The Origin of Dreams

It was a mild day in Jaipur. This time of year means one can walk among the structures of the Jantar Mantar without being fried to a crisp. The guide was explaining the scientific relevance of the structures in front of us. He explained how the latitude and longitudes were determined by the astronomers of centuries ago. As we stood there calculating the angle of the sun and subtracting it from the Indian Standard Time and so on, I missed the son. This is a place that would have interested him enormously – his unswerving curiosity and awe about the cosmos and the nature of time notwithstanding, it was also a propitious time for such musings. 

Earlier that day, I had cheered along with him as we sat on opposite sides of the world and watching the Artemis 1 launch and take off to the moon. Every time the launch had been delayed, he had had a small pang of disappointment. But this time, his eyes shone: “Amma, even if you have a meeting, please just make sure that you watch it. It will be at …”, and he went ahead and calculated the local time for me. Accordingly, I sat in my room watching the launch and cheering with the fellow.

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-to-share-artemis-i-update-with-orion-at-farthest-point-from-earth

Image credit: Bill Ingalls: Image Source: https://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/artemis-i-launch-0.html

His eyes shone, triumphant as he caught the excitement of the launch with periodic updates from NASA. I told him that I was going to a place that he would really like later that day and he asked me to enjoy it on his behalf. An astronomical marvel from centuries ago. A place where astronomers had mapped the skies with accuracy and skill. 

As I stood there watching the different structures and listening to our guide as he explained how each worked, I also derived small pleasures in seeing that his own narratives often confused astrology and astronomy. (Humans have always been wracked by problems: If, along the way, they tried to understand the sources of their trials and tribulations as something beyond them, who could blame them? ) Nevertheless, it was humbling to see how the astronomers of centuries ago had managed to get their recordings and data accurate to such a high degree. 

That rocket launch of a few hours ago was a cumulative building of dreams and imagining worlds beyond what is known to us. Dreams that started with the ancient homosapiens wondrously mapping the skies, and millennia of human evolutionary interest in the heavens. 

Carl Sagan quote :

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

– Carl Sagan

How many such dreams are being hatched as we speak? I read a children’s book: Ara, The Dream Innovator – By Komal Singh, that tried to capture the importance of Dreams. It was business-oriented even for a children’s book. The startup language of funding and patents and all the rest of it somehow did not quite capture the magic of dreams, but it was a good book nevertheless. 

We do not know how many dreams are being hatched today that have the potential of being realized in the near or far future. So, I am all for going to places that nurture these fantastical sojourns into our dream consciousness.

To infinity and beyond!

The Writing Life

I took my book, Writing For Your Life by Anna Quindlen to a cafe to read. The essay I happened to be on at the time was about Narrative Medicine, and the benefits of writing the stresses and reflections of life from our often stressed and there-when-folks-are-most-vulnerable medical professionals. 

Dr Rita Charon started a program titled Parallel Charts wherein medical students wrote their own experiences and charted their days out with information that would not appear on a medical chart. For example there was one instance of a young resident who felt a stab of personal pain every time he walked into the room where the patient was suffering from pancreatic cancer. The patient reminded him too much of his deceased grandfather who had died from the same disease a few months earlier; or the nurse who wrote about her mind wandering at the delivery of a first-time mother: ‘it’s her first baby, it isn’t going to be a slip-and-slide’. 

This kind of narrative writing is crucial not just because we may lose such lucid moments to the passage of time, but also because we do get to cement our learnings and experience while writing it out. Our learnings for the future if you will. Unfortunately writing is not easy. It requires patience, steadfastness and an active determination to set your thoughts into words.

In the words of Anais Nin :


“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

Anais Nin

I have often written about what a lifesaver writing has been. I got to treasure the truly hilarious moments of life multiple times over and I am sure I would not have remembered half of it had I not written it all down. To think that I have only recorded a small measure of life continues to be a yearning. I can blame time, resource and ability and many more limitations. However, it is equally required to experience life in its fullest forms to be able to jot at least some of it down. And thus life goes on. Not writing half as much as I’d like, but writing enough to give me a hearty glimpse on times gone by and the many joys, triumphs, trials and tribulations that it bought along its wake. 

Note: I was humbled to read that many authors have a daily output of nearly 10000 words. Truly astounding. 

It is a pity that this exercise of Narrative Medicine is not more widely practiced in other areas of life. Any body who is in the position of guiding or caring for another human being – teachers, coaches, mentors, leaders, managers, nurses, doctors, therapists, counselors, lawyers, tax accountants, parents should all have this in their toolkit to cope, better ourselves and enjoy the passage of time. 

I am an engineering leader, and having had the benefit of being shaped as a leader by companies that had a human interest, means that I do take an active interest in the people on my teams – the ones I directly manage and the ones I interact with. 

This was often a refrain in my team meetings and I still think it is true: We may forget the actual work we did or how it was done, but we will never forget who we accomplished these things with! 

This is the human experience and to have leaders who are able to see us for who we are: human beings with potential to do good, is the best thing that can happen to us. I know many who would scoff at this and write this off as corporate humdrum, but I can vouch that when you know a team-mate’s visa is up, or their child is undergoing surgery, or their insurance running out means tumultuous times for their dependents, it only makes us grow as humans to see these situations and help manage through them.

If, at the end of the day, we do not remember the humans who helped shape our thoughts and feelings, we may as well be replaced by AI bots. 

After all, we are all broken in different places and as I glanced up at the board in the cafe that day, the clairvoyance of it in the context of narrative writing was unmistakable.

“Let my troubles be the cause of someone’s laugh, but let not my laugh be the source of someone’s troubles.” – there truly was a wise restaurateur at the helm.

Psst – Read the BG

The daughter was probably five or six years old at the time. and the morning school going routine was enough to make athletes and event organizers shudder. 

  • Was the cereal done? 
  • Where’s the homework?
  • The shoes – don’t forget to wear shoes to school

One such morning, the husband saw her dawdle with her cereal and bowl of milk. His own sharp eye was on the clock, and he was trying to move her along without flustering her. He asked her if he can help her with the milk, but the already-too-big-to-ask-for-help daughter said no in a saucy voice and then proceeded to take the bowl and drink the milk from it with her lips on the upper side of the bowl.

Even without the grand influences of gravity that would have had an interesting outcome. With gravity, it meant that the milk poured like a beautiful white waterfall onto her light pink pants (her favorite at the time). 

Now, this set off an interesting train of events in the household. The husband saw that one word or raised voice would lead to a bigger drama and they would probably not make it to school on time. So, he pursed his lips and tut-tutted emitting a sound that sounded like (Pssskkk). He then charged upstairs, found another pair of pants, while I got her out of her dripping milky ones, and gave her a quick wash/wipedown. He threw the pants, I caught it, dressed her, and bundled her off to the car. The background music was now at a high octave and reaching a crescendo. If the signal is green they’d make it. If not, well….

A few minutes later, the husband enters looking like a warrior who’d won the latest war and beamed that they made it on time. We high-fived each other and on that high note of victory went about our day.

However, in the evening when the daughter saw us, her eyes brimmed with tears as she sat on her grandfathers lap. “You almost looked like you were going to yell at me. You said “PPSSSK” – waaah! “ 

The poor husband looked on helplessly as tears filled her eyes, and he almost looked like he was sorry for saying “PPSSKK!”

It has since become a joke in the house. You said “Pppssskkk! ” or “You looked like you were almost going to yell!” 

Where am I going with all this you ask. Bear with me.

I have a reasonable tsundoku pile as any book-lover would. The physical pile gives me a deploring look every now and then, and when particularly powerful, I yield. But there is another pile that is online, and that never gives me dirty looks. This pile, of course, is relegated to the let’s-see-when-we-travel lot.  Post-Covid – this pile has been particularly neglected. 

So, one day, a good friend of mine, was Bhagawad Gita-ing, and I asked in all humility whether I may borrow a copy of the book. A pained response came from him. 

He almost looked like he was going to say “PPPssskkkkk!” Waah waah! This poor friend had gifted me a copy of the book last year in the Kindle, and I had downloaded it dutifully. 

So, you ask what I have been doing. Remembering the almost-going-to-say-pppsssskkk look and reading the book.

I must say – it all seems simple enough in theory. Do your duty and leave the rest to the Universe. #Bhagwad Gita

It seems a good lesson in the current times of economic turmoil and companies announcing layoffs etc.

You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.

Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 47

I am glad my friend almost looked like he was going to say “PPSSKK” for thinking of one’s duty and not its results seems like good advice for a week like this.

The Magic of Just Being

The world of news was being rocked once again. The company I worked for had already endured hard times in the news and the general feeling was one of anxiety and exhaustion. 

Over the week-end, I had come for a walk by a water body that the son & I lovingly christened Reflection Pond – for you could see the skies reflected in the waters, the world from a different perspective.

There were 2 deer peeping out from within the mist and a rustling nearby indicated the hares were getting ready for some morning exercise as well. 

There were a pair of pelicans who took insouciance to a different level. Yet, as they gracefully paddled on that lake, I thought of that little piece in the Fox, Mole, Horse and Boy. 

“How do they look so perfect together?” Asked the boy.

‘There is a lot of frantic paddling going on beneath’ said the horse.

The Fox, Mole, Horse and Boy

As I walked back, my attention went again to the digital town square that is the sign of the times we live in. I had one of those moments that Henry David Thoreau chastised us against, for it was obvious that I brought the village (or in this case, the town square) with me. 

When I realized what I was doing though, I shook myself out of this and firmly pushed these thoughts aside telling myself that  shall attend to them when the time was right. I looked up from the previous posture of a head bent with woe, and that is when I saw the pelicans take flight. 

There is something majestic about large birds taking flight. The little ones flit and twit with ease, while the larger ones seem to be much like our cargo aircraft. Huge, but still not half as unwieldy as our man-made designs during takeoff or landing.

By the time I fumbled for the phone for the pictures, the pelicans had flown leaving me with a sense of awe.

The clouds that paint a different picture for us every day had painted a lovely dragon or an enormous swan taking flight that day. The crescent moon in its waxing phase was shining amidst all this glory.

The pink hues against the light blue skies were enough to make the heart rejoice. As the pinks turned to orange and then grey, my spirits lifted slowly.

I had an idea for a lovely children’s book that has since morphed and evaporated like the clouds that day.

A few deep breaths made me realize that fresh air, beautiful clouds, a time of transformation are all things we take for granted, but when we do stop to think about them, they fill us with a sense of contentment.

Nature had worked its magic yet again: There is no better place to learn the lesson of Just Being.

I realize that I cannot quite capture the serenity of a walk such as this one. But I can jot down the gratitude for this magnificence so I may be able to dip into it at will.  

When summer 🍃 collapses into fall 🍁

It was one of those mornings that Oscar Wilde described as “And all at once, summer collapsed into fall.”

Oscar Wilde

All around us were the signs of a long summer. The hills were brown, the flowers drooping, the earth parched and the rivers dry. Mornings came on bright, blue, and sunny; swiftly following dawn. 

An egret in the dry summer climes

But one beautiful October morning last week, the clouds rolled in: the colors of sunrise streaked the skies, and we were gleeful for we got up early enough to catch it. There was a nippiness to the air, and we practically danced our way to the coat closet in the morning. 

You see? I have mentioned Californian summers before. They linger on just a month or so after their time. You’d think October would bring the temperatures down nicely – they probably do in the rest of the continent. (Remember Anne of Green Gables saying she is grateful for a world with Octobers in it.) , but here in California, we just braced for another all-time high heat wave. Anyway, where was I? 

I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers

Anne of Green Gables – L M Montgomery

Yes. The beautiful cloudy day bearing a hint of much-needed moisture in the air. I decided to take a little stroll around the son’s school after dropping the fella off. The children bobbed along noisily in the playground despite the chill, and the Brownian motion of their movements were a joy to watch from afar. As they made their way into their classrooms, a quiet descended – previously even their chitter and chatter seemed to penetrate the fog, but now the silence enveloped one. I pulled my jacket a little tighter, and relished the cold air, the first hint of fall in temperatures. 

It was then I saw the birds. Right above me, flying between the pine and eucalyptus trees in the park was a beautiful woodpecker. A streak of red against its black and white spotted body. It attracted my attention with its swift movements and obstinate call of duty against the tree.

A little further on, a raven flew swooping triumphantly with food ( some sort of nut) in its beak. Just as I watched it swoop past me, it dropped the nut in its beak, and the pesky thing rolled underneath a parked car. I stood there feeling a little sorry for it, but within a minute, the raven had craned its neck, hopped around and retrieved the nut from under the car. Looking proud of itself, it took off again.

A short while later, it was the seagulls and cattle egrets flying overhead. I wonder: all of this birding activity is always there, I was just glad that the cold morning allowed me to catch it. 

My spirits soaring just a but higher than usual, I made my way back to the old work spot, and like the woodpecker taught me that morning, hammered my way through the day.

Communication Ponniyin Selvan Style

In this busy world that chases productivity with a zest, our productivity tools often encourage speed. I’ve written about The Art of the Considered Response before (here it is) 

The Navarathri season was an excellent reminder of the times we live in. After 2 years of muted celebrations, all the goddesses decided to awaken the true shakthi in all golu organizers, and golu hoppers who missed their share of the festive foods honed their appetites. Navarathri golu invites came via WhatsApp, Evite, email, messages, and social media messenger apps.

Navarathri: 9-day festival primarily celebrating the feminine energy and the different days honor different goddesses (the goddesses of mountains, wealth, wisdom, power, cosmic creation and so on)

Golu: From Wikipedia: In Tamil Nadu, people set up steps and place idols on them. This is known as golu. Photos of typical golu displayed in Tamil Nadu style can be found here.In the evening women in the neighborhood invite each other to visit their homes to view Golu displays, they exchange gifts and sweets.

When one is so lovingly invited to people’s homes to view their creative decorations and bliss of music and divinity, it is hard to refuse. So, in the most efficient manner possible, I had drawn up the following schedule without realizing:

  • Accepted invites to be in San Ramon the same day and time as I was expected in San Jose. While I do live mid-way between the two places – one is nor-nor-east-east, and the other is sou-sou-west-west.
  • Also accepted 3 days of continuous invites to the same geographic location 20 miles from where we live.
  • As if none of this were enough there were often live updates to the actual invites in all of these platforms.

The husband can be relied upon in times of crises like these to make things better or worse. He chauffeured, accompanied, ate the yummies at various places, and sometimes, sent me off with a heave of relief. 

He also contributed by insisting on going to the Ponniyin Selvan movie that had released that week-end. When one friend asked him why he was late in arriving, he said his mouth full of sundal that he was disappointed she kept her golu on the opening week of Ponniyin Selvan. Couldn’t she have moved the golu? This drew a collective gasp from the older generation of aunts gathered around the golu. (If it had been me saying something like that, the aunties would have awakened their inner Goddess Kali to say a thing or two, but as it was an honorary son-in-law honoring Kalki (Writer of Ponniyin Selvan) if you will, they had a gasp followed by a weak giggle.) Even the husband knew what that meant and retreated to a safe place by the buffet afterward. 

Ponniyin Selvan – the movie based on the historical fiction written by Kalki 50 years ago and is somewhat of a cultural icon in Tamil Nadu

In an era where tweets sub in for official diplomatic (or otherwise) communication channels, and all these frantic modes of communication make things harder and harder to comprehend, it was fun indeed to sit back and watch a historical fiction drama set in the 11th century. 

Where 3 tweets would have done the trick, here was a 3 hour movie based on information traveling from one corner of the kingdom to the other. What’s more? Networking protocols and streaming services may have been working full-time to make sure that the theatrical experience of the most modern kind worked as a time-traveling tool, but no networking protocols were used in this story of information gathering and delivery. For that, a suave and charming friend sent as a messengers on horseback did the trick!

In the good old days, even the goddesses seemed to take their time visiting people’s homes on Navarathri and the nine days of singing and visiting homes had a gentle lull to the routine of life, not the hectic hustling that one has come to associate with every aspect of life, including divinity.

Maybe we do need more movies set far in the past like Ponniyin Selvan or in fictional realms with human limits to communication and speed such as the Lord of the Rings. That would remind us that we do not need to react to every Digital byte sent our way, but choose to respond in a more collected fashion. I’ve always wanted to invite folks home using the fashionable mode of dipping a pen in ink, writing a loving note on scroll, and delivering it by hand to our friends.

Poetry

“How was your morning Amma?” said the son looking solicitous. He has taken to asking me this question every now and then knowing that I have been missing the companionship of the past few months. (The daughter went to college, the parents left for home, the niece left for her college, and what was a swirling whirlwind of wonderful social interactions suddenly quietened down to a buzz. I do enjoy solitude, but the suddenness of it took me by surprise )

That week-end morning, I answered with zest.

“Good kanna. I listened to galaxies, and then went rock climbing to solve a few problems. Then, I closed my eyes and went to some wild, wild places to hobnob with some wild, wild things. “

“Right!”, he said rolling his eyes just like his teenaged sister taught him. “So you read a couple of children’s books!” 

“Yep! Which ones did you like best?”

I looked at the cosmophile and gave him my truthful answer.

“Listening to the Stars – the life and story of Jocelyn Bell Burner who was credited with discovering the first 3 neutron  stars, but denied the Nobel Prize for the discovery. They gave it to her male colleagues instead.Ugh!”

“Yes..I read that book too. It was awesome! I wish she won the Nobel Prize too.”

We then shared a moment or two about the unfairness of it all. Then to lighten things up, I said, “But I also realized that the fragile tendrils of love tethering us to Earthly existence are very strong!”

“Ugh! Cheesy! Which book is that?”

“Forgotten poems of Pablo Neruda.” I said grinning.

He chuckled as he walked away. “Poems by Pablo Neruda!”

“You can’t just be an astronaut – you also have to have poetry in your heart so you can share it with the cosmos my man! Remember how folks would’ve liked that from Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin?”

“And music too. Remember you might to have to interpret whale song for other lifeforms! Our life as a kaleidoscope!” I said with a grand gesture of the world with my hands.

“Yes..yes! Well – good to hear you all chirpy. Have fun ma!”

Happy Birthday To You! – Dr Seuss

“Hey ma – will call you back later okay? Just talking to my friends rn.”

I stayed up till midnight doing this-and-that so I could wish the daughter a happy birthday. This also happens to be the first time she is away from the home for her birthday. 

I had with me a Dr Seuss book “Happy Birthday To You!” And read out the “You are you-er than you today” line for her, to which she gave me a teen-new-college-going eye-roll, which is rather like the Ferrari of eye-rolls. 

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” 

I chuckled and let it slide. After all, eye-rolls take the place of approval sometimes. 

As the day progressed, she called to tell us how her day was going. As annoyed as I was with my parents for asking me what I ate when I called, I did the same thing. The cupcakes, Mac-and-cheese, and coffees seem to have filled her day. I noticed that healthy eating had taken a backseat with their college diets and I gingerly pointed it out.

She said she was thinking of eating a salad and that ought to do.

“But did you really eat the salad?”, I said

“Well…no! But I thought of it, and she is eating a salad – see!” she said pointing the video cam towards her more nutritionally balanced friend. Honestly!

This letting-go is a funny business. I don’t suppose Dr Seuss wrote any books for adults on how to do that. But if he did, I should like to have a copy.

The Power of Banned Books

The son & I were chatting of this and that as we walked into the library mostly missing the old pater who had left the previous week. Grandfather, Grandson & Self: would make a song and dance out of our library trips, and look forward to it with shining eyes. 

The rest of the household indulged us in this pursuit. We traipsed home with seeds for the vegetable garden from the Solarium in the library, we came home with books defying regular ideas, we got on spaceships and shot off to Mars and beyond with our books, we explored magical entrances to worlds in which we could safely explore our problems, we went on philosophical jaunts with ideologies, we set about trying to understand ecosystems, habitats, climate change, economies, neuroscience, cellular biology, systems design whether or not we completely understood, but just because we could and it was fun to do so.

Books became our source of infinity and the three generations were content for days in our different worlds. 

“I wish Thaatha was here to see this. Oh! He would’ve loved to look at this.”, said the son, stopping in front of the spectacular Banned Books exhibit in the library.

For Banned Books Week, the little exhibit showcased famous banned books and the reasons they were questioned in the first place. 

The son, looked at me with huge round eyes and said – “Really! Why would they ban Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter, and this cute little book on Penguins just because it has gay penguins?”

I joined him at the exhibit and saw The Handmaid’ s Tale, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte’s Web and a score of other loved books in that list. 

I saw the concern in his face. 

“You know? When I see this list, I am grateful we got to read so many of these books, but also makes me think of that little snippet in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

“Which snippet?”

“The one where Hermione Granger is beaming after Umbridge bans Potter’s interview proclaiming the return of Lord Voldemort? She says that if Umbridge could have done one thing to make sure that absolutely everyone in the school read the interview, it was banning it.”

He smiled and we discussed why books are banned in the first place. Are inclusive ideas that frightening? Why do dictators ban books – for the ability to imagine is a dangerous game. What if their oppressed populace imagined life without their tyrannical rule? 

Many authors have faced life threatening situations (most recently Salman Rushdie) for their ideas. Ideas are seeds after all, they can take root and make people imagine a better existence for themselves and where would be then?

“I wish your Thaatha had access to a good public library in India.” I said sadly. It has been a wish and a dream for the country I was born in. 

We harked back to a little town he had designed. In that world,  libraries were prioritized right alongside schools, hospitals, parks, and public transit and I liked it so much. 

I picked up Where the Wilds Things Are – by Maurice Sendak for it seems we needed to read at least one book on that exhibit.

The Joy of Cloudy Days

Summers in California are true and long, lingering summers. The grass becomes hay, the green hills become brown, lawns boast of signs that say ‘Brown is the new Green’, and birds and animals alike droop from the sun. The flora though thrives – vegetable gardens burst forth and produce in the bountiful rays of the sun, flowers bloom everywhere, and in the midst of all the heat, there is beauty at every corner. The weather sometimes heeds the arrival of the autumnal equinox but has no qualms about ignoring it either.

This year, the summer has been excaberated with the drought. The riverbed that gives me so much joy was dry, the lake beds were parched and all the creatures gone. 

This year, even the cloud cover seemed scant. Sunsets were less than spectacular, the skies were a brilliant blue and slowly turned pinkish before becoming a deep ink-ish blue.

My sunset photographs from yester-years seemed magnificent in comparison. For clouds – scattered, wispy, thick, grey, white, fluffy, dense all make for brilliant sunsets.

You can imagine then, the joys of seeing the clouds rolling in. We were traveling and to see the clouds from the flight was magical. The son & I sat mesmerized by them. As the aircraft dipped in altitude and made toward the Earth, it was pure magic to see the clouds around us – the aircraft was literally flying through the clouds.

A lover of clouds is called a Nephophile. 

In the book, A Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan writes about how he could probably identify which planet on the solar system he was in merely by looking at the color of the sky. Our home, Earth, is a characteristic blue sky with white clouds. The absence of these day-to-day marvelous wonders, that Carl Sagan calls as the signature of Earth for the past few months, made us truly appreciate the beauty and grandeur of cloudy days.

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.

Rabindranath Tagore

It is why you saw me with my face upturned and beaming at our heavenly companions as if they had feelings and needed to be welcomed. 

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