Category Archives: Journal Snatches

Sometimes Resourced, Sometimes…

“Where is it?” She wondered aloud. “Where is what?” He asked. “My wherewithal,” she said, “I can’t seem to find it. Instead all I’ve got, is wherewithnaught.”

Yesterday our garage door stopped working properly. Everytime we clicked the button to close it, it would swing down — slower than usual, and once it had closed, it would immediately– as if startled by contact with the ground– swing up and slowly open again. I called a Garage Door Repair company, “Pain-Free Garage Door Repairs.” A promising name. And they sent over — let’s call him, Dostoevsky– to assess the situation. Dostoevsky is possessed of a clearcut profile, a Russian accent and an air of disdain. “Your door, it’s too heavy,” he told me, “Not good. Must replace it.” And he sent us a proposal for a several thousand dollar replacement. At which point I began to think his company was poorly named. So I turned to our local neighborhood social media platform, that offers a panoramic view into the marvelously mixed bag of humanity that resides in one’s own neck of the woods, and that also offers tried and tested recommendations on everything from where to find the best gingerbread, to whom to call if your water heater goes bust. There I discovered an array of rave reviews for, let’s call him, Terrence of Paradise Garage Door Repair — and something about the spirit of the recommendations made me trust this man, sight unseen. And so I called him, and we set up an appointment for 8AM this morning. He pulled into our driveway right on schedule, and when he climbed out of his truck, I couldn’t help but sigh a little. He looked fresh out of college, still wet behind the ears. I’d been hoping for someone reliably weathered. 

Terrence made his way into the garage and began fiddling with the motor, the switch, the sensors. I began to run through a list of possible backup options. And that’s when my husband stuck his head out the window and asked me to ask Terrence if he wanted some chai. So I did and he did.  I went upstairs, leaving Terrence to potter about. My husband in the midst of making chai, says to me, “I think Terrence is going to fix it.” His optimism wasn’t founded on much — just a general sense of confidence in the man so many neighbors had vouched for [he hadn’t even read the reviews, he was going off of the little I’d told him.] I refrained (admirably) from saying anything dismissive. And when the chai, steaming and cardamom-and-saffron scented, was ready, I carried it down, and found Terrence had indeed fixed our problem, with no more than a Phillips screwdriver and the adjustment of a loose piece on the overhead track. 

The garage door, like a well-behaved and docile house pet, now stayed down when it was supposed to stay down. Terrence began to explain why the problem had occurred, and what he had done to remedy it. He was so clear, so eloquent and engaging that I found myself growing unexpectedly interested in the inner workings of garage doors, and newly grateful for their wordless diligence, their heavy lifting. Terrence sipped his chai, and flashed an appreciative grin — “This is really good!” And it really was. My husband has a way with caffeinated beverages. Terrence then proceeded to educate me briefly on the mismatched springs that were holding up our very heavy garage door.  “You might want to switch them out at some point, if the slowness of the opening and closing is ever an issue. Not urgent, not necessary, but a possible enhancement.” He could send us a proposal if we ever wanted to do that. Yes, that would be great, do send that over– we may consider that down the line, and then I ask — And for your troubles this morning? Oh –I didn’t do anything . But we’d like to offer you something! The chai is great, he says. Holding up his cup like he’s proposing a toast. “I don’t like to charge for doing nothing.” It wasn’t nothing. And there are plenty of people who will charge just for setting foot on your driveway. But he’s already back in his truck. “Call if you ever need anything.” And then he’s off and on his way. Leaving me with a little unidentified melody playing in my heart. 

It has been a full week — another transfusion for my husband, with the usual flurry of attendant uncertainties. New details to be coordinated with his hematologist, the Ayurvedic specialist and a specialized health coach we have just engaged. Rainstorms barreling through the Bay Area — felling trees, flooding roads, closing highways. Dance classes every evening. A gas furnace that is being replaced with a heat pump, work trucks in and out of the driveway each day. Enormous camellias impossibly red and frilly bursting into bloom in the backyard. The maple trees are leafing. Wildflowers are preparing to take over the garden stairs. Interviews and workshops being planned for and run, alongside a series of circle-dialogs — the latest one focused on a lighthouse of a couple. Navigating a complex form of cancer with breathtaking grace and an astonishing willingness to investigate life for what truly matters. For how to make good on the moments, regardless of however many there are of them left. The days have been so full and so heightened, I didn’t realize I was teetering on a brink until that garage door refused to close. A mechanical failure that in an alternate universe would have been just that. In this universe it felt more personal somehow — yet another unnecessary and ill-timed reminder– that things fall apart. 

Most days I can live with the inevitable truth of that, even smile at it peaceably. At other times it feels utterly untenable. A wretched arrangement– a contract that should have been shredded on sight, instead of signed and notarized by whoever was in charge of Reality when this whole parade began. At such times the tiniest crack can turn into an abyss, wide enough to swallow me whole. And the wonder of it is, in such times the slenderest thread of human goodness can turn into a cable, resilient enough to pull me out, and set my feet gently back on the plank. That’s what Rose Wilder called it. “Life is,” she wrote, “a thin narrowness of taken-for-granted, a plank over a canyon in a fog.” 

Somedays I discover, even a plank, is wide enough to dance on. 


Journal entry, 2014

Reclaim. The word materializes in my mind (is that an oxymoron?) I sit here looking at a sky that is cloudless and blamelessly blue. Down the hill from us, I see lemons on a tree beneath the window. How is it, that I have never, in seven years of living here, noticed that tree and its lemons before? It is such a young-looking day that it makes me feel old. No. I must not shift the blame. I have been sitting here in front of a computer screen for too much of the morning. Feeding myself with other people’s thoughts and images and words. And now I have the distinctly uncomfortable feeling of someone who has devoured an entire bag of potato chips without intending to. Hence the word. Reclaim. It blooms in my head like an imperious flower. I have lost something that belongs to me: Me. And now I must go retrieve it. Bring myself home. And in doing so, return to a place that feels less ragged and empty than this moment. A place where my mind is like a polished pebble at the bottom of a cool lake. Smooth, quiet, at ease in the depths. Not tired and frayed, like the end of a rope someone has been trailing in the dirt. 

I Have Forgotten How to Write

Journal snatch, June 22nd 2021

I have forgotten how to write. And outside the finches are building a nest above a security light, trying to teach me how to remember. Straw by straw. Word by word. I have forgotten how to dance. And outside the wind is prodding the leaves, reminding them they have a duty to eat the sun. I chuckle and my toes stretch, I want to whirl into the sound of the oncoming traffic of the stars. I have forgotten how to cook. And my husband is patient, forgiving, and a very good chef. A wonderful recipe for never learning to cook again. I eat the time that is given to me, and hope one day that something will shine out of my fingertips, glow out of my eyes, pour forth from my lips like a banner of welcome. Reminding the world and everyone, everything in it, that we are all honored guests, and it is my privilege to share a certain measure of space and time with each of you at this banquet. Even though I forget this sometimes.

Yes. Sometimes my heart grows heavy as a sack of potatoes, my eyes dim like old windows, my legs drag unwillingly, I cannot find my balance, and every small thing in my way has the face of a formidable mountain. But even in such times, I know. This life of mine is blessed.

Once-upon-a-time blest. Fairies-mobbing-the-bassinet-dropping-boons-like-flowerbombs-on-my-sleeping-head blest. Blessings that will outlive this body. Blessings that will wake me at midnight, shimmering like Northern Lights, setting the shadows dancing. Blessings that will not rest even when I lose faith – blessings that work within me while I’m fast asleep– like the shoemaker’s elves. Blessings that guide the nameless work I am here to do, but that I couldn’t possibly do– not in a million years–alone.

Late Winter’s Night, Notes to Self

A journal entry written only a matter of months ago, but I don’t remember writing it, written as it was on the doorsill of sleep, in that silver sliver between waking life and slumber, in a winter of heightened uncertainty. I feel myself in a different place now, but recognize in my body, the truthfulness of what this stretch of the road felt like. Am grateful for its imprint.

What do I want to say to myself in this silent time of the night when bird song has stilled and night time cars roll by? I am not sure where I have been, or where I am going. My memories are slipping away and I haven’t the heart to chase after them. I am in a state of suspension, hanging, unsure whether to begin dreaming and doing again. It is an odd state to be in because usually I am impatient, full of hope and fury, but right now I am quiet and ready to stretch like a cat in the sun. I want to spend time outside and on the ground. Nothing feels urgent except living inside my body. Feeling the feeling of being inside this skin and looking out through these eyes, hearing with these ears. Everything I touch is touched by these fingers that I know so well– and yet also, not at all. This is the curiosity of these days. I am filled with very quiet quests. I am satisfied with the small scope of my life. I do not want to think about what-ifs. No grand plans, no reaching for the stars. I am happy to look out the window at the reflection of the full moon in the distant water. 

I feel far away from much of the world. My words falter when I try to voice what’s in my heart — my heart falters too. I am unsure, not so steady in my gaze. Not so certain of what I am feeling. I am more certain of what I do not feel. I do not feel social, I do not feel brimful of goodwill, or very friendly. I am not thrilling the way I used to, at the beauty and sincerity of other lives. I feel like I am on a narrow street and I am curiously satisfied with its width and the limits of what is on offer. I am not interested in broader promenades. Other people can mingle and make merry. Right now I feel content to be in this perfect paradoxical solitude of two, on the night walk of my husband’s long healing. I know this time will pass and that my heart will open to the greater world again. I am not in a hurry for that to happen, I want it to arrive in its own time, in its own readiness. 

I do not want to belong to any big groups no matter how congenial they are. I do not want to match my thoughts or my feelings to others. I want to be as I am and allowed to unfold in my own way, without the spur of guilt or the tug of inspiration. Let me not be buffeted by other people’s energies. I have moved that way for so long and now I’d rather not move at all than move in the old way. It isn’t resentment or regret that makes me feel this way — it’s an inkling of rapture — the rapture that’s eluded me all this while because I’ve been listening to someone else’s song instead of my own. I may not be very musically gifted but that is beside the point. Better my own humble beat, and raggedy tune than someone else’s grand orchestra twirling me endlessly around.

Why has it taken me so long to value my inner sovereignty? I do not say this with total disregard for other people’s influence. I love the ways in which we are capable of mobilizing one another but right now I do not particularly want to be put in motion. It is alright to sit this one out. The dance floor will not miss me. I am sure I will slip back in at some point, but for now I want to take my own turns — follow deep interior impulses and not be beholden to anyone else. There is something luxurious about this renunciation. It makes me feel more myself than I have felt in awhile. 

I do not have an image of myself to maintain and there is a freedom in that. There is no need for me to try and convince either of us that I am service-hearted, compassionate, deeply empathic or any kind of good. I can be who I am. Full of one thing and then another, unapologetic in my contradictions– and joyfully curious– about what comes next. 

After the Tsunami

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

That’s Enough.

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.

This dog?

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.

It is.


Ultimate Sophistication.

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.

These trees?

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.

Which tree?

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

Island Village

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?

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.

I will.

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.

Tall Stork Remembers

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.


When we first moved into the studio, now twelve and a half years ago, the studio we would live in for eight and a half years, the first thing I bought was a speckled blue ceramic vase with a round curved rim. My husband viewed it with the automatic suspicion  he accords all things secondhand. But I loved my Goodwill vase from the very beginning.

I’d cleaned our closet before the move. With virtuous aggression (which is my mode of closet-cleaning) I expelled items I did not use or like enough to warrant possession. Feeling generous and efficient I filled several brown paper grocery bags and we had driven to the thrift store at the corner.  I dropped the donation bags off at the door, and walked in. There is something endlessly fascinating to me about secondhand stores, filled as they are with irresistible fragments of lives that are not one’s own. I found it on a bottom shelf in the back: a china blue vase with black speckles. Someone had made this vase with their own hands. It had one-of-a-kind-ness stamped all over it. I loved it without reservation. A little sticker on the bottom said $3.

I carried it to the cash register like a hard earned trophy. If a vase counts as furniture, this was the first piece of furniture we bought for our new place. Even before we had a dining table, or chairs, a bookcase or a lamp, we had a china blue vase for flowers. My husband smiled at my joy. “ It’s nice,” he said, “ Make sure you wash it well – or actually,” he corrected himself as he often did in the early years of our marriage [less so in these later years when we have grown into gleeful ‘bargain buddies’], when asking me to do something domestic, “ I’ll wash it.” And he did. Three times with disinfectant soap.

Our studio fits us the way your mother tongue fits your mouth. Naturally. And in a way that predates thought. It fills me with wonder and dread sometimes — the thought that we were very on the verge of living elsewhere. We had looked at several different places. A little cottage south of us, that sounded so quaint in the ad and in reality was a vaguely depressing structure in the middle of a cement driveway, the only redeeming feature about it, a beautiful redwood tree by the front door (if I could have taken her with me I would have). Then there was a little unit in a building off of a busy throughway, an old man named Merino, who looked like a cobbler or puppeteer from an ancient fishing village, showed us around. It was a creaky and oddly-angled place full of charm and inconvenience. There was the rather bizarre little apartment built above a single family home. The landlord was Persian, motherly and disorganized. The man who’d been renting from her had seashells and skulls all over the place. Also a gas mask that hung from the ceiling of his bedroom that was filled with different kinds of fur. We averted our eyes and left in a hurry. Then there was the one bedroom place embedded in a hive of apartment complexes. It backed up to a hillside, and the rooms overlooked parking garages. There was a pleated wall you could pull out, accordion style to turn one room into two. It was down the road from a beautiful knot of walking trails. For this reason alone we almost took it.

During my husband’s lunch break we sat in the car outside the leasing office. The manager, a lady with dyed blonde hair and a cigarette-scratched voice had told us not to dally because this place was a gem and would be ‘snapped up in no time’. We didn’t get out of the car. Something held us back. We did not love this apartment. Let’s let it go we said, and with nervous conviction, we’ll find a different place. That afternoon I called up the number listed next to an ad for a studio in the hills. The woman who answered the phone said it was only big enough for one person. Oh, I said, I’m looking for a place for two people, but thank you. And I put down the phone. A few minutes later she called back — “Who’s the second person?” she asked. “My husband.” “Well in that case it might work,” she said, “if you like each other.” We made an appointment to see it that evening.

It was winter, and already dark by the time we drove up, passing as we did, a curious structure at the intersection. A little round tower complete with a pointy shingled roof, and a curved blue door. We didn’t know then, that this unmistakable landmark would become an integral part of the directions we would send all our future guests. “Look for a little lost tower that looks like it wandered out of a fairytale…and turn left there.”

When we pulled up to the house, one of the landlords was sweeping leaves on one of the driveways. He is pleasant-faced, crinkly-eyed and full of a deep affection for this building he now owns a third of (after the sudden demise of a fourth partner).

How to describe the house as it was then? An old, massive whitewashed Spanish style home perched on the edge of the hill. It is the second oldest house in this small town, where Jack London once had a summer job at the laundromat down the street. Built by an eccentric millionaire as a summer home, it was later converted into a series of smaller units. As a result it now has three different driveways carved into three different levels of the hill.

There are two wooden decks — the lower one half-heartedly cordoned off adjacent to a three car carport, past which there is an open door way, that leads to a glass door. We alk through and are standing in a corridor. There are two tall potted plants along the walls. Three glass paned doors with full length burgundy curtains behind the glass. The landlord stops in front of the second one, turns the knob and walks in. We follow and are immediately in another narrow hallway at the end of which is an arched open doorway, and beyond that I see a room at the far end of which are two windows side by side. I quickly make my way to the windows and look out over a glorious expanse of the hills by night, dotted with flickering lights. My breath catches. “This is it,” I say to my husband, urgently, fervently. “Shhh,” he says with a smile and a warning lift of his eyebrows. Many times over the years he will replay this moment for dinner guests who are charmed by the simplicity and beauty of our small space with its big view, “Shhhh,” I said to her, “Don’t ruin my bargaining advantage!” I always smile as he tells this story. Because he is not, as this story makes him out to be, the world’s best bargainer. He is far too soft-hearted and generous for that. But I have let him tell the story his way for so long now that to edit it at this stage would almost seem like a lie.

He needed no convincing that this was our home — it was settled the instant he was shown the curious raised room that is a cross between a cupboard and a coat closet in the hallway — you have to hoist yourself into it. A carpeted space tall enough to stand up in — and large enough for two people sit cross-legged in together. “Our meditation cell,” he whispered.

Technically this is not a studio because it has a separate kitchen. It is joined to the main room by way of a very short corridor on one side of which is the door to the small and perfect bathroom, it’s window too overlooks the hills. We are high up enough and half hidden by trees such that curtains are unnecessary. As we look out there is no one to look in. The shower stall gleams, there are recessed lights and above the mirror three bright bulbs. The kitchen makes me want to whirl around and dance. It is unexpectedly capacious and has been newly remodeled. Honey colored cabinets, granite countertops, a wide, deep stainless steel sink and a window, that like every other window in this beautiful home, looks out over the hills. I am in love. So much that it hurts a little. I can see us living here in this cozy space that is tinier than any home any one in my family or my husband’s lives in. I can see us living here so clearly that it feels like we already do. Is it possible that places can find people?

Through the window we can see the graceful white dome of the Greek Orthodox Church at the bottom of the hill. When the bells begin to peal, turning the moment sonorous, holy, I take it as a sign. The heavens have spoken. This will be our home. The next morning we signed the lease. That afternoon I bought a speckled china blue vase.

I Miss You

For V (with gratitude and apologies to Billy Collins), 2005


You are the rice and the bowl

The brass lamp and the prayer


You are the distant sound of temple bells at dusk

And the elephant’s trunk poised in blessing above a child’s head

You are the wholesome fragrance of thulsi in the garlandmaker’s basket

And the wise old banyan tree where the birds rest their songs.


However you are not the droplet that sleeps on the lotus leaf in the

middle of the pond

The potter’s wheel or the stray notes in Krishna’s flute

And you are certainly not the cry of the milkman in the morning

There is just no way that you are the cry of the milkman in the morning.


It is possible that you are the splash of the bucket lowered into the well

Maybe even the custard apples on the bough

But you are not even close to being the red banana flower


And a quick look in the mirror will show

That you are neither the saltspraysting of the sea

Nor the hurling grace of the fisherman’s net.


It might interest you to know,

Speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,

That I am the sound of crickets at sundown.

I also happen to be the shooting star,

The umbrella turned inside out by the wind

And the silk woven mat on the floor


I am also the sway of the coconut palm

And the longing of the red earth for rain

But don’t worry, I’m not the rice and the bowl

You are still the rice and the bowl

Not to mention the brass lamp and — somehow —  the prayer.


Ten years and more later…

My husband is not a sentimental person. He has a box of old letters, photographs and miscellaneous keepsakes saved more by benign neglect than emotional attachment. He is as likely to ever want to look through it as he is to want to go salsa dancing on a Friday night. Which is to say– very, very unlikely. As far as I can tell, he is immune to nostalgia. This affords him a kind of peace that I sometimes envy. While I am far less sentimental than I once was, I’m still prey to occasional bouts of nostalgia that fell me like the flu.


“I miss you.” Three words that I’ve said so often to V over the years, and his response has always been the same: “But I’m right here.” And he always is. I have never known quite how to explain this quality of missing. The piercing sense of the absence of a thing that surfaces bewilderingly and most keenly in the full-blown presence of that thing. It is a subtle, gnawing, uncomfortable sensation. Like an itch that’s impossible to scratch because it is impossible to locate. A distance impossible to bridge because it isn’t located in space. But you feel it. You know you feel it.  In an unguarded moment this feeling can bring you to tears. In moments when you are better defended you laugh it off.

Life is a strange animal. And animals get hungry. And it is hunger that gives us the potential for tragedy, comedy. Hunger that gives us the potential for metamorphosis, and evolution. 

Hunger is an animating force. Perhaps the animating force of this world. And it is fundamentally defined by the sensation of lack, and its identical twin, the sensation of longing.


“It’s funny,” says my husband, “But these days I get hungry while I’m eating.” I look up at him across the dining table and we burst out laughing, because it’s a ridiculous statement and yet it makes perfect sense. It is not long after the ER visit. V at this time had spent two weeks on a strict diet of fruit, rice and boiled vegetables. No spices, no sugar, no gluten, no dairy and very little salt. “I’m eating plenty,” he says, “But there’s this entire compartment in my stomach that stays permanently empty.” He is smiling as he says this, his eyes full of merriment and not a trace of self-pity. V has always enjoyed variety in his food, but he has no trouble accepting, with monk-like contentment, whatever happens to be served on his plate, literally and metaphorically.

I think again, what I’ve thought many times over the years: This person whom I live my days side-by-side with, is no ordinary being.


From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

hunger (n.)

Old English hunger, hungor “unease or pain caused by lack of food, debility from lack of food” from Proto-Germanic *hungraz(source also of Old Frisian hunger, Old Saxon hungar, Old High German hungar, Old Norse hungr, German hunger, Dutch honger, Gothic huhrus), probably from PIE root *kenk- (2) “to suffer hunger or thirst” (source also of Sanskrit kakate “to thirst;” Lithuanian kanka “pain, ache; torment, affliction;” Greek kagkanos “dry,” polykagkes “drying”). From c. 1200 as “a strong or eager desire” (originally spiritual).

appetite (n)

  1. 1300, “craving for food,” from Anglo-French appetit, Old French apetit “appetite, desire, eagerness” (13c., Modern French appétit), from Latin appetitus “appetite, longing,” literally “desire toward,” from appetitus, past participle of appetere “to long for, desire; strive for, grasp at,” from ad “to” (see ad-) + petere “go to, seek out,” from PIE root *pet- “to rush, to fly.”


“I miss you.” 

“But I’m right here.”

This is what it distills down to. 

“I miss you.” 

“But I’m right here.” 

Just so you know — this is the only conversation we are having. And by we I mean me. I mean you. I mean almost anybody. Almost everybody. This is the only conversation we have ever had (no matter how much it seems otherwise, it’s all just variations on the theme), with each other, with ourselves, with our God/s, with our time, with our reality. 

“I miss you.” 

“But I’m right here.” 

The compartment in your stomach that cannot be filled. The itch that cannot be located.

The hunger we carry like a koan (that is our privilege to carry like a koan)–

Until we don’t.

[End of conversation.]

When Were You Most Happy?

Journal and letter excerpts from early 2005
I am part of a small team that is working with 11 women from rural Andhra Pradesh who were selected to undergo a one-month training program. Their ages range from 22 to 49. Most are in their mid-twenties. Ten of the eleven were all married before the age of fifteen.

Over the last week we have taught them the basics of how to plan and shoot for a basic news program. The idea is for these women to bring out a monthly video series that will be screened across all the villages in the district through the existing government network. Each month’s program will have a special theme and will be broken up into different segments (song/drama/short documentary/health tips/people’s opinions etc). The women will select themes that they feel are important and relevant to their communities and will then decide what kind of action they’d like to bring about in their villages through
their program.

This month the theme they’ve decided to tackle is child marriage. Much to share about different aspects of the training and the other people we are working with to make it happen, the translators and technical support staff, the children from the orphanage/school next door who climb up the walls and throw fistfuls of roses through the windows while we’re teaching, R– the woman who serves us tea whose husband told her to sit in on our classes so she could learn how to use the camera too. N, our driver who now knows the difference between a long shot, close shot, a pan and tilt-up…


The Deccan is full of rocks. They are grey and harsh. There is no water in the reservoir. Even the greens in this landscape are grey. Or is it just my mood?


We are in a government office. Tea and the stench of too many cigarettes in the air. Someday I will stop being polite and say something.


Training office in the middle of nowhere. The women with their shy smiles, giggle fits, glass bangles. They are so young in years and so old in life. Married at 13, 14, 15. Two children or three. Husbands who desert them, in-laws who do not help. That they are here with such joy, pride and enthusiasm shining in their eyes…their individual stories so inspiring. I have been talking about the power of stories to change the world—these women have been living it. “Reporters.” I love the way they say the word. They wear it like a badge of honor.


Such a late night but I am awake early. The same emptiness rolls into wakefulness beside me. I am growing accustomed to, if not particularly fond of it. I walk into a dark explosion of birdsong. Tea in a warm mug sitting on a cool slab. Emotion says Tolle (Eckhart) is the meeting point of body and mind. In the middle of the morning I realize in a random moment how blessed I am. And for that short space the emptiness curls around me with the comfort of a hug.


Today was a little hard. N wasn’t here. Or M or Y. And the cameras aren’t here either. I can deal with all of this. The part that gets to me sometimes is that I’m not here. There is a tree outside the window, tall, wide-branched, leafy. It makes me feel better at different points during the day. At night I fall asleep. Dreamless. Deep.


Absolutely Clear

Don’t surrender your loneliness 
So quickly. 
Let it cut more deep. 

Let it ferment and season you 
As few human 
Or even divine ingredients can. 

Something missing in my heart tonight 
Has made my eyes so soft, 
My voice 
So tender, 

My need of God 



Found Hafiz in the weeks before Hyderabad and wondered where he’d been
hiding so long…he says such simple straight from the heart things…

But back to the opening theme of loneliness for which the outskirts of Hyderabad are the perfect backdrop. Uncompromising stretches of rocky red hills, unlikely ballerina boulders balancing impossibly on tiptoe one on top of another, one breath of wind and it seems like they would all rumbleroar towards the vast emptiness of the Deccan plateau- there can be such a deathdreariness to this landscape- the dry reservoir bed where white cranes flock by the hundreds, dotted with the thorny ‘mad acacia’- that bramblebush tree, that steals everything from the soil, that unwelcome invader that has taken over so much of the Indian
countryside (as a child every time I saw the army of it from a train window unaccountably I would feel the urge to cry). Even the greens in this landscape are grey-tinged. No comforting hint of lushness anywhere. In the far distance the ghostly, imposing silhouette of Golconda Fort. Its wide walls, high towers, secret tunnels reminding you of cold-blooded conspiracy, and an age riddled with fear, hatred and war. A harsh, heated landscape drawn with hard lines. It does not
pretend to be friendly or charming. Its hostility can hurt a little if you let it. And I let it. Not very long or very much, and I still can’t quite comprehend why it happened the way it did…but I got there and within half a day felt such a sinking in my soul that it surprised me deeply. […]

To feel so confused was-confusing. All of a sudden I couldn’t understand beyond a very surface level what I was doing here in this whole other state with these whole Other people. And I was suddenly homesick not for home but for- of all places- the quiet courtyard of the meditation center in Madras, where you walk one foot-in-front-of-the-other, try not to step on ants and hold a special kind of stillness in both hands. It has been so long since I have felt this kind of—uprooting– this sense of bewilderment at my surroundings, this kind of desolation– and with so little reason too!

We are staying in a government hostel in the midst of a rambling ramshackle government compound full of faded buildings, long, grey tree-lined walkways and a funny little dining room staffed by ten cheerfully incompetent boys who all looked about fifteen years old and who were always bringing you flasks of soverysweet tea. I remember walking up the stairs to the terrace of our building thinking- I really need to find some small space to sit in- and I remember the relief of reaching the top and finding a beautiful place up there between the water tank and the pipes and the dried fallen leaves from the neem trees all around. And I could see the sun from there struggling palely to extricate itself from gently clinging branches. And suddenly things were tugged-in-the-direction-of (if not pulled completely into) perspective. So each morning of most of my time here this is where I’d go before the day ‘officially’ began. My space for yoga, sitting- and reading (finally) The Power of Now […]

And while this was happening to encounter the spirit of a dozen young women each with a story of such humble courage, each with such a strong presence of love and burning enthusiasm […] So much learned about so much in those weeks. G knows rural India with a difficult, hard earned intimacy that made me so often remember something you said in Pondicherry to N (and which made me smile and think– here is the only person I know in the world who could and would manage to work a sentiment like that into ordinary after dinner cafe conversation and not sound pretentious). You said: I don’t care to see things in a positive way. I care to see them in a real way.

I think I have always believed that the real is positive– or at least– not negative. But I can see how naive idealism can blindfold. And how you have to wholly accept the painful, ugly, and sordid before you can comprehend the essence of beauty, of love, at the core of all things…not something I have been called on very often to do–surrounded as I am with such wholesomeness so much of the time…which is why times like this one are a test.

One of the most valuable things about being away was what it showed me about the hidden biases in my own heart, the subtle setting apart that sometimes happens in situations like this…and then the pointing of a precise finger at all the areas where work (and much of it) remains to be done within…when you see mud in the world it is because there is mud inside you said a wise woman once…so this then was my moment of mudgazing…

To touch with inward compassion certain kinds of unwholesomenesses that cross my path does not always come easy to me. I cringe or run or sink into unhappy desolation effectively cutting myself off from any kind of comprehension and clarity. But this time was so different. To learn the history of pain and degradation of some of these women, to witness the dignity and grace with which they have salvaged their stories. To see the reflection of one person’s story in another and another…to feel and sense the causeless gratitude surrounding and leaning on my own presence there, to see how we each connected to the other with an intricate logic beyond explanation, to understand in a dim, glad, unarticulated way why we were all inhabitants of this particular time and space…Then somehow each day began to unfold itself with the mysterious perfection of a flower blooming. Each moment its own wordless fulfilled reason for being.

The first day and a half spent (on an internal level) focused on a fierce awareness of being not so much alone as only. A concentration on everything that was missing. When you are staring so hard and so selfishly at what is absent it is very hard to be present. And on the happy flip side of that– the more present you are the harder it is to feel absence. Not sure if that makes as much sense in words as it does inside. But oh well. The point is that the transformation when it happens is so slight and so tremendous. And suddenly yesterday’s dreary drive down the gray landscape of onliness turns into one of breathtaking beauty and fullness…I almost could not believe the unsummoned sense of loveliness that came and settled in the same places that had first filled me with such a dramatic sense of darkness…This is such a truly beautiful place- with gray blue sky brick red earth olive green trees with explosive magenta interruptions of bougainvillea trees, an orange insolence of flame-of-the-forest defying the austere tri-color palette of the rest. Something enduring and solid and heroic about this terrain– like the face of a very old person.

Opened my eyes in the middle of meditation one morning and found a squirrel a whisper away from me. He was drinking from a small pool of spilt water on the ground. So close I could see the glugglug in his throat, could feel with sharp intensity his throbbing, bright-eyed aliveness. When our eyes met, mine held more apprehension. His were unconcerned. In inexplicable moments like that maybe is where the quest ends. For reasons. For purpose. For meaning.

And none of this even begins to touch upon the details of what we were doing and what we did there. But no matter- all this is just to say (in my usual incredibly convoluted way) something very ordinary– reading Tolle on the roof one morning I crossed a line where he is pointing out that the role of relationships is not tied to making us happy but to making us more conscious. And I was filled with such deep peace hearing the truth in that– and acknowledging it to be in accord with my own experience… seemed like Tolle was just rephrasing Hafiz with simple prose in place of wildflower poetry…and everything at least for the moment was–

Absolutely Clear.


Dhyanam? Says M. They want to sit in silence awhile this morning. I had them start the workshop this way yesterday. It surprises me—the sweet sincerity with which they ask to continue the practice. They sit in cross-legged concentration. Hands folded, eyes closed. Their simple good-heartedness makes them glow a little in this clear morning light.


Little Ruki who is so shy and sweet shows me the scratch on her finger from the thorns on the rose she plucked for me.


In 7 of their 10 villages people of certain castes are not allowed into the main temple.

L says it’s because they steal coconuts from the priest. ID says its because they are not clean and never bathe. PD speaks up then unexpectedly, asks a question in a voice that is quiet but firm: If the body is clean and the heart impure what reward will that prayer have?


L’s dead-on imitations of all the other women, and each of the facilitators. When she’s imitating me she sits the way I did most of this morning. One knee bent at right angles to the floor, the other tucked under me. All odd angles. My chin on the bent knee, my half-smile. She does all of this to perfection. Nailing my expressions, my posture with rib-tickling perfection. Such a sharp eye for caricature this slender girl has. With her snapping vitality, sharp features and quick smile—she has the group rolling with laughter. At the end of her impromptu performance she says, I have so many difficulties—but being able to make all of you laugh like this makes me feel better.


Today we bring out the cameras. Such excitement in the air. It hits me again, the incredibly arresting power of moving pictures. And to see these girl-women with their silver anklets and work-roughened hands, to see them step behind the tripod trembling a little with the thrill of it all, to see them squinting with comical eyepiece, to see their expressions of intense concentration, apprehension, delight is – Beautiful.


When I walk in this morning a murmuripple of approval runs through the room. My green and white cotton handloom sari they like. My unruly hair not so much. M has me sit down and combs it with her fingers, braids it and twists it into a knot under P’s supervision. Someone brings out hairpins and a rose. When she is done everyone is happy.


N, the driver is a sweetheart. A gruff, broad shouldered, bearded man with lovely eyes and an air of warm, straight-forward capability. The women receive phone calls from their homes on his mobile, and yesterday he bought a small bag of mango-flavored candies for all of us.


We are feeling the uniqueness of this space, and the need to spend more non-classroom time with the women. We decide to stay overnight with them at the training center the next day.


It takes a few days for them to stop calling us Madam and Sir. At first they are very resistant to using just our names. But we insist. Then later on they turn to blackmail. Madam if you dance for us then we will call you Pavithra.


In the evening they drag me in to dance. Rollicking Telegu film music. Nothing to do but tuck the end of my sari in at the waist and get to it. They won’t let me stop until the tape hits the end. They want to know where I learned those moves – I think it’s funny that they think I’m good when I’m this bad.


D forty-something invites me to spin with her in a corner of the room. L rushes to get the camera, we cross our arms and take hold of each others’ hands, then turn, turn and turn together. A girlish game that they still play and why would you want to stop them? Let them even at this late date inhabit moments of the girlhood snatched away from them so soon.


Handclapping games. I teach three of the women. And the next day they all know how it goes.


That night I ask V what moment in her life does she remember being happiest in. She says after a reflective pause, and with a matter-of-factness that saddens me, Mada—Pavithra–there is no happiness in my life now…but when I was a child I used to play kabadi. That was the happiest time. Then when I was 13 I got married and my childhood and happiness ended there.


It is Sunday and in the evening “Ice-Cream Uncle” cycles up to the front gate. All the children are waving sticks of coldsweetdelight. S runs up to give one to me—I am so reluctant to rob her of it, but know I have to. I take a bite and the whole crowd of children laughs, claps and cheers—such a gleeful generosity theirs. S comes out and buys up the whole cart for them.


M’s horrific story. Some things are beyond imagination. I look at her calm, impassive face, her sturdy manner, and wonder at the cost of her composure.


Sitting on the steps of the school. A sudden shower of rose petals over me. They do so much these young ones to try and make me feel special. Being the recipient of such grand, unwarranted gestures makes me feel spectacularly silly. They make me laugh and want to hug them all.


R has a pouting girlishness about her, a harmlessly flirtatious femininity that lends her an air of coquettish confidence. She loves dancing. So does her 9-year-old daughter. There is no television, radio or cassette player in their home. The only time they can listen to music is when the temple plays songs over the loudspeaker. They live near the temple, and at the first beat of music everyone in the house stops to dance. R says sometimes her daughter will come into the kitchen while R is chopping vegetables and, to the beat of the chopchopchop—she’ll dance.


I am refastening the clip in my hair. One of the children darts forward and then exclaims—Shampoo! In the next half second there are 20 kids sniffing my hair, shouting out lout and gleeful—Shampoo!


Today N, S, and R from the orphanage school climb up the wall of the classroom and throw fistfuls of pink roses through the window while I’m teaching. What to do with these adorable angels?


Green parrot screeches on the top branches of a gently swaying tree before flying away. What a world of wonders…


The stories that spill and splash on the flower, running with blood and tears. There is such an outpour that it stuns you –the commonplaceness with which the outrageous can occur.


Kadha Kadhu Nijam.

Stories of abuse, murder, attempted rape, stories of suicide, adultery. Sordid stories. Chilling, stomach-turning, insides-churning stories. You want so much to believe these stories are not true. But they are and you realize what a complex animal man is. How much inhuman-ness there is in human nature.

How much compassion do we need for this to change?


Today we sent them out on a Vox pop assignment. To ask the people two things:

  1. What’s the right age for a girl to get married?
  2. What can we do to stop child marriages from happening?

To see the bunch of them—with their bangles and toe-rings, the kumkum on their foreheads, holding cameras, microphones, tripods, headsets, setting out with these undreamt of tools of technology to question the very systems that played them false—these once-upon-a-time child-brides who have suffered so much for so long, standing up now and daring to look for different answers.


They are so funny, each time we send them out to shoot they insist on shaking hands all around, gathering good luck and good wishes like schoolchildren setting out for the board exams.


The schoolchildren here have all learned it by heart – that ridiculous song that I don’t even remember learning and feel like I’ve known forever. It has been such a hit with this group. There is something very catchy in its nonsensical lyrics. They sing it now in hushed gigglesome whispers when I walk by, hoping I will pick up their cue. When I do, the clouds lift a little as their voices hit the sky.


ID who has wide, wide eyes three girls and very callused hands. She was married at 11, delivered her first child at 12 or 13. So much girlishness in her manner. How is it again that she is the mother of 3? She seems the happiest of all the women here. When she talks of her husband her face lights up. He takes such good care of me she says with her shy giggle. What makes her happiest? The question stumps her as it does most of these women. “My life is my home, my children, and husband,” she says. Happiness as a concept has no space here. Who does she admire and look up to for inspiration? “The women who go to work in offices. If I’d studied I too could go places here and there,” she says wistfully. What do you do when you’re sad? “Sit quietly.” When you’re angry? “I don’t get angry. I’m too small to get angry.”


CK’s epic story involving the Chocolat-style Mother-Daughter duo, the radical Naxalite who fell off the terrace, the swindling, illegitimate child –“Watch out for the O.Henry/Roald Dahl twist at the end says S—and it comes sure enough, leaving me gaping like a goldfish.


J’s home in CK set on the edge of the village where all those of her caste live. She does not seem to resent this clear geographical discrimination. The house is charming. Entire tree branches for beams, a high ceiling, mud and tiles and thatch. Water in a silver chembu. A small square open courtyard in the center, with a tap for washing feet perhaps.


ID giggling uncontrollably as she remembers a time when she and her husband lived in a one-room hut with a leaky thatch roof. When it rained water would come pouring in and she would begin to cry because they were so poor and lived so miserably. Her husband to cheer her up would spring into action and place steel tumblers underneath each leak and say to her merrily, “See what a beautiful home we have ID? Is there anyone else with such a special house? And I made it all for you!” Thinking of that young husband putting a tender, humorous, brave face on their poverty makes my heart swell with gratitude. When I cry he makes me laugh she says. He has never felt badly that they we have three daughters and no sons. It’s only me that wishes sometimes that we had a boy. He is so proud of our daughters and has such big plans for them. This one will be an IAS officer, that one will become the Collector…” Again she trails into happy laughter. He insists that the whole family eat together, the daughters, his wife, sometimes he’ll drag his mother in from next door to join them. This young agricultural laborer born into a life of poverty, struggle, injustice and pain—how did he develop these qualities of light and love?


All of them with silver anklets, silver toe-rings. So much about their persons that sings—inspite of their sadness.


Babul trees, black lace against an evening sky.


L’s father performing Shiva puja. The intricate rituals and arcane hand gestures, and the little white flower he tucks behind one ear at the end. Red earth paste smeared on the ground outside the front door, decorated with white ash, vermilion and sandalwood. The bathing corner behind a wall in the kitchen of her house, barely big enough to stand in, and that is where they wash.


Walking down the village streets with V –curious neighbors enquire loudly of her, “Who’s she?” No break in stride as she tosses back over her shoulder, “Ma Akka.” (My older sister.)


L is 25, a slender, sharp-featured girl with a quick wit and lively intelligence. She was married at 14 to an abusive alcoholic from a neighboring village. Her beautiful two and a half year old son A is the sole streak of sunshine in her existence. “I can forget all my troubles Pavi, just thinking about him”. She left her husband after the birth of her son because she could not bear the thought of him growing up around such a father. When she was six months with child, her husband came home drunk one night. She craving something sweet had asked him for food. He forced her to eat out of the toilet. This story would keep coming back to me over the days as I’d look over at L’s face during our classes, its varying expressions of laughter, sadness, girlish wistfulness, hope, affection and sometimes deep despair. Horrifyingly enough hers isn’t an uncommon story here…but what is uncommon is what L said afterwards– when I asked her what her dreams were now. “I want to stand on my own feet, and earn a better future for my son. I don’t want to depend on my parents.” L lives with her mother and father— sweet-natured people, very pious and very poor…”I want to earn my self-respect and if my husband comes to see me then- I won’t be angry… I’ll feed him.”

Her words are simple, but that last thought blew me away. That this young women robbed of her childhood, treated so inhumanely, that she could reach into her heart and find a dream that throbbed only with love, compassion and forgiveness moved me beyond words.

L isn’t a submissive person- her dream doesn’t stem from lack of strength, or an inability to think for herself. But who educated her in the ways of wisdom? Who taught her to aspire to rise above even the most seemingly justifiable hatred, anger and resentment?

No one. This dream and its wisdom are entirely her own.

Sometimes unexpectedly you trip over the divinity that lies within another human heart. And all you can do is fold your palms and be grateful for the gift of that discovery.


A Woman Turns to God

Journal entry 2003? 2004?

B grew up Jewish and vegetarian in a cattle-ranching, German-Lutheran town somewhere in Texas, with a mother who ‘flip-flopped between belief and non-belief. So one year there’d be a God, the next year none.’ She remembers resenting this. I try and imagine what that experience must be like for a child. Now you see Her/Him/It. Now you don’t. Some people believe God created the world in seven days. But how many days I wonder, does it take for some people to ‘create’ God?

And B? Long story short: ‘Years later here I am and having grown up the way I did, I find myself searching for-’ she pauses, glows earnest and sheepish,–‘a place to be spiritual in.’


Writing Exercise 2008 modeled on Rick Moody’s Boys (employ a simple action, repetitively, and use it to convey much more than the action)

A Woman Turns to God (a fictional scrap on flip-flopping between belief and non belief)

A woman turns to God, a woman turns to God. A woman turns to the idea of God (powerful, shifting, periodically forgotten and recalled). A woman once a child, taught to place palm against palm shut her eyes bow her head, turns to God. World dips in and out of view, namaste a play on peek-a-boo, a woman turns and smiles: I see you. Tight black braids in ribbons, tongue-tied by visitors, prodded into prayer, a performance piece for parents and a pantheon (three hundred and thirty million gods to choose from) the loose end of a sari flutters as a woman turns to God. Memories of a girl’s long red skirt, border shot through in gold, wondering if temple idols in their splendid silks understand English, chants in an intricate language she does not know. Ancient words like polished marbles roll off the tongue, gleaming like doorknobs trailing like vines. She is the Magician’s Assistant muttering a mantra under her breath, capable of causing lightening to tear across a sunburned sky, turning tap water into holy milk, and a failing grade to a first.  What you don’t understand is what makes anything possible.

And a woman waking to the shrill cry of the bell on the milkman’s bicycle turns to God. A woman haggling over the price of bottle gourd and papaya with a street vendor on her doorstep turns to God. A woman carrying gratitude like a clumsy bundle of firewood (blessings are bought this way) turns to God, offers thanks for whitewashed home, gentle husband, healthy children, college degree, gold bangles and red banana tree. Lamp-lit stories at grandmother’s knee of a divine monkey who mistook the sun for a ripe mango tries to rip it from the sky, an exiled prince in hermit’s bark , a roguish cowherd who plays the flute, lifts a mountain to shield a village from the driving rain, dances on the hood of a serpent, smiles at death. The pixie dust of myth and legend settles as a woman turns to God preoccupied with more domestic stories absent-minded devotion a daily custom with long-term benefits (like brushing your teeth).

But on a waiting-for-the-monsoon Wednesday in October, a woman grates fresh ginger into her tea, turns to God, with quiet recklessness questions for the first time what good this mode of interaction does either of them. For almost a week a woman dizzy with daring, elated and curious, does not turn to God. A woman smiles at her husband rendered freshly boyish by the barber and does not turn to God. Loses her silver toe-ring, finds a trickle of ants in the sugar jar, gossips over the garden wall with her neighbor, a woman hums an old film song, spends a few foolish moments in front of a mirror, listens for three whistles of the rice cooker, loudly scolds the sheepish, slightly deaf hung-over (again) dhobi not once, not once ever turning to God. Until on the sixtieth night watching her youngest child asleep, a woman fills predictably with fierce tenderness and unaccountable fear of a nameless future, turns to God.

A woman newly fragile turns to God, rising with mild repentance and an updated agenda, makes an offering of coconut (to be cracked on the stone slab of a shrine by a priest), a garland of jasmine and soft pink country roses (to be draped around the shoulders of a dark-skinned deity), three tablets of camphor (that will flame in the smoky chamber after she is gone). A woman turns to God wonders briefly why the insides of churches are so still and quiet and the insides of temples are not. A woman turning leans unwittingly into the old paradox of peace within circumstances of barefoot, vermilion-smeared, incense-scented, brass-bell-ringing chaos. Deep in the belly of a temple a woman turns, knows in her bones to prepare for push-comes-to-shove reverence as pilgrims press forward to snatch a glimpse of God. Thin priest inches through with his flaming plate as a woman on tiptoe turns to God. Cupped palms drop softly clinking coins, stretch towards the light, press transferred warmth and comfort to closed eyes. Feels the envelope of an invisible presence, the stirrings of an old familiar knowing that thought cannot reach, reason cannot unseat. Warm air thickens with mingled motivations, ordinary mortal yearning and the riddled timeless burning of one woman’s baffled turning, yet once more, to God.