Woods and Forests

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

~~~ From “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer

Trees and woods make me nostalgic. They take me back home where there are so many trees around, with a captivating orchestra of birdsong, especially at dawn. The first blush of the early morn gives their leafy crowns a golden hue as the slivers of liquid gold fall on them. Another memory is that of a trip with Aathira and Praveen to the Arippa Reserve Forest in Kerala.

Every morning as I go for my morning walk, I feel an exhilarating joy pervading my being as I walk along the tree-lined avenues. It’s a pond park with a rubberized walking track.

 

The rubberized walking track 

And now the Neem trees are in bloom. In the quiet and silence of the morning, all one can hear is bird songs and calls, though in Dubai there aren’t very many birds that I can see and hear, like back at home. I do see bulbuls, mynas, parakeets, crows, sparrows, lots of pigeons and doves, and rarely migratory birds. I love to start my day with these simple joys – one reason to love summers is that the sun rises by 5:30 a.m.

Of late, I realize, trees have captured my imagination in a deep sort of way. The scented blooms of neem trees fill the morning air with a delightful fragrance that gives my spirits an instant high. I tend to be very mindful of these subtleties as I walk. I love sniffing the air that’s very high in oxygen content early in the morning. And the park is also not teeming with people at dawn – in fact there are just a few. Being connected and close to Nature is such a delightful and soothing experience.

 

That takes me to some of the articles that I have been reading about trees in general and forests in particular. One said that scientists and researchers have discovered that connecting with forests bring in amazing benefits. I can believe that. The Japanese even have a specific term for it: Shinrin Yoku*. It is said to be a practice in which people immerse themselves in the forest or literally ‘forest bathing‘. This has been found to be a wonderful way to cleanse oneself of stresses and negativity. Cleansing the mind thus rejuvenates the body and invigorates the spirit,  aids to improve immunity and strengthens healing power of the body.

It is also said that forests as well as other natural, green landscapes can reduce stress, improve moods, reduce anger and aggressiveness and increase overall happiness. Forest visits may also strengthen our immune system by increasing their activity as well as the number of natural killer cells that can even destroy cancer cells.

Do watch this amazing video on YouTube that so beautifully captures the magical healing power of forests. http://youtu.be/y-wHq6yY2CI

So, from the enchantment I seem to have developed for trees, woods and forests, it looks like am growing into being a Nemophilist. 😊 The word is derived from Greek  language: ‘Nemos’ meaning ‘grove’ and ‘philos’ meaning ‘affection’. So, nemophilist, a rarely used word, means ‘one who loves groves or woods’. Charles Augustus Keeler has used it in his Sequoia Sonnets, a collection of 113 lovely poems. The lines from the 6th sonnet titled ‘Heart’s Ease’ goes like this:
“The groves invite thee, dear nemophilist,
to care-free revel in their vernal bowers… “

Reference:
* http://wp.me/p7hH7A-c4

http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/shinrin-yoku.html

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The Internet to the Inner-net

A New Year has dawned.
So has new hopes. It’s also time for new resolutions and new experiences. And this is my first post in 2017.

This New Year day saw me travelling from Kochi back to my workplace in Dubai. And when I am in airports, book shops are my cynosures. My racing thoughts and unbridled longing for books put me in a fix. What to buy and what not to buy? My quest was on. And my eyes hitched on an orange book. The title – The Internet to the Inner-net. Five ways to reset your connection and live a conscious life. And the writer? Gopi Kallayil. Now I was quite curious to read the biography of the author in inner back book flap. Hmm. Interesting. Google’s Chief Evangelist for Brand Marketing. The back cover had excerpts from reviews of the book by Chade-Meng Tan (whose book Search Inside Yourself I found both delightful as impactful) and Jack Kornfield, the famous Buddhist teacher, among others. I just opened the introduction and there was something more that held my attention. Gopi is from Chittilamchery – which is about 10 kilometres away from my hometown, Pallavur. I picked up the book.

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In this interesting book, Gopi speaks of five ways to reset our connection to the Inner-net that will help us lead a conscious life. Using computer parlance, the titles are most apt and meaningful.

Part 1 Log in. How else will you establish the connection? Definitely not by checking in once in a way. For staying connected one has to ‘log in’.

Part 2 Clear out the inbox. I am reminded of the story of the wise Zen master and a student who came to learn from him. The student wanted his mind to be opened to enlightenment. However, from his conversation with the student, the Master realized the youth was quite opinionated. The Zen master invited the student to discuss matters over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the young man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?” The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.” Unless there is space, how can we add on information? So, clear your inbox.

Part 3 Optimize your system. Without system optimization, no ware – hard or soft – will ever function efficiently. What are the practices I can use as anchors to optimize my inner-net? Meditation? Vipassana? Mindfulness? Yoga?

Part 4 Just Google it. From a Google evangelist, this is just spontaneous. It speaks about trusting the Universe and ‘know the right resources will show up.’

Part 5 Thank you for Subscribing. The power of technology and our inter-connectivity is amazing provided we use it to harness peace – both inner and out peace. Out peace is just a manifestation of inner peace. This then is all about being grateful, embracing possibilities and signing up for life itself.

This book has given me a sense of direction regarding my chosen path. One of which is seeing His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. I hope I will be able to fulfill this yearning in me, come summer break.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. 5 stars for such a delightful read.

Everyone Loves a Good Drought

Everyone loves a good drought by P. Sainath is an eyeopener of a book. If there’s a book that has taken me through myriads of emotions, it is this collection of the author’s visits and reports from the poorest of the poor districts of India – specifically from eight districts – Ramnad and Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu, Godda and Palamau in Bihar, Malkangiri and Nuapada in Orissa and Surguja and Jhabua, in Madhya Pradesh. There are some reports from Koraput and Kalahandi (Orissa), totalling about sixty-eight stories.

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A deep sense of anguish is the underlying feeling as one reads about the poor, the dalits , the adivasis and the marginalized communities. They have to bear the brunt of everything from lack of facilities like sanitation, health and education, drinking water, roads and transport – well everything that would raise the quality of human development indices even after close to four decades of independence. Yet, one cannot but marvel at the resilience of these hardy people who bounce back and eke out their livelihoods in their own simple ways.

The stories showcase what ails our government projects – many of the cogs in the wheel plunder, loot and thrive on what they siphon out from such projects. A drought, for instance – a real one or even a rigged one – is  a much sought after phenomenon – akin to a harvest of riches. It is this ‘crop’ that gives the book its apt title – Everybody loves a Good Drought. Besides the lopsided focus on development has brought in its wake countless troubles – like loss of indigenous cattle (e.g. the Khariar bull), messy health care, physical displacement, and cultural alienation just to mention a few.

It is amazing to read about instances of self directed empowerment – the picture of thousands of neo-literate Pudukkottai women who have developed a penchant for cycling, thus bringing unto themselves much needed self-confidence and self-respect. Or to read about the literacy movement or the anti-liquor movement that gained momentum much to aid the lot of the women folk.

If you are not exposed to the complexities of what rural India is like, this is the book to read. Well researched and meticulously crafted, it draws a pen picture of the India that is its villages, in its marginalized and much exploited communities. Loved the powerful language of the writer.

Five stars for this book.

PINK – A Different Movie Experience

Usually am not a Hindi movie buff as I find most of them remotely connected to reality. However, watching PINK was a refreshing experience. It lays its finger on so many societal and cultural aspects of the country, that is normally either left untouched or swept under the carpet by cinema, though in reality movies must be slices of real life, mirroring life in all its starkness – good, bad and the ugly.

PINK really reflects the conventions in the modern Indian society. It throws light into the capriciousness of minds especially when it comes to matters targeting women. Patriarchy. Parochialism. Nepotism. Harassment. Threats. Abduction. Contortion in courtrooms. According to the Gender Inequality Index table of 2015, India ranks 127th in gender inequality (lower than some Middle East and even Sub-Sahara countries) and 114th in gender gap in the world. Despite the rise in female literacy, only just above 30% of women workforce. It is clear that the society refuses to hand in freedom to the working Indian woman.

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Poster credit:

http://www.comingtrailer.com/movies-posters/pink-movie-official-poster-wallpaper

The movie’s opening is riveting. As credits roll over, in the background you hear voices from a party in progress. Conversation. Fun. Laughter. And then when credits fade away, action begins. Flashes of what’s happening unfolds. Effective montages that alternate from one group to the other heightens the thrill of nail-biting action. From then action builds, on and on. Almost keeping you on the edge of the seat, till midway. Then the courtroom drama unfolds.

What struck me most is the scary turn of events. How a simple No can be manipulated and maneuvered to wreck the lives of three working girls in upscale part of Delhi. This is something that could happen anywhere in India. And it speaks volumes of how judgmental, and Janus-faced society is about women. It goes something in this vein:
If she wears jeans and tees, she must be ‘loose’.
If she accepts invitations to parties she ‘fast’.
If she takes a drink at a party, she’s ‘solicits’.

It shocks. Yet, it is true. And the society comprises you and me. At some point all of us have assumed and presumed. It’s time to say a big NO to that.

When Deepak Sehgal lists the ‘code of conduct’ for women, he hammers nails one after the other in the repressive and highly patriarchal Indian society’s coffin.

Some scenes are so powerful and remain etched in your mind. Actions do speak louder than words. In one shot Minal is taunted by a passerby as ‘one involved in the Surajkund case’,  she feels ashamed and covers her head with her hoodie – almost covering her face, and a very reticent Deepak pulls down her hoodie. It is like saying, don’t be ashamed of yourself for what happened, in just one simple action.

Falak’s breaking down in the court scene and the ensuing resigned compliance of something the threesome had not done is a pointer to what generally happens in such legal cases.  The rich and powerful trod mercilessly on the underdogs, making them into a squishy squashy pulps, from which you will never recover physically, mentally, emotionally and least of all financially.

Andrea’s deposition in the court scene that being from India’s North East she’s harassed more than the average Indian girl, is like a whiplash on our sensibilities.

The three men present the frightening picture of depraved souls with very regressive mindsets. Falak’s friend who invites them to the party comes across as gullible fall guy. And their lawyer makes you loathe him passionately for his no-holds-barred cross-examinations. Birds of the same feather, so will flock together.

Deepak (Amitabh Bachan) vocalizes some of the compelling takeaways from the film. He says that we need to educate our boys more than girls. It can’t be more true. Men, women – especially mothers, many knowingly and some unknowingly, play a significant part in perpetuating the patriarchal mindset. Deepak also says No is not just a word. It is a full sentence. It needs to be respected. A No is a No and not Yes. Here too parents’ responsibility is crucial. Train children to say yes and a vehement no when the situation warrants it. And that a NO for an answer must be respected.

While there were lots of claps while the punch dialogues were delivered, it was disconcerting that there were titters in the scene where the girls walk into a police station to file an FIR. The cop in a no-nonsense way says, you went for a party and there was ‘give’ and ‘take’- one cannot miss the innuendo. Ah, did I forget, patriarchal blood courses through our veins. In a cricket field men are cricketers and women? Cheer girls, of course!

I loved the movie. Especially if you are an Indian parent with teen aged children, this movie is a must see.

Tailpiece: Just read today about the Egalia Pre-School in Stockholm, Sweden, where the school does not use gender based pronouns to nurture an egalitarian community. The aim is to get students address each other either by first name or by the pronoun ‘they’ so that they grow up on equal terms, avoiding discrimination of all kinds including gender, age, religion, class, disability and sexual orientation. Kids,  thus, learn to judge each other on their actions, not stereotypes. No doubt we need to start something like this and other concerted efforts to blot out the vestiges of discrimination from our blood stream and psyche! 

 

More Onam Ramblings

Ever since I could remember, Onam has always been a time of sparkling joy, lively camaraderie and unadulterated fun. Added to that are gastronomical delights and endless round table conferences we have at home. No doubt festivals play a vital role in nurturing relationships and cementing bonds that stand the test of time. So, Onam is a stockpile of a lot of wonderful memories. 

Today, I see vested interests wishing us, Keralites, ‘Vamana Jayanthi’ instead of Onam. All media will be after this today. Analysis, discussions, points of view… However, to me there is no need for any dissection or postmortem. Why, you may ask. 

maveli

I am reminded of a lovely story about the one and only Buddha, that is mentioned in one of Suttas. According to this, there were lots of people who were displeased about Buddha and his discourses. One such clan leader was quite angry that one of his followers had become a disciple of Buddha. Insecure that he will lose his position if more join the fold, he stormed into Buddha’s presence and started hurling insults and calling the Master, choicest abuses.  

Buddha, being Buddha, remained calm and collected. When the man kind of stopped, the Buddha asked him, “Sir, do you get visitors coming to meet you?” 

The man, completely lost at what Buddha was coming at, gruffly replied, “Yes.” 

“Do you also be a perfect host and offer them eats and drinks?”

Carried in the flow of the conversation the man replied, “Yes. Why not?” 

Buddha continued in his serene style, “Suppose, the guests said that they don’t want what you have offered, where will the eats, drinks and courtesies go to?” 

“Back to my pantry and me, of course. They’ll all come back to me and I’ll enjoy them with my family.”

Buddha calmly continued, “If I too don’t accept what you flung at me today, where will they go? I do not accept them. You may take these back. Yes, it is all yours” 

Light dawned on the man. 

It is this story that I want to share with our Vamana Jayanthi wishers, for I feel strongly about it. To me Onam is Mahabali’s homecoming and nothing else. Taking a leaf from Buddha’s story, I do not accept Vamana Jayanthi wishes. You may keep it to yourself. For, if I don’t accept what you give me, it goes back to you.

And, sorry, am not allowing anyone to hijack the myth we have lived with and sanctify a new story. 

History will Repeat

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(Photo credit: http://www.123rf.com/stock-photo/old_beggar.html?mediapopup=10434875 )

An old woman walked along the pavement
Frail, yet, her eyes darting restlessly
Bewildered and stricken, searching uselessly
For those familiar and comforting silhouettes

Soft wrinkly skin, and in crisp cotton raiment
Shining streaks of silver hair, and face turbulent
Probing eyes meet no familiar visage, and
Weakened ears hear no familiar voice

Her lips quiver, and her hands tremble
Her voice quavers, and silent tears tumble
An icy numbness envelopes. Am I lost?
Where am I? And my loved ones??

She sighs and a scary thought fleets in
Am I going to be alone from now???
Her legs shiver, and breath arduous
An inky darkness envelops around…

One more has joined the crowd
Of aged ones, touted as burdens at homes
Insecurities of life will rally around
Alas! Who can do this to Dads and Moms?

For one day tables will turn.
And you will be at the receiving end
And that day will bring floods of remorse
Of a similar act. Ah! History repeats.
(Written after reading about the sad tales of the aged folks, discarded and abandoned by their near and dear in the temple town of Guruvayur, Kerala.)
Onam Ramblings -2

Onam Ramblings -2

Onam is at a time when Nature is bountiful and beautiful, in the Malayalam month of Chingam (it is in August-September). The festivities begin before 10 days – on the day of Attham star. On the ninth day is the first day of Onam – Uthradom star, 10th day is Thiruvonam (the second day of Onam, by far the most important day), the 11th day is the third Onam (Avittam star) and the 12th day is the fourth day of Onam (Chathayam star). Floral carpets are made in the front courtyard of homes. Back in my home district of Palakkad, some even start laying floral carpets a month earlier, from the 1st of Karkadakom, eagerly anticipating the arrival of Onam.

Traditionally, cow dung is spread and the petals of flowers are laid on it. Many beautiful designs are artistically created with flowers of various hues. I remember that when we had cattle at home, it was easy to get cow dung. Besides, those days our cows were fed with natural food including hay and plenty of grass. Cow dung was vital and auspicious for all kind of festivities – it was used to plaster mud surfaces. The dung evidently was hailed to have a lot of anti-bacterial properties and even considered to be a natural disinfectant. Now, we don’t have cows at home. And the ones who have cows feed it with artificial feeds and very less hay and grass, which are its natural food. Hence, the cow dung procured is of poor quality and it really stinks. Hence we don’t spread cow dung as a base anymore. The morning ritual of plucking flowers for the floral carpet had its share of enthusiasm and fun. Here is a floral carpet that we made.

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Vadamalli (Globe Amaranth), Marigold and Hibiscus floral carpet

We stop making flower carpets from the ninth day – the day of 1st Onam. In Palakkad district we make clay models of Mahabali, called Madevar, and keep it in front of our courtyard. In the past, we used to make the models ourselves on the previous day of the first Onam. All of us, Mummy and all the daughters, join happily in the process. The clay, which is cleared from stones and other impurities, is mixed with the right amount of water. Beating it on stones, and keeping it broad at the base, it is given a tapering shape. The central Madevar is  bigger and the other two, one on each side is of the same size. The threesome are then laid on a wooden seat. The base is decorated with three steps. Then the steps are decorated with mostly Vadamalli or Globe Amaranth (the purple flower in the picture above) or yellow coloured marigolds. Once the steps are done, coconut leaf splinters or Eerkali is pierced onto the top and sides of the wet Madevar. This is done so that it is easy to decorate the Madevar with flowers – by next morning it would dry up and fixing it would be difficult. Besides this set of three, there are 4 smaller Madevars also that are prepared.

The next day, after taking bath, we decorate the sides where Hibiscus and other bigger flowers are fixed on to the splinters. Daddy would get lotus flowers from our pond and these amazing flowers will find a pride of place on the centre of the Madevar. Once this is ready it is time to keep the Madevar in front of our home. Mummy prepares the rangoli dough with rice early in the morning. She grinds it to a fine paste and makes it into such a consistency that she can draw the designs. It is a painstaking affair, but Mummy does it with such remarkable ease and élan. Once the design is done, Mummy reverentially keeps the Madevar in the middle of the design. Then puja is done. On a plantain leaf, banana, flattened rice and jaggery is served. The lamp is lit. Flowers are offered. Coconut is broken. Agarbathis and camphor are lit. This officially marks the beginning of Onam. Food is served to the deity before we eat our lunch and dinner. Mummy still does this very religiously. Salute her spirit and creativity! Our Mom rocks! 🙂

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Mummy creating the rice flour design to house the Madevar

On the Second day is Thiruvonam and we make another set of threesome Madevars and eight smaller ones. This time, Mummy makes a bigger design for this one. Plus we have to move the previous day’s Madevar ahead of the second days’s one. On the third day we make one big clay Madevar with four small ones. It is kept at the gate of our home. Probably three sets refer to the story of 3 steps taken by Vamana. Onam is such a festival that all living beings partake of the feast. Crows and birds to eat the offerings we leave in front of the Madevar. Even ants have their fair share nibbling at the rice dough designs. Every night after Puja, the Madevars are brought inside home. Next day all the old flowers are removed and new ones hoisted on them, before they are taken outside amid the design Mummy makes. Now, we find it difficult to get clay and hence the changing times have forced us to get the ready-made Madevars available in the market. We even got one made in wood by a carpenter. The work is easy but am sure all of us miss the joint effort of making Madevars at home. Sometimes it rains during Onam and then we rush to take in the Madevars. If it’s heavy, it washes away all the designs too.

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Madevars and the decorations

Onam is the time for sumptuous feasts. We have a wide variety of dishes and side dishes that we prepare to celebrate Onam. Plain rice is the main course. There are wet and dry dishes – Sambhar, Avial, Koottu Curry, Kalan, Olan, Inji Puli, Pachadi and Thorans (yummy and fingerlicious… I can only drool at Mom’s very tasty fare) form part of our lunch. It is interesting to note that all the dishes use plenty of scraped coconuts, a staple for us Keralites. It is also noteworthy that at home we never use onions, garlic and garam masalas for our Onam feast. Payasam is the sweet dish that is prepared. We make different kinds of payasams – the all time favourites being Palada Prathaman, Chakka (Jack fruit) Prathaman, Semiya Payasam, Paal (Milk) Payasam to mention a few. (Drool…) Another feature is that non-vegetarian dishes are a strict no-no. Even otherwise, non-vegetarian dishes are once in a blue moon affair at home. 🙂 Ona Sadya is always served in banana leaves. Salted banana chips called Kaaya Varuthath and sweetened (with jaggery) banana chips, papad, pickle and banana also are served in the banana leaf. Well, there is a fixed spot in the banana leaf too, where each dish should be served! Rich or poor, the sadya is such a key aspect of Onam that there is a saying “Kaanam vittum Onam unnanam” which roughly translates to “if you have to sell your property, so be it, but we must have an Ona sadya.”

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A traditional Ona Sadya – and that’s me, drooling! 😀

Onam times are get-together times too. Now all of us are in different parts of the country and me in Dubai, it is not always possible for all of us to congregate at home for Onam. Nevertheless, all most of my siblings reach home and spend the time with our Dad and Mom. We get new dresses called Onakodi. Women, wear either Kerala Saris or the two piece dress called Mundu and Veshti and men wear shirts and dhotis. It is relevant to note that the colour of these dresses is ivory or off white, probably in stark contrast to the verdant landscape around. We exchange greetings with extended families. Many people visit temples. However, we don’t go to temples on Onam days. All temples are throng with devotees and we hate going to crowded places.

In other parts of Kerala, there are lots of other games and celebrations like Vallam Kali or boat races, Kaikotti Kali, Ona Pattu, vadam vali (tug of war) etc. Boat races reign supreme with lots of foreigners and tourists teeming the backwaters of Kerala to witness the battle of oars and their rhythmic Vallam Kali Pattu or boat race songs. In central Kerala, especially Thrissur it is the Puli Kali that is the cynosure of all eyes. In North Kerala, Onapottan, the symbolic representation of Mahabali, in colourful mask and headgear visits homes, blessing households with prosperity and abundance. Palakkad has its share too in the form of Kummatti Kali and Onathallu. In our nearby village of Pallassena, there is this competition among Nair men. It probably owes its roots to the prowess of Nairs who were warriors in armies of Kolathiris. Onathallu enacts war-like scenes, with men engaging in physical combat. There are strict do and don’ts – so it involves a certain structured form of confrontation and is done under the watchful eyes of elders.

On the 3rd Onam Day, after the Puja, all the Madevars are brought back home. Nowadays, we wash, clean and dry them and keep it safe for the next year. The post-Onam Ayilyam-Makam, described as the Onam of tenants and labourers, is celebrated in Palakkad. this is 16 -17 days after the fourth Onam. This Madevar used to be a fat one called the Maksthadiyan. Along with this we used to make 16 small ones. We also used to make clay shapes of snakes, grinding stone and grandfather and grandmother too. In the rangoli that Mummy makes this time, she would write all our names and draw pictures of a conch, drum, wheel (Vishnu’s chakra), mace (Gada), lotus etc.

Onam is a harvest festival. I remember, when we had paddy fields, harvest times used to be just after or even coincide with Onam. The previous month (Karkidakom – mostly July), sees Kerala at its rainiest. I remember in my childhood, it used to rain and rain. Azure skies were never seen in this month – instead was dark and sombre, wet and damp. People were forced to stay indoors. Naturally money was so scarce for all, that they called the month “Kalla Karkidakom” i.e. cursed month of Karkidakom. There was hunger,  illness and starvation. Once the rains stopped, people eagerly waited Nature to shower bounties, and to celebrate . With harvests, money came in and so did Onam.

Now, we have moved away from being a predominantly agrarian economy. Instead, we have started selling Karkidakom as a month to do Ayurvedic treatments (and, it sells big time!), have converted it into a spiritually important month, with people reading Ramayana and visiting temples and shrines. We have even packaged our Monsoons as tourism packages. However, with global warming, even the pattern of the monsoon rains have changed. This year for example, we got much less rain than what we normally would – at least in Palakkad

Onam as a festival  is completely multi-sensory in experience. It’s a veritable feast for the senses, the panchendriyas. No doubt, we the people of Kerala, are quite proud of this secular festival, when all over the nation there is a veiled threat to its fabric. If you want to visit Kerala, let this be the time to do so. May the vibrant colours of the Pookalam, the rhythm of Puli Kali and the spirit of Vallam Kali bring you all a Happy and Prosperous Onam!