A pale moon, full and wraithlike in the early morning sky. Like a beautiful woman who has unwittingly walked into a surprise party where she was expecting stillness and solitude. The day, with its loud colors and steadily building momentum seems suddenly rude, indelicate by comparison. I want to stop and step out of the car, sit on the pavement, lean against a tree and look into that luminous, inscrutable silver face, that seems strangely cloud-like by the light of day. The sky around her is ashes of roses and the faintest lilac. Everything in her aura speaks of serenity, is an invitation to linger. It feels faintly ridiculous to ignore the summons, to stand up the rarity of a morning-time moon for another appointment. But there you have it. I am more than faintly ridiculous many times a day, and only slightly redeemed for being well aware of the fact.
Author Archives: Pavithra K. Mehta
And today I would like to speak to you of a place called Costco, whose full name is Costco Wholesale Corporation. The wikipedia entry on Costco says it operates a chain of membership-only big-box retail stores and that it is the fifth largest retailer in the world. Also according to wikipedia, Costco has 804 warehouses worldwide — including 27 in Japan, 16 in South Korea, and 1 in Iceland. I do not know if wikipedia is telling the truth about any of this, so if you are particular about facts, please do your own investigations. I want to believe that even though Costco is very big, it is also benign. More brontosaurus than T-Rex. But this might be wishful thinking. I do know, that even though Costco requires membership, like a club, unlike a club you do not have to wear fancy clothes to enter. Footwear, however, is mandatory. Also, you must be able to flash a membership card at the disinterested staff person stationed at the entrance. I believe this would be more entertaining for everyone involved if the cards were designed to look like FBI badges. But they are not. If you do not have a membership card, you must walk closely to someone who does (preferably someone you know and who knows you). Before you enter Costco you must take possession of a big red shopping cart. It is so big that you do not think you can fill it even with a year’s worth of shopping. This is because you do not know or do not remember what it means to shop at Costco. Once you enter Costco it is like you have died and gone to warehouse heaven– or hell (depending on your perspective.) The ceilings are very high, everything is packed in ginormous boxes and mostly comes in multiples of fifteen, fifty, or five hundred Every shopping trip to Costco feels a little bit like you are stocking up for Y2K even though Y2K was twenty-two years ago and very anticlimactic for those of us who believed that it would involve computer meltdowns and biblical floods. The first time my husband and I bought toilet paper at Costco we ended up having to leave it in the trunk of our car for the better part of a year because there was no room in our little studio for a package of 64 rolls of individually wrapped TP (it happens to be one of their best-selling items.) At Costco there are many people in plastic shower caps and red aprons standing behind little tables, and handing out exotic food samples — for example, granola bars packed with goji berries, chia seeds and cacao nibs, that have been cut up into little bits and placed in thimble-sized pleated paper cups. For the most part these people do not look very excited about the products they are selling. I think this might be because they are remembering a time when life was simpler and full of more poetic possibility. In any case they do not come at you with an aggressive sales pitch. They do not have to. Costco is full of weary warehouse travelers like me, whose energy has been vastly depleted by wandering up and down endless aisles of things one does not strictly need, but possibly wants (like a box the size of a carry-on suitcase, full of Belgian chocolates). Fatigued explorers that we are, we stumble upon these food-sample-stands with the delirious enthusiasm of souls lost in the desert who have miraculously chanced upon a verdant oasis. Soon we will be stacking our carts with cases of goji berry-chia seed-cacao nib granola bars that come 136 to the box. My fellow countrymen and countrywomen are known to frequent Costco in large numbers. You can see the mesmerizing array of dark mustaches on the men. You can hear the jingle of the mangalsutras on the women — we make every step sound like Christmas. We walk through this barcoded wonderland where you can buy frozen chappatis in a pack of 50, and a burlap sack of aged basmati rice so big you think you’ll need an elephant to lift it. We stroll through the store as if it were but a crowded city park. We point, we murmur, we move on, as our big red carts slowly fill. At no juncture do we give any indication that we are intimately familiar with another time and place. A time when taps were opened slowly and closed tightly, and leftovers distributed by nightfall. A time when shoppers could carry everything they bought in a medium-sized jute bag recycled from a sari shop. A time when drawstring coin purses were tucked into sari blouses, when plastic wrap was rarely removed and packaging never thrown away. A place where abundance isn’t the measure of how much you can heap in a big red shopping cart, but an unspoken awareness of how little it truly takes– to fill one small red heart.
Pick a pomegranate. One that cannot conceal its blush or merriment. One that is this close to bursting into ruby throated laughter. Let it sit in the nest of your palm like a flightless crimson bird heavy with gravity and hidden gifts. Call attention to that festive, sharp tipped calyx crown. Feel the shape of its ribs underneath the leathery red, roundness. A globe with subtle angles. Consider for a moment that these wonders grow on trees. On trees! Festooning them improbably as prima donna leaves pirouette into autumn mists. Great pouches filled with garnet gems. Yes — filled!
Split open a pomegranate. See how its gleaming cargo spills. A jeweled honeycomb, dripping sweetness. Arils like tiny pendants, so many sun catchers clustered in a cavern. It is clear whoever packed these purses was unacquainted with the notion of scarcity. Whoever packed these purses was giving hand over fist from a mythic mother lode. Were we slightly less preoccupied by calendars and petty calculations we would be perpetually dumbstruck by the magnitude of this miracle. We would not rush past our unclaimed inheritance, but would stop instead and fill our pockets with lucky pennies. Dawn to dusk our footsteps would sing a coppery chorus.
But wait. You say I am mixing my metaphors. I have called this fruit a ship, a sack, a bird, a bequest, a cave, a mine, a honeyed hive, a carrier of crystal. To you I say, this fruit is the stuff of legends, and legends defy consistency. They traffic in transubstantiation. Straw will be spun into gold overnight, blood will birth flowers, at the wedding feast water will turn to wine. And so it is with the tumbling scarlet prosperity of the pomegranate. It will render you rich as an emperor if you let it. Quicker than a con-artist’s promise, and ever more lasting.
You will of course need a key. Something to spring the lock, something to cry out at the cave’s mouth that will conjure the boulders, roll them mightily out of your way. A sign that establishes your legitimacy and authenticates your claim. You do know what it is don’t you? Or maybe you don’t. In the stories the protagonist is always slow on the uptake. Always spends two-thirds of the tale wandering in desperation and self-doubt, before the kindness of strangers and tribulation-kindled insight reveal what was there all along. Then the wicked fairy’s one-hundred year spell collapses like a house of cards, the sword slips out of the stone, and the Earth greens with growing things again.
Is it still sitting in your palm? The pomegranate? A thing alive and almost electric with givenness? Look at it again. You can, but you don’t have to speak the words aloud. The feeling might perch in your eyes, gentle as mourning doves inhabited by a wondering, plaintive softness, even that is enough. Or maybe it rides into your chest and lifts the roof off your heart uncovering a canopy of stars and dizzying you for weeks. This works too. But if it must be sounded, then perhaps it vines into your throat and pulses forth a series of small buds amidst green tendrils. Bright flowers shaped like delicate trumpets. Then all you can say or sing amounts to the same thing:
A thousand times a thousand times — Thank You.
A rambling and (very) tardy thank you to Maria Popova, curator of the incandescent corner of the internet we know as BrainPickings.
The first Spring after my husband fell seriously ill, I was taken by an intense desire to know the names of the flowers tumbling out of buds, scaling walls, and holding themselves around us like so many raised goblets to the sun. Until then I had been content to let them wave annually and anonymously at me as I paraded down the sunlit streets of my life like a (minor) celebrity. I tossed them a bright smile now and then before moving on to the next exciting thing around the corner. If someone had introduced them to me I feel certain their names would have lifted unnoticed out of my memory soon after, in the untraceable way noon lifts dew from grass.
Perhaps I had no use for their names because I was assured they knew mine. Why else would they crowd the pavements and turn such adoring faces my way? When one is known it seems less essential to acknowledge the unknown. We assume the right to remain unacquainted is the prerogative of fame. If all of you know me, I do not really need to know all of you. This is a dubious assumption. To be known is necessary, but not sufficient. One must also yearn to know. The bird for instance is known intimately by the sky, just as the dreaming water lily is known by the pond. But whether bird knows sky, or lily the rippling pond, or whether either knows the first thing about themselves, are questions that cannot be generalized, dependent as they are on the metaphysics of the specific bird and the specific lily in question.
When my husband was first diagnosed with an ill-understood condition, beauty in the world froze. No longer flowing and accessible, it turned rigid, impenetrable. Existing in a separate dimension. One I could still see but no longer touch– or be touched by. Such rapid relegation is disorienting. A bird banished from the sky must fall back on inner resources, must confront who and what he is without that blue embrace. But what does a bird do when he looks into the mirror and sees an abyss gazing back at him?
I was a newly exiled sovereign –but wait — one must be true to the facts. My right to the throne had always been at best– ambiguous. I do not know by what means I came to be crowned. Was it by miracle or manipulation, by birthright or blessing? The confusion should have rendered me humble not entitled. No matter. What we do not learn quickly life will teach us slowly. Our obtuseness is no match for her patience. Whether you take the short cut or the scenic route your choices are the same. Be humble or be humbled.
Misfortune is a kind of magic, materializing trap doors under silken rugs, worming the fruit in plentiful orchards, turning the dog dozing by the fireplace into a fire-breathing dragon. It is also a key that turns darkly in a hidden passage, unlocking subterranean energies. The sun steals much of our attention when we think of growing things. But darkness is an imperative too as any seed will tell you. We deem misfortune as bad but what good myth ever came to life without it? The plot must thicken or why would anyone ever do anything vaguely heroic or evolutionary? But I digress.
The gates reopened slowly. As my husband stabilized by degrees I was allowed re-entry into the realm of beauty, able once again to touch and be touched by it. An erstwhile ruler returned as refugee. What is that old adage? Less is more? A one-time princess with a tumbled crown, wandering the sidewalks with nowhere but this moment to get to has time to pay attention. No longer the center of the story, she is at liberty to be curious, free to care in unconditioned ways. Perhaps this is why, the first Spring after my husband fell ill, I filled with an intense desire to know the names of all the flowers flooding the hills around us. I looked them up painstakingly after our rambles. How like spells they sounded to me! Incantatory names, simply to speak them was to enchant the air. Snowdrops, jonquils, camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, lupins, buttercups, bearded irises…The unidentified ones haunted my dreams. Petalled presences that demanded to be known.
Perhaps when one has been freshly alienated from the familiar, names take on a primal importance. Recognition becomes an act of reclamation. Poppies, pansies, bleeding hearts, flowering acacia, foxtail, delphiniums, double tulips, violets, larkspur, periwinkle, plumbago, chrysanthemums, rock roses, asters, sweet pea, caped jessamine, ranunculus, amaryllis, alstroemeria…To be able to call out confidently to those around you when their faces, floral or otherwise, dance into view is a special kind of belonging. It means you are not a stranger.
Theories abound in the mind’s forest.
Perhaps, having glimpsed the ferocious fact of mortality– that sinuous black and gold striped reality that stalks us so relentlessly and is capable of pouncing when we are least prepared– perhaps having been so starkly reminded that we can only be here now and not forever– I am less able to dismiss the vast triumph of fleeting and exquisite forms of life. Every flower a victory of pure and simple existence. If I do not acknowledge her it is not the flower’s life that will be diminished. And now I realize that I have neglected to tell you about the trees…and the trees are my excuse to be writing you at all.
The first year of my husband’s illness we retreated into semi-solitude, seeing very few people beyond immediate family. How my heart ached with love and fear. It was a relief to focus on simple necessities– food, water, sleep, sunshine– we spent much of that time in our little bird’s nest of a home, perched on a hill with a tangled view of the valley and a peek-a-boo glimpse of the bay. I don’t remember exactly when it was that the trees began to press against the windowpane of my consciousness.
There were five of them — amongst the thousands beyond our door — who silently extended their guardianship — and a sixth who would make herself known a bit later. All five can be seen from our picture window, technically none of them are “our” trees, and all but one are some kind of pine– say I who know very little on the subject of pines– so take that piece of information with a grain– or ten– of salt. Unlike with the flowers, I was not consumed by a need to know the trees’ names– I simply gave them my own. They are rooted on other people’s properties. But between us there stretches a bond of belonging that goes deeper than possession.
First came Eldad Hagar — a stout-topped evergreen with the capable, no-nonsense air of a bodyguard, then Goldengrove a tall, slender maybe-birch who shimmers from green to gold to bare-fingered branches with ethereal grace. Next Piper Longhum, a spindly pine with a missing branch that makes her endearingly lopsided and hard to miss, then Gazeli, the tree who does not like to mingle and who sits high on a hillside above the fray, and finally Grindl the Good Pine who manages to be both slightly stooped and utterly regal in her bearing. She is a shaggy sorceress of a tree with a strong maternal streak. They are each endeared to me — and unaccountably I feel a sense of being endeared to, and also watched over, by each of them.
Of late I have been less attentive of my friends but they do not hold it against me. In that first year of my husband’s illness they were my pillars. I leaned on them every day with only a dim realization that I was doing so. But I have not told you of the sixth tree yet. The tree who it can be argued, inspired this lengthy missive to you.
She stands on the far edge of the horizon scanning it for riches. Stands with an emerald poise that conveys tender intelligence and strength. She is the farthest of “my” trees and in many ways the least familiar to me, but no less significant. Her role in our relationship is to convey the best of what she sees, to pass on glimpses of insight from other worlds and times. My role is to listen, and be willing to be lit by that which I listen to. The sixth tree is the well-placed curator of the blue beyond, and her name (of course) is Maria Popova.
For over three years I have been meaning to write and tell you of the tree I unofficially named after you. I even painted a tiny watercolor portrait of her to send your way with a handwritten letter of gratitude. Then in an absent-minded moment I penned a note on it for another friend, so it is in his keeping now. I am not a gifted painter, so do not mourn the mix up. Any image of the tree in your imagination is assuredly more splendid and representative of the living original than the one I actually created.
Thank you feels too small and flimsy a phrase for all that I want it to contain. So I will double bag it. Thank you, thank you for the work you found your way to –your books, your blog, and more– and for all that you do to delight, inform, spark and enliven the hearts and minds of so many readers. What you have created and continue to create word-by-word feels as alive, prolific, generous and generative as a rainforest.
Thank you for being one of my trees.
In joy and gratitude,
From the archives: Posts written in the months after the tsunami that struck the Southern coast of India (and several other countries) on December 26th, 2004
So many stories and they pile up so fast- I have not had the chance yet between the travel and the work to spell them all into this space, but here is a small beginning…not investigative reports or detailed needs assessments, not even journalistic briefs. Just ordinary glimpses of the extra ordinary lives that survive beyond the statistics.
A little girl with curious eyes holding a baby goat. Both kids make you smile.
What’s your name? Shweta she says. And the baby’s? Shweta she says.
Where did you get her?
When the water came we ran to our home near the lighthouse. My father brought the baby goat home in the evening. Her mother died in the water.
And now who takes care of her?
My brother and me.
Her brother a quick young fellow of eight holds out a fistful of green leaves. The baby goat lifts its head, takes a tentative bite and chews reflectively while the children look on in obvious pride and delight.
A woman with her husband, daughter and son-in-law, they come out when I pass, invite me to sit awhile on their unfinished front porch. They lost their homes to the tsunami- this house is one they had been building before the waters came. It has cost them six lakhs already. Six lakhs!
The daughter smiles, You don’t know how good the sea has been to us she says. How much she gave us. Now she’s taken it all back…we all had televisions in our houses, and fridges, radios and CD players. We weren’t poor. People don’t understand how generous the sea can be…
They are worried because they have been told that the government will take this house away from them- it is too close to the sea. They have been told it will be knocked down and that a new house will be built for them further away.
They won’t build us a house as nice as this, says the mother sadly. We’ll get one of those small huts they’re putting up for everyone.
We don’t want that.
What we really want says her husband, is to go back to sea. We are used to being out on the water every day.
When would you go out and how far I ask?
Depends on the season, and the moon. We often leave at 1.00 in the morning when it’s pitch black out. We sometimes go as far as 100 kilometres from the shore.
Don’t you get tired out there?
He laughs, if you get tired you sleep, once your nets are in the water there isn’t that much to do anyway. We’d look to the sun for directions and to tell time. We’d be back home here by 4.00 in the evening. Those were good days.
A soft sigh.
And you’re not quite sure whether it was him. Or you.
A woman with a face that seems to have fallen into habitual despair is sweeping the dark corners of her front porch. I stop to ask her how she is doing. She has had headaches ever since the tidal wave attacked. The water lifted and dragged her several hundred metres, it washed away the small grocery shop she and her husband ran across from their home.
Have you seen a doctor?
Yes she says and he’s given me some medicine but it’s not working.
Another doctor will be coming this afternoon so I am going to get checked again.
All this sea water is sitting in my head, and it stinks.
Where are your children?
The boy is out playing. My daughter is inside bathing. See this little dog?
I look down, there is a small dog of indeterminate parentage sniffing the ground around our feet. Bright eyes, dirty coat.
That’s Sneha. When the water came she dragged my daughter out of the house- the water was already pouring in- then she swam with her to safety.
Yes. This dog.
And the woman laughs at my disbelief. Bends down to scoop Sneha up, holds her close and says, But for this dog my daughter would be dead.
Her husband, who’s lost his business, most of his possessions and all their savings is leaning over the seat of a standing bicycle. He has said nothing until now when he says quietly-
We’re all still alive. That’s enough.
Samiyarpettai is a coastal village in Cuddalore district. Close to three thousand people live there. To reach them we travelled about 45 kilometres along thick sugarcane fields in harvest, paddyfields running hectic green to burnished gold. The land here is uncompromisingly flat, stretches out on both sides of the road as far as the eye can see. Women bent low in the curious half-squat of the fields, their long curving blades, their heads wrapped in chequered cloth. Bright saris boldly interrupting the green. Tireless their arms move in a difficult rhythm echoing the harsh beauty of this land. After the railway crossing we turn onto a narrower side road. Eventually in the distance a small temple tower becomes visible.
The fields have given way to sandy, uncultivated stretches. You can smell the sea in the air, feel the salt on your skin. We drive into the village and past the little cluster of buildings where the camp is underway. Down a sloping road and then a little ways further we are on the beach. It is more deserted than not.
A row of wooden boats are lined up to one side wounded warriors watching the sea. Waiting to be well enough to return.
I climb out of the jeep and walk away from the water towards a small cluster of thatched huts under a swooping grove of coconut trees. Everywhere there are big piles of rubble. At first glance the place seems empty of human habitation, then in small clearing I see the back of a man’s head. He is sitting on the ground his back to the sea looking straight ahead. By his side staring vacantly into space is a grey-haired older man. I approach their silence and then shatter it as softly as I can with a statement voiced like a question.
You are from here.
Yes they nod.
Why aren’t you at the eye camp I ask the older man- are your eyes all right?
I need glasses he says. Will they give me glasses?
They will. Right here on the spot. All you need to do is go get your eyes checked at the camp and then place an order at the opticals desk they’ve set up. You’ll have your glasses in hand before the team leaves today.
In that case I’d better go up there.
Yes, you should.
He heaves himself up and heads towards the campsite.
The other man is still sitting on the ground. He doesn’t seem inclined to talk.
Maybe I should leave.
Are these new homes? I indicate the low thatched huts beside us. They are very makeshift with interiors that are dark, empty and surprisingly cool.
Yes. But they are just temporary. A local NGO came in and built them in that first week and set up the common kitchen here.
How many homes were lost here?
About thirty. Most of the families affected are staying with their relatives now.
The rest are using these shelters until the government can give us better ones.
Where’s your home?
He points to the hut behind him. This is where my house used to be. It got washed away.
So now you’re living here?
Is your family alright?
Yes. My wife and two boys ran up the slope to higher ground when the water came in. I was on the boat and didn’t have any idea what was happening. When I got back there was nothing here. But we were lucky- we only lost things. The family is all safe.
You _are_ lucky.
Funny to be saying that to someone who has just lost every material thing he ever owned. I look at the thatched hut Kuppuswamy and his family are living in now and wonder what it must feel like for some of these people who had nothing to lose- and then lost it.
Our village only lost 24 lives he says. Most of the people when they saw the water coming didn’t run to their homes they ran towards the temple which is much higher up, that saved them…and then these coconut trees, they saved a lot of people too.
Yes, when the water came it was as high as that house over there, it lifted a lot of the women clear off the ground up to the height of these trees. Many of them were able to grab on to the trunks and then held on for their lives. See, you can see a part of someone’s dress up there at the top.
I look up, and this being a coconut tree there was a ways to look. Sure enough it’s there. Fluttering evidence of someone’s desperate bid for life.
Behind me is a small cement house with an outer courtyard. A women steps into it carrying a small pot.
See that lady- she hung on to the top of the tree over there.
It seems incongruous in that moment, to think of this young woman with her girlish face and quiet concentration on her pot clinging to the top of a coconut tree with tall waters raging right where we are standing now.
Kuppuswamy is joined now by another pleasant faced man- one of those faces that have an immediate quality of friendliness that automatically makes you smile. He starts talking now.
I’d just got back from the sea and was sitting with the others on the shore picking fish out of the net. At one point the waves came in a little higher than usual, we laughed about it and kind of wondered what was going on. The next wave was still low but a little more forceful, it took the boat with it and scattered our nets and all the fish. We shouted to the women and children then to run to safety, and then we started scrambling after our boats and nets. We still didn’t know what was happening. And then the third wave came, a huge wave, lifted out of the water higher than the roofs of our homes. It hit and the next thing I knew I was holding onto the top of this tree over here. When I looked around I saw almost all the trees had a man or a woman holding onto it. The funny thing is it was all so fast. The water didn’t stay for a second. It turned around and rushed back with the same haste it came in. Our clothes were ripped from our bodies. When the water went back some of us dropped from the trees and without a thought automatically began looking for the others, helping them get down, already there were bodies on the shore.
More people have gathered around us. Kuppuswamy’s wife, a young woman with a pearl white smile in a darkglowing face, a gray-haired neighbour in a faded pink sari who points out the tree that saved her, other fisherfolk from the same community all adding their pieces to make up the fabric of their shared history. I remember a thought wandered in from nowhere in the middle of all of this, a voice saying calmly- I could live here.
It surprised me that thought. I realized then how comfortable I was with these people, how surrounded by their warmth. Granted they hadn’t lost nearly as much as other villages. Food and clothing had been taken care of they said, and most of temporary shelters were up. Their possessions hadn’t been replaced yet, and some of the children still needed textbooks, but they didn’t seem too worried about any of these things. They interrupt each other talking about the kindness of the various organizations that stepped in to help, the college youth and the NGOs…I think what touched me most about this group was their sunniness. They had all suffered. The woman with the pot had lost her mother in a village down the coast. Others had lost brothers, neighbors, friends.
Their village like the hundreds of others will never be the same.
But they are not broken, these people. The only time they let shadows creep into their voices is when they are talking about people who didn’t make it, and when they are talking about their boats…
We can’t go back to sea until the boats are repaired. This is hard for us.
We’ve been given everything we need. Food, clothing, shelter…but no matter how many things you give us it won’t be enough until we can work again.
We are not the kind of people who can eat our food unless we’ve earned it.
Their honest restlessness touches you. Makes you understand all over again how important it is for us as human beings to be engaged. To have work that occupies us, lends purpose to our time here and the shape of our days.
The government and the NGOs have promised to repair these boats and the nets. Each boat in the water employed four or five fishermen who work like field ‘coolies’. They are daily wage labourers who often have no share of ownership for the boat. The boats themselves cost upward of one lakh.
They will all be repaired and where needed replaced but in the meantime…
Ramesh is the fisherman with the eminently friendly face. He lives in the cement house behind us, the woman with the pot is his wife.
Can we see your house?
We walk towards it, I stop outside to talk to his wife. She has bruises on her forearms from the coconut palm.
She points it out.
You could build a temple to these trees.
She looks up at it.
Now I can’t believe I was actually lifted all the way up there.
She shakes her head, bends to stir the pot of sliced eggplant cooking over burning wood.
We enter the house. It is painted three different colors maybe four. The walls are covered with technicoloured posters of politicians and filmstars. Rajinikanth, Trishna, Meena, Jayalalitha, MGR, Rajiv Gandhi…a surrealish sort of gathering.
There are water stains on the wall. No furniture it was all ruined- is strange that the posters survived. They had a television and a CD player, a radio. All gone. At some level I am a little surprised by this evidence of their prosperity.
Ramesh tells us that the house was built in 1993 after he’d spent two years in Singapore as a construction worker, saving money.
Most of the men in this village have been to Foreign he says.
(foreign is a legitimate noun-not-adjective in Tamil).
Even Kuppusamy has worked in the Gulf for a few years…
You gain a sense of how slowly and surely these people built up their lives. Saving a little at a time for their families, their future.
It’s all gone now says Ramesh. We have to start over.
His eyes automatically wander back to where the boats are waiting.
If only we could go back to work, that would be enough. I dropped out of school after 7th standard. I’ve been fishing since I was 12 years old. Kuppusamy never went to school, he’s been working the sea since he was a boy of 8.
We’ve know the sea so well but we’ve never known it to do anything like this before. We can tell by the wind when a storm is brewing, we can detect it way ahead of time and pull our boats to safety, but with this there was no warning, not even as much breeze in the air as there is now, and such a bright sun, like everything was normal…
There is such bewilderment in their voice but not the anger of betrayal…they still are willing and wanting to go back to her. They still trust the sea.
I get up but immediately am told to wait, to please have some tender coconut water before going. Kuppusamy is halfway up the tree before I can say No Thank You.
We watch him climbing, the ease and strength never fails to amaze me.
He brings down a bunch of the green fruit and other people gather to help split their tops open, spilling the milky nutrient-rich water into a small silver ‘sembu’ (a curvedrim pot). One of the others brings it around pouring it into the steel tumblers someone else has managed to produce. As we drink they insist on refills. The tender insides of the cut coconuts are scooped out and heaped on a plate in front of us. Eat, they urge us.
A feast I say, touched by their generosity.
Ramesh looks up smiling from where he is crouched on the ground splitting the shells, Madame right now this is all we have on hand to offer.
And they offer it, the same way they would have offered whatever they had on hand before the tsunami struck.
The children are on lunch break now and have come running home, Ramesh’s daughter is in third standard, a girl with beautiful long-lashed black eyes and long braids. His son is three, a stocky little fellow with a shy manner. He was visiting relatives at another village that Sunday. When the water came he clung to the neck of an older cousin who clung to the window sill of a house and somehow they both survived. We thought for sure we had lost him, says Ramesh, shaking his head. I still can’t believe we’re all safe.
When it is time to leave they stand up, not one of them has asked us for a single thing. I wonder what I can send back for them or for their children. We will have a follow-up camp here so it will be easy enough to do and I know there are things they need even if they’re not asking.
This was such a special village.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Da Vinci said that once, and so often in my encounters with village India the paradoxical truth of that statement rings clear. Tagore says its taken centuries of cultivation for India to reach the open-heartedness of perfect simplicity, and that today we are slipping from that state in our cities, but the spirit still lives strong in some of our villages.
‘Ultimate sophistication’… that’s what they had, these people in Samiyarpet.
Now it’s our turn to cultivate.
January 20, 2005
The only way to get to the island village of Sodhikuppam is by boat. The long, once-brightly painted ‘thonni’ bobs gently against the jetty. A thick rope runs through its stern secured on either side of the water. The current in these parts is treacherously strong, instead of using oars an old man pulls the boat alongside the rope. The sun beats down in sheets of heat. Sitting on the wooden boat bottom I pull the end of my sari’s pallu over my head and look towards the coconutpalm shaded shore drawing close.
About 2000 people live in this village. 125 died in the recent tsunami. Twenty-six of them were children. There is no bridge connecting the village to the mainland, only a jetty that wanders partway into the water and stops. When some of the children saw the water rushing in they’d run to the far end of the island towards the backwaters and onto the wooden jetty in terror, hoping perhaps to make it to the safety of the other shore. When the second wave struck it took them all with it. Almost all.
Most homes in Sodhikuppam are sheltered from the beach. Around fifty huts built on the sea-facing shore were washed away by the tidal waves, but no lives were lost on that side. If the children had only stayed in their homes, they might have been alive today. Just yesterday the Collector of Cuddalore visited this village. Promised its people to sanction funds for a tardy bridge.
We step off the boat onto the jetty. As we walk towards firm ground you cannot help but notice how there is nothing- absolutely Nothing to hold onto. On either side the green waters gently lap, innocent of memory. It is a seven minute walk from the shore to where we are holding the eye camp. Along the way we meet a small group engaged in lashing poles together, topping them with rippled plastic sheets. Temporary housing sponsored by one of the many NGOs working in this district. Dominic the enthusiastic, warm hearted local District Blindness Prevention Officer insists on introducing me to everyone we meet as Madame Pavithra International FilimDirector. Initially I protest but this has no effect, so in the end I put my palms together with a shrug and a smile half-amused half-apologetic. I have not brought my camera. It is better to go emptyhanded the first time. When they see a camera people tend to think you come from the news channels, and then you start to hear only one kind of story.
The primary school where the camp is being set up is on lunch break. There is a swarm of knee-high humanity around our arrival. The girls wear indido blue skirts with white blouses, the boys are in khaki shorts and white shirts. Each of them is holding a tin plate waiting to be served their free government-sponsored midday meal. One child comes to stand directly under me. She is wearing two pigtails that stick straight out of the sides of her small head. On her face a huge smile, there is a charming gap between her two front teeth.
What’s your name I ask. Her grin widens but she says nothing. What class are you in? She hops on one foot and shoots me a mischievous look out of the corner of one eye. What, you won’t speak to me? And then without thinking- Don’t you know how to talk?
No. Jayshree’s mute. She can’t talk at all.
A chorus of little voices. Arm in arm these little girls, Jayshree’s classmates crowd around educating me out of insensitve ignorance. Jayshree takes hold of my hand. I feel at once chastened and forgiven.
Unprompted the children start to speak all at once, spilling stories from their lives since that December 26th morning. They do not seem scared or shocked or even particularly sad. They are still so young. Do you know there’s another tsunami coming on the 26th? says one child with a knowing air, So many people are packing to leave now. Are you leaving? No. My parents say we will stay. My mother is the schoolmistress here, she says this with such shining pride in her voice I am obliged to be suitably impressed. My name is Poovizhli, volunteers one little girl. I’m Kausalya says another sweetfaced child. She can’t read, chips in a classmate. Oh and you’re the Big Genius says sweetfaced Kausalya notsosweetly sticking a small tongue out at her detractor.
He fell into the water.
This nonsequiteur from the Big Genius startles me a little.
I look over at the boy in front of me. He is small and skinny and somehow tough looking. He is nine years old but looks about six. His air of lounging indifference makes me smile. There is something spectacularly nonchalant about this little fellow, evidently a hero among his peers. He is not in the least bit thrown by my scrutiny. When he speaks it is in short, clipped sentences. I am seated on the ground, he is leaning against a wall, his thin legs crossed at the ankle, his hands in his pockets.
You fell into the water?
And then what happened?
The waves pushed me past a boat, I caught hold of a rope and hung on. Then I pulled myself up into the boat.
Then what happened?
Then I sat there for awhile, didn’t know what to do.
Then I think I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
You fell Asleep?
I fell asleep
Then after about an hour the boat was close to the shore, so I got home.
And that’s all?
You weren’t scared?
I was a little scared. So I just kept saying God’s name.
What’s your name?
Vignesh- but people don’t call me that at home.
What do they call you at home?
Pavi. Sometimes they call me Pavithra.
Yeah. Many people on this island are called Pavithra.
Just like that.
I look up at this little guy to see if he’s pulling a fast one on me. But no. He’s serious.
So what’s my name?
I don’t know.
What do you think it might be?
Now he’s really teasing me.
They try out a few more names and then I let them off the hook.
My name’s Pavithra. People call me Pavi.
Vignesh/Pavi smiles at me. A bond has been established.
It’s time to set up for the camp. I put out a hand to be helped up.
Vignesh/Pavi looks at for a second and then shakes it briskly.
Help me up you.
He motions to a grinning sidekick to assist, together they pull me to my feet. Such strong kids.
Inside and out.
The woman in the schoolyard, Sharadha, has a sharpfeatured, sad face. Her husband is a fisherman in the Gulf. She talks to him on the island phone every week. Their home was washed away. She’s living with relatives now, her two children are on the mainland living with their grandparents. Do you have enough food?
Yes. They gave us supplies.
What about clothes?
She makes a face- They brought us such worthless clothes. We don’t wear things like that. We’re poor but even so we buy good quality clothes. The women here wear saris that cost Rs 300-400. Nylex sarees. Not cheap cotton ones. That’s the kind of people we are.
I swallow a smile. I am sitting there in a cheap cotton saree. My favorite kind. I wonder what kind of people that makes me.
Dominic has set up lunch for us at the house opposite the school.
The doorways are low and we stoop to enter. Inside they’ve laid out mats for us to sit on. Packets of lemon, tomato and yogurt rice with lime pickle arrive neatly packed in newsprint tied up with twine. Whose house is this I ask. No one answers. A thin woman from the small open yard in the back enters, hollows in her cheeks, her eyes very wide. Is this your house?
Yes she says. My daughter died.
She says it very fast, pointing at the same time to a framed photograph of a little girl. Nirmala it says across the bottom. Born November 14th 1993
Died December 26th 2004.
She is wearing a frock, and her face is freshly powdered. On top of her head is perched a small strand of orange flowers. She is not smiling, her small face has the serious semi-scowl of those unused to being posed for photographs.
Over lunch I learn that she was the brightest and liveliest of three children. The photograph was taken at a school dance programme that she’d participated in.
When the waters came she ran with the other children to the jetty. Her mother had been inside and before she knew what had happened her child was gone.
Nirmala has an older sister who’s 15. Seethalakshmi who cannot hear or talk. She hovers in the doorway smiling shyly at us. They have a younger brother as well who gazes briefly our way before scampering out of sight.
Let me show you the photographs says the mother eagerly.
She disappears into a small room on the side and soon comes out again with a small sheaf of photos.
I flip through them. They are all, every single one, the same as the picture on the wall.
She’s beautiful I say.
Yes, says the mother eagerly…and then in a slightly abashed tone- there’s only that one picture over and over again.
It’s a beautiful picture.
She wants us to stay a couple of days. I wish we could but it is time to head back. I wish I knew what to say.
We will be thinking of you and your family.
Her palms fly together as she nods.
Come back someday.
We walk back to the jetty waiting for the boat to come in. I sit in the shade of a thatched roof on the sand and look out over the explanationless water.
Such quietness inside.
Calling cards. Plastic, pocket-sized cards — the brand he always looked for back then was called Mother India. Yellow, red and white, with a little map of the home country outlined in one corner. If you paid cash you could get a card worth $5 for four bucks. You scratched the little black strip on the back to reveal a pin number that you entered when the automated voice told you to. At 7 cents a minute it was way cheaper than what the regular phone services offered. “Calling card,” he said softly, under his breath. He’d been reflecting just the other night, about how he didn’t really have a calling. It was a thought that had never surfaced before, but he’d attended a talk that evening by a man about the same age as him, a man in his mid-thirties who’d spent the last ten years working in a middle-of-nowhere village of South India. He’d built a school in the village and started an organic farm, and founded a very successful village-version of Alcoholics Anonymous, while his wife led a remarkably effective women’s group. They’d stopped three child marriages and had come very close to locally eradicating the dowry system (a system technically illegal, but still in practice.)
The man speaking was handsome in a way that Indian men seldom are, he was also articulate and inspiring to the point of being quite irritating. He wore a white khadi kurta with blue jeans and Bata slippers. An outfit that somehow lent him an air of offhand nobility. His wife was equally articulate, and had a quiet gravity about her just as compelling as her husband’s animated warmth. When she smiled she lit up the room. He had never seen that happen before, had always thought the phrase was a bit of a tired cliche — until that moment when someone had asked a question about boredom. “Don’t you sometimes get bored stuck out there with a bunch of rustics in the middle of nowhere?” Such an obnoxious question, he had expected the couple to get huffy and indignant. But instead the man had laughed boyishly, and at the same moment, the seriousness on the wife’s face had slipped, and there was her smile, revealed like moonburst on a dark night, and it had taken his breath away.
He thought moodily about that quality of radiance he’d witnessed in the two of them. There was nothing at this particular moment that seemed the least bit radiant about his own existence and he was often bored. True, he was successful but in an unspectacular way. He had reasonable self-esteem, and no definite calling. He wished suddenly, and with a fervency that surprised him, that there were calling cards that actually lived up to their name –cards with lines you could dial that would be answered by a friendly anonymous stranger who would tell you in a matter of minutes what your calling is. He had no faith in the battery of personality tests and the expensive career counseling sessions that were on the market. But a calling card — now that was something he would try out if such existed. $5 for the answer to one of the most persistent riddles of humanity — “Why Am I Here?” — it seemed like there would be a sizable market for something like that.
Aug 10, 2005
Early morning gathering at my grandmother’s house today. It is the second anniversary of my grandfather, RSR Thatha’s passing. And it’s tradition for the family to meet on such days to remember the person with love and gratitude. There is a garlanded photograph of Thatha surrounded by flowers from all our gardens. We all come in and sit down for a few moments and sing the Hanuman Chalisa that my grandmother loved so well (year after year we still sing it, so earnestly and still so terribly off-key). I can hear Thatha laughing at us a little (he had a great laugh- a slow chuckle that was always a little unexpected and made you smile. He had such a wonderful sense of humor). After the singing, breakfast was served and Dr Natchiar and the Munsons fell into remembering old times. And then the memories- swiftipping over into each other- kind of like a shining row of dominoes. So many things to remember. Big and small. After a person is gone you remember them in mosaic. Assorted pieces salvaged from the past and fit together to conjure up the whole.
He always dressed in white khadi. Spotless stiffstarched shirts and perfectly ironed dhotis. On his dressing table a small comb, Old Spice aftershave and familiar white flower pattern on the tall, pink bottle of Pond’s talcum powder. A few years after we first moved back from the States he would sometimes need help fastening his shirt buttons, and strapping on his watch. The Parkinson’s had set in badly enough by then that he was no longer able to sign papers or eat with his fingers, but he managed to carry his limitations with a grace and dignity that as a child I didn’t fully appreciate. To me in those years he was the gruff, twinkle-eyed, soft-hearted backdrop to my grandmother, Janaky Awwa– that sharp-tongued, wide whirlwind of Love in Action who touched our lives in unmistakable ways that will remain with us always.
My family is full of people who embody extraordinary qualities in abundance. Dedication, loyalty, perseverance, courage, selflessness, sincerity, truthfulness– I could go on– because these are truly uncommon individuals who carry within them an abundance of the virtues so many of us spend a lifetime cultivating…my grandfather though, had one quality far in excess of the others, and I remember being aware of this at a very young age. RSR Thatha had Tolerance. He had such a quiet way of accepting your failings and shortcomings, your struggling points of difference and your muddled mistakes. In a family of Half-Divine-Dictators with a penchant for Perfection, RSR Thatha was a kind of solace- or at least that it what he seemed to me. He gave you more room than the rest to be- human.
When Aravind was a struggling 11 bed clinic with a handful of brothers and sisters working punishing hours to make ends meet and realize a beautiful dream, RSR Thatha was a young husband and father- a man who’d grown up in a village and began his studies to be a lawyer but for health reasons later switched over to running a successful construction company. He was married to Dr V’s eldest sister and had three daughters and a son. He wasn’t directly a part of the founding team of Aravind- they were the pillars. But even pillars need support. And that’s what he and his wife provided for them. Right-next-door. Metaphorically and literally.
It was RSR Thatha who quietly made those difficult years easier by taking their children into his home, and while it was Janaky Awwa who really raised them, it was Thatha who provided the means to do so and gave them the little treats that mean so much when you are a child. Thatha who toook them on long walks that would end at the Pandyan Hotel where they would order up ghee roast dosas (the ultimate delicacy), it was Thatha who took them for car rides and train trips and Thatha who arranged all the vacations their parents couldn’t afford. The falls of Courtallam and the hills of Kodaikanal– and when a seven year old cousin of my mother’s mournfully observed that in His Whole Long Life he had never once been on a plane, RSR Thatha arranged that very month to have him fly with him to Delhi (or was it Madras?– it doesn’t matter), it was RSR Thatha the family would turn to when money was short and there were laborers who needed to be paid, and it was RSR Thatha who Viji Auntie during her interview for I Vision talked of through a mist of grateful tears– RSR Thatha who put his car (the only one in the family at the time) at the disposal of a young doctor pregnant with her second child who woke at 5 in the morning to start operating and through the course of the day worked in three separate clinics in different parts of the city often not getting home until ten at night. And it is only now that I am beginning to better understand the beauty of the role he played in the founding years of Aravind. In small ways he soothed the initial sting of sacrifice that pervaded those years. I don’t think there’s any way to measure the contribution of that kind of compassion. or the constant, quiet, caring that he provided for the small, struggling young team of eye doctors led by a silver-haired visionary who took it for granted that everyone couldwouldshould work as hard as he did to restore sight to the blind.
I look back now and see RSR Thatha always a little in the background. Always with amusement lurking in the corner of his eyes. A combination of self-effacing humility and slysharp good-humour. He loved to tease us. Me especially, for my scatterbrained ways, my clumsiness and unusual-for-a-girl-here height. Netta Kokku (Tall Stork) his affectionate nickname for me (especially funny because my parents are both small of build, I get my height– along with all my odd angles directly from him.)
I remember his patience through so many of my rough patches growing up. The quiet way he would take my side, defend or make excuses for me. He had such a generous capacity for letting people be who they were– and for supporting them on their way– as I grew up I began to realize how truly rare that quality is in the world. RSR Thatha was such a source of strength– not in any big, dramatic way but in so many, many small ones.
He suffered a great deal in the last years of his life. Especially after my grandmother passed away. The tremors in his hands and feet grew so violent that he could no longer do anything of his own accord. He couldn’t walk, eat, bathe, turn in bed or dress himself. Speech too became painfully difficult. His days consisted largely of sitting (slouched over a little because he couldn’t hold himself straight) in a white and red cane chair on the front verandah, watching the trees, the sky, the road– waiting for one of us to come home.
It’s hard to think of the frustration and daily struggles he went through– hard to put in words what I cannot even begin to imagine. I don’t know how to express it– or the beauty of the caring, gratitude, love and patience of all the family who did their best to ease those struggles and return by way of simple presence some part of what he gave all of us in different ways.
There is a sadness that stays when you lose people like that. But a sadness that softens with time and gives way to so many smiles that make their way to the surface of your memory. Because it’s always the Good stuff that’s forever. And it’s true what they say– no one you’ve ever really loved can ever really die.
Even now Thatha lurks in unexpected corners. When someone says to me “Now where did you get your height from?” or when I walk through the beautiful temple he used to visit each Saturday (while he still could), or when I sometimes look down and recognize in my hands the flat rectangularity of his wrists or in my arms the double twist of his elbow-joints, then I suddenly see my grandfather.
The tall thin twinkleyed whitekhadi kindhearted unsteady column of him.
And in those swift moments I understand how we carry them with us. The near and dear who will never be so far away that you can’t hear the rippletease in a familiar voice saying “Where’s that Netta Kokku?” Who will never be so lost that you can’t find them in a hundred times a hundred kindnesses that live on in you and reminding you of debts you can’t possibly repay but will try to anyway.
She was sitting very still next to a silver stream and when she looked into it she saw her reflection. Clear eyes looked into clear eyes. And she wondered suddenly whether, when she rose and left, the memory of that face– her face– would still remain in the water. In a secret way she hoped it would. And she wondered then how many other faces had stopped at this silver stream to see themselves in its depths. And suddenly the face in the stream spoke up in a voice that was familiar because it was her own voice— only somehow like the stream—silvery.
And the voice said, “The stream cannot hold me forever because it is a stream and streams do not know the meaning of holding on and they do not know the meaning of forever.”
And she listened to this in some surprise (because you see she was a little unaccustomed to being addressed by her reflection) but when she had got over her surprise she nodded and said in a matter-of-fact kind of way, “ Yes you’re right. Silly me,” and she rose and walked away from the stream without a backward glance—which is why she did not see her reflection smiling after her.
I found Fame in the cupboard–
Between baking soda and salt,
Her seal was yet unbroken,
Her Expiration Date at fault–
Or was it me?
Did I neglect this purchase
And let its worth grow stale?
Did I forfeit grand applause
While–opening the mail?
Tending traceless other tasks
Forgetting to put on my masks–
Has Golden Chance set sail?
If so I’ll gladly take the blame
And let this be my claim to fame—
I’d rather bake a cake — or two–
Than chase a Name.