Friday, December 26, 2008

The Pilgrimage

A short story

Kadambari’s vision of her was something like a sepia-toned postcard from a bygone era. A long-shot with her sitting in a spotless white cotton saree, in an armchair framed through the doorway of a garden-laced bungalow. The expression on the face, as recalled through the tunnel vision, was mysteriously benign, a smile playing on the lips – very serene. Kadambari would see that image every time she went to her husband’s mofussil home-town in Vijaipur.

The very first visit to the hamlet was a bit of a culture shock for the city-bred Kadambari. The narrow crowded streets with honking buses and wayward rickshaws, the billowing dust and the grunting pigs made her want to rush back home. The only time she perked up was within the purlieus of historical monuments, walking down the labyrinthine corridors of the mausoleum of Ibrahim Rouza or ruminating at the sepulchre of Gol Gumbaz. The voices and the whispers that resonated eerily in the buildings carried tales to her - of epic love and monumental tragedies - from another time-space.

The small-town people were a complete enigma – happy, like children, in the smallest pleasures, and brave in  the face of great adversities. As the place and its people grew on her, she warmed up to it, albeit with a little reticence. For in the eyes of the locals, Kadambari thought, she was an oddity, a specimen from another planet to be dissected threadbare, unabashedly. This would leave her unhinged and she would desperately grope for an anchor. It was then she met Mrs. Chitre.

Chitre’s and Kadambari’s husband’s family ties went back a long way. Local custom demanded that the couple call upon relatives and friends, friend’s friends and old acquaintances unfailingly, and therefore, one day Kadambari found herself willy-nilly at the doorstep of the woman of the memory-picture. As Kadambari entered the gate, the garden transported her into a virtual world. It was an incongruity in that barren turf of heat and dust. Psychedelic bougainvillea curled up the walls obliterating them and heads of roses, dahlias and gladioli of every hue jostled each other dancing in the lilting breeze. The scent of the flowers and greens was intoxicating. The house seemed to hug her in its cool comfort and Kadambari instantly felt at home.

She saw Mrs. Chitre up, front and close. The regal woman in white acknowledged her presence with a friendly, but distant, smile. She was beautiful - in a motherly-sort of way. Short, a little on the plump side, with neatly parted hair knotted on the nape, and flawless glowing skin. She spoke little, smiled a lot, and gazed at a distance from time to time. For all her smiling, there was stoicism about her. When she spoke it seemed to underscore her silence – the depths of her stillness. She talked of tales here and there but nothing about herself. Her words were measured and held Kadambari in thrall. Something about her persona gripped Kadambari and all too soon it was time to leave.

In small towns, where herd mentality prevails, and everybody, especially women, are expected to toe the demarcated line so that they do not become social outcastes, Mrs. Chitre was a non-conformist. She was everybody’s acquaintance but nobody’s friend. Women moulded in orthodoxy’s assembly line could not relate to her. She wouldn’t attend bhajan mandalis nor visit temples for katha-kirtans. She did not hold haldi-kumkum soirees as was wont in these places nor celebrate festivals in their ritualistic garb. All she did when she could make time from her daily chores was tend to her Garden – an oasis she had created out of void in the midst of aridity. Her life story was something similar.

With an invalid husband and an imbecile son as liabilities, her family life was full of relentless hardships. Her husband, though not a bad sort, was not very productive or aspirational, and relied on her for emotional sustenance, and after the paralytic stroke, even for physical support. Almost every waking hour of her existence slipped in ministering to their needs and demands. Not the one to complain, she buried her desires deep down to happily be their crutch. On the heap of her sacrifices was built the paradise of her home. Adversity, it seemed, had made her gentler, more genteel. She came out on her own only in her Garden. She had poured her woes into a parched landscape and breathed life into it. Gardening was her puja, her offering to her personal God.

Kadambari grew fond of her and there existed between them a bond from their shared love for gardening. She would visit her whenever she went to her husband’s home-town; Mrs. Chitre’s Garden was to be her refuge in an alien and unfriendly world. Every time she visited Mrs. Chitre she would introduce some exotica like Daffodils or Madonna lily or Antirrhinums which miraculously flourished in the foreign soil, without much ado, under Chitre’s green thumb. Looking at the bursting foliage and flora, Kadambari would wonder whether Mrs. Chitre spoke to her plants, and if she did, what had she to say to them for them to so prosper! Did Mrs. Chitre open out her innermost desires and fantasies to them? What secrets did she share with them? Did she tell them stories of her past which not many were privy to? Did they know the real Mrs. Chitre? 

In one of her intimate moments, Mrs. Chitre had revealed to Kadambari her unfulfilled wish. She had said: “I don’t want to go on any yatra or pilgrimage in my old age; I only wish to visit gardens all over the world. Then I will have achieved nirvana.”

Kadambari was tormented by a maze of questions about this mysterious woman. It was not difficult to imagine that Mrs. Chitre must have been incredibly beautiful in her heydays. What dreams must have awakened in that breath and died unrealized? What romantic aspirations must have fired that heart? Where does all that love-energy dissipate when it does not get properly channelized or finds the right receptacle, as in a barren life such as hers? Her plebeian  and unfortunate circumstances were for all to see, and yet, the house bore tell-tale signs that were keyholes to her identity. On the wall of her room, Mrs. Chitre had painted a mural of a flock of white doves in flight, delicately blending into the pastel shade of the wall. It was the flight of a private soul, a yearning of an individual with clipped wings.

Kadambari’s visits became infrequent and she could see Mrs. Chitre age gradually. There was puffiness in the face, wisps of hair came unstuck from a well-groomed back-knot, but the smile and complexion were as radiant as ever. The Garden seemed to grow from strength to strength.  Kadambari’s own life was an unrelenting web of activities; so much to do and so little time! She did get news about Mrs. Chitre intermittently from transiting relatives or acquaintances. Once she heard that a large part of the garden had been demolished by the City Council in the process of road widening. Kadambari could picture the monstrosity of road dredging equipment shattering the peace of the place and mucking the flower beds with the detritus of its depravity. She imagined the house that had been a clandestine cove now being exposed brutally like a sore wound to unsympathetic and prying eyes. But what she could not imagine was the extent of agony the soul would have experienced and harboured. And then she heard of the demise of Mrs. Chitre.

A smorgasbord of memories flashed across Kadambari’s mind – the garden, the gentle breeze, the rustling of leaves, the mango-laden tree, perfumed jasmine riding the air, the lotus and fish in the pond, and amidst it all, a serene visage and the pristine saree. Mrs. Chitre’s desire to see gardens across the globe had remained a dream.

Kadambari had no time to visit the hamlet until many years later.  A visit to the Garden was a must. With trepidation and emptiness, Kadambari entered the gate, which had once upon a time charged her with super zeal. The Garden lay waste. The armchair in the doorway was bereft. The son led Kadambari to the centre of a diminished courtyard where the mother’s ashes were disbursed. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, there she lay in the soil that she so loved and nurtured. All energy ebbed out of Kadambari and she slowly sank onto the swing which is when she saw it. A small shrub had resiliently thrust itself through a crack in the cement and put forth the most exquisite flower Kadambari had ever seen - waving gently in the breeze, its heady fragrance lingering. Staring at the flower, Kadambari  was awestruck: “what depths, what nuances, what untold misery and yearning lent itself in making the flower beautiful in its many splendour!”

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Swan Song

Like “The Rainy Day” of poet Longfellow, the last few days (as I write this) have been very wet and “dark and dreary”. The heavy downpour seems to resonate with the heavy heart that I carry as it is time to leave this beauteous place. I am aware that my “Gulistan” (the name of our abode, incidentally) does not belong to me, but I have belonged to this place like nowhere else. Funny how, after years of living in an urban climate, you come to a strange unknown place and feel you have come home. What is it about this place, Wellington, or more generically, Nilgiris, that has this impact on some? For me, after the cacophony and entropy of city life the stillness of this place cleared the cobwebs of the mind flushing it with fresh energy. As I look back on the two plus years I can visualize countless things that have made this stay rejuvenating and special.

The panoramic sweep of the Wellington Gymkhana Club Golf Course which one crossed everyday on evening walks enlivened by – no, not by the golfers – but the mellifluous call of the Blackbird, the “bird of the forest shadows” as Ruskin Bond calls it or the fluty trill of the Malabar Whistling Thrush will perhaps symbolize this place, for me. One of my secret hideouts (now it can be told!) has been the Tiger Hill Cemetery in Coonoor (next to Tan Tea estate) which until a few years ago had the graves of WW II soldiers (recently exhumed and shifted to Chennai). I got to know of this haunt thanks to a local photographer friend who took me there. With not a soul around, the place is dead, and yet, with plenty of birds flitting about, so alive, that it is surreal. Built in 1905, the cemetery itself is beautiful with its classic stone-and-red-tiled-roof gate and is hidden in a kind of a cove; but walk ten paces ahead, round a bend and lo, and behold! At the Tiger Hill you hit upon an expansive vista of hills and dales and on a clear day you can see the plains of Mettupalayam. It simply takes your breath away.

Nilgiris, as the word suggests, is about the blue haze, which it is, but it is the colour green that dominates – in myriad tones. This green is certainly not a homogenous blur; trees stand out in their individual glories. One of my favourites, which I have seen here for the first time, is the Fagraea obovata. Oddly, this Australian native does not have a popular name, at least not that I know of. This tree with picture perfect glossy leaves puts forth creamy flowers that suffuse the senses as you walk by. It had become some sort of a ritual for me to pick up a few fallen flowers and put them in the lobby or bedroom. Their subtle heavenly scent wafts through the corridors and rooms and I know no better aromatherapy than this. The Eucalyptus is ubiquitous here and is seen in mind-boggling variety of foliage, but the most fascinating of it all is the flowering one. The Eucalyptus ficifolia dots the College landscape and stands out only now as it is currently in bloom. The wispy flowers like cotton fluff crown the trees in bewildering hues of scarlet, peach, pink, white and orange.   

You can call me a bird-brain, but I love birds to distraction and have to sing an ode to them at every available opportunity.  Trees and birds are intimately connected and in Wellington, we are lucky that we do not have a “silent spring”. On the contrary, the music of the bird songs here seems to signify that all is well with our immediate world. There is much to learn from the purple or crimson-backed sunbird which dangles from the delicate stems of hibiscus or flowers of canna or agapanthus sucking nectar and going about its work. It does not believe in damaging the host as it serves its own purpose. Everywhere in India, there is talk of how the sparrow population is dwindling, but in my garden I have witnessed how the lure of rice grains or millet seeds seems to draw a flock giving me immense hope that the trend can be reversed. A mindboggling variety of bird species  - from the rosefinch and shikra to flycatchers and bulbuls - have visited my garden in the past two plus years enriching my days from dawn to dusk.

All this I am going to miss as we pack our bags and prepare to move. But deep down I feel that this bond is not fragile, not fleeting… Behind the dark clouds, the “sun is still shining”… I will come back. But for the moment, yet another world beckons… a new life awaits with open arms… I have to go. After all, we are all birds of passage! Adieu, my friends.

Also read: Haiku Moments in Wellington

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Haiku Moments in Wellington

Wellington is a hill-station and cantonment town sandwiched between Ooty and Coonoor. In my three years of stay here, the place compelled me to live the Krishnamurti (J)-way of life and I feel all the richer for it. Some emotions and experiences cannot be expressed any other way, but poetically. Then too, moments in nature and nature-thoughts lurking deep in the interstices of mind are best captured in haiku. 

child gazes
cypress canopy touching the sky
a chiaroscuro

birdsongs -
in the air; the breath…
that keeps us alive?

swirling mist
steals through the air
engulfing the silence

trees in the mist
play hide and seek
birds forget to sing!

grey mist
airbrushing the greens
brightens my day

dwarf hills
in the distance; at home
towering cypress

invisible melody
wallowing in anonymity
a shy blackbird

sipping winter frost
tranquility of blue mountains
Mumbai retreats

mocking cock-eyed
my amateur efforts at gardening
a pied bushchat

wine red
dahlia heads… bow
drunk in happiness

windy rain
a peach-laden branch
knocks at the window pane

rains don’t fool
the jacaranda’s abloom
summer is here!

whiff of wind tips
shoeflower to the garden floor
born again at temple door 

mist smoulders
chill sets in the bones
heart’s on fire

in a birdhouse
eating bread crumbs
a squirrel pup!

road romeo
eve teasing in Wellington?
why, it’s a whistling thrush!

the bare bough
curves upwards, comes alive
owl branches off

a single bud
florets in bouquet
agapanthus in violet explosion

blue-eyed moon daisy
opens a wink, stretches a limb
wakes up to sunshine

in the hollow
of a tree trunk
life begins!

a glorious day
alas! a hawk mauls a mynah
and flies away…

bells of fuchsia
crown the shrine, quietly, a garland
adorns Gods!

in a shrine
beneath tall eucalyptus
Gods sleep peacefully!