This is what is called…

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All / Coexistence & Harmony

Written in a moment of inspiration, this blog post contains four anecdotes about my nieces and nephews. It will be lovely if you can take a few minutes to live the innocence in these incidents. The language and syntax is simple so that you can read it to children and help them understand a few abstract words that are important values in actuality; they become graspable and relatable when explained in context. The best learnings happen when a grownup learns with children.

Learning, Imagination with Shaurya, Thoughtfulness with Isabel, Acceptance with Vidur, Gratitude with Maya.

A little boy came running into the veranda where I was watching the wonder of the skies. Thunder and lightning followed a rainbow that had coloured an otherwise grey evening. He had in his hands a bucket filled with sea creatures. 

They were fake; they were not actually real and so I wasn’t afraid. I would have been had they come from the sea and not from a toy shop, because in the bucket were fish much larger and stronger than I—a shark and a blue whale. There was also a creature bulkier than I—a walrus, and another resident of the sea that I wasn’t afraid of, a dolphin. I had seen one breach, it had jumped out of the water and dived back in, a delightful sight indeed.

Oh, do look up these sea creatures and ask your papa or mama, or your dad and mom, to tell you about how big they are and about what they eat, and where they live in the oceans and seas of our wonderful Planet Earth.

The little boy, whose name is Shaurya, told me that the blue whale was in his bathtub. And I said, “The largest creature on the whole planet is in your bathtub, wow!” His eyes gleamed at the thought. This is what is called imagination.

A little girl and I walked on the beach. She swung her arm back and forth, and with her arm moved mine, because our fingers were intertwined. Our bare feet sank gladly in the soft sand, feeling the coolness of the night and the early winter morning in the tiny sand particles that slipped off our feet, and the few that remained on our skin.

Up to the waterline we went, where others were collecting garbage that people had thrown into the sea. The others there gave us each a pair of gloves and we began to collect garbage too. The little girl, Isabel is her name, with small hands tucked inside large gloves, picked what she could and put it on the garbage pile that was starting to look like a hill.

Isabel asked, “Why is there so much garbage in the sea.” I replied that we buy many things and they come in boxes and bags that we do not use, we then throw these boxes and bags that are sometimes burned, sometimes buried, and sometimes tossed in the sea. Then she asked, “Should we buy less things so that there is less garbage in the sea, because the sea creatures must find it yucky?” I smiled, “We must buy only what we really need and what we need is not too much. Next time, you can choose which toys to buy and not ask for every toy that looks nice.” She nodded and said, “That’s what I will do.” This is what is called thoughtfulness.

Another little boy, by the name Vidur, had large, crocodile tears, rolling down his tanned cheeks. His eyes were sad as we sat to eat his favourite thin-crust Pizza Margherita and large, gooey, chocolate-chip cookies. I asked him why, but he said not a word. His sister then whispered that he wanted a race track that he was told he could not have. We finished our dinner without much talk and returned home. 

Next day, it was my turn to say not a word. I took Vidur to the toy shop, Hamleys they call it. I said we were there to buy a present for another little boy. He smiled sweetly and we began our search for a present. He didn’t once ask for the race track. But little did he know what was coming his way, a surprise that his sister and I had planned. 

While Vidur and I searched for a nice present, his sister went and brought the race track to the cash counter. With Vidur’s hand in mine, I led him to where she was. We paid for the race track and I gave it to Vidur and said, “Take care of it and don’t lose the parts, so that you can gift it to someone else when you are done playing with it. Think about who you could give it to.” He nodded and said, “Thank you. I will give it to Raghav, before I go back home (to California).” This is what is called acceptance.

There’s one more little girl that I must tell you about. A long time back, fifteen years to be precise, sat Maya in her chair that was shaped like a bear. That’s right, a big brown bear and she sat in its lap, snug and cosy while watching her favourite cartoon. I walked in and kneeled beside her. A pack of stickers in my hand, I said, “Here Maya, this is for you.” 

Maya loved to make art but she was too little to draw the many things she saw, so she would fill her art book with beautiful stickers. She looked at the stars and the moon and the butterflies and flowers in the pack of stickers, and with gleeful eyes and a wide smile said, “This is for me! Thank you, thank you so much.” This is what is called gratitude

When you use your thoughts to create a great story, where all creatures together come, know that imagination is doing good stuff in your head. When you observe and wonder, and do things that make others comfortable without making yourself too uncomfortable, know that thoughtfulness is teaching you to care. When you are sad and you cry, but then you let go and move on, know that acceptance is showing you the way to happiness. When your heart smiles and says thank you for the smallest of things, know that joy has arrived, and joy and gratitude move together as one. 

Thank you to all children for being such wonderful teachers and learners.

Continuous by design.

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All / Coexistence & Harmony

‘No way, that’s spoilt,’ was my immediate reaction to a brown coconut that had a small, white something growing within. My homeowner had laboriously de-husked a coconut, which had been gifted to me by friends at the food forest (natureWORKS). Watching what is required to de-husk the large outer shell of the coconut made me reflect on how this sweet nut is a tough one to crack. The hardest metals if dropped from the crown of a coconut palm will dent, but not a coconut, adapted to float through stormy seas on long voyages till it reaches sandy shores where it can find place to sprout.

My homeowner picked on the small, white something, and popped a piece in his mouth, without hesitation. ‘Really?’ I asked, ‘Are you sure?’ ‘We had it as children,’ was his response. His expression gave me the courage to pick on it. Gosh, was it relishable. I had been buying coconut for years, cracking them for a couple, yet this was the first time I had set sight on the little, white something. 

At the food forest, I mentioned the delicious discovery to M&M. They too had eaten this something, not just as children, but also in recent years. ‘It is the embryo of the coconut,’ they informed. ‘No way,’ this time I uttered in incredulity. They went on to explain: ‘The water in the coconut begins to dry and slowly the embryo forms, relying on the coconut meat for its remaining nutrition, this embryo is what sprouts and becomes a coconut tree. It’s called Moran, in Konkani (one of the languages spoken in Goa). I sat there fascinated, soaking in the information with delight. How could I grate coconut meat again without being grateful, recognising that the coconut was sustaining my life instead of its own.

Image credits: Image 1 of coconuts on the tree,; image 2 and 3 copyleft attribution, natureWORKS, Goa

In the early hours, prior to tasting the coconut embryo or Moran and the ensuing learning about the embryo’s existence, I had to take initiative to have a difficult conversation with someone who assumed I would do them a monetary favour, without first inquiring about my convenience. The assumption was made by the spouse of the lady who helps me with home chores. This was a new relationship, I had engaged with them for a month only. The monetary favour they required was, for air travel from their hometown to Goa where we all lived, for an amount that I doubted they could repay without planning and inconvenience. 

I found myself facing a dilemma—the relationship was new and the recent inconsistency in income-generating projects did not endow me with much of a disposable income, yet I was inclined to helpfulness and trust. I could say, ‘No, I don’t have the money.’ This though would not be entirely true, because I did have the money, I only chose to use it more judiciously. The hesitation, I realised, did not have to do with money, it came from lack of trust.

I decided that instead of building a fence of outright refusal or excuses, I needed to explain my reality and the present situation. However, having a personal conversation with someone we barely know is not easy, especially when it involves an inability to coalesce or unite because of incompatible realities. We may expect from a relationship what the other cannot offer, and often the one who cannot offer has to take the more generous stand of explaining their situation. Rare are relationships in which give and take recede in the presence of mutual appreciation and support.

What was to be my generous stand? Would I be nurturing a healthy relationship were I to deny recognition to the lack of trust that lurked in my mind and the practical reality that I was currently living? I chose to appreciate the truth of my reality, and I noticed that my mind was released from the tension that fences create (State borders are a palpable example of this dissonance). 

I left a voice note for my house help, because its easier to speak honestly and completely when the other is listening silently, albeit at a later time. I explained about my recent choices in projects and how I was using my savings carefully to fund part of my experience at the food forest. I requested that they ask her husband’s longtime employer to fulfil their requirement, if support was not extended and they had the provision to pay me back upon their return then I would purchase the air tickets. 

Next morning, I received a call from her husband to say they had booked their travel on a train and were calling to inform me about their arrival date. I was grateful that the acknowledgement of my reality and the willingness to respectfully explain it had protected both them and me, and therefore the relationship. This however may not always be the outcome, but explaining truthfully, without grudging the other for expecting, is an approach that bridges gaps in understanding. In new relationships this is required and in old relationships it is imperative.  

As I sat in quiet observation and sipped my morning coffee, an act not merely of leisure but of reconnecting with my surroundings, the mind linked the recent two experiences with the coconut and with communicating respectfully. Both regeneration and communication depend on one process, the process of cohesion—where one particle joins another to form a whole. The first is natural cohesion and the second social cohesion. In both continuity is created intentionally, by design.


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All / Coexistence & Harmony

Moringa stump – Moringa tree – Banana plant
Images for, under a Creative Commons Attribution

I walked eagerly to the backyard, looking forward to pulling a sprig of Moringa leaves toward me. I relished these leaves daily till about a month back, when I travelled to Bombay from Goa for a family reunion. Bombay, where high-rises hide the sky; Goa, where you still see soil and sky in communion (a kinship under threat). Bombay, the consumer’s dream; Goa, the escapist’s sanctuary. I fit broadly both descriptions, of consumer and escapist—perhaps, we all do. The consumer takes materially, the escapist takes mentally, seemingly opposed yet one in the act of taking.

The happy middle is where the mind of the recipient rests. To learn to receive is to move away from a consumer’s anxious taking and from an escapist’s illusion of not taking.

Where stood the Moringa tree, with its delicate leaves and slender stems, stands now a stump. My heart ached or rather sank—curious that we call it heartache, when the feeling itself originates not in the heart but somewhere else. It seems to occur in an organ buried deeper than the heart, a place that our medical devices cannot access. And it’s more a sink than an ache.

The hacked tree stood as a reminder of a broken humanity: how can we think of ourselves as intact and intelligent, when we amputate a healthy arm that carries food to our starving mouth? The analogy, be told, is appropriate, because Moringa is known as a miracle tree, every part is health-giving. It’s by far, The Giving Tree that Shel Silverstein wrote about in his picture book.

With no sprig in hand, I returned to my door left wide open to welcome the morning light. A tiny green leaf caught my eye. It was at my doorstep. I picked it up. Wiping it gently with my fingers, I took a bite—I should know a leaf that I plucked and ate every day for two months, yet I erred on the side of caution and hesitantly chewed. Moringa indeed! 

I looked up and saw that the neighbour’s Moringa tree had grown during the rains, and its branches were hanging delicately over my homeowner’s compound. The breeze had carried one of its tiny leaves to my doorstep. As the taste buds registered that the leaf was from a Moringa tree, the sinking feeling transformed into joy and a moment of realisation: When we believe in coincidences, we are robbed of experiencing life’s benevolence. A tiny leaf at my doorstep from one Moringa tree while my mind distressed over the felling of another, brought me back to a “higher love.”

All appeared beautiful again and my eyes gazed thankfully at my green surroundings. They came to rest attentively at the banana plant outside my front door. Bearing fruit and a beautiful purple flower, the plant was working hard to create nourishment for other living beings. When ripe the fruit will be harvested and the plant will perish, leaving behind a few spurs or spurring new shoots that will grow and nourish like the mother plant—benevolence, isn’t it? And it’s also an example of carrying forward inheritance, from mother to child and plant to spur or shoot. 

All that I gave the plant was kitchen waste, peels, leaves, used coffee grind, overripe coconut, and a bad batch of kombucha. And what was it giving in return? You give me waste, I give you food: Can we hope to replicate a cycle of giving so untainted? Not if we continue to squander our inheritance. The sinking feeling is not an ache but a reminder that we are wasting what we have been given—the inheritance of love.

Makers of Mol’lam

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All / Coexistence & Harmony

Two nights prior to the full moon in May, I learned to weave a coconut frond, from my friend at the food forest (natureWORKS). I prefer for her a word used centuries back in India, that is mostly forgotten and in disuse today–kalyanmitra (friend in well-being).

I was both grateful and filled with joy by my experience. The act of making a Mol’lam (a woven coconut frond) brought forth to mind many images and much inspiration.

As an ode to all early crafters, who have helped establish the human experience of solidarity and contentment, and opened our hearts to receive with humility, and to Goa’s very own Makers of Mol’lam , including the two in the first photo, I dedicate this inspired verse.

Thank you note: I had originally used the word Mollan, which was accepted by all who read the post. However, a friend and journalist, writer from Goa, corrected me and pointed to the original spelling Mol’lam (guessing it is phonetic). I have made the edit.

Image courtesy: natureWORKS, Pilerne, Goa. All images are licensed under Copyleft

Makers of Mol’lam
You weave a frond
That the breeze once moved

A wave, a swish, a sway
In greeting
For those who took the time 
To look.

How did you imagine 
A frond you could weave
What made you braid 
This divided leaf?

Did you lay on it first
Or use it as a fence
Did the gaps show you
That a weave and a knot would 
Help serve your end?

Through your hand, to your heart 
Did the veins carry inspiration
Not a moment of genius
But of attention?

You tried and you tried again
Till the gaps were closed
And the frond, 
Once a leaf, now a Mol’lam 
Came to be known.

Beauty unchanged
Imperfection remains
The drying leaf, its brittle ends
In colours that have shades
Our palettes do not contain.

Makers of Mol’lam
Don’t you stop
Let the fingers feel 
Let me kneel
In humility
For I do not craft,
I make not beauty, nor art.

Inspiration flows, 
It carries on.
To those who receive
It belongs
When a moment of attention
Calls it forth.

Oh, makers of Mol’lam
Please don’t stop
For our hands must continue 
To use what is given
And is received.

To take there is no need
Plenty is ours
We must know how to kneel
Not with heads bowed down
But with hearts open.

If our hands don’t remember to make
Our hearts slowly will forget
That beauty is as it is

Makers of Mol’lam
Mothers, fathers
Ancestors, and elders
Through you inspiration flows.

I call it forth
With folded legs, bent at the knees
While hands they weave
Do not close in prayer
Open they are to receive.

Reverent in humility
As I watch the leaf respond
For it is not I that craft
I make not beauty, nor art.

joy and energy: designed to regenerate

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony

Around two weeks ago, I went to bed with the thought of spending the next day at ‘Bean Me Up’, a vegan restaurant with a delicious menu and an inviting tree cover. 

I wanted fresh, nourishing food to be given to me, so that my hours were free to reflect, read, and write. I imagined myself under a canopy of trees, staring leisurely at the sky and gazing at the shrubs and climbers in shades of brown, green, and yellow, while the mind carefully assembled and made sense of recent experiences and observations.

Image courtesy: Bean Me Up, Goa, India

I awoke with the imagined visual in my head, and with something else—a feeling that hadn’t been there when I went to bed. I felt a longing for stillness. 

Like a sweet birdsong in a woody enclave, stillness called me to stay. My mind combined this call with the feeling of care and love for the planet: We need to slow down and stop burning fossil fuel at the current rapid rate. 

I arrived at a decision to stay home, but not quite that smoothly. My mind tried initially to negotiate a way out of cooking. It longed for free hours and so it chose intermittent fasting as an alternative to the restaurant. But hunger pangs, the habit of drinking coffee, and the taste for freshly roasted coffee with equally fresh non-dairy milk played havoc on the mind. Book turned over, I found myself in the kitchen using precious time to cook, while I yearned to read and write.

This may seem like an unnecessary struggle to a pragmatist. But to me it is an interplay of mind and matter. Love and care is not pragmatic, and neither is it blind. It just strums the strings, if we permit it.

I discovered that hunger, restlessness, longing are part of the strum, as is patience, ever so soft that it is almost inaudible. My eyes grew restful and the mind less agitated. I looked with a quieter gaze at the fairly green setting of my rented home in Goa. 

It occurred to me that I am much closer to my food source now than I had previously been: A tree or a plant, benevolent neighbours, and a local village woman, named Dadi (Grandmother), the title by which she introduces herself. 

Image courtesy, – From trees to me, through the benevolence of friends and neighbours: a heartfelt thank you to all and to Dadi.

The coconuts I receive from my homeowner and from M&M (friends at the food forest where I spend part of my day) taste sweeter than those transported over kilometres or miles. Bananas and chikoos/sapotas from my homeowners’ backyard, mangoes from a neighbour’s tree, and bananas and papayas from natureWORKS (the food forest) are juicy and relishable, and the leafy veggies, cucurbits, beans, and parboiled rice from the village market and local farmers deserve a second helping.

I soak and ferment, using the help of microbes to cook wholesome meals of stir fried or curried veggies with a generous sprinkle of fresh and dried herbs for seasoning, accompanied by a single grain, either millet, rice, or roti/Indian flatbread. Most greens I pluck and eat raw—why cook what need not be cooked? It takes me an hour or 90-minutes to get food on my plate, and what is prepared for lunch serves as dinner. Then why did I make cooking an impediment to my mental pursuit? 

The strum continued and tuned up with the ambient ‘tymballing’ of cicadas (tymbals are membranes that male cicadas vibrate to create rather a loud sound).

Restlessness ebbed slowly, giving me an unobstructed view of what really troubles me about cooking. Wastage of water tops the list—mechanised methods that draw water from rivers, lakes, and aquifers to pump it up through pipes into tanks, only to bring it down again into taps or faucets to drain into sewers, make little sense.

Our replica of the natural water cycle may have missed considering three important points:

  1. Evaporation is when water is pulled up naturally, and this is a gradual process
    2. Evaporated water is not contaminated but is in fact enriched with atmospheric particles (depending of course on what’s circulating in the atmosphere).
    3. Water, when it drops from the clouds onto soil, replenishes and regenerates. It does not need to be treated, chlorinated, and depleted of its life-giving attribute.

Thereon the list consists of the steps that accompany cooking—cleaning the kitchen counter, doing the dishes, scrubbing grime off the kitchen sink, using inefficient gas or electric stoves that release most of the heat they generate into the atmosphere, and moving or standing throughout the process at the kitchen counter, while blood courses through the veins, burning more effectively than the inefficient stove. Cooking is an act of creating. To create is joyful; it brings about regeneration of energy and not dilated blood vessels! 

Again I imagine, this time an inspired response to my days at the food forest (natureWORKS in Goa) and to reading, ‘Road Back to Nature,’ by Masanobu Fukuoka, agricultural scientist, philosopher, farmer, and writer. 

A process designed for regeneration is designed for wellbeing. They go together, because energy that is applied, produces energy. The form can change but energy remains—it regenerates. 

When we apply energy to clean and scrub, it’s not regenerating. We are using up energy reserves given to us by the food we cooked. We are expending our energy. The solution is not a dishwasher or a housekeeping robot; they are conveniences that use energy without regenerating, and therefore are not designed for wellbeing.  

Must we continue being bearers, creators, and enthusiasts of a non-regenerative design? Perhaps, we need to acknowledge the flaws to reimagine how we can dwell in wellbeing.

I begin by shifting my perspective to include a principle that Fukuoka explored: ‘Nothing, no matter what it is, has value in and of itself. I understand that the value of food is in the energy it regenerates. That’s why a small seed grain or a vegetable carrying the combined energy of the sun, earth, and living water (untreated, and not pumped and carried over long distances) is more valuable to mankind than food that is over-processed or dead. 

What about the kitchen counter and kitchen sink, where lies its value? Perhaps in a design that converts blood coursing to blood circulation. Sitting cross-legged to cut vegetables, clean produce, and knead dough, and building a raised platform closer to the floor so that we can squat and cook is realistic and achievable with effort. As for our replica of the water cycle, most of us cannot reengineer drainage and water systems, but we can try and create some value. With the support of family, we can reduce the flow of water used, rinse and reuse dishes till the end of the day, avoid using flowing water to rinse, cook once a day, eat the same meal twice, and use non-toxic soaps made of organic material that is biodegradable.

And how may we ascertain the value of our effortful acts, which ‘in and of itself’ are pointless? By feeling the strum: if joy is part of the sound then we know that energy is regenerating. If not, then stay still and listen.

Father God, please meet Mother Nature

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All / Coexistence & Harmony

Each time I read the word Mother Nature, it makes me pause. I find it bothersome that we personify nature as female, only so we can exploit and abuse it unceremoniously.

We continue to worship Father God but wring out life from the manifestation, Mother Nature: We respect in concept and violate in reality, how can that not be bothersome? 

We divide an otherwise unified force into male and female, into thought and action, into belief and disregard, in the way that we divide ourselves into mind and body. A false dichotomy, because when the body needs water, the mind feels the thirst. When the mind feels joyful, the body is light, and there’s a bounce in our step.

A little retuning may teach us a valuable lesson: ‘Don’t trust that which inclines the mind towards dichotomy.’ Black and white are not contrasting colours, they are shades on the grayscale, and earth and sky both have electromagnetic activity. Why then accept Father God and Mother Nature?

In the semi-rural setting of Goa, India, I begin to pay attention to ease, and where it can be experienced in our surroundings. I walk on a floor made of cow-dung and my calf muscles sigh in relief. I sit in the cool shade of a tree canopy in sweltering heat and my heart sings. I read words written on stone with chalk: ‘May our connections grow more loving’ (translated from Bangla, one of the 19,500 mother tongues or dialects spoken in India) and my mind awakens to the purity of thought.

Image courtesy: natureWORKS, Pilerne, Goa (India)

I water plants on a mud path covered with dry leaves and my steps feel light. I eat a papaya ripened on a tree that is growing in soil fed by dry leaves and manure from decomposed human and food waste. Half a papaya makes my body feel nourished and sated and I notice that I feel no hunger or thirst as night sets in and I slip into slumber. I meditate in a veranda surrounded by trees and observe as the mosquitoes buzz in my ears and chew at my flesh. I realise then that the sensation is not as troublesome as the reaction, only to resume reacting till I can relax and return patiently to the ease of realisation. 

Ease, I discover, is the plane on which Father God meets Mother Nature. It’s where all that is created unites with all that is being created. The creator is the process of creation—Father God is Mother Nature! 

Welcome, Maad (coconut tree in Konkani, the local language of Goa).
Pedestal up, like in a movie shot, and what do I see on the plane of ease? Gyrating fronds or leaves of a coconut tree.

  1. The coconut tree when in bloom gives us Neera, a refreshing and sweet drink extracted from the flower clusters of mature trees. 
  2. The gyrating fronds weave unresistingly into thread-less mats to sleep on, and they make an airy, privacy fence that doesn’t block the breeze. 
  3. The leaves or fronds shade mud roofs and prevent them from cracking in the heat of the tropical sun. 
  4. The tree’s fruit pulp is a delicious and revitalising appetite filler.  
  5. From the pulp comes coconut cream and milk that is used in many cuisines and desserts. 
  6. The water in the fruit is a blessing on a hot day. 
  7. Fibre from the outer husk of the coconut can fill our mattresses and be used as a loofah for dishes or to exfoliate the skin on our feet. 
  8. Coconut fibre is also good to layer soil. It improves drainage and it retains moisture. 
  9. The shells of the coconut make an appealing boundary for plants and prevent precious, well-composted soil from being washed away.
  10. Coconut shells make earthy-looking soap dishes and are handy bowls for our easily acquired, all natural, zero cost, and zero waste, coconut-fibre loofah. 
  11. The roots of the tree are medicinal. 
  12. The bark (of a tree that has completed its lifespan) can be used to build our shelters and to make furniture.   

All this and more from a tree that needs negligible care. 

Pedestal down and there you are, and I am, resting blissfully in the shade of the tree: Father God, please meet Mother Nature.

A little about natureWORKS from the family that lives on the land and is sharing the experience with me:
‘natureWORKS is a sustainable homestead we are creating with mud and alternate architecture, amidst a food forest. We use only recycled and upcycled doors, windows, timber, roof and floor tiles. Also, other second-hand materials, like glass, steel, and aluminium, that would otherwise end up in junkyards or landfills. We aim to keep our carbon footprint as tiny as possible. Most living will be out doors, under the trees with only cooking and sleeping at night done indoors, especially during the rains. Our lifestyle is simple, basic, frugal, and fairly radical. The homestead, for us, our 95 year old mum and our two children, is purely for family use. It’s not really a “Dream Home,” as something to be selfishly attached to, or be house proud of, or show off about. But it definitely is part of a blueprint and roadmap for sustainable living on our planet.’

As intended

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony / Getting Started

On January 1, 2022, I returned to Mumbai from Goa (coastal state in India known for its fertile soil, beautiful beaches, and susegad or untroubled lifestyle that has been changing rapidly with urbanisation and an influx of urbanites into the state). 

In my car was a cake box that had been converted into a tray for three spinach saplings and two herbs—Brahmi (Waterhyssop) and Chirata (Swertia). Alongside sat three recycled plastic bottles, one holding a sapling of Ritha/Reetha or Indian soapberry (Sapindus mukorossi), and the other two carrying a young Kadipatta or Curry tree and a passion fruit plant. 

Seeds and cuttings of other beautiful plants, including the favoured butterfly pea with its deep blue (almost purple) flower that colours our tisane and soothes our nerves also made the journey. I had ordered tisane and enjoyed spinach like any good consumer of nourishment, but now my process of maturation had begun. I was soon to become a beneficiary of nature’s benevolence and a participant in its joy. 

Every morning, I watched as the butterfly pea and other seeds and saplings continued to grow and thrive, while I contributed by caring for their needs. Sunlight, water, fresh air, and healthy soil are amply present in natural surroundings that haven’t been interfered with, however in an apartment they must be provided for, making my care a mere circumstantial necessity. 

I observed that the seeds integrated the nutrients made available to them to become the plants that they were meant to become, and the plants were integrating nutrients, from the atmosphere and the soil, to become nourishment for us: as nature intended.

The butterfly pea sprouted and grew from seed to sapling. It swayed gently in the air and the head of its upper stem turned towards the sun at intervals, like a rotating device atop a lookout tower. One evening, I intuitively grounded a stick in the pot for the slender stem to lean on. The next morning, I found the plant gracefully wrapped around the stick. This plant’s nature is to wrap itself around a more solid structure, from which its fragility gains strength, as soon as the wooden stick was offered it did as nature intended for it to do.

I continued to share my observations with friends and benefactors who had gifted me the seeds and saplings in Goa, and they continued to share what they witnessed of natural cycles in their food forest.

M from the M&M duo shared a beautiful photograph of a mature Ritha/Reetha (Indian soapberry) tree that had shed its leaves to mulch the soil and protect it from being scorched by the summer sun in India. M mentioned that the shedding of leaves followed the fruit-bearing period. 

The fruits were drying in the sun, the leaves were protecting the soil, and the tree trunk and branches were preparing to sprout and unfurl new leaves: What had been integrated, had disintegrated to become.

The leaves were becoming nourishment for the soil and its creatures, the fruits were becoming medicine for our wellbeing and a resource for personal hygiene, cleaning, and other household requirements, and the soil was becoming a food source for many plants and trees that sustained life. The tree was disintegrating to integrate and was “becoming to become”: as nature intended.

And we, what are we becoming to become? If at the heart of nature’s cycle is regeneration, then are our tasks all distractions? Those working to empower the subjugated amongst us are likely to think otherwise, because lack of equity is the cause of many problems in human society. However, without the firmament of regeneration, we might merely be helping people to become part of an exploitative system. 

As I write, I hear the raucous call of those working on road repairs outside our apartment building. In the heat of 38°C (100.4°F), they exert energy to pull and tug at underground wires and call out loud the command of the leader at the head of a long human chain.

Had they been educated, within the system, they would design and build the machines that ploughed the earth, excavated the soil, and tugged at the wires. They wouldn’t labour with their hands and bodies, they would labour with their brains and mind. Labour they would still remain!

They would not become skilled craftsmen, or talented workers, nor would they become empowered creators who experience and live the joy of participating in a regenerative system: as nature intended. 

With this understanding, I explored the feeling of empowerment within me. When is it that I felt most empowered? Therein I sensed lay the answer to the essence of empowerment. Choice, free thought, free speech, financial provision, all of which I have had access to since birth, somehow reminded me of weak clay pots that collapse when exposed to heat—These ideas of empowerment, I realised were incapable of containing its essence. 

My exploration brought me closer to the feelings that empowerment evoked or the feelings that evoked empowerment. Joy, wellbeing, harmony, and trust contained my experience of empowerment, they were its essence. How then are we to empower? Where lie these attributes of human experience? Perhaps in a regenerative system, as a solution towards equity for all living beings, where that which integrates disintegrates, and that which disintegrates becomes: as nature intended.

A whiff of intention

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All / Coexistence & Harmony

Moments of intention. Image courtesy: Neha Mundhra and Madhushree Daga

What began as a loosely planned journey of best intentions to keep my carbon emissions low as I travel far from the city towards greener surroundings has become an unexpected lesson in understanding what it means to live by our intentions.

Intentions don’t hold the reigns the way willpower does. They are not an exerted force that keeps us on track, they are akin to the fragrance that guides us on the path. (Track for me is like a course cleared for an athlete, and a path is land that has been tread upon by generations but the landscape is still intact: flowers, bushes, trees, and stones are as they were, no longer wild but not manicured or tidied up).

Living by intention, a life that is more respectful of natural balance is not quite that simple, because it’s not about aligning ourselves with some larger, more perfect phenomenon. It’s about what we put out there so that natural balance is maintained within and around.

We don’t just decide to live a zero waste life and stick to it without compromises, making life difficult for ourselves and those we live with. Instead we have the intention, and each time we buy or ask for something, we live that intention with complete cognisance. There is no compromise. There is a choice at each step and there is knowing and recognition that the choice could have been better or different in different circumstances—the minute we get this, we start to choose to put ourselves in circumstances that are more conducive to developing our intentions and we accept the circumstances that we cannot change.

During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, I did all that I could to reduce our packaging waste—my mother and I began to make bio enzymes with citrus fruit peels, water, and jaggery, it’s a great all-purpose cleaner for the house; we proactively managed delivery of fresh produce to the residents of our apartment building, setting up a system where residents inked their apartment numbers on grocery bags and kept them downstairs on delivery day, we coordinated for all deliveries to come one day a week to reduce the back and forth for the vendor and to cut down the use of fuel, and we requested that he carry all produce in crates separated by apartment numbers (not in plastic bags that the delivery boys disposed unthinkingly after our delivery). The orders were of significant quantity and he was understanding enough to make the effort. 

We made many small adjustments, including baking biscuits and roasting snacks at home, so that we could eliminate unnecessary wrappers and boxes from our recyclable waste that most often gets sent to landfills, because the entire chain still needs to be developed to match our copious consumption of packaging. I also chose to make my own fresh almond and coconut milk for the same reason. We bulk ordered natural laundry and dishwashing soaps that came without individual packaging; the list of small tweaks was long, each a choice that we made despite being used to the conveniences that city life and financial flexibility provide, and then (in April 2021) we got Covid. 

Both my parents and I were unwell at the same time, and extended family galvanised to send us food so that we got the necessary nutrition. Everything had to come in disposable boxes and bags, nobody had spare stock of reusable boxes to send our meals for three weeks. We had to accept fruits and vegetables in plastic bags because giving our cloth bags was no longer an option. We didn’t have the energy to bake and make, and we needed the right food to help aid recovery. We ordered it all! Sure we chose homegrown brands that made and packaged consciously, but everything we needed was being shipped and delivered to us in more packaging than place in the house to store.  

The effort that we put through 2020, the first year of the pandemic, and the changes that I had gradually introduced over a decade made me see how adjusting to the situation was a non-negotiable that strengthened intentions and did not in fact bring them to a compromise.

These strengthened intentions were the reason I calculated carefully my carbon emissions while planning a four-month learning expedition in India that began in November 2021. As a woman travelling alone, I made safety an important criteria and chose a combination of road, flight, and train transport; second best to a journey by train throughout. 

However, the travel hasn’t gone as planned, and therefore I call this a loosely planned journey of best intentions.  

I took to the road and went from Mumbai, a city of about 21 million people to Hatkanangale, a rural town of about 15,047 people at a distance of ~375-kilometers or 233-miles. After serving at a ten-day Vipassana Meditation course in a remote location in this rustic town, I was supposed to participate in the following ten-day course as a meditator, only to discover that the three-day gap between the two courses did not offer me the needed rest after a rigorous volunteer service.

My heart felt sated by the experience of untarnished moments of purity, where the mind was at complete ease with no blame, covetousness, or ambition, and each action was born of understanding, love, and gratitude, but my body felt exhausted. I took the cue and opted out, adapting to the situation that had arisen. 

The next leg of my journey was supposed to be covered by plane. I had planned to go to Navadarshanam, a community-managed forest preservation and sustenance farming land, but instead I decided to drive a distance of about 250-kilometres (~155-miles) to the coastal state of Goa, where I had lived for three and a half years. The place I call, ‘home in my heart’, and the penultimate destination on my way back to Mumbai, after volunteering at Navadarshanam and exploring by train the coffee-belt in the mountainous region of Chikmagalur in South India.

Goa unexpectedly shifted up in the travel itinerary. And here I am writing this blog post, unsure of how my plans will evolve. In a world where we look for certainty, I am learning how to mature my intentions without the force of will to bend circumstances. You know what it feels like? A slinky that a child’s tiny hands are trying to keep in perfect equilibrium by making the palms still and nerves calm, except that the trick to balance the springy motion of life is not in the palm of our hands, its in what we put out there to maintain natural balance within and around. 

Whiff on intention

It won’t stay still. “It’s slinky!” Image courtesy: Getty Images

In the unhurried pace of rural life, I listen to the silence of the Honey Forests and I watch how uncertainty pushes us into action. Goa is part of India’s vast Western Ghats, a mountain range of 160,000 square kilometres (~62,000 square miles), where giant bees, known as mavā mūs in Konkani, the language of the region, gather honeydew from trees to make honey that is more flavourful than honey from the nectar of flowers, conferring on the Western Ghats the title of Honey Forests.

We rush, we pursue, and we conjure and imagine, because living with uncertainty is hard. It’s hard till we accept our vulnerability, develop our patience with wisdom, and put forth our determination with love—All in its own time, trusting that the whiff of intentions will lead us to honey that is sweeter. So far, I have not managed to cut carbon emissions from my travel as much as I wished to, but I walk more, buy carefully, turn down the water flow when I do my chores, keep the stove flame lower than the perimeter of the pan, compost regularly, cook at home, use till things are unusable, mend what I can, keep lights turned off when not needed, and am doing all that I can to live by my intentions.

“I did it for love.”

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Second best is fine
Diwali, festival of ‘inner’ light. Image courtesy: Enchanting travels, in Varanasi, India

I looked out the window and my heart fluttered. The sun had set, leaving behind the usual brightness of city lights that seemed soft and shadowy in the presence of seemingly endless strings of green and orange fairy lights, that lay like a blanket over the bushes in the garden and snaked around the trunk of a lone standing tree and the stems of two graceful palms. 

A rather literal representation of Diwali, the festival of light(s), I thought. The version of the Diwali story that my sister and I heard repeatedly as children was narrated by our grandmother, and what I recall is the return of the noble couple, Rama and Sita, who preserved virtue and reigned over greed and avarice despite indescribable hardship. 

To welcome virtue and the noble couple into our home, our grandmother lit twenty-one small earthen diyas (cups) with ghee (clarified butter) and a cotton wick, as do most households even today, then why the need for twinkling strands of electricity?

This year loud noise and smoke from fireworks and the ocular disturbance of electric lights coincides with the cry of the scientific community and of youth activists to cut emissions and to change radically our ways of production and consumption as the planet heats up.

My eyes looked at the fairy lights and they read the notifications that appeared on my phone about commitments being made at COP26 (Conference of the Parties, a UN conference on climate change)—simultaneous realities that highlighted the co-existence of darkness and light. It occurred to me that the noble and ignoble simply share space.

Is it not possible however, that there can be a little more light and a lot less darkness, of the kind that Diwali symbolises without the electric spectacle?

Each year, as festivities begin, I rant about what we are doing to the planet and oftentimes I send a strongly-worded message to the Managing Committee at our apartment building. This year, I chose differently. I inclined towards an inclusive stand: a little more (light of wisdom) and a lot less (darkness of ignorance), please!

I requested Management to turn off the fairy lights at midnight, when almost all residents are asleep. They agreed, only to turn the lights back on at 5AM before dawn, when people start stepping down for their morning exercise. Not perfect, but at least a five-hour respite had been made available to those having to bear the worst brunt of this light show. A sight we easily escape by drawing the curtains or pulling down the blinds. 

Did I just compromise my idealism or did I learn for the first time to apply it correctly? Is idealism not about fighting all odds to get to the perfect outcome? Is it not about striving for perfection? I didn’t know this at the time, but the recent negotiation was the outcome of a new perspective: Idealism is about continuing to care despite all odds, allowing what we care about to alter our life. No longer the ranting reformist, I was transforming into a tolerant “inclusivist”, grateful for every experience of peaceful accord. 

This was the second in a series of realisations and negotiations that happened over two weeks. The first was on a Saturday morning, when I sprinted to catch a bus. After twenty-five years of resisting the growing crowds in my city, I found that I was unable to get into the car and power my way to my favourite cafe at a distance of 13-kilometres or 8-miles. And so I ran, like Lola.  

In the 1998 experimental thriller, Lola had twenty-minutes to save her boyfriend, I had less than a minute to run to the bus stop to catch the bus, which was at a red light about 300-metres from the stop. 

Just in time, I climbed onboard, and was told that the bus was going to a bus depot a little farther from where I boarded. I disembarked at the next stop and learned that only one bus halted there. Who knew how long before a relatively empty bus would show up? With hungry friends waiting for breakfast and to relish a reunion after eight months, passivity was not an option. I walked at a brisk pace, unconcerned by sweat and crowds, focused on making it quickly to the next stop. As I walked the distance of a kilometre or 0.62-miles, I watched three buses to my destination speed by.

Finally, I reached the desired bus stop and waited patiently for the bus; ten-minutes later it arrived. I climbed the three steps, thinking it’s time these buses got ramps: realities change and realities are varied, to design for a single reality is flawed. 

I walked to the front thankful that unlike the buses I had missed, this one had vacant seats. Sitting by the window, I felt the air circulate and all trace of mugginess was erased from my skin and memory. I looked out at signboards of institutional stores in narrow lanes of old Bombay: gems of typography and style, hidden by huge facades of modernity, made distance and time irrelevant.

My friends weren’t at the cafe yet. They had delayed their arrival in anticipation of my bus adventure. I was far from bothered as I got a table and ordered an almond-milk cappuccino. On the contrary, I was buoyant and filled with joy. I had negotiated my way out of an old habit or mental block. In a city of approximately 21-million, I had braved the bus because I loved nature and the life of all beings a little more than my comfort. I felt free and liberated. I learned that the joy of choosing from love is much greater than the righteousness of principles and is beyond the reach of conveniences offered by the modern economic system. My friends were amused, ‘Do you realise that most people who rode with you, do it every day?’ ‘Sure, but I did it for love,’ was my reply.

The third such incident in this series involved a road trip. After two-long Covid wave-and-lockdown years, I was making plans to give service at and to sit a Vipassana meditation retreat. From there I intended to drive to Navadarshanam, a forest preservation and sustenance farming space, with a halt at a coffee plantation to learn about the harvest-to-roast process that converts a beautiful berry into a brown bean and completes the morning ritual of many around the world. 

I enjoy road trips, especially because India dotted by villages and adorned by small verdant fields, waterfalls and streams, sun-dried montane grass, and perennial wild green forests offers stretches of un-manicured beauty as relief from shabby, unplanned development. 

I assumed simply that a road trip to my various destinations would be less polluting than taking flights, till I checked a carbon footprint calculator: a return flight and the journey by road released an equal amount of Carbon Dioxide, 0.16 metric tons. Not marginally less but equal! Detours while driving and taxi rides between airports and final destinations maintain this fine balance.  

The least polluting option is also my least favourite. Overnight train rides across 1200-kilometres or 745.65-miles bring emissions down to 0.01 metric tons, but they also sound in my head the horn of caution. Unpleasant experiences from past journeys make me apprehensive about choosing this option while travelling alone. I may therefore compromise and fly one-way while taking shorter train journeys on the way back. A decision as imperfect as the five-hour respite from the Diwali light show, and a choice that fills me with the same buoyancy as the bus ride after twenty-five years, is a reminder that love is larger than principles and greater than perfection. And all that love needs is idealism of the inclusive kind. 

Choice, a silver lining

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Choice, a silver lining

My maternal grandmother came from aristocracy and she married into a family similar in stature, yet, there came a point in her life where cupboards filled with gold and silver cutlery were replaced by four annas.

An anna was a currency unit formerly used in British India and afterwards in sovereign India upto the 1960s. Four annas is equivalent to 25 paise—that’s not even a cent! It’s actually 50 paise short of a cent (one cent is ~75 paise at current exchange rates). Yet, not once did her five daughters hear her complain. 

She had the choice to go back to her maternal home, lament over or denounce her husband’s ill-founded habits of speculative trade that had brought them misfortune, but she chose not to utter words that demeaned her dignity: For her, dignity came from acceptance and trust, trust in the laws of the universe. 

In that moment of choice, she decided not to be fortune’s dice. She could have, and the world would have sympathised, because for one who had so much, the pain of loss is felt vicariously by all, while for others it may be ignored, because ‘we are born into our fate’, a phrase that justifies our preoccupation and our systemic flaws. 

Her choice to retain her dignity through acceptance and trust meant that she continuously had to rise to the highest potential in humans. And each time she did, life provided support. Four annas were substituted, without asking, by a sum of money that would last for a while.This was a present for Rakhi, the festival where sisters and brothers recognise the purity of the relationship, expressed by a vermillion mark on the forehead and a string tied on the wrist, both symbols of the blessings and protection that relationships of purity bring. 

When she was an octogenarian (in her 80s), her spine deteriorated and she lost the ability to walk and gradually even to turn in bed. She had the choice to be bothered by this physical discomfort that lasted for about three years, but she chose instead to keep her equanimity, and when she breathed her last in her 91st year, she did so with a gentle mind. A final exhalation after her evening nourishment told us she had moved on silently, with the same dignity with which she lived.  

My grandmother’s life taught me that choices are available to everyone, those who lose their endowment, but gain privilege through strength in character, and those who have neither endowment nor privilege because they simply need to develop their character to make advantageous choices. 

Advantageous is that in which the mind is at ease with its own truth, where it doesn’t need to use its will to straighten fortune’s twists and curls. Choice begins with a simple question, about the kind of person we wish to be in that moment.

Recently, Shalaka Sisodia, friend and founder of Seeds of Awareness (SOA), a non-profit that addresses the delicate topic of choice and agency with children who come from challenging backgrounds shared a promo video. Ajay Devgn (one of the finer movie stars in Bollywood, India) was introducing the possibility of choice in a run-up to SOA’s recent release of short films that show the journey of two children, and make us pause and reflect on the moment when they made a choice. The choices naturally lead to a series of consequences that mould their life, however, what stood out for me was that regardless of the mould they created, the choice to remould was still theirs to make.

Life’s incredible benevolence became evident to me through these films—there is always a second chance! However, it’s not all upbeat, because a second chance is often hard to take, it requires tremendous courage, and more importantly it requires support. This takes the personal journey of choice-making from the individual to society. 

I think for the most part people are happy to help, however, in situations that may save someone from personal ruin, hesitancy seems to be a more common response. And asking for help is hard when you’re caught in a whirlwind of broken dreams, domestic and emotional violence, and destructive behaviour. 

This makes Seeds of Awareness’s commitment to help and support that much more worthy of admiration. Shalaka comes from much endowment and privilege, and yet she has put herself and her organisation in a place where many would dare not go, mostly because tough realities lay there; and it takes generosity and strength of character to stand up to them. Her team and her group of facilitators share equally in this acknowledgement.   

These short films (Hindi with English subtitles) can begin important conversations with children that we might find difficult to have otherwise. It may be best to remember that a conversation of this nature is not about pushing our own bias. It is a way to understand the child’s reality and to empower the child, as well as support them so that they can make advantageous choices with the least amount of friction. 

If you’re an educator, a parent, or someone who interacts closely with children, and are interested in facilitating such conversations, reach out to the team at Seeds of Awareness and understand the best way to direct these conversations. The situations and the backgrounds of the children in these short films may differ from the ones that your children encounter, but is that really pertinent?

Sireesha Dasaka, ex-banker and a full-time mother of two children (boys of twelve and eight-years), trained as a facilitator with Seeds of Awareness, and was privy to a dialogue at an International School. She witnessed 6th and 7th-grade children vocalise empathy for and sensitivity towards the children in the film, despite not having exposure to the particularities of their situations and background. 

Their moral radars were quick at catching the injustice of repression, stereotyping, unhealthy body image, and gender disparity. ’It seems,’ says Sireesha, ‘From what I observed of these children, empathy comes naturally to us humans.’ And all that needs to keep that circle of empathy from disintegrating is a conversation, a pause, and a moment of reflection that helps us make advantageous choices.