Monday, September 6, 2010

Thoughts at Markanda

This weekend, I visited the Markanda Temple, built in the 8th century. I was completely astounded by the solidity of the temples as they stood, and the beauty of the stone carvings. I felt speechless marveling at the talent of our ancestors. Few from my generation, given all the technological advancements, could carve out such an architectural marvel or recreate the magic of Markanda.

It pained me though, to see how so many pieces had been damaged, and many were reported stolen. How much should we focus and invest on the preservation of these heritage sites? I wondered if our ancestors ever built these structures with the vision that they last for posterity. On a recent trip to Hastinapur, the local guide mentioned how any remains of the existence of Pandavs and Kauravs had been swallowed into the earth’s heart over time. A symbolic temple of ‘Karan’ had been built. Isn’t this the law of nature: There is nothing permanent except change? Should we choose to forget and move on? Are we actually doing wrong by holding on to these structures? While we learn about our ancestors from these preserved sites, do they ever push us to explore our creative energies, pursue perfection in leaving behind our culture, what our era stood for- besides information overload? Why else do we preserve these sites- if we don’t learn anything from their stories?

I am no student of history or archaeology- but it does pain me to see people washing their laundry on the steps of such a monumental wonder. I don’t think they are wrong, but I wonder, what our collective responsibility as a generation is.

The day I almost drowned

5th September, 2010: Somehow, I want to remember this day for life. It was like nothing ever before.

The lake in our campus had filled to the brim due to recent heavy downpour. As the guys jumped bare-chested into the water, I felt a tinge of envy. I would so love to take a dip. Seeing a friend relishing the experience in Salwar Kameez provided me encouragement. I had years of practice behind me. Unable to resist, I jumped in. One mental challenge overcome; the other screamed invitingly. I wanted to swim up to the other shore of the lake. A friend cautioned: “Test if you have the stamina first.” My arrogance replied: “If I think of doing something, I can do it.” I asked another trained swimmer if he would accompany me. I didn’t have it in me to undertake this adventure alone. Getting his affirmation to start off while he dived in, I left for the opposite shore. I felt a high- the beauty and silence seemed soothing, the shore inviting.

I was inspired by Che Guevara’s attempt in Motorcycle Diaries as he crosses the stormy river to reach the leper homes. I wanted to symbolically ‘reach the shore’ too, and in a hurry. Suddenly however, I realized I was hearing no sound around me. First moment of panic-I can still feel the fear my heart felt then. I turned to look back: I was in the middle of the lake, water all around- and my partner had never left the shore. My heart gave up, my limbs stopped moving-suddenly, there was no way I could make it. I can’t remember feeling anything but plain and absolute helplessness. I altered my course towards a boat passing by, hoping that people on the shore would notice that something had gone wrong. I shouted out to the boat, but my voice felt so muddled even I couldn’t hear it. PLEASE SEE ME! PLEASE SEE ME!

Luckily they noticed and steered toward me. I clung to the boat, yet I cried out: “Please hold my hand.” I needed the human touch- the reassurance that I would make it. As my partner now came up to the boat, I had nothing but the rage of lost trust in my eyes: “You never left.”

The fire in me had not died though. Breathless as I was, I wouldn’t return in the boat. I struggled, but swam back to the shore. Everyone clapped as my hand landed on the platform. I felt ashamed and disappointed though- I had failed; I had not made it. I was lonely and scared- I just needed a hug: maybe, I had made it. Returning back, I had seen disbelief and fear in my friend’s eyes- almost anger. I couldn’t face him or speak to him later-somewhere I felt I had disappointed him too.
There were many lessons for me in this. I had been overconfident and arrogant, as also I had misjudged the distance, flow of currents with continued rain, force required to swim fully-clothed and acclimatization period required with a partner for the first time. I have heard about those out to conquer the Everest- that even if they make it to the peak, they actually feel vanquished and respect the mountain all the more. I am aware I was undeservingly lucky. While I hope I never fear it, I will at least never underestimate the power of nature, and so also the respect any challenge commands. It also taught me how a right partner isn’t one who just accompanies you or rescues you- but one who is present every step of the way; is involved in minute-by-minute decision making; where you don’t need words to communicate and sets the pace for tackling challenges, as also life.

The rain came down violently all night- it was loud, thundering. I almost felt anger in it-maybe it was my own anger with my decision-making. For all my upbringing and the courage he gave me, I think I failed my Dad. For all the faith and heart-warming care she showered me with, I feel I disappointed my Mom too.

My arms hurt like never before. Now, I know how violent the pursuit of life, of breath can be; how overpowering the fear. I have probably never flapped my arms so aggressively, yet so helplessly. The only up-side: I have heard that maturity comes with age and experience. My impulsiveness and rash risk-taking maybe at least prove: I am still young!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The innocence of childhood

As we worked furiously on our computers, I noticed a 10-11 year old kid hop into the office merrily and energetically. One quick glance and I was back to the computer. A few hours later though, I saw the same kid completely worn out, sitting stooped and confining himself to a corner. I couldn’t bear the sight and had to go and talk with him.

The father explained that the kid had just received a blood transfusion- he suffered from sickle cell anemia. The father almost felt guilty that his wife and he had passed this trait to both their kids. It is not easy to see your child being poked with a needle, having to receive transfusions, lacking any energy or excitement to eat the ‘Dairy Milk’ you just bought him. Kills you every moment…rich or poor, educated or not.

I was pained- I wanted to see childhood as happy, exuberant, jumpin’ and skippin’! This encounter gave me a reality check on why I am here- if I can just rid you of this gloom. After many endeavors, he did smile finally as I promised he could ride my cycle taking me as the ‘double-seat.’

I do believe that it is a collective responsibility of the human race to care for the children already brought into this world- make whatever time they spend here cheer-filled (and tummy-filled), fearless and peaceful. It is reassuring to see how children don’t care a damn of this world that we adults complicate. No language, gender, caste or color bias mar their perceptions. Everyone is equal.

To not be silenced.

For the first time since moving to Gadchiroli, I have been rendered sleepless. I tried everything from a midnight snack to shifting my cot under the fan and covering myself like a corpse against mosquitoes. I am struggling. Nothing works when the mind is not at rest.

Earlier today, I bumped into a doctor working in the tribal hills of Jharkand since the last 14 years. There was something about her that made me pursue her. Having completed their post-graduation in medicine, her husband and she moved from TN to the poorest district of Jharkand to work for the people most in need. Armed with nothing but faith, they believed that if they had been called by God, it was His responsibility to provide. Serving the ‘Pahaadiya’ tribals, she mentioned how government programs never reached these groups- they were ruthlessly ignored. Even the data on deaths in the region was misreported to justify the exclusion of resources.

Battling malaria, dacoits and isolation- the couple pursued. Her husband had malaria 25 times over the last 14 years, and a disc prolapse (attributable to travel in the hilly regions) to the extent that he couldn’t stand for more than 5 minutes. Her daughters suffered from severe malarial fever. This brave woman broke down as she remembered the days when she has held her daughter in her arms and wept uncontrollably seeing other kids with malaria die in the hospital. I couldn’t look her in the eye- why on earth did you keep going? The resolve in her that God will take care of her child provided solace-maybe a mother’s plea, however helpless the circumstances. The other brave ladies in the room, working in similar areas, started crying too- their kids’ faces probably flashed in front of them. I was silenced seeing the boundlessness and purity of love any mother possesses for her child. Don’t change the world if you can’t- just don’t lose the sensitivity and love in your heart for your dear ones.

When offered the post of department heads at CMC Vellore, they declined. Though this would give them a chance to impact things on a larger scale- there were many who would take this position- but no one would go work with the Pahaadiya tribals. They have had their frustrating moments- when they have just run into the jungles and cried their hearts out; even decided to give up on some initiatives due to government apathy. But always rising back- “If we don’t make noise, who will? We won’t be silenced.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Quest for beauty-through the lens

A distant neighbor (not an oxymoron!) came over to meet me, and the first thing she blurted was: “Black, black thai gayu”. Nodding affirmatively, I wondered for a second if she was referring to the pollution, the grey monsoon clouds or the general gloom due to stock markets crash, until it hit me that my very visible tan was being referred to! While I appreciate the direct communication that comes knocking on your door in India, the level of sensitivity amused me having become used to more ‘coated’ communication.

It also made me wonder that what is it about fairness of the skin that is given so much weight to. Not only is it a source of ego but an unjustified basis for admiration. 10-15 years back, I had come across a lady in rags begging for alms. I thought she had the most beautiful features and could have easily bagged a Miss India title. Yes, maybe beauty does lie in the eyes of the beholder.

Traveling through India it has been refreshing to see the variety of colors, sights, people and landscapes. Has me mesmerized. I have been unable to resist the urge to just click away. I found so much beauty in the defiant eyes of a bandhini-clad woman, the seeking eyes of an old mother, the wrinkles of an old chacha, the pink nose of an otherwise scruffy pup, the aggressive drive of women waiting to get off a Virar local or siblings fighting over the last bite of an ice-cream. Eyes speak volumes-looking at or looking away.

I have been searching for the beauty of a smile that comes from the heart. Having seen it even in the poorest of the poor people, it makes me wonder if mental stresses aren’t more overpowering than any kind of physical stress. Also, are the poor more carefree as they live just in the moment- which the rich often fail to do, dwelling in what has been and what can be.

I had never imagined that my journey would be made so much more rewarding just being equipped with a camera. Despite being drenched in sweat, surrounded by heaps of garbage and flies, stranded on a platform without electricity for hours, crowds and cars literally attacking me- I was able to stay unfazed and even entertained just by observing and capturing this diversity
Not that I haven’t seen India before…just now observing it with fresh eyes and a more open and accepting soul.

Be the Change

I came to India armed with the knowledge of management principles, an optimistic outlook, and maybe a dash of ego [that rarely lets go of me]. As the plane began its descent, the lush green forests underneath almost made me croon: “Mere desh ki dharti…”! However, the view transformed into a sea (no exaggeration!) of shanties as we approached the airport. It made me wonder: ‘Seriously, what was I thinking?!!!’

I have been observing every detail closely to analyze how this can be made better. While waiting for my sandwich as the sandwich-wala struggled with demand overkill, I resisted the urge to offer lessons in volume management and LEAN standardization of the ‘vegetable slicing’ process. Quality control is a different issue altogether- as a mosquito got sliced and included along with the cucumber in a ‘Jain’ sandwich!

Likewise, navigating through the traffic, I realized the helplessness of a situation if a person had an emergency health condition. Almost took me back to Abhishek Bachchan’s reaction in Delhi-6 where the only way his grandma could be rescued in the middle of traffic was through the auspicious birth of a goat! It is insane the way the faith and belief structure operates in India. For a moment,I believed too that divine intervention was the only way out. Maybe it is the impossibility of challenges put forth on a daily basis that reinforces the faith that there better be someone up there who will take care of it all. Does it then also give rise to the apathy and lack of desire for change that I have observed in the common man? Have we so given in to the circumstances that we don’t even realize the crappiness of it? Or is just the lack of awareness of what life can be- having seen life outside India and how productive and constructive it can be maybe makes me feel differently.

The magnanimity of the lack of structure in every aspect of the environment brings in not just fear of what am I out to attain, but also the humility to focus on just one aspect and work diligently at it. I am not responsible for, nor capable of the change required. During my school and college years, I was an environment protection fanatic- neither would I throw trash carelessly, nor let anyone do so. But this time around I have seen myself change. I don’t command people to behave as I desire. But have just been reiterating Gandhiji’s mantra over and over: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I take care of my actions without demanding or expecting. In some way feel I that it is a very powerful way to lead, and maybe just less distressing to your soul!

Home is where the heart is

I have decided to take my return to India a second time as a first-hand evaluation of where I see myself: physically, personally and professionally. Until now, I have just been led where my parents decided or where my educational pursuits landed me. I have seen my perspectives change remarkably as now the responsibility for my life and my decisions lie with me.

It sure has been intimidating to see how the city I called mine, Mumbai, doesn’t really accept me…and can even crush me to despair. Human life is not valued and I have failed to see any personal bonding between people, beyond a measure. Maybe this is more a ‘city’ phenomena that even relationships ultimately come down to business. A rat race it is, for sure.

Daily life is a struggle in Mumbai. A 15 km stretch of drive took me 3 hours. I felt sorry for the people crammed in BEST buses still struggling to make it home at 10 pm on Friday. TGIF?!!! Does that concept exist for the common man? Not that this is new to me…I have been there, done it before. However, increasingly I feel the futility and lack of productivity of such activity. How do you retain the ‘LIFE’ in your life?

And this mad rush is to make a decent living as inflation sky-rockets. Never thought I would be affected by what ‘aadha kilo tamatar’ or ‘ek plate idli costs’. Increasingly, I have been able to digest 'these' only when I convert the prices to US dollars! Don’t even mention housing costs. Even as I ponder over my sustainability in such conditions, the rich-poor divide has increased to proportions that may rip the society apart.

Not all’s done for though!!! The simplicity of daily life, relationships and communication quite literally color any hovering grey clouds. In the midst of the traffic mayhem, I did spot a couple relishing Matka Kulfi off the road, as it rained incessantly. Seeing friends laughing and chitchatting on their way to Ganpati Mandir late on Tuesday might brought back fond memories. Guess a lot can be said for the simple pleasures and the sweet nothingness of life. The power of local networks you develop is reassuring too-it was heartwarming to see everyone from the jhaaduwali, electrician, cable wala, and bhajiwala delighted to see us back after a year; and for the sandwich wala to remember my preferences: ‘butter nahi, chatni kam’!!!

The ‘sugar and spice’ of this all makes me wonder- where exactly is my home; where should I choose to belong? The saying ‘home is where the heart is’ acquired a new meaning for me. I have come to believe that home is where you find constructive, engaging and satisfying work; and unwavering companionship-no matter the circumstances. City, living conditions, money and so forth are secondary. They help, but rewarding work and a support system can help adjust expectations towards being incredibly happy. I guess those are what I am out to seek…don’t know yet if I am still ‘in transit’ or if I have reached.