Ma With Fahrenheit 451

As I took a walk one morning, I tried to identify the flowers and trees in the neighborhood, and found myself humbled by my meagre botanical knowledge. A bird or two chirped nearby, and I tried my best to enjoy the quiet by zoning out the drone of the constant hum of traffic from the main road. I looked up at a tree that I loved, a Gingko tree, and sat myself down nearby watching the suns life giving rays upon a garden just watered. The tiny water droplets refracted the suns rays, and the world around me felt magical.

As if to complete this picture of serenity, two butterflies danced into view. Their dance around the flowers on that sunlit morning with the rays of the sun coming in through the Gingko trees leaves was enough to mesmerize anyone, and I found myself smiling and lapsing into a contented silence. It is not often that I get to slow life down enough to sit and watch butterflies in the garden. In those few blissful moments, I experienced the beautiful concept of Ma. Ma is the Japanese concept signifying the space between moments, and is a practice in the Zen art of being present in the moment. Ma is the pause between sounds.

Ma is beautifully explained in the children’s book written by Katrina Goldsaito and Illustrated by Julia Kao titled, The Sound of Silence.

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In the book, Little Yoshio looks for the sound of silence after he hears an old koto player on the street tell him that her favorite sound is the sound of ma, of silence. Intrigued, Yoshio looks for the sound of silence in the streets of the city around him, he looks for it in the bamboo garden, but finds other noises are constantly present, and is wondering whether he can ever find Ma.

Then one morning, he enters his school earlier than usual and immerses himself in a book, he experiences it for the first time. “Suddenly in the middle of a page, he heard it. No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned. In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath. Everything felt still inside him. Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed.

The butterflies cavorted higher and higher and then swooped down with joy to the lavender patch. I let my mind flitter about like the creatures I was watching. Reflecting upon life is increasingly becoming a luxury, I thought to myself. I had just finished reading Fahrenheit 451, and could not help thinking of some of the things in the book that Ray Bradbury had the foresight of seeing 50-60 years ago, long before we were addicted to technology and lured by the concept of busyness. Fahrenheit 451 talks about a future in which all books are burned by firemen. (451 F is the temperature at which book paper burns. )

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People live in homes where the Televisor is on all 4 walls, signifying constant stimulation. One fireman is curious to see what is there in the books that those who love it so much are even willing to die to keep them. He steals a random book here and a book there with every burning, and he tries his best to make sense of it, but is unable to grasp the beauty of random poetry. He tracks down one person whose books he had burned and asks him to explain. Excerpt from the book below:

“Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we may forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched patches of the universe together into one garment for us. 3 things are missing

Number one: Quality, texture of information. They show the pores in the face of life

Number Two: Leisure”

“Oh, but we have plenty of off hours.”

“Off hours yes. But time to think? If you’re not driving a 100 miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting i some room where you can’t argue with the four wall televisor. Why? The televisor is real. It in immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense?’

Summing up, he says the books give you three things:

Number one: quality of information.

Number two: leisure to digest it.

And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.

Complement with Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

From Botany to Ma and Fahrenheit 451, I was flitting about like a butterfly myself, and could not have asked for a more pleasurable show in my head had I planned the thing.

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A Whiff of Youth & A Hint of Innocence

As summer closes its curtains, I look forward to the beautiful season of Fall. I yearn to see the colors of the leaves changing, resplendent in their glory for a few weeks, and the inevitable flutter they produce in my heart as they come to terms with letting go of their branches.

The children and I had our first scrunch-party this morning: We saw a small bunch of dried leaves near our feet, and we jumped and heard the delightful scrunch that was then followed by giggles that caused a squirrel to pause on its scamper and chitter at us looking amused from the roof above, reminding me of one of the poems in the book, A Whiff of Pine and a Hint of Skunk ( A Forest of poems by Deborah Ruddell & Joan Rankin)

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  • Above my head a robin sings
  • a shy hello and flaps her wings.
  • She whistles to a waiting squirrel
  • who gives his fuzzy tail a twirl
  • and bounces on a flimsy branch
  • which starts a leafy avalanche
  • of red and gold from every tree
  • as if they’ve planned it all for me.
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A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk

Afterward, we made our way to the son’s school. I waved goodbye to the fellow, and then dilly-dallied for a minute after he had gone into his own classroom. I love the atmosphere of the fresh energy and exuberance of children on a Friday morning. I was soaking in the scene when I saw a child crying. Great big tears coursed down her cheeks, and her face was so troubled, I stopped to ask her what the matter was. I cannot bear to see children cry (Tantrums annoy, but these genuine feelings of sorrow wrack my heart).

It was then I saw three girls her own age come and stand around her in a knot. They comforted her in their own way, asked her what the matter was, and then took her along to walk to the classroom with them. Her slumped shoulder straightened just a wee bit after a few steps, and her hands that were held by one of the girls was given more willingly. I watched them walk away together, and a warm glow suffused me.

In that glimpse of school, I saw the heartening stirrings of a friendship, the kind heartedness of fellow classmates, the easy grace with which relationships start – an art that adults seem to have forgotten along the way.

I walk around the neighborhood seeing the early stirrings of fall. The precocious among leaves are turning color. Fall raises the question of mortality, and I admire the example the fall leaves set for us, when the time has come for them, by letting go and fluttering down. with the promise of renewal in the air.

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It reminds me of a conversation I was having with my parents, as many people of the older generation grapple with the problem of aging. For the first time in the history of mankind, we will soon have the same number of people over the age of 80 as below the age of 5. Depression and anxiety among the aged is common. (My article here on Aging: Toby Turtle’s Lesson on Life)

If old age were indeed the second childhood, what would it take to keep forging relationships without expectation, and reaping its unexpected rewards, like the little girls that morning? How to infuse our minds with a hint of innocence and a whiff of youth?

Freedom Is Sweet

Driving through lush green hills, past wide rivers and huge boulders, the route was marvelous. We had been a-visiting India for a short trip. The roads were smooth, and the rain clouds brought on a blast of monsoon rains. The little car burst forth joyfully on the empty roads swerving like a little child to splash puddles along the way.

The driver may be a grown man who sports whiskers on his face, but the heart the body houses is a child’s when it rains.
“You know? Two years ago, I took this road and it was agonizing to drive. The road was full of potholes, and our backs were sore for days.” he said smiling before splashing a big puddle again. The brother was driving and we were on the way to the city where my parents lived.
“What changed then?” I asked puzzled, for the gray ribbon in front of us was smooth and clean.
“Politics happened. The interim chief minister’s constituency is somewhere on this road, so we got our lovely scenic route done up – no charge.”

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We reached home and affectionate greetings exchanged between parents, grandparents and children alike. A little while later, I was sprawled on the couch listening to the pater rile himself up with the news. Blithering-idiots-the-lot-of-them-are, seemed to about the gist of it, and I watched him amused.

The next day was Indian Independence Day, and the politicians were scrambling to see whose speeches would get maximum coverage on television, while ensuring that important topics of daily living were tabled for later. One incensed statement from the host of the News network forced the father to mute the television, and launch into a full scale explanation of politics that is best explained with a bedtime story. If you would snuggle in and close your eyes. Good then..:

There was a diamond ring, and everyone wanted it. But one strong, majestic troll had it, and did not let anybody else touch it. One day, the troll died, and all the remaining trolls fought each other for the ring. The troll children were hungry and thirsty, but that bothered no one. They are still fighting for the ring.

The End.

I know what you are thinking. As far as bedtime stories go, that was pretty rotten! I agree, but the state in which the parents live had recently lost their chief minister, and the squabble around the position was enough to make reality show hosts blanch. The populace has learned to look at the ensuing drama as such, and take a philosophical view of enjoying the good roads while they lasted.

We chewed the fat about the latest situ. in the United States, and how divisive strains were making themselves heard, and how we must do all we can to fight it.

Like Mark Twain said, The truth is stranger than fiction, but that is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities whereas the Truth isn’t.

The next day was August 15th – Indian Independence Day, and we chirped with the birds, looked smart and went down for the flag hoisting in the community. I had with me my son and nephew – both five year olds who were eager for any activity involving the outdoors. As they stepped out, the boys were warned that they were not to take more than 1 sweet when offered the plate after the flag hoisting. If they were pups, I could have seen their ears drooping, but they bore the blow stoically enough and charged downstairs.

I stood there marveling at the fact that a month earlier we had celebrated Independence Day in the US. I looked around at the knot of people with whom I was celebrating Indian Independence Day. The stupendous privilege of celebrating Independence Day in the world’s largest democracies was not lost on me. To every one of us who looked at the flower petals fluttering down from the flag, freedom meant a different thing. To some of us, it meant living peaceful lives, to some, it meant having the right to dream, to some others, the ability to dissent. But we all agreed that it deserves celebration.

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Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book about the oppressive regime in Iran, was still in my mind, and as I was in the habit of reading particularly affecting passages to those near me ( a malady I inherited from the pater), I was doubly grateful to Democracy in spite of all its pitfalls. Fighting for diamond rings or no, taking a stand against divisive policies or not, we have something worth fighting for.

Afterward, we walked towards a small store. The path was an exciting one – past barking dogs, and motorcycles weaving their way through the streets. I smiled and asked for some chocolates for the lads. Their faces lit up with joy: Freedom is sweet.

 

The Moon’s Beard

The son and I had been on a quick trip to see my family in India. The brother, the shining Galahad of our family, said he would be there to pick the little fellow and self at the airport. I nestled into the journey comfortably equipped with books.

I was midway through Reading Lolita In Tehran, a book that has languished on my to-read list for far too long. The journey was comfortable enough, and I found myself pulled into the period from the overthrow of the Shah of Iran to the early 2000s when the author finally decided to leave the country and move to the United States. The author is a professor of English Literature and her upbringing in an intellectual family and world make it very hard for her to digest the increasingly repressive practices the regime imposed on them.

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By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3734465

In the book, she writes of how many of her students were categorically rigid in their views. Some boys (or young men) were vociferous and rigid in their condemnations and swallowed all the rhetoric that had been fed to them by the repressive regime. Men could be punished for not sporting beards, women flogged for not wearing purdahs. One time she finds herself cautioning a young man who followed her to her office parroting things about the West after a class on Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, that he may well end up like Elizabeth changing her mind about Mr Darcy one slur at a time.

It is astonishing how many young minds could be made to think a certain way. As I moodily prodded a potato on the flight’s lunch, I looked to the son sitting next to me – he was avidly watching Cars and pulling my attention to particular scenes.

“See? See? Lightning is going to blow a tire now. Now Amma.” he said far too loudly, for he had the headsets on, and was excited. How did innocent boys like him grow to young men like I was reading about?

You ready to meet Maama (Uncle)? I asked the son as he sat up after he finished watching the movie for the n-th time. Yes! he beamed and I thought how much he resembled my brother when he was a child. He had the same beam like a full moon.

I got down at the airport and scoured the crowds gathered outside. I looked out for the beaming face of my brother, couldn’t see him and stepped back inside to get wifi access so I could message him. It was then that I noticed a man of palm tree height, swinging his branches at us. There was no reason to single us out. It was 3 am and the throng outside was not waving at us. It was minding its own business. Plus this tree was employing that windmill action that is characteristic of the Bala family. But this could not be him.

What I saw wasn’t the smooth face of a full moon, but a moon that slipped and muddied itself in the nearest marsh. Apart from a beak and two eyes, everything else as I said was scoured. I peered closely and he leaped forward startling some of the crowd with his “HIIII”. The voice was his, but I could not understand why he looked like Ayatollah Khomeini , and I said so with some asperity.

“Reading a book on Iran I see?” he said shrewdly as he pulled me in for a hug.

“Reading Lolita In Tehran”, I said bemusedly. “What’s with the beard – like a louse rug on a biscuit.”

The beard affected me strongly, and I set aside sisterly tones of affection and reached for the tug – “It looks ghastly.” The brother looked pleased that I was taking the facial hay like this, and he clung to it looking more like three billy goats gruff, every minute.

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“Keep with the times! The latest fashion – all the dudes have them.” At this point, he stopped to reel off the names of cricket stars and film actors, the best of whom I could not recognize if I had coffee with them beardless. If they were beardless I mean. I don’t have a beard. Estrogen and all that.

I sighed and quoted Azar Nafisi’s husband from Reading Lolita in Tehran:
None of us can avoid being contaminated by the world’s evils; it’s all a matter of what attitude you take towards them.

The son was peering at his loving uncle in that keen manner that children have. “Maama – how come your hair is coming out of your face? Mine only grows on my head!” said the fellow who has been under the influence of the clean shaven thus far.

“Magic!” murmured the brother and chuckled softly at his awe. The moon beamed down at us from the sky above, and a gentle breeze rustled the palm trees, as we made our way home.