Pleasure in small things

Enjoy the little things,
for one day you may look back and
realize they were the big things.
Robert Brault

Image symbolic only

In the times of pandemic, life has not been easy. In fact, it has become more and more difficult. And I am trying to find innovative ways of engaging myself so that I don’t alternate between being a full time cook and a full time maid.

In the midst of all this confusion, on a rain drenched, sultry morning, I suddenly get a call from an old friend Arijit. He is my childhood buddy and the bond has remained strong over the years.

Arijit, apart from being highly academic, has immense passion for social work. As we grew older, he started taking up Adult Literacy programs along with his studies. Since we were both active in such a sphere, he used to involve me in assisting him in many of his sessions.

I must confess that I had enjoyed those sessions as we travelled into the interior villages, upcountry, interacting with men and women from different age groups, ever eager to learn. Their hunger for learning was insatiable. Sometimes Arijit and I spent hours on an end sitting on charpoys (light bedstead of woven webbing) with these villagers, teaching them spoken English or written Hindi or Bengali and fighting small insects, including mosquitoes. In return we got wholesome, home cooked food, tea and home made snacks.

Thus went our growing up years, amidst a passion and drive for educating those ever grateful souls.

But the highlight of the note that I pen is not about our yesteryears in novice teaching but about my one significant experience in the pandemic times. Let me elaborate.

Arijit is in the US, in a premier Institution with what he is best at, academics. He had started online teaching for those in metro towns in India and he thought of roping me in. I couldn’t have asked for a better avenue for spending my time constructively and thus agreed immediately.

He has some 250 students who have signed up for different subjects and it was becoming too much for him to handle. The age group is obviously lower and therefore ‘less manageable’, he warned me. I was to take up some 50 students online for 2 hours each and in 5 batches on different days. I had assumed that the manageability issue arose since the fees were nominal. But I was wrong. Students are focussed, ready to learn and question. They keep me alert all the time. They sit in groups, sharing computers and in pin drop silence. The grasp is high and the lessons finish quickly.

This story is about one of the students, an 18 year old boy named Anil, who is starting to prepare for the IAS (Indian Administrative Services) exams, which is still some years away for him. So English is a must and here he is. His father is a bus conductor and mother is a tailor. He has a younger sister who is studying in a local school. Like most parents of such children, his parents also naturally aspire for them to succeed in life.

Anil knows English. He is keenly interested in politics and he knows his history, much more than what I do. Fortunately, I was only up with English.

I was going by the Course module with the students, which was given to me. After a week, Anil wrote a mail seeking permission to speak to me. When we spoke, he said he was interested in reading non-fiction books and if I could refer some books for his reading. Assuming that his English would require some overhauling before that, I asked him to hold on for sometime.

But Anil was prepared. ‘Ma’m you think my English is weak’, he stated. I said yes, that’s what I thought. ‘May we have a teleconversation on Tagore, Ma’m?’ I balked. I knew my Tagore knowledge hardly qualified me to jump into a deep discussion. I declined and gave in to his request.

With this innocuous incident, Anil’s equation with me subtly changed. Taking him more seriously, I started to go through books, talking to my friends in Civil Services and suggested books to him. In fact, at times, I buy books online and send them to him through his father.

He rings me up every third day for an interaction on a subject of his choice, which he well prepares prior to the call. And I have to be ready for a discussion on it. We converse in English and if he doesn’t catch a word, he stops me and flips through his dictionary. But he never asks me.

The conversation is on Skype for over an hour and I find his internet holding on remarkably well. He attends morning College and is back for his classes in the afternoon. He works part time with the local traders, writing books of accounts for them. Before the day ends, he is at the akhada (arena), with his friends practising wrestling. Sometimes he sits down to tutor his sister Rani. In fact, I too have to tutor Rani at times!

Boys like Anil give me hope for my country. The dedication, the commitment to success, belief in self and seeking help without hesitation…I see a reflection of my image in him.

I am sure Anil will clear the Civil Services exams and I tell Arijit that we will visit his place of first posting.

There are many such boys and girls in India who have lofty aspirations and the drive to grow in life. All they need is some support. If we stretch out our hand, they are willing to come all the way.

The desires are small. Acceding to such small wishes gives me a lot of pleasure. Brings me peace and goodwill that is so difficult to come by today.

The Debdaru tree in my life

“What’s the difference?” I asked him. “Between the love of your life, and your soulmate?” “One is a choice, and one is not.”
Tarryn Fisher

When I first came to live in the apartment where I now stay, I was taken in by the big garden around the building and the huge trees that were the hallmark of the garden. The garden was soothing and negated the Mumbai pollution.

There is one Debdaru tree in front of my balcony on the other side of the driveway. The tree is like any other and I had paid no attention to it in the earlier days as I was trying to settle down in the city alien to me.

Few years later, when I was standing alone on my balcony, on a rain drenched Sunday afternoon, my eyes suddenly chanced upon this Debdaru tree. The tree and I stared at each other. On this silent, dark hour, I slowly felt that the tree was communicating with me. I was overawed by the thought, so unbelievable and unnerving. I stood there for a long time, trying to figure out what to do. The feeling was palpable and I still experience that moment.

Since that day the Debdaru tree started growing on me. Be it night or day, I found a strange connect with this quiet entity. It gave me a lot of peace and I started spending a lot of time on the balcony. I would talk to the Debdaru tree in my mind and believed it could empathise with me. And the connect grew stronger with passage of time. I continued to share my thoughts with my friend silently.

There are a few incidents that occurred that made me believe that the tree really had befriended me. Of course it was just a notion, but a pleasant one.

One evening, around 11 pm, I was sitting and reading on the balcony. I must have dozed off after a while. Suddenly I heard a swishing noise and woke up with a start. It was well past midnight and I quickly gathered my Kindle, my iPad and my books and went off to bed. The next morning I found our gardener in the driveway, removing a branch that had fallen from the Debdaru tree. I realised that the swishing noise that I had heard the night before was that of the branch falling from the Debdaru tree. I felt then that my friend was trying to awaken me from my slumber. Weird, but it did make sense to me.

Another evening, I was standing and watching the moon play hide and seek through the long leaves of the Debdaru tree. It was a full moon night. My balcony was drenched with moonlight. The sky was clear, with stars twinkling across the expanse. There was a gentle breeze and I was smiling at the beauty of nature. Suddenly there was a gust of a stronger breeze, and the branch from my Debdaru tree swayed and moved towards me. It raised itself with the wind force and almost reached my face, as if to touch it. I was startled and tried to touch it back involuntarily. Despite knowing that trees are not to be touched in the night. But I could never get there, the breeze settled and the moment passed.

There were many such little incidents that made me believe in the connect more and more. I could, of course, never touch my tree as the driveway was sizeably wide and the tree was several feet away.

One day, I came back from work and as usual went to the balcony to gaze at my friend. I was shocked to find the tree cut and only a short portion was visible at the ground level. My feelings were indescribable. I felt a sense of loss that I couldn’t handle as I stared at the vacant spot and saw the road and the vehicles. I felt I had just lost my soulmate. I just stood there, feeling so desolate and so helpless. It was strange that I was so lost without my Debdaru in front of my balcony. The feelings shook me to the core. But there it was.

For days and months on end, the melancholic mood continued and I felt at a loose end, not knowing how to handle the separation. I realised that the Debdaru tree was my pillar that I was holding on to which gave me solace and strength in my trying times. So irrational but that was my reality.

Gradually, the tree grew taller and one day I could make eye contact with my friend, once again. I had tears in my eyes that day and felt like giving my tree friend a big hug.

But my friend and I were quite a distance away from each other. There was no way I could even get close to it. Even if I went down, the tree actually was at a height and surrounded by shrubs. I would never be able to reach it. So it stayed that way eversince.

Trees are considered to have souls and they do empathise. I believe that I have a soul connect with the Debdaru tree and it has taught me so much. The teachings are a continuous process. It is akin to my life and my living it.

I realised that I have a limited lifespan and my Debdaru tree has years to live. Maybe with the next owner. So our interaction is within a finite time. It is a painful realisation and I try not to dwell on it.

I learnt that when providence creates a distance, it stays that way. I, therefore, cannot always get what I want. Like the Debdaru tree outside my balcony. I love the tree, it is my adrenaline, I need to see it all the time, but I can’t reach it. I will never been able to make good the distance. A truth which only I can perceive, feel and live with.

At these times it is crucial not to aspire, so that it does not destroy something else or someone else in the process. For instance, if I were to get my Debdaru tree close to me, either I would have to break the tree or I would have to try and jump across, which would only break my bones. Or pull the swaying branches with a rope, thereby damaging the tree. And such a tree doesn’t grow in apartments.

Again, like this atypical connect, what happens if I cross paths with my natural soulmate, my Debdaru in flesh and blood, under unusual circumstances? Or at the wrong time of my life? In the cacophony of living, my existence at the sublime level is what matters then, as that is not in conflict with the societal norms, away from the expectations of people around, not having to conform and not being able to do justice to our own selves. A subliminal bond is surreal, predestined and so very continuous in a different zone, away from prying eyes.

Joy and pain then learn to co-exist. The bond with my soulmate is perennial. If we can mutually decide to retain the friendship we are blessed and stay connected.

Or else life moves on. Mostly one without the other. Time is said to be a great healer. Maybe. For some lucky ones.

[Note : Debdaru tree (Polyalthia longifolia), also known as the ‘false ashoka’, native to India, is a lofty evergreen tree, commonly planted due to its effectiveness in alleviating noise pollution. It exhibits symmetrical pyramidal growth with willowy weeping pendulous branches and long narrow lanceolate leaves with undulate margins.]

why

in the stillness of the night

in the sonance of the day

in the thrum of rains

why do you tiptoe

and drift placidly

into my thoughts

in murmuring waves

that erupt in trillions

of moments

evolving into

tantalising images

of allure and dreams

wafting around my

being, my soul and

surging through my mind

ceaseless, melodious

in a rhythm that i cannot

fathom but discern

a bond that grows

seeking no acceptance

want that i cannot grasp

keeping me addled

through endless hours

of pulsating beats

confined where

i neither can

touch nor hark

or elude

from these magical spells

of upheaval

when there is no reboot

why

in unison

Image symbolic only

my soul

vibrates with

another

unknown yet so known

timeless, ageless

with my every heartbeat

beats one more

in unison with mine

thoughts travel

in unison

in and out

from one mind

to the other

every pain that reflects

in that body

reflects in mine

where is this heart

that i can’t touch

but feel in mine

unseen, so near

yet so far

my soul

entwined with another

loving beyond despair

unexplained, impossible

every sinew aware

of my soulmate

fear of loss

stalks me

breaking in sweat and tears

fear of time

makes my heart pound

will we never meet

why can’t i be a friend

time stops me

cross that i bear

fear swirls around

engulfing my being

unfathomed quiet

presence that pulsates

blanking my thoughts

unbearable throbbing

my vision clouds

i realise

i cease to live

as life

lifts my soulmate

into another world

that i can’t fathom

leaving me

powerless, blinded

motionless

leaving me

crying in the shadows

incomplete forever

as i cease to live

Bengali adda

The Indian State of West Bengal is rich in culture, traditions and, therefore, history. Bengalis are intelligent, creative, passionate and mostly well read people. I give a glimpse of the Bengali culture here, called ‘adda’ which I grew up on and which is so familiar to me. Oxford dictionary defines adda as an ‘informal conversation among a group of people.’ Actually, it sounds so diluted an explanation!

The high point of the Bengali adda is a large congregation of family members on any and every occasion, where all kinds of activities happen over humongous degree of chit chatting. The subjects range from politics to restaurants, food to books, authors, education and theatre.

Adda is incomplete without cultural activities such as singing, playing instruments, reciting poems, book reading, playing board games like ludo, carrom, cards, etc. The quality of the participation is normally above average. And one can gain a lot from these vocal display of art and culture.

Loud chatter by adults, laughter, arguments and ruckus created by children are the hall marks of these sessions. And they go on till cows come home. Yes, adda is addictive indeed.

The noise levels on these occasions are incomparable. Sometimes, on a Sunday afternoon, the adda chatters permeate from many houses, disturbing the peace of some who like their siesta. A disruption of adda ensues, of another vocal kind, with many curious eyes, big and small, watching from different windows. The disruptor stands on the by-lane with dishevelled hair, crumpled kurta (top) and pyjamas, flailing his arms as his anger erupts, voice resonating through the nondescript lane, while the embarrassed or irritated peace makers stand on the verandah or balcony, as the case maybe, trying to quieten down the agitated neighbour from a safe distance.

It is just not the sound, but the palate is also an equal partner. It is given that an adda needs to be accompanied by a steady stream of deep fried Indian snacks like pakora (vegetable fritter), shingara (deep fried pastry with savoury filling), luchi (deep fried flat bread made of flour) with typically bengali style potato curry, bengali sweets and endless cups of tea. Those women, who are the hostesses, definitely are at the receiving end. Even if they do mind the labour, I haven’t seen them expressing it.

Now the group needs to be large enough for an adda to really take off. Bengalis by and large are well networked within the family. The family usually consists of the extended family as well. Uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, children and the elderly, all participate with great gusto. So the numbers may add up to 10 and may go up to 20 or 25.

I have primarily been a part of these adda sessions with the family in Kolkata during my summer holidays from school and with friends in Delhi at planned and unplanned adda sessions.

Adda has various hues. Other than the impromptu occasions such as some relative on a vacation staying over, or comes visiting, or is passing by, they must happen at some function like a wedding, a birthday and in the midst of or after festivals.

During my visits to Kolkata, adda was a common feature. Every other day, the entire extended family would sit together after lunch or dinner and get on with the adda. It was kicked off with playing ludo which soon got out of hand, with one team accusing the other of cheating. Then it went on to singing and discussing politics over cups of tea. Many woke up with acidity in the morning, because Bengalis are known to have weak stomachs, but it never was a deterrent.

Another instance is Bijoya Dashami, which follows immediately after the Durga Pujo.

In Bengali traditions, Durga pujo is believed to commemorate Goddess Durga’s visit to her natal home with her children. The festival is preceded by Mahalaya, which is believed to mark the start of Durga’s journey to her natal home. On the tenth day, which is Dashami, the Durga idols are immersed in the rivers, with proper rituals being observed. With the departure of Durga, the celebration of Bijoya Dashami begins right after the bisorjon (immersion of the idol), with people hugging each other and distributing sweets.

There is a whole lot of camaraderie which follows, where social visits are paid to all near and far ones, family et al. The social visit turns into an adda at some house or the other, when many families visit the same house at the same time. The hosts lay down a sumptuous spread of food and sweets, amidst chatter and laughter. Every family is visited upon and thus, at times we are the visitors and at times we are the hosts.

By the time the social rounds are done, an adult ends up adding at least two kilos in weight and with an upset stomach. But it’s a never ending treat for children and we were no exception. I used to look forward to these occasions as a child and never missed any of them, fighting sleep as well as exhaustion.

As I grew up, these sessions lessened due to paucity of time all around. When I moved out of my city, it dwindled even further and all of a sudden I lost touch with adda.

As I grow older, I miss those days of carefree banter, meaningless laughter, tight hugs, surrounded by affection, love and warmth of those who really cared for you. Simple, carefree days of bountiful of affection. No one, anymore, asks for an update sincerely, no one gives me unsolicited advise and no one feeds me till I am ready to burst. I miss those times.

Time, they say, waits for none. It certainly took a toll on my adda sessions and I remember them with every occasion that comes by. Whether it is Holi, Durga Pujo or a chance visit of some relative or friend passing through.

I also realise that the adda made me feel secure amidst those who were part of my growing up years. If I could, I would revisit those days all over again.