Slow poisoning of family values

The best thing about the far past is that it can be glorified without strong proof. I keep hearing that Indian families were such that we lived harmoniously in large joint families. Extended families were helpful and took in relatives who needed help. In marriages the whole community used to chip in to bear a little of the expenses. The current state of most urban families is so far away from this ideal that I wonder : Was the close knit Indian family a myth?

Certainly my own family in the last decade has been more of a bane than a boon. I did not attend my brother’s marriage as a property conflict came up with my father. The enmasse migration of the cousins to the USA brought with it annoying comparisons and further distancing between us. One cousin upon my telling her that I wish we were more in touch wrote back to say that she had no time for people in her city let alone someone thousands of miles away. Do Indians learn directness in America or just bad manners?

Anyways I oftentimes think that to be immigrants in a competitive country with no social protection cannot be easy however much my NRI cousins paint a rosy picture of their lives. And then there is the problem of their ageing parents who live here. The recent advertisements of old age homes in Chennai making them sound like vacation spots is a sad denial of the broken up family support systems.

Not all is good with the families that remain in town either. Going to my aunt’s house is a training in fasting for me. I was caught once “impurely” trying to get water from their kitchen and since then hold that kitchen in complete antipathy. The uncle doesn’t welcome me with even a hello, ignores me and looks mostly at the television screen. This social rudeness stands out starkly as I am friendly and I live in an extremely friendly country where I often share conversations with complete strangers. Thus the holier-than-thou attitude by the family elders would be more palatable if they forgive their errant children and made peace in conflicts.

The shining light to familial kindness is my late grandfather who welcomed such a feuding family with love and joy. Not that he got anything back from them in return other than more demands. However, he remains an inspiration to us and brings a hope that close knit families of the past were indeed possible. He taught by example that families need not be perfect entities but can still be held together by an active act of forgiveness. Our many festivals can be used to broker relationships and cement bonds in celebration. Love is possible and faith is a must.

In our urban centers which seem to be on an unthinking, relentless path to westernisation it is becoming popular to be individualistic and not put energy into the extended family. My french girlfriend said it best when I shared this situation with her. She said, “Why do Indians pick the bad parts of western culture and not the good ones?”


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Where do you look for high culture in India?

One reads about the various spiritual teachers from India, the Yoga, of the land where people keep their traditional culture, of people who look beyond money at personal relationships. The thirst rises to go wander the land and live amongst the people.

Either through personal experience in such a travel or through hearsay we come to judging the land instead as polluted. We feel that we meet people who cheat you for money, that it is unsafe for women travellers, that people throw plastics everywhere and are dirty. So some tourists can leave disappointed. However, beyond all of this, even those who are having a hard time sense a deeper connection to themselves in the land. They might even continue to stay on despite their difficulties and join a similar band of people like in Goa or Auroville.

Where is the transcendance to be found in present India? Does any of the past glories, if they indeed existed, remain?

Certainly in the various Gurus that the country seems to birth and home, time and again. Be it the Buddha , Bodhidharma, Sankara or Ramanuja. Or the more contemporary Gurus like the Mother of Auroville, J Krishnamurti, Ramana, Kanchi Sage; in every age there are a few people who have transcended selfishness. It is under the guidance of these teachers that we as seekers have a hope of finding joy and meaning in our life. There are many ashrams and to navigate them some accessible literature. Of course in the search for a teacher we are bound to meet difficulties on the way.

Another piece of culture worth exploring is to put ourselves in the presence of Vedic chanting and the Yagna. The sonorous hymns work on our body and mind powerfully realigning us to the essence of life. I am not sure how much of the Vedic Yagnas exist or are accessible to travellers. Due to the thousand years of occupation and the lack of patronage in independent India, they have all but vanished. In Chennai, I go my alma mater, DAV Gopalapuram school on Sundays for the Agnihotra Yagna.

A third possibility of transcendence is through Carnatic classical music. Removed largely from the context of temples into “Sabhas” or private patronage in cities like Chennai, the December season is not to be missed. Around mid-December is our winter season of Marghazhi . It is a time of social celebration through dance and music. Our winter has temperatures of about 25 degrees and is largely dry. If you have not had the opportunity yet to meet a Guru or Veda Vidwan, then you get a clue to who you should be looking for in meeting some of the classical musicians. Many have spent a lifetime of discipline, singing about the Gods while struggling to make ends meet. Their dedication is remarkable and their music transformational. Praise must go the Sabhas for keeping up the tradition in an unhelpful political situation. This year the Chennai music season has also been recognised by the UNESCO.

What has lately brought a melting in me is my exploration into handloom cottons. Only of late I have started to wear sarees. A trip to Bali rejuvenated me to explore the more physical aspects of my cultural heritage whereas so far my interests had been confined to the more philosophical aspects. I found that handloom weaving was the second most employment giving profession after agriculture in India employing close to two million weavers. These weavers are artisans with their craft being handed down through generations. What they produce is a stunning variety (certainly in the hundreds) of handwoven cotton cloth. My heart melts not at the wonder that the craft survives but because of the nature of the woven cotton. To touch this light pink saree I wore was like touching the clouds and being gently wrapped in them.

I hope you enjoyed reading so far and the writing gave some clues on what to explore in India. Like they say traditionally, I hope your seeking bears sweet fruit in the end.






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The dichotomy in Indian sensibility


I have travelled to a few countries to the East and to the West of India. It has come to my awareness lately that India is one of the dirtiest of countries. When you live inside of it, especially in its urban quarters, the open sewers, the men squatting on the beaches do not bring a sense of total revulsion. It seems like a part of the urban landscape. However, to return from a trip abroad really opens our eyes to the squalor.

Leave alone the westerners calling us polluted, noisy and poor; that impression comes from their over-sanitised public spaces. What we need to learn from or look at is East Asia. They are closer to us in terms of affordability and culture. Even in comparison to Thailand or Bali , the Indian sub-continent does very badly in terms of care and sensitivity in public spaces. Be it parks or beaches or roads or public transport.

Our buses and trains continue to remain dirty and overflowing. The work done by our Railways to improve quality standards has been commendable. However, poor sanitation continues to happen. I think the blame for this should rest squarely on the shoulders of the people who use these services: us.

Largely we continue to be insensitive to garbage disposal or leaving toilets clean for others. Both the class hierarchy and the way housework is handled in most homes seems to me to be the reason for this apathy. To keep our houses clean we need a maid. We are taught that someone else will always pick up after us. Similarly in public spaces, the middle class is waiting for the working class to pick up after them. And the working class does not seem to be able to come up with final solutions. Hence for the amount of cleaning we do as a nation we seem to be getting nowhere in terms of cleanliness.

Once I was traveling in the AC coach of a long distance train. There were young and old people gazing into their cell phones or laptops. As is the pass time on trains, each of us consumed a lot of snacks. Now, the wrappers of these snacks packets were being dropped onto the floor of our coach. I suppose under the assumption that the railway cleaners would come to sweep the floor. This continued for a whole day till there was garbage all over the floor. No one batted an eyelid.
To me this was a revelation as to how garbage is being created in our country and how we train ourselves to be in denial of it. Safely throwing the responsibility onto someone else.

What is in direct contradiction to our insensitivity around public hygiene is our intense sensitivity towards personal hygiene. We clean and mop our floors daily. I do not know any other part of the world in which that happens. We wash, starch, iron our clothes on a regular basis. Again unusually fastidious in comparison to most of the world which seems to have taken enmasse to the jeans and t-shirt. Indeed the attention we pay to our costume is phenomenal.

Take the saree. First we pick a saree material from about a hundred choices. Next we pick a matching blouse and a matching inner skirt. Next we get the blouse stitched to our exact size at the tailors. There is even a small piece of cloth called the saree-falls that is matched to colour and patiently stitched on the saree. It stuns me that a person who provides such exquisite attention to personal beauty turns a blind eye to the surrounding ugliness.

What is the explanation then for this dichotomy in our sensibilities? Is it our hopelessness about the political system? It is our tiredness with the terrible over-crowding? Is that that we are such die-hard traditionalists that unless our family elders say so, we cannot create and innovate beauty around us? I lay this out as a open question to the readers as I do not have an answer.

I would like to dream however. Maybe if one attempts to care for public spaces there would systems that would support such care and encourage it. For example, I would love to see the Jasmine flowers sold on roadside wrapped in banana leaves. Not in environmentally unfriendly plastic bags. That would be small but precious win for me.

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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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