Sunday, 22 March 2009

Let’s turn over a Neem leaf

Deccan Herald. Sunday, March 22, 2009. Edited as : Turning over a neem leaf

In a reversal of roles, the hunter becomes the hunted and clambers up a leafy tree to escape the tiger. Night falls and the tree remains his sole refuge. Fearful and hungry, his restive fingers incessantly pluck leaves off the branches, dropping them below. By day break, the tiger is clearly out of range, so the hunter lowers himself to the ground and spots a heap that the leaves he had been dropping through the night, had made. He also spots that the tree that gave him shelter was a Bilwa tree and the heap of leaves had made a mound on a Shivalinga. Instead of foolishly defying the animal or running aimlessly in sight of it, he trusted his instinct and gained succor of a tree that shaded him from danger. His adversary at bay, he walked into freedom. Little did he realize, then, that his hunting days were over, and not just instinct, but bounty, prosperity and a grand life awaited him. His night-long Shiva-pooja with the Bilwa-patra, even if unintentional, had reaped its rewards. Of the utmost importance, in a worship to Shiva the destroyer of evil, the Bilwa leaf is considered to be more significant than any amount of luxurious offerings put together.

Ganesha’s Gharike hullu (type of grass) holds a similar sanctity. If meadows of it make for happy grazing for one beast, a single blade of the grass is believed to hold the power of a divine missile against another.

Very few are unaware of how sacred the Tulsi is to traditional Hindu homes. The religious manifestation of alchemy, the Tulsi leaf transforms all impure (base) to pure. Essential to Krishna-pooja, its quality and, hence, power gains more relevance in our day today.

And with the advent of Spring, as the colours of Holi fade into the gentle riot of brilliant natural hues, another tree sprouts new leaves. The Neem, revered for its medicinal prowess, cleanses the air with its aroma and germicidal properties. An excellent example of paradox in nature, the Neem is as unpleasant in taste as it is curative in action. To modern naturopathy, the Neem’s invincibility over disease, is indispensable in every new formulation.

To the religious Indian, it is a firm reminder of life and the way of life – our Hindutva. While the bitterness of Neem is symbolic of unhappy turns in life, it also generates an immunity essential for survival. And just like in life, when its bitter sting is closely followed by saccharine repose, it becomes easily swallowed. The unpleasant turns to pleasant and the pleasantness lingers on, allowing the former to contour its sway, positively influenced.

Every year on Ugadi, when my mother gives us a closely supervised pinch of crushed Neem leaf to chew, and dad, myself and my little boy wolf down cubes of jaggery soon after, I am reminded of this symbiotic bitter-sweetness of the catalyst that’s life. As the New Year begins in the Deccan calendar, so does another saga of day-to-day.

Sorrow and disappointment keep us grounded and mindful of the preciousness of God’s gifts to us, making us realize their singular importance to our every day. Sadly, many times, this realization only comes at a loss. But because it comes, it paves the way forward, to new thought, new endeavour, new beginnings and a new day. And every new sun-ray brings with it, in good measure, all the sweetness that makes life worth living. The measure of how much we take of it, decides the extent of bitterness that will melt away and what our hope will bring back.

A faint memory of the pain, however, stays on. It is this part of the sorrow that strengthens the resolve to persevere on the path of improvement – be it of self or situation. That is the way forward, and that, I believe, is the true message of Ugadi. In praying that all bitterness turns to sweetness and all evil turns to good, we are in effect, nurturing a re-bonding of minds and people. At tumultuous times like ours today, this is the sort of out-look that needs to be nurtured and this is the kind of resolve that needs to be furthered.

Among those that follow the bevu-bella custom of Ugadi, these sentiments are ingrained quite early on in life. My earliest memory goes back to when I was a little girl, staying with mum in temperate Sagar of otherwise hot and humid Madhya Pradesh. Dad’s uniform took him to places far and perilous. Mum’s prayers to turn bad intent into good and wishing evil ineffective, was, therefore, a very personal and intense experience, both to indulge in and observe. Mostly away from the familiar comfort of home and amidst the enduring loyalty of friends, our extensive family, Mum’s practice of religion was always more instructive and based on humane conduct than one of blind conformity. I was taught similarly. So when there was a bunch of excitable kids to flaunt new clothes to and share goodies with, what could a little drop of bitter Neem juice spoil?

When I place this bitter-sweet phenomenon in the perspective of our current era, I realize how far I have come away from the innocent beliefs of my childhood. Then, a bad taste in my mouth could be washed down immediately with ample water (or jaggery on Ugadi). Simultaneously, I would be content that the drop of Neem ras would be fighting chocolate induced germs in my teeth and any virus threatening a cold. It didn’t take much coaxing to push it down my throat – besides, the jaggery was always in sight. This was the truth literally and figuratively. But I was barely six then.

Today, decades later, I see the truth through a filter. I understand now that the bitter drop will not just magically disappear – it is the sweet that will overpower the nastiness. I always wanted just the sweet then, and want the same even now. But now, I understand so much more. So even my prayers have changed.

On Ugadi this year, as I chew the Neem through squeezed shut eyes, I will be remembering that as a country, we have been chewing on bitterness for too long now and as individuals, we have allowed it to happen. While the Neem sets to work in my system and the taste will only serve to contort my expressions and tease my mind, I will be joining millions more in prayer for the one largest blessing: respite.

I pray now, that as Spring prepares for its veritable feast, evil sees the truth of futility in destruction. I pray that once again, the Bilwa of good faith opens Shiva’s third eye, destroying all thought that will destroy what mankind has worked so hard to achieve. I pray that the Tulsi of reason sets Krishna’s Sudarshan Chakra spinning into all purposes that impede harmony. I pray that the Gharike of positive intent urges Ganesha to remove all obstacles in the way of progress. I pray that soon, we again start to joyously celebrate life rather than merely surviving it.

If one leaf has the power to invoke God, I believe that natural instinct is nothing short of God’s own direct intervention in our lives. I pray that the heavens bless us this Ugadi, with the will to listen to our inner voice, so we initiate the springtime of awakening that will take human potential forwards into a new world of careless laughter and promise. For our children, who are yet to deal with tomorrow, I pray, earnestly, for the sweet solace of peace, happiness and goodwill.

I wish you all good health and a Happy Ugadi.


Monday, 16 March 2009

Is trust just a listed word?

Deccan Herald. Sunday, March 15, 2009 (ref: Full circle )

A love-struck adolescent dished out 45 rupees for a single stalk of red rose. There were more in line for larger numbers and even gallant bouquets. Some others hovered ever so romantically about their belles while I simply watched with a smile in my heart. Inadvertently, though, I was also darting my eyes around protectively, just in case there was a vile party pooper, eagerly waiting for his hapless victims to make the first mistake.

To my relief, even the black cat decided against crossing the road and walked tamely along the pavement. What I also saw was an undeniable fear relegated to an external cache, certainly not accessible for that day.

In another part of the city, the Aero India show zipped ahead. The crowds on the ground thronged with a gusto overwhelming enough to match the daredevilry of fighter pilots manouvering their supersonic toys through heart-stopping flips and loops in the skies above.

Stringent security cordons ensured that all roads were safe and all checks secure. All hell, would have to wait for another time. But over the last few days, the more I’ve talked to people, the more I’ve heard of how many more would have liked to strut their charm and how many succumbed to voices that kept them wary of large or media-covered events, however tempting and fantastic they might have been.

I can’t but take my mind back to the new year’s eve party that I dared to attend – the crowd was unsettlingly sparse for an evening like that. I would mark it as the start of a year that spells continuous fears from various threats and equally consistent fight-backs to banish them. Inspite of the impenetrable security inside, outside the Ball, the unnatural quiet that heralded 2009, the general lack of enthusiasm to change that and others’ surprise that we chanced the venture out, testifies a rather sadistic victory.

And what makes this victory so very dangerous, is that it has paved the path for more such. Mumbai was not enough for these mongers of hatred; we now have to deal with a self-styled moral police with their most backward and outrageously sexist agendas. Our enemy is, again, the ill-informed religious fanatic, rooted in misguided faith, propagating monstrously deformed objectives.

Screaming out is one latent truth: a lovingly nurtured social framework, has come unhinged.

This realisation makes me sit tight and listen when my parents fondly reminisce about the times when I was growing up. Like a child at bed-time, I lose myself in far-away tales and mental pictures of well-attended picnics, walk-in neighbours, outlandish-houred dinners-on-demand, ten people in one kitchen fretting over the precise boil in the pickle on the hob, multiple attendants at a sick friend’s bedside, impromptu stay-overs and streets bustling with familiar chatter. A time when smiles rode over and above hurt. A time when people brought over other people just because they were around. A time when trust was not contemplated, it simply happened.

That was the time ‘communities’ thrived. Communities of people who shared interests. Communities of children who played because they were together. Communities of well-wishers who stuck by the other. Communities where everyone knew each other and if they didn’t, a new friend was quickly made.

C o m m u n i t i e s. Not ‘communal groups’. Not ‘ethnic affiliations’. Not ‘religious factions’.

“… finally, in response to India’s dossier of evidence. India refutes …”, runs the news channel’s bottom line across the television screen and the past instantly recedes into its designated crevice in memory. One order of gun-totters took it upon themselves to make a statement to the entire world. One body of ‘patriots’ retaliates with more bloodshed. One wing of moralists resorts to assault. India suffers anew.

As one line of division shows signs of erosion, another erupts afresh. The larger picture condenses to fit the microcosm of our little lives. Trust is just a listed word. Our neighbour stands suspect. We are watering a snake-pit under our organic turf. But think about it. How often do we find the pesky rodent in a well-tended garden?

Our busy lives, our exclusive lifestyles and our secluded life-scopes have left little room for anyone else. Within our unit-living, how much do we know about each other? What is our teenager thinking? Why is the spouse ill-at-ease? Who is talking?

I so often hear ricocheting claims of how members of the same family, living at the same address, catch mere glimpses of each other. So when does any productive exchange happen there? And when was the last time you looked into the adjacent garden to enquire about the ripened strawberry?

Our self-contained, high-walled existence has not only removed us from the larger world we live in, it has also made us disdainful of it. Anyone asking after our wellbeing, is an interference. Someone else walking on the same pavement, is an infringement. That friendly offer to alleviate trouble, is audacity.

This is our day. And this is what we learn: you are nice because you are not good enough to be bad, you are helpful because you don’t value yourself and if you value another, it’s because you don’t have a life!

When I moved to London, this level playing field of sorts gained more plinth. I was advised against any contact beyond basic courtesy – it would seem too desperate. When new neighbours moved in, I was to refrain from cordial welcoming – that would be intrusive. If that same neighbour got locked out, I was warned against assistance – it would be downright offensive!?

Policy: Live and let live. Method: Solitary confinement. Duration: Life.
Did I change that? Of course, I did. Was it appreciated? The people, who continue to wish us from across the seas on our special days, are the ones who were thrilled to share an afternoon over a cup of tea and smile while at it. What worked? Natural instinct, channeled pleasantly.

Back home, I look across and find that we (specially the current generation) are now at that point in the circle from which the West is quickly moving forward. While they have waded into a new circuit, we are dragging along the curve where our insular lives have rendered us susceptible to detriments of our own making. The West has lived it, suffered it, seems to be learning the lessons and is moving ahead. We need to head back.

Blame history, but in spite of it, I have found that there is little aversion to knowing the other. What there is, is fear. We are afraid of what the response will be. We are afraid of offending. We are afraid of defending. We are afraid of mistaken integrity. We are afraid of intention. We are afraid of who our new acquaintance could turn out to be.

It is not just the lack of time, then, that is the culprit because a quick ‘hello’, takes but a second. It is the uncertainty of what we don’t know. But how will we know, if we shy away from knowing? In the little community that I have around me, I smile at someone and they know me. Together we talk about unfamiliar faces and choose to let them know that we are there.

And terrible as this comes across, not for companionship, not for camaraderie but for sheer safety, now more than ever, we need to share the sugar bowl with those that are close by. It keeps them in check and keeps us aware. Who knows, this awareness could well re-build a cohesive and inclusive society where motives become selfless. Where humanity binds us once more. Where community takes another birth and we actually start caring for each other. And again, all ends well.

I live in that hope. I dream of a place where my child will delight in pleasures of the togetherness that I enjoyed. Maybe one day, in the future, when I tell the tales of him growing up, instead of drawing contrasts with elders, the way I do now, my child will be laughing ‘with’ me.

I am glad we’ve shown the courage to join in and enjoy our happy occasions. I am happy that unhappy hauntings failed to draw any victory on the psyche of at least the few of us that were out there, either regaling or serenading. I am grateful to the police and the defence forces for maintaining ‘normalcy’ inspite of the grave threat and foreboding uncertainty that hangs in the air.

In the last few days, we have refuted fear and beat those that perpetrated it. We need to do it again, as discriminators and merchants of hatred plant new seeds.

Beauty-crown-winning and easily understood as ‘world peace’, the only way forward lies right here, within us. It is as ancient as time. It is as persistent as life itself. It is as inevitable as childhoods of a few decades ago. It embodies itself in the tapestry of ‘community’. It is defined in the words: respect, compassion and regard. Throw in love, and we have laughter back in our lives.