A Lost Soul

For a fraction of a second, I lost control!

Though my hands were firmly on the steering wheel, the sight of that brown slender body darting across the road forced me to halt on a side and get out of the car.

It was a beautiful black Dachshund. And it was clearly lost.

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I strode up and down the road, looking for its owner. I even asked a few passers-by which direction it came from. I looked for a sentry on traffic duty to keep it safe – no luck. And all the while, the little creature kept darting to and away from my heels; running uncertainly on its stubby legs towards, and then almost immediately, away from my car. Clearly the dog was looking for its owner – its instinct for safety made it come near me and my car but then its senses probably told it that we were not who it was looking for.

There was not much more I could do then – I clicked a pic to circulate it in the neighbourhood Whatsapp groups. I left – wondering how it came to be stranded on a busy road – a gate left ajar? A door not latched? Or an owner who could no longer be bothered? For a moment I was even tempted to let it hop into my car but had to drop the idea since I knew someone back home would be far from welcoming.

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As I parked my car in the garage and walked up the steps of my home, Ginger – my brat of a German Shepherd – ran out to greet me. However its enthusiastic licking soon gave way to a quizzical look as it realized that, today, my thoughts were somewhere very far away…

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Cry for Nature

It had been quite some time since I had read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. So when I came across another title by the Lebanese poet, at a friend’s place, I asked if I could borrow it. The Storm turned out to be a modern translation of Gibran’s prose poems as well as a couple of short stories. Narrated in his distinct style – soaked in mysticism and lyricism – so many of his central themes reached out to me : like the essential isolation of the human condition, the shackles of organized religion, the hollow materialism of the world and so on. The one theme however that spoke to me with the greatest urgency was the beauty of Nature and its inevitable degradation by humans.

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Aurore, ‘The Dawn’ by Kahlil Gibran

‘ ” Sweet Brook,” I asked, “why do you mourn?”

“Because I go unwillingly toward the City”, it answered, “where Man will spurn me. Instead of me, he will drink the juice of the grape and use me to carry away his filth. How shall I not weep when soon my purity become foul?” ‘

– From ‘A Lamentation in the Field’

Recently back from a trek through the Niligiris, I could not but help obsessing over the muck and mess human habitation spawns all around it. Towns looking like an ugly heap of tin roofs, sewage drains spilling on roads, traffic forced to a stand-still by reckless parking, vehicles belching out black fumes despite ban on unclean fuel – I could go on…

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concrete jungles

As we climbed higher into the hills, the air became purer and the surroundings cleaner. But then, we hardly saw any people around – slopes of tea plantations eventually gave way to forests and then to steep slippery narrow paths to the summit, known here as the Bakasura-malai. Why should one have to compromise on human company if one wishes to live amidst beautiful natural surroundings? How do other countries, societies manage to retain picture-postcard appearances despite having thriving communities?

I am aware these questions lead me deeper into issues of population, poverty, exploitation, corruption and many deeply inextricable civic matters. At this moment, however, I rue my limited time in this corner of paradise here and dread going back down to the madding crowds!

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Bakasura-malai peak

After the festivities

People all around!

Faces all around – smiling, sulking, grinning, flashing, beaming, glittering…who knows what they conceal and what they express! These faces that are masks, mirrors or malleable as melting wax…

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Fresh from the merry-go-round of festivities, I am wary now of eyes, smiles, faces. I look for shadows to draw back into since mirrors glint shards and masks drip poison. What sense can I extract from the hum of these social bees and the twittering of such plumed birds? Thinkers assure me that meaning is actually relational, dialogic; social interactions or transactions are essential to understand behaviour – not only of others but also of the self.

And yet – I look around for an exit…

I escape and come across one like me – breathing words from the hazy sky through her skin pores. As we take turns to turn pages, we are joined by another – following the trail of my bloodied footprints out into misty night. Unseeing, in silence we commune, stroke and smile.

Till one heeds the call of the blinking indoor lights and leaves…

Now two mourners remain – Oh how we hate people!

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How to be Assertive

‘Being Assertive’ was my lecture title today. Since it is a common enough topic, I planned to keep it short. Most of the slides were about how to adopt an assertive rather than passive or aggressive stance – like:

  • Ask, rather than demand
  • Learn to say ‘no’ when required
  • Hold your response till the correct time to express it
  • Check the prevailing mood before speaking
  • Collaborate rather than compete

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And yet when I tried to do a few exercises with my students, we all realized how difficult it was to come up with ‘assertive’ responses to difficult situations commonly encountered in day-to-day life. Aggression came more naturally since one could simply release the cauldron of irrationality always lurking beneath ; indeed sometimes it was even easier to be passive – just switch off and give over the field to the annoying person rather than expend time and effort in coming up with the ideal assertive response.

Part of the reason, I think, why being assertive far more challenging as compared to its two alternatives is because it requires a careful balancing act – express your own needs but also listen to others’ opinions, say ‘no’ when needed but also fulfil your responsibilities, stand up to the bully but stay calm and so on; in fact it would take a high degree of self-awareness to recognize one’s own self-worth without giving way to a sense of entitlement which in turn can easily lead to an aggressive stance.

One way, I think, that can help is to have an all-round respectful attitude – that way you can express your own needs and even if you disagree with the other person, you can do it without put-downs or sarcasm – respectfully !

The Glow of Festivities…

With Goddess Durga bidding us mortals farewell for another year, I started thinking of what Durga Pujo actually means for contemporary Bengalis, scattered across the globe.

Being the five-day long, elaborate, highly ritualized religious occasion that it is, Durga Pujo is, these days, primarily a communal affair. In cities with large Bengali population, neighbourhoods organize their own Pujo whereas in places with limited Bengali presence, people come together to form cultural associations which then take the onus of organizing the Pujo. Though there are still some ancestral families in Bengal which organize their private Pujo, their numbers are few and gradually declining.

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Durga Pujo in Camden Hall, London

In foreign lands on the other hand, festivities have to be planned, not according to the religious almanac dates, but on a weekend when people can afford to take a couple of days off from work. even then, a thousand details need to be thrashed out well ahead, starting from the idol, priests and dhaki ( those who play the traditional drum) needed to be flown in from India to arranging ingredients needed for the ritual worship and finally of the immersion of the idol.

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Durga Pujo in Singapore

So, why make the effort – especially in places like this, where even coming across a Bengali on a street is enough to make me cross it and introduce myself in my mother tongue. I guess, it has to do with the innate human desire to connect over common cultural practices, especially when faced with the prospect of being subsumed by a different majority culture. Bonding – even for four days – over shared tastes, fragrances, language, music and visual images is deeply satisfying and sustaining. For me, there is the added interest of facilitating my daughter’s awareness of Bengali rituals and customs.  so, though she did not feel compelled enough to wade through Ashtami crowds for the afternoon ‘bhog’ of ‘khichuri’, the same evening when, the tall tiered lamp was lit with a hundred and eight lights for Shandhi Pujo, her face too glowed in wonder and appreciation – and that was enough for me!

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Durga Pujo in the Nilgiris

Durga Pujo

And so the celebrations begin

Part of the fun in following the lunar calendar is its variability. And so with the beginning of each Gregorian year – based on the solar calendar – on 1st January, Bengalis around the world first take a peek to check out when the Hindu month of Ashvin would come about – anytime from mid-September to mid-October.

Ashvin is special for Bengalis not just because it has always ushered in a much desired change in the Kolkata weather – from hot, humid days to cooler, crisper mornings but because it marks their biggest religious and social festival, Durga Pujo. Over five days, Goddess Durga is worshipped according to rules laid down in ancient Hindu scriptures though like all complex religious symbols, she means different things to different people.

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The dominant theme is of course, of the victory of good over evil. There are in fact two stories exemplifying this theme and associated with Goddess Durga. According to the story of origin, the Goddess was created by pooling up the resources of powerful Hindu gods in order to defeat the buffalo-demon king Mahishasura whose growing powers were on the verge of driving out the celestial  beings from their abode in heavens. Later the Hindu god Shri Rama would worship Goddess Durga and invoke her blessings in his campaign against demon King Ravana. Both stories end with the defeat of demons and victory of gods.

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My personal favourite however is the story which represents the Goddess Durga as a beloved daughter. Married to Lord Shiva who lives in the remote peaks of Himalayas, Uma – an avatar of Durga – spends the whole year looking after her husband and children. In the month of Ashvin though, Uma with four children makes the long trip down to her natal place where her family – and everyone else in Bengal – celebrates their divine daughter’s and grandchildren’s stay with five days of merrymaking and feasting. Indeed in the ‘Agomani’ songs which herald the arrival of Durga Pujo around a week ahead, it is this story that is narrated – and which echoes in the heart of every daughter who is always a goddess, a source of love and strength for her family – no matter how far away.

When the Earth twisted and turned…

As news of Mexico devastated by a massive earthquake hit TV headlines, exactly on the other side of the world, I was getting ready to retire for the night. An endlessly running the TV ticker tape mentioned intensity, number of casualties and the epicentre but the news, as though, skimmed the surface of my consciousness in a similar loop…

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Photo Courtesy: ABC News

It is only now, with the lights turned out and the TV on mute that I really think of what is going on there…families grieving, struggling with loss, so many searching for loved ones, not knowing whether they are alive, injured, lost or gone forever.

And so many homes destroyed – with shelter goes safety, privacy, protection apart from destruction of assets, comforts and necessities. Women, children, babies, the sick and old find themselves forced out of their familiar surroundings and at the mercy of the outdoors, or at least in the grip of uncertainty. Even people who can fall back upon support from relatives and other resources, find getting back on their feet enormously daunting.

Worse still is the unpredictability that erupt with such disasters in human nature – if at one extreme, there would a person willing to risk his/her life to keep digging away at the rubble to rescue a stranger, at the other end might be familiar faces not thinking twice before snatching away that bottle of drinking water from your child’s hands.

 

Can I actually imagine – with my family safe, warm, peacefully sleeping by my side – what unimaginable difficulties such disasters  bring. Possibly not. And yet, some images arise from the dusty crevasses of my mind, taking shape of Eliot’s Wasteland,

‘Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.’

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