A Prayer for India…

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On the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of India’s freedom from British colonial government – celebrated as Independence Day in the country – no other poem feels more relevant today, than this one from Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize winning anthology, Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

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A Peek into Toda Culture

The winding uphill path suddenly opened out to a wide grassy plateau-like feature. We had arrived at a Toda village – the chief reason why I had signed up for this 14 km hike in the first place.

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The Todas are an indigenous tribe of the Nilgiri hills in southern India. They are originally a pastoral community, even though the modern day members are steadily settling down to agriculture and small businesses. Regular contact with civilization has eroded many socio-cultural practices, like fraternal polyandry as well as much of their distinctive language. Paradoxically though certain aspects of their culture have become disproportionately popular – like their shawls brightly embroidered in red and white as well as their signature jewellery – indeed in recent times a rising awareness about the need to conserve their habitat has actually led to new construction of their typical oval, half-barrel-shaped hutments.

No such structures were in sight here, though. But as several Toda men and women milled about on the grassland and even performed a traditional rhythmic dance, my gaze travelled to a secluded grove lined with stones, in which their temple was housed.

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The Toda religion is as distinctive as their temple. In keeping with the central position of the buffalo in Toda culture, their religious head is the priest-milkman who tends the sacred buffalo and apparently, lives under numerous strictures, including leaving behind his family for the time he acts as the keeper of the sacred dairy.  Again we did not get to see either the priest or the animal – instead the organized merry-making concluded with a highly animated visit to the busy Toda handicrafts stall and then finally the customary felicitation of the village headman by the hike organizers.

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As we started back, I could not help feeling that this brief, superficial interaction was not exactly what I had in mind when I had set out for the hike. But then, I realized that a deeper engagement with their culture based on long meaningful conversations and preceded by a good deal of reading was the stuff of serious research, lifelong study and dedication – and surely this ancient people deserved no less!

The Hunt is on…

On the day of The Hunt, the sun dawned on a regal scene. Red flags fluttered in the gentle breeze as the lush valley glowed a pale emerald in the heart of the Wellington Gymkhana Club – today the site where the dashing riders of the Ooty Hunt Club would converge on their steeds after a three hour ride. Even as elegantly dressed ladies twittered in the pavilion and their bundles of energy darted through chairs, there was a palpable sense of expectation – any moment now, the riders might come into view…

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The Hunt in this context is actually a formalized horse-riding exercise, often through uneven terrain. Though real hunting of game no longer takes place, the hounds faithfully carry on before the riders – in a throwback to the British tradition whereby the erstwhile colonial rulers brought the Hunt into this corner of the Nilgiris in 1835. It has remained active ever since, thus making the Ooty Hunt Club the only functional one outside England and Ireland. The Club is primarily patronized by the riders of Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, whose Commandant is its Honorary President as well. Every year there are around ten Hunts conducted, with each getting progressively difficult.

Low sighs of wonder rustled through the audience as the riders galloped into view – the Masters of Fox Hounds resplendent in their red blazers and other riders – including a lady and two kids as well – smart in their navy ones. After the new riders were ceremonially given their lapel pins, it was photograph time…

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All around were bright, happy faces – riders and spouses posing proudly with the mounts, kids petting the now-sleepy hounds, the grooms beaming proudly upon being complimented on their excellent work – I wondered at the shrill ugly voices of hyper-nationalism, always dangerously near. Always up in arms to defend “tradition”, would they ever understand this scene before me? These values of fairplay, respect for rules, regard for the sport and sheer love for these grand animals – values that represented tradition in the best sense of the word.

 

Should it come to this…?

On a day that I received a whatsapp forward with a link to a news report about a most unsavoury incident regarding two services wives, I was sceptical. So much of fake news is afloat on the internet that I don’t bother to go to the link unless I recognize the name of the news site.

But because this mentioned a specific incident, I decided to click on the link. The details I will not go into but for the purpose of this blog only indicate that a lapse in military etiquette escalated into an incident of reported physical assault. Fortunately I personally know neither individual involved but unfortunately I am all too familiar with the situation. Services wives throwing around the ranks of their husbands and using it to humiliate younger ladies is one side of the picture while on the other side is a pressure-cooker environment where otherwise ordinary personalities crack under pressure of expectations from the upper hierarchy and break out in unacceptable behaviour.

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The army is too vast, varied and hence complex for anyone to come up with easy solutions to such problems. All that I realize is that with every passing day is that it becomes more difficult for the organization to live in a cocoon and pretend that it will remain forever untouched by the rapidly changing interpersonal, socio-economic dynamics of the larger society. Equally undeniable are challenging working conditions of military officers which in turn determine their special social and gender codes. The way ahead probably lies somewhere in between and would require reorientation at every step but till it is found, some sensitivity and mutual respect would, I think, go a long way…

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When The Lights Went Out

As I looked for the candles, one of the stories from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies came to my mind. In this short story titled, “A Temporary Matter”, an estranged couple makes a series of confessions over four nights of power outage which eventually impacts their marriage in important ways.

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Will this evening bring about such significant changes around me too? Unlikely, I thought as the cheery voices of my neighbours rolled in from their balcony, singling ‘Mamma Mia, here we go again, My My how can I resist you”.

In these times of social media compulsions, masks and faces have become increasingly difficult to differentiate. Perhaps, this darkness brought about by a two-hour power cut might be one of those rare occasions when, with no gadgets to fall back upon, human souls would be compelled to dig into their innermost resources. Thus while some belted out songs from a carefree past, one settled down with a book in the light of the candle. While I rustled up comfort food in the flickering kitchen lamp, another persistent soul, I realized with a rueful smile, sought out the powerbank to connect the smartphone.

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What would people have done long ago, I wondered as I sat down beside my dog – petting her occasionally, unfamiliar as she was with this kind of darkness. In the past, when people’s lives were governed by the rhythms of nature? They would have got up with the sun, worked in fields or shops or travelled, and then winded up things with nightfall. Life would have been simpler ; indeed the significance of the Bengali ritual of lighting the evening lamp struck me now – in the gathering darkness, the first lamp to be lit in the home would be at the sacred altar accompanied by prayers for the family’s safety and well-being as well as the blowing of the holy conch. In fact according to my mother, the sound of the conch would serve to scare of any wandering snakes trying to get too close to village homes…

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A chill ran down my spine – simpler, maybe, but never easy. Life has nowhere, not at any time been easy!

The One Known as Shakyamuni

Paradoxes attract me. So the other day when searching online for images of inspirational quotes, I was quite intrigued to find so many by the Buddha. For a world battling violence, hatred and destruction at multiple levels, it is curious how popular his words are.

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This is turn motivated me to refresh my knowledge of Buddhism. Dating back to 5th century BC, this religion preaches nirvana or liberation from the cycle of birth and death through the practice of meditation, morality and wisdom. Buddhists believe in the Four Noble Truths according to which this world is chiefly characterised by impermanence and suffering which can be avoided only by walking the Eightfold Path of right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Though Buddhism does not believe in rituals or worship of deities, its followers regard the Buddha or the Awakened One as the ultimate source of spiritual wisdom. Originally a prince of the Shakya clan,   Siddhartha Gautama, went through a spiritual journey which ended in the sixth century BC when, seated under the Bodhi tree, he received enlightenment on how to move beyond the cycle of suffering and rebirth to nirvana. The teachings and ways of living that emerged from this enlightenment eventually became formalized as Buddhism.

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How is then Buddhism relevant to the contemporary world? For a society steeped in materialism and vulnerable to violence, do Buddha’s precepts apply at all? Some would say his messages of non-violence and detachment to earthly pleasures are more pressing than ever. But to me, it is the focus on personal spiritual development that is most empowering. Removed from all notions of ritualistic practices and human inequality, his is a call to discover the core of stillness and purity within the human self and then act accordingly in the outside world.

 

The F word…

Today I came upon an interesting bit of news, tucked away in the inner folds of the newspaper – actress Emma Watson leaving around copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale all across Paris in an attempt to enhance awareness about women’s issues.

Despite being in an industry where an image is carefully crafted to appeal to the widest public opinion, fortunately Watson has no qualms calling herself a feminist. This got me thinking about iconic feminist books, one of which is The Feminine Mystique by the American writer Betty Friedan. The title refers to “the problem that has no name” – a sense of worthlessness women feel in roles that require them to be emotionally, financially and intellectually and dependent upon their husbands.

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Published in 1963, the book grew from the responses Friedan got to a questionnaire she sent to other women in her 1942 Smith College graduating class. Most answers indicated a vague dissatisfaction with their lives which led Friedan to expand the scope of her research, including not only suburban housewives but also looking into the psychology, media, and advertising of the time. Through her findings, Friedan hypothesized that women are victims of a false belief system that requires them to find and meaning in their lives only through their marriage and motherhood.

The impact of the book was immense – it asserted that women’s issues were not merely a private matter but were shaped by forces of politics, culture, media and commerce. More importantly The Feminine Mystique went on to influence theories in other related fields such as politics, sociology, history and literature as well as women’s studies, thus ushering in the second wave feminism in United States.

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