation whatsoever with the emotional current of the notes. In which case, I merely go ahead and compose another, one that appeals to me and conforms to the mood that is being explored. This mirroring of melody in lyrics stems from a sisterhood of the arts of music and poetry. Similar to the fraternity of Mathematics and Economics that once enabled me to write that equation then. 
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(Image Source: Pinterest)

To illustrate: if I am singing Bhairav, which is an early morning Raga, I am seized by the sense of dawn breaking. I see myself eyes closed, the world around shrouded in darkness, and I will myself into a meditation of that combination of notes. And then as my Bhairav builds up I sense the streaks of amber that begin to light up the horizon, the sun rising from its slumber and gradually awakening the sleeping world. It is still a world of quiet, of serenity, of an enriching yet calm absorption of that pure and distilled morning air. There is that essence of purity in Bhairav, almost ascetic in nature, that to me cannot and should not be vitiated by any other element. My khayal cannot be about a frolicking Krishna in the pretty surrounds of Brindaban. It could be a call to Krishna to awaken, it could for that matter be drenched in Yashoda’s motherly love, but it cannot be an image of his Rasalila. Of course, your Bhairav will be different from mine, but the underlying well of emotion is the same, a well that is defined by the character of that peculiar combination of notes, a well from which we can drink only when we surrender to it completely, drowning in it, allowing its depth to swallow our individual egos. So even if the words you sing are a lavani about Krishna romancing his gopikas, the detached purity in the Bhairav notes reasserts itself, tempering the erotica, and that is what I hear. My Bhairav is always an homage to the rising sun irrespective of the words you dress it with.

 

The mirroring works both ways. There are times when I have woken up in the dead of the night and heard a musical phrase or aalap playing repetitively in my head. The soft cajoling strains of a Tilak Kamod. Fortuitous. For that aalap translates exactly into the words of the mother in my story, gently, tenderly coaxing her child to close her eyes, to sleep, for night is gathering and there are beautiful dreams waiting to be dreamed. And I can’t wait to hit the computer and pour it all out in faithful text. 

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(Image Source: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dgsb/hd_dgsb.htm)

 

Moving away from specifics, collaboration extends to all the arts. For it is the creation of a beautiful and enriching experience that matters, irrespective of whether it entails the invoking of one medium or more.  Dancers portraying the theme of a verse through their abhinaya. A sequence in celluloid relying on a piece of music to build up viewers’ expectation.  A singer or a dancer in a trance inspiring a painter to reach for his brushes and palette. A sculptor freezing a dancer’s pose in stone. Each knocking on the doors of the other and borrowing that cup of sugar. Knowing that that cup will be freely given.  

 

For underlying it all is the artist’s ceaseless voyage. Of discovery of self, of the other, and the contexts in which these find themselves, merging, separating, merging. My vision of myself and of the world around me is mine and mine alone, it may or may not coincide with yours. My medium through which I express myself is mine too, it may not be yours. Even if it were, my expression is mine, not yours. Yet, I see and respect the path you have travelled. I see and respect the hunger and energy in you that drives you to explore further along that path. I see and respect that joy of discovery, that brief resting in it and the restlessness that spurs you on again. I feel your excitement, your pain, your heartache, your angst, your loss, your gain, your frustration, your validation. Empathy. For we are bonded in a sisterhood of our arts. Creating under the aegis of and in the service of our muse. 

 

 

 

Some days ago a friend and I were chatting philosophically about our ability to let go. Later, as I pottered about the house, the two catch words flitted in and out of my mind, playing hide and seek as it were, raising questions. What exactly did they mean? Forgoing our claim to who and what we believe is ours? Stop wanting things badly? Freeing our personal spaces of emotions, attachments, habits? Of the way we live? And can we really do that?

 
This chain of thought actually had its origin in an earlier, prosaic question: what when we grow old? Our physical strength waning, would we still want to or, for that matter, be able to live the way we do now?

 

Some years ago my husband and I had built a moderately biggish house, and ever since we settled in we have been collecting bits and things, pieces of furniture, curios, paintings, souvenirs from our travels, new pots for the garden and varieties of plants. Walls and spaces change appearance and character, welcoming new additions and new arrangements. And all the while getting stamped with us and our evolving stories.

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I look around today and I see all the history and sentiment. That corner table, that brass pot came from my grandmother, that paper-weight used to sit on my father’s table, that stone Vishnu stood with pride in my parents’ house, those copper vessels belonged to my husband’s grandparents, that creeper grew out of a sapling that had first been planted by my mother in her garden, that Diwali lantern had been picked out by our daughter, that delicate glass egret had been her gift to us. We had picked this mosaic frame from our holiday in Jordan, that vase from Beijing, these figurines from Athens, those platters from our year in Sydney. Every single thing has its own story. And I wonder, after us, where will all these witnesses of our lives, our history, our journeys go?

 
Well, as we know, ancient Indian philosophers defined four stages in a human being’s life. In the first, as a student, he gathers knowledge and skills. In the second, as a householder, he plies his trade and tends to his family. In the third, he prepares to detach himself from all worldly pursuits. Finally, in the fourth, he leaves behind all that he has created and collected, material and abstract, in search of his own creator. And while I believe that I am still in the second, there are times when I think I hear the call of the third. Loud and close.

 
I remember my mother attending discourses on the Bhagwad Gita and Upanishads, poring over her copy of the Dnyaneshwari much before she was of the age I am now. I remember her parting with some of her sarees, her jewellery, giving this one to this daughter, that to that grandchild. I would look on, noting the changes in my parents’ lives, their hunger for things abating, their own personal collections dwindling, happy with less and less. I recognise and appreciate similar symptoms in my friends and contemporaries. They are handing over charge to their future generation. And I ask myself: am I ready?

 

There are also times when I have an urge to surrender to practicality, to ease and convenience, to move into a smaller, compact space, one that I can manage simply on my own even with my sulking knees and temperamental back. But something in me resists, tenaciously clinging to this house and all it holds.

 

So how does one really let go? A favourite teacup chips and breaks and I am morose. A book bought and read long ago is misplaced and I grow restless. An old family recipe is lost and I despair. We invest so much of ourselves in things around us, and they in turn brighten our lives, satisfying some need or other. Parting with them is like parting with old dear friends.

 

But part we must. Or so they say. We have to let go, of both people and possessions, our family, our friends. Through the relentless cycle of life children are born and the old die. We celebrate, we mourn, we move on.

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My daughter holds my hand and learns to step out in the world. I am her mother, teacher and guide. Slowly but surely, she blossoms into a beautiful adult, with a mind of her own, her own opinions, her own tastes, her own view of life. And then she needs me less and less. So I have to school myself to lessen my claims on her time and attention. I have to let go as she has to leave. Her bedroom in our house looks empty and forlorn. Her smiling pictures adorn the niches in the cabinets along the wall and I look at them longingly. Her breakfast cup still catches my eye every morning and I wonder whether she has had her tea. I routinely wash her towels and bed-linen, fluff out the pillows she used to rest her head on, keep her room in readiness. And I cling to the few days she spends with us when she visits, to the sound of her laugh, of her voice humming the latest song, her light step, her loved face.

 

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My parents grow old. I watch them die. I have to let go. I have no choice. But I cling to their memory, the sounds of their voices when they called my name, their furrowed brow reading the newspaper, the pleasure in their eyes when talking with me. I have my father’s old handkerchief, a bottle of the eau de cologne he was partial to, his copies of P.G. Wodehouse, photographs of his bespectacled wise face. My mother’s old sarees, her copies of Kalidas’s oeuvres, her favourite Ikebana vases, the glass she would drink water from and which I still reach for first thing in the morning. My dear sister suddenly leaves her earthly space but her smiling face greets me from my bedside table when I awaken every morning, the echo of her voice still ringing in my ears, as if calling from the faraway land she probably is in now, reaffirming that close bond that was once exclusively ours. All mementoes of them, of their wonderful time on earth, their wonderful stories, their love for me that still endures, magically transcending space and time. Still nurturing me.
People come and go. Relationships form and break. Friendships wax and wane. Life goes on. I treasure every moment, every memory, every association. I treasure all that was then as I do all that is now.

 
I treasure this house, its walls which have seen us grow as a family, has heard our story, of the turns our lives have taken, of the choices we made. Its rooms where we have loved, laughed, dreamt, wept, argued, fought and reconciled. Its floors where we stood resolute, rooting ourselves in our origins while aspiring for the new. The door that steadfastly shielded us, held us safe from the storms that battered the world outside. My space, where I claim me for myself, for us and ours.

 
I treasure all my family heirlooms, my family portraits, my father’s wristwatch, my beautiful mother’s beautiful photos, the diary my sister gave me to scribble in, the saree my husband bought me on our first anniversary, the little egret our daughter gifted us, the books and artefacts, pots and pans that relatives and friends have gifted us, the little knick-knacks we have collected. I am in them and they are in me. Leaving them, detaching myself from them is like closing chapters, locking away the memories we made, putting them in boxes never to be opened again, denying that we lived thus. I cannot do that. I do not want to do that.

 

I cannot and will not let go of all I have gathered, all my people, all my memories, all my experiences of all my yesterdays. I want them with me as I walk into my tomorrows. And, happily, they too choose to stay with me. They don’t let go either.

Ever since I started writing I have been questioned off and on about my choice of language, English. There are those among my circles of family, friends and acquaintances who are puzzled as to why a person born and raised in a Maharashtrian family, who has been living in Pune for the past several decades, and who is reasonably capable of articulating her thoughts in Marathi should opt for English when formalising them in print.

 
I try when I feel patient enough, which is rare, to explain the linguistic particulars of me and myself. I grew up in Jamshedpur where my father worked for Tisco, now known as Tata Steel. I went to school there with my older sisters and many other children from families that hailed from different parts of the country. All working in a town far away from their native origins, all building a cosmopolitan community or a prototype of an integrated nation, all happily melding their respective ethnicities in one melting pot. Our mothers would speak in different native tongues at home and all of us young children searched for the one bridge that could effectively and happily connect us all. Our parents opting to send us to a school that taught in English, that bridge was forged and we were joined.

 
So that was that. English came home and stayed. But not as a guest. Rather, as one of our own. On par with our own maternal languages. My mother befriended languages as we do people and soon she too was reading Shaw and Cronin and Maugham and Christie and Wodehouse just as we were, and as easily as she still read her Marathi litterateurs and the Sanskrit verses of her favourite Kalidas. While we were and still are fluent in Marathi, Hindi and English, the last soon became our default medium of discourse, of all debates and discussions. At home and outside it.

 

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English still is my language of thought and action and emotion. And thence of writing. Of course, I’ve borrowed words that belong to our own soil and have blossomed under our own sun. I still adhere to calling our ubiquitous aromatic kadhi limba or kari patta by their Marathi or Hindi names, rarely referring to them as curry leaves, and most certainly not when I’m actually tossing them in hot oil. Or, jhootha/ushta is just that and I know no English equivalent that expresses its exact or entire intent. Just as chit, loot, pyjama, bangle, bungalow, veranda and so on were incorporated by the British into their dictionaries, I’ve added my own selection of Hindi and Marathi words and catch phrases to my everyday parlance in English. My own version of fusion.

 
But I look around me and I find a peculiar paradox.

 

On the one hand, I see an increasing embracement of English as one of the necessary tools in today’s economically imperative globalisation. With the ongoing technological revolution and its windfall of information access on devices that can fit into our palms, it wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate to say that we hold the world in our hands. But that world doesn’t necessarily speak nor understand the languages we grew at home. The ones we call our mother tongues. Out there we have Chinese (Mandarin, as its most popular variant), Spanish, Arabic, German, French, Russian and Japanese. And, of course, English, with which we are already familiar and have heard spoken in our midst since the past couple of centuries and more. From which words like officer (afsar), hospital (aspatal), captain (kaptaan), bottle (botal) and so on had already been lifted, modified and made our own. And from which today words like enter, search, like, copy, paste, send, share and such similar virtual commands have swiftly slid and seeped into our native tongues and are used indiscriminately even by those who have never stepped into a school and would hardly appreciate the foreign origins of parts of their everyday lexicon.

 

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On the other hand, I also come across a bristling resentment against the very same language. It is seen as an obdurately surviving relic of our unhappy colonial past. A need to refute a language that was once taught to the ruled subjects to produce men that could effectively serve their royal British Majesties. A vestigial emblem that reminds us of of our political enslavement and economic plunder. That we should choose to express ourselves in that language could, according to resurgent nationalists, only indicate an abject but resilient colonised mind-set, a reluctance to right past wrongs, and an apathy in restoring pride and prestige to what was and is home grown. Moreover, they remind us, English was and is essentially elitist, a dividing tool, the separator of the socio-economically and politically powerful classes with high prestige quotients from the masses who are more comfortable expressing themselves in their own respective vernaculars. The still entrenched divider between the rulers and the ruled, perpetuating cruel condescension. A passport to vacuous snobbery. Shame! Times have changed, they remind us. Be Indian. Speak Indian.

 
But I have never regarded English as un-Indian. On the contrary, it is to me my means of communicating with my Gujarati, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kashmiri, Bengali, Bihari, Odiya, Malayali friends. All kaleidoscopically Indian. To easily understand and be understood. To share. To bond. To commit. My national integrator. Very early on I could guess who was a Tamilian, who a Bengali, or a Gujarati, or a Punjabi, just by hearing their unique accents, their elongation of certain vowels, their suppression of certain consonants, their distinguishing phonetics, diction, typical mix-ups in syntax, their own respective native tongues stamping their identities with authority on the adopted one. But that just added bags and bags of fabulous flavour. And helped us appropriate what was once foreign as one of our own. Indian English.

 
And what exactly and uniquely is it to speak indigenous Indian? Tamil? Bangla? Dogri? Marathi? Which variant of Marathi, the one spoken in Mumbai or Nagpur or Kolhapur? Or the one that Pune superciliously believes to be its sole chaste avatar? Our much touted diversity could actually become a stumbling, if not dividing block, if we chose to revert exclusively to the homespun. Hindi, that was once adopted as our national lingua franca has really not made the inroads expected. There are those that disdainfully look down upon it or plainly refuse to speak it, much like the French refuse to speak English, fearing that giving way to the language of the northern plains may swamp their own particular ethnicities. Linguistic roots are a matter of ethnic pride and nobody can or should be expected to surrender that. And the longstanding power tussle that festers beneath the stitched bonhomie of states comes up front and close, because yielding precedence of one’s language to another’s is as susceptible to tensions as relinquishing water from rivers. The lingual divides flare up and subside intermittently, either spontaneously or deliberately, depending on who is looking to catch the eye and ear of the public and therefore looking for an inflammatory grouse to vent.

 
Then, what to do? How does this paradox get resolved? I can switch easily between Marathi and Hindi and English. But can we all? And is that even enough? How do I gain access to the ideas that could enrich my life but have been expressed in languages beyond the reach of my comprehension? Much is lost in translation, I agree, but that remains my only realistic hope of understanding what, for example, the farmer in that remote corner of the northeast thinks about the rest of his country and countrymen. On the other hand, the local municipal school’s watchman’s daughter who aspires to be a computer scientist was stumped by the standard of English in her text books. Why have not our books been written in my language, she asks in frustration. Really, why haven’t they? Or, for example, why hasn’t that Bible of medicine, Gray’s Anatomy, been translated into all our regional languages yet? Why should a girl who has studied in Marathi all her schooling life suddenly be expected to improve her English skills just so she can pursue her specialised academic interest? But the committed and motivated girl that she is, she buckles down and does, confidently melding her learned English medical jargon with her instinctive Marathi when giving instructions to the nurse assisting her in getting our babies born. Like that only.

 
And so this conundrum of languages continues and we trundle along speaking bits of this and bits of that. And get by. Make do. Our language jugaad. I chat with my neighbours in Marathi, sing in Hindi and write in English. And when I tell the weaver in distant Kanchipuram who has been modestly making ends meet while always gloriously making Indian that I want a beige coloured saree with a dull gold temple border, I know that, for all our proud espousal of our linguistic roots, he and the traders representing him are familiar with all the key English words. So I don’t need to learn Tamil, nor he Marathi. It’s business, baba! Just click on picture, press like and send. Simple.

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT

                                                                                                                                                                    by Elena Ferrante

 

A Review

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 There sometimes erupts in our midst a voice so powerful that it cannot be ignored. That speaks in words rooted in reason, yet appeals unabashedly and undeniably to emotion. That questions and answers, pleases yet puzzles, appeases then assaults, scorns and shocks. That carries us aboard a roller coaster of discovery and sensation, motoring relentlessly and ruthlessly through the tortuous bends not only in the story that it is narrating but in our own lives as well, revealing us to ourselves.  And that continues to echo in our minds long after it has spoken its last.

Elena Ferrante is one such powerful voice of contemporary fiction. A voice that I had been hypnotised by in her Neapolitan series, leading me on to The Days of Abandonment. A comparatively slim offering but just as compellingly hypnotic.

The storyline is threadbare. One April afternoon, Olga, a woman of 38, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably dumped by her husband Mario. A man whom she had loved sincerely, for whom she had put her own career on hold, with whom she had two young children, and who had grown to become the fulcrum of her existence, exits. At first in denial, she persuades herself that this is at most a temporary aberration, or an “absence of sense” as he had occasionally shown in the past, and that he would inevitably return. His wilful duplicity is however revealed when she discovers that a pretty young woman has been in his life for some years. Age supplanted by youth in man’s quest for (carnal) gratification.

Grappling with her changed reality, she is frequently accosted by the memory of the poverella from the neighbourhood where she grew up, the abandoned wife who slides from happy well-being to impoverished desolation and ultimately commits suicide.

The days and months that follow are a painful but failing struggle to retain a semblance of normalcy, to go through all the routine steps of living each day, both for herself and for her children. And then one horridly hot day in August, the day after a bizarre sexual escapade with her cellist neighbour, she finds herself physically and mentally trapped in her apartment. Suffering from a deep derangement, disturbing hallucinations, a spiralling down into a dark abyss of rage, anguish and despair, she battles through and thankfully resurfaces to retrieve her sanity. This newfound mental equilibrium, though precarious, is supported by a clear realisation that she no longer loves her husband, and by a desire to return to the essence of her earlier self by effacing all of his impressions on her personality.

Ferrante places the woman’s psyche under a gigantic microscope, ferreting out with forensic precision its multiple layers, facets and complexities. There were several instances in the first half of the book when I felt like screaming at Olga in frustration. Woman! Get a grip! And a life of your own! But therein lies Ferrante’s genius, ruthlessly exposing the man centric whorls of the protagonist’s life, her pitiable lack of self-esteem, her defining her very raison d’être through her husband, and her abject confusion on desertion, and then delving so deep into her agony that one suspects it to be her own. One needs to have both loved and lost to depict in such elaborately textured and resonant detail all the nuances of that suffering.

The writing is brilliant. Simple language, raw at times in matching Olga’s naked pain and anger, hard-hitting in the portrayal of man-woman relationships, examining the mother and child dynamics without placing motherhood on its customary virtuous pedestal, and rutally explicit in describing sexual episodes. Little actually happens in terms of events or narrative, Mario and his girlfriend hovering mostly on the periphery of her real space though completely swamping her mind and heart. Yet there is a pace in the writing that keeps in step with Olga’s accentuating mental turmoil, shifting gears from an even rhythm in the opening chapters, upping the momentum when she gives in to a maniacal rage on seeing Mario and Carla together, and then hurtling through during the crescendo of her near breakdown.

Yes, there were times when I felt it all to be a relentless onslaught of details, when I (prudishly) squirmed at the sexual imagery, when I wondered, good so far but where exactly is this headed? But this isn’t the usual narrative. Nor is it a new one, this track has been trodden many a time before. No, this is a mirror that shows a woman what she truly is, how and why she thinks and feels the way she does, how and why she submerges her own persona to accommodate another’s, how and why she is confounded when the anchor that she has moored herself with is suddenly wrenched away and she is cast miserably adrift, and what then. The mirror is neither flattering nor sympathetic.

There were so many concepts thrown up, so many expressions and phrases that made me go, Wow!
Cutting oneself to pieces to look for something within, which could, in fact, be a calling card for Ferrante’s writing.
The preference for stability in affections and the threat of sinking through the security net of relationships.
Or, disparagingly describing grief as gaudy.
Or again, reality without rouge.
What is the face, she asks, but a disguise of our living nature?
Or again, her crazed fear that the “odour of motherhood” had ruined her appeal.
Or then the passage where she comments “What a complex foamy mixture a couple is,” assimilating each other’s attributes.
Her brooding that her children would become a “half-caste din”.
The casual remark that she loved the dog Otto but only after his death.
So so many….

Hold that mirror and look if you have the appetite for reality. Reality without rouge.