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.

ReadingLolitainTehran
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.

full_moon_tehran.jpg

“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.

Advertisements

Why Did You Fall?

I’ve got the theory nailed. I’ve seen it dozens of times in Indian movies and Tamil TV serials. You are meant to be well dressed, like you are attending a wedding or seated at a high tea, and then you feel dizzy. At this point, you clutch your head a little dramatically with perfectly manicured hands and then proceed to fall gently like a leaf fluttering gracefully to the top of the pile of leaves below.

forest.gif
Leaves fluttering gracefully to Earth (Source: https://giphy.com/)

A minute later, if the accompanying background music and screams from those nearby fail to wake you up, you are splashed urgently with cold water, and you swoon. Now you can sit up looking sprightly, divine, and beautiful with the glistening drops on your face, and ask somewhat stupidly, “Where am I?”

Reality is where the universe sees the comedy of existence.

I found to my utter dismay that I was not a leaf who fluttered gracefully, but rather a tree that crashed brusquely and clattered quite noisily on its way down. To make sure that the fall was as far off from the Tamil TV serial falls as possible, I was dressed in a down-to-earth cotton night-suit, and landed up toootling up to the hospital in less than glamorous attires.  There were no beautiful glistening drops when I came to, so I could look angelic and ask ‘Where-am-I?’

While convalescing afterward, the loving family propped me up in front of the television and used the opportunity to get me to watch some of the movies they have been trying to get me to watch over the past few months. I started off with Lego Marvel Superheroes (Ultron Mind-controlling Iron-Man with Yellow-Hammer’s help. That is the whole movie right there.)

lego_superhero.jpg

This movie was accompanied by an excited commentary and almost verbatim dialogue deliveries by the elementary school going son who was anxious that I like his Lego super-hero movies. Some of the moves in that movie – Good Lord! If I broke and tore things in my body with a simple fall on the way to the bathroom, I cannot imagine how those Lego characters stick together, they should be in boxes waiting to be reassembled, I said.

The husband stuck his oar in, “Wait till you see what I have for you. This is Lego – I have gangster vs police movies, mythological wonder-movies and so much more. Real people in flesh and blood.”

It wasn’t an empty boast. The husband’s movies – shudder, gulp, diddle-gee-bumps. The first one, was supposedly mythological, so I suppose I could forgive the hero for throwing fully grown bulls charging at him mid stride, and proceeding to obliterate an army single handedly.

bahubali

The next one  had gangsters hitting each other with an intensity that should have broken not just the beaten man’s bones, but the beater’s bones as well, but nothing seemed to happen to these supermen. After one particular gentleman was slammed across a tin shed and rammed repeatedly against a wall at the rate of 45 mph, he proceeded to wipe a smear of blood away and then laughed before delivering punch dialogues.

When Ernest Hemingway said: The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places , I don’t think this is what he meant.

vikram-vedha

I fell, once, on the way to the bathroom inside the house 10 days ago: Still convalescing. Not kidding.

I begged for a reprieve from this action-packed couch-existence and stepped outside for a walk. I was besieged with well meaning questions by friends and neighbors. It always heartens me to live in a community that cares. Never is that more apparent than when children of all ages gather round you and ask if you are okay in their own individual ways.

I was amused to see that the questions posed by the preschoolers were the toughest to answer:
How did you fall? (Umm…..I am sorry buddy, much as I’d like to show you, my doctor thinks it unwise to demonstrate.)

To this philosophical question, however, I still do not have an answer: Why did you fall?

Magic of Zen

“Chitthi, you should read this book for sure. I am sure you will like it.”, said the niece, holding up some teen fiction. She has been reading what she calls Dystopian Fiction and some of her stories tend to mistake my blood for milk set out to curdle. I looked skeptical.
The daughter joined in the conversation with another book suggestion. “Adults won’t enjoy it, but I am sure you will Amma.” she said.
I donned an amused expression. That I should be pegged for having a child’s capacity made me feel truly honored.

Like Ursula K Le Guin, the famous fantasy author said, ‘The creative adult is the child who survived.’

“I mean of course you are an adult and stuff, but … well you know what we mean.” The girls rushed on almost immediately, “This is the good stuff – you will love it.”

The book recommendations discussion was happening before our trip to Mt Shasta, and I was deciding what should be taken along for reading.

After a little deliberation, I picked out Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin. A better book for the wilderness could not have been chosen if I had researched the thing for weeks. Earthsea is a mythical archipelago where wizardry is not uncommon. This book contained tales from Earthsea set in various points in time. The stories are set in beautiful islands amidst forests and meadows and was the perfect read at Shasta.

One fine early morning, on a hike in the forests of Shasta, I chose a spot in which to slowdown and take in the surroundings just like the characters do in the Grove. I sat myself on a rock, and looked out upon miles of trees and forest cover. Sitting there, I noticed how the leaves were shaped against the blue skies, the clear, sharp shapes rising up against the sky, looking majestic and beautiful. Why is it, that nothing man made can even hope to compete with the magnificence of a leaf, tree, forest or mountain? It was a biomimicry moment.

shasta1

With the forest around me and Mt Shasta in the background, Nature helped still and quiet my senses so much that I felt strange. The incessant chatter of inner turmoil quiet, the constant rippling of life’s waves smoothened, the distant and affectionate view of my own foibles on Earth. In only a few moments of this relative calming of the senses I could feel every observation keenly as though the distant telescopes were adjusted better to give a clairvoyant view into life.

To hear, one must be silent.
Ursula K. Le Guin

I resolved to take the children on a hike that very evening. The evening hike was just as splendid. It hugged a coastline on a lake, and the evening sun transformed a normal forest setting into a magical one. We trudged up the mountain path chattering happily and gaining altitude. A number of meandering trails and paths criss-crossed the ones we were taking as we hiked on.

shasta-lake.JPG

As we were hiking, I told my daughter about the moment of Zen that I felt during the morning hike, and she said she would try it too. I looked up surprised, but noticed that a while later, she sought out a rock and sat there just drinking in the scenery. I hope she felt the same sense of quiet.

keena_zen.JPG

As we made our way back, the sun had started to set and colored the sky with patches of radiant pink, purple and orange. It was then that we realized that we may have lost our way. I remember going left from this mountain peak, but that trail up there also goes there, how about this one? Every one was sure we had come up by a completely different path. The daughter was unusually quiet and then she exclaimed thoroughly proud of herself, “This is it! I know now. This is it. This is the way to go!” and she was perfectly right.

Days later, when we were discussing the concept of magic, I went all Ursula Le Guin on her and said, “You know? That day, on the hike, you were so much in tune with nature that you were the one who found the way back. You know how appalling you are usually when it comes to directions, but that day because you loved the hike so much, the forest revealed its magic to you.” She rolled her eyes, but the joy in her eyes was unmistakable.

Le Guin writes of magic in a way that is manifest in our daily lives without us ever stopping thinking of them as magic. It is neither wand waving nor dramatic, but it is spectacular. It is in the unique talents we each have, and just like any other talent needs nurturing and nourishing to develop to its full potential.

The Author’s work has the influence of Tao-ist philosophies, that help us tap into the ageless wisdom of generations. The books talk of listening to the Earth as a means to understanding the greater forces at play, the ability to gauge what is to happen, but have the sagacity to neither judge nor criticize its actors unduly. In short, it is life cloaked in the glamorous garbs of magic.

Lao Tzu Tao – Ursula Le Guin

The Butter Battle Course

When you look up the definition for religion, it states among other things that it is “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance”

How many conflicts has the world endured, is enduring, and will continue to endure because of this belief to which one ascribes supreme importance? I had written about it here (religion).

Who was it who said that every good kind of learning  can be obtained from Childrens’ books?  I whole heartedly agree.

The latest book that I am babbling about is the Butter Battle book, by Dr Seuss.

The Yooks and the Zooks live on either side of a long, meandering wall. The Yooks wear blue, the Zooks wear orange.
butter_battle

The Yooks think the Zooks silly for buttering their bread with the butter side down, while the Zooks think the Yooks are somewhat dim-witted for buttering their bread with the butter side facing up. The flags of the Yooks and Zooks represent the belief in buttering bread, and the animosity builds from this bread-butter-theory to which they attach supreme importance.

IMG_6227 (1)

One day, the Yook patrolman is prowling the place with his Tough-Tufted Prickly Snick-Berry Switch, when a Zook pelts him with a slingshot. This sets in motion an escalating conflict, with both sides coming up with more and more exotic and dangerous arms with which to fight each other.

The Triple Sling Jigger, the Jigger Rock Snatchem, the Blue Goo-er, the Kick-a-poo kid operated by a cocker spaniel – Daniel, the Eight-Nozzled Elephant-Toted Boom Blitz.

butter_battle_2

The last page has the Yook patrolman sitting atop the wall with a Zook warrior. Both of them have in their hands a Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo – a small bomb that can annihilate life as we know it, signifying the nuclear threat.

I know we ask of no formal training as a politician: there are no politician licenses, no courses one has to complete to take up public office, but I really think there should be a set of children’s books that they all have to read and re-read as refreshers every year in order to stay in office. We could call it the Butter Battle Course.

The Butter Battle Book has of course given rise to great hilarity in the house. “Do you want to be a Yook or a Zook?”, we ask taking out the butter and the bread. We now butter our bread on both sides so we can be Yooky-Zooks, and sometimes Zooky-Yooks.

The next time any two nations start warring, I suggest thrusting bread buttered on both sides to both parties.

Complement with:
Kahlil Gibran on the Absurdity of Self righteousness
The Colander Religion
Bertrand Russell’s Teapot Religion

Historically Speaking …

I looked at the delectable pile of books by my side waiting to be read. The top of the pile was the beautifully annotated ‘Jane Austen’s History of England. –

Just the sort of history book that appeals to me. Written by Jane Austen when she was 16 years old, the book bears the hallmark of her humor.

Screen Shot 2017-07-06 at 1.26.31 PM

I sat smiling at some of the things written about Henry the 8th & Anne Boleyn.

The book certainly sounded like some of the answer papers of my youth.

I have always felt that History was one of those subjects that was calculated to freeze my brain. Good though my teachers in the subject were, bless them, they could not but help say that the Second Battle of Panipat was fought in 1556. Inside my brain, this simple fact would start a whistling train of thought:

1556. Hmm … funny number.

How to remember that number?

55 in the middle and 6-1 = 5. 

Why not 6551? Because that is in the future.

Very clever. But what about the number 6? Why 6 and not 7?

Maybe, History is the sixth period(?)

But only on Wednesdays.

If only it were 1596, 15*6=90  and then add 6

“Can anybody tell me what happened to Akbar after that battle?” These teachers have voices that have a way of cutting through the most interesting meanderings of the mind.

“What battle?”, I’d write on the side margin, and slip it across to my friend. There she would be, sitting by my side at the wooden desk with a vacant expression on her face biting her pencil. But at this urgent message, she’d stoutly pull herself together and write back, “The Battle of Panipuri, I think.”

Then the exams would roll along, and after days spent cramming the dates and emperors, I would come to the conclusion that all emperors who sought to reign should be made to stand in line in shorts and recite the dates of all those who aspired to power before them.  If they still want to reign, may their shorts fall while they lead the charge – that should teach them not to add to that horribly long list.

To make matters worse, the rumor mills during examination time worked overtime:

(a) The teachers likes diagrams, one person would say, stating emphatically that whatever you do, make sure you draw a diagram for it.

Feverishly, we would start drawing Africa maps, and label the Gold Coast, and the Sahara desert, throwing in the Kilimanjaro for luck. Never mind that the question was about Egypt.

(b) The more you write, the better will be your marks.

So, we would write double-spaced and add spice to the Spice Wars.

history

One time I remember writing about Alexander’s Horse. Our History teacher had on one occasion told us about the fine breeds of horses that emperors prided themselves on. My brain tick-tocked away with Alexander’s Horse, and I found to my amazement that the brave stallion was heroic beyond what History books knew. I imagined the horse pulling his great emperor across the blizzards of the mountains one day just by trusting its instinct. The marvelous animal found a stream of fresh flowing water for its emperor. I wrote about 16 sentences on the virtues of the horse, borrowing heavily from my recent reading of Black Beauty (also a black horse with a star on its forehead, duh!) I wrote of its aching muscles, its loyalty that was much admired, and how stable managers had a job that was olfactorily unsatisfactory maybe, but really quite a prestigious one, if it meant looking after the emperor’s horse. I also gave him a name, Macedonia, if I remember right – sealing my understanding of the reign once and for all. (Alexander’s Horse, Bucephalus, would have turned in his grave and asked ‘Is she talking about me? Neigh! ‘ )

He_ran_toward_the_horse_and_seized_the_bridle
By Walter Crane – The story of Greece : told to boys and girls

“15 more minutes.” the examiner said, and I looked to see that while the paper had a brilliant character sketch of the horse, it had very little about Alexander the Great.

I hastily started another paragraph on the the horse’s rider and finished up the paper. I came out into the brilliant sunshine from the exam hall when my friend said looking at me in admiration, “How much you wrote! I saw you taking two extra sheets! I am sure you are going to ace it!”

I shrugged off this undue praise guiltily, feeling a little sorry for the teacher who had to read such drivel.

It was years later that I read “I, Claudius”, the historical fiction book written by Robert Graves,  and came upon Incitatus, Caligula’s horse. Whether it was fiction or not I cannot say, but this was the horse that the Roman ruler, Caligula, sought to make a senator, and invited to State dinners.

http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/did-caligula-really-make-his-horse-a-consul

The truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t. Mark Twain

I smiled at these pleasant memories, and opened the book in my hand.

 

Jane Austen said,

Edward the 4th

This monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage of which the Picture we have here given of him, & his undaunted behavior in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another are sufficient proofs. His Wife was Elizabeth Woodville, a Widow who, poor Woman! was afterwards confined in a Convent by that Monster of Iniquity & Avarice Henry the 7th. One of Edward’s Mistresses was Jane Shore, who has had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son.

The Mountain of Greed

Hiking through the rolling hills one day, I noticed one hill that had the touch of our greed all over it. It was probably a quarry. Set against a state park, this stark mountain made me wince. It was visible from many points in the park, and I moved my eyes away from it as though it was a raw, open, visceral wound. I noticed later in the dozens of pictures I had taken that day, I had deliberately cut this mountain out from my lens. Like my cutting out a mountain from the frame will remove it from my conscience. But it didn’t. I can still see its jagged unnatural edges in my mind’s eye – edges that have been scraped by metal against rock abruptly, not shaped by wind and water over time.

A sight like that got me started on the book called Biomimicry by Janine Benyus, for we have devised a way of life that is not sustainable.

 

 

Our corporations, keen on profitability, raced each other to figure out the best ways in which to make us consume more and more. But we have taken the race too far. It is time we stepped away from the treadmill.

As I gurgled on in this vein, I could not help noticing that there was a spring gurgling nearby. I stopped chattering like a monkey and quietened down, and as I did so, I felt a queer feeling seep into me and fill my being. Could it be happiness or gratitude? Whatever it was, I liked it. When birds, butterflies, rabbits, pinecones, free flowing water, trees and mountains jostle in friendly ambience in the early morning sunshine the way that Gaia intended it to be, it is refreshing.

brook.jpg

Please read this marvelous article on The Sound of Silence – Brain Pickings

I looked at the vegetation around me, and I found I did not quite know the type of trees or the plants around me. Gone were the days when I could tell you which berries were good, which ones made you itchy, and which flowers you could sip to get a wisp of nectar. How do animals know instinctively what works and what doesn’t, while we do not? I thought of the chimps in Gombe Stream National Park, the most studied species in the planet thanks to Jane Goodall’s work.

Quote From Biomimicry by Janine Benyus: Observing a chimp in Gombe Stream National Park, anthropologist Richard Wrangham, says: A chimp I was observing had woken up sick and instead of rolling over for more sleep, she got up and made a beeline. Twenty minutes later she stopped at an Aspilia plant [a cousin of the sunflower that grows as high as 6 feet] She suckered up her face and swallowed a dozen leaves before she moved back to her troop. It was obvious from her grimace that this was not a taste treat. Though chemical analysis of the ingested leaves showed no conclusive proof of medicine, he saw that a spike in leaf swallowing behavior coincided with the months of host tapeworm infection.

We too had this kind of instinctive knowledge with us, and instead of adding to its repertoire, we have accidentally followed another path.

Most frightening of all reports is that one in four wild species(including all taxonomic categories) will be facing extinction by the year 2025.

All this huffing up hills takes a toll on amateur knoll-climbers, and on the pretext of admiring a giant pine cone, I stopped to regain my breath. The pine cone was beautiful: It’s tough exterior, perfect symmetry and overall shape made me look at it and wonder why we cannot build jam jars like that pine cone.

It is hardly the first nor the last time I will come across a Mountain of Greed. We have made extraordinary progress in areas pertaining to the skies, the seas, connectivity etc, but seem to grapple with the simple fact that we have one finite resource on which to live. There are no garages to be built for Earth. No extra closets. This is it.

no_garage

I sound extraordinarily sententious in this post, so maybe what we need is a reward system for eco-sustenance, so each of us can tap into the Naturalist nestled in us.

To see a world in a grain of sand
To see a heaven in a wild flower
– William Blake

 

The Magic of Biomimicry

I recently read a book called Biomimicry by Janine Benyus. A book, whose underlying concept appealed to the very core of my being, for it outlined how little we know of the world around us, and how much more there is to learn from Nature’s processes.

How do we become harmonious citizens of a planet that houses, apart from 7 billion of us, billions of plant and animal forms? It is a question that floats into my mind every so often. How beautifully a bee arranges its hive, how marvelously a dandelion reproduces, how trees take in water, how they produce energy. All of these things make me wonder and marvel at Nature the Tinkerer.

I am afraid I made rather a pest of myself with friends and family. I cornered parents-in-law while they were taking a rest and spoke to them of Do-Nothing farming, I got a children’s book on the subject and read tantalizing bits of information out to the children. I bored friends with it. I could see the scramble-and-run-before-it-is-too-late look on everyone’s faces when I stopped to admire the squirrel prudently checking whether the fruits are ripe before digging in.

‘Why is it wet winter or hot summer, some grasslands thrive?’, I’d ask, only to find that tasks of monumental importance spring up requiring immediate attention for my audience.

Did that stop me? No. If anything, I am going to go and do on the blog what I have been physically doing to those around me.

The book is arranged into the following sections:

Echoing Nature
 Why Biomimicry now?
How will we feed ourselves?
 Farming to fit the land: Growing food like a prairie
How will we harness energy?
 Light into life: Gathering energy like a leaf
How will we make things?
 Fitting form to function: Weaving fibers like a spider
How will we heal ourselves?
 Experts in our midst: Finding cures like a chimp
How will we store what we learn?
 Dances with Molecules: Computing like a cell
How will we conduct business?
 Closing the loops in commerce: Running a business like a redwood forest
Where will we go from here?
 May wonders never cease: Toward a biomimetic future

Higher education in Science has arranged itself along silo-ed areas of expertise. Biologists rarely study Computer Science. Mechanical Engineers rarely take up Zoology.

The author writes of her interactions with various scientists who have successfully transcended narrow areas of study to walk the line between disciplines to see where we can benefit from nature.
1) The materials science engineer who combines fibre optics and biology to study the beauty and resilience of spider silk

2) The agriculturist who, over decades, has perfected the technique of do-nothing farming, conscientiously chipping away at unnecessary practices while studying natural prairies and grasslands to see how plants grow in the wilderness, thereby coming up with the highest yield of natural grain per acre.

3) The anthropologist who studies chimps and how they cure themselves to see how we can identify cures for common problems.

Quote:
In exploring life’s know-how, we are reaching back to some very old roots, satisfying an urge to affiliate with life that is embossed on our genes. For the 99% of time we’ve been on Earth, we were hunter and gatherers, our lives dependent on knowing the fine, small details of our world. Deep inside, we have a leaning to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our language, our song and dance, our sense of the divine.

This about sums up our position on Earth.
“In reality we haven’t escaped the gravity of life at all. We are still beholden to ecological laws, the same as any other life form.”

Now is the time for us to take our place as one species among billions in the ecological vote bank, and make wise choices.

P.S: Please see the TED talk on Biomimicry