Plenty Please

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All / Coexistence & Harmony

I used to live in an old village near the river, in a beautiful coastal state in India. The state of Goa; the state of plenty: Plenty of greenery, plenty of sunshine, and plenty of sea and sand. This plenty morphed, in a little over three years, into plenty of construction, plenty of concrete, and plenty of plastic waste—still a state of plenty, but of a different kind. The kind that builds walls between us, and that blocks us from seeing the fine strings that connect us.

In Goa, we have torrential rains that make mankind halt, and that slowdown economic activity. It is when what we take for granted becomes a rarity, such as electricity, phone and wireless networks, and food supplies. And what we ignore comes alive: leaves are refreshed and they glisten in shades of green, and tiny creatures no longer burrow and hide in the soil.

Solitude takes precedence over social contact, and stillness over busyness. Nature wouldn’t have it any other way, it’s her cycle and we are part of it—we follow.

Plenty Please: Which plenty do we choose?

We no longer get all that our hungry mind craves, all we have is that which feeds our stomach: A thought unimaginable for a city dweller. We no longer pretend that we can keep pace, and we do not feel ashamed to slow down. Again, unimaginable for a city dweller. Yet, here we are today, teaching our hungry minds to rest and our bodies to slow down.

It’s not easy, especially when there’s no access to electricity and the Internet, but there’s little we can do. Therefore, we do little, we pause and watch the rains, we write, we sketch, we cook, we read, we feed stray animals—and we feel our insignificance. It is when the centre of our narratives moves from us to nature.

Insecurity surfaces, whether it is of food or of loss of control over well-formed habits and over our habitat. The insecurity is real. There’s no escape. Just like there is no escape for the homeless, or for those ravaged by war and disease in Syria and Sierra Leone. It is real.

However, it is only temporary—it is seasonal. We know it will pass and there’s plenty of beauty around, reassuring us that not all is desolate. Nature may be ferocious but it is cyclical, unlike mankind’s limitless atrocities that we inflict on ourselves and on other beings.     

The Covid-19 virus made its way into our lives, when we killed its natural host. The virus too sought survival, the way we are seeking it now. Who is the enemy? We multiplied and crossed from 1 billion to 7 billion (in a span of 200 years), the virus too is multiplying. Who is the enemy? The instincts are common; the only difference is that human consciousness allows us to make choices. (Viruses may be considered to lead a “borrowed life”, on the spectrum between what is certainly living and what is not: read in Scientific American) How will we choose to move forward from here, from this experience?

Will we turn on our taps a little more gently, so that we wash under a trickle of water, rather than under a waterfall? Will we harvest rainwater? Will we consume food sensibly and waste less, so that even the hungry get their meals? Will we care about lives of all sentient beings, so that we do not breed and eat for taste and preference, but we hunt them for hunger only? Will we acknowledge our vulnerability? Will we travel only if needed, and not travel to build our own personal narratives (needed travel is that which doctors make to save lives or scientists and environmentalists make to save endangered beings, including trees)? Will we buy and source local, and stop looking at the world as a marketplace? Will we choose trees, the soil, and the planet, over buildings, roads, and convenience? The list is endless and the choices are ours. You and I make them.

That which is accompanied by wellbeing is…?

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All / Coexistence & Harmony

He rang the doorbell; the smooth lines on his face were like ripples in sand—delicate patterns created by the passage of time. These patterns drew the face of knowledge. I bowed to him in traditional greeting, reserved for the elders in our community. As a child, I had often asked myself about why we bow to elders. What makes a person worthy of a bow? I much prefer egalitarian methods of greeting. I rebelled against this tradition through my youth. Till, I realised that rebellion is a reaction to the status quo. It counters social-inertia, but it cannot create sustained change.

While, I have acceded to bow the bow of reverence and conform to this tradition (no reason to fight it, given its non-violent history), in my mind the bow is to wisdom, or to slivers of it, roosting in each of us. And sure enough, shortly after the elder sat to tea, the sliver of wisdom awoke from repose. The face of knowledge transformed into the face of generosity, gently announcing the arrival of wisdom. Sanskrit words as refreshing and buoyant as morning dew touched my ears: Hitam Sahitam Iti Sahityam.

That which is accompanied by wellbeing is literature.

What is literature?

Literature is not just the written word, first recorded during the Sumerian civilisation, in 3400 BC. Neither is it artistic merit in prose and poetry that enlightens, entertains, or instructs. Literature gives words to experiences and insights that embrace wellbeing, as naturally as the wind embraces space, or tree roots embrace soil.

Marcel Proust (writer, early 20th century) said that, The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. 

Literature may help us discern what we have experienced, but to say that a writer’s work can enable us to discern what we would perhaps never have experienced in ourselves is limiting our understanding of experience to that which can be expressed.

Experiences reside on a different plane; the plane where we sense, not where we express, even if it’s in the vastness of our own minds. Experience precedes expression, and literature through its embrace of wellbeing can lead us to seek beneficial experiences.

She could continue to dance.

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She was dressed in embroidered clothes and long earrings. Her eyes and her lips were coloured. She didn’t look like herself any longer. She was painted and attired to represent an idea of beauty and glamour. She had been nominated for a prestigious award. She was young, a woman, and her origins could be traced to an underdeveloped nation. She was a minority, and she was crossing the chasm—the chasm in history. They celebrated her. She went along.

On the big award night, she sat in anticipation. Expectations had been built. Even as a child, she had lived up to expectations. She kept everyone happy. Disappointing others was not something she could bring herself to do. Guilt made her give endlessly.

There was excitement in the air. Every nominee, held in the clutch of hope (the deceptive face of desire) could feel the churn of doubt and anticipation. The award was a mark of distinction. Many aspired to it, while others dreamed. Few were known who did not care for an award, especially this one: A gold-plated statuette of a knight with a crusader’s sword, standing atop a film reel. Really, a male, a knight, and a crusader’s sword as recognition of creative excellence?  

They announced the winner. It wasn’t her. Nor was it three of the other nominees. Only one among the five received the award, while all were deserving. The jury had picked a fit. The mark of distinction was assigned.

Doubt and anticipation ended. That’s it; it all changed in a minute. No one noticed the change. Words of encouragement touched the ears. Solidarity found expression. And what about the doubt and anticipation that had made its churn felt? Did it leave without an imprint?

She could exhale again and continue to dance, even without the glass shoes. She didn’t need glass shoes to dance. She needed her bare feet.

And the award goes to...
An award with a sword.

Another way—another story

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony

Respect-Care-Include: The story of another book.

I was lifted out of a box that smelled of sawdust, and was placed on a shelf. I sat awkwardly, self-conscious of my difference. A book next to me asked, ‘why are you shy?’ I wasn’t sure of what to say, but it looked friendly, and so I said, “I don’t fit in. I look and feel different from the others.” ‘Different, isn’t a bad thing, look at me I am thinner than the others, and look at that book there, it’s smaller than everyone else, and that one has no cover. We are all a little different.

I wasn’t reassured. I sat quietly. It smiled and said, ‘let me tell you about how you were made.’ “How would you know?” I asked. ‘I heard the lady who put you on the shelf tell your story. You have been made from recycled cotton paper. Cotton waste was collected from apparel factories, and was shredded and mixed with tapioca.’ I interrupted, “Waste, I was made from trash! Different isn’t very special, is it? I do not want to be different.”

It smiled and continued. ‘Tapioca is a starch extracted from the cassava root, and starch is a polysaccharide that has many molecules of sugar or glucose. Plants produce it to store energy.’ “Oh, the cassava plant had to lose its store of energy so that I could be made?” Again it smiled (it smiled a lot).

‘The pulp of shredded cotton and tapioca was dried in the sun and pressed into paper on a large cylindrical press that runs on solar electricity. And then rows and rows of paper were hung on a clothesline to sunbathe. Your paper was born of the sun and the plants. You have no wood pulp and no chemicals and no tree was cut to produce you. Your ink too contains soybean oil and other vegetable oils. These oils do not trap heat in the atmosphere, and they do not add to global warming. ‘

I was embarrassed. Who was this me, who felt awkward?
“So…, I said, you’re telling me that I am the cotton tree, the sun, the cassava root, and the soybean plant.
I am a little of many?” ‘Yes,’ it replied. I smiled. 

One page stories

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony

There’s more than one way to do something, and the way we choose becomes our story.

The story of a book.

When I was made, the elders told me that trees were uprooted, they were stripped off their bark, and cut into small pieces known as wood chips. The wood chips were cooked, and lignin was dissolved. Lignin is what makes trees stand tall and look dignified. Scientists—those folks in white coats—call it an organic polymer, a large molecule that has many small molecules of the same type. But the elders said the trees didn’t want to lose their large molecule, they liked to stand tall and look dignified, that’s what let them cast their shade, it made them who they were.

Without lignin, the wood chips became soft and pulpy, then they were re-coloured with bleach. What’s wrong with being brown in colour, I asked? I would have liked my pages to be brown. However, here I am with white pages.

Then the bleached pulp was pressed into paper that was ready to be inked. I was told that the planet sighed, while I was being inked. Really, why, I asked? The elders knew the answer, they had seen a lot. The planet sighed because carbon compounds were being released in the atmosphere, the planet knew that this would be disastrous over time. Now these carbon compounds have collected in the atmosphere and have made the planet uncomfortably warm. How could it not sigh?

The story of another book will follow soon.

So special

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All / Coexistence & Harmony

Have you seen a Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean–wait there’s more–Chinese and Tibetan temple co-exist? In Bodh Gaya, Bihar (India), they do. Spread over 249 square kilometres is the village of Bodh Gaya, where Siddhartha Gautama practiced meditation under the Bodhi or Bo Tree (ancient fig tree), till he acquired complete freedom from all fetters–to live in enlightenment as the Buddha, and help others acquire their freedom.

These temples are clustered close to the Bo Tree. I call them Temples Without Borders: unprecedented, isn’t it?

So special
Many branches, same roots.
Image credit: Wikipedia

If we remove the modifiers–state names–we are left with temple as a descriptor. And a temple is no more than a form of architecture, religious and emotional associations apart. What happens when we do this with people? Remove the nationality, and all we have is 7.7 billion humans. And a human is no more than an anthropoid. Where then is the distinction? Is it in you and I? Both are a common noun.

To a year as common as you and I: no nationality, no distinction. Welcome 2020.

Sound of silence

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony

When words lead, truth recedes.
When words follow, truth precedes.
And we hear the sound of silence.

After a month of silence, and negligible eye-contact with fellow humans, the first thing that struck me, like a gong in a quiet room, is the reverberation of words in the body: Words are formed in the brain, and yet their vibrations are felt in the body. Caring and thoughtful words are accompanied by gentle vibrations, and harsh, condescending, and angry words are accompanied by bothersome and uncomfortable vibrations.

What comes first the words or the vibrations? I realised that vibrations lead to words. But these vibrations can’t be heard; they can only be sensed—in silence. Words that tell inspiring stories and words that create negativity, fear, and hatred, have the same source: vibrations. When we start to sense these vibrations, we can choose the kind of words we would like to use.

Walk, to bring to a stop.

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony

On the second Sunday of September 2019, I woke up, made two placards and walked to a park near my home, with my mother. A friend joined us there, and we circled the 2 kilometre (approx.1.24-mile) circumference of the park, expecting to join a large gathering of people, coming together to remind the government of the need to preserve 2,700 trees, and the life that depends on them.

To me this initiative wasn’t about Us and Them: the ones who care and the ones who do not. To choose between ecological preservation and scientific progress has always seemed foolish. I am acutely aware of my own fragility and the privilege and responsibility of having a cognitive presence in an organic ecosystem. To hand over both the privilege and the responsibility to corporations and the government, would be an act of ignorance, and a dishonour to my freedom. And so I circled the park, holding the placards with my friend and my mother, trying to locate the others. One joined us and then another, and that was it. We were five cognitive beings, coping with our fragility, and walking silently, because how could we not. 

Five is not a crowd, not in a city of nearly 19 million people, yet we drew attention. People walked up to us and asked what we were campaigning for. They wished us good luck and told us not to feel dejected even if we were a mere handful, because like them, others would notice, become aware, and would pledge their support and solidarity.

I thought of Gandhi, and the power of the salt march—Gandhi and a few companions walked 241-miles to the coast of the Arabian Sea, to nonviolently oppose the salt tax. This act of Satyagraha—revealing truth and opposing injustice through nonviolence—gathered thousands of supporters and transformed the status quo.

Trees in a forest don’t need us to survive. We need them. We are part of the biodiversity—the life—that depends on them. Forests are critical for the planet’s survival, and one large tree for the survival of four people. A large tree in a neighbourhood can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for four humans—that may be you and your family.

A metro alone won’t take care of the air pollution problem, but trees do! Choice isn’t involved, perception is.

(A report in Science, and an interview in National Geographic calls forests our life support system)

A rare specimen, it survived mass extinction
Take a stand.
Visit us to see a tree. Once it stood in a forest.
Living trees make great street art.

She trembled.

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony

Her waters came to us—they quenched our thirst and brightened our homes.
Her bones warmed our hearths.
We expected more.

She began to shiver.
Seas soared. Winds howled.
Trees shuddered, birds became silent, animals paused.
We expected more.

Upside down.
Silent Skies.

What could we do, we were too far away to feel her shiver—Our senses numbed by high-rises and virtual worlds.

But those that could feel, ached. They covered her so she would be warm. The covers were insufficient; she had a large body, and she had given birth too many times.

Her nutrients she had given to her offspring. Now was her turn to receive. We her progeny—her offspring—had forgotten reciprocity. We were busy chasing ungraspable desires. We were digging her soils, and creeping through her crust. She rumbled.

She rumbled often.
One day (as all things must).
Some day (because it is inevitable).
Soon (triggered by our actions).
Sooner than soon (the warning is out).
She will quake.

High-rises will tumble. Virtual worlds will go dim and dark. Seas will rise and soil will fall under. Too bad we took her for granted.

What’s in-sight?

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Sanchi Stupa, a UNESCO Heritage Site in Madhya Pradesh was part of the Middle kingdoms of India, but that’s not why I went there. It is the oldest man made stone structure in India and probably one of the oldest in the world, built in 3rd century BCE. That’s not what took me there either.

Unesco Heritage Site
What’s in(sight)?

When I read that in 1850, British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham, respected for his meticulous work, had excavated from one of the three Stupas the relics of Sariputta and Mahamoggallana, the two chief disciples of the last Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, I had an instant wish to go there and meditate. The relics were sold to the Victoria and Albert museum, and were returned to India in 1949. The journey of the relics is outlined in The Wire, by researcher and professor of history, Shashank Sinha. Here’s the link for your interest.

A weekend trip, over which a friend and I sat at the Stupa, while many footsteps crossed us by: some paused and commented, some didn’t miss a step and ignored us, and some hesitated and fell silent as soon as they saw us. It felt like the world around us moved, while we did not participate in its motion. We were not engaged in life’s stream and yet were part of it.

I heard a man’s voice say that there is hope of finding buried treasures at some of India’s ancient monuments, but what can one hope to find here, in these barren stone structures that have episodes from the life of the last Buddha etched on them.

I had the answer but my eyes were closed, and I was too busy looking within, at the immense treasure that lay therein. Come sit, take a look, and know for yourself–said Gautama Buddha. Because treasures are passed on, what’s buried is what is plundered and decayed.

Relics of Sariputta and Mahamoggallana
Inspiration inscribed.
Photo credit: Shashank Sinha