THE SILVER OAK

 

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The minute I stepped out of Cochin International Airport, I intuitively knew this was a place that will speak to my soul. Mr. Sudhan, our driver and guide promptly arrived with a wide smile, his appearance as immaculate as the silver sedan he drove. Little did I know then that this man would rule our hearts for the next six days. A walking encyclopedia of not just the history and geography of Kerala, he could discuss any topic under the sun. By the time we reached Munnar five hours later, he had become my Sudhan ‘cheta’, meaning brother in Malayalam.

On the way, he pointed out Adi Shankaracharya’s Keerthi stambha, Kalady, the Periyar river and briefly let us out at the Cheeyapara waterfalls. After stretching my tired back as I got into the car, he handed me a small lime and said, “Madam, scratch the skin and inhale. Zig-zag road ahead. Good for nausea.” When it was time for lunch, we were desperate for the famous roasted beef and Malabar parotas, but cheta politely pointed out that we must stick to light, vegetarian food as our bodies were tired and the road ahead was bad. I was charmed.

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The next morning, we headed for the Devikulam tea gardens. The small village of Devikulam nestles amidst verdant green slopes, the clouds hanging low on the colorful houses and a lovely chill enveloping the entire hill station. On the way, Sudhan cheta started playing some Hindi music to which I strongly protested. “Only Malayalam and Tamil music please, cheta,” I requested. His face lit up and from there on, all the way to the Flower Garden and later the Lockhart Tea Museum, the discussion turned to our favourite music maestros, Illayaraja, Yesudas, SPB, Janaki, etc.  He knew so much about music and movies that it stumped me. At the Lockhart Museum, we learnt a lot about tea, but for me, music remained the highlight of that afternoon.

Later, walking down the Mattupetty bridge in the light drizzle, I met an old woman selling peanuts and fruits. She kept urging me to buy something. “My wallet is in the car, Amma,” I said. She smiled fondly, forced a pack of peanuts in my hand and replied in halting English, “You eat.  Money later.”

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On the first day, Sudhan cheta had told us that Kerala produces 20 varieties of bananas and that every day he would make us taste a couple of them. As he dropped us back to the hotel, he handed us a packet and grinned, “Today, special red bananas.”

The most scenic and beautiful sight was to unfold the following day. Refreshed from a good night’s sleep, we enjoyed the light drizzle on the way to the Ernavikulam National Park. Munnar is full of tea plantations, but the ride through this one, on the way to Rajamala Hills was the most dramatic. As we stepped out at the foot of the hills, the rain stopped as if on cue. The uphill ramble, with the mountain towering on one side and the valley on the other was the most beautiful walk I’ve ever been on. When we stopped mid-way, the view took my breath away. This is what paradise must look like, I thought.

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The fourth day we drove into a dream called, Thekkady. With the quaint Periyar river, the sleepy beauty of the savanna grasslands, the thick deciduous forests and the abundant wildlife, it was the perfect place for a nature lover like me. It is also a heaven for natural spices.

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After wafting for a couple of hours on the glassy river, we went on a spice trail. Our guide, Ms. Sheeba instantly won us over with her knowledge, heavily-accented Hindi and a beautiful smile. By the end of the hour-long tour, we had more information about spices and herbs than our little brains could possibly hold. As we said our goodbyes to Sheeba, she scribbled her name on the brochure and said, “I wrote my name so you’ll always remember me. I enjoyed talking to you because very few people show genuine interest like you did. Come back soon”.  At our resort, there was another spice whiz called Leeba. She took me around the huge estate, pointing at shrubs and trees, rattling off information and generally making a quick entry into my heart. Leeba means love and it is a perfect name for her.

There was more to unassuming Thekkady. That evening we found ourselves in a small, modest theatre watching Kathakali, one of the oldest theatre forms in the world. The performers were excellent with their expressions, mudras and a short mythological presentation. That was followed by Kalaripayattu, a 3000-year old martial arts form, the oldest in the world. We had been tired that day and had meant to skip these shows, but Sudhan cheta insisted on taking us there. Any other man would have enjoyed the free evening, but he was clearly different.  That night I ate little for I was too full of nature, art and love.

With much reluctance, we left Thekkady two days later, to spend the last day in Alleppy. “Cheta, I am in the land of coconuts, and you haven’t treated me to coconut water yet”, I playfully chided. He grinned and nodded. Driving past several tender coconut stalls, he stopped at one. “Only Kerala coconut for you, madam. Best coconut. You’ll know when you taste it”, he boasted. True to his word, the sweet taste of that water was an elixir to my parched throat.

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The main attraction of Alleppy is, of course, the boat ride on the backwaters. I enjoyed the ride, but the real highlight was meeting my Ayurvedic doctor, who I’d only communicated with on phone for the past four years. The graciousness and love he and his family bestowed on us was heart-warming. On the way back, we asked Sudhan cheta how he knew even the by-lanes so well without once using GPS. “GPS in my head, madam,” he giggled.

“One last gift from me pending, madam,” Cheta crooned on the way to the airport. As he made a quick left turn from the highway, the magnificence of St. George’s church left me gaping! It was by far the most beautiful church I have seen in India. Going down on my knees, I offered my gratitude for all the beauty and love that had come my way in that past week. Among all the information Sudhan cheta had shared, one thing came back to me in that moment. Driving through the tree plantations, he had pointed to the tall trees that stood out awkwardly among the neatly trimmed tea plants. “Those silver oaks are planted on purpose, madam. Their roots go deep, hold the soil together and help maintain moisture and nutrients. They also provide necessary shade for the tea plants. Basically, the tea plants flourish thanks to the silver oak.”

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Kerala is called ‘God’s Own Country’ and every place we went to was bathed in pristine beauty and a natural sanctity that made it feel more like a pilgrimage than a holiday. But what has stayed with me is the memory of some wonderful people who like silver oaks held my ground with the warmth of their love, compassion and humor.

 

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INTO THE FOREST

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Last week, we drove down to Atvan for a much needed getaway. The morning was beautifully cleansed by a steady drizzle and soulful music filled the air. As we drew near, the slow upward climb was made surreal by the dense fog that hung over the valley like a thick, fluffy blanket. Atvan means ‘into the forest’ and it was exactly where I craved to be. After a small, rickety ride off the main road, we came upon the iron gates of the property where we were to spend the next couple of days. It was like stepping into another world, where all one could do was just ‘be’. The foliage was thick and glowing, the skies weeping in bursts every now and then. A subtle peace hung in the air and clung to us as we walked down the suspended wooden bridge that led to our tree house. It felt like ambling through a paradise that promised to hold me in its arms and heal me.

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The tree house itself was splendid, beckoning to me as if it was a home I’d never known I had. The lines between the indoors and outdoors were so artfully blurred that I could reach out over the railing and touch the branches from where I stood. For a nature junkie like me, there was nothing more to desire, nothing more to ask for. The best gift, however, was the birdsong. For the first time, I discovered the salacious warbling of the ‘Malabar Whistling Thrush’, aptly nicknamed ‘Whistling Schoolboy’. I’m known to fall in love more heavily with sounds than sights and I was properly charmed by this one.  The whistling of this bird has an uncannily human quality about it and the constant trill kept me amused throughout my stay there.

While there was still light, we explored the forest, walking along winding pathways and climbing slippery slopes. There were very few people around and it was just as well. The quietude was welcome and calmed my troubled heart like nothing else could. It was very reminiscent of my summers in pre-electric Mangalore, when the only illumination after dusk came from small lamps scattered around the house. Oftentimes, I long for those inky nights that were spent gazing at radiantly starry skies.

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Mostly, I am a happy person, but I suffer from intermittent existential malaise. There is a melancholy that runs through my veins, and most times that very darkness inspires me to be creative. Of late though, there had been constant spells of anxiety that rattled and numbed me in cycles. It wasn’t a good feeling. But right then, in the lap of nature, it seemed possible to wipe away the grime, lay down for a bit and stand up again. I felt ready to refocus and recalibrate. That said, the learning curve was yet to present itself.

As the day folded into night, a swarm of moths came out. The night was punctuated with their calls, but other than that it was a world that demanded nothing but the slow unwinding of a ragged soul. As I snuggled under the covers, peering out into the night through the wide glass wall, a stellar spectacle built up before me. My eyes lit up and widened to the effervescent dance of hundreds of glowing fireflies. It was like a secret rendezvous that was planned just for me. I was so dazzled by the wonder of it, that sleep just vanished and I stayed awake for hours watching as they twinkled and dimmed until I could no longer tell them apart from the stars above.

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It brought to mind a song by Owl City called ‘Fireflies’. A whimsical song that on the surface seems to speak about insomnia and childhood dreams, but is said to be more deeply about lucid dreaming or even astral projection.

The bioluminescence of a firefly is an enchanting process that involves conversion of chemical energy into light. Could these little beacons of hope then be passing on a message to us? That no matter how much darkness we’re drenched in, we could possibly make our own light? Lost in the embrace of that soft, mesmeric night, I surrendered to the dazzling flashes of life that these little critters brought me. For as they say, every blink of a firefly’s light says ‘Believe’.

THE PERPETUAL PROCESS OF BECOMING

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I realized the importance of landscaping very early on in life. A transformation of the ramshackle house I grew up in corroborated that belief. Mum decided the house should get a fresh coat of paint every year and maintained a pretty patch of green to highlight the radiant white exterior. She eventually added a few hanging pots of flowering shrubs to the wide picture window and lovingly guided the Bougainvillea to embrace the roof on one side. Whenever I walked towards my home after a long day, it was to this warm, welcoming sight. Not one to settle on the obvious, I let that metaphorically permeate every area of life. However, not everyone is born with a green thumb. And so, just like the plants I touched died so also did I make numerous mistakes to complicate an otherwise decently uncomplicated life. I called it my anti-Midas touch.

A few years later, when my daughter was about two, she developed a fear of road bumps. Every time, the car hit one, she would bawl. While detangling her issues (and many road bumps later), I inched towards finding answers to mine. It was a massive landscaping job. In the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, “The common phrase, ‘building a personality’ is a misnomer. Personality is not so much like a structure as like a river – it continuously flows, and to be a person is to be engaged in a perpetual process of becoming.” It was around that time that Patrick had entered my life and become my editor/implied mentor. The contouring took on a new meaning. What I wanted from my writing, was not to build up a body of work that represented me, but a personality that reflected who I essentially was.

On my recent trip to Dubai, as the airplane hovered over the city waiting for a signal to land, my thoughts drifted back to my mother’s garden. From a stark, barren desert, the city had been transformed into a beautiful, vast oasis. I love the city for more reasons than one. Each time I seem to find another lost part of my soul there. When I leave home, I’m not really stepping out of a dismayed chaos, but rather stepping into barefaced clarity. I love my Mumbai home but the routine can get jaded and I welcome the unfolding of horizons as I step away from familiarity. There’s a certain charm to unstructured days abroad.  Curated travel has never appealed to me; what does is to wake up and go where the day leads you. Out of such fluid days emerges a dazzling lucidity that to me is the essence of travel and of life.

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While I savoured freshly made Tabouleh and salty feta cheese, what really nourished me, as always, were the people. Despite our insistence not to, our long time friend, Vishwas and his daughter, Shreya welcomed us with huge smiles at the airport and took us home for a spicy, Arabic feast. In the glow of dimmed lamps, the meal speckled with constant banter felt like a warm homecoming.

The next day, my college buddy, Sushma took me to brunch with her girl gang. Ina and Sumi, were a delightful onslaught on my unsuspecting senses. Gregarious, unrestrained bundles of fun; they were like a ‘whirlwind meditation’ to my jet-lagged mind. Sai greeted me with an easy familiarity and I realized that even first hugs can have the warmth of old friendships. Deepika’s wry sense of humor and calm beauty were a beautiful contradiction that bowled me over. Shilpi was soothingly radiant and Aastha emanated a serene strength. And above all, my kindred spirit, Sushma. She, unbeknownst to her, is my astute guru. Her unadorned, easy approach to life is a constant reminder of what I aspire to be.

Later, as Sushma and I lounged in her living room over bowls of homemade dessert, she reminded me of what I’m adept at forgetting all too often – to remain calm and centered. It was reminiscent of how Patrick had lovingly spoken to the young, unpublished writer in me many years ago. “Write from your heart and let your words reflect who you are’, he had said, “and if I sense a heartbeat there, I’ll publish it.” It was a subtle pruning, but deeply significant.

My fourth night in Dubai dripped exuberance. School friends are always special – Felix’s quiet warmth, Sheryll’s joviality, Rupa’s sweetness, Anil’s amiability and Sham’s candor were a potent mix that set the evening on fire. We danced without restraint, teased and talked endlessly and just like that, in the middle of a pursed life, we were fourteen again. We crammed our almost 365 minutes together with a year’s worth of fun. It was 3 AM when we finally huddled together outside my hotel for a reluctant goodbye.

The last afternoon was spent with family. The voices were as familiar as the food was exotic. Over generous helpings of Yemini rice and easy bonding, I relaxed into a feeling of absolute contentment.

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Making a home in people, breaking bread and leaving imprints in souls means nourishing body and spirit in the true sense.  The beauty and magnanimity that people bring into our lives teaches us what we need to know about becoming real. Because all said and done, the ‘process of becoming’ is not some spiritual gibberish but the very core of the human experience. We are all given a piece of earth, what we do with it and how we shape and reflect our spirit is totally up to us. Because, and again I quote Fosdick, “Whatever you may  fail  at,  you  need  not  fail  at  being  a  real person.”

 

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WANDER MORE OFTEN

_20160506_151712When we first arrived at my aunt’s place on B.C. Road, it was a clear, sunlit morning. As we wandered around the grounds surrounding the house, I marveled at how verdant it all looked. Rows of swaying coconut palms, mangoes dangling from overburdened trees, the nonchalant munching of the cows, the raucous cackling of the chickens; it was all very nice. But the real fascination for me came after night fell. Life stilled to a whisper, except for the chirping of the nocturnal crickets and the warm glow of fireflies. I perched myself on the low wall that marked the boundary, just sitting there in the twilight, my whole being alive and one with the magnetic silence of the balmy darkness. It’s only when a panicked search party came looking for me that I realized I’d been sitting there for over an hour. It was an allegorical night and later in bed, I remember jotting down three words in my journal: Wander more often. Pretty insightful for a 14-year-old, I daresay.

Recently, a Facebook post on spin tops triggered the above memory. I’ve always been fascinated by this humble toy but never been good at actually making one spin. But now I started thinking about the mechanics of it. The way it spins and the motion of which causes it to remain perfectly balanced on its tip because of inertia. The balanced languor of that inert night in an otherwise rapidly spinning world was quite akin to the spin top theory.

When my yoga teacher taught me meditation a few years ago, this is what he had said: “Relax and breathe. Watch your thoughts as they come and let them go. Be the passive outsider. Eventually you will reach a point of total clarity. That’s when you will feel awake”. In the words of Jigar Gor, “Yoga is not about touching your toes, it is what you learn on the way down”. This is exactly what my guru was trying to teach me. Clearly, ‘awakening’ is not limited to ten minutes in a lotus position. You come to your yoga mat to feel, not to accomplish. His words resound in my mind now with a fortified meaning. Meaning that extends to all of life. Now as I lie wide awake at nights, I realize that somewhere along the way I seem to have relinquished all that I’d learnt. Balance begs to be restored. Lost ideas float around like confetti in the brain. These aren’t the delusions of an insomniac mind but colossal blunders that needed to be dealt with.

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Like any child, growing up I’ve had my moments of open-mouthed wonder. One such event was a magic show I attended. Gaping at the magician’s every trick, I was drawn into a kind of parallel universe. It was like moving in and out of real and magical worlds all at once. The experience was beyond anything I’d experienced thus far. The witnessing of such a feat was to me, nothing short of a gift. But the actual gift was hidden, lost in translation and too nebulous for an infantile mind to comprehend. I’ve tried a lot of stuff since but it’s only now, well into my fourth decade, that I grasped the full meaning of an idea that seemed simple enough to be radical.

All the yoga and meditation had so far come to naught just because I had missed one little point – Unmitigated letting go. I had assumed that my guru wanted me to let go of the negative thoughts, but now I realized that he hadn’t really specified that. How radical! Our minds (and thus our lives) are like that magic show. It’s all about perception. What we believe becomes real.

Quite suddenly, ‘being in the moment’ took on a new meaning. It takes a bit of effort and courage to peel away the layers that have gathered over time. And unless you’re Archimedes, it’s certainly never a mind-blowing eureka moment in a bathtub when you finally discover what really works. It’s an uphill climb with constant landslides that hurl you back where you began.

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As is slowly becoming evident, I’m certainly not as utopian as my poetic temperament indicates. When there is an inherent need to put every idea into practice and make it work, the flotsam of idealism ploddingly gives way to sparkling reality. The mental back and forth, the search for experiences, the spiritual connections, the craving to taste life turns one into a nomad without ever traveling much. You grow adept at ruminating with your eyes wide open. Not unlike the cow in my aunt’s barn who chewed on its cud all day long, the crunch of impassioned musings can keep you going most times.

As I step into my 45th year, the physical journey moves in tandem with the spiritual one. Regardless of the maturity that comes in spurts, life doesn’t cease to be ambivalent. Even then, with each passing year, I come closer to my inner nomad. And for that I am eternally grateful. The lack of ostentation in a nomadic life appeals to me. For a nomad, even a stationary one, the truth is not really in the wandering, it is in the ‘unmitigated letting go’.