A Visitor

Grey skies, on a cold, wet Saturday morning. Despite what Salinger said about the foolishness of taking the weather personally, I was still grumpy as I drew the curtains shut and resumed work at my desk. Wet, grey skies are not a salubrious sight even when one is healthy, much less while recovering from the flu.

And then a sudden sound outside my balcony door that could not be dismissed. A scratching and a call that grew persistent. I opened the curtain and looked into the face of a large white and grey cat with shades of calico, hazel eyes, bushy tail and a little chain around her neck. I had often seen her around the neighbourhood, besides a regal black cat which might have had at least one Persian ancestor, a perky young tabby, and a fat striped cat with a perpetually bored expression that was almost human.

cat-balcony-surprised-look-80363

Image Courtesy: https://www.pexels.com/

I wiped away the mist from the glass and looked again. My visitor leaned in from the balcony grill and meowed loudly, looking straight into my face. I was delighted. It appeared that she was stuck in the cold and wanted to be let inside. But an unopenable door and a balcony lay between us. I waved to her. Sorry sweetheart, you had better go home, I said. As though on cue she turned and rushed away into the rain.

It reminded me of how during the Chennai floods in 2015 when all of us were stuck at home without electricity and transport, the resident ginger Tom of the complex came to our flat demanding milk and food, unaware perhaps that we were vegan. He looked contemptuously at the organic biscuits that I offered him but nevertheless made himself comfortable on the living room carpet.

In this cold and grey city where dogs of every kind abound, I had watched these cats for long but I never knew that they had caught me watching them. How had my feline friend guessed that a cat-lover sat working behind that thick curtain? I wish I could have told her how much her short visit had cheered me up, like a patch of sunshine that lit up a cold, grey, wet Saturday morning.

Sister of My Heart

I met Geeta didi in unusual circumstances, through a detective who was verifying a man’s matrimonial profile on a website. Both of us had been approached simultaneously by that fellow whose simplistic demeanour and doctorate degree masked one of those pathetic stereotypes who hound such websites, of a loser who routinely chatted up women online under the pretext of pursuing an alliance. She talked with me for over three hours on the first day, a conversation which would run into weeks, months, and eventually into seven years. We dismissed the creep who had been the catalyst for our meeting within the first thirty minutes of conversation and blocked his profile. He was never mentioned again as we continued to talk about life, careers, studies, love, marriage, friendship, religion, rituals, customs, relationships…nearly everything under the sun. She was not much older than me but she was far wiser. But within a week of having met her, I started calling her ‘didi’ – elder sister. She loved it. She did not have sisters of her own and cherished her female friends. But she was more than a friend, she was always my sister. I realised how much I had thought of her as my own, only when she passed in August.

Being an only child and having grown up surrounded by books, I never knew what it meant to have a sibling. I disliked having to address cousins who were older than me with suffixes to their names. Terms like akka or anna, didi or bhaiya made sense only when one actually considered the person as an elder sister or brother and did not fit people whom one saw once in a few years, I would argue. In the seven years that I knew Geeta Didi, I never saw her in person even once. Yet I always thought of her as an elder sister. She was my Di, Didi, Deedu…it never struck me once to think of her simply as Geeta. Just like tying a rakhi can make a boy into a brother, I found that a bond of sisters could be formed over online chats and phone calls.

She was perhaps one of the most educated women in India with a doctorate in medicine, a masters degree in computers, more than one postgraduate management diploma and a masters degree in business leadership from one of the IIMs. Ambitious and successful, she celebrated the traditional roles of an Indian woman in all aspects of her life. A beautiful, intelligent, kind, affectionate and compassionate woman who loved life and the people around her, and was in turn loved by everyone who knew her.

little-girls-walking-summer-outdoors-prettyComing from Punjabi and Tamil backgrounds respectively, we were two very different people with diverse interests. She was not particularly interested in literature and teased me about my love for classical music. Once when I pinged her, she responded casually with ‘ennadi’, having picked up the Tamil word from somewhere. I felt a thrill of joy on hearing her address me in Tamil, even though the term is not something that I am familiar with in real life, for it is colloquial slang that people rarely use in regular conversation. It was a beautiful moment which made me wonder for days afterwards about the significance of how language affects our interactions with the people around us, especially with people close and dear to us. Coming from a pan-Indian family with cousins and in-laws from across the length and breadth of the country, most of my communication with my extended family tends to be in English. Yet, there is something sweeter about talking in Hindi and also in Tamil, though I have not been able to analyse why. Strangely it is Geeta Didi whom I feel like asking about this. She loved analysing things, taking apart the pros and cons of every aspect of a statement or concept.

At the time we first started talking, three of us – Geeta Didi, D who was my good friend and colleague and me were looking for matches. Both D and Didi eventually found the kind of partners they were looking for (D wanted a rich man who came from the same village as her ancestors and Didi wanted someone who was goodhearted and culturally compatible) and were happily married within the next two years. While I found a publisher for my first novel, moved cities, switched jobs, moved countries, and continued to pursue my writing. For a while I kept an eye open for an intellectually compatible partner – a quest that I gave up on last year, having decided that it was more value-adding to work on my novels than spend another hour of my life talking to yet another guy who bolted at the mention of metafiction. I never mentioned my decision to didi. Earlier this year when I congratulated her on her wedding anniversary, she blessed me once again to find the right person soon. I replied with a smiley.

In between the last two years when she was being treated for cancer, there was a period when the doctors felt that she was completely cured and she had started making plans to resume work when the malady returned. Even while undergoing the painful chemo treatments and hospital visits, she took time to advise me over chat messages, sending me recipes of French and Russian salads, urging me to take care of my health. She was always there on the other side of the chat, ever ready with advice, love, a listening ear, a virtual hug.

I did not post the gift that I got her for last Christmas – a tiny painting of two sisters, for I intended to visit her and hand it over in person.

I got the message that she had passed on the first day of the study holidays. The lines blurred as I read them, evoking a sharp, searing pain in the heart. It was the last Sunday of August and the bees were buzzing loudly around the table where I sat in the garden. I reached up to pick a flower and set it on the table imagining that it was an offering to my sister. A wonderful human being who lives on in the minds of all who had known her. I tell myself that this grief shall eventually pass, and what would remain is a feeling of gratitude that I had the privilege of knowing her and the joy of having known what it meant to have an elder sister, if only for seven years.

On Spiritual Frauds

I was unsurprised to read about spiritual frauds who were recently in the news in India. Sooner or later, most of the glitzy spiritual organisations that ply a flourishing trade in regular and custom-made packages of pop philosophy, meditation, and yoga will go the same way, as they should – for they add no real value to the average seekers who approach them. I say this from experience having been a spiritual seeker who spent seven years in my twenties trying to find the meaning of life in spirituality by reading through tomes of philosophy and mysticism, listening to talks by self-proclaimed spiritual teachers at their institutions, and writing features on a few of them.

At the end of those seven years, I realised that the most spiritual person around me was the CEO of the company where I worked at the time, whose vision in creating a product company when the IT industry was facing one of its worst recessions not only helped hundreds of employees to survive the industry’s crisis but also elevated them from common software service professionals into creators of niche software products. That CEO is one of the greatest karma yogis for through his company he has done more good for society that all the popular spiritual teachers who flaunt themselves on social media put together. I say this having taken an objective look at more than fifteen different spiritual organisations with respect to their ideologies, practices and also discussions with people involved including the head of the institution in a few cases.

The levels of delusion of the followers who believe in these godmen and godwomen as well as the megalomania involved has to be seen to be believed. An up and coming godman who expounded a rather interesting core concept (similar to The Celestine Prophecy) shared his vision statement which was to establish a fully self-sufficient city with schools, colleges, hospitals, parks, shopping complexes, in short everything that anyone would need, naturally with him as the overlord at the centre of this mini-universe. Most successful self-styled godmen and godwomen already have similar complexes in place, centres which peddle spirituality in flashy little sachets and are projected as havens of peace. One of the chief disciples of an established godman who targets yuppies to join his cult mentioned how people from nearby villages (parasites, he called them) would sneak into the ashram kitchens, posing as followers. It was ironic considering that he and his teacher were far dangerous parasites that leeched off hardworking members of society. Pseudo spirituality is one of the greatest banes of present times.

I choose to use the word ‘Spiritual teacher’ here and not Guru. For Guru is a sacred term that indicates a teacher who deserves the greatest respect and reverence. Not every teacher is or can be a Guru. There are instructors who barter knowledge and skills, there are teachers who coach and guide, and there are Gurus who inspire and enlighten, and awaken the student to the state where they can self-actualize themselves. In ancient India, Gurus were teachers who imparted education and professional skills to the students. They led normal lives with their families, taking batches of students under their wing during the course of education. The immense respect and veneration associated with Gurus are for such teachers, the real teachers. It was these Gurus of yore who were regarded as second to the parents and honoured before God.

The conmen peddling spirituality in the present day abuse this concept by projecting themselves as messiahs. They lead flashy lifestyles by squeezing resources and psychic energy from the hapless souls whom they ensnare by advertising, pyramid schemes of recruitment and mesmerising music that brainwashes them of all independent thought. After having seen the amount of fraud that goes on in such spiritual shops, the biggest surprise was the number of people who continue to fall for the propaganda of these charlatans, seeking some kind of solace in an abrasive world. Seekers would be better off spending their time and resources by seeking on their own, but then everyone walks a unique path and perhaps some have to get conned before they can learn their lessons.

Here is a short related excerpt from The Reengineers. Most of the action of the book is set in the campus of a spiritual institution called The Seeker’s School. Everything about this school is fictitious and yet it is rooted in the reality of the many unscrupulous frauds whom I encountered during my days as a spiritual seeker.

Excerpt from The Reengineers

The women who had been meditating started to leave the hall one by one after prostrating before the photograph. One of them walked up to us, smiling widely.
‘Be happy my friends, in the name of the most hallowed master.’ She handed him a set of glossy papers. ‘Is this your first visit to the school, my brother?’
‘Not exactly.’
‘What about you, dear sister?’ She asked Nivedita, handing her another set of papers. I crept into the shadows of the palms, as did Anu and Sabi.
‘Huh, no.’
‘Did you know about the post-graduate seeker programme? Prefect Govind is uplifting a new batch tomorrow. Would you like to join? Wait, wait, don’t say no, it is the greatest gift that you can give yourself, this gift of the seeker quest. As we go through our mundane lives, how many of us ever pause to stop and observe and wonder where it is all leading to? Now the seeker programme—’
‘But don’t we need to complete the junior seeker programme before attending the senior class?’ Nivedita asked.
‘Not necessary, sister. You now have the blessed opportunity to pay first and register in advance for the junior seeker, primary seeker, middle seeker, higher secondary seeker, senior secondary seeker and graduate seeker programmes and catch up with them later, one by one after you finish this. We offer a special discount package if you start your journey with the postgraduate seeker programme. This is for a short time only, so you had better register fast. Ah, the bliss, the pure joy of it! You will be doubly blessed to do it in the presence of the most hallowed master, with Prefect Govind personally teaching it.’
‘No doubt that will be doubly blissful,’ Siddharth said dryly.
‘Oh yes, each teacher brings their own special flavour to a class, so it is advisable to repeat any programme any number of times. After all, the fees you pay help
send so many poor children to school.’ The woman smiled sweetly. ‘How many programmes should I sign you up for? The total cost for the postgraduate programme is just about the cost of the latest iPhone. You can pay by cash, cheque, any Master or VISA card or I can arrange a loan with our tie-in corporate bank, which you can then pay back in easy monthly installments. It is the best investment that you can ever make in your lifetime, for your own peace of mind and happiness. Isn’t happiness the most important thing in life? Isn’t it, brother?’
Siddharth made a gesture indicating that he was not interested.

Excerpt from The Reengineers

On Friends in Far Places and Unscrupulous Book Reviewers

I keep my writing and day job in separate compartments but sometimes the boundaries blur as they did a few weeks ago when I was in an official Skype discussion with a colleague who had recently joined the company. As the call came to an end, he suddenly asked me if I was the author of The Reengineers.
‘It was a wonderful book, thank you for writing it!’
He went on to say how much he had enjoyed reading the novel.

It was a positive, affirming moment after my struggles trying to promote the book since it was published.

I am perhaps the only writer whose publisher (one of the top five, no less) completely overlooked my first novel for any kind of publicity. I ran a few Goodreads giveaways and hired a book marketing service with mixed results. A few of the reviewers to whom I sent copies came out with balanced reviews: some were very positive and others reasonably critical. Some reviewers understood the essence of the novel, some wrote lucidly about what they liked and what they did not, and two or three were of pathetically low quality – one review was more about the bookmark that Amazon sent with the book rather than the novel itself and another shoddy review was embellished with details that were nowhere in the book. Yet others accepted the book but never showed up with their reviews. Likewise, some of the book bloggers whom I had approached agreed to review the book in return for a copy and then disappeared silently into the depths of cyberspace, never to resurface.

Now and then, readers write to me mentioning how the story has given them hope to take on depression, often asking me not to reveal their details. But this unexpected encounter with a reader who had read the book at the level of a story and found pleasure in it, made me very happy and extremely grateful.

Click Here to Buy The Reengineers

Art is much, but Love is more: The Brownings

I was delighted to come across this Brain Pickings article in which Maria Popova mentions how the Brownings’ story ‘remains one of the grandest and most beautiful true love stories in the human record’.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/09/25/robert-browning-i-love-you/

Guess now who holds thee?”—”Death,” I said. But there
The silver answer rang—”Not Death, but Love.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, No. I

I admire Elizabeth Browning in many ways. First, for her poetry that is richly allusive and layered with spiritual and philosophical overtones in places and straightforward and full of candour at others, that reveals a poet’s heart that was concerned not only about love and beauty but also sought to speak for the suffering humanity around her. Next, for her strength of character which helped her to survive a suppressed childhood that had rendered her an invalid, by seeking and finding strength in literature. Above all, I admire her as the heroine of one of the most beautiful love stories of all time.

I read her verse novel Aurora Leigh for the first time as an undergraduate. I read it in a week as though in a trance, enchanted with the prose poetry and surprised at the familiarity of the cycle of stages that the protagonists go through – the brash idealism of early youth, the need to own a cause and fight for it, the obstacles they face from the world, the decisions they take impulsively out of their beliefs, the mistakes they must make and the consequences they must face before they come to the Voltarian realisation that the same truth holds good for each of us. For all of us. We must cultivate our garden.

One of the first things that I did after moving to London was to make a pilgrimage to the Marylebone Parish Church, a place that I had dreamed of visiting for several years. I spent some time in the pew, closing my eyes to the hymns and imagining myself in Victorian England, witnessing a secret marriage. Then I found my way to the little chapel that I had gone to visit. The Browning room was much smaller than I expected, littered with toys and baby strollers. Behind an elevated platform, a stained glass window flanked by angels proclaimed that the poets had been married there. Elizabeth and Robert Browning looked down curiously from the walls at the reader who took selfies with them and then proceeded to sit down and read from Aurora Leigh and some of the sonnets from the Portuguese.

Art is much, but love is more.
O Art, my Art, thou’rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Aurora Leigh, Book IX.)

I think that Aurora and Romney Leigh are one of the few perfect couples in literature, two independent thinkers who loved each other and yet set out on separate paths as artist and philanthropist and finally returned to each other in a reconciliation of art and love. The last few passages from Aurora Leigh echo the perfect partnership that the Brownings shared in literature and life.

The Perfect Man and Muriel Spark

“How do you know when you’re in love?’ she said.
‘The traffic improves and the cost of living seems very low.”

Muriel Spark

I had long given up all hope of ever finding the perfect man when I finally met him. He told me in gentle, erudite tones that he found ‘re-reading Muriel Spark to be pure gold’.

I murmured that I adored Dame Muriel, trying to control my eyelashes that fluttered as they drank him in. With tired face and messy hair, he was no Rupert Brooke. But he had the widest smile, kindest expression and gentlest voice as made mundane pleasantries sound like poems. Every glance, every gesture, his every word was pure gold.

I wished myself six years back in time when we might have walked into each other on a cold winter morning in another, my part of the world.  I wanted to walk with him along the banks of the Cherwell, listening to the birds and talking about Dame Muriel’s fiction – the possibilities bloomed in a vision of pure gold.

I felt neither regret at parting from him, nor longing to turn back once, though I spied him from the corner of my eye and thought that he looked like an angel in a crumpled cerulean shirt, as our eyes met inadvertently for a fraction of a second before I turned away. I had lived a lifetime within those few minutes of pure gold.

He vanished from my thoughts as I talked with my friend afterwards. But later as I walked by the Cherwell, he beamed at me from the dappled autumn sunlight, and I heard him in the whispers of the breeze that caressed my face. Imprints on the mind and heart, impressions of pure gold.

By the banks of the Cherwell, I sat down and wept, more out of joy for having seen him than because I knew that I would never see him again. Those moments were akin to the joy that descends upon a girl when she tries out a diamond tiara that she can ill afford to buy. But those moments were enough, for they were pure gold.

There is always the next life, as my friend Millie would say. In my next life perhaps, on a joyous spring or balmy summer day, I will walk with him along the banks of the Cherwell with the birds singing to us as we talk about the novels of Dame Muriel. From across time and space, I can see that those moments, all of them will be pure gold.

The Great Universal Paradox

Out of the many wicked and wonderful books of Fay Weldon, I like the collection A Hard Time to be a Father best. It has a number of little gems including one of the wisest short stories that was ever written.

Happy Birthday, Fay Weldon. (Sep 22)

“I called this story ‘Falling in Love in Helsinki’, not ‘out of love’ because although it’s true I fell out of love with Andreas, out of love with love (which is a real blight), somehow I fell into love with life. Or with God, call it what you will, there in that chapel. Anyway, sufficiently enamoured of just the sheer dignity of creation to realise I shouldn’t offend it the way I had been doing. I think everything’s going to be all right now . . . As for GUP, the Great Universal Paradox, that’s real enough. What I marvel at now is how happy so many of us manage to be, so much of the time, in spite of it.”
Falling in Love in Helsinki: A Hard Time to be a Father by Fay Weldon.

Them Wise Pagans

A number of similarities can be seen between the concepts, rituals, and the gods and goddesses of pagans across the world. This beautiful song from the band Faun depicting the Beltane festival shows a priestess conducting the marriage of the god Cernunnos with the triple crescent goddess, a ritual that marks the beginning of springtime which the pagans celebrate with maypole dancing and bonfires. The union of Cernunnos and the mother goddess symbolizes the renewal of life in spring.

There are theories speculating that Cernunnos is Pashupati – the Lord of the Animals, one of the forms of the God Shiva, and that the triple crescent Goddess who is sometimes associated with Lilith is Lalitha Tripurasundari, a form of the mother Goddess Parvati who is worshipped in many temples across India in all three forms: as maiden, mother, and crone. The costume of Cernunnos in the song above is strikingly evocative of the way Shiva is portrayed in Indian iconography. Shiva and Parvati are considered to be allegories for consciousness and energy, with their union depicted as a divine dance which is the basis of all creation.

While there are many theories which hypothesize on how and why the pagan Gods and Goddesses around the world are so similar, more than anything else they seem to imply that we are all interconnected. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, as the Upanishads say.  We are all brothers, and the world is a family.

The Nine Nights of Navratri

Navratri Greetings to all my readers who celebrate.

How I miss the kolu. There is something supremely satisfying about setting up the arrangement of dolls which invokes the Goddess in her many forms as the manifestation of wealth, courage, and wisdom. The large kolam at the threshold, the golden radiance of the lamps with five wicks, the smells of fresh jasmine flowers, sandalwood incense and camphor, and the chimes of silver bells that accompany the sacred chants which vibrate through the house. The kolu visits and the visitors, the songs praising the goddesses. I miss it all, feeling not so much homesick as timesick for my school days in the nineties when every festival appeared to be so much more brighter.

This year I celebrate the festival as I used to do as an undergraduate in the college hostel, with a simple sankalpa puja, offering a prasad of organic chocolates.

And this is perhaps the loveliest rendering of this chant on the goddess that I have heard, reminiscent of this quote from Salinger,“Their voices were melodious and unsentimental, almost to the point where a somewhat more denominational man than myself might, without straining, have experienced levitation.” (For Esmé  — with Love and Squalor)

A Belated Post for Independence Day

“I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganges, – astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc. It is very important to note that some 2,500 years ago at the least Pythagoras went from Samos to the Ganges to learn geometry…But he would certainly not have undertaken such a strange journey had the reputation of the Brahmins’ science not been long established in Europe.”
Voltaire

For a country which had a united, glorious and flourishing civilization for several millennia before it was enslaved for eight hundred years, seventy years of independence is not so much an anniversary of nationhood as a time to reflect on how far we have recovered from the many wounds inflicted on the nation by the invaders who not only enslaved its people and looted its treasures but also disfigured its historical places and distorted its history. Seventy years after independence, it is wonderful to see my country shining, prospering, and marching towards the place it once held at the helm of the world’s economy, culture, and education.

Glimpses of India in the Bard’s work portray the country as a prosperous land of gold and precious stones and pearls and sunshine, of proud people who worship the sun and beautiful veiled women, impressions that echo in the work of other writers and travellers to India through millennia…aberrations like Burnett’s racist slur in literature started only about a century ago, and now the pseudo-liberals continue their work, trying to portray the country in a poor light in both literature and the mass media.

Someone mentioned during a dinner conversation a while ago about how they thought that the concept of patriotism was outdated in present times. But I like the quiet pride that shines in my English, Irish, Kenyan and Canadian friends’ eyes as they talk about their countries. It mirrors my love for my own nation, coming as I do from a family of freedom fighters, with a great Uncle who once fought the British with his poetry. I wished I could tell the person who called patriotism outdated that everyone should have the freedom to love their country and to say so. It is only when we feel secure in the love of our own family that we tend to accept and respect others more easily, and adapt better to a united society. Breathes there the man with soul so dead, etc. as a good Scot once wrote.
Jai Hind!

A short related excerpt from The Reengineers.

Arun’s lecture on the last working day of class ten had revolved around his favourite topic: India.

‘How many of you respect the Indian national flag? The national anthem? How many of you actually stand up when it is sung?’

I raised my hand automatically, so did Sabi. Hearing furtive giggles, I turned around and found to my horror that in a class of forty students, only the two of us had our hands up. Anu was frantically gesturing to me to drop my hand. I did so, puzzled and hurt.
Arun did not look surprised. He continued, ‘Now this question would have evoked a totally different reaction in classrooms in countries such as the UK or Japan. They have an intrinsic sense of national pride that is lacking in India. Not surprising, as it has only been forty-four years since we got our independence.’
I looked down into my book, wishing I could hide within its pages. My love for my country had turned me into a bigger freak than I already was in the classroom.

What did it mean to love one’s country anyway?
Much like the farmers who enthusiastically cheered for Mother India when Jawaharlal Nehru addressed them but were dumbstruck when he asked them who exactly they thought Mother India was, I had no answer. To me, patriotism was the joy I experienced while reading the poems of Subramaniya Bharati, Uncle RK, and Rabindranath Tagore. It was my pride in singing the national anthem and saluting the tricolour unfurled in the school assembly on Monday mornings. It was the lump in my throat when I watched songs like ‘The fertile earth of my country that brings forth gold, diamonds and pearls’ and ‘I am a little soldier of the nation. Say with me, Jai Hind’ on TV. It was the anger and resentment I felt when my mother told me not to get too friendly with Anu as he was not a Brahmin or with Sabi as she was not ‘one of us’ but a north Indian.

Excerpt with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India from The Reengineers by Indu Muralidharan