Monday, December 13, 2010

Maa Africa

Down the south coast from Durban, the winds whistle in the long leaves of grass and wail through the undulating curves of the land, carrying with them the salt of the sea, the scent of earth. To my right is the Indian ocean, a silvery blue. To my left is that gorgeous land called Africa.

For an Indian from a bustling Indian metro, this sudden space is overwhelming. Miles and miles of gently rolling green hills and not a human in sight.  I sit alone on my porch, legs dangling off the edge, a foot above the fresh grass, I strain to hear traffic in the far distance, but give up. I listen, instead, to the wind, to the birds, to the insects.

I grow quiet.

Until I realise that I’m not alone in Africa, ever. Because She is here.
If Great Mother Gaia, BhuDevi, Grandmother Earth, has a heart, then surely it beats beneath the fertile surface of this land. For I can feel Her – the Primeval Goddess – a Presence so large, so pervading, so powerful that I am awed by my complete insignificance and speck like existence.

Every time I think I am alone, I bump against Her. And I hear Her chuckle and whisper in my ear, ‘Where do you think you’re going, kid?’

She is Power here. Pure, untainted, straight from the core of the Earth. She is what the Africans sing to when they work. It is to Her rhythm that their hips sway as they walk through the fields and wave at you.

I feel Her warm embrace in the golden sunlight that blesses this land. I hear Her heart pulsing beneath my feet. I breathe in the rich scent of Her wild frangipani perfume. I see Her deep love for humankind in the bananas and papapayas and other wild fruit sprouting out of the ground everywhere, anywhere.

I sense Her raw, ancient nature – Maa Africa - so different to my first Mother... India.

She is wild, where India has been tamed. She is powerful where India is wise. She is fertile where India is nourishing. She is all about the Solar Plexus and Heart chakras, where India is Third Eye and Enlightenment.
India is a portal to higher realms.
Africa is a portal to our inner core.

I am blessed to be a daughter of India, but so grateful to now play in the lap of Maa Africa.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Percy Jackson ....... and the Pointlessness of it All

(A young, starry-eyed, teacher’s review of the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. For the uninitiated – Percy Jackson is the American half-blood 21st century son of Poseidon, greek god of the sea and Sally Jackson, an aspiring mortal writer, living in Manhattan.)

I kind of liked the first 100 pages of the first book. Well, okay, I’ll give it to Rick – maybe I liked the whole first book. I liked the casual, American humour-ish, grammatically incorrect thought process of Percy Jackson. I liked his ADHD and the gaping wound of the missing father and the totally cool mother and his inability to adapt to the tribe (in this case, regular high school American mortals) – all the classic marks of the Hero-to-be. On the whole, it looked good. It looked like Percy Jackson could become someone interesting.

But in the delirium of hope, I forgot three vital facts:
Rick Riordan is clearly male.
He’s American.
He’s definitely not a teacher of children.

Oh – correction. I just read off his website that he actually was a teacher of note in several middle schools in USA. Then I am even more saddened, and my question is why, Rick – why? Why did you serve up five books of a testosterone filled video game that destroys any sense of reason and purpose to life?

All Rick Riordan did for me and the kids I teach is he depicted the Olympian gods as physically powerful but stupid, petty beings who still control the destiny of mortals and have not gotten over their inflated egos despite existing for millennia. I understand that all characters are grey – and the Olympians more so – but to turn them into pathetic, squabbling idiots with no sense of justice and compassion just messes completely with a child’s understanding of power, of divinity, of myth. Rick Riordan must know that for most of the kids who read his books – this is their FIRST introduction to the Greek gods – and what a sad introduction it is.

Take the bad guys, for instance. For the Olympians of course, the Titans are the bad guys  – doesn’t matter that the Titans are the Olympians’ parents. Doesn’t matter that before the Age of the Olympians, the Titans were venerated as the gods. Doesn’t matter that the Olympians are no better or worse than the Titans – that Kronos and Zeus are reflections of each other. (Oh yes, he gives that some minor thought in the last book – but seriously – 2.5 pages of 1500 is way too little for such an important concept and realisation.)

Cycles within cycles – THAT  is the beauty of myth – and that is completely shattered by Rick’s uni-dimensional, linear, left-brained approach.

Take Rick’s insipid goddesses - sad female icons for a tween boy’s book. Rick’s Demeter, Athena, Hera and Persephone are such temperamental creatures – totally devoid of the maternal, nourishing, wise, beautiful aspects of nature that they actually represent. The only goddess he has perhaps done some justice to, is Artemis – I’ll give him that. But then she is  the goddess of the Hunt and that required no delving in the Great Feminine, which clearly, for Rick, was too tedious.

So the gods are egotistic, bombastic males with the best gadgets available on the planet, ready to spit fire and thunder at any second and the goddesses are hot-looking, whimsical, inconsistent creatures, prone to tantrums.

Needless to say, I was ready to throw up by Book 5.

And then we have the protagonist, Percy’s major flaw - despite his obvious intelligence, Percy just never stops to think WHY he’s serving the gods. Well, to give him some credit, he does often hope to pause and reflect, but Rick keeps him so caught up in meaningless battles and head-chopping and monster-stabbing every two paragraphs that there’s no time to ponder. No time to look at the big picture.

Olympians – who don’t care two hoots about the half-god, half-mortal kids they’ve fathered or mothered – such Olympians’ instructions must be followed. Olympus MUST be saved by Percy and his half-blood siblings. For what? Why??

Rick has just not answered this question satisfactorily.

The goal does not merit the journey. The journey is nothing but a sick video game of violence. No questions are answered, lots of blood is shed – human and non-human.

Yeah, yeah – along the way Percy falls in love, finds a half-brother, friends sacrifice their lives for him – yadda yadda – and I say yadda yadda not because these things don’t matter to me – but because that is EXACTLY the vein in which they are brought up – yadda yadda. Through ALL of this - even the death of his own half-siblings, Percy is like an automaton to whom everything is afforded exactly 2 minutes of mental space. Nothing inspires him to become an adult. At the end of the journey, 16 year old Percy is still the child he was when we first met him three years earlier, give or take a few monsters. He doesn’t seem motivated enough to understand anything deeper than the point of his sword, Riptide. Rick has made him incapable of feeling anything more than injustice, perhaps occasional compassion. He does nothing awe inspiring, leaves no legacy, manages to get the gods to grant him a few selfless wishes (which we know they will not adhere to anyway – the books being a testimony to their frivolous character.) There is no resolution to the inner journey that each little boy's hero aspect takes, hand in hand with Percy.

You see what I mean by the Pointlessness of it All?

Perhaps Rick’s writing is a reflection of the consciousness of the kids he writes for. They live in a parent-less world. The parents that do exist are irrational, temperamental, too caught up in their own lives to deal with their kids. These kids have so much potential and are crying out for mentors but sadly, there are none.

The old traditions are being replayed over and over and the old paradigm has lost its meaning – it’s pointless – and yet like Olympus – it must be saved and upheld at all costs. Even if the kids don’t understand why  – ‘because I’m your parent – that’s why.’

Percy represents the ‘I’m trapped between loving and hating my parents’ and ‘I cannot choose my purpose in life – it has to be thrust on me’ – generation. The Great Victim Mentality that today’s kids are swimming in. Far from empowering them, Rick has only deepened their firm belief in the fact that the only way to live is to fight larger than life battles for and against forces to whom you are but an insignificant pawn.

This is Percy’s world. Merciless, cruel, pointless.

I wish Rick had written a more hopeful book. Something that inspires tweens and teens to feel and think like adults. That takes them on that incredible journey of self-discovery that begins at 10 and flowers at 18. That shows them that it is possible to GROW and be better than you were. That there is  hope and meaning and beauty. That the Universe is a kind, loving Universe that can support you and your dreams. That we create our own quantum pools of reality. That if you believe in a loving Universe, so it shall be.

To shatter myths is so easy. It is building them for the Hero's journey that requires skill, vision and above all, love.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Some more poetry by the kids...

My last post had the first poems in free verse written by this same group of wise and witty kids. Their next try was to pick a feeling (from a box) and this is what they come up with in class:

By Anya Ghosh, age 10

Like hot steam that burns
the soul more painfully than a wound
It burns those souls
that have been hurt
More pain, hatred, fear
infests your mind
with thoughts you want to push away
Makes you feel
that revenge tastes sweet
And your head feels

By Rhea Prasad, age 9

Leaves become dry
Flowers wither
Trees sway very slowly
they don't die.

It's sadness
plain sadness.

Birds don't sing
Mountains erupt
Puppies howl and yelp
they are not angry.

It's sadness
plain sadness.

By Vikram Chowdhary, age 10

Monsters arise from the shadows
And feed on it.


They seek out and find the people who have it,
And train them as Dark Acolytes to use it
As a tool, a weapon.
To use it to harm the ones whom they hate.


The only way to kill the monsters
Is for their Dark Acolytes
To turn against them
And use the power of happiness
To destroy themselves and their masters.


But the monsters' dying screams
Summon their master,
The Shadow Lord.


The Shadow Lord then wipes
Out the Dark Acolytes,
Their families,
Destroys their home, their city or town or village, their country, their continent, their planet, their solar system, their galaxy and their universe.

Such is the power of hatred.

By Sana M. Beotra, age 10

It is what everyone feels,
at any point of their lives.
It bundles up inside you,
until there's so much,
that it burns like a fire.

It may be warm at first,
just a tingle
but it grows bigger and hotter,
and then,
when there's too much to control,
you let it out.

And when you do,
you feel small,
and terrified.
Dependent too.
Dependent on others -
those stronger than you.

You feel lost.
All you want,
is to snuggle under the covers of your bed.
This feeling
is dark,
lonely too.

After a while, though,
you overcome it,
you learn to push it down.
deep down,
from where it cannot control you.

This feeling
is fear.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My Students Discover Free Verse

Not having been introduced to free verse at the age of ten, and being very much the sentimental poet at heart, I remember struggling to release torrents of deep emotion through the excruciatingly limiting art of rhyme. Nothing, absolutely nothing I wrote on paper would ever measure up to what I was feeling and despite abounding praise from teachers and family alike for what I did produce, I wept tears of frustration for first, having the emotions and second, not being able to express them under the strict vigil of Rhyme and Metre.

So, twenty years later and two weeks ago, when working with a zesty group of fourth and fifth graders who struck me as having at least a partial, but mostly a full blown streak of the sentimental poet in them, I bid a cheerful adieu to Rhyme and Metre and we stepped into the world of Free Verse.

Following instructions, the four wise children chose a word for me. After running through 'vampire', 'werewolf' and such, they decided upon 'human.' I quickly wrote a poem in free verse with the word 'human' in it. I've included it at the very end of this article. Once they understood the concept, they began on their own poems.

Here are the poems they wrote. (All their original work done in class.) I've put them in the alphabetical order of the words they picked from a box. Chocolate, Cleo, Flower and Trees. Please do take the time to read each one. They're short and incredibly beautiful. I will not say more, but leave you to savour these poems, as I did.

by Vikram Chowdhary, age 10

Dark, milk and night,
I love them all.
Sometimes it comes in single squares,
And sometimes in a bar.

It can be used for cookies,
Which I

Or you can eat it plain,
Which is just fine.

I love chocolate!

by Rhea Prasad, age 9

She ran across the garden
and she barked when she saw me
Her tail wagged like anything
when I cooed to her softly

She reminded me of an angel
walking to and fro

I miss her like anything
when a dog walks past me

I love her
and I always will.

by Sana M. Beotra, age 10

I am a child,
I bloom like a flower,
Though only when it's my season to.

Sometimes I might wither,
But with enough care and affection,
Someday I will be strong again.
Strong like the gushing wind.

But for now I must step into the journey of life,

by Anya Ghosh, age 10

Dewdrops fall on the pretty leaves
as the yellow flowers bloom
Dewdrops fall on broken twigs
and another sadness grows
In the place that was made for hope

Trees replace the place that was once made for peace
But as long as some remains
We are
full of desire
for some

(sample poem)

I am but human
There are moments I falter.
Moments when I have to make choices in life.
As I step through the journey of life
it is not always possible to be correct
And right
And perfect

I embrace the humanness of my journey and am easy on myself.
Its okay to be wrong sometimes.
I am, after all, human.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My Girls

When I first walked in, I couldn’t see a thing. I just about managed not to stumble over the blazer-draped empty chair next to the seat I was supposed to take. Opposite my chair, vaguely human outlines shimmered as my retinas adjusted to the dingy but apparently chic lighting. The smell of cigarette smoke woven in alcohol hit me like a tonne of bricks. I think I stopped breathing for a whole five minutes. The music pounded through my head into the deepest corners of my brain. I silently wondered if I was going to get home with a migraine, a wheeze or night-blindness. The environment seemed almost hostile; completely and irrevocably non-conducive to chilling out.

Then, beside me, Gloria smiled and laughed radiantly.

Just like that, I thawed.

All my girls – my girls - were around me.

Kirti in her trendy grey harem pants, squashed in at the edge of the bench, with only one butt cheek on solid wood. Kirti – who is so good at adapting no matter how great the discomfort to butt or soul;

Shruti with mischief written all over her face;

Annie, with stunning blue at her throat and those devil-may-care glances,

Ashita, sunshine happy in the dark corner, swaying to the music;

Lubna, with dappled, satiny hair and ‘listening’ eyes;

Manisha in that pretty blue dress and soft smile;

And Gloria – adorned with elegant pearls, guiding the conversation, fighting through the impossible decibel levels to create a synergy of sharing and laughter.

We ate, drank and made merry. I don’t even remember when we glided to the dance floor, but I soon found myself closing my eyes, allowing the music to fill my core until it overflowed in my movements. Everything else faded; the lights, the smell, the strangers getting up to watch us. The dance was all that mattered.

And every time I opened my eyes to take a peep, I’d find myself in the safe warmth of a circle where each face was that of a goddess, a friend, a sister-soul dancing her own piece, to the same melody; enriching it with her special essence. Together, we brought more to the experience. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts.

I was reminded of ancient celebrations. Moonlit dancing around sacred stones, sacred fires – always in circles of kinship and trust, where your place in the circle kept moving, but your space was respected and what was created from that, was breathtakingly beautiful.

I felt alive, that night, as I left Turquoise Cottage.

And so grateful for my girls.

Monday, June 14, 2010


How did I come to believe in that story?

The one written in the dark ink of bitterness

Upon pages of mistrust.

How did I come to believe in that tale?

Where vulnerability is condemned as a villain

And chased away into darkness by puritanical, cold winds of judgement.

How did I come to believe in that story?

The one where no one is happy,

And never can be happy.


I am re-writing the stories I once believed

For I have had enough of stories of lack

stories of separation

stories of betrayal and failure.

I am re-writing the old tales

I am creating new stories

with less drama

and more laughter.

New stories...

in which bright hues of harmony

Splash across the soft parchment of trust

New stories...

that are read to me

in voices of unconditional love.

New stories..

where happiness is not relegated to just the beginning or the end

but where happiness is the story.

It is time for new stories

for me to believe in.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Vanquishing the Victim Queen

It’s been a hard couple of weeks. A fortnight of restlessness that, in extreme moments, threatened my sanity. I’ve felt like a tigress prowling her cage, searching for a way out, seething at being stuck. It’s one of those phases when everywhere you turn, your worst is reflected back at you.

Conversations with friends left me depressed. My work, despite its creative, fulfilling nature, couldn’t brighten the miserable void of self-pity I’d slipped into.

I don’t need to describe what I felt victimised about. I can’t even remember the one thing it began with, but before I knew it, everything felt like a conspiracy.

I made secret notes in my head that read:
1. My whole life has been designed specifically to freak me out and push my buttons and challenge the worst parts of me. This is extremely unfair.
2. Every time I have crossed a major mountain, and rejoiced the fact, in a few months I’ve found myself at the base of an even taller, big-ass mountain.
3. I don’t want to climb any more mountains, I just want to curl up into a ball and die.

No, I’m not suicidal.
I’m just dramatic.

I was so dramatically a victim that although I knew I had to get out of this heart-space, I couldn’t seem to move my limbs and climb upwards to the light. The lament of ‘Why me? Why me? Why is it always me?’ got louder by the second.

On television, every ad break had advertisements designed to make me feel that my skin, my hair, my bra, my legs weren’t good enough, and I could really invest in X number of special products that would reveal the best in me. For someone who is dramatically such a victim – this was like masochist Disneyland! Bring on the suffering, I said. Whoopiee!!

After I had lamented till I was sick of my own lament (fortunately, I can get sick of myself pretty fast), and woke up seven mornings in a row, still very much alive (drama, drama!) I decided enough was enough. Something had to be done and since I couldn't do it, I turned to someone who could.

My loving partner stepped in. He listened to me (very patiently), and after prescribing four hours worth of good advice, he said I reminded him of the kid at the check-out counter. The one who kicks and screams and throws a tantrum because Mom said she wouldn’t buy more candy.
The one for whom the whole world comes crashing down because something tiny hasn’t yet fallen into place.

The more I carried that image in my head, the more perfect it seemed... and the more ridiculous. Within 24 hours I was laughing at myself.

Laughter is the first weapon against the Victim Queen. The second is, Gratitude.

I decided to do the opposite of what the TV ads for better bras, toned hips, wrinkle-free skin, and coloured hair told me. I decided to be grateful for what I had. My mother once reminded me (no doubt during another Victim attack I must’ve suffered) – that I should
be grateful for the simple fact that I had my eyes, nose, mouth, limbs – all in pretty much the right proportion and right place.

So true.

I pushed myself from within - cleared the fog in my head every two seconds - pasted a new smile on my face every time the old one withered. Operation Get-it-Together began.

I made (what seemed on that day as) the supreme effort to start looking at my body with new eyes of wonder. I felt the lightness, flew with it and spread it to gratitude for the home and the food, water and electricity. For the car, the shops nearby, the money to live comfortably. For the supportive family, the happy friends. For the loving and wise partner.

Before I knew it, I was reaching out to the light. My heart sighed reflexively, no longer cramped and constricted by the darkness of my own making.

The mountains looked like hillocks, maybe even mounds. Perspective returned. I was in warm, happy, familiar territory. The space where 'anything is possible' and 'everything is beautiful.'

I like this space, I said to myself. I like knowing that life is a gift. I like seeing with eyes of appreciation. I like it here.

At my feet, the Victim Queen lay vanquished, like a deflated hot air balloon.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Fragility of the Aged

I don’t know what it is about old people – but I’ve always felt my heart stumble when I’ve seen a white haired man or woman out in the young world. I must’ve been all of six when I discovered this vulnerability of mine.
Our family of four had just flown into Delhi for our annual visit to India. Those were the days when Indian public service wasn’t streamlined. After waiting an hour in the immigration queue at the one immigration counter, (the other one being ‘closed, please use the next counter’ – only the words ‘please’ and 'the' are my addition) - the next queue for ‘Customs’ snaked halfway across the hall. We didn’t have anything to ‘declare’ but as travellers from Dubai we were swooped upon by Customs officials – because of course we must have something in there that we could pay some sort of tax on. It consistently bewildered the Customs people that we didn’t carry gold or alcohol on our bi-annual visits to the motherland. But I digress.
Exhausted with the journey (I was six! And Delhi airport had zero seating in those days) I stood quietly next to my little brother, watching, observing people ahead of us. (Unlike most kids, we tended to go silent when we were tired.)
We were almost at the counter when I turned back and spotted him. He was alone, about 6 feet tall in a faded white kurta and shalvar. He wore a white turban on his head that I now realise was more Afghani or Pakistani than Indian. He clutched at the one suitcase beside him and his body was lean and bony – a body made of hard labour in the merciless Dubai sun.
My heart stumbled.
So quickly, that a sob rose in my throat. I pulled at Mom’s dupatta and nodded towards the old man with my chin. “We have to help him, mamma.” I whispered. My mother – equally tired – half turned to look at the ‘him.’
I could see she’d understood what I meant, because I felt her heart stumble too.
She looked around for any possible travelmates or family the old man might have had. But there were none. I’d already figured that out.
The more I stared at the old man, the more my heart melted. His berry brown skin was weathered and he had that ‘helpless’ look of the ‘old in a new world.’ He did carry himself with dignity despite his dusty, chapped slipper-clad feet - but noticing those feet, made me shudder in sympathy.
Scrutinizing him with my child eyes, I felt his anxiety. Or perhaps it was my own. I looked at the hawk like Customs officials just ahead and then looked back at the old man. I knew – as surely as a six year old knows things – he was ready prey for them. They would talk down to him, they would chuck his stuff around - he would be humiliated.
I pulled on Dad’s arm and announced. ‘We’re helping the old gentleman.’ My Dad nodded, but the counter was looming close and I realised that we’d be out of the airport before the old man’s turn came.
Dad would probably have figured something out if I’d given him a chance – but I was desperate. My heart was crying and it spilled over into real tears. I began sobbing, embarrassingly loudly – just like that. I declared that I wouldn’t budge from that spot until Dad went over, brought the old man to the Customs counter, and helped him through before us. People turned, stared. I didn’t care. That old man was going to be beaten black and blue by those slimy officials and I wasn’t going to let that happen.
To Dad’s credit, he did exactly what I asked him to – not because I asked it, but because that’s the sort of man he is and the heart-stumbling syndrome I have is probably a genetic hand-me-down from him.
Every move that the old man made, made me sob even louder. The way he nodded in gratitude to Dad, the way he picked up his suitcase with ease, the way he patiently waited while Dad surrounded him with his protective presence. The way he waved to us and thanked us as he walked out the airport doors.
I cried for a long time after that – much to my brother’s perplexity. He held my hand in his tiny 5 year old one and said gently, ‘But its okay! We got him through! You can stop crying now.’ But I couldn’t.
When my heart stumbles, the tears don’t stop.
Today, when I’m driving and I see an old gentleman break into a tottering run to catch a bus that’s departing the bus stop, I feel the sob in my throat. Every day, I pass an old couple on my evening walk – the wife paralysed, and the husband holding her hand, helping her walk slowly - the tears spring to my eyes. Hell - when my 59 year old father takes an auto-rickshaw so that I can use the car (and be safe on Delhi streets), I am ridden with guilt and tenderness and a million other emotions that ridiculously overwork my heart.
These are the same people and their established traditions that we rebel against. I’m a big rebel, but my heart can’t deal with the fragility that surrounds the old. What strange conundrum is this – that we are born to break out of the boundaries of the previous generation, yet their vulnerable agedness holds our hearts ransom?
I still search for the balance between my need to grow and my desire to make the transition through human evolution as painless as possible for my elders. It’s a tough call – especially when things are changing in nanoseconds today. I’m not sure if the older generation actually realises the burden of responsibility upon us. We must grow – there is only one way we can move – and that is forward, breaking through more and more unseen fetters – yet, we must carry the wise old along with us – gently, compassionately.
I will never forget the old man at Delhi airport who got my heart stumbling in this direction. I doubt he’s alive, but he’s certainly left one little girl a little more loveful than she might’ve turned out if it weren’t for that chance encounter.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Dance Room (A tribute to five years of friendship)

It’s an ordinary room with a red linoleum floor and mirrors; lots of them. In an alcove sits a table that’s seen better days. On it sits a stereo system and a dusty computer with tiny speakers. A rusty air conditioner is stuffed into a window frame. Photographs of dancing children frozen in time adorn the boards. Tribal masks and puppets stare at nothing lifelessly.

It’s an ordinary room, just like any sleepy, silent chamber. Until....

...the clock strikes 8. Misty figures appear, spells are chanted and...the Dance Room lives.

It breathes a sigh of music. Its red floor pulses with the stomping of little feet. Like heartbeats in the core of a sentient being.

The creators of this enchantment, the women who wrought this magic are easily mistaken for ordinary people. Do not be fooled by their kohl-lined eyes, big bead necklaces, their silver slippers or their ginormous handbags. They are wizards, not women.

Zesty Reema hula hoops with her children till we’re too dizzy to watch anymore. Feisty Rekha guards the threshold of the room with the eyes of a goddess. Dare anyone enter with their shoes on! This wrath of Rekha keeps the chamber sacred (and dust free!) Together, the zesty and feisty wizards choreograph dancing dreams with flavours deeply Indian and suavely Contemporary.

This is where we meet; those of us who were “marked” by the Stage Fairy at birth. We, who were born to stand beneath the spotlight or pace restlessly behind curtains while our art was subjected to the scrutiny of an audience.

This is where we share our heartbreaks, deaths and disappointments; births, recipes, make-up tips, dreams. We share lunch, bhel puri, coffee and cupboard space. We teach each other Surya Namaskaar. We call each other names and critically appreciate each other’s work.

This is where Anjali’s humorous scripts are first read out. This red linoleum floor is the battlefield upon which she fences with our Costume Tailor, demanding Broadway original quality and receiving Bollywood copies instead. Here, Gita pores over her keyboard, hassled and harassed, swearing she hasn’t the faintest idea when to play interludes for the Tin-Man or was it Toto? We laugh at Manas’ comic one-liners and applaud his genius musicality. Beneath our shrieks, Shahana’s soft voice can be heard, tinkling with cheer.

And through all of this, the pitter-patter of little feet. Up and down, in and out. Children excited, relieved, having the time of their lives.

In a corner of the Dance Room stands a red guitar. It responds feebly to my weak and unskilled fingers. It knows I am not its mistress. Cradled in Aradhna’s arms, the red guitar fills our hours with passionate, soulful music. Her rich and heartwarming songs wash over us and we listen quietly to the waves of melody she weaves.

The day is coming to an end. I lift my voice and sing with her. A perfect blend.

All eyes in the room are closed. Reema rocks back and forth gently. Rekha smiles to herself. The Dance Room sighs deeply. Our work here is done.

The song still on our lips, we bid each other farewell. The bags and slippers vanish. The enchantment fades. All is quiet.

It’s an ordinary room again. Just like any other.

Until the morn.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chasing the Diamond Ring. (Thank you ex-es)

Chasing Harry Winston is the story of three women – girlfriends - turning 30, chasing diamond rings (or the men who would buy one for them.) I could go on ad nauseum about the minor details, but any further description would be a waste of words, time and character space.

Let me hence, hurry to the point.

I’ve been that woman, chasing the diamond ring for the ‘stability’ it signifies. In Indian terms “settle ho gaye.” (Of course, I’d only have admitted to this under hypnosis of the deepest sort.)

But generally, chasing a diamond ring requires strategy or atleast some modification of behaviour. Unlike heroines in New York City, I’m a terrible strategist. Truth is, I have no strategy. My very birth was orchestrated to ensure this. My horoscope is a minefield that most pundits tip toe through and all mother-in-laws run miles from, when they get to see it. Not a good start for relationships in India, eh?

As a person goes, I am blunderingly obvious but in an elegant, gentle way – which is what probably deceived my exes (I’m sure they think they were deceived.) I’m the sort of girl that a lot of prospective mother-in-laws take to quite well (before my horoscope enters the story.) Their comfort with me isn't due to any sterling qualities I hold, but primarily because I’m not a rude or in-your-face person. I’m polite, sensitive, listen well, and smile at frequent intervals, which is why their sons take to me in the first place.

But, as my exes found out – all free spirits don’t walk around with a man’s swagger, purple dyed hair and pierced body parts. One after the other, each of the men I’d fall in love with would eventually choose to de-link his life from mine. Each had his own style. One renounced the world to live on a kibbutz. One slunk away into the night, hoping he was camouflaged by the shadows and I wouldn’t notice. (I mean – for real?) From finding another woman to marry and then informing me of it, to promising to marry me and another woman at the same time (yes, this last one really did happen) - all said and done, I’ve witnessed amazing reasons for being dumped. The elusive diamond ring would prance away under my very nose.

Each time I was of course, very hurt and spent many precious moments cursing myself and my destiny, wallowing in self-pity and certainly not feeling positive towards the specific ex in question.

In Chasing Harry Winston, (and true American chic-lit glory), we are treated to a ‘punch-your-fist-in-the-air’ moment when the girl’s ex comes crawling back to her, begging to be reinstated in her life as her man. (And if not as her man then at least as the doormat upon which she wipes her feet occasionally.) The sparkling seconds in which she now rejects him are every woman’s dream come true.

Unlike the wonderful world of American soppiness, that sort of drama totally skipped my life.
No one came crawling back.
Not even striding back.
Not even a tentative whiff of a knock at the door.

I was heartbroken. Self esteem plummeted like a rocket crashing into a gravity force field. My ex-es moved on quickly with their lives, without paying heed to the bits of my broken heart scattered on the floor. (Yes, I was a drama queen – well, still am one.)

Little did I imagine that at the ripe old age of 30, I’d thank my stars for this extraordinary piece of good fortune. (i.e. the ex-es moving on with their lives; not my theatrical tendencies.)

It’s been a few years since the last ex walked out, and every day that has dawned since, I am grateful to these men. They saw what I did not see – in fact – what I refused to see. That my life with any of them wouldn’t really work out. I was a round peg in their world of squares and in aspiring to be square and squashing myself into a misshapen quadrilateral, I would have ruined two lives, besides bringing heartache to the families. What I needed was a round world, but I clutched desperately and daftly to the illusion of squareness. (Talk about being thick in the head!)

Thank God someone noticed the truth.

So now, when a golden heart smiles at me from across the horizon, I know who to thank for the warmth in my life. My ex-es are my greatest gurus. They’ve walked me through the toughest lessons of life – relationships. I’ve truly realised that every relationship is a reflection of my relationship with myself. These men are the ones who’ve helped me understand myself better than anything else ever could. They revealed to me my “round peg identity” and dispelled my “square” delusions. For this, I will always be grateful.

I have found my diamond ring. It was inside me, all the while. The only ‘stability’ a human can ever know is her own soul and I revel in the new facets of my soul that sparkle forth every day. I’m getting to know my diamond intimately and I love the empowered feel of it.

Therefore, to my ex-es I say - thank you, each one of you for the pivotal role you chose to play in my life. For uncovering my true diamond for me.

From the bottom of my heart, I do wish you well.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Utter failure of the Zen approach to air travel

After waking up at 8a.m. and 10 hours later, catching a 6p.m. flight, I settled back into the very uncomfortable airplane seat, determined to smile through my eight hour journey to Dubai, eight hour layover in Dubai and subsequent 3 hour journey to Mumbai. I focussed on my breathing, felt myself float on silky smooth clouds etc. Yes I was going to do it. I was going to Zen this trip. Somehow.

I was pleasantly surprised at the ever cheerful stewards and stewardesses. (I’ve generally noticed their difference in tone, especially when I’m seated near a white person. Split second body language and voice changes occur, and I’ve half a mind to say – “I’m not daft just because I’m brown-skinned.”) So here I was, delighted to find that I wasn’t being treated any differently and feeling goodwill in the air etc.

I ordered water and orange juice, two glasses each. My neighbour on the flight ordered whisky. She happened to be presenting some sort of sociology paper at a conference and so the first hour was spent (quite fruitfully) listening to her understanding of the evolution of the unique individual.

But after she’d ordered her third whisky and puffed on several inhalers and swallowed a handful of variously shaped and coloured pills, I firmly put on my headphones. There comes a point when a person’s alcohol ridden blood directly interferes with intelligent conversation; especially when the listener has mere orange juice pumping through her veins, as I did. Something doesn’t quite match.

Sternly reminding myself to buy a neck pillow before my next long flight, I flipped through comedy channels, made a couple of trips to the loo, then guzzled more water and orange juice. On one of the trips to the loo, I waited patiently in line, behind a dad and his baby daughter. We smiled at each other, all three of us, in that sleepy, dazed sort of way. We politely looked away as time passed, wondering what on earth was happening in the loo. Why does it take so long?

After what seemed like ages, the door opened, and out popped an Indian girl, in her early twenties. You know the metro upper middle class girl of India – five foot something, colour streaked hair tumbling to the waist, strange looking top in stranger material that fits snugly on several love handles, tight jeans, heavy mascara, strong perfume, dangling earrings, and a big glittery bag. The most striking feature of this species of woman is the haunting look in her eyes. It is a strange dark mix of high school temptress and demure Indian girl. (I involuntarily shudder as I see it in my mind’s eye.)

I turned my head away instinctively, literally shivering in my boots, my body signalling: ‘for god’s sake, I’m a woman – don’t look at me like you want to seduce me. I’m not interested.’

But then again, these women look at everything – men, women and lamp posts - with the same vampire-ish gleam so I suppose I shouldn’t feel offended. I think they believe the consistent Madhubala-meets-Paris-Hilton gaze adds to their appeal. Ewww! (I’m not a prude, I just prefer an honest, straightforward look to this slanting, i’m-so-beautiful-i-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-myself, slithery, sleazy glance!)

I smiled at the dad and his daughter, gesturing for them to use the empty loo before me. He graciously thanked me, then immediately collided with a second woman who walked out the same loo. The dad, the daughter and I all started with as much surprise as we could muster up in our dazed brains.

We looked at her with vacant eyes, wondering if we were mistaken because she was a clone of the first woman. They were obviously sisters. I don’t know whether it’s the sister-thing – I don’t have a sister. I don’t understand WHY women have to “go to the loo” together, “go to the water cooler” together, or do so much stuff “together” all the freaking time.

I cannot imagine how the sisters fit in that airplane loo together, with two big bags and what they managed to accomplish in that space. One sees the strangest things on flights. Especially long ones.

The bloody airplane made excellent time and landed an hour early in Dubai. I was now contemplating killing myself because my eight hour layover in Dubai airport had just been pushed to 9 hours thanks to the exuberance of a couple of pilots.

For the first time in my life, I despised sunlight. It streamed into every corner of the airport while I struggled to fall asleep on a very uncomfortable recliner. I hugged my bag on the left. Then I hugged it on the right. I took out my laptop to write some. Much good that did after a sleepless 24 hours and way too much orange juice fizzing in my bloodstream.

My resolutions to calmly float through this journey across continents came to nought. When I finally made it to Mumbai, I looked like I needed to get to rehab – and fast. My speech was slurred. My hair was a tangled mess. I did not offer to help anyone else retrieve their bags (which I usually do.) I even picked the wrong suitcase off the luggage belt. To add insult to injury, my bag was the very last one off the plane.

I looked at the Customs people warily. I considered bolting for the exit if they tried to get me into a queue. Or, collapsing in nervous shock (something I wouldn’t need to fake.) I think they intelligently sensed I’d had a bad day and let me go.

Needless to say, I’m not keen to get back on a long flight any time soon.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

An A grade student who became a teacher salutes 3 idiots.

Mmmhmm. Yep. I am going to wax eloquent about Aamir's message in the movie. So be forewarned.

As an A grade student who didn't choose engineering, business or medicine, I salute 3 idiots.

I hold no grudge against lovers of science, math and marketing. What I wish to know is why artists and lovers of the humanities are sidelined and relegated to living on the edge. This is the attitude I encountered, when at the end of the nineties, fresh out of high school, I chose the Liberal Arts: If I have a "brain" I must only use it for the sciences or I will be wasting the great evolutionary gift of DNA that happens to have resolved itself into "me." Me - a mere pawn of society, progeny of my parents and extended family, member of the Great Tribe of India.

This attitude, irked me severely. Did this mean that the Liberal Arts required no use of the brain? Did this mean that the vast population that did choose the Liberal Arts was ticked off as useless to the advancement of society?

As a teenager I found myself having to justify to my teachers and friends, the reason I had chosen the Arts. How could I explain the claustrophobia, the suffocation I felt when listening to a Chemistry lecture? How could they feel the physical pain that shot through my head when I contemplated a life embedded in numerical figures despite being the daughter of a banker and a potential nuclear physicist? How could I convince them that pure grit and determination to scrape some sense of self worth together in a world where I knew I was marginalised already, had pushed me through high school? How could I explain to them that I respected them and connected with them as "persons" and "fellow human beings" - not as "teachers or students of science?"

What music would they groove to if Shankar Mahadevan had decided to join NASA? What lyrics would transport them to romantic heights if Gulzar had chosen the medical profession? Were these icons brainless?

That brought me to my next question. Why did I have to be an icon in order to be prove that choosing the Arts was worthwhile? Why couldn't I just do my Art, live a simple life and yet not be grudged that I'd wasted my potential?

Which brought me to the next level of understanding. Our Indian tribe's concept of success is a farce. A passionate school teacher in Ladakh is a failure in the eyes of the Ramalingams, the NRIs with the big US brand company name attached to their first names. But in truth, the passionate school teacher in general is a failure. Its one thing to praise the nobility of the profession to a teacher who is not related to you. But if your own child were to say she wants to teach, I would look at your reaction and then know what you truly think of as "success."

I know this because I am a passionate school teacher and witness the constant look of pity from people who've known me all my life. "Such a waste of earning potential!" is the unsaid, unspoken comment.

The waste of earning potential is not my failure. It is the failure of the country to understand the value of my services to society. How many more passionate teachers we would have if teaching were considered a respected profession, monetarily compensated adequately and not waved away as a "timepass before you find a suitable husband" in Indian parlance.

Artists scramble to pay the rent at the end of the month, not because their work is useless but because our society fails to recognise the importance of beauty as nourishment. All the edifices that science builds will have no soul if they are not infused with the perception and love that comes so naturally to the artist with an open heart.

But technology is money. And money is our god. Our big IT corporates, born and bred on Indian soil claim to be injecting integrity and values into the corporate jungle. As a junior school teacher, I ask: what worth is integrity in the corporation when as children we are taught to disregard our inner calling from grade 5 onwards? We lie to our souls, violate the voice of our hearts and then are taught to follow ancient Indian ideals and be "integral."

Unless integrity begins with your soul, you cannot be integral.

Surely everyone's soul cannot be pushing them to set up corporations, mass produce cars, develop software and research genetic engineering. For those who's soulsong is one of these, I stand at the forefront cheering you on. Go, find your success. You deserve it and will do much for the country on a huge scale with it.

But if I find a whiff of parental pressure to turn a child who lives for art into a doctor, I will mourn the daylight murder of yet another youngling of India.

This obsession that we Indians have with Ivy League universities, big phones, big cars, big houses with tiny gardens is exactly what our ancient Indian values spoke of as Maya. We place infinite importance on the objects of success rather than the feeling of contentment within. If we were truly content, not having the next best phone wouldn't make us break out into a cold sweat. Not having our kids get into Cornell or Stanford wouldn't destroy our honour.

Artha, or wealth is essential. I have nothing against it. I love Artha. But according to the ancient tenets, before Artha, comes Dharma. Following YOUR Dharma. Not the Tribe's decision as to which career will get them the most honour.

If there was one message that stood out clear in 3 idiots - it was to be true to yourself. Integrity to yourself. Aligning yourself with your soul's purpose. Is that level of integrity even possible when you belong to the Great Indian Tribe?

As a teacher, I predict that the Great Indian Tribe will be forced to face the challenges of the new kids. Watch out India. Many of today's children will refuse to sing the Great Tribal Song. We will hear countless individual melodies of exquisite beauty. We will see many disappointed parents. We will see far more young adults unable to disregard the call of their souls, flying the nest and finding their own sky.

For all those children, even if I stand all alone, I am and will always be a voice of support, an encouraging friend, a believer in their potential. For them, my hands are forever risen in salute.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pink, coffee and girl talk.

Pink pajamas, soft cushions, iced coffee and the tangy smell of Mumbai. (Tangy to me because it tickles my nose and throat with its carbon content. It must behave far more aggressively with the inner recesses of my respiratory tract.) A strong breeze gusts through the living room balcony doors, bringing the caws of crows, the barking of dogs and the whirring of automotive engines in with it.

My girlfriend and I are perched on opposite ends of a black leather couch. Our feet curled beneath us. I make a half-hearted attempt to go the whole hog with the ‘girl-thing’ by filing my nails as we chat. I give up. There is much gesturing of the sweeping kind with my animated speech and the file and the nails never quite meet.

For thirteen years – through high school, college, work and different cities we have savoured such once-in-a-year mornings.
What a perfect universe we live in. It orchestrates the crossing of paths and the meeting of minds, waltzing easily with variables like time, space and life experience. Neha and I are at the same place mentally, the same understanding spiritually, speak the same language each time we meet. And each time we meet, we have grown leaps and bounds ahead of the last time we did.
On the human journey where we are forced to walk alone, the merciful Universe sends us angels. They are kindred souls, siblings from our Spirit-groups, men and women who know our core, because somewhere we share the same core and are assisting each other bound over the next hill, slide down the approaching waterfall and dive into the ocean of our own power, reclaiming it for ourselves, again and again.

The only thing girlie about these sessions is the pink pajama dress code. Everything else is surrealistically fantastic. We surf through mysteries of the Emerald Tablet of Thoth, The Secret and Abraham-Hicks, through past life memories, to Atlantis and goddess symbols, remind each other about loving ourselves, believing in our potential, facing our creative demons, testing our boundaries and trusting the Universe.

We could be Lemurian high priestesses in green silks or robed Native American shamans – those garbs and roles would blend in better with the conversation content. The juxtaposition of the pink pajamas and the iced coffee with deep talk is a little ridiculous...

But nevertheless... a quirk of our times. One I find endearing and am enjoying more and more.

Through lives, I suspect Neha and I have shared the same girl-talk. By the Pyramids of Giza and the Incan temples. This time its on leather couches, with pink pajamas and coffee. Ah! To be able to love pink and coffee and still live in our truth...these are truly magical times we live in!