#Grief

(This is a personal reading of the book “Notes on Grief” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I write this to help myself. I hope reading this will help us all in some way, that we grieve as we feel.)

The bold and italics are excerpts from the book.

An impermanence in the air. The virus brought close the possibility of dying, the commonness of dying.

I am one of those millions of children who live far from their parents. We live with certain confidence that we will be able to reach them quickly in case there is an emergency. That certainty ended with the pandemic.

After fifteen long months of corona restrictions, when I could finally travel, I was shaken by the frailty of my father. My heart pounded non-stop, I lay awake at nights, I jumped if the phone rang at the slightest of odd hours. I could not keep away from the thought that my father may be gone soon. In that state of gnawing sadness, I looked for something that would quieten my mind, would keep me afloat.

Sometimes a book finds to you. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Notes on Grief’ was on the shelf. But I was evading reading it. The line between fear and premonition can get easily blurred, especially when you know the eventuality, that your fear is the ultimate truth. I was avoiding a daughter’s reminiscence after her father’s death. Will it prepare me or will it devastate me?

I removed the cover of the book to spare any anxiety to the people around me, and started reading it after my father’s passing. Because I loved my father so much, so fiercely, so tenderly, I always, at the back of my mind, feared this day. From a daughter to a father, and an overwhelmed family, the grief in this book connected like there are no boundaries. Every sentence resonated; either in its parallels or in its manifestation. I also realised, that grief is intensely personal, obstinately individual, and is way more complicated than it’s understood to be.

Several of my friends lost their parents in the past few months. The loss continues as I write. It is in this living and breathing an air leaden with angst and ambiguity that broke us bit by bit. It’s not that I find succour in the fact that so many of us are grieving. I find the true meaning of how hard it can be.

So here is how the book is both solacious and cathartic.

A brain surgery four years ago, followed by diagnosis of Parkinson and incontinence severely impacted my father’s daily activities. A man who always walked, never depended on anybody, now needed assistance for almost everything. Age descended as if in a hurry and with savage intensity. He complied to the doctor’s prescriptions with single-minded devotion that he will be able to walk the streets again. We answered his questions with care and believable vagueness. We were in constant search for what could make his living easier (I say living and not surviving). A straw to sip, softened food easy to chew, regular review of medication, grab-bars, anti-skid bath mats, electric shaver, several kinds of aid for mobility etc. Our mind space filled up with the pursuit of solutions, every conversation opened up a possibility or threw up a challenge.  

Zoom calls, there was my father, only his forehead on the screen. Thanks to video calling, and my mother’s ability to pick up technology, we saw each other twice every day. I will hear her prompting my father, ‘hold the phone properly so that she can see you’. My mother tells me now, that my father will ask if I did not call or was late. Till the time he could, he will dial from the non-smart-screen phone and ask “kahin galu” (where have you been?), with a mix of concern and demand in his voice.

It was so fast, too fast. It was not supposed to happen like this, not like a malicious surprise, not during a pandemic that has shut down the world. Through the severity and continuity of this pandemic nightmare, I had prayed for a proper closure. Amid the horrendous episodes of deaths that happened in isolation wards, last rites performed in PPE suits, I had prayed to be spared of the misfortune. That there be an opportunity for a good bye.

Thankfully, that could happen. About two weeks before my father’s death, we could all be together, me, my brother and my mother, reliving how it all was when we were children. The photos from that visit make me weep. In that blessed time, I often caught my father’s eyes, fondly, longingly, looking at all of us, as if to say ‘this is it in this life.’ He was slowly willing away from life.

The recent the memory, tiny bit less is the weight of the grief. My heart goes out to all those who could not be with their parents in their last days. Death is not just death. How it happens matters, in our reasoning, our healing, our acceptance, our closing.  Was it the gradual onslaught of advancing age or was it a sudden, freak, unconceivable incident? My mother saw it coming through his progressing illness. Someone who read and re-read the newspaper at least twice a day, would fall half asleep on the second page. He talked less, opined less, participated less.

The dictates of Igbo culture, this immediate pivot from pain to planning. And so, I try to remind myself that my father would want things done as they are done. Already friends and relatives are saying this must be done and that must be done. The rituals, I am told, are designed to keep you occupied, mentally and physically. There are tons of things to do. Several arrangements for the body to be laid to rest, for the soul to be set free of human bondage. And while we were engrossed in doing that, we were also starkly aware of the absence of my father. This worsens as rituals get over. The everyday routine returns, and along with it, the memory of what it was when my father was around. It’s as if the clock, the house, the phone calls, the food, everything was in synchrony with that one person who is not there anymore. He is not at the dining table for breakfast, on his chair backing the window’s light, and that after breakfast he is not settled on the sofa in his mid-morning ritual of napping, reading and napping again. My brother and I take turns to sit on his desk, to look at what he saw when he looked out, tuck ourselves into his space.

We had tremendous outpouring of love and remembrances. People taking over without fuss what needed to be done, sparing us to gather ourselves. From waiting at the hospital, keeping him in the morgue till we arrive, arrangements for the last rites, the rituals, the community feast, all the tasks were picked up and completed seamlessly.

Except, the consolation.

Grief is not gauzy; it is substantial, oppressive, a thing opaque. Grief is raw wound on the skin. Any touch singes, salve or sharp. Grief has at least two vital elements. How as a person we deal with the deepest, closest feeling of loss. The second, how people, family and friends, make us feel. I don’t know why the second becomes significant. But it’s hardest to say “I don’t care” when in grief. You are vulnerable, your wound is in open display.

You learn how much grief is about language and the grasping for language. I have in the past found my-own-self fumbling for an expression, for words, that would touch a grieving soul. The same words come back to me with a vengeance. Be strong, I hear often. Tell me what is strong? Not crying? Is holding my father’s hand which is now ice-cold after being in the morgue for over thirty hours, strong? Is weeping when he is laid on the hard-wood-pyre strong?

A friend sends me a line from my novel: ‘Grief was celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved.’ How odd to find it so exquisitely painful to read my own words.  Some say he is in a better place. Where is that place? I cannot conjure up the image of that place.  And why is that place better? How am I supposed to feel comforted by the idea of a place I do not know exists? All that I know is that our family is now broken, it has an empty chair which will remain empty, always.

I am to draft the invitation. Writing ‘funeral’ is impossible for me. I could not bring myself to write the intimation. I sought help. My eyes would well up with every word. I could not be part of a conversation where that lovely picture of him, with that gentle smile, would be up on a frame and garlanded.

How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering? How do people walk around functioning in the world after losing a beloved father?

“This is the rule of Nature. This is the ultimate Truth.

We all have to leave one day. He would have suffered had he lived.”

Yes, I know. I will still cry. Because it hurts.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird).

I back away from condolences. People are kind, people mean well, but knowing this does not make their words rankle less. I am incensed when asked ‘when are they bringing the body?’ I supress a sob and reply ‘we will bring my father home between 12-1 pm.’ ‘Oh, you don’t have a nice framed picture of him’ asks someone planning a condolence meeting. ‘No, I did not prepare for my father’s death. No one hangs the image of a living person on the wall.’ I think but do not say it. In about three hours of his passing, a close associate asks my mother ‘will you move in with your son or your daughter?’ My brother gets a message ‘be brave. you are the man of the house now.’ Anyone who knows our family, knows that my mother is the (wo)man of our house, is the most resourceful, rooted and has always been on the top of everything, including my father’s office cum residence. We are actually borrowing from her, what it needs to go on.  It breaks my heart when she says ‘just because your father is not there anymore, everyone now thinks I am shiftable.’

I hear from others that videos of my father were circulated immediately after he was gone, on the way to the morgue. I am unable to accept such brazen intrusion. People stand around him, as he lay on the ground, frozen, and click pictures. Click several pictures. Someone places a paper with the name of an organisation on him. I remove it. My father is not a billboard. After a while, I ask people to stop taking pictures.

What does not feel like the deliberate prodding of wound is a simple ‘I’m sorry’, because in its banality it presumes nothing. My deepest condolences, as simple as that, also feels okay. The most consoling voices are from those who have gone through the loss of a parent A sixty-year-old neighbour who sits next to me and weeps for parents long gone. Another daughter talks about losing her father in the isolation ward after testing positive for covid, while he pleaded to be taken home. Another friend recalls the disturbing dilemma when the doctor mentions withdrawing the life support of his father. Or the thirty-six long days a friend’s mother was in the ICU. Till the machines keep beeping. Or the friend whose mother went for a check-up, never to return. Or the friend who came back home to find his father cold.

Concrete and sincere memories from those who knew him comfort the most, and it warms that the same words recur. How they knew my father, how he helped them, how he made suggestions that changed the course of their lives, these narrations fill the air with happy memories, with gratitude for a life that had touched so many. My father had the ability to find something good in people, from a gardener, an autorickshaw driver, to an industrialist, academician or a politician. It all showed in his death.

There is value in that Igbo way, that African way, of grappling with grief: the performative, expressive outward mourning, where you take every call and you tell and retell the story of what happened, where isolation is anathema and ‘stop crying’ a refrain. Grief is individual. I have built a tight wall around it. I don’t let anyone in other than close family. I don’t talk. I avoid phone calls where I have to give a chronology of my father’s death. My mother is different. She grieves through the retelling and comes out less stricken. And so, we mourn differently. Yet ‘people mourn differently’ is easy for the intellect to absorb, but for the heart it is much harder.Grief is both universal and unique. The loss is universal, how each of us take to it is a little bit common and a little bit sole. No matter how we tend to grief, how each react to grief, how our culture influences us, grief’s characters are common. I have mourned in the past but only now have I touched grief’s core. I cage my thoughts. I do the same.

Because I am drained limp from crying. And to speak about it would be to cry again. But later it is because I want to sit alone with my grief. Is it possible to be possessive of one’s pain? I want to become known to it, I want it known to me. So precious was my bond with my father that I cannot lay open my suffering until I have discerned its contours. I burst into tears when am asked how I am. Else I go about doing what I am needed, expected to do.

One day I am in the bathroom, completely alone, and I call my father by my fond nick name for him – ‘the original dada’ – and a brief blanket of peace enfolds me. Too brief. I am a person wary of the maudlin, but I am certain of this moment filled with my father. If it is a hallucination, then I want more of it, but it hasn’t happened again.

I have never been someone who thought of ‘life after death’. Not until I experienced death from this close. I look for a sign, a dream. Others tell me they dreamt of my father. That he appeared as a light, or he spoke, or he hugged, or he was writing on a desk. But I have nothing from him. And I want to ask him ‘why?’ One night, in a vivid dream, my father comes back. Mistake and mistaken identity. I am ecstatic. How can your unconscious turn on you with such cruelty?

It was the wholeness of him that formed me, but it was also these incidents, slice by slice. My father taught me that learning is never-ending. My father took notes of everything he read. He kept news clippings with the date on it. The last article that I read out aloud, he listened with rapt attention, nodding. Later he asked me for the clipping of the article and I asked ‘do you want to read it again or do you want to keep it?’ “Keep it” he had replied.

Every time he picked up a book, he would write down what appealed to him, a passage, a historical fact, an articulated emotion. I find his handwritten notes everywhere, on all sorts of topics. There is an intense pathos to looking at his handwriting.  Pathos is a word I had heard first from my father, and often. Orphaned early, he grew up in hardship. There never was a second serving at meals. Even later in life, where food was not scarce anymore, he continued to eat only one serving. Nobody has ever seen my father overindulge.

One of the last wishes of my father was to also immerse his remains in Mahanadi, the river around which he grew up. He told us about bathing in the river. That he would run as fast as he could because the sun would be blazing hot, and the sand under his feet was scorching, and he did not have any footwear. He would carry a wet gunny sack while he ran. When his feet could not take it anymore, he would throw the sack down and stand on it to cool his feet, at the most a minute, because the sack must not get dry, and it has to last till he reaches the river. Because he will also come back the same way, run, pause, stand on the wet gunny sack, run, pause till he is home. Now his remains embrace the river. “You don’t need to run back anymore Bapa. You are home.”

But that he was so respectful of our boundaries, and so grateful for the smallest things, was like a priceless trimming. A man of small needs, he would over-think what we do and whether it will cause inconvenience, extra burden or upset our routine. A holiday, a health check-up, or the travel to be with us, he will be happy but will also worry about how much extra work it may be for his children. One pen, a book, a writing pad, collection of newspapers from the airport could make him so content. How exquisitely he paid attention, how present he was, how well he listened. If you told him something, he remembered. He observed what mattered to him. Not ostentatious, grandiose things. But a word, a frown, a description, a museum, a fact in history, a quote. 

Part of grief’s tyranny is that it robs you of things that matter. His pride in me mattered. He read everything I wrote. The one person who savoured even a ‘Letter to the Editor’ by me.

I like that his response to power was a shrug. He worshipped integrity. He was indifferent to, if not distrustful of, grand flourishes. My father was a journalist. Mild, softspoken, thorough investigator of facts and a keeper of history. He survived and flourished in his profession because of his integrity and impartiality. He could get people to be their best around him. His was a kind of naivety, an innocence of the just.He admired Lal Bahadur Shastri. He would tell us about the call by Shastri to forsake one meal during the war and my father is the only person I know who ate one meal every Monday.  We would turn to him for any question on history. In some strange coincidence, my last face to face conversation with him was about a question on Shastri, which he answered correctly, and as always ended it with ‘I have limited knowledge’ followed by a hearty smile. Another revelation: how much laughter is part of grief. I laugh too, at times, but I know that my eyes have lost the happy twinkle.

My mother is strangely progressive and also stubbornly conformist. I am heartsick to see her so brave and so drained. In her forever pragmatism to life, she starts offering his shirts, shoes, medicines. I quickly hide one of his often-worn shirts in my suitcase. It still seems to have the smell of him. I want things to stay as they are, my mother is making space. After devoting every single minute to my father’s care, my mother says with simple finality ‘everything has an end’, in a very matter of fact way, as she goes around following the rituals and getting everything cleaned.

Nobody expects the bodies of men to wear the imprint of their loss. But my mother says she wants to do it all: ‘I will do everything that is done. I will do it for Daddy.My mother understands the society’s unfair treatment of women, in happiness and in grief. She balances herself in the spectrum, makes her choices. If she is not allowed to use red any more, she won’t allow white either.

I had often wondered, especially with the corona restrictions, what if my brother doesn’t make it to India to perform my father’s last rites? I ask my mother, assuming she would name a close male family member as women are not allowed to light the pyre. My mother surprises me ‘If your brother could not be present, I never thought it would be anyone other than you.’

To sit with him and talk about the past was like reclaiming gorgeous treasure. My father’s past is familiar to me because of stories told and retold, and yet I always intended to document them better. My father had a twin brother who did not survive. I have this sudden quest to know his name? How long did he live? There is no one in the family to tell me, their entire generation is gone. One life is never enough to know another. There is a sensation that is frightening, of a receding, of an ancestry slipping away, but at least I am left with enough for myth, if not memory.

So, I knew. I was so close to my father that I knew, without wanting to know, without fully knowing that I knew. A thing like this, dreaded for so long, finally arrives and among the avalanche of emotions there is a bitter and unbearable relief.  No parent should have to bury a child. And all children should know that they will be the one to say good bye. I don’t know in the case of happiness, but hindsight trails grief. We look back at everything. On hindsight, his suffering was only going to increase. His body was giving away. He would have abhorred being fed through a tube, an oxygen mask, laid on the bed the whole time. Hindsight can be comforting. But the hope for a little bit more of him, little bit more time with him creeps right back in. 

I am my father’s daughter. It is an act of resistance and refusal: grief telling you it is over and your heart saying it is not; grief trying to shrink your love to the past and your heart saying it is present.

‘When will Grandpa wake up again?’ The little boy asks ‘when is Baba coming back after his meeting with God?’

I accompany him on his final journey, talking in mute, singing to him some of his favourite songs,

Babul mora, naihar chuto hi jaye… Mora apna begana chuto jai ….

(Sung by K.L. Saigal, O My father! I’m leaving home… I’m leaving those who were my own…)

Our home is never going to be the same again. My mother is never going to look the same again. Our family is now altered forever. It’s going to be one less, forever. 

My memories bring eloquent stabs of pain that say, ‘This is what you will never again have.’

I will never see my father again. Never again.

‘Never’ has come to stay. ‘Never’ feels so unfairly punitive. For the rest of my life, I will live with my hands outstretched for things that are no longer there.

This grief is a long haul. Sometimes I freeze for a moment, at times I drop into cold sweat, I cry, the finality of death sinks its teeth on me, crushing, merciless. When death comes un-announced, no alert, it has the potential to alter us. Sudden death is unfathomable grief. I see the picture of two daughters looking at their young father in a glass coffer, gone in the best of health and I imagine their grief. I wish them space. And that they find their ways to grieve. And that we are supportive of grieving, no matter how and what it takes. No rules.

We don’t know how we will grieve until we grieve.

After many weeks, I look at myself in the mirror and pick up kohl. I open the cupboard and choose what to wear. We will go back to doing what we do in our everyday lives. Interspersed in that routineness will be grief. A void forever. Grief inserted in our everyday lives.

“This is it, in this life”.

The Mulberry

I can’t recall when exactly and why I got besotted with mulberry. I like berries, except gooseberries which I can eat as a medicine, may be once annually, or powdered or candied.

And then somehow, recently, I started noticing mulberries more, the trees became visible, the excitement to spot them, and in general, my obsession to grow any plant that I like, and that looks like, it will be possible to grow them in a garden pot.

I can still clearly remember the mulberry shrub in a friend’s neighbourhood. We must have been around 12- or 13-years old. Being outdoors to play and to also pluck and eat seasonal fruits were the most loved activity. Mulberry and few other fruits were the tricky ones, as they gave away where we had been, the stained mouth and marks on the clothes.

There are about 68 species of the genus Morus. The majority of these species occur in Asia, especially in China (24 species) and Japan (19). Continental America is also rich in its Morus species. The genus is poorly represented in Africa, Europe and the Near East, and it is not present in Australia.

In India, there are many species of Morus, of which Morus alba, M. indica. M. serrata and M. laevigata grow wild in the Himalayas. Several varieties have been introduced belonging to M. multicaulis, M. nigra, M. sinensis and M. philippinensis. Most of the Indian varieties of mulberry belong to M. indica.

Though mulberry cultivation is practised in various climates, the major area is in the tropical zone covering Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu states, with about 90 percent. In the sub-tropical zone, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh and the northeastern states have major areas under mulberry cultivation.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Student days, when I was once visiting a Krishi Vikas Kendra (KVK), the agriculture research and extension centres and saw rows of mulberry trees. Some had fruit and I asked if I could pluck a few. “We are only interested in the leaves” said the sericulture researcher. Sometimes in the commuters’ trains between Anand to Ahmedabad I will find them being sold, and eat unwashed with much happiness.

After almost two decades of not really thinking of this fruit or the tree, it somehow came back again. It was easy to buy them in Hyderabad. One time at a Ratandeep store, late into the night just before closing, I could not find any mulberry. The kind store manager told me lets go and check as fruits and vegetable stocks are arriving just now. Sure, they were there and I greedily bought five packets!

Mulberries are delicate, they have short shelf life and can get squishy easily. We now have ice-creams and they are great. I have often wondered why with so much silk cultivation around us, we do not find this so easily in Bangalore.

On a trip to the handloom centre in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a guide with whom we did not have a common language, I pointed at mulberry trees in delight, took my phone out and showed him the tiny mulberries from our garden, his face lit up “same” he said, bringing some instant connect between us, and the two countries!

With this new found obsession, I started getting a branch to see if it would grow. A friend in Hyderabad gave me a cutting and I carried it as hand baggage but it did not make it. Then a cutting came from Gudalur which continues to live and give us few berries every now and then.

For reasons unknown to me, mulberry branches quite often get used as props to other plants, mostly flower saplings. So this time at Valparai, I found the prop next to a dahlia patch was sprouting a fruit similar like a mulberry. I chased the gardener. We had very little common language again, but he understood when I said fruit and said its black and took me to the tree. We agreed that the day I leave, he will give me few branches to take back with me. Over the next few days, we developed several sign languages around trees and plants.

The mulberry branch is sprouting fruits at home.

Here is to connections and languages around plants and other beings.

The much missed travel

Travelling after eighteen months, a long and impatient wait for us as we almost travelled twice every month, on an average. The packing of a suitcase this time meant more than just a routine activity. There were apprehensions, but the excitement was way more than the concerns. Bunches of masks and bottles of sanitiser being the new additions.  

I did not know of Valparai, honest admission. It was while looking for a break after months of coping with the covid pandemic, with many additional considerations, travel restrictions, flight availability, duration of the journey, less crowd, un-touristy, my husband suggested Valparai. It ticked all boxes and is also a new destination. We started our search, emails and phone calls, and found Briar Tea Bungalows. Having stayed in tea gardens and converted British bungalows, we quite enjoy them. They have history and character and a certain coexistence to them. Usually remote, vast, expansive, rhythmic in a way that rhymes around the tea estates. So, all necessary arrangements followed and we set off.

The airports are a disappointment. How people still do not care enough about distancing and following hygienic practices.

Uncertainty, the most prevailing condition of the current times, I got a call as we landed at Coimbatore, “Coimbatore is in complete lockdown and the Collector has ordered no tourism. We will refund your reservation amount.” Valparai is about three hours drive from Coimbatore, over 100 kms and up on the hills, quite disconnected from Coimbatore in many ways than one. So I said, “I am not going back. Am going to make the drive and see what happens.” Armed with fully vaccinated certificate, negative RTPCR report, we started, not knowing whether we will get to Valparai!

Best decision ever! We were stopped at the check-post, we showed our papers and were allowed to proceed. Yay! This good news followed a tea break, nice strong tea and tasting of varied vadas.

Hungrily savouring the greenery, as we started the climb, views of the reservoirs, waterfalls, the permanence, resilience of Nature, the shining sun on rain drenched tea leaves, new and old, breathing the fresh air, the gentle cloud slowly engulfing the valley, happiness back in our veins.

Stanmore bungalows was built in 1935. The Briar group has five properties, each with a specific character, closer to forest, or river or in the middle of tea plantation. Sitting there, surrounded by tea, I brushed up my knowledge.

When did tea cultivation start in India?

In 1837, the first English tea garden was established at Chabua in Upper Assam; in 1840, the Assam Tea Company began the commercial production of tea in the region. Beginning in the 1850s, the tea industry rapidly expanded, consuming vast tracts of land for tea plantations.

Who discovered tea in India?

An intrinsic part of daily life today, tea was introduced formally to Indians by the British. The origin of tea in India is owed to the British who intended to overthrow China’s monopoly on tea, having found that Indian soil was eminently suitable to cultivate these plants.

This is a hideout, a place where you may not have a lot to do, though there are points of touristic interest, a tunnel under a waterfall which runs for four kilometers, a reservoir, few temples, what it offers is great, scenic, quiet walks which you can do without a mask. No one around for almost as far as eyes can see, except the many species of birds. The birders will have a field day!  You may not see the wild life like you do in an organised safari. But they are seen by the locals and the lucky. People talk about leopards, bears been seen in certain locations. During our stay, we saw a herd of elephants, CCTV footage of bears and leopards, fleeting glance of a white mongoose, two flying squirrels hanging upside down from the branch of a tall tree, a shy lion tailed macaque looking down at us from a canopy, two Sambar deer and two magnificent Nilgiri tahr. This was enough for us. That they are all coexisting in harmony.

Where we return to at the end of the day and how close it gets to make us feel at home is our comfort yardstick. The team at Stanmore is amazing! Very receptive to details, and small demands, like warm water to drink, an extra bedside lamp, tea at any intervals. The kitchen staff, chef and cook, with skill to not only make world class continental dishes, but also our longing for idli, dosa, puttu, kadala! Each dish brought to the table was both visual and mouth-watering treat. Everything served, from breakfast to dinner, was insta-worthy and tasteful. A team that functions in tandem brings in peace and positivity to the space which was palpable here. As we all know how badly hospitality industry has been affected, for these young people to hold themselves together and go about making the others happy is really appreciated.

Another beautiful feature of Stanmore bungalows is the old trees and the flourishing garden. Mossy, healthy, many old trees, litchi, avocado, guava, mangoes, and many more, full of vegetation and brightly coloured flowers, the gardeners constantly cleaning and nurturing the land and its living.

A trip that made me realise how much I missed travelling, and how grateful I am to be able to do so. This pandemic has given us a new perspective. It’s up to each one of us to understand that we are part of a larger system and we need to recognize and respect the parts played by all living beings. It’s the humans who make the changes, good or bad. And Nature will react, for sure.

This was a place that made us happy deep inside, no cutting of the queue, no aggression, no violence, no arguments. When we drove around one day, and went through the Valparai town, there is a temple, a mosque and a church within one kilometer radius.  Once back in the airport, and then in the flight, I cringed every time people exercised their power to prevail, being rude, treating the airhostesses like servants and several incidents, usually brushed aside as minor by many, which is not really what it is, leaving always a bad taste. I don’t need this and I hoped I have to watch less of these in our everyday lives.

​The most resplendent memory of our stay at Stanmore Bungalows, was to wake up to the singing of the Malabar whistling thrush. I had never heard, had only read, sings from dawn to dusk, a song most extraordinary.

You sing on sweethearts, “the whistling school boy”, you make your own tune, sing to say that every day is a new day, and you make it a happy day. Like a friend said, ​Sarvabhutatmabhut​​atma सर्वभूतात्मभूतात्मा,

“to consider yourself a part of the world, and the world a part of yourself”.

What would life be without Liberal Arts?

Many years ago, in a conversation with academic oriented acquaintances, someone said “what would life be without Liberal Arts”? I, an eternal student of humanities, inclined always towards Arts, wondered, do people really care? Is it the Brick, or the Wall or the Mural or the Graffiti or the Terrain or the Crafts or the Communities? Is Eiffel Tower the Lattice or the Height? Do people marvel at what’s buried under the serenity of a reservoir or at the dam? What is the footfall in a Mall as against a Museum on any given day?

The Berlin Wall

I know. It is not necessarily either or. It could be both. But if one were to pick? Where would the numbers be?

I re-visited this and many of my other notions in 2020. Pandemic induced reality check on Life’s goals, travel plans, bucket lists, assumptions.

And I concurred. “What would life be without Liberal Arts?”

George Town, Penang

Most of us have been grappling with the last ten months. No matter how often we travelled before the pandemic, where all we went, on work, on leisure or to run errands, that has changed for everyone. So, what filled that extra Time, besides the household chores?

Let’s begin with the memes. One a day, keeps the blues away. Plenty and you are forwarding the whole day! Have you noticed how creative they are? One image, few lines, two words and there, you cannot stop laughing!  Some spoons and plates, some poetry, quotes and jokes and I have to admit the air darkened with worries clears up to let some sunlight inside our heads. Not to forget the lifesaving OTT platform. Regional films, Hollywood, Bollywood, old forgotten films and serials. Films made during the world on pause. We were not just randomly flipping channels but searching, finding, watching and sending out recommendations. The complete process of savoring the investment in watching a film.

The books, unputdownable stories of history and romance and struggles. Between the lines are our current realities with the deep sighs.

To really wait for the newspaper. Not like a quick glance over breakfast or to kill time at the airport, but to really relish G Sampath and Santosh Desai, to chew every word, every idea and every conclusion slowly for its taste and aftertaste.

Did you get to read the poem by Kitty O’ Meara, “And the people stayed home…”, in the roots of a tree laden with stars, a human and animals living in peaceful coexistence? Won’t that be one of the best images to hold on to?

And the People Stayed Home

Music, the soul soothing nostalgic faraway land. When a song reminded you of a friend in college and you actually picked up the phone and called her to say “you recall that guy who went up on the stage in our college festival and dedicated this song to you?” You both rediscovered and dusted the friendship which you thought had gone redundant over the years. The old albums, or the pictures folder in your laptop, flashback to a family wedding, black and white images.  

Karaoke singing Heal the World or closing your eyelids to Andrea Bocelli’s Amazing Grace, listening to T.M Krishna or humming along Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi, while we waited for Science to deliver the vaccine, what has kept us going are these tiny little sparks of creativity that lifts the soul from despair, inch by inch.

Remember when the Titanic was sinking, and the band continued to play? (from a meme)

Cutting For Stone

The meandering path of this story, spanning over five decades and three continents, it’s a son’s journey to understand a mother who did not live, a father who did not own up, and a twin brother who did everything his opposite, except that they were both doctors. A story around medicine in remote inaccessible corners, and a family, by birth and by destiny, love, betrayal and longing built around lives of life-saving doctors. Their skills, abilities, flaws and choices.

…to tell the story. It is one my mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, did not reveal and my fearless father, Thomas Stone, ran from, and which I piece together. Only the telling can heal the rift that separates my brother and me.

Marion and Shiva, twins with their entwined lives.

What is the texture of that betrayal which only your twin can do to you, because he looks exactly like you and because he can think what you are thinking and feel what you are feeling. But not care about the action he takes on your feeling because he is still, a different human being. You are both same but not the same, not totally. But having done all that he can do, not intended to hurt his brother, but does it in any case, and still leaves the brother with the most precious donation only he could give, and the burden to live with it.

Two young nuns torch-bearers carrying Christ’s love to Africa, what better way than to spread healing. A family constituted for the pursuance of medicine, in treating disease and complexities. They bond over their compelling desire to solve diseases. Unknown to them, the Government General Hospital in Madras had housed all of them at some point of time, and Missing (Mission lost in pronunciation) Hospital did that at another, caught in the conflict, Ethiopia.

This is a book of Eyes and Nose and Memory. Descriptions of the anatomy, the disease and the procedure will make you queasy. It will be like you can see and smell what was happening inside an OT.

It tells about lives caught, decisions made in desperation of war and conflict. Between countries, among people, between duty and compassion, choices made in fear and how that writes your life, charts your path.

We are all fixing what is broken. It is the task of a lifetime. We’ll leave much unfinished for the next generation.

The book begins with a dedication.

For George and Mariam Verghese

Scribere jussit amor

(Love is blind. Bestowed in love. Love is the breath that sustains us)

I was often reminded of Maugham,

“well, to tell you the truth, because I can’t imagine anything more heart-rending than to love with all your soul someone that you know is worthless.”

Whether it was worthless in this context of the story, it certainly brought irrevocable and unimaginable misery, perched on that life, parasitical and metastasized, never letting go till….   

And the mystery, what was in that letter which Sister Mary Joseph Praise wrote to Surgeon Thomas Stone.

And where is it?

Pudgy dear girl,

Pudgy dear girl,

To be honest, when you appeared with Kittu Master, wanting a share of his food, who was already so skinny, and you, well, Pudgy, I was not very pleased. But we soon brought two bowls as that’s the only way you both got to eat. We wondered whether you were abandoned as we had never seen you around. Soon your pregnant belly became obvious, and there was no going back on feeding you. Though you ate anything served, rice, roti, curd, we also bought cat food.

This went on for few months, and then Kittu crossed over. You were all by yourself, lonely and looking lost, resting most of the time. We accepted Kittu left you in our care.

Early morning, you found a spot where we could see you as soon as we sat up on our bed, through the balcony grills. Your breakfast was the first chore of the morning. When we had to be at the hospital for two nights, your food was with our security guys. On our return we were told you were often near our door, enquiring.  

It was soon time for your babies and you found a ledge in the basement. I would feed you three times a day at least. You will jump down from the hiding, thud… as soon as you heard my footsteps on the staircase, come meowing and wipe everything clean. That unfortunate night when your ledge got flooded, you had to bring out the babies and stack them up on a corner of the staircase. Each time we took them to the basement, you carried them back upstairs to what you thought was safer. The babies found their homes. Remember Pudgu, that same disturbing day you walked into a storeroom in the basement and got locked in? How much we looked for you in the evening, where all we went searching. The next day, searching again, Dilip heard a feeble meow and traced it to the window. He till date sees that look of relief on your face!

With no experience of raising a cat, I checked when to get you spayed. Apparently it’s a three week window to your being on heat again and there is at least one tomcat around. I started talking to others, sharing your picture. That’s when we are told you are a rare Calico, a three colour cat. When after the surgery I was going to bring you back home, I looked up on the internet and made toys for you, a scratch pad, and so happy when you used them.

Pudgyka, when I first took you to the vet, I did not know whether you had ever been taken earlier. I had never taken an animal to a vet either. First for both of us. I was told it could be traumatic for you. You amazed me with the ease in which you went. Got inside the carrier. Sat quietly in the car. Only few meows on the way. No reaction to the syringe or the needle prick. Not even a whimper. You almost slept off on the vet’s table as I paid the bills.

Post-surgery, because you had to be on medication for an infection, you stayed home. That’s when our bonding grew. You soft collar was too big. You often tripped on it. When the wound looked healed we removed the collar. But you licked the wound with your sand paper tongue and it looked raw again. So I quickly stitched you a collar from an old applique cushion cover. You looked so cute in blue!

You would let me hold your face in both hands and wipe the corners of your eyes with my thumb. Cleaning your litter was my in-house covid test. After I watched someone’s video on cleaning the ear that was planned next. You let Dilip comb your whole body, purring away, giving the comb a bite. You liked to smell. We would offer and you would come close, phone, ipad, remote, newspaper, salad…anything, smell and turn away. Or smell deep when you liked it. You liked plants. Gave them also a pat every now and then. You had an interest in pens, picking them up from the many pen stands in the house. A literati cat, Dilip will say.

Padgushree, remember the snake in the yard? You got so excited! You wanted to go near it. I had to forcibly bring you home. That was also the day when my father was very unwell. I had to do a video consultation with the doctor. And I had to also make several calls to find a snake catcher. What a blessing that you were around!

How funny when you hounded Alexa for playing those animal noises! All others were okay but cat sounds did not please you. And the new vacuum cleaner for your hair everywhere? You hated the noise it made.

Remember Pudgy the night when you insisted on your post dinner going out despite it looking rainy. Well, you got caught in the rain and sprinted back as soon as we opened the door, screaming at us as if it was our fault! And then you let Dilip dry you nicely and went back to sleep immediately after an extra serving of wet food as a treat for your hardship!

Its rained…will she find her way back, I would worry.  When we stepped out even for a little bit, you will be in our mind. Any cat screech late in the night will wake me up and I will run to check on you, though you were sleeping inside in the nights. I could only think of you forgetting your route, or the vehicles, or the tom or your fights with mother cat…never did I see the bigger danger standing right there.

You loved to bask in the sun, the blissful sleep. As your health got better, you ran around more. Always on the windows longing to go out. Off late you began to climb. When you climbed on the internet booster, perched precariously on top and meowing away. Such relief on your face when Dilip carried you down. And one slap you got!

There was something feral about your climb, like an adrenaline rush, like you were a different cat in that avatar. You liked a view from the top, not what was offered at the ground level of your eyes.

Around the time you came to our life, my brother was getting a dog. You and Oreo became part of our family phone conversations. 

The free spirited, not to be cuddled and not clingy, Puntu kuntu, you did not on your own came and sat on our laps. You came close to give a rare pat, a “hey you” kinds. You favourites were the bum up body rub by Dilip and a near the ear and neck scratch by me when you were mellowed with sleep.  Dilip will annoy you once in a while, a soft tug of your tail, keeping his hand near your tongue when you are grooming yourself. You would come almost close to bite his finger but let go.

The feral in you showed in your love for outside. So many days and nights, you would ignore our calls and turn your back to us. We had to literally grab you from the boundary and you clung to it with all your claws. Remember that one night you came back late with two leaves stuck on your whisker which you could not shake off and I had to get a comb, so funny you looked! 

You were like a different person when you wanted to stalk a prey, climb, chase, run. You came back in for a bit of human contact, the poo, pee, food and sleep.

Besides the clay pot and the stool, you loved to sleep on the rocking chair and the dining table chair. In fact playing in circles under the table, walking from chair to chair became a game for you. Though you liked your TV, looking for the birds and squirrel behind it, if we were watching and you were sleeping and the TV had a loud noise, you showed your annoyance. “lower the volume guys” . Diwali, noise scared you. You went and slept on top of one of the dining table chairs. We wondered if you would sleep with us that night. But as noise reduced you became okay.

Pudgy Kutty, I saw you walk deftly on the front boundary, catch a pigeon and run straight to our yard. It made me happy that you have got your skills, you would not go hungry and you know your home. I had to scare you with the hose pipe as the girls upstairs got distressed seeing a fluttering pigeon in your mouth!

Pudgu, you remember few days ago you came back with a superficial wound on your leg? I bothered so many people with its picture, got the ointment. We will clean it twice every day and apply ointment. An attempt at bandage for the night was removed by you in half a minute!

You filled up the mind space freed up because of the covid restrictions. Fear, apprehension, worry marked this space. Dilip manages hospitals and I work for rural communities. The news from both was of difficulties. Parents, families, friends, colleagues in faraway places, not being able to meet physically, not being able to travel had confined us both physically and mentally. You took over that space with your presence. You became our “here and now”. You became the positive distraction. Our phones filled up with tales of you, pictures and videos, numbers of pet parents, vets, cat groups.

I kept saying you came with many guardian angels. How else can one explain your survival? Appearing suddenly from somewhere, pregnant, finding a regular source of food and a safe place to sleep, all your kittens found homes, all the advice came on time, and the connections for your surgery, boarding to heal post-surgery, friends who came every day to give you medicine for ten days without fail. We figuring out everything with the help of others, from the litter box, to food, to toys, how to take care of you, you healed so well. This house worked perfectly, ground floor with a door to the yard and a space marked for you to look out into the open. It seemed perfect.

Just that one moment when may be all your guardian angels blinked, you climbed that transformer. We had feared the tom cat, the mommy cat, dogs, vehicles, but never thought of the permanent monstrous danger so close.

In the sudden shock of losing you, my convoluted thinking went on a rampage, dissecting your loss, attempts to find out the reason why a harmonious, peaceful, happy family of three had to go through this grief. Tears roll down from my eyes and heart bleeds in silence.

In over twenty-five years of knowing Dilip, am aware of his special quality where birds and animals come to him very easily (except that one time when a male goat tried to headbutt him 🙂 ). With you, what I saw up close is this language of love in all its intricate details. Soothing you, talking to you, combing you, the tone, the gestures, I had never seen anything like that before Pudgy. You brought it all out.

If anything is of solace, you did not die loveless, not a stray, begging for food on the road, uncared. You died happy and healthy. As I speak of how we lost you to more people, I am told of the sufferings of other electrocuted cats. I say a prayer inside that you did not suffer. I did not have to see you suffer.

There was something very kind about you. Even at the end, you left us on a Saturday. So that we were both home to say good bye. Not alone to face the parting and an empty house. As I describe your passing over to others, and how so many have suffered worse because of electrocution, I realise how blessed you were, and how fortunate we are to have had you in our lives. You lived deep in the short life.

Let her go, friends tell. I am thankful for the human consolations. We express as we have known, understood, seen. For all those who do not communicate like humans, speak a different dialect, care in a very different way. To care for them and love them is a kind of its own.

We wondered if you will be safer and happier in a farm house, or as a house cat. Consulted many and finally the conclusion was to keep you in your territory, an inside and outside cat. Best of both worlds. Sadly it did not work.

The grief is for you, for many conversations that we could have had and much love that remained to be showered. Your deworming medicine scheduled for December is unopened. A carriage is in the waitlist in my amazon cart as it was not available. Just that day I opened a large packet of dry food for you when back. You only ate a mouthful that day as if in a hurry to step out. And never came back.

Friends bring up adopting another and giving a home. We don’t know which one will prevail. The love you filled us with or the sorrow of losing you. There was just one Pudgy who walked on that path and sat near our steps. Love and joy can spring from unexpected sources in unexpected manner, you showed us. Whether we have the strength to submit ourselves to another being again? The huge void left in us by a tiny cat with a big purpose. This was our closest grief together.

Pudgudi, as I parallelly tuck you away and seek you out, clean the poo, throw the litter, pack your toys and medicines for donation, pick your hair from almost everywhere, tears rolling down my eyes the whole time. I sit on those very steps in the yard, which you took, several times every day, to come in and go out, I look for a message from you. Are you in the newly sprouted leaves? Are you in the Indian robins merrily playing in the yard? Or the magpies back again as they tend to hop on the ground and you must have scared them away? The rats are back as well, I see their destruction in the nights.

I dust my kindle after months. With nothing particular in my mind, I tap on something. It takes me to another page, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a book I have never even heard of appears

“The Cat that Went to Heaven”….

So the old woman put down the basket and opened the lid. Nothing happened for a moment. Then a round, pretty white head came slowly above the bamboo, and two big yellow eyes looked about the room, and a little white paw appeared on the rim. Suddenly, without moving the basket at all, a little white cat jumped out on the mats and stood there as a person might stand who scarcely knew if she were welcome. Now that the cat was out of the basket, the artist saw that she had yellow and black spots on her sides, a little tail like a rabbit’s, and that she did everything daintily. “Oh, a three-colored cat,” said the artist. “Why didn’t you say so from the beginning? They are very lucky, I understand.”

xxx

“May I humbly suggest,” said the housekeeper, “that we call this cat Good Fortune?”

xxx

In came Good Fortune, the moment that the door was slid open. She ran to the picture, and looked and looked as though she could never look enough. Then she gazed at the artist with all her gratitude in her eyes.

And then Good Fortune fell dead, too happy to live another minute.

PS: (the story in brief) IN ANCIENT JAPAN A STRUGGLING ARTIST IS ANGERED WHEN his housekeeper brings home a tiny white cat he can barely afford to feed. But when the village’s head priest commissions a painting of the Buddha for a healthy sum, the artist softens toward the animal he believes has brought him luck. According to legend, the proud and haughty cat was denied the Buddha’s blessing for refusing to accept his teachings and pay him homage. So when the artist, moved by compassion for his pet, includes the cat in his painting, the priest rejects the work and decrees that it must he destroyed. It seems the artist’s life is ruined as well—until he is rewarded for his act of love by a Buddhist miracle.

“Oh, the Compassionate One!” For where the last animal had stood was now only white silk that seemed never to have felt the touch of ink; and the great Buddha, the Buddha whom he had painted reclining with hands folded upon his breast, had stretched out an arm in blessing, and under the holy hand knelt the figure of a tiny cat, with pretty white head bowed in happy adoration.

The reality is, you adopted us. And we are so full of gratitude for your presence in our lives. For the endless conversations you have opened us to. You were the only best thing that happened in the pandemic. Yours would be the fondest memory of this otherwise wretched time.

Universe came together to bless your life.

The little girl asked me to tell a story. Like the earlier one of you. This is my cathartic out-pour.

The Neighbourhood Family

The pandemic caused by the corona virus reduced the celebration of our parent’s 50th anniversary to long distance wishing. An idea stuck, bit late, but still on time, how about a whatsapp video call with family members and the family they built with the neighbours where they lived and we grew up?

We grew up in Rourkela. Many of you may have heard its name in connection with the steel plant. People from across the state, country and world took up jobs created by the Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP) and came to make this place their homes.   It was a cultural melting pot. Varied skills from across the country were recognised, exchanged and tried by all interested. Annual picnics were organised and all festivals were celebrated with amazing enthusiasm. As children, we addressed our friends parents as we heard them being addressed, Pappaji – Mummyji, Bou- Baba and also Mausa-Mausi, Uncle-Aunty.

Some of us went to state board schools and some to English medium schools. But come sunshine of shower, we were out on the road to play at 4 p.m. every day after school. We were kids, so of course we fought. But the parents never came to resolve. We mended our friendships.

Every fruit and vegetable that grew in that area was shared in the community. Mangoes, guavas, lichis, jackfruit, yam, greens, flowers. Infact, some days, we would decide, today we feel like eating the guavas from Bou’s house, and we will go, climb up the trees, girls and boys, whoever wished to, take a cloth bag along (usually made at home from old trousers or any other thick cloth) and we will bring down a bag full for the house, for distribution and we ate as many as we wanted till our stomach hurt.

Swain mausi’s red chilli powder also had roasted jeera in it. You could taste it when you ate guava or raw mangoes with salt and chilli powder. Mummyji, Sehgal aunty made the best potato chips, served topped with tomato sauce. They had the first TV and some Sundays all the children were there watching DD and some days, entire neighbourhood watched the cricket match with eternal optimists like Maharaj saying India will win even if there are three balls left and 36 runs to make!

Gradually most of us left to pursue higher studies beyond what the city could offer. As the parents reached retirement age, the homes provided by the employer were to be vacated. Some moved earlier to different locations to bigger homes. Some chose to retire in Rourkela and some went back to their ancestral homes, where rest of the relatives were. This larger family, the neighbourhood family everyone remembers. There is that longing in the heart of living in a faraway place, making it your home, building friendships that perhaps one did not know then, that they will come to mean so much, and will be missed so much.

After that video call, which warmed our hearts and was so much nostalgia, everyone talking simultaneously, one day, Roy Uncle called. It seemed he had dialled my number by mistake. Nonetheless, we enquired about whereabouts of friends and family. And then uncle said something which I must absolutely write down for they stalled Time for me. It felt like nothing has gone by in so many years.

“Do you remember we used to have regular power cuts (no electricity, scheduled and unscheduled). We would be in the middle of studies, or a game of carom, or waiting for a TV programme, waiting without a fan in the summer heat, a neighbourhood drenched in silence induced by lack of light.

And when then, suddenly, the bulbs come back on, the streets and homes lit up, and there is joyous uproar from the children from all houses,  hoooooooooo …the collective expression of happiness.

I want to hear that noise again.”

Anamika’s Birthday

She has been anxious. Not been able to travel, especially to see her parents worry her. This is one hope that most children in faraway lands live with, that all it takes is few hours. The pandemic has changed that. One can never take travel for granted.

She said a prayer for the day to be a happy one, doing her eye and neck exercise, a practice for over a decade. The long evening walk at Cubbon park has been split into two small ones in the morning and evening on the by lane in front of the house. The added benefit being they have come to know and interact with people who are in the neighbourhood, children, security guards, drivers, dogs and cats. A wave of hand as mask makes smile invisible, a treat for the dogs and cats, a look at the birds, buds, trees and colours weave into their walk. Ever since Pkutty the cat has inserted her demands into their schedule, walk or not, they awake to oblige.  She likes her first meal between 5-5:30 am.

She goes about her day of choosing products made ethically, honey extracted by traditional tribal communities of Kotagiri, reuse and recycle, the lemon peel to make bio enzymes, the tealeaf for her garden, so that only little goes into the landfill.

As a continued ritual since childhood, she always wears new clothes on her birthday. This year it’s also Onam, and homebound, she decides its special and there needs to be new clothes. One for birthday (a saree bought from a friend’s store), one for Onam (a set mundu bought in 1994 when she worked with an organisation in Kerala for a month)  and one to just chill ( a dress bought from Porgai, a handmade initiative in a tribal area). An ode to handloom and handmade.

She thinks of the year that has gone by. The trek to Dudhsagar falls with friends, walking on the railway tracks, soaked to the bone, sipping tea sitting near a rivulet, the moss, the lichens, the bracket fungi, the celebration of joyous earth in pouring rain, is one of her most cherished memories.  She accepts non-closure as a form of closure, for things that have not been what she had thought them to be. She feels good about writing, one focus is on helping artisans.

The lockdown has been hard. Much of her work involved travel which has stopped. But she realises it has been harder on many others. People have lost jobs, lost their cities, troubled by how to meet critical health needs. The corona saviours, running health care,  seeing that hospitals function despite the risk to their own lives, domestic helps, people who keep the city clean, keep the essential infrastructure running, stepping out every day, who do not have the luxury of work from home, for families who have lost their members to the disease, for friends and family unable to say a proper goodbye, she says a prayer for all of them.

A full day in a beautiful way, from video birthday wishes, group calls, family narrative of childhood memories, pictures of owls, flowers, books, food have kept flowing.  

A Brahma Kamal stem, Queen of the Night that had travelled from one friend’s home in Bangalore to another friend’s home in Pune, bloomed tonight (Epiphyllum oxypetalum is a species of cactus, rarely blooms and only at night, and its flowers wilt before dawn). A rare connect.

With a deep sense of gratitude. And hope that this paused life is making us think of our responsibility to our community and the earth, and that some things need to change.

“I can’t see it Lord, but I Know You can.”

Remembering the Lal Bagh Flower Show

Not surprised but disappointed. August 2020 would not host the Lal Bagh Flower show. Twice every year 15th August and 26th January, large sections of Bangalore waits for this event lasting for ten wonderful days,  to witness its flowers, trees, moss, lichen…Nature in its full glory.

I certainly attend one of the two if not both. Gradually, over a decade of living in Bangalore, finding my way around the city, I have come to form a pattern. I often take public transport to reach The Lal Bagh. The last trip was a pleasant ride in the new Namma Metro with a change from purple to green line at the Majestic station. I then walk to Lal Bagh and buy my entry ticket. I particularly like the bougainvillea canopied path and reach the entry area near the rock.  Having visited many times, I first use the facility of the buggies and take one round of the entire garden, filling my eyes with the resplendent sights. The tree’s eye view of the world beneath.

The oldest tree at Lal Bagh

I listen to the commentary of the bogey driver who double-up as guides, passing on oral history of the garden as they have heard, same every time, pointing out rare and old trees, the lawn clock, the bandstand, the lake and finally stopping at the glass house. I get down near the ancient rock formation and climb till the Kempegowda tower, pausing to get a view of the city from the top.

The rock formation and the Kempegowda tower

Descending I enter the bonsai garden wondering at this concept of dwarfing the magnificent trees! I then walk as I feel like, choosing paths that are empty.

Commissioned by Hyder Ali in 1850, completed by his son Tipu Sultan, The Lal Bagh passed through many hands, and each added to the garden what they thought would make it more beautiful or useful. From rare plants and trees, horticulture species, even vegetables have adorned the soil of Lal Bagh. This two hundred and forty acre garden has over a thousand species of trees some being more than hundred years old. Thankfully, despite efforts at commercialising this space, the changing leaderships influencing its character, it has managed to remain conservation inclined.

These shows also became an occasion to meet friends. We would sit on one of the benches or the grass and talk under the trees. Then eat at the stalls, or someone would have packed a snack and tea in a thermos or we would walk to MTR for a coffee or a meal. Both my parents and in-laws, sharing either an interest in walking or gardening would love the visit and talk about the flower shows years later.

The central glasshouse where the flower decoration is held was constructed in 1889-90 with cast iron from Glasgow, and was later extended in 1935 with steel from Mysore. Many schoolchildren from all age groups are brought in droves by their teachers. They obediently fall into a line, hands extended on the shoulder, walking in the midst of giant flower arrangements and sculptures.  Supposed to be an exposure to nature, plants, ecology, history, you name it, but most children walk by quickly as soon as the teacher clicks few photos and head to the food stalls. Such a wasted opportunity, I feel. The stalls are of all kinds giving fillip to local produce, I head to check out plants, planters, seeds and garden care.

Bangalore despite everything still has relatively kind weather, gentle to the trees and pleasant to its people. I have always come back with a feeling of gratitude for this amazing visual extravagance of nature and the simple but rare joys in an urban city.  Confined to home for over five months, unable to access most community spaces, theatres, musical evenings, malls, physical fitness centres, travel, I cannot wait to go for a walk and stand in queue to buy tickets for The Lal Bagh Flower Show 2021.

Hoping Nature has healed a little bit during this time.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”

“But we overlay the present into the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we are seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”

The Dutch House, built in 1922, is a house designed like a stage set up for performance. It’s huge and grandiose, enormous, preposterous spectacular. You can either like it or hate it. There is no place for indifference.

Elna, once wanting to become a nun, a woman who does not even desire surplus food, who is happy cooking pinto beans, using orange zest to bake a cake which she shares with the neighbour who gave the three oranges, recycling old sweaters to make warm clothes for her daughter, helping feeding a neighbourhood torn by war,  is suddenly shocked with a surprise by Cyril, her husband she loves, The Dutch House. It comes with furniture, clothes, linens, plates and even paintings of other people. That one hideous symbol of luxury puts an end to everything Elna had stood and lived for. It shakes her foundation so terribly, that she tries but is just not able to accept. She leaves, the house, the husband and her two children. The house took away all sense of proportion.

Maeve, at fifteen with a brother Danny seven years younger, takes over the role of the mother and the absentee father. She protects Danny fiercely and never gives up on what is best for him.

For Danny, Maeve, is more than the absent mother, the near absentee father (except for the saturday collection of rents), the sister, the friend, all of them and more put together. They bond over everyday sister-brother rituals, like Maeve puts the toothpaste on the toothbrush for both of them. Maeve and Danny confront adversities together and in that process add incredible strength to that relationship.

I could read her blood sugar like the weather. Maeve gets diabetes. Her father thinks she fell sick because of her mother’s on and off presence. He also believes it will kill her if her mother ever comes back.

Maeve had been inclined to slouch when it first became apparent that she was going to be taller than all other girls in her class and most of the boys, and our father was relentless in his correction of her posture. Head-up-shoulder-back might as well been her name.  For years, he thumped her between the shoulder blades with the flat of his palm whenever he passed her in a room, the unintended consequence of which was that Maeve now stood like a soldier in the queen’s court, or like the queen herself.

Appears Andrea, who loves the Dutch House. Cyril and Andrea get married, their love for the house is mutual. Elna had embraced the people who worked in the house, Andrea believes in strata. For Andrea these are other’s children and servants, who were earlier the caretakers. The close-knit lives are distanced, what is cooked, how it is served, who stays in which room…she changes everything.

Then Cyril dies of a sudden heart attack.  Andrea acts on the accumulated anger and throws them all out abruptly, intending to make it as bad as it can get. The only provision his father had made was for Danny’s education. Maeve makes the most of it, she sends him to attend the longest and most expensive education possible. Medical school.

The Dutch House stays a big constant in Danny and Maeve’s lives. Nostalgia had moved from being people inside the house to being people parked in a car parked on the street. They have insatiable appetite for the past, the past as it happened and the past as it got lived by them.

Like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory pattern. We made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.

Saving most important conversations for the car, they watch the Dutch House through the Linden trees, recall their past, exchange notes from their childhood, information, little or big details, which either of them had missed. “Why did my mother leave”, asks Danny. “Who were the others in her family”, asks Maeve.

Our professional education could be a choice or a chance. Most certainly, it is not genetic. But it can be a kind of inheritance or apprenticeship. When you are spending time with your parents, listening to what they do and speak, there is tremendous absorption, information seeping into the young minds. Though Danny does became a doctor, his real calling was what his father did, real-estate, hammering a nail and pouring cement, putting into practice all the Saturdays he had spent with his father collecting rent.

“The biggest lie in business is that it takes money to make money. Remember that. You’ve got to be smart, have a plan, pay attention to what’s going on around you. None of that costs a dime.”

Danny is aware, if you don’t want to follow the profession of your education, you have to be brilliant at what interests you.

He gets on with life, becomes big in real estate, lives closely with his sister, falls in and out of love, falls in love again with the same person, marries and has children. They go through life as all others.

Gradually, the earlier inhabitants of the Dutch house starts falling back together. Sandy and Jocelyn had taken up other jobs after being thrown out of the Dutch House,  but had stayed in touch with Maeve and Danny.  Fiona, Fluffy to everyone, who had come with the house, later taken in as nanny to the children, who was sacked after she hit Danny with a spoon, injuring him seriously. Many years later, when they meet again, she still carrying the guilt of wounding a child, but they are able to put that episode in a perspective, accept and become more than family to each other. In fact, Danny wonders, the likelihood that their lives would have been better if Fluffy had married their father.

We live forward but understand life in hindsight. Maeve and Danny sieve through their life to make sense of what happened. I’d never been in the position of getting my head around what I’d been given. I only understood what I’d lost.

But then their mother comes back. Maeve had had a chance to be with her mother. Danny had no such comfort.

To grow up with a mother who had run off to India, never to be heard from again, that was one thing – there was closure in that, its own kind of death. But to find out she was fifteen stops away on the Number One train to Canal and had failed to be in touch was barbaric. After so many years of chaos and exile, our lives are finally settled. Reigniting the fire I had spent my life stamping out.

How is it that two people facing similar situations, forgive differently?

Maeve on her mother who Danny is unable to forgive: “She is our mother and she is back. Do not ruin this for me.”

Danny who had spent some time with Andrea who Maeve is unable to forgive: “She was horrible to us in the end, I will grant you that, but sometimes I wonder if she just did not know any better. May be she was too young to deal with everything, or maybe it was grief. Or maybe things had happened in her own life which had nothing to do with us. Xxx the truth is I have plenty of memories of her being perfectly decent. Xxx

The point is that it’s true. At that time I didn’t hate her, so why do I scrub out every memory of kindness, or even civility, in favour of the memories of someone being awful?”

Andrea is horribly sick. She loses her memory. She thinks of Maeve as her daughter, whose portrait still hangs on the wall of the Dutch House, and Danny, who has striking resemblance with Cyril, she thinks, is her husband.

After nursing her daughter Maeve back to health, Elna goes back to the Dutch House to take care of Andrea, her late husband’s second wife. The very same house where she could not bring herself to live and left two children alone to face life without her. She goes back to serve the very Andrea who is the reason of all the misery caused to her two children. Her work is her calling, does not matter where.

I gave up caring where I lived a long time ago. You have to serve those who need to be served, not just the ones who make you feel good about yourself.

It’s a punishment and panacea together. That is an opportunity is rarest of all. The past is in the past and we need to let things go.

What does a grievous personal injustice mean to different people? How does age, and along with it, gathered experience, wisdom influence forgiveness or lack of it?

But your mother has a higher calling than we do. When you think about saints, I don’t imagine any of them had made their families happy.

This is a heart-warming story of a larger family beyond the blood ties. The language is lucid, exact. Not over-powering or dramatic. It brings out every details and every personality like you can see a feeling take shape right in front of your eyes.

Many times one is unfairly treated, no matter where, family, work, friend circle, neighbourhood. I am not talking about being violated, physically, mentally, as those impact us at a very different level and permeate deep inside us. These is law and prescribed punishment. What we are talking about here are, discrimination, partiality, and such. This difference is important, as they in turn influence how we desire to avenge, seek closure, demand apology.

One thinks things could be talked face to face and sorted and closed. Only if it was all that simple!There is some truth in “time is the biggest healer”. It is not necessary that time itself is the healer; time lets many other things happen, to you and to the one who has wronged you. Both in a way bring some sense of righting to the wrong. It is to be realised that the closure is not necessarily induced and steered by the wronged. There could be a larger sense and a bigger player who rights the wrongs. Could be, we may not see it, may have no idea or any notion or any patience. The possibilities of how closure happens, is not limited by how much we understand closure or how we initiate a closure.

There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.

All the wonderful people who come into our lives when we are older,  we choose to be friends with, our spouse, partners, friends,  may be can never ever have a true and complete understanding of our life with our siblings, in which ever way that time had spanned out, it will always be layers and layers of depth, looking at childhood through adult eyes, adult interpretations and adult understanding of everything else.

Some books, as I read them, often make me pause and there is a deep connect that prods me to write about it. In this book it was the love between the siblings. Whether you grew up with just one or a bunch of siblings, that growing up together at the young age, good or bad, has no replacement. There can never be a repeat.

There are reasons why sibling relationships do not begin, grow or age well. But if it does, if it could…it’s a companionship for life.

I gave myself this small indulgence sometimes, the belief that, if only I paid attention, I would see her sitting in the darkness outside the Dutch House.

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Maeve at ten, in a red coat, her black hair loose.

 

PS: Most of the italicized test are quotes from the book.