Sunday, January 31, 2016

Memories of the Mahatma

This piece first appeared in The Hindu.

The Birla House, or Gandhi Smriti, stands inconspicuously among other sprawling bungalows in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi without any trappings of an important building even though it is far more important than any of its neighbours; it is not only the house where Mahatma Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life, but also the place where he breathed his last after being shot in his own prayer meeting.

I reach Gandhi Smriti expecting it to be full of visitors: can there be a better time to go around Delhi than a winter afternoon? I also expect heavy security at the premises; but I find neither. A group of tourists – American and Japanese – and the working staff of the complex are the only people I see apart from the vendor selling tacky handicrafts and ice cream.

The wooden gates of the premises are wide open and I am neither frisked nor questioned; there is no entry ticket either. In the absence of any guide, or signage, I walk straight in and arrive at the spot where I see the bunch of tourists with a Sikh guide animatedly telling them about the significance of the Ashoka tree. To my left is the main building, to my right is a walkway, and right in front of me is a narrow path with the impression of the Mahatma’s footprints. “For the last time Gandhiji went to the prayer meeting through this path” a board, which is a size too big for its frame declares.

By the time I walk along the pathway, past the lawn and reach at the far end of the compound, a large group of school children have taken over the walkway, their drone tearing through the silence. Standing at the end of the lawn with over a hundred children now scattered on the velvety grass, I realize how huge the complex is – a vast expanse of green dotted with shady trees, a well-manicured garden with fountains and a miniature bridge, an aesthetically laid out courtyard, and beyond all this an equally large house. It seems that Gandhiji spent his last days in the lap of luxury.

I change my opinion soon after though, when I see the room in which he conducted his meetings – and had spent the last one-hour with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. With just a mattress, a bolster, and two small writing desks, the room is bereft even of comfort let alone luxury. His meager possessions – a pair of reading glasses, a watch, his walking stick – displayed in a glass case further emphasizes what Gandhi lived by: Simplicity is the essence of universality.

The galleries of the house display various pictures and speeches of Gandhi, especially the assassination. There is a long description of the evening, and many graphic pictures of the incident. The gallery leads into a long verandah with miniature models representing scenes from his life. Quit India Movement, Swadeshi Movement, Dandi March and parts of his personal life are displayed through handmade dolls and doll houses placed in neat glass boxes. In another gallery a black and white film on his life plays in loop.  Another part of the house – which looks like the main porch of a majestic colonial villa – hosts an audio visual show on his life. But since it remains shut on every second Saturday, and today is a second Saturday, I miss it.

What strikes me most about the house however is the grandeur. Although simple, the house smells of class – French windows, high ceiling, tall columns, wide arches – but then it once belonged to none other than Ghanshayam Das Birla, a well-known industrialist and a close confidante of Bapu (I have read somewhere that the family was arm twisted into letting go of the house for the memorial).

It is said that post partition an aggrieved Bapu had found peace in the company of his friend and it was on his insistence that he agreed to stay here. What he – or anyone else, for that matter – did not know was those three and a half months would be turn out to be the last three and a half months of his life.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Of Fluttering Flags And A Frangipani Tree

This piece first appeared in The Hindu. 

I first notice the flags. Thousands of big and small pieces of red, blue, green and yellow fabric hanging from thin ropes fluttering in the abundant monsoon breeze. Some are tied in between tall, thin silver-oak trunks, some to tall poles. They have appeared suddenly among lush green fields and they disappear as quickly – even before I can pull my camera out. Soon more signs begin to appear: monks in deep red robes on two-wheelers, houses with slanting roofs and small iron gates, groups of young boys, also in robes, getting in and out of a large yellow building, stalls selling momos, thukpa and noodles, and a large gateway with golden pagodas.

I have known about Bylakuppe for some years now, but in all these years of knowing and wanting to come here I had somehow failed to visualize the place: how could I visualize a Tibetan monastery in the heart of South India when my experience said they belonged to the peaks of Himalayas among birches and deodars? I get my answer soon.

Located next door to Mysore, Bylakuppe is not only home to the largest Tibetan population in India (some estimates say there are close to ten thousand Tibetan refugees settled here), but it also houses Buddhist schools, universities and the largest Tibetan monastery in India called Namdorling.

We reach Namdorling around noon after a flavourful breakfast of rava idlis and tomato sambar and a pleasant drive along the mountains of Coorg. The sun is already warm but the breeze is soothing; the air meanwhile is infested with the heady smell of ripe jackfruit being sold in cellophane packets right outside the monastery gate.

The red and gold gate of the monastery leads us to a large courtyard with rooms and dormitories along its periphery. Another ornate gateway and a series of well-manicured lawns later, I come face to face with the temple.

The three-storied temple at Namdorling is a classic example of Tibetan craftsmanship. Its high tiers are painted in bright blue and gold and decorated with paintings, sculptures, prayer wheels and other Tibetan symbols. A large golden arch with intricate statues hanging from it dominates the structure while a huge picture of Pema Norbu Rinpoche, the creator of the temple, smiles gently at us from its fa├žade. The doors of the temple however are firmly shut and the red-rimmed windows locked. I pay my obeisance to the white Tibetan lions guarding the doorway, take some pictures of the demons painted on the walls and disappointedly walk ahead.

It is difficult to believe that the sprawling monastery, the gompa and the town itself began with what was only a makeshift temple made of bamboo in just 80 square feet of area. The land had been sanctioned to the Tibetan refuges by the state government after the exile of Pema Norbu Rinpoche from Tibet in 1959. The temple came up in 1963.

A little ahead of the temple I spot a congregation of visitors entering a hall. I hastily deposit my shoes at the little kiosk and follow the congregation through a short flight of stairs. What I see inside leaves me spellbound: at the far end of the hall are three mammoth statues of Budhha, they are encrusted in gold and semi-precious stones, and are placed on high platforms. The walls behind them are covered in elaborate Tibetan paintings and the walls on the side are covered with classic thangkas; the pillars in front meanwhile have exquisitely carved dragons wrapped around them. Right in front of the central Buddha are pictures of The Dalai Lama and two other saints who I cannot recognize. A part of the ceiling is covered with victory banners, tassels and chandeliers, and another, which I cannot see, is perhaps open to sky allowing the sun’s rays to fall directly over the Gods.

The statues, a small board in English tells me, are made of copper and plated in gold. Inside every statue are scriptures, relics of great beings, and small clay moulded stupa that signify the body, speech and mind of the Buddha. While the central statue of Shakyamuni Buddha is 60 feet high, the ones on the sides – of Amitayus and Padmasambhava Buddha – are 58 feet each. The board further says, “Seeing the statues, venerating them, circumbulating and making offerings to them generates peace, wisdom, loving kindness and compassion in our minds and cleanses unwholesome thoughts and action.”

I am not sure if it is the rays of the sun or the words that I have just read that make the Buddhas look even more awe-inspiring. I suddenly want to go closer to them but am restricted by the prayer mats.

The mats – long and draped in colourful fabric – occupy more than two-thirds of the hall. On some mats I spot prayer books, bells, empty teacups and other knick-knack while some, probably belonging to older, or the senior monks, even have low desks attached to them. Towards the end of the rows stands a green drum suspended to a brightly painted stand.

The amount of adornment, colour, and gold in the hall would make any other place look gaudy and ostentatious, but here it blends with the calm. I regret having missed the prayer session, which, I am told, enhances the beauty of the place manifold. But am thankful for being able to witness the golden splendour anyway.

Outside the fragrance of a large Frangipani tree breathes life in the stillness of the lawn. A little far away, to my right are rows of silver prayer wheels and beyond that, from what I can make out, a row of stupas. Young monks, laughing and backslapping, emerge from the school situated on the near end of the monastery, their deep red robes complimenting the bright yellow school building in the background; on the far end, in what look like residential quarters, also yellow, I see some not-so-young monks going about their daily business – some are listening to music on Bluetooth headphones, some are taking pictures of each other on their smart phones, some are working out in racer-back vests.

The monks, the monastery, the stupas, the temple, and the Buddhas, tell me that Tibet can, and does, exist among coconut groves and date palms of South India, just as well as it exists among birches and deodars of the Himalayas.


Tonight my hands ache to write, my fingers long to hold a pen,
my heart wants to writhe in pain;

Tonight I want to go back to where it all began,
to the world where there is no loss, neither is there any gain;

Tonight I want to feel my words pierce through my heart,
I want to return to my only love, my art;

Tonight I want to be vulnerable again, I want to jump with joy,
cry in agony, and act insane;

But tonight does not seem to be the night,
for there are bills to pay, jobs to do, and battles to fight,

And so I keep the pen away waiting yet again for the night when the time is right.

Monday, January 25, 2016

In Pursuit of Happiness

I see them every afternoon while I wait outside the gate for the girls. They sit under a tree on the pavement, just a few feet away from two large garbage drums. In a metropolis where even the richest have to scour for space, the poor usually make do with whatever they can lay their hands on, even it happens to be next to the garbage heap. Although, to be fair to them, the garbage drums had not been placed there when they had first set their shop up, they came in much later, by then, I suppose, it was too late to move away -- their business had been set, their customers were fixed.

I also go to them sometimes as a customer. The man is a tailor, and with my non-existent sewing skills do need his assistance often. But mostly I look at them from a distance. Then there are times when I walk past them and our eyes meet. The man nods his head and politely and says Namaste to me in his eastern UP drawl; his wife, a dainty young woman with neatly tied hair, a big red bindi on her forehead, and vermillion filled in her parting, meanwhile just smiles shyly at me, perhaps unsure if she should acknowledge me at all. Their toddler son, who seems a little younger than my daughter, plays on the mat next to the sewing machine, again only a few feet away from the garbage bins, oblivious to the heat, humidity, stink, flies, and passer-bys like me. Sometimes he wanders off towards the neighbours -- the flower-seller, the tender coconut man, and the ice-cream vendors -- all of whom inhabit the same pavement, a few yards from our society gate. Even though the boy keeps straying off consistently, his parents never seem to worry about it.

On some days, when I pass by them in the afternoon, I see them sharing their humble lunch on the flimsy mat, next to the sewing machine on which the tailor works. I have never looked at what they eat, for I do not want to embarrass them or invade their privacy, but I can very well imagine what it could be: a few thick rotis, some dry sabji, and a bottle of water borrowed from the tap of one of the society gates. The same society where the guards allow them to use the common wash-rooms and to keep the bag which carries expensive clothes of people like us, the clothes that come to him for repair and alteration. Interestingly, even though people are willing to pay him anything he charges for even the smallest of jobs, he, somehow, never returns the clothes on time and is often shouted at. There have been times when I have lost my temper too, but his humble requests and polite apologies have always won me over. Now, after three years, I know how to get my work done: I stand on his head until he starts doing my work.

Today, while walking past them at dusk, I notice the man and his wife sitting together on the mat, with the boy between them. They had their back towards me and were sitting facing the main road, looking at the cars, buses and bikes whizzing past. These were the cars in which they will never get to sit, the bikes that they will never get to drive, the buses which hardly stop for daily wagers like them. But, despite all that, I could not see even an iota of stress, grief, sadness, or bitterness on their face. They were chatting casually between taking sips of tea from flimsy plastic cups, smiling and looking happy and content with life. Their life seemed perfect.

In that moment I actually envied them, their peace, happiness, and contentment.

We need very little to be happy, just a little space to call home and two square meals, but somehow, the more we get, the more we seem to want. And yet we call ourselves educated and wise. Maybe someday we should change places with our helpers -- our maid, or dhobi, or driver, or tailor, or the man who sells vegetables, the woman who comes to collect the garbage. Maybe then we will actually understand what life really means. Maybe then we will value what we have.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

To Write or Not To Write

1:25 AM on a cold January night. Despite the cover my feet are cold and fingers numb. On the bedside table are two new books awaiting my attention. Outside the mist has turned into fog and its crispness is wafting in through the window along with the occasional call of the night watchman's whistle. It is the perfect setting to snuggle up with a book, except I cannot sleep -- or read. Bored, I ping the only person I know who will be awake now. Turns out even she is in bed. To keep me away, she tells me to write something. It has been a while she says. But I do not know if I should write. Or what.

Many years ago, while still in school, my friends and I had once came across a note in one of our teacher's diary. Scribbled in pencil, it seemed to be a tale of her life and read something like this, 'He beat me up again, this time in front of the children. I don't know how long it will continue and what can I do about this..' I remember it sending a chill down my spine -- of fear, rage, surprise. We spent the following weeks planning to rescue her and her children but could not think of anything substantial. In the end we confided in our mothers. To our surprise they took it casually and most of them unanimously said one thing: the teacher might have written a piece of fiction . I am not sure if that was fiction or fact that I had read twenty years ago, but I do feel like that teacher often -- no, not because I am beaten up, but because I am forever being judged on what I write. 

When I started this blog 7 years ago, I had kept it a secret. It was my refuge from the chaos of the world. It was my personal haven into which I escaped when it became tough to face the real world. In this time, I transformed into other people, sometimes I became a longing lover, sometimes, a heartbroken friend; I wrote about people close to my heart and about things that mattered. I wrote to let go. I also realised something: writing set me free, it help me shed my inhibitions, come out of my complexes, voice my opinions, be who I really was without caring about judgements. 

Then, three years ago, when I went back to writing, I shared this space with some close friends. These were people I trusted and so was not worried of being judged. They knew all that was there to know about me, they had loved me through good times and bad, they had seen my best and my worst. All was well. 

But as they say it is the fire in your belly that makes or breaks you. The fire inside mine forced me to open up to the world, slowly and steadily, one post at a time. Although I often wondered what picture would my writing paint of me, especially to those who did not know me, I still let myself go: those who knew me, knew me well enough, those who did not, did not matter. Seems that I was wrong.

In the past few months I have received some very interesting comments on my posts. Most of them accusational, venomous, vicious. Some have made judgements on my morality, some have questioned my integrity, while some have gone to the extent of calling me an immoral wife and a selfish mother. As someone who has always towed the line created by the society, and respected the boundaries of relationships, these comments shocked me: what I had always feared had come true.

Perhaps that is why, knowingly or unknowingly, I stopped returning to this space. I wrote for the paper, I wrote for the magazine, I wrote for other's blogs, but I feared coming back to mine: what if I am struck again?

But then, the ignorant perhaps do not know that being a writer means being different people at different times. It also means being a lot of people at one time. Being a writer means bringing to life the deepest and the most complex emotions, which sometimes could be yours, sometimes could be others', and sometimes of the person you are being at the time.

What being a writer does not mean however is that you are going through everything you write about. If you write about being in love, it does not essentially mean you are in love. If you write about agony, it does not mandatorily translate into your being in pain. When you write about ecstasy it doesn't imply that you are jumping with joy. All it means is: you are capable of feeling and bringing the emotion forth. Something that the library teacher was perhaps very good at.
And so I am back, to the familiar sound of my cold fingers on the keyboard, to being who I truly am. The detractors be damned.