Sketching Freedom

It fell to the teenaged daughter to keep her little brother and nephew in line during our forays into the forest. While they generally listened to her, they also enjoyed pulling her leg. Smarty pants that she is with me, it is sweet indeed to see her stumped by her little brothers. One such time when she was speechless, she said something wise and insightful. I looked at her with awe – “So, you finally got around to reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations I see!” I said beaming. Pride shone through my pores though I tried my best not to show it.

“Nope – still boring! Siri told me.” said she and laughed at my expression.

“Confucius, Buddha,  Marcus Aurelius, and a thousand other philosophers in your Kindle, and you go for Siri?”

I shook my head and went off to do some philosophizing of my own. The walking philosopher if ever there was one. I walked into the sunset philosophizing, as I said.

Sunsets are beautiful things anywhere – enjoy them with a rustic feel, and they can be few things more poetic or romantic. That evening’s sunset had been particularly fruitful – it isn’t everyday that one gets to see a dozen peacocks take flight into the horizon, witness the chirp-filled fooling around of parrots, cuckoos and at least a dozen different kinds of birds, and encounter the folly of frogs skipping and narrowly avoiding one’s feet.

I traipsed indoors, happy with life, still rattling on about the beautiful image of the peacocks and parrots taking flight together in the evening light. “I wish I could be a bird sometimes! So Free!” I said, and walked straight into the trap.

“What is Freedom for you Amma?” said the daughter. She was sitting on the bed, looking happy and sketching.

“Well…errmm, eh?” After this coherent response, I decided something more was warranted and fumbled a bit more. ” Well…umm…it is the ability to be able to live without fear I suppose. ”

“So, is a free country a place where people aren’t scared?”

I paused – my answers were shaky. Why did I think birds were free? Because they could take to the skies when they wished? But they also take flight when startled or scared. Hmm. I have never been one of those lawyer types who could cover all angles, and espouse something that if examined from all angles will hold water. This needed thought.

So, I did the next best thing, and reached into the recesses of my teenage brain. I remember a song we used to sing at morning assembly in school, and a particular set of phrases that I liked at the time without fully realizing the impact of it all. It went something like this:
Blah Blah Blah-dee-blah
Blah Blah Blah-dee-blah
Freedom from Want & Fear
Freedom of Worship
Freedom of Speech & Thought
Blah-Blah-Blah

That was it. The husband said – “Hmm – good answer!” with the tone of one who wished he had thought of the answer himself.

Pretty soon, the discussion on Freedom took on multiple angles, and the whole family was there weighing in with their take on the concept of Freedom.

Is Freedom of Choice a thing?
What of the rules and laws required for a free society?
What about Freedom to Live? Is Immortality a worthy goal then? If so, is the opposite a freedom as well?
Freedom to Dream? Is there a limit on one’s dreams?

I remembered Trevor Noah’s narrative in Born a Crime on dreams,

“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.”

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The concept of our Imaginations being limited by our circumstances is an interesting and clairvoyant one. It got us discussing the dreams of women in far flung places like the toothless old lady we had met earlier that evening – what were her dreams for her life? In her book, Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates gives us a sneak peek into the lives of hard working women struggling in remote places. What were their dreams and ambitions? Do our dreams all follow Maslow’s triangle and what then for those who have reached the zenith – is there more at the end of it.

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The daughter continued sketching looking strangely amused by the heated and fast pace at which Freedoms were galloping in the laid back villages of South India. It seemed to be the only thing galloping at the moment.

“So why do you ask about Freedoms my dear?” I asked.

“Oh, I was thinking of drawing a girl who was free, and I kept imagining a happy one. But free is not always happy, is it?!” said she.

I looked around at the serious faces of the gathered folks and burst out laughing. “Really! Gotten us arguing on freedom to dream and imaginations and the Lord knows what else. You sketched us all having a good go I suppose – Well, my dear, what did Wise Siri tell you that Freedom was?” I said

She laughed raucously, and swished her long hair freely.

“Show us what you’ve got and we’ll see which face looks Free!” I picked two random ones from the 5 or 6 she showed us.

Which one looks free?

 

 

 

Galactic Plumes

I had been mooning about the fields outside in the village where we stayed near Topslip National Forest. People told me to be careful about venturing out far – “There are Elephants nearby, and they love the fields. “, they said emphasizing the word, Elephants. My eyes lit up. The villagers exchanged looks that doubted my sanity and hurried on, “It isn’t Good seeing Elephants in the fields – you never know what they will do. If you hear fire crackers in the distance, come straight back here!” said one toothless fairy godmother, and her husband (I think) nodded in agreement vigorously.

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Off we went then, sauntering through the fields, listening to the loud orchestra of birds, crickets and frogs, accompanying the beautiful colors that nature was setting forth for us to see. It is magical indeed to see a half dozen peacocks take flight into the sunset. By the time, we fumbled for the phones they were gone, and I was glad I did not waste those precious moments of seeing them start off awkwardly and then gain elegance in flight by trying to get a picture. I have it in my mind’s eye, along with the indescribable moment of feeling your heart soar with the peacocks’ trajectory.

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Peacocks have long feathers, and while they know how to fan them out and preen in front of peahens looking splendid in the process; when they fly, it looks like it can feel like long hair feels to women.

Gather your tresses,
Of plume and multi-colored beauty
Tuck them in,
Letting it stream behind you elegantly while
Trying not to let it look messy
And all the rest of that.

It was then in the distance that we heard firecrackers go off in the distance. I don’t know about you, but this is the sort of thing that holds mystique. It is what inspired my Mother’s Day in the Jungle tale. Trumpy elephant going off to Farmer Hasalot’s farm – there is such an element of thrill and romantic mysticism to this kind of thing, though I think the elephants and farmers in question disagree.

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I spent dusk in a similar fashion enjoying the fading sunlight, the rising moon, the fields, the clouds, the village, the children, the adults and creatures of beautiful Earth. Every now and then, crackers went off in the distance – elephants in the distance we whispered. Though, why we were whispering we had no idea. Dusk seems to call for these things. A laid back village in South India tucked away in the recesses of the Western Ghats with all the fascination of the bucolic. An occasional rumble of a vehicle is all there was to remind us of civilization, corporates, power tussles, wars, micro/ macro economics, nuclear heavy-lifts, and motives of profit.

Post dinner, I traipsed indoors, happy with life, still rattling on about the beautiful image of the peacocks taking flight together in the evening light. We stayed chatting happily into the night (Part 2)

It was well past midnight when the electricity went out, and the husband said, “Outside now! Completely dark – yes!”

Off we went, self carrying the son piggy-back to see the stars in all its glory outside. With the electricity gone, it was pitch black outside.
Oh!
My foot!
Not there.
Ouch!

We bumped into one another spectacularly and I tripped on a chair outside in the verandah, carrying the little fellow on my back. Both of us went crashing down, self trying to save the poor fellow from being dropped from my back. One splendid moment later, I truly saw what ‘seeing stars’ meant.

The pair of us dragged ourselves off our feet and took our eyes skyward. The light pollution we have unleashed on our planet means that there are very few places in the world that humanity can stand and gaze at the sheer immensity of the universe in which we live. On an average dark-ish day, we can see about 3000 stars, on a day like this surrounded by mountains, forests and fields for miles around us, we could see tens of thousands of them lighting up entire bands of the sky with their luminance. The stars and galaxies are always there, and maybe because of this very permanence, it is seldom appreciated.

Standing there in the surrounding darkness with people I love, I felt light-headed. There we were, standing on an Earth that was spinning incredibly fast in its journey around the sun; the sun was swirling around the Milky Way galaxy; and the galaxy itself was spinning and whirling away into vaster expanses. Carrying us all: our ethereal thoughts, wishes and desires; and our solid physical selves on a solid planet.

The galaxy tucking its star-studded plumes behind it gracefully, and taking flight with all its organic and inorganic components streaming gracefully along its path. Huge balls of gas and flames hurtling through space, and some spots in this beautiful expanse sanguine enough to cool down for a spot of life to flourish. #The Pale Blue Dot.

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The beautiful image of the peacocks taking flight earlier that evening came to me, and in that moment, the galaxies above looked like peacocks taking flight into horizons unknown.

Do the dreams of galaxies have limits? Do they have purposes?

Thinking back on that beautiful spin through the gathering darkness, I am reminded of this quote by Ursula K Le Guin:
“Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”

For the Love of Libraries

“We are going to give you something special!” coo-ed the nieces as soon as I landed in India.
“What is it? I don’t really want anything, just time to spend with you lovely girls.” said I, ever the Aunt imparting Valuable Life Lessons.
They smiled it away without batting an eyelid. Life Lessons – pish tosh bigosh! If, as a child, you don’t know how to ignore that stuff, you’ve learnt nothing in life was the philosophical angle the children seemed to take and I appreciated them for it.
“Yes, yes we know. But you will really like what we have planned for you!” they said in unison. “It is an Experience!”

The children obviously knew where to get me, loop me with my own tune – Experiences are worth more than Possessions.

I grinned expecting a trip to the ice-cream store across the street. That was an experience for sure. There were flavors there that made me swoon. Could I have the coconut -lemon and the orange-watermelon and mango and jackfruit flavored ones?

Come evening, we all headed out. The nieces ,with touching sincerity, told me that they would forfeit their quota in my honor, given how much I would like where we are going. All highly puzzling so far.

When we finally made our way through the Gulmohar lined streets, the skies looking beautiful and benign over the towering apartment buildings, I stopped and watched the excitement build in their faces, as we turned the corner. Beaming at me in a small two-roomed store front tucked away near eateries and grocery stores, was a tiny library. I gave them a slow, wide smile. This was amazing. Off we went inside. I was grateful that the children had access to this small lending library.  (Yes – we stopped for ice-cream afterwards.)

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The lack of easy access to public libraries in India has always been a sore point with me. As long as we are in school and college, we have access to libraries in some form or another – the institutions themselves have them. Even if the Engineering college library lacked sorely in the Literature section, one could read IEEE journals to pass the time. I am immensely grateful to the librarians in my schooldays. During our school holidays, the librarian in my mother’s school, Mr Gandhi, would happily supply me with books enough to whet my appetite (Life’s blessings come in many forms – my mother’s school vacations did not coincide with ours, so their library was still open). Years later, when I came home with a broken leg to recuperate, Mr Gandhi, sent books that he thought I would like. That kind of care from anybody is touching. It is no wonder that one of my earliest career aspirations was to be a teacher and a librarian.

When first I moved to the big city, I felt unmoored without a library to frequent. I dedicated a Saturday morning every month for the trip across the city to the used books market, and pile up on books to read, making my way back with a teetering pile of books (I had no idea about the concept of copyright, how payments were made to authors etc). Most were in bad condition, not great authors or titles, but I took what I could. It was my only indulgence.

I read somewhere that people don’t really feel the need for Art if it was never a part of their life. But once exposed to the beauty and depth of any Art, if taken away, the void is there. An emptiness that you didn’t know existed. That resonated with me, for I feel the same way about libraries and access to good books.

I mourned the day the physical books stores went out of business in the United States. In every mall, every shopping street, I kept my eyes open for a place to dip into. There were none.

We bought clothing and fabrics simply because we were there and the clothes lured me through the shop windows.
We drank coffee because the coffee store was there.
We ate ice-cream b – well you get the gist.
But we didn’t read books with differing viewpoints and thoughts that could rejuvenate the brain because they weren’t there.

I chatted with the nieces once we were back here, and I asked them what they had checked out that week from their little sweet library. “Oh…they closed it now in the afternoons because they are using the space for English and Math tuitions.” they said, and I couldn’t help whimpering.

When we place so much importance on clothing that we change out everyday, shouldn’t we place more on thoughts that flit in and out even more constantly?

A quote from one of my favorite books, Fahrenheit 451, By Ray Bradbury:
There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.

I wish we all get to the chance to experience Ray’s Bradbury’s nugget of wisdom:

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
Ray Bradbury

Also read :

Brain Pickings: Oliver Sacks on Libraries
Brain Pickings: How Libraries Save Lives

Love in a …

One of the best things in the world is to wash up at the sister’s house after a long and tiring journey across the fertile and populous plains of the Indian subcontinent. Her welcoming abode is en-route to our own home in the United States, and I was glad to get a spot of space to recover before heading on towards our own home.

While the sister herself has expressed a wish that we stir ourselves to sight-see the beautiful city she lives in, her marvelous husband takes our side, and says that during the best vacations, anything we do at all is a bonus and is quite happy to see us lounge around on the sofa reading and chatting.

Knowing this unfortunate tendency of ours to behave like sofa cushions when we visit, she nevertheless does her bit and lays out books to read, and in periodic intervals supplies us with food and drink. One of her favorite authors is Jean Sasson, who writes about the Middle Eastern life, having worked there as a nurse for over two decades. Jean Sasson’s books deal with real-life stories based on the lives of people who have reached out to her to have their story told. Their biographies are sketched out giving us a sense of life in the regions she deals with.

Would we otherwise hear of the life of a Saud princess, or the son and wife of Osama Bin Laden?

The book this time dealt with the harsh conditions existing in the regime of Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein; and how a young Arab-Kurdish bride, Joanna, summoned the courage to flee the persecution of Kurds in Iraq. Written in 1st person, it is as though Joanna wrote it herself. It was gaunt reading.

Like billions of people, I watch with alarm the rise of dictatorship world-over including in previously democratic strong holds such as the United States. My nerves are on edge reading about the atrocities these crazed despicable dictators are capable of doing. Midway through the book, I set it down on the sofa and declared that I cannot take it anymore. “This is so sad, and brutal, and my imagination is not helping! ” I said somewhat ruefully.

The sister said in a brisk return to her elder sister mode, “I know about you – read the whole book and then talk. If you leave it midway you will feel terrible. This book has a happy ending. In fact, you will be pleased to know that I have met Joanna in person. She is well and happy, and is an inspiration, so read!”

I meekly plodded on.

I had no idea about Kurds and their persecution by multiple regimes. The Western press had caught on about the Sunni Vs Shia conflicts, but to read about the Kurds also being persecuted by chemical weapons, torture and execution on such a massive scale is heart-rending. The peshmerga life is a hard one, and it was written well.

There are millions of people with similar fates similar the world over. Syria, China, Somalia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Mexico, Afghanistan, Burma, and many more.

The behaviors behind these are as old as humanity itself. In fact, older, as I was reminded of Jane Goodall’s interview, that somewhere along the evolutionary chain we developed the genes to be territorial and to persecute one another. (Apes have been observed having territorial wars, and trying to follow imposed social orders.)

How in spite of all this, human beings as a species have the rare combination of love, compassion, and sacrifice on the one hand balancing out the cruelty, lust, and every other form of despicable behavior on the other, is a miracle in itself.

“Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”  – Jane Goodall

Ants in a Cosmic Universe

The children peered into the list of ideas I had for my blog while on the whirlwind trip to the other side of the world. Predictably, some of my better ideas drew a smirk from the teenager. When pried she rattled her laugh and said, “Maybe add an article or two on lame titles? Really! What is all this with the Ants and the Cosmic Universe? Who writes stuff like that?”

“I do!” I said. “I was pretty happy that morning when I got up early and went a-walking through the woods by the resort. There were jackfruit trees, pepper wines and uh, many other trees.”

I threw my mind back happily to that early morning saunter in the Western Ghats. How beautifully the little creatures had turned my haughty look skywards to ground wards and then back again? The saunter of humility it turned out to be.

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The best part of the walk was the fauna that was up with the sun ready to greet a new day. There I was sleepy still, but happy that I had not wasted this glorious morning in bed. I had to do a double take when I saw dry leaves croaking and leaping about. Was I dreaming that I was up and walking while snuggling up cozily in bed? It has happened before. (When one wakes up and finds that that early morning jog by the lake never actually happened except in one’s dreams, it is disappointing.) It turns out these were clever frogs who had mastered the art of camouflage. They were the ones who attracted my attention ground-ward.

Till then, my spirits and outlook were sky bound – admiring the suns rays filtering through the tree tops, looking for butterflies, and the clouds flitting lazily. The clouds had opened up a few minutes earlier, drenched the hills, and then having done their job, decided to flit and laze for a while.

The teeming life on a tropical forest floor is endlessly entertaining. The temperatures were not too high yet, and many creatures had decided to get their spot of exercise, fresh air and Vitamin D before it became too much Vit D. The ants were bustling. Really, if ever we need motivation on a dull day, look no further than the role ants play in this cosmic universe.

They bustle, they plan, execute and deliver, they seem goal-oriented even when walking off with your bread crumb two hundred times their own weight from under your nose. Hundreds of them, in apparent harmony, with a shared vision of some kind, and an indomitable spirit.

This remarkable combination of spirited vision and lack of personal ambition is a balm to souls who mire themselves in the human world. Humans value competition as the means to make us better, but in the grand scale of the cosmic universe, wasn’t shared vision a loftier goal? I suppose Leaders try to cry themselves hoarse with speeches dripping with this sort of guff, but their own personal ambition thwarts the message somehow.

Everyone must spend a day every now and then in the forest re-aligning our spirits, and learning a thing or two from every single organism.

I said something like this to the children, only not as coherently and got another eye-roll as a response. I tried another angle.

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Star Trails of the Milky Way Galaxy

Imagine these ants come out at night, and probably admire the stars. The beautiful canopy that changes. That was us isn’t it? Even as recently as a few hundred years ago, even while territorial battles were being fought, we admired the changing skies and built myths around it. “The myths you guys seem to enjoy so much!” I said.

“Remember, I came back from the walk and pulled all you children out for a walk through the woods? To see the beautiful forest in its glory?”

“Yes! We remember! There were no cosmic universes – just Appa giving his flora and fauna tour. He didn’t even know the names, just making up some stuff, and pointing to the dry leaves and saying – Imagine these as frogs.”

“Well, by the time you guys came, the frogs had gone back into their burrows or wherever? I don’t know – where do frogs live? ” Soon, we were discussing the abodes of frogs and I told them, “But you saw so many more butterflies!”
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“So, Butterflies in a Cosmic Universe?”

“Or, moths in a cosmic universe more like. The butterflies go to bed. Where do you think butterflies live? Their cocoons must long be gone.”

I decided to let things rest. We are in a Cosmic Universe. We must live and let live and you know, share.