Recognising Indian Values

Crowded, dirty, public spaces, the constant negotiations with people during the day, the heavy duty of family expectations; these things have come to characterize life in India for me. The visiting friends who now live in the USA point out the un-hygienic restaurants and the polluted air of the cities. It is easy to see life here as a survival battle in a poor country.

What with the local newspapers talking about molested women and bull-fighting as the cultural bulwark, it is not difficult for the foreign-travelled Indian to judge that much of the country is a century behind in social progress and modernity.

The mainstream nationalist voice talks with pride about the Hindu dharma as well as the penance of demonetization. It talks with equal fervour about capitalist growth and escalating militarization. This clash of values around desire is not noticed in the collective national need to finally matter in the world. India has been colonized for too long and been poor for too long. It is time to clean our streets and be seen as rich.

I question the idea of being rich. Is being rich having money in the bank? Is it being able to have extra cash to spend on leisure and pleasure. Is being rich a feeling of abundance that I can share food and space with other people and animals and still have enough for my needs?

Leaving philosophy aside and looking at richness from a purely economic perspective, the poor is the smallest segment of the population in India, just around 27.5% according to a Planning Commission estimate a decade ago. That is about 300 million people. That pegs the middle and upper classes at a one billion people. India is by no means a poor country. It is a country where there lives a large number of people who are economically poor . There is a big difference between these two perspectives. The successive Governments since Independence have thankfully largely targeted improving the lives of the poor. This has given the other classes some unexpected advantages. For example the Indian railways is much subsidised in comparison to the redoubtable USA.

Another economic advantage at having all sorts of economic classes living together here are the price points. I can buy coffee for 200Rs or for 8Rs. I can buy clothes for 300Rs, for 5000Rs or I am lead to believe from magazines , one lakh rupees. If by some drastic change of fortune my circumstances are reduced to a meager income, I can still live with some basic dignity and afford food and stay. We feel ashamed of poverty but do we realise that the poor have gifted us so much choice and empowerment.

Not just economically but also socially and psychologically. Living with a politically active poor has made us a more tolerant society. In the ability to give food to a street dog or a few rupees to a begger I feel like I have much. Even though a bank loan may be grinding us down, by looking at people with more disadvantages than us we learn to be more content with our lives.

To understand social tolerance let us take the example of the crowded roads. Foreigners remark on the chaos of the roads and make fun of the cows on it. However another way of looking at the roads is to wonder at how the different social classes mix equally there. The rich have not demanded private roads for cars only. Not just is there space on the roads for the variously speeding vehicles, none of them harm the slow meandering cow. With a good pair of ear- plugs or some nice music on the Radio, one can enjoy this miracle of the Indian roads while negotiating traffic to get to work.

The idea that we need mono-traffic and large roads with fast vehicles is an alien concept to our country. We don’t need to look like the USA. We can learn to enjoy India and make our life better in ways that makes sense to those of us living here.

I agree that living in India is not for the mild hearted. I often feel like my karma wheel is spinning in full force here. Circumstances demand of me a certain maturity with stiff punishments for bad choices. However I am sure that the modern Indian’s place in the world is to first acknowledge gold pile that we are already living on. Then to take the ethics of tolerance to the larger world struggling with fear of each other.

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Walking towards Auroville

Auroville is an international spiritual community in South India. Its charter bravely proclaims that Auroville intends to be a living embodiment of human unity. The place has existed for about fifty years and has about 3000 residents excluding the locals. Quite unique in its realisation, Auroville has largely managed to stay away from the glare of the mainstream media . As an idealist though I am tempted to scrutinize the place further. What have they achieved? What are the pitfalls and what are the useful lessons for India if any from this experiment.

As a visitor the first thing that hits my eyes are the natural buildings. The materials used like unbaked bricks, unpolished granite give a feeling that the buildings are one with the surrounding trees. A place where you can take walks in open spaces without a loss of privacy and without running into plastic wrappers. Such is also possible in the farms of rural India, however the difference is that this is a township with buildings knit close. Auroville is a reminder of either cities in the Indian past when the population was less or of some current South East Asian tourist towns like in Bali. The buildings are particularly pleasing to me, a confluence of traditional Indian natural buildings and modern western design. Our cities would do well to follow some this architecture instead of creating the concrete monstrosities that have cropped in the last few years.

The next most obvious thing that hit my eyes is the various posters announcing yoga, massages and workshops related to health. I am convinced that such are things the planet needs more of. However when I look at the prices announced I am frustrated that they are about twice or thrice the usual Indian prices. Given the steep price rise also of the guest houses I get nostalgic about the time a decade ago where the place also seemed more inclusive of Indian tourists. I can see that the systems of guest registration and finances etc. have become a lot more structured the last few years, the controls being brought in both by the foreign office of India and the Auroville management to plug vagrant tourists. However, the streamlining and central control seems to have benefited the guest houses and therapies business at the cost of personal trust and small negotiations. Both India and Auroville have a history of doing so well and its sad to see them go. This is a classic case for the debate of centralisation versus decentralisation around the world . My opinion is that decentralisation is much more empowering to the people. Decentralisation is also more robust as it is not dependent on a single authoritarian figure.

Digging deeper in Auroville involves reading a copy of the local newsletter. This is the main vehicle of communication within the community. It is heartening to find that there are a programmes also offered for free in Auroville. There are interesting movies showing on most nights, dance and music performances. The complex organisational structure of the place is exposed in the newsletter with its hot debates on policy. I am faced with recogising that as an educated middle class citizen I feel outside of the political system in India. My political participation seems limited to voting once in a few years and consuming the media. Unless we choose a life of a bureaucrat, a choice we need to have made quite young, both the middle class and the intelligentsia are largely left out from state governance and policy. What if we had a pan-Indian intellectual forum that can usefully contribute to Government decisions? Almost no country be it the USA or Japan has been able to do create such a forum and policy seems to rest invariably on politicians and mass sentiment. In a small and educated community like in Auroville many voices are heard and debated upon, kudos.

In terms of the demographics the largest groups that domicile here are the Europeans and the local Tamils. In the earlier days the foreign arrivals were largely hippies living a quiet life in a huge tract of land along with the largely uneducated villagers. Overtime there have been children born here with mixed identities and hence I can happily say that is a mixed ethnic community. The next round of arrivals both as guests and participants have been the foreign new-age spiritualists. Auroville seems a good halfway point from their cultures to India which can be overwhelming for them. The one problem of the foreign tourist ghettoising himself in Auroville is that the perception of the mother country is mostly dismal and dismissive. Foreign tourists in Tiruvanamalli are able to have a much kinder view of the Indian people and more realistic view of the country. The latest round of tourists to Auroville seem to the young, urban Indians. I wish I was ten years younger to feel a sense of community with them!

Coming from a place where service is usually silent and efficient, negotiating for a lunch in a cafe here can be a complex job. It is the only place in the world I have been so far where I have had to pay three hundred rupees for a meal and then clear the plates. I am not against egalitarianism but this money-machine that has cropped up lately is skewing power here. Thankfully, there is much of spirituality and goodness to explore in Auroville beyond the pains . The strategy that works for me here is to expect people to be rude and controlling and in return be pleasantly surprised many times a day.

For women and freedom this is one of the best places to in India. You can let down your hair, wear what clothes you want to and in most cases men approach you safely. The Indian woman here can do away with the pacifying voice and be direct in conversations without being judged as arrogant. Yes, finally one place in the country for a rebellious woman!

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Five peaceful places to visit in Chennai

Yes, the cities can be confusing places to negotiate in India. A lot of people from a lot of different social classes live together and public spaces belong to everyone. Hence public spaces can get quite chaotic. The bus stations and railway connections are primarily used by the poor and middle classes whereas the airports are affordable for the upper middle classes and beyond.

There is no point in foreigners getting off at bus stations and complaining that they were dirty or generalising that this is India. No, it is not. India is not a poor country but a country with poor living with other classes. The latter too are not so easy to meet or mix with. It is good to keep this is mind and also celebrate the fact that so many types of people use the roads together.

I do have some favorite spots where I get away from crowds in the city.

  1. Thiruvalluvar Nagar Beach, Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai

One of the southern beaches that lies along the East Coast Road. A google map search will give you a navigation to this beach. It is reasonably clean and has a decent crowd. Recently a group of civic minded residents have taken interest in keeping it even cleaner.

2. Vasant Vihar, Krishnanmurti Foundation, Greenways Road, Chennai

J.Krishnamurti upon being asked what to do with visitors to this center is said to have remarked “give them a cup of tea”. So yes, you can invite yourself in for chai in the mornings and afternoons and lunch upon prior notice to the center. They have one of the most beautiful gardens in the city and thankfully it is open to the public. They also have a study and a guest house for those visitors interested in exploring the philosophy of JK deeper.

3. Narada Gana Sabha, Mylapore, Chennai

The music season in the city is not to be missed .  Carnatic music to me is a deep and transcendental experience. Narada Gana Sabha is an auditorium which I like for its great location and unpretentious organizers. Basically an unpretentious place with good music, good food and a nice music shop. You can also look up The Music Academy, a sister auditorium close by, with a more exclusive atmosphere.

4. Dakshinchitra, East Coast Road, Chennai

One the success stories in art rehabilitation, maybe even the best, in India. Dakshinchitra has a wonderful library related to the indian arts , a well curated program of cultural events, some nice shopping of artisan products. It holds within in various exhibits of houses from different parts of south India , I believe many of these houses were relocated piece by piece from their original places.

5. Madras Square, Neelankarai , Chennai

Other places to let your hair down in Chennai would be the restaurants. The five star hotels usually have a peaceful atmosphere and affordable coffee shops. Amongst the private restaurants I like the Madras Square: pretty, quirky building, a small garden space and good food.

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A Tribute to T.Balasaraswati

I am no connoisseur of the carnatic arts. My music teacher told me when I was twelve, that I was tone deaf. I have faithfully believed her. I did learn Bharatnatyam as a child. The abinaya pieces petrified me. It turns out that standing out from a crowd scares me. The authoritarian attitude of the dance teacher did not help one bit. I hope things have changed in the last twenty years. I have my doubts. This is Chennai. Change is not liked.

Balasaraswati is something else. I caught my first glimpse of her dance a couple of years ago. In a small piece of a video I scrapped off the youtube. She was dancing on the beachfront in a simple white saree. It is false to say that her dance captivated me. Balasaraswati captivated me. Her simplicity, her accessibility, the humanness of her dance, I was drawn to all of it. So far I had had the idea that to dance the bharatnatyam you must be under layers of colourful silk and wear a lot of bridal jewellery. Here was a dance doyen dancing classical on the beach. I was stunned. I felt a kindling of interest in this dance form again. Thus did Balasaraswati decades after she passed away bring an unsuccessful student of her style back into her fold. The movie, by the way, was by that farseeing director Satyajit Ray – Bala. Apparently it is not even a well received movie and has a serial narrative. I can imagine the emotionality of her live audience.

Since then, I have followed Bala as I could. Last year I heard a speech by one of her old students. She hinted at the shame that Balasaraswati seems to have carried with her for being a devadasi. I read the few articles on the internet on the unhappiness and loneliness of her last years. One can put together the pieces of the talented dancer who could not get fully rid of the scarlet letters of a dasi that society pinned on her. Approachable, maybe even available. Bala was not lucky enough to get married, brahminised and thus sanctified like M.S.Subbalakshmi. And she seems to have borne a child.

The respect of the profession that must have come in their way of living, as it was a tradition that could be traced down to centuries, was torn down by the British and the social reformists. However, they do not seem to have done a good job of handling either handling the cultural heritage these artists carried with them or the socio-psychological aspects of bringing this community into the social setup. However, I am writing about my own angst against a society still deeply steeped in social hypocrisy. I can only guess at the emotional map of Bala herself and take as evidence the few talks or writings.

After hearing a singing of a few of the padams from her family’s repertoire in the lecture demonstration by her grandson today, I feel convinced that Bala brought her woundedness to her dance. She opened her heart and poured it into her abhinaya touching deeply the hidden emotions in her audience. One of the songs talked about a woman with closed eyes resting in the forest. She is awakened by the kiss of a man and submits to the union. In the morning the nayika awakens alone and is left wondering whether the meeting was a dream. The poignancy, the hints at reality, the wonderful musicality of the dance that has been handed down nine generations in that family. Aniruddha Knight is a proud son and grandson and rightly so. Shrimathi Shymala Mohanraj in the same demonstration at Natya Darshan happening currently at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, brought Bala’s abhinaya to life. The humility of the postures, the speaking eyes, the heart-rending music, I had tears in mine. I usually never cry for Bharatnatyam dances, I feel like I am watching march past. I feel proud of a good dance but not emotional. In the case of Alarmel Valli, I feel like I am watching a bee flitting on flowers.

The shringara in Bharatnatyam is often about conjugal love. This has been cloaked over by references to gods, Krishna being the favourite. However, the dance pieces are about conjugal love, even sexuality at times. Shringara can depict the Gods, but to evoke a response from me it has to connect to the pains, the tenderness that I know of and relate to in my earthly life. T. Balasaraswati brought truth to her dance, brought herself fully. To my maybe poorly trained but hopefully artistic eyes, Bala has been irreplaceable. Both as a performing artist and as an inspirer.

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Receiving Torobaka in Chennai

Torobaka, the presentation of Akram Khan Company, UK was received in the end by a standing ovation. This reception of what I saw as essentially a deconstructionist dance surprised me. Has the audience of Chennai finally moved beyond the confining traditionalistic viewing of arts? Or did it receive the reception it did because of good marketing by the event organisers and the dance company’s earlier international acclaim.

Don’t get me wrong, the dance production was of high quality. The artists came through in their dedication to the performance and to their audience. For an experimental production, one got the sense that each of the performers was trying to communicate to the audience instead of just creating art in vacuum. I think Akram has found the working balance between the honesty of experimentation and creating a show.

For me the first half of the production was deconstruction, the middle was exploration and the last piece was about construction of the dances – Kathak and Flamenco. Akram Khan represented Kathak and Israel Galvan represented Flamenco for most parts. A particular element of the original dance form was taken and then explored using free style and likely improvisation. For example the Kathak style spins were taken by Akram and he experimented with half curves. Israel for his part seemed to keep the clean lines of Flamenco in place, the open chest, the foot taps and then constructed a non-classical form of the flamenco. The deconstruction was a success as the audience was still able to see the resemblance to the original form.

Within the larger framework, elements seem to have been pulled out, broken down, broken and questioned. There is risk involved in this. The piece where Akram pulls shoes into his hands and dances with them on the floor probably is the most visual in terms of risk. I wondered whether this would have been the first exposure to such an act for many in the audience; Chennai follows a strict protocol to stage performance. I cannot say the piece shocked me. I do not think London audiences would be shocked either. However, it was a drama filled stage and I am sure that other things are exotic for other audiences maybe Kathak itself.

The dance duo towards the end of the performance went more completely into the form they had created. There was thrilling twirling on stage. This part to me was the dance construction. It likely left many of us viewers satisfied at our lurking doubts.

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Owing to Indian English

I am at a theatre workshop. There are three girls talking opposite me. A guy next to them jumps into the conversation. He asks one of the girls – “What is your first language?”. She is friendly and answers that her first language is English. His next question is – “Where are you coming from?” . She says that she comes from Bombay but has spent all her life in Chennai. He asks her if she speaks Tamil. She replies, “Yes, but not often and when I speak the language I speak a local accent”. His questioning on her language skills continues. Soon the girl goes into the defensive and starts to say that since she has lived all her life in Chennai, it would be surprising if she did not know the local language.



I am mildly irritated by this conversation but I didn’t want to contribute to it. I had heard the same lines too many times. I had also not once succeeded in getting across that not all english speakers are elitist. And not all english speakers are pretending they do not know tamil while being secret virtuosos.

If first language is defined as the language one is most comfortable in and thinks in, then there are many people who speak English as the first language in India. Some are even born to parents who might consider Tamil to be their language of comfort. But this does not mean that language is inherited like the nose or hair. Language is a choice, it is schooling and it is socialisation. In a country with apparently 1652 languages it is silly to ask – “What is your mother tongue ?” and try to draw conclusions from that.

English is contested territory. English is the new Sanskrit. The language of the ruling class that had oppressed the denizens. English is the also the language of pretense. Try to switch to tamil to speak to someone over the sales counter and they are offended that you do not credit their english. Try to speak english to the tamil intellectuals and they are offended that you do not try to speak tamil in tamil land. Any conversations around language gets emotional and awkward to say the least. And the personal questions start.

It turned out that although the poster for the theatre workshop was in English, the language spoken was tamil in fineprint. When I asked the organisers to have it bilingual, they asked me “where are you from?”. I said “Neelankarai”, my suburb’s name and left.

Another such incident was when I wanted to attend a lecture on the influence of the tamil culture on south east asia. The talk in Chennai was by an american curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. I went around the university campus where it was supposed to be but was unable to find the exact place. Right when I was about to give up, I found it. The reason for my being lost was that the sign board of welcome was in tamil only. And I do not read tamil.

Talking about this later one activist pointed out to me that this incident could make me understand how people who speak tamil as first language sometimes feel in the city. I was shocked at the lack of empathy for me. I am noticing that the local state buses carry only tamil signs and even the names of the streets are starting to change language. I support tri-lingual boards. Lets have at least three languages on all the boards: english, tamil and hindi. Lets include everyone instead of giving in to local pride and reverse exclusion.

It’s bad enough that the Indian english is questioned abroad. In the United States I was asked to take language lessons at university. The americans seem to think that the english spoken in any other accent than the american accent, is another language. My confidence took a real beating. I never did manage to learn the american accent since I dislike all attempts to teach me language. So I remained the alien and was happy to leave that country for good. It is just really sad that my language is also question back at home.

I don’t think that we need to worry so much about Tamil, it is the majority language after all. There has always been a parallel discourse and artistic output in that language, whatever the language of the ruling class was. Lets not forget that the current language of the ruling class in the state is Tamil and hold that power gently. I think we can forget about the British, decades have gone past and they do not determine our policies. Nothing we do not can erase that past, including changing the names of our cities. If I am talking with respect to Tamil here, you can replace that word by Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, whatever makes more sense to you. This is a pan-India problem, the issue of english.

We need to take from the ravages of colonialism lessons for our behaviour and resources to grow stronger. English is such a resource. It is a valuable currency in the globalised world. It is not an alien language to some of us Indians, that has to be respected. An even better post-colonial response would be to own the language as our own. The space in the english language that is Indian, is ours to hold and carry.

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Coexisting with my garden

Some of life’s lessons do not come in obvious statements. There are things to learn about living and peace by just waiting patiently. Here is the story of how I found my philosophy of life from watering my garden.

I was about 31 years old when I came to live in my current home. I was a very broken woman. I had run away from the mainstream life a few years ago to look at the alternative lifestyle. I thought I would find happiness in that. So far that hadn’t happened. I had had many adventures: good and bad ones. At the end of them I was broke and had developed a severe social anxiety. I was also deeply disappointed with life and people.

As the final resort I had to ask my parents to let me live in the second home. All of us thought then that my stay was a temporary situation. I could not live with my parents as they triggered me too much emotionally. I was terrified of living alone but there was not other option that seemed any less terrifying.

I moved into the newly whitewashed house . It had four bedrooms, many toilets, a beautiful stairway and an open drawing room. On the outside the house came with a cemented car park and a small backyard. The sides of the house had small walkways which had some shrubs planted next to the walls. I was blind to most of the beauty and deeply satisfied at the silence inside in the house. I had only a little furniture and most the house was to remain empty. It was an old house and a lot of the woodwork was faulty. The walls inside were stained with the marks of the earlier tenant. For example, there were a lot of open nail holes.

The whitewash of the outside of the the house had not been kind to the plants. A lot of the shrubs and a couple of trees were completely shorn of their branches. It wasn’t even a clean shearing. The broken stumps were ripped and their barks were hanging over pitifully. It had been a few months since the last tenant had left so there had been no one watering the garden since that time. It had been the cool season so far; the garden had not completely charred. Still, the lawn was just a large brown patch. The garden was clearly in a very sorry state.

I didn’t want to meet any people. I didn’t have much money; just a little to pay for my food and some assorted living expenses. I could not afford to employ anyone to maintain the large house I was in or for the repair work that was needed. Even if I did have money left over, I could not stand to be around the workers due to my anxiety. I employed a maid to come in twice a week to mop the floor. That is unusual in India where labour is cheap. Due to all this I completely inherited responsibility of the garden.

My outings from my room consisted of a walk down the staircase into the garden. I started to water the garden with a hose , it was an activity I really came to enjoy. Refreshing, simple and I felt like I was contributing to the planet in a good way. Yes, watering is as large and as political as that for me. After about 10 days of daily watering the garden started to wake up and show me some signs of life.

I was deeply thrilled to spot up a little sprout of green grass amongst all the brown. From the pot which had some buried tubers, up sprouted the first few green leaves of the rain lily. I had found an activity that relaxed my anxiety. The space around me started to slowly open up.

I started to blog about alternative health, flower remedies and reiki. I saw a few clients. Soon enough, this also got too overwhelming for me emotionally. I kept going back to caring for the garden. In it I found friends who asked little of me but water. The life inside of the seed was big enough to be independent of my attention. Since to me every plant was precious , I did not judge any life that came up as “weed”. I let them grow. And grow they did.

Today it is about five years since I came to live here. The garden has about 80 species of plants, much of that was seeded by natural processes. I have a beautiful expensive palm that I consider my prize. It just appeared one day in my garden. I live in a tropical country , that is one reason for the success of the garden. Another is the self sustaining nature of ecosystems if left unharmed. I am not fully out of my anxiety issues yet. However, I live with two dogs and a house mate now. I have come to believe that also my body and mind have an innate intelligence. If I let myself be, then I am nourishing myself to my highest good.

I found a little nest of a Sunbird at my door a few weeks ago. I am sending a picture of the nest it made out of seeds and twigs.


My philosophy : If I let nature be, Nature responds with magic.

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Archana Sankaran finds it a little unnatural to have a website for displaying her art and her. She is a private person. She likes close relationships with few people best. So far she has enjoyed the clear, authentic, satisfying voice of her poetry and her photographs and her sketches by herself. This has been enough for her.

To go out there and display is something she has not done for as long as she can remember. She supposes it is also cultural – good women are not to be seen or heard loudly. Also humility is the sign of greatness; while diamonds will shine in a swamp and be noticed.

If she were honest, Archana would admit that good things did not happen often to her in groups when her diamond was shining. She see groups as domination systems where people are trying to find their place through a pecking order. Her usual experience as an artist and going off the beaten track for the last many years has been that a few people in a group get nasty to her. This disturbs her needs of safety and intimacy within the group. So she folds up and leaves, wondering at the violent nature of mankind and its apathy. Archana would love to judge this phenomenon as Indian, where hierarchy is more visible. Unfortunately her experiences in international groups are the same. On this topic, she was happy to discover Erykah Badu’s video called Window Seat . Group Think.

Note however Archana likes being a diamond, just does not trust shining that’s all. It is very important to her to be creative, whatever channel it takes. It is very important for her to be exploring boundaries, exploring truth. This has made her a shadow diamond. Since beginning 2013, she has had the faint doubt that she is getting her attention anyways from people, only deviantly. There is often a storm around and she is in the center as a shadow. She often has the eerie feeling of being looked at and is not fully sure how much of this is paranoia and how much reality. She has decided that she is going to get direct again.

Archana Sankaran would like to reach a place where social approval does not matter at all. Neither does she want to create images for herself to fit to.

On a positive note, since that is important too. Archana Sankaran likes the confidence kick of performance. It touches her that her singing can bring joy to people. She loves that her poetry can lead to a very emotional response in some of her readers . She hopes you enjoy her sketches and photography. Do write to tell her about it.


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Q&A with grandma

I moved back with my parents after a week with ‘Paatti’. I have a job lined up from Monday and I am moving on. Last night, I kept the poor, old woman awake till long past. I wanted a few answers.

Me: Does life have an inherent meaning?
Paatti: No.

Me: I’m only 25 but already I have seen so my sorrow, have been let down by people, exploited , seen children dying, loved and been forsaken. There is so much greed and animosity everywhere. I can see life as only a buy of more responsibility, and creation of more problems either in the form of children or house etc. As we grow older it only looks like it gets worse as our physical system also starts failing. This cant be the right way to live?

Paatti: Okay, so become a Kanyastri ( a young sanyasi). So there are two ways, either you have to embrace life with all its problems and attachments or you have to give up all attachments.

Me: Does becoming a Kanyastri mean less problems?
Paatti: No. I you have taken birth on this earth then you are going to have problems whatever path you take.

Me: If we embrace the normal life knowing that it is meaningless. How can we be content in this hypocrisy?
Paatti: In my case, I accept circumstances if I cant change them. If your daughter-in-law is unkind to you and you expect kindness from her because it is the right thing for her to do, the only person who is going to be frustrated is you. Whatever is in your fate will happen, so no point in fighting circumstances. I like to help people and I have been doing that all my life. My sister-in-law liked to make sweets and she used to prepare a lot of sweets. We were content.

Me: Is education only for making money? What is real education?
Paatti: Real education should be able to give you the ability to differentiate between the right and the wrong. It should also give you the ability to act on it like smartness, power and energy. And yes, education is also to give you the ability to make money to look after your more mundane wants.

Me. So what is ‘right’?
Paatti: Right is to do good things . In the indian society it is to give to the handicapped, to the mental ward as these people are the most neglected. Education used for teaching is also a good way.

Me: Is doing a Phd a more useful way of using your education?
Paatti: No, most Phds are fools. They are concentrating on only improving their minds without a care to other wants of a body. In a holistic life you have to take care of all your needs, not just mental ones. Also, some people do their phd as a way to make money which is not different from a normal job. People like you, with a more wavering mind should not think of this option as there is no running away from realities. Only those people should do a Phd who are totally dedicated to the field.

Me: If God is so powerful, then how come he cannot protect himself? ( This is in the context of Tamilnadu where the temples of worship are subject to political vagaries)
Paatti: How do you know that God is not watching ?

Me: Is there God?
Paatti: No, it is all a creation of the mind. If you put a stone in front of it and think it is God, then it is God.

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10 things to learn from my grandfather.

May 19th 2014

Today is the day of my grandfather’s funeral. He was 95 years old and had a peaceful death of natural causes. Shri N.Ramaswamy in his quiet and simple way was an inspirational man. One of those old Brahmins of the earlier generation who are almost extinct now.

One: Cleanliness

I remember my grandpa sitting down in the drawing room after the morning Puja and ablutions. Fresh, energized and with generous amounts of holy ash on his forehead. Late afternoon was again the freshening up period before the lamp was lit for the evening. Not one day were these routines missed. In the end when he could not do this ritual himself, my grandmother had it continued. I remember him from a month ago, he was sleeping a lot of the day. But in the morning he was back again on the seat in a clean shirt, freshly bathed . It could have been him from twenty years ago.

Two: Care for objects

I can safely say that every object that could have been recycled was recycled by him. His care for money and other consumer durables was extraordinary. The rupee coins which many of us dismiss so easily as of being little value, not one paise was wasted in my house. The pens which ran out of ink got an ink refill. The plastic bags, and for most of his life there was none, were all put one on top of another in the store room to be reused when needed. Sometimes he used to visit my parents home and then got the responsibility of repairing the broken telephones and arranging the messed up cable wires neatly. One absolutely fantastic quality of his was that he never chastised others around him about their lack of care. Maybe he brought it up once in a while as a joke but this was never a shaming objective. I think some of us in our family, particularly my parents, thought him a bit of miser. I inherit some of this tendency to care and I don’t think I am miserly, we like to respect everything we use. And we want to use only as few goods as we need. Also, I theorise that my grandpa was really old school. He grew up in an India where the objects we owned had a lot more value than in these current consumerist times.

Three: Welcoming

“Hello” “Hello” “Hello” “welcome” “welome” “welome” – Any guest who entered his small apartment was sure to be loudly and genuinely greeted. For a few minutes the guest would feel like they have done a great favour by bestowing their presence in my grandfather’s home. There would be questions of what the guests wanted to eat and any food would be untiringly provided. The parting was again a warm ritual of goodbyes and blessings given. The women on parting got the red Kumkum. My grandfather would also come to the balcony and see off his guests. I see him waving to me from the balcony . Sometimes there were tears in his eyes .

Four: Loyalty

Let’s face it, my grandpa did not have the best of family. His relationship with his wife was marred by many daily fights. Mostly around the small things of what to buy, how much to spend, when to organize puja’s etc. His relationships with all his other relatives, sons, daughters, grandchildren was quiet. However, I don’t think any of his children asked him how they could make his life better. In our turbulent lifes and chaotic emotional behavior, he was a stable, calm and silent spectator. Loyal to the core . He got not much back from anyone other than occasional visits. He had not one complaint or unkind word over this. When I was not talking to my parents and was living alone, he wrote me letters upon letters and finally broke down my resistance . I feel truly alone without him.

Five: Self sufficiency

He walked to everywhere. He took the crowded local bus till he got too old for it. He was in his late seventies by the time he stopped the bus travel. He lived on his own and took care of his wife till he was 93. He did his bank, pension and tax work by himself. Never got into debt. His gifts of money to his grandchildren was a matter of pride to him. He paid back any money he took from his son, all except a few hospital bills in the end. My grandparents ran a full house with all the worries of house maintenance till a couple of years ago and I take pride in that. It was a foolish independence, nevertheless it showed me that I am capable of standing alone too. In the last few years grandpa needed full time nursing care, but he coped with it the best he could. It was sad for me to see such an independent man being dependent full time on his nurse and wife. However, he took it the huge transition reasonably well until a few months ago.

Six: Non demanding attitude

Shri. Ramaswamy had three children, eight grandchildren. His son was rich and four of his grandchildren live in the USA or Canada. Neither are the rest of us as poor as he was. He managed money and his lifestyle better than all of us. I have never heard him make a request for any material object from any of us. He was happy to accept the few gifts we offered. I brought my grandparents ice-cream occasionally and it made them happy.

Seven: Organising money

I think this aspect comes through in a couple of previous points. To battle increased cost of living, hospital bills and run a house on a forty year old pension money requires great money management skills. It is going to be sad to see his precious collection of bank money being fought over. I hope the relatives resolve this aspect with fairness and more importantly kindness.

Eight: Affection

My grandpa was the most consistently affectionate person of my life. His small gifts made me feel heady with a loving feeling. And this is not just me, it is also true for my father and mother. He did not have a large social circle that he cared about, but I am sure every person in that circle would vouch for his affectionate speech and his forgiveness. For such a silent man, he understood our emotional maps. At important times, he soothed these hurt feelings.

Nine: Silence

Grandpa did not talk much. He welcomed us, made sure we had something to eat and then witnessed our conversations with our garrulous grandmother. Sometimes he asked if things were going well with life. Sometimes he spoke a little about cricket. It was an engaged silence. He would come and sit down besides his visitors and stay present to our topics of conversation. The few words he used were usually expressing care about our wellbeing. If any conflicts arose while he was around family, he broke it up quickly with a few words. He clearly had an active emotional life which he expressed to his close relatives by letters. Sometimes the letter showed us the side of his life that was painful to him . Sometimes it shocked us as the man we met and talked to was the quietest and more caring person we knew. He was that, quiet and caring. But he was emotional as well and faced pain over insensitivities. Don’t get me wrong, my grandpa wrote me close to a fifty letters when I was away at college during my undergrad. They had not one sad word. While maybe letters were not the best way to solve certain emotional conflicts, the precious silence and presence he offered is something to learn from. Anyone could be certain to relax fully around him.

Ten: Godliness

Born a shaivite Brahmin, his morning prayers went on for a couple of hours. Bath, the holy ash and the rudraksh mala later, he would be ready to chant the mantras. His favorite was an idol of Lord Ganesha and he offered this lord special pujas. A devout couple, my grandparents missed not one festival or religious rite. The festivals were occasions of genuine celebration and relaxation. Some religious rites were more somber. Their lives were lived around the moon calendar which marked thousands of years of their traditions.

I cannot fully believe he is gone. When I look in the mirror I see that a part of him has stayed with me. May his soul rest in peace and love. May all the wishes that he did not communicate to us and that went unfulfilled be satisfied in his place of rest. May he never feel alone.


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