Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tuesdays With Morrie - Mitch Albom

Is this a book on self help? Yes and No.

This book is the true story of an old professor dying of ALS or motor neuron disease also known as Lou Grehig’s disease. This is a gradually debilitating disease that eats into the body of man, crippling him everyday, every minute and rendering useless, one by one, all parts of the body until the person is completely paralysed and dependant on another, even to turn their head.

While the professor is spending his last few months at home away from the clamour of the city, an old student of the professor, working for a news paper or magazine, chasing money, fame and success, happens, by pure chance, to hear about his old professor and decides to visit him.

When they meet, after many years, the young man opens his eyes, for the first time, with the help of the old professor, to look at life with a new perspective and reevaluates his own life, his priorities and the path he has chosen to tread.

The two of them begin to meet every Tuesday when the old man imparts his views about various matters of life including death. That’s why the book is called Tuesdays With Morrie.

The discussion that follows is actually nothing new (to the reader). It’s the same old thing we have been hearing in the modern times of rat race, about how to live.

Live as if it were your last day today. Prioritize. People, relationships, self and soul… Wealth does not last long. Happy memories do.

Some really precious lessons and values of life have unfortunately been made base, trite, and hackneyed by emails and forwards that tell you with graphic images and stories about how to live, how to stop chasing the wrong things, how to stop for people who matter, the near and dear ones.

If you have already had a fill of all these, you may not be able to appreciate the book much. And then, there are millions of books on self help. The author himself says “America has become a Persian bazaar of self help”.

The story is similar to the story of Monk who sold his Ferrari – an old successful lawyer goes to the Himalayas having thrown away everything and learns the lesson of life. He returns and imparts his learning to a younger lawyer.

This book however, is different as it is based on the real life experiences of two people, a dying professor and his student. There is some sincerity as it comes from a dying man…
The dignified disposition of the professor, his acceptance of death, his gratitude towards his family for being there for him and his perseverance through his misery move you as you read and bring a smile on your face.

As usual, I made notes of some lines and lessons that made so much sense. The lines in Italics are from the book. The lines in regular font that follow are my thoughts about the relevance of these lines.

Accepting the past as past without denying or discarding it...

Tension of opposites. Life is a series of pulls back and forth. You want to do one thing but you are bound to do something else. Something hurts you, yet you know it shouldn’t. you take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted.
The tension of opposites like the pull on a rubber band. And most of us live somewhere
in the middle.
Which side wins?
Love wins. Love always wins.

Death is a great equalizer...

Sometimes you cannot believe what you see. You have to believe what you feel... Closing eyes makes a lot of difference...

A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops... – Henry Adams

Fate succumbs many a species. One alone jeopardizes itself – W H Auden
Very True.

Love each other or perish...

In the beginning of life when we are infants, we need others to survive. In the end when we are dying we need others to survive.
In between, we need others as well...

Don’t let go too soon...but don’t hang on too long...

People wanting to gobble up new things. New car, new piece of property, latest toy, “Guess what I got?”
These people are so hungry for love that they are seeking, accepting substitutes. Embracing material things and expecting a sort of hug back. It never works. You can’t substitute material things for love or for gentleness or tenderness or a sense of comradeship...

If only people realized this, half the shopping malls, all of which, sell the same things to people who don’t need them, would shut down. Bangalore traffic would decrease.

Ignore the lure of advertised values...

Softskills : Confidence, dressing, presentation, how to shake hands, assertiveness, smile please, attitude, grooming…there are a million shops selling them for 5000, 10000 and 20000. I don’t deny that they are values. But they are being advertised because there is money in them. Are there any training institutes that teach you honesty, speaking truth, integrity, contentment, humility, good character? No. Why? These do not fetch money you see.

All the above advertised values are a mere manifestation of a deeper quality that comes from within. Confidence, for example comes from knowledge, experience, skills etc. The institutes can’t help you develop those, because they take years. They only teach you to wear a smile, sit in a certain posture or stand with your chest thrust forward, give a tight handshake, look your interviewer or client straight in the spot between the eye and the nose (just in case you become nervous upon looking him in the eye and help him make a correct assessment of your worth) and pass off for a confidant fellow whether you have the skill, knowledge or not.

My stand is, softskills does not have a fragmentary independent existence. It has meaning only when it is combined with education of the mind and soul.

Wasting life over other peoples’ drama.
People spending so many hours on things that mean absolutely nothing to them personally... Movie stars, supermodels, latest noise about princess Diana or Madonna or a dimwit Malaika Arora. People who did not know O J Simpson surrendered their entire lunch hours watching O J Simpson trial...

Those fellows who just learnt the art of surveying the market for opportunities in some B-school (and the B-schools don’t teach them the distinction between the society and the market... the whole world is one market for them) and those parasites living on dead and decaying matter of human spirit, waiting for another sensibility to die and another weakness to be born, the programmers of the social virus, found a way of making money out of this one too. They started Zoom TV!

Why are we embarrassed by silence? What comfort do we find in all the noise?...

Detachment does not mean you don’t let experiences penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate you fully. That’s how you are able to leave it.

Agreed. Looking at the same idea from another angle, people chase things and once they get it, they take it for granted and don’t cherish it anymore! House, car, love, friendship!!!

It’s a good book but does not strike me as an outstanding work of wisdom as it would strike other people, mostly westerners (much of the popularity of such works can be attributed to the impact they make on westerners, many of whom prefer domesticating dogs to rearing babies because dogs are cheaper! That should speak volumes about the necessity of such books in the west).
This is perhaps because my encounter with such wisdom has happened many times before. First of all, I am an Indian and have the good fortune of inheriting 5000 years of philosophy even as I come into this world. We Indians grow up assimilating such wisdom without even realising it. Don’t we? How many Harikathas, Bhajans, recitations of the Bhagavadgeetha have I grown up listening to! All of them impart the same learning. And much more than that. Don’t they?

Anyway, read the book and let me know your thoughts.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Manali - Day 2

There is so much to do in Manali.

I decided to try para gliding. Para gliding happens at Solang valley which is about twenty kilometers from Manali proper. If you don’t know anyone then this whole affair can be expensive. The drive to Solang valley and back itself will cost you more than 500. Luckily, Anu’s friend Atul was an organizer of various sports.

Me and Atul drove to Solang valley and we reached there by afternoon. The drive offered views of the interesting landscape around Manali – the Beas river, the snow mountains, Devdars, vast open spaces and mountains.

We reached a clearing where there were several food stalls, cameramen, pilots and people.

It was too late for the 14 minute glide and it was expensive. Since I had reached the last lap of my month long tour, I had to be conscious of my pocket. I would go for the 2 minute glide. Atul told my pilot Ram to remain in the air slightly longer.

From the clearing we climbed a small hillock. Some people were already on the top and there were the others who were climbing slowly.

We clambered to the top. But we would have to wait for the strong winds to calm down. Here and there on the hillock were poles fixed with a piece of cloth tied to them, the fluttering of which indicated the direction and strength of the winds.
We waited patiently. An hour passed. My pilot kept looking at the sky. These guys are trained to forecast certain weather conditions by observing the cloud patterns in the sky. At that time, the sky above us was clear and blue but there were clouds closing in from other directions. He explained that the winds would continue until the clouds had closed in completely and the sky looked somewhat uniform with respect to cloud pattern or distribution. This had to do with winds blowing from high pressure to low pressure areas or so…elements working together to help the atmosphere attain a state of equilibrium.

One more hour passed. I was getting impatient. I told my pilot that we should fly. He told me it was very risky. you would sail with the winds alright. But you might not land safely! I told him I was a brave girl. He laughed. He said he might have to land on a tree in emergency. I said I did not mind as long as I did not hurt my limbs. As the two of continued thus, to the amusement of the other pilots around, the weather condition became favourable and pilot asked me fasten the belts. I did and he too fastened the belt and positioned himself behind me. We ran a short distance and then we jumped…

My heart skipped a beat… we floated…this way and that way…in a zig-zag fashion. And very shortly we were close to landing. There were people below, some seated and some standing. I was certain I would land on one of them. They too saw the danger coming, got to their feet and ran, as I landed in their midst laughing uncontrollably.
As I unfastened my belt and removed my helmet, I was approached by camera men who had photographed me and also taken a video. I paid 100 bucks and got the video.

We returned to the hotel from where I ran to the Hidimba temple, for some more strawberry. But it was already evening and the vendors had all sold their wares and returned home. So I simply strolled some, took pictures and retuned to the hotel.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Coquettish Angels

November. The leit motif of the month is children.

I must confess that I am somewhat envious of anyone who was born after 1984. By the time they had gathered themselves and by the time they could make sense of what was happening around them, the intellectual infrastructure was up and running.

The internet, which has revolutionized the way people LIVE today, had become popular – by the time these kids reached 15.
Google which has empowered one and all, indiscriminately, by providing access to a world of information at the click of a button and has made it so easy for people to get smart, was operational - by the time these kids reached 17.
Cable television. Cable TV had just been born when I was 13 or 14. Anu kapoor’s Anthakshari was gaining popularity. Reality shows were yet unheard of.
But in just a few years, there were multiple news channels, more sophisticated, smarter and sharper than ever before.
The talk shows, the debates like the Big Fight on NDTV, the Discovery and Nat geo were only few of the many stimulants packaged and available already to the 85 borns by the time they reached 16.

It does not matter anymore whether a child today is born with a silver spoon or not. The intellectual infrastructure is incomparable to any other blessing a child has received before.

But,……………But the child of today isn’t quite a child.

Even as I begin, I don’t know if this is pointless ranting, if this is the same old recurring, nagging complaint by the older generation about the ways of the new generation; but the fact remains that there is a huge gap, somewhat blatant, somewhat flagrant and it is but inevitable for the more observant of us to discuss this gap and make those unavoidable comparisons.

Children of today are tending to reach adulthood far earlier than they are meant to. Whether this is fortunate or otherwise, is debatable.

For one thing, they are way too smart and independent. They can operate with ease a number of gadgets like the remote control, the television, the computer, the music system…etc.
The pleasure of teaching the child, all those things it is curious to know, from the very beginning, is no longer savoured by the elder whose privilege it has been to condescend to guide a blinking innocent.

The pleasure of being that all-knowing-big-brother is taken away by a smart kid who already knows more than you.

That shy, apprehensive kid, afraid of unknown people and needing handholding is extinct today.
It renders you, the elder, somewhat useless or redundant.
In some cases, their boldness and confidence receive so much encouragement and praise from proud parents that they become somewhat impertinent. I find this rather irritating.

The very fact that they don’t need you anymore makes them less deserving of your sympathy if not less deserving of your love.
I personally preferred it when they needed me, when they evoked my concern, my protective instinct, when they asked too many questions and knew too little, when they needed to hold my finger firmly in their tiny fist to explore the wide wild world. The assurance, that whether or not somebody else in this world needs me, a child definitely needs me is now taken away from me.

I also observe, somewhat poignantly, that the child of today has lost a certain innocence. Parents are responsible to a large extent. Most of them do not see the fine line that separates smartness from impertinence, exposure from over exposure, ignorance from innocence and independence from detachment.

A colleague, a mother of a 7 year old who had left her kid behind in India as she traveled to the US and stayed there for a few months was telling us all with pride that the child did not miss her or wince about her absence even rarely, that he was taking care of himself very well, that he called her up only to remind her of all the fancy toys he wanted her to bring him and that he did not want her to return to India if she failed to bring him those toys!

Such detachment! I would have been deeply pained if I learnt that my child did not cry for me even once! And the mother found it very convenient as she was spared of a big headache and could move on with her career.

Have you been watching all the reality shows on television? I am talking about those in which children sing and dance.
I can’t stop shaking my head in utter disbelief at the endless pretences, shameless lies and rigged up, staged disputes that are made part of the shows just to help the program get better TRP ratings!
To hell with the director of the show, to hell with the judges and to greater hell with the celebrities whose livelihood solely depends on such lies and pretences and whose most important means of getting visibility is farce.
What about the children? Does anybody spare a thought for them? Lying, pretending,……Is this what we want to teach them? Is this the kind of exposure we want to give them during their formative years? Alright, they have talent and they deserve a platform to exhibit them. But why does nobody, not the government, not even the parents of the children protest against such loathsome practices as staged brawls? Why such effortless acceptance of hypocrisy and deception?

And the dance competitions. Ah! What a gory scene! Have you ever watched this show called Boogie Woogie? A machine of sorts that has an incredible capacity for making every participant – boy, girl, child, man, woman – don a whore like disposition.

I have had the good fortune of watching a few episodes where the competition was exclusively for children. All of them must have been below fourteen years of age. The girls were wearing plunging necklines (already!), performing gyrating hip movements (already), jiggling their breasts (even before they were fully developed!) and giving suggestive looks and winks to the judges even before understanding fully, the meaning of those looks (I hope so…the matter would be worse if they already understood the meaning of those gestures!) amidst cheers from the audience, judges AND parents!

Some of the children were just six years old. Cheeks sucked in, mouth protruding. Coquettish expressions on angelic faces! The younger the daughter, the prouder the parents! I haven’t seen anything as disgusting as this. How can any mother bear to see her daughter trying to look or behave like Bipasha Basu and Mallika Sherawat, leave alone feeling happy about it?

And when a fourteen year old girl consented to have sex with the son of a Goa chief minister, the parents kicked up a big fuss about the guy raping a minor and all that.
What the hell was the fourteen year old doing, consenting to have sex when she should be playing with Barbie dolls?
What kind of upbringing has the mother given her? And why is she accusing the boy instead of whip lashing her daughter for sleeping around?

As I said, the fine line is blurred… the fine line that separates smartness from impertinence, exposure from over exposure, ignorance from innocence and independence from detachment.

Let us keep them away from the race. Let them be innocent. Let them depend on us a little. Let them walk to adulthood at a leisurely pace. Let us not push them towards adulthood. They are not fancy show pieces at display for neighbours to admire. Let them be dumb. It’s alright. Let them know, when it is time for them to know.

Let them be the children of Tagore’s world…the children Tagore’s dreams were made of…

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
The children meet with shouts and dances.
They build their houses with sand
And they play with empty shells.
With withered leaves they weave their boats
And smilingly float them on the vast deep.
They know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets.
Pearl fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships,
While children gather pebbles and scatter them again.
They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets…

The greatest gift you can give your child is childhood. A prolonged one.

When my friend Pramod, a creative man in the advertisement field, was asked by his friend to suggest a suitable name and tag line for a kindergarten he was opening, Pramod rightly said…

Because First Steps Last.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Manali - Day 1

The night journey from Mcleod Ganj to Manali was uneventful (mercifully). I reached early in the morning – I think 6.

As soon as I alighted from the bus I caught sight of a snow covered mountain which was creamish-peach in colour – the kind you see on magazine covers and tell yourself it is the work of photoshop.
You can get this view only at dawn. I had observed the mountains at dusk several times and at several places, hoping to see them turn golden but they only turned ashen. It is only at dawn that the magic happens.

I still remembered, though vaguely, my previous visit to Manali with my parents in October 98. We had stayed in a very calm area. I did not, of course, remember the name of the hotel or the locality. But I did remember that it was very close to a certain Hidimba temple which we had not visited then. We had been content with the amusement provided to us by the idea of a temple devoted to Hidimba – totally unheard of!

Of the several taxi/auto drivers that surrounded me as I alighted from the bus, I chose one randomly and told him that my budget was 250 – 300 rupees per day. He drove through new Manali (as he said old Manali would be more expensive). To my disappointment, I observed that it had become such a shabby town with mean looking hovels and unaesthetic concrete structures everywhere. He drove from one hotel to another and I simply shook my head. I asked him if he could recommend some calm, quiet area – some place near Hidimba temple – to which he said that it would be old Manali. My nostalgia got the better of my calculative mind and I decided to go to that haunting place, where there still lingered a fragment of my past, my visit to the place, the four of us together – me, my mom, dad and brother.

As the taxi drove on, there appeared dense grooves of Devdar, winding rows flanked by rose shrubs, picturesque cottages and more Devdar. Here was the Manali of my memory, the Manali of my past. My tormented soul found some respite having found a place long lost.

The hotel ‘Gulmarg’ happened to me by good fortune. It was owned by the taxi driver!
This was the last of the tenements on that road. Behind this hotel and beyond, there was pure wilderness.

On the right of the hotel was a small kitchen, I was to learn soon, not to be judged by its appearance. Further there were vast spaces, Devadrs and a snow mountain beyond. In the front was the lawn and a row of rose shrubs…bright pink, crimson… on the left was the huge shrub of wild roses, as tall as the two storey hotel and laden with white roses. It was the first thing I noticed as I arrived here.

The surrounding air was diffused with the fragrance of white wild roses. Superlatives fail me and I shall not try to eulogize. It was simply heavenly.
This romance was interrupted only by the insolence of tobacco smokers to whom it does not matter an iota that they are in the midst of mountains, Devdars, roses and pristine air.

I set out, Alice in wonderland, kid in a candy store, with a spring in my step, camera in my pocket and a song in my heart.

It was the season of bloom. After a really long time, I saw sooooo many roses all at once…in pleasing colours and unbelievable numbers, all over the place.

Some double coloured roses. Pink and yellow petals in one single flower.

My first destination was the Hidimba temple.
On my way I found what I was looking for – a group of women offering to dress you in traditional Himachal attire and jewelry for a photograph. Ten years ago, when I had been accosted by them and my father had asked me if I would like to have such a picture taken, I had refused flatly thinking it was silly, perhaps laughable. What illusions one has in those growing years!

I wasted no time in getting ready for the picture as the women wrapped a colourful piece of cloth around me, one more to cover my head, some jewelry, a flower basket and a rabbit – a real one! I wish I was not soooo sun tanned.

The area surrounding the temple is simply beautiful. Tall, sky high Devdar trees, well tended rose shrubs, clean trails leading up to the temple…

It’s a pagoda shaped wooden temple, hundreds of years old.

Hidimba was a Rakshasi, but a good woman whom Bhim married in the epic of Mahabharat. The more famous Ghatotkach, who died in the Great War, fighting for Pandavas, was the fruit of this union.

Look at the embellishments on the temple walls! Remember, she was a rakshasi?

As you enter the temple, you enter a cave. There are a few small idols of female goddesses and one of them is Hidimba.

I will remember this day as one of the most idyllic, peaceful and romantic days of my life. The temple is at the centre and all around, there are the tall, majestic, beautiful Devdar trees. There are several neat trails from several entrances leading up to the temple at the center. This is one of the trails.

In these premises of the temple, you will find a motley mix of people – the not at all aggressive local people trying to sell you myriad merchandise.

Strawberry vendors

Wonderful strawberries. Freshly plucked from the farms. 10 rupees per cup. I had 5 to 6 cups. :-)

Then, I strolled over to the open area at the end of the trail.

A fair was going on. There were people selling sweaters, Kashmiri dresses, wooden, ebony coloured statues of Buddha – I was so glad to find one, key chains attached to small, oval shaped, flat pieces of Devdar wood, jewelry made of stones and then, they were selling colourful magic balls – these are the size of a mustard seed – red, blue, yellow, green, blue – when you soak them in water overnight, they become marble sized and look very pretty – colourful, transparent and shiny as they are. I stuffed my bag with three Kashmiri dresses, a Buddha statue, several packets of magic balls of different colour, 2 Devdar-wood key chains and an orange stone necklace with earrings. A very satisfying shopping!

Yak! You have to pay 10 rupees to have a picture taken with it. I took this picture stealthily.

This is a sort of temple for Ghatotkach.

I was accosted by some more people with the Himachal dress. This time, it was a lamb instead of the rabbit. I am ever ready to be photographed :-)

I strolled some more and retuned to the hotel. Anu Thakur, the manager of the hotel, a short, sweet, young fellow was one of the friends I made during this Himalaya trip. He was very friendly and helpful. He offered to show me around himself. He first took me to the club house by the Manalsu River.

This river joins the Beas River. Its water is very cold and its colour, a beautiful, pristine green, may be emerald.

This is the picturesque club house. Its interiors resemble the malls of Bangalore with their well lit shops and merchandise on display. There are rooms where you can play billiard and other games.

The club house is by the Manalsu River. We bought some fries to munch and sat on the rocky banks of the Manalsu. There were many other people. You could do river crossing on a rope for 100 rupees. Kids, boys and girls were doing it. I too, said a prayer and ventured.

When I reached the centre, they heaved the rope up and down so my feet touched the water below..Oooooh!

The next destination was a Buddhist monastery in the city. Instead of taking the main road, we took the route that was through a forest of Devdars. A good two kilometer walk… the best walk of my life.

These tents are pitched for ever. They can be rented by tourists.

This is Anu. He is a fan of Sania Mirza. :-)

In the city.

Cherry!!! How I relished them.

The Buddhist monastery.

Guru Padma Sambhava

Gautama Buddha. This is a very tall statue.

Tara Devi (I think)

From the first floor

It was getting dark. And we returned. There was nothing to do for the evening. I sat in the garden on the swing and sipped a cup of tea, while taking in deep breaths, the sweet perfume of the white wild roses that pervaded the night.

I called it a day. A perfect day.