Thoughts for another trip-around-the-sun…

This year gone by ain’t been a piece of cake
Everyday’s a revolution
Pull it together and it comes undone
Just one more candle and a trip around the sun

I’m just hanging’ on while this old world keeps spinning
And it’s good to know it’s out of my control
If there’s one thing that i’ve learned from all this livin’
Is that it wouldn’t change a thing if i let go

No you never see it comin’
Always wind up wondering’ where it went
Only time will tell if it was time well spent
It’s another revelation
Celebrating what i should have done
With these souvenirs of my trip around the sun…

From the lyrics of that song sung by American country singer Jimmy Buffett and Martina McBride probably comes the much popular phrase for another year gone by ~ our “trip around the sun!” (And thanks to Facebook this time many of us even had picture-souvenirs of our 2016 trip around the sun!) Yes it’s the New Year! Our social media accounts are witness to a superabundance of messages and wishes from friends and family. Suddenly the entire advertising world too seems to up its game bombarding us with offers and commercials playing upon the human desire for ‘newness’, for ‘a fresh start’. And then there are the New Year Resolutions…so much pressure to make a unique resolution, so little will-power to follow it through beyond the first week of January!!
Different cultures around the world may mark the New Year at different times yet everywhere it is manifested through joyous celebrations. The human spirit looks forward to the New Year with renewed hope ~ new dreams, new aspirations, new expectations, new desires ~ an optimism, an anticipation, a promise of better things to come. Some hopes may be belied, some dreams may never see light of day, some aspirations may bear fruition, some desires may be fulfilled beyond expectations…it’s all forms part of the venturing forth on this new journey of the earth’s timeline.
In the last week or so, among  the innumerable readings of articles, posts, messages, blogs et al, two stood out for me ~ the first by Paulo Coelho on “closing and moving on”, the second by Sadhguru on “being joyful and knowing the fulfilment of making all you touch joyful.” For me they embody the spirit of the coming 2017 trip around the sun…

“One always has to know when a stage comes to an end. If we insist on staying longer than the necessary time, we lose the happiness and the meaning of the other stages we have to go through.
Closing cycles, shutting doors, ending chapters – whatever name we give it, what matters is to leave in the past the moments of life that have finished.
Did you lose your job? Has a loving relationship come to an end? Did you leave your parents’ house? Gone to live abroad? Has a long-lasting friendship ended all of a sudden?
You can spend a long time wondering why this has happened. You can tell yourself you won’t take another step until you find out why certain things that were so important and so solid in your life have turned into dust, just like that.
But such an attitude will be awfully stressing for everyone involved: your parents, your husband or wife, your friends, your children, your sister..
Everyone is finishing chapters, turning over new leaves, getting on with life, and they will all feel bad seeing you at a standstill.
Things pass, and the best we can do is to let them really go away.
That is why it is so important (however painful it may be!) to destroy souvenirs, move, give lots of things away to orphanages, sell or donate the books you have at home.
Everything in this visible world is a manifestation of the invisible world, of what is going on in our hearts – and getting rid of certain memories also means making some room for other memories to take their place.
Let things go. Release them. Detach yourself from them.
Nobody plays this life with marked cards, so sometimes we win and sometimes we lose.
Do not expect anything in return, do not expect your efforts to be appreciated, your genius to be discovered, your love to be understood.
Stop turning on your emotional television to watch the same program over and over again, the one that shows how much you suffered from a certain loss: that is only poisoning you, nothing else.
Nothing is more dangerous than not accepting love relationships that are broken off, work that is promised but there is no starting date, decisions that are always put off waiting for the “ideal moment.”
Before a new chapter is begun, the old one has to be finished: tell yourself that what has passed will never come back.
Remember that there was a time when you could live without that thing or that person – nothing is irreplaceable, a habit is not a need.
This may sound so obvious, it may even be difficult, but it is very important.
Closing cycles. Not because of pride, incapacity or arrogance, but simply because that no longer fits your life.
Shut the door, change the record, clean the house, shake off the dust.
Stop being who you were, and change into who you are.”
~ Paulo Coelho

“The Egyptian legend says that if one wants to enter heaven, at the point of entry you will be asked two questions. Unless you are one big ‘Yes’ to these two questions, there is no entry for you. The first question is: Have you known joy in your life? And the second question is: Have you given joy to those around you? If your answer to these two questions is ‘Yes’, i must tell you, you are already in heaven.
To become a joyful human being is the best thing that you can do for yourself and all around you. Especially when anger, hatred and intolerance are rearing their heads in hideous ways, joyful human beings are the only insurance. Only those who know the value of being pleasant will strive to create pleasantness all around.
May you know the fulfilment of making all you touch joyful.”
~Sadhguru

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“Kuch kaha maine, kya tumne sunna…?”

Week: 01 Sep to 07 Sep

A verse by Javed Akhtar

A verse by Javed Akhtar

For this week, a collection of some poems in the language originally written in…the beauty of words sans cold translation

# A poem by Piyush Mishra~

ऐ उम्र !
कुछ कहा मैंनें,
पर शायद तूने सुना नहीं…
तू छीन सकती है बचपन मेरा,
पर बचपना नहीं

हर बात का कोई जवाब नहीं होता
हर इश्क का नाम खराब नहीं होता…
यूँ तो झूम लेते हैं नशे में पीने वाले
मगर हर नशे का नाम शराब नहीं होता…
खामोश चेहरे पर हज़ारों पहरे होते हैं
हँसती आखों में भी ज़ख़्म गहरे होते हैं
जिनसे अक्सर रूठ जाते हैं हम,
असल में उनसे ही रिश्ते गहरे होते हैं…
किसी ने खुदा से दुआ माँगी,
दुआ में अपनी मौत माँगी,
खुदा ने कहा, मौत तो तुझे दे दूँ मगर,
उसे क्या कहूँ जिसने तेरी ज़िंदगी की दुआ माँगी…
हर इन्सान का दिल बुरा नहीं होता
हर एक इन्सान बुरा नहीं होता
बुझ जाते हैं दीये कभी तेल की कमी से…
हर बार कुसूर हवा का नहीं होता !!!

# Two short verses by one of my favourite poets~ Harivanshrai Bachchan

*** दोस्ती…!
ना कभी इम्तिहान लेती है,
ना कभी इम्तिहान देती है ।
दोस्ती तो वो है –
जो बारिश में भीगे चेहरे पर भी,
आँसुओं को पहचान लेती है ।

आज रब से मुलाकात की,
थोड़ी सी आपके बारे में बात की,
मैंने कहा क्या दोस्त है,
क्या किस्मत पाई है!
रब ने कहा संभाल के रखना
मेरी पसंद है, जो तेरे हिस्से में आई है

दिन बीत जाते है सुहानी यादे बनकर,
बाते रह जाती है कहानी बनकर,
पर दोस्त तो हमेशा दिल के करीब रहेंगे,
कभी मुस्कान तो कभी आँखों का पानी बनकर….

*** आंसुओं को बहुत समझाया तनहाई मे आया करो,
महिफ़ल मे आकर मेरा मजाक ना बनाया करो !
आँसूं बोले . . .
इतने लोग के बीच भी आपको तनहा पाता हू,
बस इसलिए साथ निभाने चले आता हूँ !
जिन्दगी की दौड़ में,
तजुर्बा कच्चा ही रह गया…
हम सीख न पाये ‘फरेब’
और दिल बच्चा ही रह गया !
बचपन में जहां चाहा हंस लेते थे,
जहां चाहा रो लेते थे…
पर अब मुस्कान को तमीज़ चाहिए
और आंसुओ को तन्हाई !
हम भी मुस्कराते थे कभी बेपरवाह अन्दाज़ से…
देखा है आज खुद को कुछ पुरानी तस्वीरों में !
चलो मुस्कुराने की वजह ढुंढते हैं…
तुम हमें ढुंढो…
हम तुम्हे ढुंढते हैं.

# “Poora Din” (perhaps by Gulzar….)

मुझे खर्ची में पूरा एक दिन, हर रोज़ मिलता है
मगर हर रोज़ कोई छीन लेता है,
झपट लेता है, अंटी से
कभी खीसे से गिर पड़ता है तो गिरने की
आहट भी नहीं होती,
खरे दिन को भी खोटा समझ के भूल जाता हूँ मैं
गिरेबान से पकड़ कर मांगने वाले भी मिलते हैं
“तेरी गुजरी हुई पुश्तों का कर्जा है, तुझे किश्तें चुकानी है ”
ज़बरदस्ती कोई गिरवी रख लेता है, ये कह कर
अभी 2-4 लम्हे खर्च करने के लिए रख ले,
बकाया उम्र के खाते में लिख देते हैं,
जब होगा, हिसाब होगा
बड़ी हसरत है पूरा एक दिन इक बार मैं
अपने लिए रख लूं,
तुम्हारे साथ पूरा एक दिन
बस खर्च
करने की तमन्ना है !!

# And finally a verse by a contemporary and eminently quotable Javed Akhtar…

ज़िन्दगी के इस कश्मकश में
वैसे तो मैं भी काफ़ी बिजी हुँ…
लेकिन वक़्त का बहाना बना कर
अपनों को भूल जाना मुझे आज भी नहीं आता!

जहाँ यार याद न आए वो तन्हाई किस काम की
बिगड़े रिश्ते न बने तो खुदाई किस काम की
बेशक अपनी मंज़िल तक जाना है
पर जहाँ से अपने ना दिखे…
वो ऊंचाई किस काम की!

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The Fault In Our Stars

Week: Aug 18 to Aug 31

Penny: Okay – I’m a Sagittarius, which probably tells you way more than you need to know.
Sheldon: Yes – it tells us that you participate in the mass cultural delusion that the sun’s apparent position relative to arbitrarily defined constellations at the time of your birth somehow affects your personality.

Every time i watch that episode (yes, i confess i can watch re-runs of some classic comedy TV shows umpteen number of times!), Sheldon’s witty choice of words evokes an amused smile. It also brings home my own ambivalence on the subject for i can never decide which side am i really on. Do i wholeheartedly support Sheldon’s rational man-of-science approach or like Penny do i believe planetary configurations affect my fate?
Perhaps part of the answer lies in the environment i’ve grownup in. In our country every second person, regardless of whether rich or poor, educated or illiterate, villager or city-bred, is out looking for the “astrology-fix”. When you are born, some family-elder notes down the exact time and place of your birth for your natal horoscope to be made. ‘Doshas’ (i.e.malefic influences of some stars), if present, are appeased with special ceremonies. Astrological-compatibility before marriage is still worked out. Thousands of business men (even others for that matter) schedule their day’s work after ascertaining the inauspicious “rahukaalam” for the day. From my own childhood i can recall memories of my paternal grandmother who wouldn’t let us leave the ancestral home after our holidays if the time was not auspicious. My father would angrily complain and protest about the impracticality of it all, specially considering the fact that as an army officer he wasn’t really in control of his leave schedule. But i’ve seen him humour her sentiments and try and adjust his movements to and from his village home according to an auspicious time.

From my father i’ve also learnt my most valuable lesson about these planetary influences on our lives. My mother often recounted for us how when he had first told his parents that he wished to marry her, there was an absolute uproar in their family. One, choosing your own life partner was unheard of in their community; second as per his horoscope he was a very strong ‘manglik’. Most Indians can relate to that term, for a “mangal dosha” in your horoscope is believed to be highly unfavourable for marriage, unless the other person is also one, in which case the negative effects are supposed to cancel each other out. An astrologer was consulted and he was told that if the wedding went through my mother would not survive for more than four years. My father stood his ground and insisted that if his Hindu faith had shown what the problem was, he was confident it would also give him a solution. So he figured out that observing a fast on Tuesdays and performing some special prayer-ceremony whenever the malefic influence of his ‘mangal’ was strong should provide the necessary counter-balance. My mother’s father was an atheist who didn’t believe in any of this ‘mumbo-jumbo’ as he called it, so they got married. There were years when my mother would be critically ill and i’ve known my worried father offering special prayers for her recovery. Something did work out for they remained married for fifty-one years till she passed away some years back. Their story of how individual positive energy can thwart what the stars may foretell has remained the most defining influence on my views towards fate and destiny.

The quest to discover if planetary energies dictate our cycle of life on planet earth has been with me forever, now in the background, now to the fore. Beyond childhood impressions, one also discovered Cheiro, his ‘Book of Numbers’ and his famous book on ‘Palmistry’ And then there was Linda Goodman, her ‘Sun signs’ and ‘Love signs’ providing much fodder for giggly-teenage-chatter during college days. The thing about her writings is that the rational part of you knows that a whole group of millions of people born under a particular zodiac sign cannot possibly share the same characteristics. Yet the lure of her words is such that you are mesmerised into wanting to believe that she writes for you and you alone! Another example of the wizardry of words!
So do the stars actually map out your entire life for you? As an individual do you have no say in how your life should be shaped? Where does the fault lie…in our ‘stars’ or in our ‘underling- selves’?
These and many other questions were partly answered for me during a tea-time tête-à-tête with a neighbour many years back. A post-graduate doctor and a Professor of medicine in a medical college, she surprised me one morning by expressing her belief in Vedic astrology. We were having a good neighbourly chit-chat over a cup of tea when talk veered to the ‘Bhrigu Samhita’ someone had spoken of at a party the previous evening. It was another story from my childhood…a town near my fathers ancestral village was supposed to house a famous astrologer who, it was said, had in his possession some original ‘bhoj-patras’ (pages made of tree-barks) of the astrological treatise written by the sage Bhrigu during the Vedic period. I told her how i had heard of some distant relative visiting the ashram in search of their ‘bhoj-patra’, the belief being that if your page could be found therein, it could predict your past, present and future, as well as tell you about your “karma” from previous births and how it is affecting your present life. Instead of the scepticism i had expected, she provided a deeper understanding and awareness of the subject. Her father was a renowned Vedic Scholar and she had herself seen him studying transcribed copies of some of these ‘bhoj-patras’. Apparently the original treatise contained possible permutations of horoscope-charts running into crores (can’t remember the exact figure she had quoted!). The original ‘patras’ were divided amongst his pupils and over the centuries many were lost. She confirmed the story that if you found your ‘patra’, a task only a scholar in ‘jyotish-vidya’ was capable of, then the accuracy of the predictions was guaranteed.
However, what has always stayed with me is her further insights into what astrology actually is all about and what it is perceived to be. To make accurate predictions requires years of study but instead of true scholars what you usually find are charlatans out to make a quick buck. From her father she too had imbibed a lot of this ancient wisdom. She confessed that she had even dabbled in horoscope reading in her younger days but then gave it up because, in her words, “people expected her to provide treatment!” Using terminology from her doctor profession she compared the horoscope-chart to a blood-pressure monitor…it can tell you what the pressure is, it can point out anomalies when they occur, but it cannot “treat” the issue. Your horoscope is not the illness, your ‘karma’ is. Your fate can only be modified by your good “karma”. As per astrology, there are always two forces at play: ‘Daiva’ and ‘Purushkara’, fate and individual energy. The individual energy can modify and even frustrate fate. Moreover, the stars often indicate several fate possibilities; for example the horoscope may indicate that one may die early, but either because of your own karma or through the destiny of someone close to you, that may change and one could live to a ripe old age. In that sense astrology does not say that events must and should happen, but gives the benefic and malefic tendencies that can be directed or modified through conscious effort. It cannot be called a ‘science’ in the sense in which we understand the term; rather it is the philosophy of discovering and analysing past impulses and future actions in the light of planetary configurations. The stars merely record a destiny that has already been formed. The planets do not dictate, but indicate the energies that are influencing a situation in a given time.
To quote one of my favourite lines on the subject~

Cassius (to Brutus):
Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates;
The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
(From Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”)

It’s an important lesson i’ve imbibed over the years…your future lies in your own hands, in the ‘karmic path’ you decide to walk upon, in the choices you make.
The fault lies not in our stars.

(NB~The above is a re-blog of some ideas spoken about in my earlier posts.)

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Chicken? No, some mutton please…

Week: Aug 18 to Aug 24

Life tends to come full circle—that cliche often holds true, specially when it comes to certain trends. It happens in fashion, in religion and spirituality, in relationship advice, in health and fitness, in alternate medicine therapies, even in food and recipes. The old and forgotten gets reinvented and becomes contemporary and in vogue. Take for example the default meat choice of people in our country. For a couple of decades, if not more, chicken ruled the roost (pun unintended!). A chicken-dish was the star on the dining table and mutton thanks to all the negative publicity of it being loaded with cholesterol and hence bad for health, got relegated to the background. Fish was always popular ~ it being the staple diet of so many coastal regions of our country. The prevalent food fad then became that chicken and fish were healthier choices because of their high protein content and red meat was a strict no-no.
This however was not the case if we just rewind to the food preferences of our parents/grand parents generation. As kids we grew up on a vegetarian diet, my father being a strict vegetarian “brahmin”. My mother on the other hand had grown up on a staple diet of non vegetarian fare…more specifically mutton, or what in their house was simply referred to as ‘meat’. Her ancestors came from the high mountains of Kashmir (most brahmins from the Himalayan mountain regions in India are non vegetarians). She of course gave up eating all non vegetarian food after marriage in the tradition of an ideal Indian wife who conforms to the habits of her husband. Nevertheless, off and on she would reminisce and share stories of how our maternal grandfather had mutton-curry and rice for dinner on a daily basis; and how when they had a cold or flu, they were given bowls of steaming hot ‘paya-shorba’ (which is a broth made from lamb or goat trotters, which are cooked along with aromatic spices for a couple of hours till all the flavours are infused in the soup…a recipe i’m still searching for). The point is, the tales were always about mutton, never chicken!
(Just as an interesting aside, the term mutton in our country is loosely applied to both lamb and goat meat. Not many of us know exactly which meat we buy as mutton. Lamb meat apparently is cheaper in cost and lacks in nutritional value as compared to goat meat. Health and nutrition sites tell you that goat meat is actually lower in calories, total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than not just lamb, pork and beef meats but also chicken meat. Goat meat has 3 gm of total fat, 0.93 gm of saturated fat, 75 gm of cholesterol and 27 gm of protein per 100 gm serving. It has higher levels of iron than other meats— 3.8 mg per 100 gm serving while beef has 3.4, pork 3.1, lamb 1.6 and chicken 1.7 mg for the same amount. It also has higher levels of potassium and lower levels of sodium than the other meats making it the healthier option compared to all other meats. Perhaps that is why our ‘pahaari’ ancestors made goat-meat their staple non-veg fare.)
As luck would have it, i got married to a die hard non vegetarian. At my in-laws place too, lip-smacking stories were always about mutton-curry, with ‘khatta-meat’ topping the list of favourites. (for recipe see appendix below this post!). Cooking a mutton dish though was a bit of a challenge for me. There were a couple of difficulties there…first the sourcing of the raw meat itself. This is most important for if the raw-mutton quality is not upto the mark your final dish will always be a sorry version. My father-in-law generally bought it himself, and over the weekend my mother in law would spend Sunday morning “bhuno-ing” (a technique of braising very typical to Indian cuisine!) it with much concentration for a long time and then everyone would dig into that soul-satisfying mutton curry accompanied with steamed rice for lunch. The second issue was of time. The first principle of my cooking philosophy was (and to some extent still is!) minimum time and maximum effect! Later i discovered that for some traditional dishes time cannot be compromised if you want the taste…mutton being a prime example! Around this time ‘broiler-chicken’ began its ascendancy and since it was so much easier to source and cook, mutton was soon forgotten.
In the last couple of years a role reversal of sorts seems to have taken place and we are back to the food those earlier generations so loved. Health research in recent times has begun to focus on the general living conditions of the animals that meat is sourced from. The worst culprit in this regard has been found to be chicken. Most broiler-chicken available in the market comes from poultry farms that keep them caged in restricted spaces and feed them on substandard fare such as genetically modified grains. Chicks reared in such an unnatural environment are not the best food for humans. People are advised to opt for free range chickens and their eggs—not the easiest things to source in a city. Even in the case of fish, with the amount of toxins being spewed into our rivers and seas, heavy metal toxicity of these water bodies and the animals living in them has become an issue of major concern. Goat and lamb in comparison, they say come from farms and being larger animals cannot be reared in restricted spaces. We thus have the triumphant return of mutton, the default meat choice of our grandparents, once again on our meal tables! Perhaps like all comparisons, at some level this too is an unfair one, for each food source has its own nutrient content. As in so many other things, consuming with discretion remains the key.

A recipe as an appendix for this meaty-tale!

After much cajoling and asking around and some experimentation, i have managed to standardise a recipe that comes from the childhood foodie tales of my husbands extended family. It’s called ‘pahari khatta-meat’ (‘khatta’ translates to sour, the dominant flavour of the dish), so it is basically a sour mutton curry. Also be warned that you should be ready to spend a couple of hours on the preparation for a delectable dish on the table…

# The Ingredients:
Mixed mutton pieces : 1 kg
Finely chopped onion : 2 cups
Finely chopped garlic : 3 tbsp
Finely chopped ginger: 4 tbsp
Mustard oil : 1/2 to 1/3 cup
Haldi/turmeric powder : 1 tbsp
Salt to taste (approx 2-3 tsp)
Bay leaves : 2-3
Jeera coarsely powdered : 1 tbsp
Dhania/coriander powder : 2 tbsp
Saunf/aniseed powder : 2 tbsp
Methi seeds/fenugreek powder : 1 tsp
Amchur/dry mango powder : 4-6 tbsp
(This ingredient depends on how tangy you would like the dish to be. I am using MDH brand amchur here)
Degi mirch powder : 1 tbsp for medium spice (or to taste)

# The preparation:
~Wash the mutton pieces well. Apply half the salt and haldi and cover and keep aside. This can even be done a day before and the meat left overnight in the refrigerator.

Mixed mutton pieces coated with turmeric powder and salt

Mixed mutton pieces coated with turmeric powder and salt

~Peel and chop the onion, garlic and ginger. Avoid making a paste in the mixer for an authentic taste and to prevent it from getting burnt during the roasting.

Onion, garlic and ginger

Onion, garlic and ginger

~Roast and grind the dry spices…methi, jeera, dhania, saunf. (Ready to use powders may not be as flavourful.)

Fresh aroma of spices!

Fresh aroma of spices!

~For the cooking use a thick bottomed and wide-mouthed pan…a 5 litre pressure cooker can do provided it has a wide mouth and a thick bottom. Remember the meat needs to be turned often and traditionally it is cooked for long hours on low flame. If your pot is not thick enough, the mutton will start burning halfway through.

~ Heat the pot and pour in the mustard oil. (For those who don’t like the mustard oil flavour, allow the oil to heat till it smokes. Then take it off the flame and allow to cool before using it for cooking.)

~ Add the onions and sauté for about two minutes till they turn transparent.

Saute onions

Saute onions

~ Add the mutton, remaining salt and haldi and the bay leaves.

Taking it slowly

Taking it slowly

~ Allow it to cook for one hour (by the clock…that’s how long it takes!!) with the burner flame kept at its lowest setting. Stir gently every five minutes or so to make sure it does not start burning from the sides.

~ After about half an hour the juices start reducing and oil will start separating from the sides. Add the garlic and ginger and continue cooking. Keep watch and turn the pieces more frequently so that they are braised evenly.

Colours cooking

Colours of cooking

~ Once it’s well cooked and almost dry (takes 45 to 50 minutes) add the dry spices…jeera, methi, saunf, mirch and amchur-in that order and stir constantly to coat the pieces well with the spices. It should be further cooked for 5-7 minutes after the amchur is added for the dark colour so typical of this dish.

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~ Once the hour is up check to see if the mutton is cooked through. If it is, add about two cups of hot water (or as much you would need for the thickness of the curry you like), stir well and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover and allow the curry to cook for another five minutes or so. If the mutton is still rare, pressure cook it after adding the water. This is the tricky part for if you overcook in the pressure cooker the meat will break up into small pieces. Generally one or two cooker whistles should be enough.

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~ Check for spices and add more salt/mirch/amchur powder if needed.
~ The ‘pahari khatta meat’ is now ready to be enjoyed with hot steamed rice.

The final dish

The final dish

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Some Lotus Tales

Week: Aug 11 to Aug 17

Love came to Flora asking for a flower
That would of flowers be undisputed queen,
The lily and the rose, long, long had been
Rivals for that high honour. Bards of power
Had sung their claims. “The rose can never tower
Like the pale lily with her Juno mien”-
“But is the lily lovelier?” Thus between
Flower-factions rang the strife in Psyche’s bower.
“Give me a flower delicious as the rose
And stately as the lily in her pride” –
“But of what colour?”-“Rose-red,” love first chose,
Then prayed,-“No, lily-white,-or, both provide”;
And Flora gave the lotus, “rose-red” dyed,
And “lily-white,”- the queenliest flower that blows.
( a sonnet on The Lotus by Toru Dutt)

Our car came to a halt at the railway crossing and along with a dozen other assorted vehicles we waited for the train to pass and the gates to reopen. As i casually turned to look out from the window, the scene made me gasp…popping out from the small pool of water collected by the road side were these serene white lotus flowers. When i pointed out the sight to my husband he instantly fished out his camera and took some memorable shots through the rolled down car window itself. There was no time to step out and take more studied photographs. You could hear the train rumbling by and within seconds the railway gates opened and vehicles clamoured from both sides to start moving, even as a truck lumbered up and blocked our side view. Fortunately for us, our camera had managed to capture that moment forever.

White Lotus in the wild (white lotus is a symbol of “Bodhi”—the state of total mental purity and spiritual perfection)

White Lotus in the wild (white lotus is a symbol of “Bodhi”—the state of total mental purity and spiritual perfection)

It remains one of my favourite memories from our 2014 road trip of the state of Odisha~ better known for the Jagannath Temple of Puri and the Konark Sun Temple. As we drove and explored this eastern state from the coastal town of Balasore in the north to the lovely beach of Gopalpur-on-the-sea in the south, some of the most memorable sights for me were the small bodies of residual-monsoon water on either side of the road with lotus plants floating over their muddy waters, their long stalks straining upward carrying both buds and blossoming flowers alike. The flawless beauty of those blooms presented such a contrast to their miry surroundings and was an evocative reminder of why the flower is considered an apt metaphor for “the most exalted state of man—his head held high, pure and undefiled in the sun, his feet rooted in the world of experience.”

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Sightings of the pink lotus ~ the supreme lotus, generally reserved for the highest deity

So what is so fascinating about the sight of the lotus, or ‘padma’ as it is known in Sanskrit. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that it is interwoven with the collective-cultural-consciousness of our land from times immemorial. As children we all grow up on stories from elders on how one should aspire to be pure of mind like the lotus. It is our National flower and an ancient auspicious symbol that recurs time and again in the epics, mythology and scriptures of most major religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism. We Hindus of course are so infatuated with the flower that almost every deity is portrayed either sitting on the lotus or holding one in their hand! It forms the prevailing motif of our sculptures, temple carvings, architecture, paintings and even cave murals. “Kamal-nayanam” (lotus-eyed) is one of the names used to invoke Lord Vishnu and describe his divine beauty and purity. The Bhagwad Gita exhorts:

“One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus is untouched by water” (Chap 5, Verse 10)

On the micro level, practitioners of yoga adopt the lotus-position, or the “padmasana”, to meditate and reach the highest level of consciousness, which itself, it is said, is found in the thousand-petalled lotus-chakra within you. Hindu scriptures state that the “atman” (or soul…the spark of divinity within each) dwells in the ‘lotus within your heart’. The opening of each petal corresponds to the gradual expansion of the consciousness on the path of enlightenment. A meditation guru’s instructions (with a change here and there) would ask you to concentrate on your breathing and ~
“Visualise within yourself a lotus, centred right within your heart. Try to mentally feel and see the heart as a lotus flower right within you. Within the centre of the lotus, see a small light…this brilliant light, about the size of your thumb, is an emanation of your radiant being. The Self God is deeper than that ~ it dwells deep within that lotus of light…”
On the macro level, more esoteric readings of Hindu Cosmology will get you acquainted with many versions of the association of the lotus with Creation (specially since the scriptures link it to ‘spontaneous generation’). The problem with Hindu scriptures is that you cannot identify a clear concise collection that has been handed down over generations…but that would be a matter for a long digression best not entered here!! There are many creation-myths depending upon which scripture or even which deity you select as the definitive one. The most prevalent is the one that describes Vishnu lying asleep in “Yog Nidra” on a giant serpent with the entire universe dormant in his dream. From his navel springs forth a lotus and when it blooms, Brahma~ the creator god~ is revealed sitting in the centre. Brahma then goes on to ensure the proper creation of the universe. My personal favourite is a more metaphysical narration of creation during the “Padmakalpa” or the Lotus Age. It is described how before the beginning of time there were just the swirling cosmic waters. When the divine life-substance was about to put forth the universe, the cosmic waters grew a thousand petalled lotus of pure gold, radiant like the sun. This was considered to be a doorway or an opening of the mouth of the womb of the universe. The cosmic lotus is thus revered as the first product of the creative principle deified in Lord Brahma.

Lotus blooms in the lily pond at my sister's house...a picture of the rare 'neel-kamal' or blue lotus

Lotus blooms in the lily pond at my sister’s house…a picture of the rare ‘neel-kamal’ or blue lotus

The blue lotus ~ a symbol of the victory of the spirit over the senses, of intelligence and wisdom, of knowledge

The blue lotus ~ a symbol of the victory of the spirit over the senses, of intelligence and wisdom, of knowledge

In Buddhism, lotus-symbolism can be traced to some of the earliest recorded sermons of Buddha. As set down in the oldest surviving Buddhist texts, often referred to as the “Pali Canon”, when Buddha was asked if he was a god, he replied…

“Just like a red, blue, or white lotus — born in the water, rising up above the water — stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way i — born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world — live unsmeared by the world. Remember me, brahman, as ‘awakened’…”

(As translated by Thanissaro Bhikku)

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Pink lotus blooming in the lotus pond at my sister’s house

Pink lotus in all its pristine glory

Pink lotus in all its pristine glory

Perhaps from there comes the Buddhist belief that the heart of human beings is like an unopened lotus: when the virtues of the ‘Buddha’ develop therein, the lotus blooms. That is why the Buddha sits on a lotus blossom. In Tantric Buddhist practices there is a well defined symbology relating to even the colour of the lotus—the white, red, pink, blue and the rare purple lotuses each having their own connotations.
And then there are the references to the flower in many Buddhist legends. There is one story (with some variations) of how before his birth, Gautam Buddha’s mother, Maya, was visited in her dream by a white elephant carrying a white lotus in its trunk. The most heartwarming of course is the story that Gautam Buddha was born with the ability to walk and everywhere baby Buddha stepped lotus flowers bloomed!
In conclusion i would like to invoke the powerful Buddhist mantra “Om mani padme hum”. Simply translated it reads as ‘O Jewel in the Lotus Flower’. Devout Buddhists will tell you that the mantra has great mystical power and its words point to a sublime transcendental truth. It at once refers to not just the jewel of man’s divinity living within the cosmic-lotus (the cosmos), but also the jewel of cosmic divinity living within the individual-lotus (man). In that sense the mantra encapsulates the principle of oneness that underlies all creation for it reminds the spiritual seeker– “I am in You and You are in Me”. Perhaps from that springs forth the sentiment of “compassion” which lies at the heart of Buddhism and perhaps it is a spark of this compassion that the sight of the lotus seeks to stoke and ignite.

(Photo credits: Surinder Sharma, Sungita Sharma)

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Zen and the art of writing

(Week Aug 4~Aug 10)

“I write because i don’t know what i think until i read what i say~ i write to discover what i know”
~ Flannery O’ Connor

People sing, people dance, people paint; some get into the rhythm of walking, cycling even running; others play some sport, go hiking, mountaineering or rowing; some write, some reflect and meditate — all aiming to go beyond a regular routine and reach an indescribable ‘zen-like’ zone where the practice calms your mind, brings about greater clarity and even infuses you with significant compassion. Zen-like is one of those enigmatic phrases almost impossible to precisely define; and yet the masters say there is nothing imprecise about zen. Zen, it is said is not just a habit or a state of mind, rather “it is a path to fully awaken to your true nature which is present right here, right now.” The word is derived from the Chinese word “chan” and the Sanskrit word “dhyana”. One may loosely translate the latter as ‘meditation’ but the root meaning is ‘to see, to observe, to look.’ Perhaps that is what a zen-practice is ~ to go beyond the obvious and wonder, and to answer that wondering with the deepest expression of your own nature.
Last year when i began my experiment in creative-writing with a 365-days-a-blog-a-day-challenge, i never thought of it as a zen-practice.The aim was modest enough ~ to cultivate the ability to write something everyday and reach an average of one or two thousand words a week; to use this creative-writing as a means of being productive with one’s free time; to reflect and ruminate over life’s many themes; and to write for the love of the craft, not for being published or read. The 365-days target was more of a disciplining tool, a strategy for better execution. Indeed this i have learnt from personal experience ~ unless you quantify the goal and set some ground rules, chances are you simply end up wandering aimlessly.
(Do read some earlier thoughts on the subject here #Day 75, #Day 98, #Day 100 and # Day 250)
As often happens with such projects, it turned into something bigger than what one had bargained for. As feelings, thoughts and memories unraveled, the words began to take on a life of their own. They lifted veils and heightened perspectives about interactions with the world and its inhabitants; at times they tapped into the very core of who you are as a human being; they made you learn about your imperfections and ended up teaching you some valuable lessons in humility. When i reflect upon the year gone, i can identify five habits that helped transform this writing activity into a near zen-practice.

# Being committed~
Commitment i have come to believe, is perhaps the most fundamental issue underlying so many themes of life. To make a choice is easy enough; to remain bound to the course you have chosen is what demands more from you as a person. The writing daily part was undoubtedly the most challenging. It’s not easy to write everyday. Some days the creative brain just keeps scanning through the scribblings on your inner-wall-of-experiences and no inspiration gushes forth. Some days life-events are so demanding that they consume all your energies leaving you with nothing for your blog-post-time. But if you manage to keep calm and post something through it all, the rhythm builds up and as time passes the discipline of maintaining that daily deadline becomes its own reward. For inspiration i looked at other bloggers who have been posting an update everyday for periods as long as eight years or even more! In fact just recently, in the month of June, our superstar Amitabh Bachchan celebrated 3000 days of continuous blogging. In his blog (srbachchan@tumblr) he wrote~
“3000 is magical for me…it was 3 at one point and i had never ever hoped that i would live to see this DAY…My gratitude pales before the attention and love that has come my way during these 8 years! 8 years of constant writing and responding is a blessing for me in some extraordinary circumstances…”
Reading such stories helps, for when you realise that even celebrities with hectic schedules to maintain can meet the daily deadline, it strengthens your own resolve to keep at it. The secret lies in making it your ‘riyaaz’—a term i borrow from the Hindustani Classical music tradition of our country. It’s a word from the Urdu language and refers to the honing of one’s vocal or instrumental skills through daily practice and repetition. Only those who seek mastery of their craft take it up seriously for ‘riyaaz’ implies intense discipline and dedication to your practice for years. Followers of the Carnatic music tradition call it ‘sadhakam’ or ‘sadhana’—a reference to the fact that only a total surrender to such assiduous rehearsing over and over again can elevate your performance to subliminal levels. Dedication and discipline alone make your commitment a bedrock of excellence for your craft.

# Planning and preparing ~
Even when you set out to do something as basic as making a cup of coffee for yourself, you first look for the right ingredients. The magician pulling a rabbit out of a seemingly empty hat also spends time refining the trick. Creating out of a vacuum is almost impossible. The best of writers brainstorm, explore and research before they commit to paper. Planning before execution has been a part of my nature since as long as i can remember. Some may even accuse me of being meticulous to a fault in that respect! So how could i not plan for this blogging-experiment?! A quick Google search threw up dozens of sites ready to guide and support this endeavour; some even promising a daily ‘prompt’ in case you ran short of ideas to write about! Among the many suggestions, the concept of an ‘idea-jar’ quite appealed to me. It involved jotting down the various ideas buzzing around in your head on a piece of paper and dropping these slips in a jar. The tip given was that once your jar had about 50 such slips, you could pull out one at random and start your daily writing, your idea-piggy-bank giving you the confidence that you won’t run out of supplies immediately. The notion caught my fancy for it resonated with my own theme of a ‘Dumbledore’s Pensieve’ of sorts into which i could siphon off thoughts, beliefs and memories. And so before i put my plan into action i scribbled down some 50 odd topics i wanted to contemplate and mull over in an ideas-notebook. It’s a great way to get into that zone where half formed ideas and thoughts come tumbling out of the foggy crevices of your mind. Random words and phrases coalesce to form coherent sentences that flash upon the ‘inward eye’ even as you go about your daily chores. Contemplative thoughts, beliefs, even those long forgotten come and go and you just let them do so with a certain amount of mindfulness— much like you glance at that ticker flashing important updates and running below your regular tv programme screen. Once you start writing patterns and links emerge, one subject leads to another and the idea-jar gets constantly replenished…and so it becomes an on going process keeping you focussed on the task you have set yourself.

# Understanding and remaining honest to your true nature
“This above all: to thine own self be true
and it must follow, as night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man” says Polonius in “Hamlet”.
The words may have been said in a different context but they encapsulate a truism applicable at many levels. Once it became apparent the underlying tone of my posts would be subjective, i had to find my ‘own voice’, my own individual style. There are so many authors out there whose writing you deeply admire…their perfect articulation, the flow of their thoughts, at times even their brand of irreverent wit and sarcasm. So often you read and are struck by how aptly the other’s words sum up your own feelings or opinions. That’s why you “quote”…and yes i do have an extensive quotes collection! Yet one cannot be a mere clone of anothers style. When you set out to explore life and its many themes you write best from what is familiar, experienced and true to your own nature…you write in your own voice, from your own reminisces and observations of the ways of this world. It is in this search for your own voice that you learn to tap into the very core of your being and better understand your own nature and its imperfections. You learn to get honest and get real with your own self.

# Chiselling away the superfluous
It is one of the French sculptor Rodin’s most famous quote: “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever i don’t need” he had said once when asked how he managed to make his remarkable statues. That is what striving for excellence is all about ultimately…you simply chisel away the superfluous till you achieve the desired perfection. When you write, the chiselling takes the form of editing. One may feel correcting and checking takes away from the spontaneity of your thoughts, but the fact is unless you are looking at an unstructured, unedited stream-of-consciousness style of writing, you have to edit and polish your initial draft. Perhaps at times even a narration in the form of stream-of-consciousness may need to be reworked! The best authors use the objectivity of a professional editor to ensure they hit all the right notes in the book they are writing. Every best selling author from Dan Brown to J.K. Rowling includes a grateful acknowledgement to their editor(s) in their books. A blogpost doesn’t quite need the services of a professional copy editor but it does need some content-management from you! Proof-reading your draft isn’t just about pandering to the grammar geek in you, it is also about saving oneself the embarrassment of typos and other auto-correct mistakes (the bane of our computer-dependent times!!). As part of this process you also learn to check certain facts or anecdotes you want to include in your post. The internet-searches and the extra reading further add to your knowledge on related(and sometimes even un-related!) topics and lend greater clarity to your thoughts on the matter. One of the best methods i have found is to disengage from what you have written for some time. When you return to it later, a fresh insight leaps out or you can instantly spot that glaring error you had missed earlier. Somewhere down the line it hits you even life situations can do with the objectivity that detachment brings…life too is eternally editable!

# Letting it be
“Let it be, let it be, let it be, yeah let it be
There will be an answer: let it be
Whisper words of wisdom: let it be…”
Paul McCartney’s voice hummed those words on the juke-box-in-my-head pretty often in the last one year! When you have 365 days to reckon with, you are prepared for the fact that all days are not going to be the same. Life ebbs, life flows. There are times when you are in control, there are times when life-events control you. You have to learn to allow life, events, people, circumstances to enter and play out as they are. The zen thing to do is surrender to what is and have faith in what will be. Breathe in, breathe out, let it be. If the choice of words is not what you are looking for let it be. If the post you have written seems mundane, let it be. If you wanted to write over a thousand words and could manage only a couple of hundred let it be. Not every post you write should be a ‘wow’ one. Not every insight you share should have a reader going ‘aha’. On the most challenging days i learnt to be happy with whatever i managed to post, i learnt to be comfortable even with the ‘perfectly imperfect’.

At the end of it all, writing every day for a full year turned out to be a focussed activity that kept distractions at bay long enough to explore my thought universe. Sometimes it was inspiring and wonderful, sometimes disconcerting and disturbing, but almost always insightful and beneficial. It became like a daily meditation, a sweet spot best described with these words i again borrow from Flannery O’Connor ~

“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place…
Nothing outside you can give you any place. In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”

Getting there is getting into your zen place…

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Hello again :))

A preamble to version 2.0 of My Dumbledore Pensieve~

After a 365 days blog-roll, one deserves a break i thought and so decided to take off from the daily writing habit for a month. Newton’s Law of Inertia then came into play and one month got extended to two! Some motivational force had to be applied for things to start rolling again and one is back again, this time with weekly posts.
Version 2.0 of My Pensieve comes with a new look and new categories under which i continue this introspection of various life themes. A year of writing is time enough to spot patterns and links in this exploration and so i club them under these seven heads…

Thought Snippets
~ these are just that, little insights into the underlying themes that define our lives. Included herein are comments on our attitudes and habits, some life-mantras as well as life’s lessons learnt.They may be feeble attempts with undercurrents of imperfection, but they represent a willingness to introspect upon, even embrace life’s many hues.

Indian Accents
The cultural context in which you grow up defines your world-view to a large extent. From this relationship to one’s roots gush forth these outpourings of the desi-girl in me!

Matters of Faith
As someone famously said:
“Philosophy is questions that may never be answered
Religion is answers that may never be questioned”
~ these posts are about the seeker in me trying to fathom the spiritual dimensions beyond our limited understanding of the familiar sensory world.

In Lighter Vein
So often life and its events need to be examined under the comic lens for a brighter and better perspective!

Wizardry of Words
A collection of quotes and thoughts that form a sort of ‘secular-scripture’ to which i turn time and again for comfort, consolation, even emboldenment through this roller coaster ride of life.

Wanderlust
It’s one of my favourite travel quotes, “i haven’t been everywhere but it’s on my list!”
From this innate desire to roam come these travel tales and more.

Foodie Ramblings
First we eat, then we do everything else for if you eat good, you feel good!

May the force continue to be with me as i resume the writing journey! As for those whove hopped on for a peek, heres hoping you enjoy the readings enough to follow and add your bit to these posts via some valuable comments. 

 
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