The Death of Culture

As a child, I was closer to my mother’s family. My mother’s family was made up of people who were culturally sensitive, and that made all the difference to the moments I spent with them.

It was my great grandmother who shaped my earliest perceptions of the world into which I was born. My mother was her first and favourite grandchild, and so, she came to take care of me when I was born. My mother was working and I was left to her care in the first year of my life. Though I have no conscious memory of that period, she gave me the very first impression of this world and I am certain she presented the world to me as a fascinating, enchanting place. When she left, I was inconsolable. I was just an year old, but she seemed to have created a deep impression in my mind. My mother recollects how I would look at every grey-haired woman thereafter and cry, “Ammamma, Ammamma!”.

My mother grew up with my great grandmother, and she had instilled in my mother a love for culture. She would narrate to my mother many events and experiences from her life, and she always described them in a cultural context. She had traveled a great deal with my great-grandfather who had a transferable job, and she saw each place and its people in the light of their inherent culture. While the other women exchanged pleasantries and gossiped, she was busy absorbing the difference in culture. She refrained from too much judgement; she loved assimilating, learning and absorbing new aspects of culture, particularly those that appealed to the senses. She infected my mother with this sensitivity to culture, and my mother’s memories were therefore rooted deeply in culture.

Bangalore was not a culturally stimulating place. It was a multicultural community where we were exposed to such broad differences that we had learned to accept difference as the norm. It was when I spent my vacations in Kerala that the cultural ingredients came alive and awakened my senses to the profound beauty in life. My mother’s ancestral house was in itself, a key cultural ingredient that shaped my early emotions. It was an old weather beaten house, and it was a miracle that it had survived the storms of centuries. That in itself, made it special for it was a relic from the past. I was fascinated by its wooden half doors that seemed to let the world in, its patio where we all gathered most of the time, its attic where mice could be heard quarreling, its dark kitchen where the hearth was always warm, and the backyard that looked onto pepper creepers coiling around the jackfruit trees. I loved some of the things that we children were asked to do, and that my cousins seemed to hate. For instance, I loved sitting in front of the lamp, reciting prayer verses at dusk. It was something we didn’t do back home in Bangalore. I loved the feel of pebbles and earth on my feet. I loved earthen floors more than I loved tiled floors. I loved taking bath because it meant drawing water from the well. I loved the sight of jasmine flowers that had blossomed overnight. I would pick handfuls of the flowers and smell them. I loved the wooden reclining chair in the patio where my great grandfather used to sit. I loved the high cot in my great grandmother’s room that served the purpose of a store. From its insides, my aunts would fish out cakes, sweets and savories. I loved the women who passed by our house, sometimes with sickles in their hand, in search of tender grass for the cows. They would smile at us fondly and ask a million questions. I loved the old temples we visited. The stone steps and pillars, the sopanam, the fragrance of the incense sticks, the sandal paste, the temple pond and the serpent shrines. I loved the little lamps that glowed in the dim light of dusk, and lit up the shrine. I loved the oracle’s performance though I was also frightened by his demeanour. I loved the graceful movements of the Mohiniattam and I loved the mudras of the Kathakali. I loved weddings where women dressed up the bride and the bride, clad in spotless white, her hair adorned with the most beautiful and fragrant jasmine flowers, reminded me of a swan gliding through a procession. I loved being part of the wedding processions that walked the bride and the groom to the bride’s new house. Though I was raised in the Hindu faith, and loved the cultural elements of this religion, I was equally fascinated by cultural elements of other religions. I was very excited by toothless elderly Muslim women who stopped to talk to my aunts. I was fascinated by the number of gold earrings that adorned their ears and by the zari bordered headdress through which silvery strands of hair broke loose. Their houses were a delight, and so were their weddings. I loved the boatman who ferried us across the river. I loved the fishmonger who hooted in the mornings and passed by on his bicycle, an army of cats following him dutifully.I loved the tea stalls where old men discussed politics amidst glasses of tea and plates of parippu vada. I loved watching women pound rice; I was in awe of their synchrony.

In those days, the men and women seemed to possess so many skills that we no longer have. People could grow their own food, catch fish and crabs from the streams, chop wood and obtain firewood, make a fire, and cook their own food. They could even build their own house. They could climb trees, swim, row a boat, walk for miles, and labour for hours. My mother tells me about how she would accompany my great grandmother to sow seeds, till the soil, and water the saplings. She remembers how during the cucumber harvest, men would erect a pandal in the fields, light a fire, and stand guard, so as to ward away foxes that ransacked the fields at night. Those sleepovers can never match our modern sleepovers.

In retrospect, I realize that culture played an important role in my formation. It defined the aesthetic framework that was necessary to make all my engagements with the world profoundly beautiful. It taught me to see the aesthetic dimension in all my relationships- with nature, with people, with other living beings, with living spaces. It taught me to explore this aesthetic space in my day to day life, in education, in religion, and in every facet of life I engaged with. The more diversity there was, the more was the scope for such aesthetics. Perhaps that was the reason I loved this country the most. It provided for so much cultural diversity. And so, my memories were rooted in these cultural ingredients.

Sometimes, I am aware that my mind is seeking something from the environment. It seeks familiarity. And that familiarity is to do with these cultural ingredients on which I was raised. When it doesn’t find them in the world, it resorts to the books and movies that have immortalized them.

Today, our lives are so empty. The death of culture is palpable. Instead of the soulful cultural ingredients that once defined our lives, there is just a human buzz- a mechanical buzz with no aesthetics in the monotonous scheme of our comfortable lives. In place of a memory, is a big void. Something that science labels as depression.

Culture is a carefully crafted, time-tested art that has ingredients that nourish the soul. I think these cultural ingredients were largely responsible for the sense of fulfillment that characterized the traditional way of life. Culture comprises of those ingredients that teach us to engage deeply and meaningfully with the natural world, and therefore nourish our souls. As we dissociate ourselves from culture, we are also alienating the mind from soulful ingredients that are necessary to anchor the mind to a fundamental framework of factors that govern life. Cultural ingredients awaken the senses to the inherent beauty in life. All memory and learning feeds on such aesthetic awakening. The definitions of all facets of human life- love, relationships, home, marriage, childhood, womanhood are deeply rooted in culture. Human potential is rooted in such sensory awakening. And so, this era of depression, violence and crimes is not surprising.

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The face in the mirror

Water is my healer. Not only does it soothe the external scalds of my body, but it also soothes my mind. And so, I spend hours in the shower. I can never have enough of water.

It is then that I can see something glitter in my mind. Unopened boxes of thoughts, like presents carefully gift-wrapped with glitter paper. Presents sent from heaven. I am like a little child, excited and eager to open these presents. “Shhhhhh!”, says a voice in my head. Then I know I must be quiet and still, though I am trembling in delight. I know that this is a special moment, for I can feel being surrounded by a blanket of silence. The sounds from outside appear distant.

Invisible hands open one of the boxes. Inside is a mirror. I pick up the mirror. A woman stares at me from the mirror. Her face is that of mine.

“Who are you?”, she asks.

“I am a woman”, I answer.

“Oh, you are a woman! Then you must be seeking love? A man’s companionship perhaps?”, she asked.

“I don’t know what I am seeking”, I say.

She laughs. A high-pitched laughter.

“Look at me carefully. Maybe you will know what you are seeking”, she says.

I look at her carefully. Suddenly, it is not my face I see. It is Fousiya’s face. Fousiya, playing with her child. I can see her worry lines; but at this moment, she is fully involved with her child. He is her world.

“Fousiya!”, I call out. But she can’t hear me.

Suddenly, I realize it is not Fousiya. It is Indu. She is painting. I can see by her side all the paintings she has made in the last one week. There are only a few days for the exhibition now. I touch the mirror, and Indu disappears.

There is somebody else in her place now. Who is it? It is Sangeetha. She is sitting in the garden all alone, trying to understand her place in the world.

I see them all one by one. All the women whose stories I have lived. The women I have met. The women I have read about. The women I have watched in films. They are all there.

And finally, I see my own face appearing again.

“So do you now know what you are seeking?”

With that, the face disappears. So does the mirror. And so do the presents.

Now I understand. Who am I? I do not have a story of my own; I live in the stories of all these women. I live- in their vulnerability, and in their strength. In their moments of security and in their insecurity. In their happiness and in their sorrows. In the fulfillment of their love and in the melancholy of their solitude. I am all these women. And so, how can I define myself as distinct from them? How can my needs be different?

I spend my life liberating these women. Each one of them. Through the stories I write. And in doing so, I liberate myself.

 

 

Volatile

“I really like you, Pooja. You are different. I love the way you think. I love your passion for the causes you believe in. Above all, you are such a genuine person”, he said to her.

She looked up at him.

“It is mutual, Vivek. I cherish your companionship”, she replied.

“A woman like you doesn’t deserve to be single, Pooja! You deserve to be loved and cared for. There is so much beauty in you. You are intelligent and thoughtful, and wise from life. And yet, you are sensitive, so full of warmth, innocence and compassion. That makes you very attractive. I think you are being very unfair on yourself, denying yourself the joy of a relationship. Do you realize what you are missing?”

She stood still, her eyes fixed on the tiny speck in the distance that appeared to be a boat sailing in the river.

Without shifting her gaze, she asked, “What am I missing, Vivek?”

“So much! You deserve to be held, hugged, kissed. When was the last time somebody hugged you? Don’t you miss these little things?”

She looked up at him and smiled.

“Sometimes. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. But I have learned to live with not having these little things in my life.”

“But why? Why should you not have these little things in your life? You need to loosen up, Pooja.”

She sighed.

“No, Vivek. I don’t wish to go back to that life. I am strong now. Relationships make me weak and vulnerable. When I lose people, it is so hard for me to come out of the dependence. It is such a hard journey back to strength and independence. I can’t afford to put myself through that again. I have a lot of responsibilities and commitments. I do not have the luxury of time anymore- the time I take to heal and recover. Life will not wait for me. No, I have to be responsible.”

He shook his head.

” You have had bitter experiences in the past, Pooja. That is why you are scared to get into a relationship. Not everybody is the same. You should not hold on to the past; let it go. Free yourself from its clutches!”

“But shouldn’t you learn from your past?”

“Of course! But the learning should not snatch away your happiness.”

“What is happiness, Vivek? Is it holding hands, hugging and kissing?”

“I know what you mean. You may be happy doing the things you do, Pooja. But a relationships brings with it a different kind of happiness. And you deserve to experience that. I want to see you happy and free in the companionship of a man. In fact, I want to be that man for you. I promise you I will never hurt you or abandon you. I want you to feel secure so that you can experience the joy of a relationship. Give me a chance and I will never let you down!”

She continued to stare at the boat in the distance. It had become more visible now.

“You want to get into a relationship with me?”, she asked.

“Yes. And please don’t get me wrong. It was you I kept seeking all along in life. I ran into many women who I thought mirrored what I was seeking. But, from a closer perspective, they failed me. All along, I have been looking for you. But when I found you, it was to realize that I couldn’t own you. You were there, and yet not there. Sort of volatile. Please Pooja, I need you. I want you in my life.”

Her expression did not change.

” Why would you need me, Vivek?”

” I need you because I want to bring in happiness into your life. I want to see you smile. And I want to keep that smile for myself. I want to go to sleep with that smile in my head.”

Unruffled, she asked, “Give me a good reason as to why you need me in your life, Vivek.”

“Like I said, you deserve to be happy. And I want to be the one to make you happy.”

In the distance, she could hear the purring of the boat.

“What are you thinking?”, he asked.

She turned to him and said, ” Vivek, I was thinking of how we are speaking from such different platforms. You are a married man. You speak from within the security of a family. A family that can cater to your emotional needs on a day-to-day basis. There is very little for which you have to depend on me. You are like a man standing firmly on the bank of a river, without the risk of falling. For you, this relationship is an added dimension that you can give to your life- the joy of the intellectual companionship of a woman.”

The boat was now approaching the bank. She pointed to it and said,” I am like that boat, at the mercy of the river. I can be easily shaken. I do not have the security of a family to bank on. I have only myself. And so, if I were to get into a relationship, I would solely bank on it for my emotional fulfillment. Any turbulence in our relationship would put me at risk of falling into the river.”

She started to walk. He followed.

She continued:

“You don’t really know me. How would you? You have not seen me in my moments of vulnerability or dependence. I was always vulnerable, with a very fragile self-esteem. In my teens, I did not have a father to help me overcome the feelings of worthlessness I would often feel. And so, I was always looking for the comfort of a relationship. It was my fragile self-esteem that propelled me to seek relationships. I liked that feeling of being wanted, being cherished and valued. But then, I would so easily get used to the relationship- to the presence of a person in my life, to his gestures, his mannerisms, his responses and reactions. I would get dependent on the little things that you mention- the heart-to-heart conversations, the tenderness, the holding hands, the hugs, the kisses. I would see the very meaning of my life in the relationship; I was dangerously dependent on the security it provided me. So imagine my predicament when the relationship ended. It was like being withdrawn from life support.”

She paused and sat herself on the stone bench. He sat down by her side. She spoke, almost to herself, as if lost in a distant reverie.

“It was so hard to come back to life each time- come back to being comfortable with one’s own company. It was this realization- the awareness of my fragility and dependence, that made me refrain from stepping into relationships.”

She looked at him.

“Over the years, I realized that nothing was permanent. A relationship could never assure permanence. I myself was not permanent. I therefore started filling up my solitude with meaningful endeavors that would leave behind something for the world, long after I was gone. And this made me strong for I learned to become comfortable with my solitude.”

She took a deep breath and continued:

“I have to take very good care of my mind, Vivek. I cannot afford to get used to the joy of a relationship. It would be detrimental for both of us. Of course, I will miss the little things in a relationship. But when did life promise you that you can have everything you want? These are but little pleasures- transient, fleeting moments of happiness. I seek the kind of happiness that sets me free. To me, happiness is the freedom within my mind. I want to feel free; I do not wish to be tied down by a relationship. I do not wish to be accountable to an individual. I do not want my happiness to be dependent on an individual. I want to be free- to do all the things I am passionate about. I do not want the burden of guilt- of being into a relationship with a married man. I want to be free of all such feelings that bind me.”

She looked at him with a trace of affection in her eyes.

“What I have truly missed is the joy of companionship. The kind of unspoken companionship that thrives on a silent understanding of the other’s vulnerability, fragility, struggle and pain. I cherish such companionship. Let us not bring down our relationship to anything lesser than that!”

They sat silently for some time. He stood up. She stood up too. He held her hand and they walked in silence.

 

 

Neeraja

This is a story that one of my students wrote. Through a simple narrative, she takes us through an internal journey of the character Neeraja, who makes us reflect on the imperfections and eccentricities we see in people and choose to be so judgemental about. If only we were to look deep into those imperfections, we would see our own imperfections, our deficiencies.The story teaches us to be sensitive to people and accepting of the diversity of human behaviour. It teaches us to read into the silent stories that people carry within them.

The quest for perfection is an endless journey that we embark on, right from our childhood. We live in a world where most of us are aware of our imperfections, and yet expect perfection from others. Is it okay to be imperfect?

Neeraja enrolled into my school when we were in 4th grade. She had long hair that was straight, thick eyebrows, glowing eyes, and a bindi adorning her forehead. Her bindis changed colour every day- from red, pink and green to mustard, yellow and turquoise. She stood out in her school uniform, especially on Wednesdays, when her white uniform appeared blue from too much Ujala. I remember the boys in my class sing the Ujala ad song that was popular at the time, and make fun of her. But that didn’t seem to wash away the smile on her face.

My class teacher made her sit next to me. At first, I hesitated talking to her as I was shy to initiate a conversation. But that didn’t seem to bother her. She was one hell of a talkative girl. Where she started and where she was headed, she herself didn’t seem to know. My responses to her rattling were limited to monosyllabic expressions of hmmm and oh! I hardly bothered to pay much attention to the content of her conversation. But this lack of interest never deterred or disappointed her. She kept at it. But how long could I go on as a passive listener? So I started talking too, and we became good friends.

Eventually, I came to know that her mother had passed away a few years ago in an accident. I never confronted her on this, but I could now see the pain behind the glow in her eyes. I could now relate to her enthusiastic tasting of the dishes my mother sent in my tiffin. “Did your mother make this?”, she would ask every day. I realized that in truth, her life lacked the colours that her bindis abounded in.

We were in touch even after school. An year ago, we decided to meet up. That was the first time she talked about her mother.

“You know what? Growing up without a mother is not easy. On many nights, I would cry myself to sleep. At an age when I needed a mother, I was playing mother to my younger sister- making ponytails that were always imperfect, packing a lunch of bread and butter into our lunch boxes, and the millions of other errands that needed a mother’s skilled hands- her perfection. Life seemed to demand so much from me. How could I be perfect? However, those imperfect attempts made me strong. Now, I can cater to the needs of a whole family, all by myself. Can you do that?”

She raised her eyebrows with a very serious expression and then broke into laughter. I laughed with her. Then, she continued.

“You know why Lord Krishna is loved over all other deities?”

“Why?”, I asked.

“He was blue in color. He was playful and stole butter. He encouraged Yudhishtira to lie- to say that Ashwathama was dead, in order to upset Drona. He even encouraged the hesitant Arjuna to slay Karna in his moment of weakness- when he had no arms to fight and no chariot to help him escape. Of course, these acts were for a greater good.”

She paused and then continued.

“Krishna was perfectly imperfect. Despite lacking in qualities that describe the perfection of the other Gods, he is loved like no other. That definitely proves that deep down, we all have our insecurities- our imperfections.”

Being a strong Krishna devotee, I found myself nodding in full agreement.

Whenever I see children wearing coloured bindis, whenever I realize there is too much ‘blue’ on my white coat, Neeraja and the wisdom in her words come back to me. The world is never perfect. It never has been. It never will be. And so it is with each one of us. We are all a little injured, a little jealous, a little selfish, a little broken…but a lot more loveable, on account of these imperfections within. We have all made our mistakes and regretted it in retrospect. And so, in this world of imperfections, it is perfectly okay to be imperfect.

The distance to our dreams

It had been raining incessantly. As we walked the distance to the dental clinic, the rain descended in huge torrents, and we had to struggle, maneuvering our way through the slush and the puddles of water, clinging to our umbrellas.

We stepped into the clinic with relief. While my mother went through a series of outpatient procedures, I stole a few minutes to collect a document from the college office. The rain had stopped briefly. As I walked across the yard, my phone rang. It was Fousiya. I answered the call. “Turn around!“, she said. I turned around to see her chubby, cheery face at the window- the face of a little child. She waved to me. I waved back, signalling that I would get back in a while.

As I walked, I felt guilty. I hadn’t called her in a long while. I hadn’t even bothered to tell her I would be coming today. Only a couple of months had passed since her husband’s death. The last we had spoken, she had told me that she had resumed work because it made her feel better.

By the time I got back, my mother’s consultation was through. I made her sit in the waiting area and I went up to meet Fousiya, contemplating on what she might have thought of my long silence. How was I to make her understand my predicament and my reasons for not being able to keep in touch with her? Would she believe the fact that I often thought of her, but never found a minute to connect? As I walked with these thoughts playing in my mind, I saw her approach with a broad smile.

For a moment, I was taken aback. I could imagine her current situation. But that had not erased the smile from her face or the glow in her eyes. This is how she was when I met her first, about seven years ago. And that had not changed, despite the fact that her life had changed by a huge measure. She was as thrilled as ever to see me, and she never once asked me why I hadn’t bothered to keep in touch. Instead, she asked me about my life and empathized with the current phase of my life. She seemed to understand it all; I needn’t have elaborated on it. Her responses were proof of how she could relate to my journey. That was the moment I felt truly ashamed of myself. Here she was, traversing a particularly difficult phase of life and yet, she had kept that aside to know how my life had been. She was still so fond of me, but I wasn’t sure I deserved it anymore.

I steered the conversation to her life. I was moved by the manner in which she always spoke of her life. She would talk about the difficult moments. And then find her own reasons to justify the unfairness of life.

She was the sort of woman that life was persistently trying to break, but had never succeeded at. She would talk about her dreams in serious tones, and then laugh at their apparent foolishness. She would talk with great maturity, and then switch to childish humour. That she had seen the worst of life, and could yet preserve the child within, was her greatest victory against life. I was in awe of her.

 

I want to study. I want to either complete my BA English or get into General Nursing. I want to stand on my own feet and give my son a good education. That is the only goal I have in my life now“, she suddenly said to me.

And then, in a more mellow tone, she added, ” My son is so young. He knows nothing of the tragedy that has befallen him. His world is so simple. He is always smiling, unaware of what it means to not have a father. Unaware of the complexities of life. Unaware of the bitter facts he must face as he grows up. When I see his smile, I can’t help wishing I could always keep that smile on his face. I do not want him to feel the absence of a father.

Does your brother come home?“, I asked

Yes, he does. But he has his own family to look after. He had to take up the burden of our family so early in life. He deserves a life now. He has his own dreams, and he is entitled to them. I cannot beg him for anything more.

What about the money? How are you going to pay for your course?‘ I asked her.

That is the tough part. If it is distance education, I could continue working here, and though this salary wouldn’t be enough to take care of all the expenses, I can at least think of taking a loan. But if I have to quit this job, I have no source of income. And yet, this job cannot give me a future. I have to take up a registered course of value- one that will ensure a job.

I nodded. I suddenly remembered Hashim ikka. He had mentioned a Trust. Could they finance her education?

Here was a human being- a single woman, so young, so intelligent and capable. Her only dream was education for a better job. Just so that she could secure her child’s life. At any cost, I wanted to help her out. If I had a stable job, I would have given her the money myself.

She walked with me to see my mother. We then said goodbye and parted.

I had spoken to Hashim ikka and he had put me through to his friend, who had in turn, given me a contact number. This had taken some time. I sent her the contact number. She had instantly followed up. That evening, I called her to check on the response.

I spoke to him. He took all my details and said he would see if I am eligible for the sponsorship“, she said to me.

I will call him in a couple of days and check on the status“, I said to her.

I wish this world would come to an end“, she suddenly said.

And laughed aloud.

I know her well by now. I could see the connection between the intensity of her laughter and the amount of pain she hid behind it. Laughter had become her natural reaction to pain. I suppose when you have cried and cried, you are tired of crying, and you decide to laugh instead.

Fousiya, so many people in this world complain about things they have to do- study, write exams, carry out work assigned to them, and so on. They probably don’t realize how fortunate they are. Here you are, with a simple goal- you want to study. Just so as to get a better job and be able to provide for your child. But to study, there are all these hurdles that you have to work your way through- from finances to your current job to the care of your child. Isn’t life so ironical?” I asked her.

A woman’s life is fragile. It is so subject to the mercy of others. Unless there is a strong man in her life- a father in her early life, and a husband later, her life is sealed. I had neither. So I have to accept this as my fate. You see, I can take up the registered ANM course in Kasargod, but I will have to travel every day. I don’t mind that, but I will be spending very little time at home. Somebody has to stand behind me and tell me- ‘Go ahead. I will take care of everything.’ If an unexpected situation crops up, especially one involving my son, and there is nobody to back me up for this course, I will have to quit. I cannot imagine enrolling for a course, going through all the hardships, and quitting midway. All my courage drains off when I think of that.

I could have cried.

People are still asking me to marry. They ask me- ‘Why should you study more? This is not the age to study.’ I have a neighbour next door- a young girl, who is the mother of two children. Her first husband divorced her after her first child was born. They married her off again, and she had a child from the second marriage. And look at the play of destiny, her second husband left her too. Now she lives with her grandmother who does odd jobs to take care of them. The girl is mentally unwell now. People see this, and yet, they tell me to marry. Are they blind?

I sighed.

Children are always the victims of such marriages. Look at my sister’s children. Their father is very much alive, but he never bothers with them. As children, they have dreams. They like to go out, see places. They want somebody to take them out. Such simple dreams of theirs, remain unrealized. What hope do they have? If a husband and wife cannot get along, and if they do not have the potential to be heeding to the needs of children, they should not have children.

I was speechless. Perhaps some of the most educated people I knew did not have such insights.

“I have only one dream. To be independent. To be free from these petty people who cannot think beyond their small world. Some day, I shall be free from them. I shall live in a small house of my own- just me and my son, in a world of our own, where there shall be no intruders to kill the simple peace of our life. I want to be responsible for my son. I want to give him all that I never had. A parent’s love, companionship, education, and everything I never had in my life.

I couldn’t help thinking of the stark contrast between this woman and other women I knew, who regarded themselves as strong and independent, without understanding what it meant to be so.

 

 

 

 

Earning my Freedom

prison

Finally, it is the kind of Sunday I have been waiting for.

I quit my job in April. While I haven’t resigned yet on paper, I resigned in my mind a long time ago. I have no plans of stepping back into the monotony of that job. The days since have been full. When I think of the dull routine of that job and the hours I would sit from 9 am to 4 pm, six days a week, trying to find something meaningful or entertaining to do, I feel the days since have been so productive in contrast. Ironical, isn’t it?

I regard the last few months as the most beautiful phase of my life. It was like being at sea on a self-charted voyage, with the exciting possibility of stumbling on new lands and setting foot on new frontiers, but also with the heavy risk of being at the mercy of the weather. I tasted freedom in its true sense and I realized how much courage it takes to truly liberate oneself from all entrapment.

For the first time, I saw life as a broad canvas on which one painted with a free hand. There were no practised strokes, no pictures to take cues from, no preconceived color schemes. There was just the canvas, the brush and the colors. I had to trust my hand. I had to trust my mind. I had to let it flow, anticipating the possibility of smudges and blotches. I had to be willing to take off the smudged canvas and start afresh on a new canvas. It was in these times that I came closest to Paulo Coelho’s words:

And when you really want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

The hardest part of the journey in these few months was that there was no income coming in. I was spending for all my endeavours, but with nothing coming in. Of course, I didn’t have to worry about it under my current circumstances, but what if I had to? I couldn’t go on like this. There were moments I felt worthless and confused. I had all the education and credentials to earn me a good job where I could be productive, but that wasn’t happening. If a job provided an income, it wasn’t providing anything for the soul. If a job gave me something for the soul, there was no income. How long could I go on like this? I consoled myself that this was a temporary state of affairs. I thought of people who could not have done this, even if they wanted to. At least I was fortunate in that I didn’t have to worry about my materialistic needs being met, despite the absence of an income. So I told myself that I would quit these endeavors only after I had savored their joy to some extent.

My life was like a circus in these months. I was taking on roles at random, depending on the immediate need. I was approaching schools, trying to convince Principals and Managements of the need to provide children something beyond their academic curriculum. This was hard because I had to prove to them that I had something concrete to offer. Sometimes I would take on the role of a communicative language teacher, hoping to connect language to students’ functional needs in terms of expression. Sometimes I would be a motivational speaker, speaking to them about topics such as school, education, or reading, hoping to connect these concepts to their motivation. Sometimes I would be an NIE teacher, using the newspaper as a tool to develop critical thinking ability in students. Sometimes, I would be a counselor and mentor, addressing their individual challenges. It wasn’t that I was trained in any of these. These were not the skill areas in which I was trained. But the drive to make a difference was so high that I just plunged in, trusting my instincts. I suppose the feelings of worthlessness were also a factor. I had to prove to myself that I had quit my job for a good reason. And when I was not doing any of these, I was a student. I sought courses that could upgrade my skills and prove useful to the roles I wished to play. This played its part in keeping my morale high. Learning new skills has always been my greatest high. So this played its part in keeping my feelings of worthlessness at bay. Towards the end, I also decided to tutor medical students on my own, for the pure joy of teaching. What I could not do in my institution, I wanted to do on my own. Teach to educate, rather than teach for a degree. There is an ocean of difference between the two. This has been an uphill task because students have been conditioned to structure their learning to suit exams (that unfortunately have nothing to do with testing of concepts) and therefore demonstrate resistance to true learning.

As I look back at my life, I see it as a circus. A circus, where I took roles at random, depending on the immediate need of the hour. Roles that sometimes demanded skills I had not been trained in. But life doesn’t give you that choice, does it? You just play the part and trust yourself to perform. But in retrospect, these untrained roles taught me the most. I suppose I always saw life as a long movie where I had the freedom to work on the character and the script, as well as act the character. So, in a sense, I enjoyed it. At different phases, I played different characters. I could look at my role objectively, revise the script and the character, and impact the outcome. I had the freedom to enhance the beauty of the character. And so, with each character, I let life pass through me in all its intensity, and I allowed it to transform me. To enrich me as a character. To add depth to it. That is when the true beauty of life dawned on me.

Towards the end of this phase, the clouds seemed to lift off, and some sunshine streamed in. I suddenly had the luxury to pause and look back at these last few months. I feel like a seasoned traveler now, wise from the diversity of the expeditions I have undertaken. Like that moment in ‘The pursuit of happyness’, it is that moment when the test has come to an end. I may soon be taking up a new role in life.

And as the possibility of this new role sets in, long-forgotten doors open and a familiar fragrance floods my senses. The world behind those doors is so precious and sacred that I do not dare to step in yet. For so long, I have been kept away from that world, imprisoned in a cell where I did not dare to dream of freedom. My feeling now is akin to that of a prisoner whose sentence and term in prison is reduced abruptly and the orders for release come, when he least expects it. The impact of the prison is so high that one is fearful of exposing oneself to the joys of the world outside. One is fearful of attaching yet again to that world; fearful of it being snatched away yet again. That is my current state. As I think of all the things that may come back into my life again, I can only sit and cry. I am too scared to be happy. It will take quite some time for this reality to sink in. At the same time, a part of me feels the joy of having earned it. This time, I deserve that world, for I earned it. It wasn’t just given to me for nothing.

Finally, it is the kind of Sunday I have been waiting for.

In case you wanted to know why, this is the first Sunday in months where I haven’t had to worry about the week ahead. There is no planning to do, no uncertainty to deal with. My mind is still. And I feel free to chase the butterflies within my mind- the multicolored emotions that I call butterflies. I hope you have a great Sunday too, chasing your own butterflies!

A Man who had no Eyes: Critical Analysis

Did you find the story good/average/poor? Why?

I first read this story when I was in school. I remember feeling stunned by the climax. I have read it many times thereafter. Each time, the story creates in me an impact, despite the fact that the climax is no longer a suspense.

I have always loved stories that bring out the invisible aspects of human nature to surface and compel us to reflect on the intricacies of the human mind.  Especially stories that bring out the strength of a character against the backdrop of adversity, and therefore teach us life.

I rate this story as brilliant because:

  • It portrays realism. Both the characters here are samples of real-life characters we encounter in our day-to-day lives. If we were to closely scrutinize the people in our lives, we would discover many ‘Mr Parsons’ and ‘Markwardts’.
  • The story brings out the strength of Mr Parsons’ character by contrasting it with the weakness of Markwardt’s character.
  • The story pays attention to detail. The description of the characters makes them come alive in our minds; it is almost as if you can see them and sense the contrast in their appearance, in their accents, in their socioeconomic status. The environment and setting of the plot is also given due consideration. And yet, the progress of the plot is not hampered by this attention to detail.
  • The author introduces deliberate pauses in the plot, in order to create an impact. For instance, when Markwardt narrates his story and concludes with ‘That’s my story, Guv’nor’, the author breaks the plot momentarily before Mr Parker responds. ‘The spring wind shrilled past them, damp and quivering’, writes the author. This pause builds an expectant air- a space for the reader to anticipate and expect as to what might be coming next. ‘Not quite’, says Mr Parker. The reader is hooked by now.
  • The climax is brilliant. A powerful climax makes the story linger in the minds of the reader because the story ends, but leaves the reader with a lost of unsettled questions and thoughts. The reader’s attention is drawn to the untold parts of the story. Mr Parsons lingers in the reader’s mind. The reader dwells on what it might have taken Mr Parsons to come out of the tragedy. The reader imagines Mr Parsons’ life after the tragedy- of what his immediate reaction might have been to the event and to the deceit in particular, of how he must have come to terms with the tragedy and with the handicap it left him with, of the long journey to become all that he had become. There is endless scope for reflection on this untold part of the story.

What do you think of Mr Parson’s character? Did it inspire you? What trait in his personality inspired you the most?

Mr Parson’s character is full of internal strength and richness. The story illuminates the extraordinary potential of his mind- of how he is able to outlive a tragedy by tapping into his internal resources, and transform the ultimate outcome of the tragedy into a positive ending.

Mr Parsons comes across as a composed and mature character who does not believe in dramatizing the unfairness of life. He believes in problem-solving, without self-pity.

Mr Parsons appears to be in acceptance of the unfairness of life; he does not harbour revenge, spite or hatred. It is this acceptance that enables him to become successful despite the handicap. It is this acceptance that enables him to stay composed despite the coincidental encounter with the man who ruined his life. Mr Parsons is at peace with both the incident and the act of deceit. He has not let either defeat him.

Mr Parsons sells insurance. This reflects the impact of the accident on his mind. Instead of dwelling on his personal trauma, Mr Parsons dwells on the larger picture of such accidents- of how unsuspecting people can become victims of such accidents. He decides to do something about that and ends up in the insurance business. Possibly, his success might have come from the genuine motivation behind taking up such a profession. This was the part I liked best about Mr Parsons’ personality- of how he refused to look at his handicap/deficits and focused on his strength. Of how he allowed the tragedy of his life to move him towards a greater cause.

Despite being blind, Mr Parsons retains his sensitivity to the world. He is delighted at the fragrances of the season- they evoke in him memories of spring, and he is content with these memories. He chooses not to be sad about the fact that he can no longer see spring in all its splendour. This reflects the immense potential of the human mind- of how if we choose, we can experience everything within our minds, and derive joy from our perceptions.

What do you think of Markwardt’s character? Did you feel hatred towards him at the end of the story or pity for him?

Markwardt’s character is manipulative. This manipulative behaviour in response to adversity could stem from multiple factors. It could be related to his early experiences as a child (particularly the attitude of the parental figures in his life), his limited cognition and poor problem-solving skills, the fault in his moral judgment. When people adopt manipulative behaviour from an early age in order to get away from negative feelings, it can become a habit, operating at an unconscious level. It can get registered in their minds as the means of confronting problems. This is the case with Markwardt. His behaviour in the setting of the gas explosion at Westbury, reflects his dire selfishness. But given the nature of the situation, one can overlook this behaviour in the light of man’s survival instinct. In the setting of a life-threatening event, a human being might only think of his life. However, following the incident, Markwardt has no guilt. Instead, he manipulates the incident and distorts the facts to earn sympathy. He lives off this sympathy.

With regard to the ultimate outcome, Markwardt is defeated by life. I initially felt repelled by his meanness, but eventually, as I analyzed the whole picture, I felt sorry for him- for his lack of insight.

By presenting these two characters, what is the ultimate message of the story?

The story is woven around a common tragedy and it explores how two different personalities take different paths in response to the same tragedy. The story teaches us to rise above denial and self-pity, to internalize and accept the trauma, and most importantly, to focus on one’s strengths than one’s weaknesses and tap into this strength. The story teaches us as to how our sorrows can move us enough to drive us to create a better world- not just for us, but for society as a whole. We must transform our tragedies into such stories that cause us to look at ourselves with pride.

Have you ever gone through a similar experience where somebody manipulated facts and deceived you? What did you feel then? How did you handle it?

The highest instance of manipulative behaviour I have seen is in Kerala. A good many people accept this as the norm here. They feel it is of survival value. Perhaps that is what their experience has taught them in a conservative society like Kerala that sets very high ideals to live up to (humanly not possible), and people find the easy way around it. In my initial years in this society, I was perpetually the victim of this behaviour. I was in denial for a long time and I hated the people here. Over time, when I realized I had no escape, I started to reflect on why they were so. When I analyzed them against the social climate here, I found it easier to forgive them. I feel acceptance has transformed my attitude to them and to my own issues here. I now feel only pity for them, and I feel motivated to take up initiatives that would change the social climate here. Today, I look back at the Kerala chapter as valuable lessons learned in life.

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to deceive somebody?

Yes. Though I like to think of myself as a conscientious individual, there have surely been incidents where I have felt it is alright to deceive since it isn’t causing great harm. However, the guilt would eat me up for days.

Let us learn to read into the people we come across- into their untold stories. Let us enrich our own lives with their stories.