She is bubbling with her enthusiasm about Mathematical Physics. Half of what she is telling me- especially about the Calculus classes -goes above my head. I watch her animated face as she speaks about a senior who is enrolling for a Masters in Perimeter Institute, Canada ( her dream) and has deferred his PhD admission to Stanford by a year. “One day, Amma, I will be there!” I have absolutely no doubt that she speaks her destiny.
‘My child, I wish to tell her, keep this faith alive. For every naysayer who had dissuaded your dreams in a thousand ways by not supporting you, by laughing at girls dreaming big, by mocking you for ‘not fitting in’, you have always had those few critical people who stood by you like a rock. In life, for every hundred people who could not care less about you, you will find one genuine well wisher. That solid love is more than what the little green sapling needs to thrive in this world. Every battle won with sweat and tears of dedication creates way for a wonderfully tasting feast of celebration. But the warrior needs rest and recuperation too.
Do not get caught in the fancy trappings of what ‘success’ is acclaimed to be by the world. The quiet scientist who toils away in her laboratory and advances the cause of Science, leads a life which illuminates the way for humankind. Perhaps her coat is stained and sweaty. Perhaps it is not. Perhaps she is not known outside her circle. Perhaps she is. These are irrelevant.What matters is that when she sleeps at night, there is a joy of having another beautiful day to wake up to and live her dream.
May learning light up your way. May your dreams come true. May you remain humble and grounded. May you always think of leaving this world a better place with the gifts that you were born with. May you follow your bliss and your true calling. May the right teachers appear at the appropriate time. May you always remain my bubbling and happy child.
Tremendously grateful for the gift of hearing you passionately describe your Calculus classes and your wonderful professors. Stay blessed. May your light brighten the life of all whom you meet in your life path.’
‘Amma, you are not actually listening!’ She pouts.
I smile. ‘ Your Amma still has nightmares about her engineering maths.’
‘ Yes! You should have studied Byron instead. No issues! Ok so you know what professor…’
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of countless climes and starry skies
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes…
Ahhhh, Byron. You did get that one right.
What is common to a book written by an extraordinarily gifted young neurosurgeon in Stanford during his fight with lung cancer, and the memoirs of a young professor who teaches Malayalam in a verdant campus in Kerala?
Both are breathtakingly endearing.
Paul Kalanithi’s book, ‘ When Breath Becomes Air’, stuns the reader with its beautiful prose, its penetrating observations, and the sheer magnificence of a well lived life. The author, who had done formal studies in both Literature, Philosophy, and Neurosurgery from some of the world’s top Universities, lost his life while writing his book. It is dedicated to his little daughter, Cady.
As soon as I finished the book, I found myself rushing to give it to a colleague who appreciates fine writing and thoughts- especially on life and death. “Please read this today,” I said, “it is simply amazing.My only thought now is- Thank God for a healthy life. It is the most precious gift granted to me but denied to many who probably deserve it much more than me.” We had been discussing stupidities which entrap our life energies earlier that day.
Certain books have to be read. With a pencil in hand. The poems and philosophical quotes which liberally glitter in almost every page of this small book, showcase an incandescent mind. With his surgeon’s hands, Paul saved many, many lives. With his poet’s mind he observed and tucked away memories to recreate a beautiful philosophy of living for his readers.
I was struck by an anecdote when Paul describes a patient saying,’ Everything is so sad…’ as he puts an electrode in his brain. Certain areas of our mesmerising brains, apparently cater to feelings of overwhelming sadness and melancholy.Could it be, I wondered later- on reading about his doctor friend Jeff’s suicide after a failed surgery on a patient – that relentless toil without any rest, overwhelms that particular part of the brain? Another memory flashed: of a top graduate of a Japanese University hurling herself to a similiar death after working overtime for three days in a row without any rest. Could sleep, that much eulogised nectar, be truly a life giving breath? That angel stroke which will release the pressure building due to overwork and lack of rest on that spot of brain attuned to melancholy ?
Looking at a patient as a human being vs looking at him as a problem to be solved (tick off boxes) : Paul elaborated on that aspect from two angles -when he himself became the perpetrator , as when he became the sufferer. By describing his brilliant, empathetic oncologist who epitomized what an ideal cave giver should be, he made me reflect on the ineffable ways of healing.
Paul’s wife Lucy completed the epilogue in this book.
Reading about people who knew what to treasure, and how to treasure -that is always eye opening. When we live lives fraught with pettiness, dealing often with hollow men all around, such books come as a refreshing breath of air.
Deepa Nisanth’s book, ‘ Nananju teerta mazhakal ‘ is the second in her series of memoirs. I was new to her writing but immediately felt a close affinity. The childhood scenes, the adolescence, the waking up of a young woman into a sensitive observer…the book made delightful reading.
I admire her simplicity, lack of pretentiousness, her scalpel sharp observations, her truly liberal soul confident of deep love from those who matter.
The death of her cousin brother who taught her cycling, the memory of escaping a brutal man in the nick of time, the realisation of toys being denied to children in some repeated pattern of ‘storing away’ that we learn from our own parents, the hilarious episode of bingeing during family visits, the episode of falling sick and yearning for one’s mother…I finished the whole book in one sitting.
What a loss it would have been if Deepa had studied engineering instead of Malayalam. When K R Meera recounted in a channel, her story of intentionally derailing her father’s plan of making her an engineer, and escaping into the world of literature and journalism albeit through a convoluted study path of Chemistry and Communicative English, I had felt the same relief! Professor Leelavathy had been guided to study Malayalam by her professor when she had topped Science in the whole jurisdiction. I recollected that too.
Or perhaps, I am wrong. I adore Dr.Gangadharan’s writings and he is a renowned oncologist. Paul Kalanidhi was a scientist and surgeon. Dr Abraham Verghese who wrote the foreword for Paul’s book is again a very successful doctor who is also a brilliant writer. And Priya A.S. who wrote the foreword to Deepa’s book, is working in a University in the administrative side. Ah, the lovely lines she writes! So a formal education in literature may not be imperative to becoming a great writer.😁
As for me, it is a truly blessed day, when I get to be in the company of dazzling minds-expressing the best of what we can be.
When I first encountered Urdu in my official work, I sought help. I was an Assistant Collector Under Training and the RA Babu (Revenue Assistant) of the Collectorate was an erudite gentleman whose English was exquisite.He was a product of the famous Allahabad University. Most of the official lingua franca had vestiges of the rich Awadh history woven intricately into it. Especially the revenue and the police records- fundamental to administration.
Later, when I sat down to listen to learned lawyers argue about revenue records as a Judicial Officer, I started asking them directly about words which puzzled me.
‘Kayam Mukami’ hona hai madam- said one learned counsel.
The only Kayam that this Keralite had heard of was in the dish of sambhar- as the astoefida that my mother used to add for taste!
‘What is this kayam business?’ I had asked the counsel politely- and he, used to the eccentricities of Officers who struggle with their language, obliged happily enough. It was the Urdu for Substitution of a name in the place of another ( especially relevant in mutation of land records)
Whew! That was tough for a novice.
When there are traces of Persian, Turkish, Rekhti, Hindustani, Khadi Boli, Braj, Awadhy, Bhojpuri, Bundelkhandi, Urdu, Sanskrit…when all these blow about in the wind, what do you do? You learn to appreciate the loveliness of it all. The great syncretic, eclectic culture that this beautiful mixture produces.
So much so that now I am confident that I can enjoy the nuances ( to a certain extent) of lovely ghazals, with the help of a few translation websites or transliteration works.
Since I am reading SundarKanda of Tulsidasji and trying to understand it, it was delightful to encounter the Urdu poetry on Ramayana by Brij Narain Chakbast (1882-1926): lawyer, freedom fighter and poet par excellence. I found it in a book by Raza Mir entitled ‘ The Taste of Words’: An introduction to Urdu Poetry.
One paragraph from Chakbast’s Ramayan Ka Ek Scene ( In which Ram comes to take leave of Kausalya, his Mother). It is written in the Mussaddas tradition( Usually adopted for the Marsiya form to describe the Battle of Karbala in Islamic history- elegies are written in this style among others)
(Kausalya speaks her mind in anguish…)
Leti kisi faqeer ke ghar mein agar janam
Hota na meri jaan ko samaan ye baham
Dasta na saanp ban ke mujhe shaukat-o-hasham
Tum mere lal, tthe mujhe kis saltanat se kam?
Main khush hoon, phoonk de koi is takht-o-taaj ko
Tum hi nahin, to aag lagaoongy raaj ko
If I were born in a faqir’s home( beggar’s house)
I would not have faced this state of life
The serpent bite of this show and prestige would not have bitten me then
You my beloved son, were you not a Kingdom in yourself?
I would be happy if someone were to burn down this throne and crown
If you are not there, I shall surely burn this kingdom down
And so, the magic of language- in different tongues, we speak the same divine language of emotions- understood by every human being in his or her own way.
I bow to Serendipity again and hum a few lines…as my Ram speaks in lovely Urdu to his mother, calming her down…
Shayad khizaan se shakl ayaan ho bahaar ki
Kucch maslahat Isi mein ho Parwardigaar ki
Perhaps from this Fall( autumn) would a new spring arise
Perhaps it is a divine machination of the Supreme Being
“Raise your words, not your voice.
It is the rain that grows flowers,
Not thunder.” ( Rumi)
Touching the hot
Some of us learn about life
Burn by burn,
Blister by blister,
One tear at a time
Others touch their fingers,
To cool waters
Tip by tip,
Love and friendship,
Trickling down smoothly.
But when water turns ice
Over the years,
It will burn too
Skinning your fingers,
Those who trained with fire,
Adapts faster in that game then,
And heal faster.
White stood for simplicity
The nuns had preferred white.
Black, for austerity
Sacrifice had worn a black flag.
Green was for normalcy
And blue for the poets;
But red, it enflamed minds
With lust, life and hope.
That was probably aeons before.
The palette has
A golden yellow
Of a sun dimming slowly-
Austere, simple, normal, poetic
Red buried deep within,
Shimmering in the ebbing tides
Useful on occasions;
When one has to smile
Or take a bow
Before interested eyes.
One day, amma might not be there to tell you all these tidbits. Not pleasant to hear, eh, but then, we will start with discussing some home truths.
The world in which you live has both darkness and light. Like your favourite movies and books have villains and villainess abounding, our little earth has her share of these horrid creatures too. Dementors, Soul-suckers, horrendous evil- name them what you may- they exist.
Remember the scene of those froth dripping mouths of evil when they attacked Frodo and Company in the Two Towers?They were trying to stop those monsters from getting to the innocent women and children.
Evil exists, in both myth and reality. In fiction, fantasy and our daily lives. In souls so dark that a six month old flesh and seventy year old flesh and twenty year old flesh are all flesh to them- to be attacked and devilled and destroyed. Hence, caution!
Amma does not want to frighten you. But awareness is the first strength. So start being aware that all things that smile need not be the Kind GrandMother. It could be a wicked wolf in disguise too.
How can you make out the deadly swamp from the pure river?
The great intuitive power which the Divine has vested in you, will serve you well. But for that, you have to value that gift, and respect it.
It is called the Ïnner voice.
By the way, there is a word called “Bestiality” in the English language. Among the various meanings are “being like an animal” or “being depraved or brutal”.
I want you to listen to this very carefully.
There is not a single living animal, bird, insect or fish…any non-human living thing which is capable of “bestiality” as much as the human being- man or woman. Animals might kill, but they kill to defend themselves or to satisfy their hunger. Even the wild lion, tiger, bear…they do not commit acts of unimagined torture on another living being. They do not rape and insert rods into innocents. They do not throw burning acid into beautiful faces claiming to love them.They do not shoot a child because she went to school. They do not hammer the head of a three year old because her parents pray to God in a manner different to theirs.
So, only human beings are capable of “bestiality”. We defined the word in the first place- no animal did.
That is a very important lesson to remember as you grow up in this world.
Have I frightened you? Sometimes, fear is a good companion, provided we let her sit afar and tell us her tales.
Does that mean, all the bright, beautiful, brilliant little souls should hide themselves away?
It means that all the bright, beautiful, brilliant little souls should stay wide awake in their awareness- of light and dark.
Listen with a smile to the cacophony around you– telling you what to wear, what to dream of, whom to desire,what to yearn for,how to worship God,which job to do, what vacation to take, how to be hot, how to be cool..go ahead, listen…but then decide for yourself.
That is another lesson, by the way. (Have you wondered on that phrase- by the way? By life’s way, as we travel..:)
Decide for yourself – all your life choices. You will make mistakes, but they are yourmistakes.
Be proud of the fact that you chose for yourself, even if you failed.
Dust yourself up, cry a bit, but then simply go ahead and choose again.
That is thousand times better than primping that you never made a mistake at all.
There is the story of an old crone in the Canterbury Tales. Someone is tasked to find the answer from her on the greatly discussed question: What do women want?
The old crone gives the answer : Sovereignty over their lives.
How do I explain that conundrum to you?
Hmmm, let us put it this way:
Women (as well as men) have the right to dream of living their own lives. They have the right to choose their destinies. They have the right to be treated with respect and dignity. They have the right to let their inner light shine forth in whatever creative way they might choose for themselves.
Basically, they can dress, dance, walk, sing, dream, work, study, climb mountains, play football, mess around with clay and wet earth, fall in love, make love, have children, watch them grow, live happily, die gracefully…I hope you get what I mean.
But then, my girls, sadly, even after millions of years later, having been evolved from primitive animals, our world seems to be having difficulty about this simple proposition.Especially when it comes to women, let alone groups and sub groups of apparently “different” characters.
Remember the phrase ” Live and Let Live”.
It is also one of the greatest spiritual principles enshrined in all religions of this world.
It is based on one word- respect.
I have a right to live and shine in this world- as much as you have. As much as a butterfly has. As much as that evil creature has. As much as the mango tree has.
So, where were we?
Somewhere on the way, Amma lost track of what she originally wanted to tell you.
Does not matter, right now- the sunshine is bright enough.
And remember as you run off and play- be kind, be tolerant, be accepting, be yourselves.
Dare to be.