Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A letter of ninety four years

The fresh aromas of filter coffees in steel tumblers was wonderful to my nostrils. It was coffee time at the bunglow.  Mr. Dinaker , so very humble since I have known him, will ask why I flatter his place so, but I would not hesitate to call it a living museum, a bungalow is a only a modest appraisal. His very talented daughters were in conversation with me. I stared at the very tall ceilings and the ancient grandfather clock ticked omniously, calmly shoving the heavy wheels of time onwards.

I had always been in love with this place, and kept coming back to discover where my friend Disha stored our favorite comic books, or to look at pictures of the species that frequented their birdbath or maybe share a cup of filter coffee on their terrace, reminiscing on the Mysore that was. The fact was, there was always something.  Always something to discover, to learn, to delight in. There was beauty to this place. The lovely pictures of the purple lilies in their little pond by my friend Aditi  will vouch for that much.

That day, I was callous on their wooden swing. I drank my coffee deep and made mention of the fact that I loved looking at old letters. I wistfully talked of their charm, and not surprisingly, I was rewarded with a small tin box full of various letters, most of them of fairly antique worth: they were easily more than a hundred years old. I held each letter delicately.

I then read of world of times past. I read life, a hundred years ago. I read of plague, and I read of history. I read of love, and I read of strife. I read of utter grief, disparities and commerce. I read of economy, machines and horse races. I read counsel, decision, fear and fact. The letters were legacy, and I held each word with tenderness, with caress of a lover. Writers are a dangerous group of people, we configure emotion to paper, texture and slant of hand.

I found many a yellowing paper addressed to the great grandfather of Mr. Dinakar, then the commissioner for the princely state of Mysore, serving under the king of the time. Letters had visited the commissioner from  Cambridge, London, Switzerland, Chitradoorg, Karwar and Bangalore. There were numerous hands that scribbled life stories to him, and they opened the veil to the life of a hundred years ago, voiced in first person. I lived the lives of the many, and I heard their stories and trifles, their hopes, achievements and star-struck rambles. Some wrenched my soul, some ignited my imagination and some made me muse.

The time ticked on to the pleasant ambiance of a Mysore evening.

I sifted through the papers. One letter caught my eye. Written in 1918 by one mister C Srikantaiah. It was an interesting letter. The hand was elegant, but resounded with such utter grief that I couldn’t tear my eyes off it. Each paragraph was riveting. 

“I could never imagine one so noble, contented, loving, dutiful, accomplished and enthusiastic….Everything in me and around me reminds me of her every moment. Older people ask me to take courage and seek refuge in philosophy. Well, the one thing that I hate is philosophy and my education never trained me to be philosophical. I had an even career of life so far but now my mind is ruffled. Calamities—they are around us, calamities are all around the world, but such as mine, it is impossible to bear.”

In fine ink on paper, haunting even ninety-four years after it was penned; it bought tears to my eyes. It was a touching letter, and a page was missing, but one didn’t need to scavenge for the forgotten alphabets to be able to feel the uncompromising sincerity in the emotion. The emotion had spelled itself in the personal letter and spilled itself free in every anguished paragraph.

“But false death has left its havoc incomplete, leaving me here and slaying the more sweet.”
There was poetry in his grief: a grief so intimate that it collided with me. I held the letter against the last of the light and questioned it.

This man, C Srikantiah was addressing his father-in-law upon the death of his dear wife. The letter had remained incomplete with the missing page, but I could fill in the blanks. The wife whom he loved dearly, named Thungamma had been close to everything to him. She defined his existence that much was clear. In the letter, he mourns her and emulates her, respects her and considers her forever.

His love was evident even in devastating grief. In the closing paragraphs of his crushing letter, he comes to a conclusion: to donate in the name of his beloved, his life and his purpose.

‘During her stay with me for the last four months, I had given her 300/-, I would like the above amount to be added onto yours, and the amount endowed to the Mysore University for funding a scholarship in her name.’

In Mr. Dinaker’s words,

CS later thought of a benevolent fund in Thungamma's name in Mysore University that had started in 1916. No idea if it was materialized. CS later went to Zurich for studies and was great friends with my grandfather. I remember seeing his body when he died in around 1965 or so. I was 7. The house was in Yadavgiri. He went to Japan also in the 1930s. There are so many items in our showcase that his daughter later gave me when I was very young. I cherish a car in particular.

A bit of history from Mr. Dinakar helped me see with insight.

I had to stare at Mr. Srikantiah's letter. I could only imagine him, his voice-- a faint echo of a past dissolving.

His words struggled, questioned, re-questioned and asked me again:

‘How can I forget her?’

Unanswered from 9th December, 1918.

It still remains to be found what happened to Thugamma's fund for Mysore University. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


I sat on a boring bench for modest lunch. The strong sunlight littered the pavement, but I was too lazy to move to an artsy arboretum today. The boring bench would do.

‘A gorgeous day, isn’t it? Surely the best place to sit and eat lunch is here!’ she exclaimed.

I had seen better, but I didn’t mouth the disagreement.

‘May I sit here with you?’ she asked, pointing to her brown lunch bag and chips. I moved my mustard sweater in invitation.

She looked at my blue medical scrubs and surveyed me slightly.

‘You work here?’

‘No, I intern,’ I said. ‘What do you do?’

‘I’m a caregiver.’

That explained her costume: nothing as uniform as medical scrubs in a hospital environment but something as girly as cheerful pink with white fluffy clouds printed over it: something a child would fancy. It was surely odd in a nice way.

A caregiver. I had seen plenty of those. Why, hadn’t I chanced one in the bus stop the other day? She had told me she had just filed for a position and was hopeful to get in.

‘Please, you will tell me no? If there is anyone be needing caregiver? Good care, I will give,’

I had consoled her that there must surely be at least one person who would require her help in the future and that it was a promising career.  

Most caregivers I had seen had been older women with a certain motherly quality about them, greyed, fragile themselves and usually a little poorer than your average maid. They were often immigrants with tales to tell. I was almost always perplexed by them.

This one to me seemed typical with her wisps of grey hair, eyes drooping and slight freckles on her skin. But I liked her friendliness. We started chatting.

 ‘Who are you caring for?’
‘A cancer patient’
I froze. I learnt of her patient’s cancerous lymph nodes. It had metastasized to her lungs and doctors suspected cancer elsewhere too. She was a test patient for a new type of chemotherapy and plans to save her had backfired, devastating her chronically:  instead of being killed, the cells had grievously and aggressively multiplied, invading her. She was utterly alone without much family to take care of her, and the irony was this: she was a professor of molecular biochemistry who didn’t need her medical condition described to her. 
I have seen corridors of cancer patients: bald, weak and helpless. I have spent months looking at their fight, only an observer. But I can tell you this much. Cancer patients have a lot of problems. They make heart-breaking patients.  Often, after chemotherapy, they can’t get up and even go to the bathroom. Sometimes, they give caregivers a headache. But this caregiver refused to complain. She had only deep admiration and a sense of selfless devotion to her patient, and nothing else. Just a pure sense of service-mindedness, and loyal sympathy. 
‘My patient is remarkable. She has an arm that hurts so much every time she moves and she used to keep telling me that it felt like her limb was literally 150 pounds to her. She was in tremendous pain. And you know, I could see from her perspective. I was not surprised when she opted to get the arm amputated. People thought she was metal, crazy, even to get rid of a perfectly functioning arm…but you know, I can feel for her. You can’t simply anesthetize pain like that. That thing that feels like 150 pounds has to go…after all the pain it caused…I can imagine. And you know…she is a woman of such incredible dignity. She is in such pain, but she never shows it. You can see it clearly in her eyes though, but she never shows it. She is one of those people who does not believe in causing a fuss and inviting people to gape at her. She bears the burden of her pain with such dignity…I have to respect that.’
I listened with awe.
‘One day, she called me over and asked me to move her arm an inch. Every time I moved her arm, the pain was like fire to her. I stood there and said I didn’t want to be her caregiver anymore.’
‘Why, Annie, Why?’ the old professor burst into tears, ‘Why? Even you are leaving me? You are the only thing closest to me like this, please don’t leave me! You can’t handle me can you? Do I ask you to do too much?’
‘It’s not that, god bless your soul, ma’am!’ I said, ‘Don’t mistake me. It is this pain that I can do nothing to help you that is affecting me.’ 
It was a touching moment. 
‘Any patient—be it somebody with cancer or Alzheimer’s, is a person. And he should be looked upon like a person. He is a person, and you should once at least try to put yourself in his shoes. The simple act of sympathy, you know, is not so difficult at all. You don’t need to see someone in trauma and on his death-bed to be able to feel for him or see from his eyes.’ she said, and chewed her lunch, as I chewed on her words.
‘True,’ I nodded.
‘Take for instance, just today…a woman was anxiously waiting outside the OR for her husband, he was a neuro case and they had cut open his brain. She couldn’t take it, so she went outside the premises and started smoking a cigarette to calm her nerves, and this insensitive lady walks by and says, ‘whatcya doin here standin smokin like that? Don’t.’
That woman almost had tears in her eyes and said, ‘If you knew what I was going through, hell, you’d smoke a thousand cigarettes, so butt off.’
“ Now, if someone is legally smoking outside and if someone tells you that, you’d better take a second and try and deduce why she is thinking like that, maybe a lot is going on in her life, right? But this lady just can’t see from her perspective and tries to pick on the poor ol’ woman who is so stressed and is devastated to see her husband like that…and she chooses this moment, this moment when she is trying to calm down to pick a fight. This world is full of morons like that. So I went up to the distraught woman and said, I did—hey, go on and have another cigarette by all means, if it calms your nerves. Nothin’ bad’s gonna happen, and don’t pay attention to people like that. I can understand what you are going through. You see—people need support like that.
It often takes just simple words to convey big things: Nothing is going to happen. I can understand what you are going through. Clearly, Annie knew that in her simple acts of kindness.
I was utterly blown and I didn’t know what to say. I just stared at this wonderful person. This world needed people like her. 
It was time to go.
‘I’m Annie by the way,’ she shook my hand, ‘And now I’m going to go have a cigarette some place nice, if you don’t mind. My own nerves sometimes need calming too, you know. To work like this can be interesting, and I work long hours.’
And here she is, helping everybody out, and nobody is here to ask her if her nerves are calm too, I thought. She was an unapplauded kind of hero in this space. But of course, she didn’t mind that. She was satisfied where she was, and that made her heart beautiful.
How many Annies have you seen in your life?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

When I learnt instead

There are some people you know—whose dim presence is always there in the back of your mind, even when, possibly, they are half the globe away. You do make friends in chance encounters and you do tend to think—how will this person impact me for the rest of my life? You do smile and exchange a few hellos here and there, and then forget. But you know, a few people have a way of coming back, a few people have a way of startling you, a few people are framed with remarkable strength and grit. And every time the beauty of the human spirit reveals itself to you, you are left with a quiet fulfillment of understanding, of a blessed thankfulness of having to have seen that side of them. Because, truly, people have the ability to startle. Brilliantly so.

I do have a friend you cannot quite call a high-schooler, simply because her fortitude is much beyond her years. She, I think, is one of those rare individuals who have successfully understood the value of human life itself, and such things are yet to find me. I take life very much for granted, not inserting the ‘I love you!’ at the end of all conversations, not calling people beautiful, or letting people know exactly how much they matter to me. I forget to call home every once in a while, so they pick up the phone and query, ‘Do you honestly care?’ I laugh it off like it’s not an important question. But you know, I do care. I do worry for family, and I do love them with all my heart. It’s just that I do not verbally communicate that, or even in my actions. Sometimes, I end up feeling paradoxical as I sit with this noise and try to figure myself out.

 How much does one value life? How much does one value people for all their worth? And how much does one regard them once they are gone? She knows the answers to these questions, and learning from her has been eye-opening to me.

She was always a sprightly teenager full of dreams, and I saw much of the same mellow timidity floating in her eyes that I saw in me at sixteen. She was a purely creative soul, reveling in the music that composed this world. She recognized the beauty in art quite early, and was a poet of remarkable virtue.  I guess that is how we bonded, through poetry. And what was merely a common ground came to occupy much more of my life than I thought possible. She became that sister I never had.  I loved her for everything she was.

Something happened last month. She lost the most important man in her life, her father—a sudden and terrifying encounter of loss.

How does one handle that?

The mail came to me very early in the morning, when I was in a study room talking to people about consolidating my future plans. I was all worried about my future, and the only questions that seemed to matter were what I would do after graduation. I was in my own selfish realm of contemplation; all I could think of was me. The mail awakened me to the uncertainty of human life, and how dramatic a turn life can take. It knocked the breath out of me, an important mail hiding between all the useless Facebook notifications. My father is in the ICU, here is the exact medical condition, do you think he’ll survive?
The question was weighty, a whole human life hung by it.

I had access to expert opinion, and when I could obtain it, it was a clear no. But how do you break it to a little girl who is just about opening her eyes to the world? I didn’t. I didn’t have the heart to. I did not tell her, but she knew what to do. She spoke to him every single day, even if he would not respond. She somehow knew he was listening.

An extreme agitation ate at me for the next few days, when I knew the certainty of the outcome but could not share, when I felt like swearing, multiple times, at the fragility of life. And I could not believe something so big could affect someone so young. It was agitation of the unexplainable variety, and I squirmed until I learnt of his passing. An unbelievable grief enveloped me then, even if I had never seen this man in my life. I saw the event as something absolutely cataclysmic to the tender-hearted dreamer of a girl, an upheaval for someone who saw so much beauty in the world. I feared it might destroy her immense vision and creativity, thaw the high aspirations and change the sweetest of personalities into someone encrusted by grief, malice and depression. It is hard to see the beauty of this world when it has robbed you of your greatest treasure.

I spent those days talking long walks. I wrote to her many letters. I walked on those sorrowful days, catching and capturing brilliant sunrises of awakening summer mornings. The beauty of the world was still in evidence to me, and it distilled to my space and acted as my healing. I made these experiences pictures and songs and constantly bombarded the internet with them, in order to prevent her from forgetting the very real raw beauty that existed in this world. I was worried she wouldn’t recognize this—maybe she saw it only as an unreadable component of a previous life. I was more than bothered.

I talked to her yesterday, and she recounted the incident vividly,

My uncle came and we left for the hospital. On the way, near Domllur, I saw something beautiful. The sun was still at the horizon. The sky was red and yellow. I saw it. It was beautiful, so beautiful. I knew my father was dead. I still couldn't help but appreciate the beauty, and I knew he was in a better place now. I saw him there, and I saw my reflection on the glass.   I saw us together.   I share half of his genes.   I am a part of him, and I will live. And do what I am meant to do here.”

That one second, I was proud of her. I was proud that these words came from just a teenager. Such remarkable resilience to the human spirit, I thought.

You will be legacy,’ I told her.

I turned away, knowing that my work here was done. There were only one thing that remained to be said…a grateful thank you! to her for living so beautifully.  And I felt like singing, like the poets we are:

It permeates this space and unburdens our souls.
It lightens your rummaging heart with dazzling sunshine, 
and puts to rest an unrest, furthermore,  
Here, all are together and I love you.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Calendars for a Cause

Bereft as I am in many other ways, I have fortunately never missed the company of the creatively inclined. They have a spark in them that could make them agents of change, they are thinkers who could possibly innovate something of marvelous value. I recognize that potential: these people are both valuable and priceless. They inspire my shying creative side to break a shell and speak a little louder. They’re interesting creatures who toil in company of constant criticism, a little bit of encouragement and mostly, a sense of passion and purpose.

Kiran Ravikumar, Aditi Dinaker and Ashwin Dange are little more than photographers. I heard about ‘Calendars for a Cause’ when it was just an idea in its initial stages. The thought was to design a calendar for 2012 and sell it. Nothing extraordinary in that, except for the fact that all the money collected by selling calendars goes to charity. I found it selfless and beautiful, how talent can be transformed into something that can give back to the society.

The money collected is channelized for the financial needs of the poor. It not only goes to a school in Ramabai Nagar, Mysore, where 300 kids from underprivileged families study but also to towards building a library in KS Garden Slum for underprovided kids. These are highly inspired twenty- somethings trying to make a change, and they only ask for a little help.   

The photographers have worked really hard to make this calendar happen. The pictures chosen are captivating. They’ll surely light up your room or your work space.  It is indeed remarkable to see these people come up with such a splendid calendar in a matter of less than a month.

It takes much dedication and commitment to make something of this proportion manifest itself in such a short period of time. And I personally think they've worked very hard, and all for a good cause, in true spirit of selflessness and intelligent thought.

“I tried encouraging people to buy a calendar,” a photographer friend said, “Nobody came forward. I guess people just appreciate art, when we talk financially, they don’t value it that much.”

Well, we should change that, shouldn’t we?

Participate in the change. It takes a simple act of buying a calendar.

So this new year, choose to be kind. Buy a calendar and pass the word.

To learn more about the cause:  http://www.calendarsforacause.in/about-this-cause/