Category Archives: Journal Snatches

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.

Samiyarpettai.

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?

Yes.

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?

Please.

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.

Yes.

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?

Yes.

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?

Then I think I closed my eyes and fell asleep.

You fell Asleep?

I fell asleep

Then?

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?

No.

No?

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.

Really?

Yeah. Many people on this island are called Pavithra.

Why?

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?

Aishwarya.

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.

Really?

Really.

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.

Oh.

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.

Yes.

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.


Studio

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 
Absolutely 
Clear. 

 

-Hafiz
__________________

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.


The Glass is Already Broken

Snatches from sundry letters and journal entries 2015-2018


‘The glass is already broken.’ I did not know how to wrap my head around the riddle of this oh-so-very Zen koan when I first heard it. Because the glass was not broken. The glass was Very Not broken. In fact the glass was the precise definition of just how unbroken a glass could be. The glass is breakable. I was willing to concede that much. With enough time and  enough life experience, it is possible, even probable that the glass will one day be broken. This too I was willing to agree to, even though glass is one of the longest-lasting man-made substances in existence. By most estimates it takes a million years for a glass bottle to degrade. (A million years! How much more indestructible than that can you get?). The glass is already broken. What can this possibly mean? Because being whole, and being breakable are not the same as being already broken. Unless time and space are an illusion.

***

We were married exactly ten years ago. A dawn wedding in a stone-pillared temple, with a lotus tank in the back, and a view of Elephant Rock.  Time is a strange animal. A decade can slip like water through your fingers. An unexpected night in the hospital can be its own eternity. The blood test showed acute bone marrow suppression. They kept him overnight. Gave him two units of blood, a platelet transfusion and a bone marrow biopsy. Just days earlier he’d helped carry a wheelchair-bound friend up the stairs to our home. He’d tossed a frisbee, climbed a steep hill, given a high-level presentation at work. Maybe leukemia they told us, no way of knowing until further test results came in.

***

Are time and space an illusion?

 

***

The glass is already broken.

***

 “You’re such a nice couple,” sighed the nurse with the tired face and kind eyes. This was the night we spent in the hospital after the first blood tests revealed something was drastically wrong. And I knew what she was thinking — that we were too young for this. I’d had that fleeting thought too. But I knew in my heart of hearts that it wasn’t true. Of course I want more time. Much more time. But that doesn’t mean I’m entitled to it, no more than I’ve been entitled to the last ten years. I have received blessings beyond measure. On this point I am clear. While this does not stop me from being fearful, it spares me from feeling cheated. Fate brought V and I together in this lifetime. On the strength of this fact alone, whatever else it has in store, I will not stop being grateful.

***

The morning after our first night back home from the hospital, I wake up and feel my whole mind and being enveloped in a deep blanket of peace. The last two days have been a hot blur. A whirling surreality. Now it is just the two of us, here in our shaded room. The quiet air, and the strength of our long-time love between us. And a certainty blooming inside me like a flower in the desert: Everything is going to be fine. My husband opens his eyes. I lean over and repeat these words. Everything is going to be fine. He smiles, and his eyes crinkle at the corners. “Everything is going to be fine. And everything IS fine,” he says in a voice fuzzy with sleep. And after the space of a heartbeat adds gently, “You have to expand your definition of fine.” 

***

The results of the bone marrow biopsy are in and we have an appointment this afternoon with the Hem-onc to discuss the diagnosis. Hematologist-oncologist is a title I was unfamiliar with before this time. I did not know that blood doctors and cancer doctors trained together and shared a title. Over the course of the next few weeks there is much that I will learn about that I did not even know existed before. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ As we prepare for the appointment something stretches taut in my stomach. My features take on a certain fixedness. I feel like I am wearing a mask as I go about the motions of the day, held in a vise-like grip of apprehension. An unrevealed immensity lies ahead of us. We have been given no indication of what the diagnosis is.

***

Minutes before we are to leave for the hospital a white van swings into our driveway. A sturdy dark-haired man marches up our stairs. “It’s M” says V. M is the sweet Mexican gardener who used to work for the previous owners of our home. He speaks very little English with a lot of warmth. The first time we met a construction crew was doing demo work in our kitchen. He came up and chatted cheerily with all of them in Spanish. Then before leaving he went back upstairs “to say bye to my amigos”. I wanted to hug him. We’d had him come by once, before we moved in, to clean up yard and cut back some of the unruly shrubbery. He came with his son and brother and they left before we paid them the full amount. Now I get a fresh bill out of my purse and go to the door. I thank M for coming by and hand him the bill. “When I come again?” he asks. I tell him my husband is sick and that we are going to the hospital now. And that I will contact him later. “Don’t wait long time,” he says, “Too much work then. And now it already look ugly!” His intensity and frank assessment of our yard make me laugh a little. My husband is very sick I say again, I don’t know when we are going to take care of the yard yet. At this his face softens. He tries to hand me the bill I just gave him, “You need money?” he asks. And I shake my head no, no. It’s not that. “When you call me I give big discount,” he says, “Your husband he will be okay.” The compassion and concern in his voice is my undoing. My eyes fill with tears. “Ah — no cry,” says M. “I come and no charge. Do all work no charge.” I smile through my tears at this generous, soft-hearted man. “This is life. This is life, it not bad, it is good,” he tells me earnestly. I can feel the depth of a profound feeling behind his simple words. “I almost die, two years ago,” he says, “My children pray and bring me back.” Then he asks me if I am Catholic. It is a question I’ve never been asked before. “No,” I say with a small shake of my head. He makes a gesture as if brushing aside a fly, “No problem,” he says,”It’s okay. Just pray how you pray.” Before driving away he assures me repeatedly that my husband will be fine. His unannounced presence, his words and the gentle goodness behind them feel like a blessing. 

I was most in need of blessing.

***

My mind has trouble fathoming all the implications. Severed from past and future we are walking a tightrope of uncertainty. There is only this time. There is only this here and now. In the midst of the haze of it all a quiet voice makes itself heard: It has never been any other way.

***

Grocery store pleasantries are hard in the first week. “How are you?” an unsuspecting check-out clerk might ask, and I’d push the word “Fine” out of my mouth like a dull, heavy rock. My husband waits in the car, with a stranger’s blood coursing through his veins. I see his face through the window. His expression is soft, and kind and unafraid. I fight back tears. Amidst the melons and the cheese, and the bright baskets of berries, and the fragrant loaves of bread, ordinary life flows by. Newly estranged from all of it my heart is full of fresh thorns and wrenching concerns. How am I doing you ask? I feel like a little twig that’s just been blown into the ocean. That’s how I am doing. And you? 

***

My heart has folded into itself. It has boarded up all extraneous chambers and operates like a bomb shelter. Strict necessities are attended to meticulously. There is little time or room for anything else. When the phone rings unless it is one of the doctors or the immediate family I do not answer it. I rarely check email and more rarely still send out replies. I have gone AWOL from the charming and charmed landscape of my former life, dotted as it was with lovely friends, beguiling projects and generously brushed with a sense of adventure. None of it feels relevant to this here and now. Life is in a tailspin. The adrenaline coursing through me controls my attention. I feel like a laser full of intense direction, and incapable of casualness. In this mode, when other people share pedestrian notes from their days something inside me ices over with hidden anger and despair. Is this how surgeons and soldiers feel sometimes? For my own part, I feel like I’m in the trenches. Conversation from the outside world is all prattle and paper dolls. Yet V listens to everyone with genuine interest and warmth. Not pitting his precarious circumstances against their pale priorities. Not expecting them to be anything more or less than who they are in that moment. Between the two of us he is, and always has been, far and away the better person. 

***

The things people will do for each other out of goodness goes far beyond rational understanding. I have always known this, and yet living on the receiving end of a wide web of unconditional love brings its own kind of beautiful overwhelm. A friend calls and calls and calls again because I haven’t picked up. When I finally answer a voice on the other end says in a rush, “I know you don’t have a lot of time right now, but I just want to ask one question: “What can I do?” I am in the middle of making dinner at the time, and I smile, touched by the vigorous sincerity and wholeheartedness of the question. I say something to the effect of — am so touched (and I was), will definitely let you know if we need anything. But right now we’re all set. My voice is confident, calm, even cheerful, and so, in that moment, am I. We chat for a few minutes longer and then I hear this, “Pavi I’m ready to do whatever is needed, whenever it’s needed for however long it’s needed. Just call me if there’s absolutely anything I can do.” And just like that there is a rock in my throat and my eyes fill. I want to say something gracious and cheerful but my eyes are filled with tears and words seem to literally stick in my throat. When I finally manage to say something my friend is crying and hurriedly says goodbye. I dry my eyes directly afterwards and finish making dinner. There have been so many heartfelt offers of help in this time and I appreciate each of them, but something about this particular one has melted something inside me. I am touched but also slightly ​frustrated by my inability to hold it together.

***

Sunshine and simple food, sleep and exercise. A health crisis of serious magnitude and here we are. Back to the basics. D3 and B12 supplements everyday. Reading a book I come across this paragraph and it feels like the universe just slipped me a note in the middle of class. Pssst. Here!

“I like to remind myself and anyone who will listen to me that every one of our red blood cells contains cobalt (which is why we need to consume cobalt-containing Vitamin B12), and that cobalt had to have been manufactured in a supernova. (Cobalt’s nucleus is too big to be formed by the pressures inside any star, and required the force of a supernova). We contain many billions of red blood cells and if we are smart, we eat B12 every day, and so it is that we are dining on and rearranging the blue jewels of unimaginably ancient, galactic events.”

***

There are blood tests every few days. V wears a mask as we enter the hospital, and I hold onto his arm and am careful not to meet anyone’s gaze. No one here knows this tall being is a gem, dear beyond all telling. The hospital and lab staff are kind in an automatic, colorless way. They treat him like an anonymous patient and he responds by treating each one of them like a person. One morning they take sixteen vials of blood from my husband. And we find out later that the technician made a mistake in the processing, and now he must return to give eight vials more. This news fills me with grief and fury. How could they be so careless with his blood? But V is immediately forgiving. Later when a rookie technician jabs him multiple times without finding a vein, his supervisor steps in to complete the draw. I make an effort to hold my peace, and manage but just barely. As we are walking back to our car V says, “I almost asked the supervisor to let the other guy try again. He must have felt bad about botching it like that. Would have been nice to give him another chance.”

***


There is a little patch of fenced in yard space on the northern side of our home. It can be accessed from the back deck. It is an irregularly shaped piece of land, bordered on one side by a clutch of tall, slender trees whose leaves crunch under foot. There used to be a lawn here but now it is just a stretch of brown earth, that warms quickly in the morning sun. In the far corner is a little shrub of a tree that I take to calling Little Tree. He’d suffered prolonged neglect during the many months of construction before we moved into the house. Now he is a sad bundle of dried up branches and twigs, bearing only a handful of forlorn leaves. I remember seeing purple flowers on him when we first bought the place. Now looking at him I fill with guilt — how could we have forgotten all about him? I begin to water Little Tree, and talk to him a little bit in the mornings. V sits nearby taking in the rays of early sunlight. We do this every day, and as I look at the two of them, a garden shrub whose sap seems to have run dry, and my husband whose bone marrow has very nearly stopped producing life-giving blood cells I can’t help but wonder if their fates might be joined somehow. And then I quickly tell myself this is a dangerous thought. I do not want to be doubly devastated if this tree does not make it. For a week or so nothing seems to happen. Then one day soon after V’s counts have begun to rise, I see, a small army of buds and it feels like a miracle. Within a few days they have multiplied and then almost overnight Little Tree is a green and purple festival unto himself. Hundreds of little flowers shaking their heads in the sunlight. V’s counts too have been steadily rising. They are both getting better. And I am learning not to take for granted this thing called life that is at once more fragile and resilient than I ever dreamed. How little it needs to flourish. And how much it needs that little. Humble acts of caring against the backdrop of an inscrutable universe go farther than we imagine. 

***

There is so much to do. From the moment I wake up to the time I lie down again at night each moment is spoken for. Sometimes I feel like there is a superhuman strength powering me. Sometimes I feel very tired and very old. 

***

Here is how it is for me: My heart does not feel big enough to contain the beauty of the world alone. Beauty, without a sense of the beloved to share in the sense of splendor, becomes almost frightening, takes on the chill of indifference. Something that moves you, but will never be moved by you.

***

Days meld into weeks, weeks into months. This state of seclusion in slow stages has grown oddly sweet and familiar. This uncertainty is now accustomed and life is streaked vivid with grace. Running errands I am cheerful and rooted again. No longer lost and stumbling ‘amid alien corn’. No longer so easily wounded by innocuous things.

***


It is a week of California-style December rain. One moment the day is golden and the sky a blameless shade of blue. The next moment gray clouds swoop in like storm troopers hijacking any hint of warmth. Sometimes rain clatters on the rooftop like a runaway team of reindeer. Sometimes it falls with no warning in silent sheets from the sky. You look up and are surprised by the slant of silvery dotted lines connecting sky and earth. The loveliness of this soundless weeping, tugs at something deep inside you. Every so often the sun comes out to dance with the falling drops, and you are treated to a sky canvas brushed with low-slung indigo clouds on one side and all the rest of it a shimmering sea of sapphire that seems to tint the whole world a gauzy shade of blue. When this happens you know that there are rainbows out, tossing their bright arcs across the way. Catching one is only a matter of looking up at the right time and in the right direction.
***
One morning, gazing out our window, in a moment of imperiousness I say to the universe, “I’d like a rainbow placed right here please.” Because how perfect would it be to have framed in your living room window, a smudged rainbow river of color above dark emerald hills against a dramatic sky? When it materialized exactly in the requested spot a day later and then again, and again and again the following week, it left me feeling awed and a little abashed. Like a child who has the ear of a mighty power, and has been caught using that privilege to perform trifling miracles. If I was going to move heaven and earth shouldn’t it be for something more significant than firmament ornamentation? But no. To ask for anything important would somehow feel like a violation. A breach in trust. Sometimes we make demands precisely because we think no one is listening. When you realize that you, in all your littleness, are in fact, being attended on by the forces that run the universe, it humbles the spirit. And once you’ve been properly doused in that humility, any ask seems at once both unnecessary and impertinent.

***


The first time I ​ever ​saw a shooting star I closed my eyes and V’s name unfurled in the darkness. Not so much a wish as a vivid revelation. I was stunned yet also not surprised. The second time I saw a shooting star was a year and a half later. I closed my eyes, and my mind went quiet. I held the perfection of that moment in the palm of my hand. Conscious that I was, in that moment, empty of any kind of ask. Improbable as it seems, on both occasions V was right next to me. A day later and in the presence of a bad-tempered rickshaw driver (whom I will forever think of with a great rush of affection), we had our first conversation about what we’d each known independently for awhile: if either of us were to ever get married, it would be to the other. We’d known each other for three years, but for the vast majority of that time were out of touch. We lived on opposite sides of the world and the limited time we’d spent together was ​almost always with many other​s​ around. This conversation was apropos of nothing apparent, and yet I remember looking out of the rickshaw into the darkness and feeling aware of my mind, and how surprisingly still and calm it was. Not whirling or breathless at all. But rooted and clear-eyed. I remember ​thinking,​ ​‘Here is the bridge. ​H​ere is the sky. That is the ocean. Those are the trees. And this is V. Here. ​By my side​.’ And it was as natural and lovely and extra ordinary and irrefutable as that. He left the same week. The next time we crossed paths was at our engagement ceremony, the night before our wedding. 
***
Hello. Goodbye. Sitting at the window on a morning full of clouds and stray raindrops, I reflect idly on the fact that we repeat these words in a variety of ways multiple times in the course of a day, a week, a year, a lifetime. It is the foregone, invisible arc that all our encounters, relationships and experiences must follow. First an arrival, a greeting, an introduction. Eventually, a departure, a separation, a farewell. There is something melancholy and regrettable about this arrangement. I wonder who it was who sought fit to order things in this way. Wouldn’t it have been a vastly preferable and more intelligent design to front​ ​load the goodbye and then go out on the high note of hello? With a bang instead of a whimper. I feel a slight frisson of electricity run through me as I think this. A crackling sense of insight. I’ve arrived at this way​ ​station tardily. Others have asked this question here before me, and stumbled upon a secret so obvious that it’s hidden in plain sight. Across all ages and times there are people who have lived this way and lit the world with their fearlessness and love. When you let your heart break open with the truth of goodbye at the beginning then you have ahead of you a lifetime to arrive at the fullness of hello.

**​*​

It is afternoon and I am online Googling a rare health condition that a friend is navigating. He’s assessing his treatment options and has asked for help. I skip to the task armed with unsuspecting buoyancy and a basketful of good intentions. All that’s missing is a little red hood. I have forgotten all about wolves. The woods of online medical research are unlovely, dark and deep. Link after link leads me into a cheerless labyrinth of grim studies and unsettling reports. As I read, slowly, and almost imperceptibly, thorny statistics creep thickly across the walls. The air grows dark and heavy with the inelegant, vaguely threatening names of aggressive drugs and risk-ridden procedures. My mind gradually picks up speed and tension. Begins to hurtle from page to page. Looking for sanctuary. A place to perch. Safe from all that prowls and growls and snaps. Without intending to, something in my heart clenches and dims. While my thoughts are playing catch up, my body has instantly recognized all the cues. I have been here before. Six months ago. When we were first shipwrecked on this island of uncertainty with a strange diagnosis. I trawled the unreliable waters of the internet, fighting my worst fears with a paradoxical combination of trembling equanimity and quiet desperation. Reminding myself periodically to steady myself, ready myself to meet reality on its own terms. While looking for something — anything — in a sea of only sometimes reliable intelligence and information, that might vaguely resemble cause for hope. An old script has been triggered, and the stuff of my being now redirects itself to play out the lines.

***

“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing” But there are times when my soul isn’t quite in the mood for TS Eliot.

***

In the evening awash with exhaustion and new insight I tell V that this is my opportunity. This here and now. To nip in the bud that which I planted unaware. The strong tendrils that twined their way around me this afternoon sprang from the hidden seeds of all the things I did not live fully the first time around. All the things I unwittingly forced underground. All that I did not, or could not face with a poised and loving heart. When you do not live the moment, the moment lives in you. There’s the rub. It sleeps undisturbed in a deep furrow of your existence until time and fertile circumstances summon it back to life. Then it grows. And how! With the same strength and vigor that bursts a billion buds onto branch tips in Spring. And Spring has come early this year. Mixing memory and desire. And there is Eliot again. What is it with him and this time?

***

In my first year of college I fell into Wasteland the way every Lit major does. Like Alice down a darker (but no less wonderful) version of the rabbit hole. One night I woke up in my dorm room. A room shared with three other girls all of whom majored in subjects far more practical than English Lit. And without really meaning to I held out my hand in the darkness and chanted this line: ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’. And what I felt wasn’t fear but the rush of being taken by beauty and grandscale excitement. After that mellow dramatic moment I fell back into a sound sleep. For the record never before, or after have I been known to wake up unprovoked in the middle of the night quoting poets living or dead.

***

Several weeks prior to that fateful ER visit I would sense the ground lurching when I lay down at night. A feeling would follow that was akin to what one might feel lying on a flimsy raft spinning on unquiet waters. There was no apparent cause for this churning. But after the diagnosis came in, I wondered whether I’d subconsciously known all along that something was amiss. Now it has been six months of near-seclusion. The journey has been slow and unpredictable. On the surface I am taking it all in my stride. “His body took a very hard hit,” I tell myself and other people, “and now the body needs time to recover. We have to take it a step at a time.” It was summer when we started down this path. Then before we knew it Fall flew by in a bonfire of optimism, and now Winter too seems to have vanished overnight. The air is like molten gold in the mornings and the hills are strewn with flowers. Each day dawns like a celebration. I am drinking it all in and am not consciously worried. But in the subterranean realms something is amiss. I know this because when I lie down these days the bed morphs into a raft again, And the room spins.

***


V smiles quietly. “It is what it is,” his face says, “Don’t read too much into any of this.” How simple that sounds. And how hard in practice. We are born interpreters of maladies. We look for good omens in the clouds and in tea leaves and in the eyes of our loved ones. Reading too much into things is a hard habit to break. In the middle of the day I look over at V. He is reading. I see the way his eyes move, following the lines of hidden words with quiet attention. Whenever he is reading, or watching anything on a screen a kind of total absorption settles about his features and I catch a glimpse in his profile of the little boy he must have been once. It moves me to an aching kind of tenderness. How sweet he is, this husband of mine. How can he possibly be so sick? There is no answering questions like that. My throat is tangled with knots. Breathe Pavi. Breathe. Just breathe. 
***
That afternoon everything seems a little more fragile than usual, even when I am not thinking about anything in particular, I can feel the tears trembling just beneath the surface, held back by just the thinnest of veils. I go about my daily rounds holding it all together admirably for the most part, and then every so often the slightest of breaths makes me come undone. Before I know it salty rivulets are streaming down my face unstoppably. ‘I am not crying because I’m overwhelmed with sadness,’ I explain to V, ‘It’s just that something’s tripped inside, and this is the overflow.” Unintelligible as that explanation may be, somehow it makes sense inside of me. The tears flowing right now do not stem entirely from a present emotion, they are freighted with the momentum of the past. Yes, the delicate veins of a certain kind of sorrow and anxiety have branched within me with mesmerizing rapidity (think of the way a crack travels through ice or glass) and when they intersect with an older set of cracks, a spectacular shattering takes place. It is easy to get swept into the drama of it all. It takes effort to extricate oneself from the current of past patterns. To pay heed instead to the stream of air that makes an invisible journey all the way into and through your body and then out again. Feel the rise and fall. Relax your clenched muscles. Rest in and do not resist, the moment. Even in the midst of tears I cannot deny that this makes a difference. I will do my best to mind the shards of glass. To sweep them up carefully. To remember, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

 

***


On our evening walk we cross a nondescript brown house. In front of it is a magnificent magnolia tree that has exploded into blossom. It is like something out of a forgotten myth. Thousands upon thousands of blooms at a glance. Standing under it and looking up is like being enveloped by a rising cloud of butterflies — such unbelievably creamy petals full of soft shadows and indescribable shades of pink. How extravagant they are in the act of opening. Stretching past the limits of their shape with such grace and abandon. Every puff of wind sends petals whirling to the ground. The grass is covered in soft pink heaps. V waits patiently as I pull out the camera and inexpertly attempt to capture this confusion of beauty. The perfume stands in the air like an entity unto itself. Rich, full-blown and unmistakably feminine. The senses reel trying to take it all in. We have stumbled upon this tree at the peak of its astounding exhilaration. It’s fertility barely reined in. It looks invincible. Almost. Already, hidden in the branches some blossoms have relinquished their flawlessness. Curling around the edges. Showing signs of bruising. It is only a matter of time before they take over the tree, slowly drowning this vibrancy in the withered garb of decay. The fragrance that is so poised and enchanting in this moment, will turn too-ripe and vaguely displeasing. Other flowers in other gardens will step into their prime as the brown, creased magnolia petals float gently to the earth like so many forgotten tongues. All this lies just around the corner for this tree. But right now it is still alight and a-tremble with life and rose-tinted possibility. Such powerful fragility. It weakens the knees. Like a woman with a drawstring coin purse, I sort through a jumbled heap of shining, insufficient words. How pale and paltry a thing vocabulary is! Nothing I have to say can equal this moment among the magnolias. 

***
That night as I lie awake, a quiet terror takes my heart between its cold fingers. Thoughts loosed from their dark branches swirl and drift down around me. Periodically the mind’s grim broadcast is intercepted. And behind my closed eyes flash vivid images of vanished magnolia blossoms. Their transient grandeur seared into me.This happens again and again. Beside me, V sleeps undisturbed. Like a small mountain of trusting innocence. His goodness pierces my heart. Even though he does not think at all in terms of being attacked or needing bodyguards, I can’t help but think that he deserves a far more valiant protectress by his side. Instead he has just me. And I am very small, and full of flaws, with no appetite for battle. When I wake in the middle of the night my cheeks are wet with tears. My dreams scented with the intertwined intensities of beauty and fear. This too. This too is life Pavi. This moment too, is blessed.

 

***

For awhile now I’ve been waking up a couple of hours before V does. I wash my face, brush my teeth and slip out of the room as quietly as I can. The world is so lovely and quiet in the mornings. It fills my heart with a special kind of peace. I look out over the valley and the hills to the water. Standing at the window I greet the trees and sure as a bucket lowered into a well, I fill with the cool waters of gratefulness. Then I light a single stick of incense and sit down on my cushion . After an hour I rise and will do an hour of yoga. These two hours of inhabiting mind and body as fully as I am able to, become the foundation for the rest of the day. I cherish the sense of quiet agency it gives me. When V comes into the room, his dearness breaks over me like a wave. This feeling is not new, and it’s not because of his illness. Seeing him in the morning has always felt this way. 

 

***

I marvel at how quickly the days slip through my fingers. There is a rhythm to the daily tasks. The preparing of medicines, and meals. The cleaning of floors and walls, counter tops and door handles. The loading and unloading of the dishwasher. The ​basket of laundry to tend to. In the kitchen we work well together as we always have.There is an improvised flow to our partnership, it is full of a musical ease and spontaneity. And much laughter as we strike hilarious bargains, each trying to wheedle the other into taking care of certain chores. From the outside all this might seem unremarkable, but I cherish the ordinary luxury of these moments beyond all telling. 

***

He is losing weight. I see a new slightness in his build. How his clothes look large on him. In the evenings I hear tiredness creep into his voice– a voice that typically rings bright with energy. When we walk the hills his stride is slower. My gaze follows him intently during the day. Takes note of little details. What I am seeing worries me. 

***

The night air fills with all the fears I studiously ignore in daylight. When it’s time to go to sleep, I take my position like a conflicted soldier. Crouched in the dugout of awareness. Trying to be watchful of my breath and any movement on the horizon. ‘They talk a good talk, but do not be deceived,’ I tell myself. ‘Your thoughts have no useful place here.’ Even self-warned in this way, I fall for their Pied Piper allure sometimes. Abandoning my post I am often halfway to the sea before I catch myself blindly stumbling after their dark trickster tunes. What is happening? What is going to happen? These questions balloon up in the night. They will fill all available space if ​I let them. Sometimes I have my pin ready. Sometimes I do not.

***

 

This time a koan that the mind fingers like prayer beads. Worrying the moments between the restless fingers of thought. Learning slowly that truth will not be teased out of life with the crowbar of reason. Your will, will never be sufficient to summon it from where it sits cross-legged and still within you. When will you learn to be simple? To find your way to the river as animals do. To cup your palms for water, and drink of that fullness that never runs dry.
 
***
Test day. Student phlebotomist can’t find the vein. V is very forgiving. I am not. Even though I don’t say anything I think it. Sobering results. All lines down. B&D come over in the evening. I am learning to trust–or trying to. It is not easy, only easier than it used to be. V is so dear.
***

Then there come mornings when I wake up and for no conscious reason, my being refuses to be worried. It has perhaps decided it no longer has the energy to entertain anxiety. Bottom line, being emptied of anxiety fills me with a fresh kind of energy. On these days I am extra susceptible to the beauty of the world. It rushes in to occupy the vacuum in my attention.

***

A walk somewhere in San Mateo. Boy on a steep hill riding a skateboard down. Body graceful, padded hands skimming the street when he crouches. He is curly-haired, cute, full of a beautiful vigor and careless confidence. “Looks like fun,” V calls out. “It is,” the boy shoots back over his shoulder, “and scary sometimes!”

Isn’t that life?

***

These days my mind feels hummingbird restless, unable to sit still for long. Full of impatience and an undefined urgency. What is this ‘next thing’ that I seem to be perpetually rushing to–unaware that I am rushing? Lately I have been trying to practice ‘simple’ things. Breathing. Releasing tension from all its secret cubbyholes in the body. Feeling my feet on the ground. The rising stalk of my spine. What a gift yoga has been. 

***

A loud noise wakes me. A noise it turns out that was only in my dream. I lay awake luxuriating in the start of this day. Mornings are different now. Quietly charged with something that is peaceful and happy. But even as I slow down the pace of my mind, the day seems sped up. Where are they gone too? The interminable afternoons of my childhood? The weeks that felt like months and the months that felt like years? I am trying to do what generations of human beings have tried to do before me.

I am trying to slow time down.

***
Have I mentioned the watercolor apples I am attempting? And violets and shaggy pines? I purchased a student-grade paint set and have discovered online tutorials, some of them magical to watch. One of my virtual teachers is a mother from Maine with a giggly, babbling sweetness about her. Like a brook with hands that can paint. In the videos that is all that you see of her. Her hands, that bring beauty to bloom on the blank page. It thrills something inside me to see the vivid colors — crimson, sap green, cadmium yellow, inky blue…the way they cloud and swirl and mingle into light and shadows and leaves and petals. It makes my heart ache a little bit with the beauty of it all. My work is well-intentioned and clumsy, and I am a little addicted to the attempting of it. I know I will never be very good, but there is something in me that’s drawn to dabble. Perhaps it’s just a longing to make beauty. To create. To ‘improve the blank page’ without words. I am not there yet.
***

There are times when we stumble into the experience of the saint. Awash with love and wonder for all we see and all that we can’t alike. Invincible we stroll down grocery store aisles, circle the packed parking lot waiting with a smile for an open space. Nothing can perturb our loveliness of spirit. Not inconsiderate drivers, not nagging superiors, or difficult relatives. Not potholes or burnt toast, not rude immigration officers or squeaky floorboards. Everything that breathes deserves your affection, loosed like a puppy on the beach, indiscriminate in its bounding joy and readiness to like everyone. Even inanimate objects in these moments seem full of grace. The pebble you pick up from the ground is a talisman. The cloud wandering over head a kind of benediction.

***

It is that honeyed time of year again. Light so sweet and golden one wants to spread it on toast and eat it all up. The trees are changing colors and releasing their leaves. Watching them drift to the ground is a lesson in grace. To move that lightly, that in concert with an invisible current. Love for V waxes like a moon that never wanes. Grows fuller, ever more radiant. Yet quiet like the moon. It does not seek attention yet illuminates darkness. This love lights the nighttime corners of my soul. In this time more than others I sense shadows that are ready to be metabolized. Old patterns with plenty of energy that can be harnessed and redirected. I have been playing so many games in the labyrinthine interiors of mind. Motives ill-serving disguised as good intentions or righteous actions. How tricky, slippery and not-to-blame is this mind of mine that does what it does with such skill and faithfulness to the rules that govern it. Unrelenting in its energy, unfailing in its readiness to act, fueled by a blind, protective impulse. Misguided yes, but its loyalty is oddly touching. I can do more, so much more to guide it in the right direction. It amazes me how much time can be wasted under the guise of doing good work. A blue sheet of sky outside my window. What does it know of time and mistakes and progress? I want to live with that kind of lack of concern for distractions. That kind of dwelled-in awareness that does not easily get dazzled or disturbed by surface. A tiny rose bloomed yesterday. Like a pearl yawning. Like dawn in a teacup, like a flower fallen from the little hands of a baby goddess. Cream tinged with the faintest of blushes. Such symmetry and poise, such quiet confidence and novelty, even though it is one in a long succession of roses that have bloomed before, it retains unique value. It claims to be what it is. Entirely. No more and not a modicum less. Perhaps that is what true grace is. Owning each atom. Without entitlement or apology.

***

Why do I feel so many invisible pressures? What is this tension I am carrying inside my stomach, my chest, across my back? Even when I wake up I can feel it coiling in my body. What is the states of my soul these days? Everything was shimmering sand and enchanted forest until it was not. Now the colors are not technicolored, the song not completely on key. Somehow this does not diminish the experience. Grape vines are ‘tortured’ to make the wine more sweet. The turbulences of my heart and mind perhaps have a similar agency,. I could use some sweetening. I am not sure when I acquired such a caustic sensibility. It is not a steady presence, but hides under some rock in my mind. Steps out to sun itself on occasion and startles me with its reptilian presence, its scales and beady eyes. I am learning that my habits of interpretation are not very enlightened. And what’s worse–they are dull. Tedious and untrue is not a good combination. If one is going to make up stories then they may as well be fascinating, or why bother.
***

No matter how long you wait
With your eyes fixed unblinkingly
On the horizon
The sun will not rise into sight
If you are facing
West

***

What are you world? And what do you think of me? I sit here admiring your breadth, your complexity. A little afraid of your possibilities and the dark roads. A lot in awe of how you keep so many things in motion. The moon, the planets, the seasons of my heart. I have far less to keep track of and you can see the effort I make. Your exertion if it exists is hidden. The work as natural as my next breath and as unbidden. Some days your grandness swoops underneath me, lifts me to dizzying heights, makes me experience a greatness that is not mine. I borrow your grandeur like a child playing dress-up, only I do not realize it is all a game. Other days your stature renders me insignificant and empty of hope. Too small to make a difference, too forgotten to feel responsible. How to dance with more grace between these extremes of royalty and paupery? I crash like a lost ship on hidden rocks and rise like a dazzling phoenix only to do it all over again. The same rounds only they aren’t ever quite the same are they?

***

Divali. Our lamps are lit. Darkness falls early. The clocks went back this week. The Earth is settling into herself. Saying her goodbyes. Preparing for a deep sleep. Time turns precious in autumn. Long, languid summer days deceive us into thinking we will live forever. In autumn every day is a reminder. Our time in the sun is short. I look at V and realize that a week from now we will have been married 13 years. Thirteen! And I have not grown accustomed yet to the largesse of this love. The fineness of his person and the generosity of a fate that drew us together. Sometimes it seems to me so very improbable. Our togetherness. Improbable yet natural. The sense of ease and belonging that I feel is still a surprise. Unaccountable and not quite of this world. Earthly life is full of edges, conditions and compromises. Loving and being loved by V has never felt that way. He is so utterly himself, so sweetly composed, so full of understanding and affection, so full of quiet capacity. But all these words are slipping on the surface of what I want to say which is something more secret and unsayable, like the velvet interior of a rose half-blown, soft, full of grace and scented light. 
***

And what do I remember from this day? Waking early after a too-late night and finding V awake too. We play a word association game. Bread butter jam traffic stop light sky fall wind — enlightenment said V suddenly. Enlightenment? I ask. Yes says V. I thought I should step things up.

Today is Christmas. I love the sound of the word and the stories behind it. I love all the Christmas carols. We walked out into a cold evening and warmed ourselves by choosing steep hills to climb. I loved seeing the lit Christmas trees in the windows, glimpses of people in their kitchens or gathering at their dining tables. Trees aglitter with golden lights, fairy-like deer illuminated in shadowy gardens. Scent of wood smoke. How sweet a gift it is that for many months now V has more breath and energy than I do as we ramble these hills.

 

***
January rains slant outside my window, clouds hang low, the air is cold. The drenched world glistens. Beautiful, strange, aloof. Like a mermaid sitting on the rocks. I belong to rainy days. They are kindred to my soul. Their bad-tempered beauty delights me. Too many days of uninterrupted sunshine are like a toothpaste jingle playing over and over again in my head. Upbeat and catchy at first. Then tiresome. So let the skies darken with the drumroll of the clouds. Let the heart fling open its attic window, and let the bats take flight. Gray can be gorgeous. It’s the shadows that give meaning and depth to the light.
***

There is a voluptuous fullness to the days. A sleekness that feels effortless. The hours fill of their own accord. I give my time lavishly in many respects. But outside my doorstep I can feel more than one project prowling, like a big cat. If I step outside unguarded one or the other of them will eat me alive, and I am not sure I want that–yet.

***

A February week full of balmy skies and blossom-scented winds. A Spring preview. The dark-limbed trees have all gone bridal. Slender, veiled in white and the palest of pinks. The flowering acacia that grow wild in these hills have put out their feathery yellow pompoms, the ruffled rosy petals of the camellias, are blooming a hundred to a bush, the frilly faces of early daffodils laugh up at you from winter gardens. Everywhere you turn there are fat buds gleaming greenly on bare branches, you could have sworn they weren’t there a second ago. You catch a glimpse of happy bumblebees tumbling in a spray of purple flowers. A temperate sun warms your face and inclines you towards forgiveness and fresh enthusiasms. Look around. And stop worrying. The whole world is ripening towards fruition. With no sign of haste. And nothing forgotten. Least of all you.

***
It is night time and I can see myself reflected in our picture window. A perfect ghostly replica of me, in our home, with my husband in the background loading the dishwasher in his patient and scientifically-perfected way. In a few moments we will have retired to bed and the window will go dark. Where will the vanished reflections take refuge then? In the shadowy corridors of my unreliable memory no doubt. Years later perhaps they will spill out like the contents of an overstuffed purse. And I will pick them up and look them over with eyes alight with wonder and longing. How beautiful your life was I will say. And then catching sight of my reflection in another night-time window, How beautiful your life is I will add, before the curtain comes down and all goes dark again.
***