Alright. This is something I am attempting for the first time. Going back and forth in time. Because in Varkala, time stands still….
So I was just finishing my coffee and waiting for the rain to subside before making my way back to my hotel.
But an hour or so before that I was frolicking on the unique seashore of Varkala on the southern tip of Kerala, otherwise known as God’s own country. Laterite cliffs ringing the coast make this place one of its kind, with sunsets to die for. But alas, today the sky was shrouded in cloud, so the evening twilight eluded me once again!
The clouds descended in a torrent of rain after the initial teething troubles where stray droplets falling from the sky emboldened the life guards on the beach to shoo everyone off away from the water. The tide was rising in emerald heaves and the breakers slapped the soles (and souls) of restless wanderers, forming slurries which receded in tiny and transient patches of quicksand, stirring surprise and delight at the same time.
Walking along the sands, I did not realise what a sweat I was breaking into. Till the shrill whistle of the life guards reminded me that I had to scamper back on to dry land.
Finding refuge quickly in a cheery cafe, I sat me down over a fabulous view of the sea, and lovingly nursed the warm concoction of creamy mint mocha served at my table.
Lightning, thunder and the pitter patter of rain created a symphony of sorts, adding magic to an increasingly charming evening. As streaks of silver rent the inky blackness of the cosmos, my thoughts flitted across in tandem…
Yes, just a few minutes ago, this is how the coast looked, and the flashes of lightning seemed to resurrect the surreal beauty of this amazing landscape, lending it a special place in my psyche.
And this image drives home the point. Taken during one of those flashes, much later on, when night had descended but the magic not yet over…
It’s official. I’m unpopular.
Because I added some recent photos of the real me on yet another dating app, yet in denial of my sad state of affairs, yet with hope that I will find what I’m looking for. The saving grace is that the first pics that got uploaded by default were some about a decade old, taken in better light and me alone in the frame as opposed to being with my family. I got about fifty likes in less than fifty minutes.
Those days I used to color my hair with synthetic brown dye, now I do the same with natural henna, turning my shock of grey to a shocking orange that glows in the scorching sun. The differences are obvious, but it’s the same me.
So I decided to reconnect. Using a trick called disconnect. From the cyber world, pseudo reality, anticipatory anxiety. Using mindfulness, pranayama and family. Listening to ambient sounds in the present. Listening to my breathing and heartbeat. Looking at the faces of my family members and reflecting the emotions in their voice as they speak, recounting stories and anecdotes, holding a conversation.
During tea-break at work, instead of the compulsive immersion into my phone, I looked at those around me in the workplace café. Fellow staff, visitors, attendants and servers. Watching them was an eye-opener, pun be pardoned. Most were busy with their phones, especially when alone, but even when in a group. A lucky few were talking to each other, and the really few were like me, watching the world around them.
What I saw, and heard, made me happy. Animated faces, tinkling laughter, gossip shared sotto voce. A kid gleefully demanding candy. A few who passed by greeted me, lifting my spirits instantly.
I remembered some sage advice about online dating. Get out in the real world. Meet real people. Talk and bond. Chances are, your chances of finding love and companionship are way better there than anywhere else.
So I decided. I must again believe that love is ordained by destiny. That marriages are made in heaven. And that my choices are in my hands- to live in the real world, or lose myself forever in the virtual.
Every generation has a buzzword. But the one buzzword that has travelled down the eons is well, travel. Without travel there would be no discovery, and without discovery, no innovation, and without that no civilization.
So the chief result of travel is discovery, without a doubt. Man’ curious nature sets him to seek, and in this search lies adventure. Folks who travel learn to take the good with the bad, happily enough. Everything passes as adventure, and indeed, leads to more adventure. Travel breeds fearlessness, resilience, fortitude and ultimately that great salvation that is freedom. Freedom from worry and anxiety, aching joints, tummy troubles, and so on, because one also learns to nourish and nurture one’s body and keep it fit for travel.
Travel is about outer discovery as well as inner. New places, new people and new experiences that are liberating and transformative. It is but obvious that those who travel are interesting, intuitive and insightful. One likes to get to know them and learn from them, though the converse may not be true. Not all who travel wish to share their wisdom with the world. And those that do may not be doing so out of a sense of the joy of sharing but because of vested interests. And that is a breed known as the millennial travel writer.
I am discovering more and more of this enterprising species. Young ones, just out of graduation, having landed their first job and quick to realize that their earnings are theirs to spend as they like. No family to support, no dependents or encumbrances as we call them. No desire for a family either, or investing in property, or even for a rainy day, the stuff that gen X was preoccupied with. So this new wave, gen Y or millennial as we call them, are visually connected on social media with a much wider world than anyone ever knew before.
Things move swiftly and images of faraway places caught on the latest photographic technology fly like missiles across the ether, exciting interest and provoking curiosity. No more reading Paul Theroux and wondering if this is a man’s account of his travels, or an honest admission of his racist biases. Not only the exotic titillate, but the exuberant visual onslaught wears down any iota of doubt about whether the travel to said destination is going to be easy, affordable or safe. No place is too far. No budget is limiting enough for those with the grit and gumption. Entire blogs on how to earn a (decent) living through (sponsored) travel abound and give hope to hundreds, if not thousands, of likeminded individuals who do not wish to squander their youth on an education which either remains only on paper, or its worse alibi, just a job.
And while they hurl themselves into the heady sensations of travel, and getting paid for it, some romantic fools such as me recall their years of growing up and getting old with a little less travel- picnics, family reunions, LTA, in a few happy cases group travel and in rare instances solo travel.
I like a good photograph, no doubt about it, but I do NOT feel like taking the next flight there. I still like to reflect, to reminisce and to rejoice in the wonderful moments when I actually did travel but did not realize it. Relocations, job changes, family holidays yes, but family obligations more. Weddings and funerals. Calls of duty and calls of nature. Funny, foolish and so full of life. All the life which cannot be expressed in a picture.
A picture paints a thousand words perhaps but we seem to have forgotten many of these words. Because most of the time there are only a few hundred words at the most, which many of these writers feel they need in order to give more substance to the picture. A moment at a time, depicted by a picture. Because one needs to move on to the next before internalizing that moment.
Time is so little….and there are so many destinations for travel.
The pictures precede the text in this post because it took me quite a while to put words to the visual feast that awaited me as I left Ceylon’s Cultural Triangle to emerge into the hills of the central highlands. This unique island nation is a treasure trove of beauty and wonder, sights leaping at you with their intensity, and with a raw wildness, matched only by the gentleness of the people, who watch you timidly in anticipation of praise and peace.
Three days into the country being driven around in a luxury sedan with an expert driver cum enthusiastic guide, something of what I was looking for seeped into his consciousness. From Kandy therefore, he drove me into the rolling greenery of the university campus of Peradeniya, the most illustrious academic institution here, dating back to colonial times. Buildings, stark and stout and painted in earth colors of khaki, rust and sepia, they spoke of depth, history and poignancy. Gargantuan trees, humongous and hoary with age, dotted the hillsides and valleys, providing awe to visitors and awesome spots to individuals and couples in need of privacy.
This morning jaunt left me feeling in need of some robust, rustic breakfast and we stopped at a roadside shack to be ripped off for a generous helping of hoppers, curry and puffs, the owner having duly noted my jaw-dropped look and presumably fat purse, driving around as I was, solo around the country in a private car.
The spicy and substantial meal meant that I have my tea at the earliest possible, and there, just down the hairpin bend stood a tea factory where I got a guided tour and an elaborate tea tasting for free, again presumably on the weight of my bohemian appearance, to which I did full justice by purchasing a couple of packets of their scented tea blends.
The rest of the drive was something of a roller coaster ride through the vast stretches of tea plantation that spanned the entire town of Nuwara Eliya, rushing across gorgeous waterfalls that punctuated the glorious greenery and provided incredible photo-ops every few meters, ending a good couple of hours later at the lowermost point as we left the hills and were about to join the main highway. So it was at Kitulgala, home of the Kelaniya river, that I was gently enticed into enjoying white water rafting for the very first time in my life, forgetting all my fears and anxieties, and having a life changing experience.
We sped off from here and onto the rest of our journey towards the coast, through quaint, lovely villages and then hit the expressway, stopping for tea on the way at a huge restaurant mall, just as the evening lights came twinkling all around.
I am an Indian. All Indians are my brothers and sisters. And in one sort of despicable act, all the citizens of the Indian subcontinent are unfortunately my brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts….related in a particularly uncultured cultural affliction- the act of spitting.
I am not (yet) widely traveled, but I believe “a spittoon” is a thoroughly indigenous invention, not to be found in use outside of my motherland and her neighbors, though this receptacle was probably a colonial necessity to cover up an act that the Westerners just found impossible to eradicate or to “civilize”.
Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Bangladeshis all engage in this social passion and pastime almost as an obligation, from the destitute and the dispossessed to the “educated” and enterprising busybodies running the show. In fact, it is not uncommon to see streams of saliva- colored or plain- ejected from the luxurious interiors of the swankiest cars in town, as one is travelling to work, at traffic signals, at marketplaces, at malls and office buildings, where there are spittoons and walls tiled with images of religious deities to contain and to discourage the malady of spitting in public. While the other wastes of the body are also not above the public domain in many parts of the subcontinent even now, with open-air toilets being the norm and not the exception, globalization has at least ensured that public toilets be given some sort of priority in matters of policy-making. But can we get rid of the eyesore called the spittoon, or better still, eschew this whimsical compulsion to spout and spray our holy water all round, as individuals and as a nation?
Spitting is an integral part of our daily ablutions, a ritual cleansing of our oral orifices and cavities after a night’s inactivity or during a rinse following a meal, though Occidentals often wonder why we need to go to such lengths to wind up a partaking of food- why, isn’t it only in Indian homes that there is a washbasin right in the living room strategically placed next to the dining table, where some members of the family would be cleaning their innards (complete with sound effects) while the others would still be finishing their meals! And it is completely acceptable; guests even complain when they have to turn towards the bathroom to find the basin. Even without a meal being served, the living-cum-dining room is usually the setting for all manner of spitting, from the discreetly soft, short and often surreptitious excursions of the ladies to the sonorous booms of throat-clearing and nose-blowing that is the prerogative of the males, and NO ONE likes to do it in the privacy of the bathroom!
Things of course are changing, but can a nation rid itself of a habit born out of necessity hundreds of thousands of years ago! Spitting probably started as a Hindu cultural practice of expelling evil from the body or to inflict a curse or an insult upon an enemy- I SPIT ON YOU! Then there was the “datun”- the twig used to clean the teeth before toothbrush and toothpaste were introduced into the Indian psyche. You go into the forest or the backyard, pick up a “datun”, scrub away at all those invisible creatures inhabiting your mouth and when you have finished, simply spit it all away- so simple. Mother nature just absorbs it back into her bosom to nourish the next tree that will provide your “datun”!Actually, very logical and hygienic, if you think about it, but somewhere along the way, corruptions in the form of betel and paan chewing (some would argue that even these have their benefits) turned spitting into a collective social vice. Middle Easterners have their “qat”, we have our “paan”, and we have our spittoons. Historians can perhaps trace the origins of the spittoon to the Mughal invaders who brought betel chewing into vogue, then turned it into a ceremonial activity in most Indian homes and social settings, and with the endless amounts of salivary secretions it generated, a receptacle was badly in need, within easy reach of one wanting to unload a mouthful. Women were not spared of course, and we have seen aunties and grandmothers nursing and nurturing that elaborate silver box containing the ingredients of the perfect “paan”; the reddening effect of this mixture upon the lips (and the rest of the mouth) was the very native equivalent of the lipstick, and ladies would carefully cultivate the “etiquette” of proper paan chewing to sport that perfect Cupid’s bow.
How my generation, and those subsequent, came to abhor this practice, I do not clearly understand. It was maybe the derision with which some of the elders who had seen the rest of the world looked upon this curious habit, or the advent of medicine and health education that tried to drive home the point that one man’s food is another man’s poison- that we are responsible for spreading a whole lot of diseases by our seemingly innocuous act of spitting. Notwithstanding the “spit and polish” treatment of precious and decorative surfaces, the counting of a wad of currency notes with the periodic and mandatory moistening with one’s saliva, or the handy use of the same to stick a postage stamp, the whole point was that we mustn’t be SEEN to spit in public, and that too, the colored variety, for that would be an instant giveaway!
The first champion of this cause in my memory was none other than my father, who during his tenure in an Asian country (but not on the subcontinent) one morning came upon a telltale red patch on the road he normally took to work. Mortified, he turned tail and walked off in the opposite direction to the next bus stop, a half-hour’s walk away! It was not the apprehension of being fined for the callousness of a countryman, but the deeply distressing shame of being discovered on the same road and being pointed out by some local as “that Indian”. We were all equally troubled by all this that he shared with us that evening, and were acutely conscious when venturing outdoors for days afterwards.
This act so typically smacks of that other hallmark of “Indianness”- that of shoveling the dirt onto the neighbor’s patio after having cleaned up our own premises. Really,isn’t there a thing as a dustbin? And I’m not exaggerating when I say this, but even now I see this happening in upmarket homes- pushing the garbage away, emptying it onto the floor or the road below, washing floors and balconies without a care as to where all that waterfall is descending, watering potted plants beautifully gracing our parapets and leaving ugly stains on the walls, parking our vehicles bang in front of someone else’s homestead, just to let them know this is our latest gizmo that they have been eyeing in the media all this while…..we are becoming more and more urbanized and less and less urbane in our behavior.
Coming back to the matter in question, we were thus brought up on the belief that spitting is not an “in thing”, and learned appropriately and early in life where our waste should go,and this too,came at a price. For upon our return from foreign shores, the first place that we visited was a popular temple which had queues stretching and spilling out onto the main street, and we were forced to sustain ourselves on bananas, biscuits, peanuts, etc.and even as all the other devotees were thinking nothing of discarding wrappers and peels right where they were standing, I painstakingly collected all the family’s garbage in a plastic bag and went in search of a dustbin, and the next thing I knew, my foot had landed into a fresh mound of you-know-what, and the rest of the day was spent in looking for water and scouring away the ghastly reminders of my (mis)adventure! But to this day, I have not been able to litter in public, in India or elsewhere, so thorough was my indoctrination into the mores of ideal community living. It was therefore heartening to come across a young schoolgirl one day in the local train who spared no kindness when launching into a tirade against her own family members beginning to litter the compartment. First they admonished her for her brazenness in speaking up against her elders, but when she continued in more diplomatic tones, they finally had to give in and quietly picked up their garbage into a disposable bag to get rid of it afterwards, hopefully in a public dump or in their own house.
Again in the ladies’ compartment of the local train, traveling to and from work, I’ve spent many an afternoon and suffered many an unkind rejoinder chastising ladies who piously flung the previous day’s “puja” flowers wrapped up into a flimsy plastic bag (the dangerous non-biodegradable kind) straight out into the waters of a yet unpolluted creek that we passed everyday. Trying to be a crusader for environmental protection is neither easy nor enjoyable, but I don’t regret a single instance that I spoke up but do regret those times that I didn’t, out of sheer fatigue or hopelessness,when somewhere, somehow I could have made a difference, just like that fresh faced schoolgirl taking her family to task. Of course, I rapped every slipper clad foot as it came to rest on the seat opposite, reminding the wearer that she could be the next person resting her beautiful sari clad bottom on the spot that she was soiling.
Nothing of course, prepared me for the intensely national sport that the people of Nepal indulge in- spitting all the time, anywhere and everywhere. I’m almost convinced it is a manner of superstitious ritual of keeping evil spirits away from their beautiful land, though mercifully it is the uncolored, uncontaminated real stuff as “paan”chewing is not prevalent in Nepal. It is quick, spontaneous and universally practiced by young and old, male or female.
So imagine my surprise when a perfectly well dressed patient walks into the consulting room that I spent lovely hours in looking out and soaking in the incredible beauty of the mountains when lo and behold, the lady saunters to the window, sucks in the air and expels a great glob of spit right out into the breeze! I watch dumbfounded as other members of her family promptly follow suit. And then, to my consternation and theirs, I jump out of my chair, flail my arms and torso and screaming like a banshee, deliver what I think is an impassioned sermon on what the responsibilities of a good citizen are, and how could they possibly do this to their own soil, turning their land into a squalid dump of spittle, couldn’t they at least be concerned about damaging the fragile ecosystem of the Annapurnas?!!! They exchanged quizzical glances, scratched their heads and waited for me to regain normalcy after checking that there was no other doctor in the OPD that day. Afraid at last of being reported for unprofessional behavior, I proceeded to do my duty by them, and rose to almost escort them out,after noticing that they were again inching towards the window for perhaps another round of nature appreciation!
I should have known better. I had been duly shown my place by a traffic constable who had split his nose during a drunken street brawl in the days that I was training, and who was brought into the examination room just as I was trying to catch my first wink of sleep. As I sardonically thanked him for being a public nuisance, but trying to add to my professional experience, he equally sardonically, and almost menacingly, held up his index finger, looked into my sleep deprived eyes with his own bloodshot ones, and said so very softly,almost caressingly”DOCTOR, you do your duty, and I’ll do mine”!
With such misplaced conviction, is there any hope for society to change for the better?
Don’t get me wrong. I am an Indian. A patriotic Indian. I love my country, and my brothers and sisters and all my relations. I too have a dream for India, and her neighbors. That we be united in ways other than our common love for anointing our grounds with effulgences from our body. I dream of peace,progress and prosperity in the region. To me, it is a straightforward matter of leaving our religion indoors, and our waste too. It is the number one priority of increasing the number of public toilets and water dispensers and reducing the number of spittoons and imposing heavy penalties for spitting in public and not having to glance at pictures of gods on stairwells, and each citizen pulling up his neighbor for any transgressions in such matters.
If all this is not possible, tell me what is.
I remain, yours truly, an optimistic Indian.
Man, in his race against nature, forgot the finer details.
These pearls of wisdom do not belong to any great personality, but they seemed to be written across the vast blue sky with the hand of God, so to speak, as I lay looking out of the window mulling the fact that nature had finally caught up with me.
I had been felled by the Varicella zoster virus- chicken pox, so called as it is supposed to be the cowardly cousin of small pox, known to be one of the great scourges of humanity.
Why, when I was already halfway through life, why now? Why not when I was a child, when all children are supposed to get it, when mother would be there to take care of me in my hours of anguish. She told me on the phone that I had been strangely spared this common childhood viral disease. Mother was almost apologetic, as if bemoaning the fact that SHE failed to give me something that was my birthright. I had been immunized against measles, mumps and rubella, and some others that are mandated by law to be given to all children in that particular age group, but she had not heard of a vaccine for chicken pox back then, and there was not much more that she could do.
It also transpired that my family also had not had chicken pox before, and now our home turned into a theatrical tableau with me confined to the sickroom, and my child taking elaborate care to avoid coming within spitting distance of me. Mealtimes were called out and I was served my share of food with an imaginary bargepole, and all others duly left the room for me to enjoy my meal in grave solitude and introspection! Though my daughter had been vaccinated against chicken pox at the appropriate age, we were told to take all precautions, and so the poor kid was left to wonder what had become of her mamma, and vented all her insecurities and frustration on her father who was valiantly and successfully coping on all fronts.
The burning question was, WHY didn’t we get our childhood diseases on schedule? Why do we, in spite of scientific, medical and technological advances, simply can’t seem to keep disease at bay? We discover drugs, design vaccines, find ways to prolong life, and often the protracted suffering that comes with a longer lifespan, but nature always does beat us at our own game, doesn’t it?
Cancer for longevity, SARS and avian flu for plague and diphtheria, AIDS for syphilis and gonorrhea, adult chicken pox and epiglottitis for the childhood variety, allergic and autoimmune diseases for common infections- the barter is endless. And contrary to popular belief, tuberculosis is far from eradicated, ditto for malaria, cholera and typhoid. Hepatitis is emerging in killer avatars, small pox is making a comeback slowly and surely, leptospirosis, dengue and chikungunya are the names of the new monsters in the microcosmos; the list is long and getting longer. Man has not conquered disease, only exchanged Scylla for Charybdis.
We go to great lengths to maintain health, to enhance stamina, to be always up and about.
Timely vaccinations, visits to the dentist, medical checkups, vitamin pills, workouts, meditation, Mediclaim.
Contraceptive devices, sophisticated sanitary napkins, surrogate mothers, assisted reproduction.
Germ-repelling toothbrushes, silver-nano-coated refrigerators, HEPA filters in air conditioners.
Tertiary care hospitals, state-of-the-art intensive care units, ventilators, dialysis machines, heart-lung machines, artificial limbs and joints, prosthetics in practically every part of the human body.
Children having to grow up at the speed of light, women having to forego, disclaim or even deride the little privileges of their PMSs and pregnancies. Though most workplaces have a soft corner for expectant mothers, none have any sympathy for a woman going through her monthlies, and jokes about the PreMenstrual Syndrome would land one in judicial custody for the crime of sexual harassment. Yet, it is women who have brought this upon themselves in their fight for equal rights. So why am I trying to go back? I realized with a jolt, and confirmed it with the available literature update, that a woman’s immunity is indeed depressed during her menstrual period, making her vulnerable to disease, sometimes out of the blue. When it comes to PMS, read the fine print.
Virtual friends instead of hopping over to the ones in the neighborhood.
An abomination called Facebook. Now I know I have 250 friends, only a handful of which I have ever spoken to or met. What a wonderful illusion of friendship! A bizarre, insular and voyeuristic way to keep up to date with what our numerous friends are doing.
Bizarre because I can’t get used to seeing my friends in Lilliputian 2-dimensional format; conversations that start with a staccato, lose their way in largo and finally end up ruined in rigor mortis.
Insular because our points of communication are so superficial, disjointed and woefully unsatisfying, making me feel with an even greater poignancy the warmth and closeness of long afternoons and evenings spent together, the excitement over time tested or newly learned home cooked meals, the laughter and banter we just couldn’t get enough of, the long drawn out sessions of saying “au revoir”.
Voyeuristic because I find myself going through conversations and photo collections of people I do not even know, for something did catch my fancy out of the thumbnails pointing at me from the page, and it is probably true the other way round as well.
I’m sure many would disagree, but this dodo is not at all extinct, but very much extant and hopelessly hung up on retro music and other relics of the past like writing paper, fountain pens, letter-boxes, snail mail, the agony of waiting for the missive of a loved one, and the ecstasy when at last it is opened for reading. Among my few treasures is the most precious trunk full of old letters, greeting cards, picture postcards, etc, yellowed with age and waiting to accompany me on my way to the nether world.
In today’s world, paper is for taking printouts, pens are for signing, and who cares for good penmanship when Microsoft Word is there to represent the collective handwriting of humankind!
Oh, how I hate progress!
But we are marching forward- robotic surgery, face transplants (brain transplant is not far away), freeze-dried embryos, stem cell therapy; everything is a reality now, just as Man had dreamed. Cloned humans are a closely guarded reality, so far only the animals have made it to the front-page news. [Ethicists reason that a cloned human being would probably herald the end of God, and we’re certainly not yet ready for Armageddon, are we?]
Nothing’s gonna stop us now, say Asimov’s children to one another, as they cross the threshold from the mysteries of nature to the myth of nature. To the new age human,nature is only that- a myth- to be demolished and recreated in the language of Man, not of God, or a Creator.
So what if extra terrestrial life is still a matter of debate, we can surely turn this Earth into our playground for all that we would like do with our “scientific” knowledge!
As I writhe in bed in pain, itching, and a really loathsome tingling, gently picking or maniacally scratching my scabs away, gathering them up half a dozen times through the night to dispose of them until exhaustion and sleep take over, and wondering why on earth the Cetirizine tablet that I took is giving me neither rest nor relief, I do the only thing I can. Curse the child specialist I took my daughter to for getting her shot of chicken pox vaccine. I strongly recommend all doctors, children’s specialists or otherwise, to get the unprotected parents to immunize themselves too; it really is a small price to pay for messing up our immune system.
Nature is having the last laugh, laughing all the way to the bank.
Nature is mocking the middling human,
“wherever you go, I’ll be two steps behind you,
whatever you do, I’ll be there to remind you,
that it only takes a moment of your precious time,
to turn around,
and I’ll be two steps behind.”
Maybe it’s true: we don’t need no education.
Acknowledgements- Starship, Def Leppard and Pink Floyd for those unforgettable song lines.