The Human Experience

“You could be listening to anything at all, and this is what you choose to listen to?” , said the daughter.

I chuckled. We were driving through the Great Plains of the Mid-West between Wisconsin and Illinois. Snow flakes were flurrying lazily across the windshield, which was amusing to watch, since I could feel the car shuddering with the winds sweeping the plains. The great windmills on either side of the freeway were moving and converting the wind energy, while the snowflakes seemed to be dancing lazily and flitting across the plains. To see the flakes against the depth of the vast plain fields was mesmerizing enough, but to have Dr Indre Viskontas’s lecture accompany the scenes outside made for a new appreciation. 

I was listening to the excellent Great Courses lectures by Dr Indre Viskontas. In her energetic voice as she talks about how we hear and see, the world becomes magical again. 

Listening to Dr Indre Viskontas speak about the faculties of seeing and hearing, makes those of us given these two abilities more appreciative of all that goes on beneath the skin to make these happen. 

12 Essential Scientific Concepts

How we perceive light, hear the frequencies of sound that are audible to us, make for our human experience. The frequencies heard and seen by each creature on Earth itself is different. From the magical birds who sense the Earth’s magnetic field for their migration journeys to the fish who are able to navigate by the position of the stars from deep under the ocean, we each have our own unique way of living. Of Life. 

In Dr Oliver Sack’s book, Musicophilia, he says:

“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia

Dr Indre Viskontas is also an Opera performer, and her joyous voice brings out the polymathic abilities she possesses. Truly, as she regales cognitive neuroscience and how our brains understand better, I am reminded of some wonderful musings with our dance teacher at school. In between rigorous bouts of dance practice, she insisted that her students were all bright, athletic, and doing so much better than we would have without dance. And, in the energy of youth urging us towards our better selves, we wanted to believe her. Could that have been a belief that spurred us on? We would not know – for good teachers, coaches and mentors all excel in that subtle balance of belief, discipline, and inspiration.

But maybe the musicality and the dance do make for better neurological experiences. As Dr Viskontas says in the lecture above, 

Art and science are after the same thing. The goal is to understand the human experience. Science does it by extracting general principles about the world, and art uses individual experience to highlight what is universal.”

Dr Indre Viskontas

Why is it that we are moved by a piece of music to visualize a god vs demon war on stage, or the haunting love-lorn calls to one another? Because music, like whales can attest, can evoke worlds in our imagination. 

“Music can also evoke worlds very different from the personal, remembered worlds of events, people, places we have known.”

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

And so, I wanted to say to the daughter, “When I could be listening to anything at all, I chose to listen to the lectures trying to understand the human experience in a vast, barren landscape, made unbearably beautiful by the beauty of the symmetrical snowflakes, and the gushing of the winds against the car. “

What I did instead was laugh, and let her call me weird. ‘Weird’ I am beginning to understand is one of the best compliments that a teenaged child can give you.

We Should Dance!

Today is International Dance Day. To those of you who did not know: my nieces danced their way into our hearts last week with their marvelous Arangetram (Dance performance signaling they are ready for the stage). The pair of them have been dancing for about a decade, and enthralling those around with their nimble movements, naughty smiles and joyous outpouring of dance.

They freely share their gifts of the garb and their dance with those around them: The younger one who even now occasionally cartwheels as she is talking to you, & the older one who lovingly gave us a painting of a dancer for our new home.

Their Arangetram on you-tube has nourished me and fulfilled me in so many ways throughout the week. It has been an interesting week in the corporate world for yours truly, and watching pieces of their performance on you-tube in the morning or in the evening before bed has made all the difference. To the chagrin of the daughter, I have taken to leaping across kitchens with even more energy and dancing at odd hours of the night. 

True art transcends time and space. Their performance this week took me back to my school days all those decades ago. Thinking back on our school days, I remember dance being woven into our very  being.  Our dance teacher remains the sort of creative person who can take up a stage and transform it into the warring fields of the Gods Vs Demons, or the romping gardens through which Lord Krishna traipsed or the love-lorn gardens of any maiden pining for her Lord. 

I remember all the rehearsals, watching as a young girl, and then being excited to be part of the dance dramas as I grew older. It was beautiful to watch her choreograph, adjust according to our abilities, but pulling us along, and pushing us to excel with every dance. 

I remember thinking even as a child who had the immense pleasure of learning from her that being inside her brain must be marvelous: forever creating, forever forging higher connections and all with that wonderful laugh and personality.

I was itching one evening on a linear walk to dance – the rain had stopped, the sun was breaking through the clouds and a brilliant rainbow was in the making, and a moment like that makes your very Being yearn to dance. Why could we not transform into peacocks at will? Then, no one would scurry away looking worried when one breaks out into a spontaneous dance on the trail. Children prance when they feel like it, adults do not. Children cartwheel as they talk to you on the video call, we do not. This growing up business is all most confusing.

Why do we not dance more as a species? Together – all of us regardless of ability, age, sex. Dance and music are the yearnings of the universe in us after all.

Reminds me of this beautiful book on dancing I found a few weeks ago at the library: I Will Dance. Written by Nancy Bo Flood and illustrated by Julianna Swaney, this book is a beautiful reminder of why we all need dance in our lives.

Quote from the Book’s About page:

Like many young girls, Eva longs to dance. But unlike many would-be dancers, Eva has cerebral palsy. She doesn’t know what dance looks like for someone who uses a wheelchair. Then Eva learns of a place that has created a class for dancers of all abilities. 

I Will Dance – By Nancy Bo Flood, Illustrated by Julianna Swaney

I Will Dance – By Nancy Bo Flood, Illustrated by Julianna Swaney

Dance enables the soaring of the spirit, to unleash the inner peacock in us whether we are peacocks or not. 

Eye of the Pumpkin

“What?! Dancing in the kitchen?!”, said the son smiling his dignified smile of indulgence. “I haven’t seen you this happy for a long, long time!”
“Yes! I am dancing 💃 young man! You dance 💃 in the kitchen when you have a dignified President! You dance 💃 when a woman’s ambition is finally rewarded. You dance 💃 in the kitchen, you dance 💃 in the streets, you dance 💃 in the woods, you just dance 💃!” I said kicking my feet up in the air.
The men smiled at each other exchanging significant glances.
“We are going to throw the drishti pumpkin 🎃 out! Oooh yeah! ”
“Well!” I said, catching my breath after the dance💃 routine and proceeded to talk about pumpkins, evil eyes and the evil eyes of the pumpkin.
It isn’t uncommon to see a pumpkin out on the street: During Halloween, 🎃👻, in the United States, but anytime on the streets in India.
I remember being shocked the first time I saw a pumpkin being flung out on the streets as a young girl. I was less than a decade old, and had wrestled my little brother, and then out-debated him in a secret language to get to the window seat as we travelled from the Nilgiris to my grandmother’s village near Trichy. The entire 8 hour journey is a picturesque one. As the bus winds its way down the Nilgiris, and then slowly descends into the plains, the air gets warmer and warmer, and the scenery changes from misty hillsides to lush green plains with the final stretch of road between Karur & Trichy by the river Cauvery. For several hours, the trees on either side of the road tip their branches together and whisper little messages to each other across the road as the buses, trucks, jeeps, cars, motorcycles and cycles rustle by underneath trying to get a wisp of the whispers above. The river flows on murmuring at places, serenely flowing along at others, but always providing a pleasing backdrop to life in these South Indian plains. The little villages along the way, could be Malgudi, and just peeking out is enough to provide a R K Narayan-ish story.
I was daydreaming in the bus looking out and imagining a myriad things when I saw a sizable pumpkin lying squashed outside a house. Coming from a family that frowned upon wasting food of any form, I wondered what they would say about this great waste of a large pumpkin?
It turns out, that certain pumpkins are meant to be thrown out. That particular pumpkin, I was surprised to learn, was there to ward off the evil eye, and needed to be thrown out. The ‘evil eye’ or drishti is one of those things of folklore in India. There are many rules, laws, workarounds and theories at work here – it is dubious, but entertaining nevertheless:


  • When something bad happens, it may be a good thing, for it offsets the evil eye.
  • When something good happens, then one must remember to throw out a pumpkin to ward off the evil eye. (#Prevention better than #1?!)
  • When nothing happens, you squash a lemon or a smaller pumpkin to ward off the evil eye that slowly accumulates – like dental plaque I suppose.
  • When lots of things happen at once, and one cannot figure out whether it is good or bad, you trash a pumpkin just in case.


Now, many times in the past few years, I have referenced the pumpkin used to ward off the evil eye. If the United States has spent so much time being the world leader, championing climate change, leading scientific research and helping democracy thrive in different parts of the world, it must’ve accumulated oodles of drishti mustn’t it? When the 45th President, Donald Trump won in 2016, I cried. I cried not because I am particularly close to any policies or any such thing. But because such a great country would elect a boorish bumpkin like Donald Trump: a man hellbent on thwarting democracy.

This must be our drishti, I thought. Well, how does one know that? Refer to rule #1.
“The gods grow jealous of too much contentment anywhere, and they show their displeasure all of a sudden.”
― R.K. Narayan, Malgudi Days
Today, it is time to throw the drishti pumpkins, carved with those evil eyes, out.
Today, it is time to dance 💃 like no one is watching for the whole world is watching us reclaim our dignity.
Continue reading “Eye of the Pumpkin”
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