Onam Ramblings – 1

You can’t feel anything but blue, for Onam is just two days away. Thanks to Eid break, I do have holidays too. Airlines to India have an uncanny knack of doubling, trebling or as of now, quadrupling air fares during summer, holiday and festive seasons. Though the governments, state and centre, eagerly welcome remittances (the more, the merrier – much valued foreign currency!) everyone including the national airlines milk expats high and dry, with mercurial rise in airfares. So love as much as I would, I don’t think I will go home despite holidays. So, what will I do for Onam? Reminisce, I suppose is in order. And nostalgia is going to be the predominant mood.

If there is a festival that cuts across barriers of caste, creed, community, religion and gender, that is Onam. While most festivals in various states of India, based on the lunar calendar, are celebrated in different names mostly on same days, Onam is one that is entirely different. For example, Vishu in Kerala is the new year celebration which is known in other states in varied names – Ugadi, Gudi Padwa, Bihu,  Baisakhi and so on. To my knowledge, (I could be wrong – if there is, do let me know) there’s no other festival similar to Onam. It is nonpareil! 🙂

Onam is the festival that celebrates the annual return of the Asura King, Mahabali. Myths celebrate the rule of Mahabali (Maveli) as one of absolute bliss and prosperity. A particular song that describes the times translates to:

During times that Maveli ruled
Equal were all people treated
Times were of happiness
No one had to face travails
Sorrows, diseases weren’t there
Children’s deaths were unheard
No baddies were ever spotted
The land only had the good
No thefts and deceptions
Nor did any speak lies
All (measuring) weights and scales were right
And there was no chicanery.

If this is not an Utopia, what is? Probably, Mahabali was the first socialist leader! He was benevolent, wise, judicious as well as extremely generous. So much so that the Gods felt quite envious and insecure about his popularity. The mother of Gods, Aditi, approached Lord Vishnu (the Preserver in the Hindu Trinity and whom Mahabali was an ardent devotee of) and sought His assistance. Being of very charitable disposition, Mahabali was approached by Lord Vishnu in the guise of a brahmin dwarf or Vamana. The Vamana requested for some land. Mahabali gladly gave what was asked. The King’s preceptor, Shukracharya, sensed the identity of the visitor and warned Mahabali. But his word was sacred to Mahabali. Vamana grew in size and with his first step measured Heaven. With the second, he apportioned the Netherworld. The third step would be the earth and knowing that this would destroy the Earth, Mahabali offered his head as the last step. Pleased by the King’s humility and integrity, the Vamana granted him a boon. Mahabali is said to requested that he be permitted to visit his subjects every year in the lunar month of Chingam (falls in August – September). Onam marks the visit of Mahabali’s homecoming.

onappookkal

Onappookkal – Onam flowers (from top left clockwise): Mukkutti (Sikerpud), Hanuman Kireedom (Red Pagoda Plant0, Thumba Poo (Slitwort)

No wonder then that the Onam continues to be a festival celebrated by all alike, irrespective of faiths! While there are concerted efforts at celebrating Vamana’s birthday (Jayanthi) in place of Mahabali’s visit, from some quarters, I strongly believe that it will always be a celebration about Mahabali, than Vamana. Sometimes even in losing, you win! That’s what happened to the genial Mahabali. He lost his Kingdom and got relegated to the Netherworld, yet, he gained eternity. The rains are over. Nature beckons. The blue skies, the lush greenery, the enchanting landscapes and the smiling flowers all seem to be decked for the festive time. And the eager populace (Keralites) to this day await his visit with much joy and celebration!:)

P.S: My next post will be about how Onam is celebrated at home… How I miss being home!! 😦 

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The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto

Mitch Albom’s books have always interested me. That’s how I picked up his latest book, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, from the school library. And when I began, I kind of lost interest. I started listening to English music only in the 90s when my daughter was growing up listening to and singing English songs. And therefore my awareness about bands, musicians and songs is pretty pathetic.

I remember reading Markus Zusak’s book The Book Thief where the Narrator is none other than Death. The author here cleverly uses Music as the Narrator. Music says, “However well used, I am a loan, not a possession. You give me back upon departure.” (Page 4) It simply can’t be truer! And what a hypnotic pen picture Music paints about how talents are bestowed at birth. “Before newborns open their eyes, we circle them appearing as brilliant colours, and when they clench their tiny hands for the first time, they are actually grabbing the colours they find most appealing. Those talents are with them for life. The lucky ones choose me. Music. From that point on, I live inside your every hum and whistle, every pluck of a string or plink of a piano key.
I cannot keep you alive. I lack such power.
But I infuse you.” Magical indeed. Speaks volumes for the master story teller Mitch Albom is.

the-magic-strings-of-frankie-presto

The story is the life of a great guitarist, Frankie Presto. The narration alternates between Music and the reminiscences of the who’s who of music including singers, song writers, instrumentalists and others like Darlene Love, Burt Bacharach, Roger McGuinn, Lyle Lovett, Paul Stanley, Tony Bennett, John Pizzarelli, to mention a few, about Frankie Presto. It suffices to say that I thought Frankie Presto too was a real person. Only later did I realize that the central figure is completely fictional and his life is beautifully blended with real life events, giving it an authentic feel. Therein lies the success of the author and the book.

Some of the lines of Music are vintage Mitch Albom.
All humans are musical. Why else would the Lord give you a beating heart?
Everyone joins a band in this life. Sometimes, they are the wrong ones…
Everyone joins a band in this life. One way or another, the band breaks up…
Everyone joins a band in this life. Sometimes they reunite…
Everyone joins a band in this life. And what you play always affects someone. Sometimes, it affects the world…
Every loss leaves a hole in your heart…

Music’s chastisement of humans is so very apt. “You humans are always locking each other away. Cells. Dungeons. Some of your earliest jails were sewers, where men sloshed in their own waste. No other creature has this arrogance—to confine its own. Could you imagine a bird imprisoning another bird? A horse jailing a horse? As a free form of expression, I will never understand it. I can only say that some of my saddest sounds have been heard in such places. A song inside a cage is never a song. It is a plea.” Loved that last line!

Timeless wisdom from another very powerful character, El Maestro: “This is life. Things get taken away. You will learn to start over many times – or you will be useless.”

I am glad I persisted in reading. And my interest in the story gathered momentum. The lucid magic of Albom’s language is enchanting like the magical strings of Frankie’s guitar.

Loved the book and will give it 4 stars. This is only because I did not know many of the musicians. Aficionados of English music are likely to give it a 5-star rating. So if you are one, you will probably enjoy it.

The Four Agreements

It’s not every day that one reads a life-impacting book.
One that inspires. One that galvanizes you to reflect. Look within.
One that goads you to unlearn whatever you have learned so far in the journey of life.
One that exhorts you to take on a new trajectory by following a new set of agreements that will emancipate you from all self-limiting beliefs and fears.
One that helps you to be free from being a judge of oneself and others.

That is how The Four Agreements impacted me. Some books change lives. Forever.

Don Miguel Ruiz, the author of this book of timeless wisdom, is a nagual* from the Eagle Knight lineage. Toltec wisdom, is distilled and collected in the crucible of this amazing little book. Toltec philosophy is a path that teaches us to transcend our self limiting beliefs and self-sabotaging behavior patterns so that we may live a fulfilling and authentic life.

It’s is seemingly simple to follow the four agreements.

the-four-agreements

However it is when one starts practicing it that one realizes how deeply our self-limiting thoughts, fears, assumptions and beliefs are entrenched. No doubt it is a powerful code of conduct for anyone who aims to improve oneself day after day. If you want to live your own truth, Don Miguel suggests we align ourselves to these: being self aware, being receptive to change and to nurturing the intent to make that change happen.

On hindsight it is remarkable to notice that two of the most amazing books I have read are little ones!  One is The Alchemist. The other is this one.

5 stars for this book. I will go back to it again and again. Loved it.

P.S: Just because I loved it you don’t have to read it. If you are on that path of self-discovery, am sure that the book will find its way, for when the student is ready, the teacher appears!

* Naguals (pronounced “nah*wahl”), native American masters capable of transforming minds are people with knowledge of the higher realms.

When Breath Becomes Air

It is from Mohanlal’s blog, The Complete Actor¹, (which I follow regularly – he does write about some very thought-provoking matters) that I read first about Dr. Paul Kalanithi and his book When Breath Becomes Air. I had decided then to get the book and read it during summer holidays. Thanks to Amazon (I must say a ‘Jai ho’ to the e-commerce giant for their tempting offers for book aficionados like me.) I was able to get the hard bound Random House copy of this book priced at Rs. 669/- for Rs. 339/-! It’s an absolute pleasure to get the books that you want at discounted prices delivered at home. Ah, it’s bliss!!! 🙂

Imagine this: You are a brilliant neurosurgeon. You also are a post doctoral fellow in neuroscience. You dabbled in English Literature, Human Biology and Philosophy and then decided to go ahead doing medicine at the prestigious Yale. You have a flourishing career. You are a compassionate person, rooted in values with a deep calling for medicine. You have a young and equally brilliant wife. And when life and it’s dreams are aligned to fruition, you take ill. And the prognosis? Stage 4 lung metastases. How would you handle this cruel fate? That’s exactly the sum and substance of Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s deeply moving, intensely disconcerting memoir about his journey towards Death.

When Breath becomes Air

The last 22 months of his life was spent in writing the memoir and undergoing cancer treatment. The prologue of the book that went on to be a best seller for 75 weeks, begins: “I flipped through the CT scan images….” and goes on to give graphic details. But it is the last line in the first paragraph that is a stunner that takes one’s breath away: “But this scan was different: it was my own.” From then onwards, the book moves on in a gripping fashion, laid threadbare with flowing prose, with references to many gifted writers and their works and dealing with the existential question – how meaningful can we make our life to be in the face of certain and fast approaching death. There are pages that will leave you choked and with a lump in your throat. It is poignant that he stops with a message to his young daughter, who was born at a time when his life was fading, wasting away and yet he was facing it bravely and with integrity. The last days of his life are written by his wife, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi in the form of an epilogue. Dr. Paul Kalanithi passed away on 9th March 2015 at a very young age of 37 and after that the book was published by Dr. Lucy, fulfilling the word she had given to her husband.

It was painful reading the book for it was heartbreaking; yet, it was enriching and inspiring. Death is considered morose, morbid and macabre  – people shy away from talking about palliative care, physician assisted dying and death. The openness with which he deals with the “other side” – that of death – shocks the reader. When Dr. Paul Kalanithi sent his best friend an email in May 2013 revealing that he had terminal cancer, he wrote: “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” An ardent lover of Literature, he couldn’t have put it across more succinctly. When his carbon dioxide levels rise precariously, and vestiges of hope diminish, he even says to his wife, “I am ready.” In the epilogue, Dr. Lucy enciphers it: “Ready, he meant, to remove the breathing support, to start morphine, to die.” The camaraderie that the family displays when the icy hands of death strikes their beloved  ‘Pubby’ is paradoxically heartwarming.

This book will change your life. Read it. It will leave you with a lot of thoughts. Of living and of dying. At the same time, let me also tell you – it is not a tragedy, though it can be tragic when a brilliant doctor is lost to Cancer – he would have done a lot more to the living and dying, had he been alive.

  1. http://www.thecompleteactor.com/articles2/2016/03/gods-letter-2/

Dying to be Me

Near Death Experiences (NDEs) have fascinated me ever since I started reading books of Raymond Moody and Brian Weiss. The latter’s Many Lives, Many Masters, Message from the Masters and Only Love is Real were read with great interest and curiosity. I would like to believe that there are so many things that we do not know about. NDEs are of that realm. Besides, some of the accounts have been experienced and narrated by respected physicians that it is not only hard to ignore but is also scientifically intriguing.

Dying to be Me is another book that deals with the near death experience of Anita Moorjani. When diagnosed with Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, Anita underwent everything that a normal human being undergoes: denial, distress and then a gnawing, overpowering fear. She tried everything possible other than chemotherapy – many of which were conflicting practices that worsened her cancer. In the book she documents her journey through cancer, her near death experience and her miraculous cure which she attributes to the shifts within her that accelerated her cure. I found the book quite an interesting read.

Dying to be Me

What are the takeaways for me from this book and its reading?

1) Acceptance. Whatever you are faced with accept it and go with the flow. Yes, it is a tall order, especially when one faces trials and tribulations but it is good to cultivate the feeling that everything that happens is for one’s highest good.

2) Self-love. It is essential to be kind, compassionate and have empathy for oneself. This is most therapeutic – for, if we can’t love ourselves how can we love others? It is essential that we love ourselves unconditionally. Never be judgmental – of us or of others. Realize that each one of us is truly magnificent and never nurture feelings of inadequacy. No one is better than or worse than me. We are equal and there is an underlying connection amongst all of us in this universe. Yes, we are all connected.

3) Remove fears. Remove all kinds of fears that cripple and paralyze us for most of our fears are quite unfounded. They are limiting in nature and stand in the way of expressing our magnificent selves. It is essential that we just pay attention to whatever feels right at the moment and act accordingly. For this we have to train ourselves to listen to our intuition.

4) Change: To change ourselves, we have to start with our belief systems. A belief is an energy and when we allow our true spirit to shine through, we can create transformative shifts within us. And that opens ourselves to infinite possibilities.

5) Be authentic. Being a people’s pleaser or seeking approval from others at the cost of one’s own interests can have a disastrous effect on our authenticity. So is saying ‘yes’ when we actually want to say ‘no’.

5 stars for this book. I hope you read the book. 😀

Our Iceberg is Melting

‘Our  Iceberg is Melting’ is an interesting fable of how a colony of penguins overcome a looming threat, and a perplexing problem – the iceberg on which they live is melting – and find an effective new solution to counter it. It aims at helping readers change and succeed under any conditions through the tale of the penguins. 

Fables have captivated human minds from times immemorial. Within its simple storyline that is easy to remember is embedded profound truths and wise lesson(s). ‘Our Iceberg is Melting’ is no different and conveys quite graphically the modern day essentials of problem solving and the resulting change management. And when the fable is co-written by John Kotter,  the leadership and change management guru at the Harvard School of Business, it makes a compelling read. 

The book made me think about whether I was living on a melting iceberg or one that could melt. The authors, John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber say,  “Melting icebergs come in dozens of forms: product lines that are aging, schools that are becoming irrelevant, services that are decreasing in quality, a business strategy that makes little sense, a new strategy whose implementation is sinking into the ocean.”

Key takeaways from my reading of the book is the eight fold path that Kotter has come up with – distilled from his research on successful change management. 

The Eight Step process of successful change

Set the Stage

1.Create a sense of urgency : This refers to helping others see the need for change and the importance of acting immediately.

2. Pulling together the Guiding Team: A powerful team needs to guide the change.  The team should have in them leadership skills, credibility, communication skills, authority, analytical skills and a sense of urgency. 

Decide what to do 

3. Develop the Change Vision and Strategy: Clarify how the future will be different from the past, and how it can make that future a reality. 

Make it Happen 

4. Communicate for Understanding and Buy in: Make sure that as many others as possible understand and accept the vision and the strategy. 

5. Empower others to Act: Remove as many barriers as possible so that those who want to make the vision a reality can do so. 

6. Produce Short-term Wins: Create some visible, unambiguous successes as soon as possible. 

7. Don’t let up: Press harder and faster after the first successes. Be relentless with initiating change after change until the vision is a reality. 

Make it Stick

8. Create a New Culture: Hold on to the new ways of behaving, and make sure they succeed, until they become strong enough to replace old traditions. 

The Role of Thinking and Feeling 

Thinking differently is essential to help change behaviour and lead to better results. 

  • Collect data, analyse it. 
  • Present the information logically to change people’s thinking. 
  • Changed thinking can, in turn, change behaviour. 

Feeling differently can change behaviour more and lead to even better results. 

  • Creating surprising, compelling, and,  if possible, visual experiences. 
  • The experiences change how people feel about a situation. 
  • A change in feelings can lead to a significant change in behaviour. 

Analysing a problem / intended change in four columns using the eight steps is a powerful tool for reflection. 

More tools for making change happen is available at http://www.ouricebergismelting.com http://www.theheartofchange.com http://www.johnkotter.com

Amazing changes can happen when all stakeholders are convinced and are on the same page with respect to change. 

This book is a must read for all including professionals and students. So, what is your iceberg? Is it melting? What’s the way forward??  Read, think and reflect – and embark on your journey to confront your problem and come up with ways of doable and practical problem solving. 

🌟🌟🌟🌟 is my rating for this book. 

The Wondrous Charms of Nature

Born and brought up in verdant Valparai in the Anamalais and then nurtured in enchanting Kerala, I grew in Nature’s lap, so to speak. However, I learned to observe and experience the wonderful charms of Nature only when I joined as a teacher in picturesque Munnar.

The gurgling streams, cascading waterfalls, the lush greenery, the myriad kaleidoscopic hues of evening and morning skies, the bluish green mountains around, misty valleys, azure skies, the chirp and chatter of birds, the brilliance of flowers, the majesty of trees especially Flame of the Forest and Jacarandas in full bloom – all have made me a pagan worshipping these delights. The memories of the days that we – my precious friend Sam, my darling daughter Aathira and I – went on long walks, soaking in the lush beauty around fills me with deep gratitude. Not only did they make me fall in love with nature, but also cherish the relationship with these special people in my life.

The monsoon brought rains that slashed and winds that whistled incessantly. The strong pitter-patter pelted the tin roofs and created a compelling cadence. The gusty winds threatened to blow roofs away. Water gushed and rushed, lightning streaked and claps of thunder reverberated all around. It revealed the awe inspiring power and fury of Nature. To this day whenever there’s a strong gush of wind, my heart beats wild and a gnawing fear settles in.

In winter during the biting cold the enchanting pastime was to stand in the sun savouring the warmth that crept into every pore of one’s being.

The magic of fireflies glowing and that of a star studded sky on dark nights were entrancing. Squeals and trumpets of elephants, the barks of deer and grunts of wild boars made our nights exciting. The love for wild life and Nature stoked then continues to burn brightly making me live the philosophy of live and let live.