The Year of Shuffling Life and Loss

On March 8, 2020, my 55th birthday, I flew back from the set of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros that I was directing for Drama School Mumbai, somewhat embarrassedly wearing a mask on the flight, to watch our daughter’s play, The Name Project, in Bangalore. As if my mask was an insult to the good health of others on the flight. My parents were there to hug me and celebrate, we cut two cakes and sang after the show. There were no masks (there was sanitiser though) and a full house. I got back to Bombay the day after, not imagining how soon things would start to snowball into a full blown apocalypse. On March 18th, we had an emergency meeting with all the actors with the realisation that this virus was larger than we had previously thought, and that we would have to box the production ten days before opening night, and disband. The cast and crew, disoriented and disappointed, made their way home on trains and planes, to Delhi, Jharkand, Hyderabad. I returned to Bangalore on the 20th. On the 22nd there was a nationwide voluntary curfew and then on March 24th, Narendra Modi declared a national lockdown upto April 14th. This was then extended to May 3rd. What followed was a year like none other and I want to look again at the things that happened and what we felt when they happened, to wander, with hands outstretched,  Zombie-like, through an episteme that acknowledges the emotional landscape of both life and loss.

Those early days of April and May hit notes so extreme, no mood boards could adequately suggest their tenor. When my brother and I were little, during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, my father had taped black paper onto our windows, as per government instruction. It felt very exciting. We would huddle together as a family and listen to the news. The early pandemic was similar, our family of three, were glad to be locked down together for it felt like the clock had stopped as had the earth and we were let out to play. Even the lingering ache from not having my parents with us was fathomable, justifiable, because of the lockdown. What babes in the wood we were. Soon the march across India began, the largest mass migration of people since Partition, people carrying their belongings in small bags and trunks and moving across the sub continent on feet that were oftentimes bare. How did we enjoy any of the food that we so gleefully cooked in those days, conjuring meals out of left over scant stocks of dal, rice and Maggi noodles, feeling like magicians? One night a group of nine labourers walking back home across three states, walking because they couldn’t take a train. There was no public transport, no warning, so this group of nine, exhausted, feet torn from thorns, decided to sleep on a railway track. Early morning, a goods train ran over them throwing their slippers and bags asunder. Still we kept cooking meals from left over stocks, getting creative with what one could do with very little. Our credit card bills were brilliantly low. We didn’t have accumulating plastic waste from food deliveries. One day we got news that a provision store near by was open, so we stepped out in survival gear - masks, backpacks - to buy food. MG Road which is usually packed with traffic both on the road and pedestrians, was cleared of life. Only a stray dog sniffed around and a rag picker hunted for remnants in the garbage bins. Simultaneously, on other streets and highways and byways and fields, people kept walking back home. In those moments of betrayal, when they were told, overnight, that the country had locked down to protect its citizens, when they were told they had no job and a scary pandemic had come to get them, they cared not for wage, survival or job in the big city, they just wanted to go home, like pigeons, unerring in their instinct, wanting love, comfort, familiarity.

In June, the family who have lived and worked on our farm for many years, while we moved between the city and the farm, wanted to move back to Andhra. But no inter-state travel was allowed at that time, so we packed all their belongings into our car and tearfully said goodbye, not knowing what the future would bring for them or for us. They said goodbye to my parents and my father said, in Telugu, "Thirpala, come back soon". I recall this now. Konarak and Zui then set off to drive them to Mulbagal, where Kotha, their son, would come and collect them. So six humans, many bags and a table fan, packed like sardines in a Xylo, headed off. Kotha came to the Karnataka-Andhra border in an auto. None of all this will fit, thought Konarak, but love and the need for home has a will of its own. Six human, the bags and the table fan squashed themselves into the auto and proceeded to Nellore. The time was now on us for a big decision, for what would we do next with a six acre farm and twenty odd farm animals without the family who had cared for all this? Zui decided for us. We would now move to the farm permanently and do all the work of the animals, the fields, the fruit trees, the cottages, ourselves. No help, no security, diminished income. From being the givers of orders, we would become the doers.

Nature is an odd thing and survivalist in the most elemental Darwinian sense, not caring for spiritual evolution for by design it is already metaphysical. The fittest will make it and will devour everything in the way to ensure the privilege and supremacy of Life. Like a crumbling wall in which a peepal tree will take root. Or Phillip Jarmain’s photographs of art deco buildings in Detroit overtaken by vines, homeless people and graffiti. There’s no stopping this forward moving juggernaut which halts for nothing, not even for Death. The farm which had been nothing but a few banyan trees, dried ragi fields and a fantastic view of one of the buttresses of Savandurga when we first spied it, is now a veritable forest. All the trees that Konarak and I planted 16 years ago have trebled and it’s now re-wilded itself of its own volition. So looking after it is not an easy job. I wrote down a list of chores that I imagined would help us, in four categories - Animals, Farm Structures, Agriculture, Creativity. Beneath those came the nitty gritty of shovelling dung, milking the buffalo, grazing, feeding times, cleaning rooms, pumping water, turning compost and so on. I wrote down that list  on whiteboard and stuck it behind our woodfire oven, because that is the kind of worker I am. But there are many different kinds of workers and we soon found our own rhythms, some dissonant, some consonant and no one ever looked at the whiteboard again. More than anything Zui wanted her grandfather to be here to see how she was handling the farm, pretty much single handedly. For years he had cut out and collected for us, articles on farming from every news paper he read. Neat little clippings held in bundles by a paper clip.

Time turned into plasticine on the farm. The peacocks were the first up, followed by a cacophony of barbets and warblers that nearly (but not quite) drowned out the sound of too many roosters all crowing in tandem. Some mornings lasted an eternity and sometimes, they vanished before we knew it and we washed up dirty, sweaty, hungry and bewildered at 6pm, wondering where the day had gone. The sensation of being hungry and cooking a meal to serve that feeling was something we understood for the very first time and with far clearer focus. Cooking became a drawn out pleasure with each discovery of something from the garden that could be committed to the pot. Sometimes we would cook pumpkin leaves and temper them with mustard oil, else cook carrot, radish and sweet potato leaves with a knob of butter at the end. Then came our battles with the animals. The goats ate everything, the ducks destroyed the beautiful lilies in our pond aka our peaceful place, the horse knocked lids off of vessels in our outdoor kitchen and ate whatever was cooking, the buffaloes broke off sapota and mango branches, destroying everything in their path. One day, two of our bulls got into a rampage and came thundering into the kitchen destroying our woodfire chulha. The learning of efficient natural farming is a generations long education, an episteme that cannot be undervalued. Our neighbours knew keenly when to grown what, how to harness rainfall, how to keep their animals working for them and not the other way around. They also knew that Death is essential for Life. We knew none of this and were still in the service of our animals rather than the other way around. So we were foraging more than growing, cooking forgiving drumstick leaves and raw papayas very often, hunting out a recalcitrant radish or pumpkin. The roosters still outnumbered the hens, none of them went into the pot and the 24/7 crowing brought on by too much testosterone was driving us nuts.

One morning in September, as usual, I was on my daily phone call with my parents. My mother said my father hadn’t slept well the night before and this was unusual for him as he usually nods off as soon as his head hits the pillow. He and I are similar like that and often told the insomniacs in the family that it was because of our good consciences. I didn’t think much of his sleeplessness and thought my mother was unduly stressed. Over my mum’s voice, I heard him say - "Let me speak to Kirtu". He came on the line and said - "I’m fine, Kirtu, I’m fine. I have a bit of a pain in my throat, I must have hurt myself with my toothbrush last night". I told him to sleep and rest it off. I also irritably told him that they should be here on the farm, with us, to which he replied - "Now is not the right time". I put the phone down and went out to do some work. This was at 11am. At 11.15, I noticed six missed calls from my mother. At almost the same second, Zui came to me and said that my brother had called her and said that Amma was trying to reach me. See? Time is like plasticine even in the remembering of it. Did my brother then call me and say I’m looking for a ticket to fly home? Did I call my mother and did she not pick up? I remember it all like a movie. We had an intern who had just arrived two days ago from Delhi, a drama student called Prerana. I just told her we had to leave immediately and she said - Yes, go, go. There was some confusion about the animals. Should Zui tend to them and come in another car later? Konarak said no, we all leave together now. So we did, trusting Prerana to take care of everything. I still could not imagine my father dead. Maybe he was in an ambulance now? I had just spoken to him, he had gone on a bike ride last evening, taken photographs of my mother’s lilies. Did I reach my mother on the phone and was she sobbing? I know for sure that one time when I called, on the two hour journey it took us to get from the farm to my parent’s home, her neighbour picked up the phone and softly, gently told me he was gone. My father who I had only just, minutes ago, irritably spoken to for I was so sure, so confident of his life, was gone. From breathing and being alive, now he wasn’t breathing and was dead.

In September, India was in the Unlock 4.0 phase of the pandemic protocols.  Inter-state travel still required an e-permit. We took my father’s ashes to the places he loved - Madanapalle where he spent carefree school boy days in the Besant Theosophical College campus and Madras, his home. The rocks and outliers of Horsley Hills and the waters of the Bay of Bengal soothed us like grandmothers placing wet hankies scented with Eau de Cologne on our foreheads. We were in Madras when we got news that our friend, Roberto’s mother had died and a very short while later, more news that another friend, Pervin’s father was gone. In just one month, three close friends, kids who loved music and who grew up together in ways, we had each lost a parent in 2020. When we returned to the farm a week later it was to the lashing rains. Our morning milkman Nanjappa, a shepherd to the core, asked why we had been missing for a week and we told him my father had died. He said - “Death comes and Death goes. The only thing certain in Life is the sky above and the earth below us.” I can see the time that followed in postcards: my brother and Chris Burchell, cooking mutton biriyani by the light of a lantern. Frogs jumping around, mushrooms popping up. Brinda Jacob and her group doing authentic movement exercises on the hill and there I am with them, holding up a striated rock or was the rock holding me up, I don’t know, but if I move, one of us will fall. My mother in a pink sweatshirt howling in pain on the verandah. The slender loris, frogs and cicadas were the symphony of the night, saying death comes and death goes, move on, move on, move on. 

Earlier, in April 2020 I had begun a digital aural theatre project that involved actors reading different verses from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri. I would send actors pieces of text and they would record it and send it back, sometimes with visuals they resonated with. I edited these into a series called In the Hour of God. The action of doing this was a meditation for me. I had no agenda, timeline or audience. I was just making these to archive the times through actors and a particular text that deliberated on the meaning of Life and the challenge of Death. I would sink into my editing software and spend hours listening to the many voices and interpretations of the text, searching for clues in visuals, stitching image to sound. As the days of the lockdown extended into months of fear and oftentimes, a loss of grace, the videos morphed into remembrances. Three consecutive videos were made for our own people who had died, but sometimes people died and I didn’t make a video. In September 2020 it was my father, then Roberto’s mother, and Pervin’s father. In November 2020 it was Damodara Acharya our activist comrade and priest who married Konarak and myself. In February 2021 it was our friend Dany Foureau who looked after stray and abandoned dogs in Auroville. In April 2021 it was another friend, Agnes Stash-Weiske. And this is only the beginning, Death would not be done with us anytime soon.

Through all of this there was no let up from persistent Ms Life, no vacation, no sabbatical. One morning in early December 2020, our buffalo gave birth to yet another kona and we named him Suleiman, Man of Peace. He brought our bulls to a total of four, signifying no peace at all, but one could always hope. Rame Gowda, our immediate neighbour told us to get rid of the bulls and buy some cows instead. They are absolutely no use to you, he said, you are spending on buying feed and getting nothing in return. It would be some months before we saw the sense in this and acted on it. For now, we were wearing ourselves thin. As luck would have it every creature born on our farm seemed to be male and this is awful for a farmer. Boyz in da hood bring zero good. A decent farmer will cull the roosters and sell the bulls, but we weren’t there yet. Our solidarity with farmer’s was growing by the day as we learned, in a practical not abstract sense, how tough the going could get. Luckily, when we could not manage alone any more, Nagamma came back into our lives. We’ve known her and her family for as long as we’ve known the farm and she, us. I called and asked if she could come and work here again and she was back the next morning. She took over a bulk of the animal duties including grazing the buffalo and this gave us some time again, to practice, write, breathe.

One afternoon, in the middle of a nap, we heard a huge uproar from the roosters. I ran out and found all eight chickens alive and squawking in front of our cottage, but one rooster had lost all of his tail feathers. We figured it was a mongoose and were not perturbed when it happened again the next day. Repeat all actions and no chicken was dead or missing, so life went back to normal. There were some unseasonal winter rains and one day I slipped and fell off a wet step and tore some ligaments in my ankle so began hobbling around on crutches. Then on December 9th 2020, something very strange and unexpected happened. Here is a journal post I made that day:
“You will not believe what just happened. 12.30pm. Outside, we hear the dogs and chickens screaming. The noise is ferocious and doesn’t sound like just our dogs. Zui runs out from her cottage. Next second we hear her screaming “Leopard! Leopard!” We start screaming (can't run, sprained ankle) to prevent her from doing anything crazy. The leopard was pinned down, in the yard, by our three dogs - Taz, Daiji and Krish. Zui picks up one of the horse’s aluminium feed dishes and hit the leopard. She then hits again, with a stick. The dogs release the leopard with that and the leopard runs away followed by Zui and the dogs. The dogs are wounded only slightly, a few scratches but…what heroes. Nagamma is just saying to Zui over and over “Bebooo, neen dhairyavanti, Beboo…” Then she takes dhrishti and Zui says "But no thoo thoo thoo because of corona virus.” 
Laughing in the face of everything, particularly Death. If you have experienced adrenaline of this nature you will be more empathetic of a junkie’s need. We were on a knife’s edge and could have fallen either way. It’s not something we’d choose to repeat by any stretch, but there is no turning away from the intensity of those moments. It’s no wonder that Jimi Hendrix asked - Are you experienced? He meant are you experienced in sucking out every drop of the nectar of Life. Are you experienced in living even as you understand that Death is lurking around the corner? Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri is really an extension of Jimi Hendrix. Drag paradise down to earth and enjoy it now, he says. Be supra mental here and now, don’t imagine the fruits of your labour will win you just desserts in some other life. 

In January 2021 Narendra Modi made a hubristic declaration at Davos, declaring that beyond the two Indian made vaccines, others would be available in the coming days, saying “These will help the world vaccinate more people in an expeditious way.” Hubris is associated with two others words - arrogance - whose etymology lies in the Latin adrogare, meaning to demand certain attitudes or behaviours of others, to impose one’s will regardless of one’s ability, and  - pretension. To pretend to be better than, to use affectations to impress,  to believe in and promote social verticalities. In other words, to suffer from a severe sense of inferiority that requires one to falsify facts. Since hubris is as virulent and variable as Covid 19, in January 2021 we officially became a country suffering from a terrible case of double whammy.

In February 2021, I saw a message from an unknown number on my phone. It simply said - Call me, Dany has died. Dany who gave her whole life to caring for others, first old people and then unloved dogs, felt uneasy one day, but didn’t want to go to a hospital or see a doctor. It wasn’t her way. One night in Auroville, she just slipped away. Fast, with no fuss and no warning. She was with her beloved dogs and puppies till the very end. We didn’t even know she was ill. The last message I had from her was on WhatsApp in January, just saying - I’ve finally got whatsapp, I learn slow, lol. That was Dany’s favourite acronym - Laugh out loud. Laugh in the face of Death. Because of the virus, we couldn’t travel to Pondicherry to bid her adieu. The skies were brilliant when she died, in the way that Bangalore skies will be just before summer hits, but the phone was fast becoming an object of dread and plasticine Time was becoming mildly oppressive, a Dali-esque melting clock. But still the water lilies, if the ducks let them be, would bloom, the pink moth-pollinated lilies by moonlight and the mauve and peach lilies with the sun rays at the break of dawn.

I was supposed to be in Germany all of March and April, but nothing was certain about it. Was travel allowed, should I travel in the midst of a pandemic that was not letting up, would I get a visa. As reluctant and torn as I was, some inner instinct insisted I go. It had been just five months since my father had died and this would be…would be what, I wondered? Would it be good for us? Healing? A creative opportunity? I had no idea why I was going and what good could possibly come of it except for keeping a commitment, but I donned my N95 and plastic shield, hugged and kissed my darlings, steeled myself and like a warrior going into battle, got on that plane. It was snowing in Munich and as I settled into my high tower in the historic Villa Waldberta on Lake Starnberg, I felt like I had left all feelings behind, put them in cold storage to be defrosted and dealt with at a later date. I would spend the next two months writing and preparing for the festival I was to curate. But that snow was the undoing of me.

I’d wake up every morning and draw the curtains to reveal the snow falling softly on the woods and the lake. The village looked like one of those drawings from a Hans Christian Anderson book, medieval wooden spires covered with icing sugar. It’s curious that as far back as 1880 the anthropologist scholar Franz Boas’ spoke about the many words for snow in the Inuit and Yupik languages spoken on Baffin island, Canada. This was debunked in the years that followed till once again his theory has found favour thanks to modern research on linguistics. Watching the snow fall, drift, move, the patterns of snowflakes on my garret window, the heavy clouds of snow that covered everything some days and the lighter fall that scattered itself over the tall firs, I was mesmerised. If you lived so close to this phenomenon how would you not have a million words to describe its ethereal beauty? One day I called Nagamma at the farm and showed her the snow. She thought it was white rain or light falling through the trees and this had me wondering too. We were across two time zones, two women, two completely different geographies… in a miraculous moment, would her blazing 36° summer sun melt my delicate, tender snowfall? So enraptured was I that I’d walk in the snow, intentionally, to feel it fly into my face. Once I greedily clutched a strawberry custard croissant in my gloved hands and walked back uphill to Villa Waldberta in a snow storm, just to experience what it felt like. When that first black squirrel surfaced and the crocuses began revealing their heads, I wasn’t pleased, I needed the solitary balm of the falling snow, the pristine silence. 

The last time I had enjoyed Bavarian snowfall had been a few years before with our friend Agnes. She had driven us to rural Christmas markets outside Grafing where we drank eggnog and warm mulled wine, both white and red. She had dressed me up in her dirndl and we had chugged giant glasses of beer, eaten brezel and cream cheese with chives and danced at the late Oktober fests. We went up to the Austrian alps, where Agnes went for a long trek up a hill and by a stream, and we went, instead, on a cable car into the alps to enjoy the snow. Now, in March 2021, Agnes had very little time ahead of her. Plasticine time had shrunk into a tiny miniature cuckoo clock. I lay on her bed, drinking Prosecco and massaging her fragile skin with lavender oil. Her son cooked egg curry and rice and we ate and laughed. She spoke of Death with awareness and calm, it would come when she heard the owl call, she said. She had lived life to the hilt and was now excited to meet her forefathers, she told me. She had invited her friends to come and say goodbye, if they liked, before Easter. When I went back to see her the next Tuesday, she had already begun her journey of transition. She opened her eyes briefly and said hi and by the next morning she was gone. Just before Easter. Her children asked me to speak at her funeral in April. I took the train to Ebersberg and walked in four different directions before I found the Neuer Friedhof where Agnes would be laid to rest on top of a hill, with grassy slopes and a view. A very small gathering as per Covid protocols and an “illegal” coffee and cake under a tree afterwards. I consider it a small miracle that serendipity and fate brought me to Munich in the last days of my friend’s life and allowed me to stay through her transition and after. Those feelings that I thought I had put in cold storage all emerged, fully defrosted the day of her funeral. I arrived in the snow and I left as the crocuses showed themselves along with the bärlauch  and spargel. 

Mourning itself, all death rituals, during the pandemic, have taken a sound beating. None of the old markers, the ways invented by human beings to make loss more bearable or even simply to give people something to do with their hands in the face of anguish, remained. No food to cook and offer, no sharing of space. This was a time of hapless and often graceless struggle under pressure. How does one pay a condolence visit during a lockdown? What if someone dies during curfew? Is the body allowed to come home after a Covid death? Can we hug the grieving without a mask, a shield? Where to put the ashes now that Paschima Vahini and Gosai Ghat have become a mess of dead marigolds and garlands and broken pots? Meena Kandaswamy writes in India is my Country - ' ..no funeral drums, no pall bearers, no coffins, no vaikarisi, none of the hysteria we have come to associate with death.’ It seems we have had to re-calibrate our souls to suit the pandemic, transform our very DNA into aloofness. Acceptance. If unmitigated greed was the hamartia that led to this pandemic in what could we seek catharsis? Whatsapp condolence groups and zoom remembrances may serve a profound purpose in their disembodied virtuality. Removing us from embodied experience and closer to essence. The seeking of the spirit. My friend Axel joked darkly that in the dystopic future funerals may just be a memory stick and a gravestone, a flat screen monitor. It doesn’t sound as dystopic though, as it might have in January 2020.

May 2021 came far too early. April was bad enough because we got news that our childhood friend from Nandidurg Road, Prakash Pillai had died. Prakash, my brother's best friend. They would play cricket in the field opposite our home, and all the seasonal games - tops, marbles, kites. They had cricket teams with names like Jayamahal Jokers and Munireddypalya Mosquitoes. Together, we played games that are now extinct - poppins matches, pencil matches. And now Prakash of the big smile and bigger energy was gone. April was foul, but May 
was the mother of all godawful months. Why didn’t everything stop blooming and flittering and fluttering in May, why didn’t the birds stop their stupid birdsong? 

When my parents were young, navigating life in 60’s Bangalore, their best friends were the Arvindams. Anil and Sunil Arvindam and my brother and I grew up together. Their father used to take us on his cycle to school and years later, when we were young teens, Sunil introduced me to Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. Sunil found the love of his life in Radhika. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2020. Radhika was the one that held our families together and our Radhika caught a high Covid viral load when she went to the hospital to get her vaccine. Finally, the inevitability of that viral load was more than she could overcome and she was gone on a bleak day in May. A few pitch black days after, there was a sun halo, the brilliance of the rainbow eclipsing all else. I think there must have been wildflowers, had I looked downward at the grass, but I know for sure the pink dragonflies hovered over the pond making a mockery of tears. While the storm raged around us and before we had time to cast anchor, to recommit ourselves to the act of living, I got a call on a Tuesday morning that was worse than everything else that had happened thus far. A student had died by suicide. This last I can’t even write about for I had no frame, no lens, no skills, no breath, no bandwidth to fathom it. I could only crumble and fall.  I shared writings and open space with my other students, we talked, we were angry, confused, we cried. But guess what? Here we are and we’re still breathing. You know how you see roots of banyans growing through broken houses? Or flowers blooming in the cracks of concrete pavements? It's like that. Life is really irrepressible and won't be subjugated regardless of human frailties such as sorrow.

As I write today, June 14th 2021, it is my brother-in-law Hari’s 75th birthday. Hari is in a Covid ICU and it has been more than a month since he first had to be rushed to hospital, requiring oxygen and an ICU bed. Hari’s home is called Happy Ashram because that has long been Hari’s philosophy of living - to bring people together in love and camaraderie, to evoke the deepest rasas of life through music, laughter, conversation, dance, whiskey, egg avial, shared moments. To bow low before the leela of existence. As I pick this up again, 48 hours later, Hari has passed on. Like Shakespeare, Hari awoke to Life and left in Death on the very same day, 75 years apart. June 14th. We carried mangoes to Happy Ashram after we heard, mangoes because nature just kept dancing in gay abandon through all of this. In June 2021, which can undeniably be called a far crueller month than April and on par in awfulness with May, in June when we were shifting sorrow from shoulder to shoulder, nature bestowed us with a bumper crop of the sweetest badamis. In the month that Hari took ill, on the day that Hari passed on, we carried crates of these golden mangoes into town. Shouldn’t all of nature just have shut down and hibernated because our Krishna had left us? Shouldn’t the mangoes have fallen and rotted or withered and died? They should have but they didn’t. Hari’s leela was omnipresent. His golf club, tennis racquet and hat provided an altar to him and my sister-in-law, Nandana, had picked up two poems by Rumi that Zui read. How was it possible not to physically ache when one heard the words “Dancing in ecstasy you go, my soul of souls…Don’t go without me.”

Later that day, after the cremation, we sat at the beautiful long dining table that has hosted so many and borne the weight of years of fabulous cooking and community. Via a complicated set of circumstances and mischances that involved one person’s grieving rituals, some words about Tulasi and Brahma Tulasi, me thinking dessert would be nice, a tray of something that looked like chocolate kobbri mithai and some leftover CBD oil, I got famously and unwittingly stoned. Having greedily partaken of two squares of the edible in question, I was baked for the next 12 hours. Incidentally, I spent the first two of those hours wondering why time was telescoping in such an unusual way. You see? That plasticine time theme abides, it just won't let me be. It was only later in the evening that realisation about the kobbri mithai hit. But it felt fitting somehow, that I would end this piece as well as the day of Hari’s funeral in a state of pure leela. 

The same morning, June 14th, I received this from my friend, Gerda, in Germany, her translation of Shalom Ben Chorin’s poem written in the midst of the hell and mayhem of World War II. 

"Friends, that the almond branch 
blossoms again and sprouts, 
is it not a sign that love abides?

That life has not faded away,
No matter how much blood cries,
Do not despise this,
In the bleakest of times

War crushes thousands,
A world is vanishing.
But life's blossoming victory
Lightly blows in the wind.

Friends, that the almond branch
Blossoms again and sprouts,
Is it not a sign
That love endures?”

This was read twice in as many days, once for Nandana and once for the parents and family of my student. I don't know and I haven't learned through this long year if words make any difference. But I do know that watching the sunrise and the sunset fines tunes the body's rhythms, watching the stars changes places or smelling jasmine on the bush, eating a sun-ripened mango picked from a tree that you planted, aligns oneself. Maybe for one lifetime, that is all one should hope for? So when the almond branch, ripped off the main trunk, cast aside for tinder, unwatered, uncared for, lying orphaned through blazing heat and blistering cold, blossoms again and sprouts, it has to be a sign not just that love endures but that the sap that rises within us is the true source of love. 


Water Buffalo

I want to be like a
Water buffalo
Soaking for hours
Happy to be wet
Eyes kinder and more
Than mine.
I want to walk slowly
Graze with keen
Thoughtfully look over
My shoulder
For my calf.
I want to deliberate
Like a water buffalo
Carefully and with some
other knowing
I cannot fathom.
Mind on some
greater good

"And when Nath Nong, who has to live
in Massachusetts now, saw a picture
of green Cambodian fields she said,
name krebey English? I told her,
Water buffalo.
She said, Very, very
good animal.
She put her finger
on the picture of the water buffalo
and spoke its Khmer name once more."
- Julie Alger

"Water buffalo, I wonder how
many more summers have I to
look at you again?"
- Toshie Nohara


Dreams, Schemes & Themes: Bob Dylan

Back at the farm again. That too, in the dryest season of the year, swiftly heading towards the hottest. The plants and trees all close up, introvert and shed all uneccessary actions, simply ravaged by thirst, not bothering to be green. A harsh, no nonsense beauty takes over. April is not the cruellest month, 'least not in Vardenahalli. March gets that honour. And February is coming up a close second.

This year, our Summer Camp theme is going to be Bob Dylan. His poetry, drawings, songs and art-making. Plus, as a tribute to his epic radio show - Theme Time Radio, we're launching the Infinite Souls Podcasts at Camp. We're listening to Theme Time Radio as I write, the "Weather" themed show with Ellen Barkin's whiskey voice talking the listener in. "It's nighttime in the Big City...somewhere a car alarm goes off. You're listening to Theme Time and here is your host, Bob Dylan." "Having fun in the old California sun..." drawls Bob, as he plays an off the cuff selection from Muddy Waters to Dean Martin, reciting poetry inbetween, evoking Chicago weather with "And the Wind Cries Mary". It's not for everyone, much like this introverted, barbaric weather, but is good for listeners who have time and the inclination for scabs and dry scrub.

Theatre Lab kids will record and broadcast live from Camp. Studio set up at our cottage. They'll use Theme Time Radio themes including "Flowers", "Mothers", "Fathers" and come up with content that feels relevant to them against the backdrop of Bangalore rural. But other themes will wash up as well, post Camp, for sure. This lot enjoy improvizing and creating new things. You can expect music for sure, but also poetry recitations, stories, discussions and interviews. These will be available as a regular feature on the Infinite Souls Farm and Artists Retreat blog.

Why are the horses circling the cottage? They're so weird, I cannoy figure Zara out in the slightest. One of the dogs is going to get kicked any minute now, probably by Anjali. The animals all hover in the shade or near water the whole time. So do we, retreating indoors to books and dreaming. Not kicking, at any rate. Kuki to his beloved Jim Corbett and me to Sue Townsend or Salim Ali or whatever is close at hand. There's wasp buzzing around with some anxiety, bashing against the white curtains, trying to find a way out.

The buffaloes look skeletal, giant hip bones pushing through through their hide. No amount of feed makes up for the loss of good grass grazing. While Kuki sat on the swing beneath the banyan on the path to the El, a black and white Holstein came running in. No idea who it belonged to. But after some chasing of it around the Gypsy, it found a gap in the fence and left. Deaf and mute Moogaiah has been hanging around near the kitchen. When he first saw me, he gestured 'moustache', 'bottle' and 'gone' to let me know that Thirpal had had a drinking jag and headed back to his village.

The only plants that get any watering this season are the vegetables as we need sackloads to see us through both April Camp & May Camp. Here's what will be ready: tomatoes, red amaranth, carrots, radish, ridge gourd, ladies finger, brinjal, green chillies, pumpkin. Drum sticks and drumstick greens are perennial. Should be enough goosberries to make some pickles. Hopefully enough sapotas, limes and mangoes to feed and water hordes of hungry children.

The rocks stand in acute relief against the leafless trees and bone dry mud. No scrub or grass to break their strong lines. There goes Zara, neighing outside my window again. It can't be water she wants...maybe Noorie and Anjali are in the paddock. That really makes her mad.

Vidu chikki's peepal tree near the Buddha has sprung new leaves, as has Sanjay Iyer's pink Tabebuia, Flo's temple flower. The banyans will soon be nothing but bare bones with carpets of crunchy leaves beneath. My one litchi tree looks a bit bereft. Maybe water here is not a bad idea. But everything else will just have to cope as this is a farm that will not pump water through the dry season. We just take it on the chin and await the rains.

I wonder what Bangalore kids today will make of Bob Dylan? The other day at class, a student was in tears because she said she felt she "just couldn't please everybody" even though she tried so hard. I played them Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 to make a point but then had to quickly put the chorus off before they got all excited about, well, you know what. And they would too, the little buggers.

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images,

...where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

So long as no one plans to do any welding at Camp. I have no intentions of dealing with heat, masks and solder just so they get a taste of what Bob Dylan has recently been up to in his unending journey of creation. So, if anyone asks why Bob Dylan and not, for instance, Led Zepellein, here is why:

1. He kept jumping right out of boxes as he saw fit
2. He didn't bother justifying anything to fans or critics
3. He experimented and failed
3. His poetry is sublime
4. He ran a radio show and played other people's music
5. He has never stopped creating

Thus he is my perennial, eternal, forever-soul of choice.


Chinna Finds His Herd

Look who's got a new mommy!

We've seen it before, of course. In the wonderous case of Laddu and Kiara. 

Once upon a time, in the Old House, we heard a squeaking behind the bookshelf beneath the attic stairs. We had just returned from Kodaikanal and thought the empty house had invited in visitors. "Shoo, Laddu, shoo! Go chase away that mouse" we said. This continued for a few days. Then it was a Sunday morning and we were spacey and treading softly in our t-shirts and laziness. Again the squeaking. But this time, Laddu snuffled about the bookshelf beneath the attic stairs and returned with a tiny, wet, charcoal rag that she deposited in the middle of the hall. We, the two adults in the house, shrieked and jumped on the diwan. Zui, the child, terrified at the behaviour of her parents raced off to Geethamma's house next door. "What have you done, Laddu?" we yelled, thinking she had killed the mouse and brought it to us. Then we saw it moving... Fie! It must be half alive and dying. I'm not sure if we made a closer examination but a short while later we realized it was a kitten, was not hurt, on the contrary was very much alive and that Laddu the Saintly Labrador had in fact rescued the poor abandoned baby.

We wiped the mite dry and took her to CUPA where we were told she didn't have a fair chance without a mother to care for and nurse her. That it was best we took her home and ink-filler fed her till the inevitable. So we did, with a sense of futility. First, she lay in a box but she was fiesty and it wasn't long before she began snuggling against Laddu for warmth. And Laddu licked and licked her. Licked her so much that one day...

Again it was breakfast time and we sat at the blue wooden table in the kitchen, frying eggs and so on. Suddenly we notice the mite suckling on Laddu's teats. Unreal. We went close and saw warm pearls of milk. Laddu who had never littered, had never had her own puppies to feed had licked the mite so much that she had begun lactating. We named the mite Kiara, meaning dark and light, knowing she was now safe in Laddu's mothering. 

Kiara grew to be the Queen of St.Mark's Road, walking regally into the house through the front door. Three dogs adored her and she lorded it over them, sitting atop my computer falling on the keyboard every now and then, giving any intruding canine noses a soft whack if they woke her gentle sleep as she rumbled on the wooden table amongst the little brass Ganeshas. 

That was then. Now I see little Chinna finding his baby buffalo-self a herd among the three mares. Every morning he chooses to graze with Noorie, hiding against her brown flanks when shy. What new cross-pollinated love will you discover, Chinna, with Quiet Noorie, I wonder? Is it just instinct that draws you to this herd of female hormones? Or do you need her gentle warmth? Do you miss your biological mother, Lakshmi, who is away grazing in the hills during the day? You remind me all over again of my beloved Kiara...

2am Thoughts as Kiara Slowly Passes on

December 7, 2011 at 3:14am
How can pain be forced to move down
Away from the eyes
So that it's just a burning hole in my stomach?

How shall I stave all thoughts
of her voice
As she peremptorily
Walks in the house
Bell a-jingling
Down the spiral staircase
From the neighbour’s roofs,
the driveway
In through the gate
Rusty self glistening
in the winter sunlight
Head high
Tail high?

“Is there any good way to look at this?” 
asks the other angel of our home
And unformed words about
her good
uncompromising life
tumble out

I often said
She was an urban princess
Queen of the rooftops
Duchess of our lane
Country living
wouldn’t be her scene

But now
I ache to take her there
When she passes on
Plant her beneath 
the lemon tree
in the lap of her mother

“She was Laddu’s gift to us”
the angel, again
“How can we let her go?”
Our Kiara kitten
My eyes don’t 
handle tears 
with any skill
Tomorrow I have to perform.

Good thoughts:
She caught a mouse 
2 days ago,
And a first,
We said
“Good cat”.
She rumble-purred 
on Challam
3 days ago.
Boss-mama of the dogs
Forever and ever.
of a sainted Dog.
to the neighbour’s
Kiara, oh
my darling
Morning Cat.

“Sorry Muma...
“Cause I know
how much
you love her”
Keep the pain on simmer
I’m performing tomorrow.
There’ll be time


Ten Years After

Have you heard of a band called Ten Years After? Hmmm...That would be us this year. 2016. Ten years after we first sat on the rocks beneath the banyan tree in a faint drizzle. ten years after we hoped that this time we'd be lucky. Ten years after we sat beneath the tamarind tree with a group of farmers who managed to raise the price that we'd hoped to lower. Pattabhi was unwell by then, unconscious to what was happening. We dreamed that his eyes glimmered when we told him the land had rocks and custard apple trees. In a short while, he would leave us. May 6th 2016 was that day.

He dreamed the same dream as us for many years not caring that our dreams were usually unsucessful. The three of us would drive out of the city, constantly on the look out for that one piece of land somewhere restful, where the cow light would quiten you in the evening, the dogs could run, some vegetables could grow. We had several near misses. Once in Bannerghatta, then with Sunbeam Motha trying to figure something in Kollegal. We were so keen, we even looked at some flat and quite dull land off Sarjapur Road with a giant pylon plonked in the middle of it. We held Leila's Visharnthi Farm up as a beacon, anything we found had to have the same lovely charm.  

Then we found you. Shankar from Centre for Learning had shown us a couple places and it was nearing twilight. He said "There is one place, but it has terrible access." Sounded perfect to us. Thus we found you.

This summer, the kids had their 10th Anniversary Summer Camp. Theme Queen. Hee hee. 

"I'm burning through the sky, yeah..Two hundred degrees, that's why they all me Mr.Fahrhenheit. I'm travelling at the speed of light, I wanna make a supersonic man outta you"

Really not. More like the buffaloes slowly making their way to the water and then sloshing gently around for a while. But the kids bring the supersonic in, that's for sure.