Penpa Tang-ing with Neha

(November, 2005)

Neha is the recently-turned-eight-year-old across the street. Every encounter with her is an edifying experience. A few mornings ago she skipped over with her grandmother and our share of homemade Divali sweets. I was en route, basket in hand, to our back yard, to gather morning flowers. “Pavithrakka can I also come? I am loving flauv-ers very much,” says Neha, in her fun, formal, not always grammatically correct, but unfailing expressive English. “Of course,” I say, and we head towards the Coral Jasmine tree out back- a tall, slender trunked beauty that all year round rains fragrant white blossoms with bright coral stalks onto the grass each night. Gathering these flowers each morning is a ritual of enchantment. Magic is born in the presence of such unreasonable, unravished beauty.

I wish I could say that such a poetic start to the morning renders one invincible to all the daily demons of impatience, and indignation, of I-ness and My-ness and My-Soul-Is-A-Squashed-Tomato-ness. But apparently you can’t buy that kind of invincibility with a basketful of flowers. It takes a modicum more diligence, more vigilance than that. But what gathering a morning basketful of flowers can provide is- a sort of sacred space to set the tone of the day. There’s a Tibetan phrase for this that I learnt recently– penpa tang. And I have found that setting that sacred space does make a difference in how I live my day- or at least in my awareness of how I live my day. Or perhaps I’m just trying to dignify my self-proclaimed vocation, of, à la James Kavanugh, being born to–

(…)catch dragons in their dens
And pick flowers
To tell tales and laugh away the morning
To drift and dream like a lazy stream
And walk barefoot across sunshine days”

Either way, I am here now with Neha, under the Coral Jasmine tree. When it rains at night, this tree pours. And it is monsoon season now, so the ground beneath the tree is carpeted in white and orange. Drifts of blossoms, so deep they can be gathered by the careful-not-to-crush fistful. I reach over with both hands, and shake the trunk gently. Neha tilts her head and looks up, watching the white sudden swirl of blossoms, blossoms falling like stars, falling like snowflakes. Her expression one of perfectly mingled awe and delight (my day is made in that moment.) We both bend in unison to the sweetly-scented task at hand. I find myself wondering, with a faint twinge of apprehension and amusement, what Neha is going to say next. I am loathe to let the lyricism of this moment veer into the prosaic. As ridiculous as it sounds, I find myself wanting to shield the sacredness of the space from small talk. This is because I have momentarily forgotten that 8-year-olds do not do small talk.

“Do you like Mother Teresa?” Neha’s question asked in the micro-interval between one handful of blossoms and the next, is matter-of-fact and sans preamble.

“Y-yes,” I answer, somewhat startled, but also intrigued by, her choice of conversation starters.

“I also am liking her very much. She is helping all the people who are suffering from This and That. Nobody else to help them otherwise. All the people in the world say she is very kind. And then she died.”

The small heap of flowers in the basket is growing. Fresh, soft white flowers today. Dried brown brittle ones tomorrow.

“What did you say?” I have to know whether I heard the last part of this little impromptu speech correctly.

“She died,” says Neha, all of eight, “End of story.”

“End of story,” I echo.

“Pavithrakka look at this,” she is pointing to a fern under the tree, a fern that is now strewn with small white flowers, “It looks like the flowers grew there, no?” A thought I’ve so often had.

“Yes it does. Neha– what do you want to be when you grow up?” And in my head I have already framed her answer– she will want to help people suffering from This and That, like Mother Teresa.

Neha looks over at me for a brief moment, then–

“I think I will also be a Flower Collector,” she says.


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