The spell of Amarendra Bahubali

I am tongue-tied. Smitten. Totally bowled over. This sentence has made its way after an endless number of backspaces, as I did not know how to begin. I feel like a novice lover who writes and rewrites the same love-letter, without knowing how to begin or end it.

The much-awaited Bahubali: The Conclusion did not disappoint. It delivered, and how! I loved the lead characters, be it my crush (blush!) Amarendra Bahubali, the princess Devasena, or the Queen Mother. For those complaining about the violence – what did you expect? The younger Bahubali, Mahendra, was going to liberate his mother from the clutches of the evil villain Bhalla who has her in chains in his palace courtyard. He cannot do it by taking a bouquet of flowers to Bhalla, can he? Of course there will be bloodshed – it is a war. Yes, there are some tacky fights in the end that I did not care for. There are small glitches that I did not care for. But overall? I would see the movie again. Gladly.

The scenes were captivating, painted as they were like a fine work of art, on the canvas of the big screen. There is the scene where Amarendra saves the Queen Mother from an elephant in musth without harming either the mother or the elephant; at the end of it, he confidently strides up the elephant’s trunk to seat himself on its back.

There is the scene where Amarendra brings Devasena home with him on a ship whose sails turn to wings, turning the ship into a plane. And the scene where Amarendra and Devasena fight in tandem against the Pindaris with bows, showering arrows expertly and quickly on the invaders. He even coaches her on fighting skills – one of the most beautiful, and most romantic scenes of the movie. A scene that would appeal to anyone who doesn’t care for doe-eyed damsels in distress. After Kaurvaki of Ashoka, this is a lead female character that I can admire and appreciate – what a long gap between the two!

I love how women are portrayed. My heart sang seeing Devasena boldly tackling a bunch of bandits, fighting them as a more-than-equal. And Amarendra losing his heart to her, after seeing her fighting skills. Devasena is fiery and she is fiesty. She is beautiful and minces no words. She is confident in her stride and in her convictions. Amarendra is a secure man who, unlike weak men who fall in love at first sight, and can be manipulated by doe-eyed damsels who plead helplessness to get their way – finds Devasena’s feisty nature and fighting skills fascinating. He admires and loves her as an equal, and with that, he has me at hello. Yeah, its a Jerry McGuire reference, but I am too smitten to care! 😉

The Queen Mother sends a proposal to Devasena’s kingdom, which is humiliating in itself. She sends a large amount of gold and silver as presents, and says this is in exchange for Devasena’s hand. Devasena is to immediately marry her son, by symbolically having a wedding ceremony with his sword. Devasena spurns this offer, saying if the son so desires to marry her, she will send her own sword, and he can have a ceremony with it! Bravo Devasena!

When Amarendra gets a missive from the Queen Mother to bring Devasena to Mahishmati as a prisoner, he turns to his beloved, and asks her to cooperate and humor the queen by going with him as a prisoner. Devasena boldly says she will come lovingly and willingly, but never in the humiliating garb of a prisoner. Amarendra swears to protect her honor and dignity and asks her to place her trust in him, and he keeps his promise. All along, Amarendra believes that the Queen Mother had intended for him to marry Devasena.

The Queen Mother had, unbeknownst to Amarendra, promised Devasena’s hand to her other son Bhalla. When Amarendra brings Devasena to court, he finds out about his mother’s promise. The Queen Mother decrees that Devasena should fulfill her promise, whereupon the latter – unlike the simpering damsels of yore  – boldly asks on what basis the Queen Mother had made such a promise to Bhalla. I have the right to choose my mate, she says.  And I am not bound to keep someone’s promise made without my consent!

Bravo! And here is the clincher for me: when the Queen Mother, aghast at Devasena’s boldness, orders her soldiers to drag her to the front of the court to stand by Bhalla, Amarendra steps forward and says “Anyone who dares to lay a hand on Devasena, know that laying a hand on her is akin to laying a hand on the sword of Bahubali!”

He then confronts the Queen Mother saying and he will always be on the side of the right – no matter who is on that side. He vowed to protect Devasena, and he will stand by that promise come what may. Game, set and match!

A man who stands by his woman, and protects her with his life; a man who is not threatened by a capable warrior queen; a man who has the BIG heart and a chivalrous side to him that makes him stand by and protect his beloved’s honor.

Who would’ve thought? Most men when it comes to real-life warrior queens brand her in unsavory ways, and have nary a thought to protect her. The woman ends up fighting her battles, slaying her dragons and caring for those around her, often without a loving word or a caring touch. Some days she feels like the Queen Mother, brandishing a sword while holding  a baby in the other hand. She gets taken for granted, and most men don’t even think to offer her help or protection (men are lazy that way!). But Amarendra my man says “here, capable woman! I am by your side 100%. And my sword will protect you!”.

Amarendra, you stole my heart right at that instance. Every capable, hardworking, fighting woman appreciates a man who stands by her, and is there to lean on in her vulnerable moments. A man with the sensitivity to know that even a brave woman like Devasena has moments when she needs support. A man who will not disappoint her. A man who will not let her down, come what may. (Excuse me while I swoon here)

I will never tire of watching this movie.

In St.Valentine’s Shadow – the other side of romance

There is no pleasure that can equal getting drenched in a full-on rain shower! Not the crackling-thunder-searing-lightning-fireworks kind of shower that I see in my current place of residence, but the rain showers in India that just had good old water pouring from the sky with an occasional thunder in the distance. The extra fun was annoying some elders who had their steady refrain of “At this rate, you will catch a cold tomorrow and maybe fever too! You will see! Don’t come to me then to complain!”

After a while such refrains became token refrains, said for the sake of saying. Of course, on school days umbrellas were necessary but if rain comes on a holiday – ohhhhh, what a pleasure that was! Just go out into the front yard or back yard, throw caution to the winds – literally! – and simply let the big drops of rainy goodness fill your being, drench you to the skin. It is a quintessential joy where the present and future dissolve into nothingness and all that is left is that moment, that feeling of being one with the universe and all its elements.

மழை கவிதை கொண்டு வருது யாரும் கதைவடைக்க வேண்டாம்
ஒரு கருப்பு கொடியை யை காட்டி யாரும் குடைபிடிக்கவேண்டாம்
இது தேவதையின் பரிசு யாரும் திரும்பிக்கொள்ள வேண்டாம்
நெடுஞ்சாலையிலே நனைய ஒருவர் சம்மதமும் வேண்டாம்

அந்த மேகம் சுறந்த பாலில் ஏன் நனைய மறுக்கிறாய்
நீ வாழ வந்த வாழ்வில் ஒரு பகுதி இழக்கிறாய்
நீ கண்கள் முடி கரையும்போது மண்ணில் சொர்க்கம் எய்துவாய்
கண்கள் முடி கரையும்போது மண்ணில் சொர்க்கம் எய்துவாய்….* **

My feelings exactly – how did Vairamuthu know?

Rain and romance have many parallels……They hold within them the seeds of creation, preservation, and destruction. It is possible to totally be immersed in, and to totally lose oneself in both.

***

Back in my middle school years, I remember studying monsoons in Geography class. It was nowhere close to the thrill of getting drenched in an actual monsoon of course! But aside from Science, Geography was the class that kept me in thrall those days. While talking about monsoons, the discussion turned to why there was abundant rainfall in one place, while another that was a neighboring area got so little rain.

The answer was that perhaps there was a mountain or mountain range between the two adjoining areas. So here is how the theory went – the oceans churned up rain clouds, which then ride on some steady winds called monsoon winds. When approaching a mountain or mountain range, the wind is blocked by the mountain range that forms a natural barrier, forcing the clouds to shower their goodness on one side of the range only. As a result, the other side – the rain shadow area, has scarcely any rain – perhaps a few sprinkles, if that. So the vegetation in these adjoining areas can in fact be quite different, and the crops grown – also quite different.

An intermittent lightning, a noiseless thunder

A gentle rain that falls and drenches only two…. 

 An unseasonal shower, this love

In my last post here, I wrote about the gentle stealing from a person – that is love. There is also a stealing away, the quietly slipping away,  that happens without one noticing, but happens nonetheless among many couples who started out much in love. That is distancing.

It happens when a partner quietly but unobtrusively slips away from the relationship, with ostensibly good reason. This slipping away happens more and more frequently as time goes by, and with the passing years, the two partners/spouses don’t feel connected anymore. They are a married couple for practical purposes and in the eyes of society – but the original love that bound them together is but a faint shadow of itself……For, to love someone is to feel connected to someone, to know someone. When a person drifts away, it is no longer possible to know them as they slowly but surely become a stranger to their partner. The partner left behind is clinging to a shadow, a memory of the person, in  the hope that the real person will one day return to them.

Relationships evolve with time – the couple has children, and there are responsibilities of a householder, as well as responsibilities at work. Time together can wax and wane, depending on the responsibilities. Some couples are separated by physical distance as one spouse works in a different town/country. But despite the challenges that life throws, many couples stay connected to each other – and it is not difficult.  Tender gestures, small  kindnesses, consideration for the spouse – and helping them when not asked (and not expected)…..A regular cup of coffee together in the day when anything related to the home or family are not discussed. In the case of couples separated by physical distance, a phone call each day to share about each other’s day; and if one spouse commutes more than the other, an occasional role reversal to give the commuting spouse a break. Doing without asking, and giving from the heart without a quid pro quo….

Couples who stay connected evolve together – when the nest is empty, they plan joint activities and  travel together. One can see the synergy and the deep, abiding friendship between them, the shared interests nurtured for a while, the way they predict each other’s responses, the easy conversation and banter and the knowledge that they have each other’s back. Such couples are totally relaxed in each other’s presence and the warmth of their mutual affection is a delight to see.

One can just as  easily spot the couples who are not connected. They are the ones who have trouble starting a conversation when the children leave the nest……for, other than as a fellow parents, they don’t know who their spouse is. They have lived  like roommates and led parallel lives. Where there was once a tender romance that caressed them like a gentle rain, some barrier has blocked that monsoon wind, casting them in a shadow. An old memory of their shared romance may bring a smile once in a while – but for all purposes, the feelings have died without the nurturing that they deserve.

***

Distancing happens when consciously or unconsciously, the couple stops spending  quality time together. Or this time together is perpetually deferred in favor of other interests and activities….A spouse may request a connection, but if perpetually rejected in favor of other interests, the connecting spouse stops asking. Sometimes the connecting spouse may demand together time out of sheer frustration, in which case the distancing spouse may react by distancing further.

Some spouses distance by becoming workaholics. They put work and all that relates to work – working after hours, using any and all free time to network and get ahead in work, partying with workmates – above everything else. The other spouse manages the home, their work and childcare responsibilities. The workaholic spouse may or may not help – perhaps they may contribute more financially and justify that they are working for the good of the family and the spouse is supposed to understand this. I remember watching Mitr – My Friend. Despite the predictable ending, the film had many poignant moments where one person’s desire to connect is continually thwarted.

Some spouses distance as a way to run away from issues that they don’t want to face. For example, let’s say X and Y are married. X has an immediate family member living with them who sees Y as a threat. So the relative continually creates drama forcing X to choose between the spouse and themselves (of course, the spouse may be threatened by the relative too). So X may create a deliberate distance to get away from the family drama. They may find a hobby or interest – or several of them – outside the home and continually immerse themselves in it, leaving Y to fend for him/herself. They may suddenly embrace religion in a big way, for example, volunteering at their place of worship, networking with fellow volunteers, creating a private circle of friends that does not include Y. They may not even be religious – it is just that their social needs are met in this way…And when they get home, the insecure relative rushes in to fill the need for love and affection, leaving Y feeling invisible.

Or alternatively, X may find one or more joint activities for themselves and the relative, leaving Y all alone – because ostensibly Y is the more mature one, and can “understand”….. while the relative (who came first in life, Y is reminded over and over again) is not able to for any number of reasons – they have had a  recent personal loss, for example; or they may have no one else. In the interest of harmony, some adjustments need to be made, Y is told. And it is a perpetual adjustment – not a one-off or two-off thing that one can chalk up to a family having members of differing needs, and the need to make everyone happy. The problem is that Y is not recognized as a person with human feelings and needs…..When Y has finally been pushed aside too often and protests, X may argue for a while, repeating that Y needs to be more understanding, or be understanding for some more time – which is of course a moving target. When Y one day throws up their hands and says that they have been understanding enough and they are tired of it, X may then paint Y as a bad person simply for requesting time with their spouse.

At the root of this is X’s inability to accord quality time to the spouse for fear of hurting their relative, and an inability to draw healthy boundaries that enable all relationships to thrive. An inability to face the issue makes X turn to gaslighting instead, putting the blame on Y.

It is impossible to have an honest conversation with those who gaslight, and issues will forever remain unresolved in such cases. Third party interventions will not help either – and eventually it becomes a case of who will bell the cat.

At this time, Y either leaves, or to save themselves from further pain, detaches emotionally from X. They now find their own interests to pursue, because all their efforts to connect with X have come to naught. But at the back of their mind is the frustrated attempt to connect and the scars from that experience. And the nagging, dull sorrow of being in a shell of a marriage.

Some distancing spouses – usually men (forgive the stereotype) – may argue that their spouse refuses to have a physical relationship with them, and thus thwarts their attempt to connect. But the root issue is that the spouse has been so alienated by the distancing that they find a physical (only) relationship preposterous.

***

There are those who disrespect their marriage by having an affair, or abusing a substance like alcohol. While this wreaks havoc on the union, the not-so-dramatic neglect, can slowly erode away at the foundation…..Just as a house neglected, slowly falls apart. The couple may still reside together under one roof – but what a waste of all the years they could have spent as a thriving, joyful couple!

In some ways, neglect seems like a lesser form of cheating.  It is marrying someone and never being available for them – effectively abandoning the spouse in an emotional sense. The options for the spouse are to leave, be treated like they don’t count except as roommates and fellow parents, or to find their own interests and pretend that  the distancing doesn’t hurt.

Monsoons rarely change course, nor does time stand still. One day there may not be enough time in the world to make up for the perpetually deferred connection. The spouse subjected to continuous distancing may have changed in very fundamental ways and it may become impossible to bridge that gap.


* Song from the Tamil film, En Swaasa Kaatre

** Meaning: “the rain brings poetry, don’t shut the door against it. Don’t hold an umbrella to it like a black flag and protest its arrival. This is a gift from the Gods, don’t turn away from it; you don’t need anyone’s permission to get drenched anywhere – in the middle of the road, even. Why deny yourself of this bounty from the clouds – you will be losing a big part of life’s joy by doing so. When you close your eyes and melt in the rain, you will achieve heaven on earth”

A gentle art, a quiet thievery

A recent song that captivated me is this one on first love:

The fresh romance of the lead pair did capture the heart of this diehard romantic, but what captivated me most were the lyrics.

An intermittent lightning, a noiseless thunder

A gentle rain that falls and drenches only two…. 

 An unseasonal shower, this love

The rest of the song is all about the stealing and gentle deception that is romance…..stealing glances, a smile of delight quickly covered up, the getting ready to meet someone but trying hard not to appear overly eager, the awkwardness, the gentle teasing and testing of the other to see if there is a response, the secret smile when the response is as expected, a fluttering of the heart that becomes a hammering and under all this the effort to pretend normalcy…..this game of tender subterfuge goes on until every conscious thought is lost, and time stands still. A beautiful, joyful theft happening in plain sight with the people powerless to stop it, and making no effort either. Love is a tidal wave and losing oneself in it is an absolute and senseless joy that defies description!

***

Every species has this little dance of courtship, this ongoing banter, a unique give and take before the pair decides to take things further. The minute a woman gets an admiring glance, her gait becomes more confident; the minute a man is admired, he squares his shoulders and walks taller. The peacock preens itself to attract its mate; the cuckoo sings the sweetest notes in the hope of finding an answering cry; the weaver bird uses all its innate engineering skills to build a nest, in the hope of finding and impressing a mate, and as for the puffer fish, its engineering feat is here!

Many species have males doing all the wooing – and there are some dangerous species where the female woos and then destroys the male once the next generation is assured! To the male of the species, a female praying mantis is a Fatal Attraction!

Among humans, and I’m sure other species too, some are more adept at the game than others and play for keeps. If their prospective partner is equally adept, it can be a joyful courtship, with each matching wits against the other, while playing to eventually be on the same team. Such well-matched pairs are a joy to behold, and one wishes with all their heart that they will end up together. Of course there are others who are also adept at the game, and who play for the sake of playing…..The players of the field and the playboys/playgirls. Detecting who is who takes skill, and in some cases a lesson from the school of hard knocks….in which case, here’s hoping someone didn’t get too scarred. Some are downright dishonest cheats who taint everything by association – a Tamil movie called Amaidhippadai changed the entire meaning of a hitherto innocuously named sweet called halwa!

But let’s leave the players alone, and focus on the lovers. I’ve asked a few women what their love was like – even those from an older generation. How did the pair meet? How did they fall in love? Even those who had arranged marriages: how did they decide that he was the one? When did they fall in love? Invariably, even the sternest of them would instantly blush and try to wave me away: Go on, you surely have better things to do! Go!

Some would blush, laugh, look downward, grin and start telling the story sheepishly, becoming bolder as they go.  One told me how she had gone with a female friend to a restaurant, and couldn’t find a chair. Spotting a couple of chairs at another table, she asked a man at the table if the chairs were meant for someone. Without batting an eyelid, he replied: “Yes, the chairs are reserved. I was holding them for you!”. A stunned silence, some shared laughter – and a relationship for life that followed.

An American friend once told me about how captivated they were on watching an Indian film: “Your films have so much romance! It is so beautiful!

Having grown up watching Indian films, I didn’t think they were all that unusual  – except perhaps that nearly 90% of Indian films were musicals. Aren’t American movies romantic too? “The older ones are, but in Indian films it is the entire art of wooing and courtship – that is what is so romantic! You don’t find that art anymore in an American film – the couple are attracted to each other, and very quickly the relationship gets physical!

I hadn’t thought of that. Indeed, romancing someone is more about the fine art of courtship.

***

Not just romantic love, any kind of love – between those not related by birth or adoption that is – involves a gentle stealing. Even among babies and toddlers, the crowd-pullers and heart-stealers are always the charmers who use their wits to get out of some mischief – we cannot help laughing and loving them even as we see through their little tricks. Lord Krishna, who captivated many, started out in childhood as a butter thief. The gopis knew he stole the butter they had taken pains to churn, and even as they complained to his mother about it, he had well and truly stolen their hearts. Game, set, and match!

***

To the heart-stealers, to those who had their hearts joyfully stolen, and to the would-be heart-stealers, Happy Valentine’s Day! May you find joy, and may your love bring you contentment and peace.

The Wilderness Calls

A good friend undertakes what he calls his annual pilgrimage – a trip to The Grand Canyon – with hardly anything with him. He usually takes a backpack, some instant foods, a water filter, perhaps a change of clothing, and sets out on his week-long sojourn into the canyon.  For a week or so, there will be total silence from him – no phone calls, no texts, no human contact including with his own family. He hikes all day, and at dusk, pitches his tent wherever he happens to be at the moment.

My friend, an atheist, says this is his spiritual time of the year…….a time to wrap himself in the stillness and cease all thought. A time to just live each moment exploring the woods, and listening to nature sounds. The food he carries and the primitive cooking equipment are all he needs during this time of quiet reflection.

He has been doing this for many years now. He knows how to expertly tie his food bag in a tree above and away from  his tent, to be safe from bears and other wildlife coming in search of food. Apparently once he even cooked Pongal for some hikers from different nationalities, and they all relished it.

“I don’t need much, and I wake up to the best views!”, he says.

***

I am filled with admiration for people like this. They are able to survive on very little, and as a reward they get a star-studded sky for a roof, the rustling breezes to cool and comfort them, and the quiet refuge of deep woods. It reminds me of an old Tamil song which, loosely translated goes like this:

“The world exists for me, the flowing rivers flow for me; flowers bloom for my visual delight, and Mother Earth generously gives me her lap to sleep on

The moon rises above glowing like gold, I have a star-studded canopy at night for a roof; and my kingdom on Earth has beautiful birds who fill my silences with songs”

Really, one needs very little to feel like they own everything. Just go to the woods and see! As long as plant life heavily outnumbers animal life, we are safe. The tall trees will tower over us, silent as sages, sheltering bird life and animal life, and and quietly giving us clean air to breathe.

Every time I see an old tree, I silently pray that it will survive the human greed to “own” everything by destroying it. There are those who take pride in owning many holiday homes. Their thought seems to go like this: Do I like a place? Yes. Is it quiet and beautiful? Yes. Very well, let me clear a tract of land cutting down all the trees that grow there, and build myself a mansion to come to…….What, for a few days each year? Was the destruction worth it, simply so that you needn’t rent a hotel room for those few days? What about the hassle and expense of maintaining this “investment” property, hiring a guard to safeguard it, making sure it has electricity and running water all year round? It is far easier to save the money, and use it to travel to many places – we are but temporary residents of the Earth, and there is so much to see!

Take what you need from the Earth, and leave the Earth pristine for posterity. A person needs but one house to live in. Where will we grow crops, if forests and farmlands get re-purposed into housing plots?

Reminds me of an old Native American proverb: When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money!

***

A few months ago, during a hike with a group, we came across a stream, surrounded by small wooded hills; given the uneven terrain, the stream had some small rapids. In the middle of the stream was a rock – and near this rock, almost blending into the background was a person deep in meditation. There was a dog wandering nearby, perhaps the meditator’s companion. The sun was streaming through the trees, and there were a few dragonflies. A water snake glided into the stream – blink and you will miss it. We stood there watching for a few minutes, awed by our surroundings. Just nature at work, and total silence.

The woods teaches one to still their thoughts, and simply observe. Sit quietly and you may observe the Eagle’s nest high above ground, with a few young ones in it. Still your thoughts, and what felt like silence will suddenly teem with the chirping of crickets, and the occasional cry of a kite.

What a contrast from the world we have created around us – with highways, traffic, malls with clearance sales, houses filled with gadgets and many unnecessary things…… The Matrix, as a friend and fellow blogger called it. We are all plugged into it, creating more and more cogs in the wheel with their hands and feet embedded deeply in the Matrix.

Perhaps there is a different way to live, a better and more natural way…..Yet many of us are afraid to leave the world we know behind, to see if there is something we are missing. We maybe missing the forest for the trees….literally! Even the holiday-home builders who want to get away from The Matrix, are so ensconced in it that they try to recreate that very Matrix in their get-away place!

***

I’ve read here that every woman needs a cornfield – basically a place where she can hide from everyone in her life, so that she gets time and space to breathe. I started out hiking because of this – and found several such “hiding places” where I could temporarily suspend thought and lose myself in the woods. Aside from work stress and deadlines, women, in our roles as kin-keepers and nurturers, can get worn out in care-giving roles and all that such a role entails: biting our tongue – several times!, dealing with the same repetitive behaviors that seem incorrigible and yet need to be tackled with the patience and determination of King Vikram who dealt with Vetal, facing multiple conflicting demands and trying to balance it all…. Speaking of incorrigibility reminds me of the story of Sita, the heroine of The Ramayana.

At the end of The Ramayana, Sita is asked to prove her piety to the world in a trial-by-fire, even though she had done the same years ago. Having endured years of separation from her dear husband, and having raised her twin boys as a single parent in Rishi Valmiki’s hermitage that was her refuge in exile, she is asked to prove her piety again to the world. She is told that this is the price she has to pay in order to resume life with her husband.

Tired of repeatedly having to prove her integrity, Sita prays to Mother Earth to release her from this unending cycle of one’s truth being repeatedly tested and questioned (many stepmothers can relate to this feeling, even though the circumstances are entirely different!). Mother Earth obliges……the ground opens up, Sita steps in and the Earth closes over her. Thus Sita, the daughter of Mother Earth, has returned to her abode….. When Indian women in a fit of frustration say they want the Earth to open up and swallow them whole, this is what they are referring to.

I have an alternate ending for The Ramayana, as I cannot bear to see my favorite heroine vanish in this manner. As a writer who is admittedly nowhere near the stature of a Valmiki, a Kambar, or a Kalidasa, let me take some poetic license and rewrite the last sequence.

Sita is justifiably aghast at having to prove herself over and over to a cruel world that has put her through several trials….. To a world that is far beneath her calibre, that has demanded so much of her, yet gave so little emotionally. She has been kind,  faithful, and patient; yet she, a Goddess is being subjected to repeated trial by fire. The Forest where she was banished to, was witness to all her travails.

When Sita is put to the final test and calls out to Mother Earth in agony, the Forest obliges. The ground shakes violently, and Forest sends seeds scattering all over from its trees…… upon touching the ground, the seeds are blessed by Mother Earth to become Sita’s protectors. They sprout rapidly into trees, becoming Sita’s own forest, enclosing her protectively, away from the eyes of the world that did not deserve a Goddess like Sita. In this protective circle of trees, safe and secure in an unconditionally loving forest, Sita the Goddess lives on. Even now, when a woman at her wit’s end seeks refuge in the woods, Sita hears her prayer and gives her solace. The End.

***

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep!“*

Silence gives healing, and the trees give shelter in more ways than one. Many a weary traveler – in a manner of speaking – finds rest and refuge in these very woods. Beyond a certain point, do you ever wonder if we are simply traveling these miles for no reason? Perhaps the woods are our destination! In Hinduism, the last 25 years of life, assuming a 100-year span – are meant to be spent in the woods, in meditation and piety. Sannyasa Ashrama, where one lives like an ascetic, taking just enough from the Earth to survive, gradually detaching oneself from earthly desires and trappings, and preparing oneself for the final journey, towards the ultimate silence and deepest meditative state……


*From the poem “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening” by Robert Frost

Beyond Wrongdoing and Rightdoing

We meet many people  as we go through life – some we instantly click with and remain friends until one of us passes on; some we do not click with at all and hope to never meet again; some who are acquaintances but not real friends, some who are casual friends without any deeper connection.

Saddest are those relationships where there was once a true bond that for some reason has been severed. It could be any number of reasons: one person committed actions or said words in the heat of the moment; one person wished for a certain action to happen from the other but it never did and the person felt let down; or they both said and did things that were not well thought out.

Or it could be that third parties intervened to sever that bond – either by spreading canards about one person to the other to sever the relationship, or it could be a person’s possessive spouse or other relative who came in between two friends or siblings and made it a choice between themselves and the friend/sibling. We often see brother-sister relationships compromised when the brother gets married to an insecure woman. The insecure spouse tries her best to isolate the brother from his sister, and loving bonds of a lifetime are compromised. The brother may continue to love the sister and vice versa but they will never be allowed to bond in the future, because it has become an either/or situation or is presented as one.

Conversely, sometimes birth families get insecure with the entry of the spouse and never allow a spousal relationship to work – they intrude so much into the person’s marital life that such a life becomes impossible to sustain, and is eventually lost (painful is the situation where the couple has a child, who is an innocent caught in such cross-currents). The spouses may feel love for each other but aren’t allowed to bond because one spouse is too attached to their birth family and doesn’t have the strength to stand up to them.

Relationship severance caused by the third party involves two things: an insecure third party who works to break up the relationship, and a person who is not strong enough to balance relationships and draw boundaries on acceptable behavior.

Sometimes things don’t go as far as marriage – a couple in love breaks up before taking that step. The love can be strong and steadfast but there can never be a shared future because of differences that can never be bridged….

No matter what the root cause of an estrangement is, the estrangement happened. And barring a few cases where the erstwhile loved ones are able to reconcile  (or they are able to stand their ground and not allow a third party to come between them), the estrangement can never be undone in this lifetime.

***

What of the love that once was, though? That true bond that caused one to feel instant delight in seeing the other, and eagerly look forward to the next meeting? That bond that has so much shared history, and a connection beyond words? A connection forged out of intuiting the other’s needs and giving freely from the heart, that is now  lost? A bond that felt like a vital part of oneself….

Unless one is a person of extremes who can go from absolute love to absolute hate and steadfastly remain there, the relationship is buried deep in one’s heart in the form of a love and a yearning, as if for a phantom limb. Even if it is a person of extremes, they are probably hiding the pain of their loss in anger, believing that the anger will be their protective shield against being that vulnerable ever again.

Nothing and no one can replace the missing person in life. They played an important role in shaping us to be who we are, and one fine day that role is abruptly finished. Gone. Severed……We are now supposed to pick up and move on as if nothing has happened, as if the person never existed……Many of us go through life mourning some lost relationship(s).

There are days when memories return of the lost loved one and bring a smile to our faces – a bittersweet memory that is painful, yet preserved and cherished – like a crumbly rose within the pages of a book that still retains some of its beauty and fragrance, a rose that one is loath to part with. What does it matter what the relationship used to be? Friend, sibling, a lost love….In this journey we are all kindred spirits!

Many relationships are lost due to ego battles.

Years ago, I remember taking a small child to a museum. Child must have been around three then. The Natural History museum was a multi-storeyed one with many exhibits; one of the floors had a replica of a tropical rainforest with fake trees and animals. This is generally an area that greatly entertains younger children as they get to stop by and examine every animal and tree.

Deciding to take said child to this forest replica, I took child by the hand and boarded the elevator. Then I did a cardinal mistake – I punched the button to go to the appropriate floor, forgetting that this is a role the child in question normally took whenever we boarded elevators. This, coupled with the time being dangerously close to  nap time brought on a meltdown that didn’t abate even after we rode the elevator up and down many times, simply to let said child punch the button to the appropriate floor. The refrain was, “But I didn’t get to punch the elevator button that time!”

Three year olds can be physically carried elsewhere and distracted. Once they get preoccupied with something else, given some food, and some rest, they get back to being themselves again.

A child is able to fight it out in all earnestness, forget about it or apologize the next day, and return to playing with their friend or relative again. They can forget, forgive, seek forgiveness and make amends without any problem. They can also chuck past angry moments behind – there is too much to explore in life to waste it on anger and resentment.

As we grow older, the ego grows…..and in direct proportion grows one’s vulnerability. Some are more easily hurt than others, and tend to brood on grievances. They aren’t able to let go of past hurts, and use anger as their shield to protect themselves from future hurts. Unlike the child who can let go and give room for love, as we grow older we close our hearts and shut out our natural generosity to forgive and seek forgiveness. We become guarded and come to expect the worst, waiting for the other shoe to fall, and shielding ourselves from that fall by repeatedly recalling that one mistake….that one press of the elevator button that was missed!

In this I am not including those that deliberately manipulate and hurt a person – those who wear different masks for different occasions, and whose (simulated) feelings are motivated by expediency. We are better off guarding ourselves from the pathological users, chameleons, and opportunists. They are the politicians of our daily lives who appear every so often when they need something…..In Tamil there is a saying that loosely translates to “when they need something, they fall at your feet; when the need is done with, they go for your throat”. Best to keep such people at a distance.

I’m talking about the average bumbling person X who makes mistakes and hurts unintentionally. The injured person Y may assume that the hurt was intentional and then retaliate, wounding X. Now X becomes angry and says or does more stupid things. Soon things get out of hand and relations break.

In an alternate scenario, X may make an inadvertent mistake, wounding Y. Y brings this up to X and the latter, instead of apologizing and making amends, sees it as a slight to their ego: “You pointed out my mistake!”. X then uses anger to cover up their mistake, because they cannot come down from their lofty peak to apologize – the act of apologizing is seen as something putting them in a one-down position. They don’t even want to make amends, because this would mean admitting the mistake even to themselves, which is also wounding to the ego. It takes a secure person to apologize and those with fragile egos are insecure, and apologizing feels like compromising their standing. So they use smokescreens and gaslighting.

Techniques such as reversing cause and effect are used. Y may have done something in retaliation for what X did. But X says Y did the (retaliatory) action and that is why X acted in the (original) wounding manner – this is nothing but gaslighting.

Another technique used is victim-shaming:  “You deserve what I said or did because…..”. When the injured party protests, X replies in a more grievous way, compounding their mistake. Things go downhill from there. When push comes to shove, some ego-driven Xs are insincere apologizers who apologize in a way that is not an apology at all. It could be a breezy “sorry!”, or the classic phrase “I am sorry but….” with a clause that completely nullifies the apology and attacks the person they are apologizing to.  President Clinton’s televised apology to the nation at Lewinskygate comes to mind.  Ego is the death of many relationships.

It is also tough to apologize to someone who holds onto grudges and can never let go. One can never be sorry enough, apologetic enough, make up enough. They have elephantine memories of every slight, perceived or real. The relationship can never be mended because of a desire to punish the apologizer that is lurking in their minds.

Sometimes the  only way to get out of a tough situation is through it. When X wounds Y and either realizes it or is made to realize it, the sooner amends are made, the better. The apology needs to be said sincerely and directly, and amends need to be made. If the wounded party is not in a spirit of reconciliation, it doesn’t matter. We can only make the effort……the results are not up to us. The apology frees us from negative feelings, and if the aggrieved party realizes it one day and makes up to us, our door is open. If the aggrieved party is vengeful, then we try to distance ourselves while still keeping the door open (tough to do!).

What if we are the aggrieved party? What if our heart and soul have been so wounded that we fear we will be wounded in the same manner once again, and won’t have the strength to withstand it….? This is a tough one. The thought process goes like this: it took a while to get up and get going, and took all our strength to bring us to our new normal…..What if we are pushed down again?  It is our choice whether to trust again, to forgive, and to let go……or not. To evaluate whether the cost of losing the relationship forever is worth it or not.

Perhaps if we are the aggrieved party, we could move forward by accepting the apology, and guardedly allowing the person back into our lives, assuming the apology is heartfelt. Or if that is too much, we can accept the apology but honestly state that things can never  be the same again. Because some wounds are too deep and in time may heal with some self-care – or never fully heal. A cloth once torn can be stitched but will never be whole again…..

Wish we all had the mind of a child in this regard – to forgive and move on because life is too short to hold onto resentments. But as adults, the stakes are higher, and wounds are deeper….And our mind loses the elasticity to forgive, forget and move on.

Those who come with the courage to seek forgiveness when such forgiveness is necessary, and to have the generous heart to give forgiveness when such is sincerely sought, are able to move on and re-establish relationships. For this, both parties should be game. If egos are strong, or if anger continues to be used as a shield, there can be no reconciliation.

***

But the love remains – as a truth in one’s heart……. and the hurt of the severed relationship remains buried deep within the soul. As years pass, one may forget who was right and who was wrong, and realize perhaps that they were both wrong. But by this time, too much water has flowed under the bridge and the chasm is too wide.

In the end, when we cease to exist or are close to that point, rights and wrongs become meaningless. All that matters is love…and love is the only constant. Shorn of the trappings of this world, we will perhaps meet somewhere as pure spirits, kindred spirits….and it will be a moment filled with pure love and light.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense”

– Maulana Jelaluddin Rumi

The Empath’s Refuge

One of my favorite songs is “Listen with your heart” from the film Pocahontas. Years after  I watched the film, the imagery is still stuck in my mind – of a young and confused Pocahontas fleeing to the woods, rowing her boat deeper and deeper into the waters of a river to seek refuge in a tree that she calls Grandmother Willow. The tree with its soft sighing breezes, offers comfort in the form of this song.

Sometimes that is all it takes. Whether it is handling an intransigent child, a student who may not be opening up to their difficulty in a subject, whether it is facing challenging circumstances – if we can find that wood, that clear water, and preferably have a Grandmother Willow waiting with infinite patience and wisdom – there can be a small personal oasis of peace, far from the madding crowd.

Those of us who are Empaths need that solace. I seek mine in long hikes – just thinking of a walk in the woods energizes me. Today as I waited in a doctor’s office with a family member who was ill, I chanced upon a hiking magazine. Was so engrossed reading it that I finally asked the front desk if they will let me take it – seeing as it was at least a 3 month old edition. They let me, and I walked out with a smile, feeling like I had won a prize.

***

The Empaths among us are the classic rescuers, who can sense distress and pain in others, and immediately reach out to help. The distress is sensed without having to speak a word.

People are good at different things – some naturally good with their hands, who can build structures without even thinking….these are the people who can solve a complex 1000-piece puzzle with relative ease leaving the rest of us in the dust; some are artists with a photographic memory who can translate their mental images to canvas deftly and beautifully; some have exceptional athletic abilities that defy the laws of Physics. Sensing trouble and reaching out to help is the Empath’s special gift.

Regardless of whether they are good with speech, Empaths are oriented towards healing and bringing comfort to others. They feel like natural harbors to people in an uncertain world, and elicit confessions from people that they would normally not share with anyone else. Some even attract troubled or sick animals and give comfort. Their intuition is so finely tuned that they are able to help those who cannot express themselves in words. Someone I know has a special connection with children with mental and cognitive problems and a way to calm them down – she had this ability even as a very young child! Those around the Empath see them as someone to lean on, and come to them when they need solace from the problems of the world.

The Empaths  immediately jump in to take on the role of Grandmother Willow, but without her wisdom and without the ability to stay rooted to the spot, observing the changing currents in the river, gently bending to the harsh winds and bowing to the breezes but staying essentially unchanged even if slightly ruffled. Grandmother Willow is a true gnani … A lot can be learned by observation and detachment, but alas! such is not the way of most humans.

The currents push the Empath into a river of constant action and they lose themselves in it. They get into a problem-solving mode, drawing from the strength of their intuition that has helped them through the years, and try to tackle whatever problem there is to the best of their ability. Their focus is on finding a solution and all else blurs into the background. They own the feelings of the person they are trying to help, and help navigate them through these turbulent feelings. They become shock-absorbers and do all they can to protect those they are trying to help and do not stop until they find a solution. Once the problem is resolved, and the person with the problem goes away happy, the Empath’s job is done and they feel a sense of accomplishment. Now they can sit back with a happy smile and take a deep breath. Solving a problem is a win for both the Empath and those they choose to help. It serves their natural purpose in the world.

In time, more problems come their way and they drop everything and try to solve them again, forgetting their own needs. The last bit is the Empath’s undoing – because these healers and comforters rarely pause to find healing and comfort for themselves. They are absolutely terrible about asking for help, fearing that needing or asking for help will unnecessarily put others through trouble – which is the last thing they want to do! They hate to cause the slightest inconvenience to others while taking a lot of pummeling themselves. The reality is that, they need time and space to recharge before they go into problem-solving mode.

If this re-energizing happens on a regular basis, then they function quite well as they can find their intuition rather easily and they can navigate through some very involved situations. But if this doesn’t happen, more and more energy gets depleted, and the once smiling-face starts to snap at people. The sincerity of action and the desire to help is still there, but there is no more joy in it. There is also guilt associated with the irritability they have been feeling in their depleted state, and the anger turns inward; stress builds to unbearable levels and it starts to result in breathlessness, anxiety, fatigue and some odd aches and pains.  Extreme Empaths who also repress negative feelings to present a cool front and protect others, get afflicted by stress-induced illnesses including high blood pressure, heart issues, and even cancer.

The Empaths being the carers of others ironically often do not get care from others….the worse irony is that these creatures of feeling and intuition, who can pick up others’ needs and feelings wordlessly – get treated as if they were robots who have no feelings, needs or desires of their own! Those who function as boats for others to navigate some very choppy waters can get left behind with nary a look after one is done with the navigation. The world can be a very insensitive place indeed.

So, what is the way forward for an Empath? Tough to answer… Perhaps it is not just listening with their heart, it maybe listening to their heart and tending to themselves any way they could. Sometimes, it can be pretending ignorance of something: for, capability comes with a price…..people think you are capable, so you can handle it. They throw you more, you handle more. They throw you still more, and you try to fit it all in. At one point all of this swallows one whole and one has to find a way to burrow out of this pile and find oneself. Perhaps feigning ignorance is a way to prevent oneself from getting drained by users! But a true Empath cannot stay in this mode for long. Sooner or later, their desire to rescue will get in the way.

Another solution maybe to seek out other Empaths and get some self-care that way…. Having a steady and rock-solid network of friends who can serve as sounding boards to bounce off ideas and to keep one’s sanity. A kind word here, some appreciation there – with one taking the role of Grandmother Willow while the other talks, and then switching roles after a while.

I have been told that Pranayama and Yoga help a lot in restoring one’s balance. I have tried this, and it helps for a while – but my spirit is too restless for it. What helps is surrounding oneself with nature, and silence. Hiking in the woods on uneven terrain, focusing only on the next step one has to take so that one can – literally – keep one’s balance, allowing the gentle breezes to caress one’s body and soothe the mind feels like meditation to me. A single hike can give comfort for an entire week.

I have read that even spending a few hours in nature can spur one’s creativity, as the mind stills. Truly, there is very little a human being needs. Rishis knew something the average human doesn’t: that peace can be found in silence, and in the woods. In silence, the mind rests and recovers.

Perhaps Grandmother Willow was once a seedling that drifted along a river, being dashed against rocks and bouncing along the waves before finding firm ground to anchor herself in. To grow and branch out….and in time, flourish into an old growth tree sheltering several forms of life, providing respite and refuge to all who seek such, while standing firm in the face of wind, hail, and rain. Minimizing one’s wants, having the Earth fulfill all one’s needs, bending and swaying gently to the changing winds yet staying grounded and observing everything.

Is this even possible? The thought does feel comforting however, that such a state can be aimed for…..perhaps a start in this journey is to listen with your heart, and to your heart.

The Unsung Heroes of our Lives

When someone asks a person who their role model is, many talk about public figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., or Dr.Kalam. Some will mention their parents, grandparents, or a certain teacher who brought out the best in them. Yet others will talk about a celebrity, a sports person or filmstar that they have admired over the years.

I’ve often heard that it takes a village to raise a child (I’m not counting some legal adults in this category who continue to be immature long after childhood is over – to bring those unwilling souls kicking and screaming into adulthood, I don’t know – maybe an army is required?). But the elders in this figurative village are rarely feted for the crucial role in one’s development into a functioning and productive adult. The role maybe small in the span of years and experiences, but the timely influence and effect is long-lasting.

I want to mention here someone who is often in my thoughts, though I haven’t communicated with her in years (and the fault is entirely mine!). This is a petite lady who is perhaps 5 feet tall, no college education – yet a wisdom, strength and inner grace that would put many in my generation to shame.

***

Kamakshi Maami (Maami in Tamil means ‘aunt’) came into my life when I must have been a year old. She was my aunt’s tenant in an old traditional home in Coimbatore – I don’t exactly know how she is related to us. She lived in that little two or three room rental home with her husband and three children, two of whom were special-needs children.

I apparently used to play with her middle child, a daughter, as a baby. She tended to her home, husband and children with a smile, and had a smile and a kind word for everyone. No sugar-coating truths from her, though: she will call a spade a spade and you will not see any fear or hesitation in her while doing so!

Those were times before television – not much electronic entertainment outside the radio. Times when homes were small and bonds were strong. So despite the changes in lives such as moves, job changes of my father, and my aunt selling her home and moving to Chennai, Maami remained in our lives. Maami and her husband (whom we called Maama, for uncle in Tamil) bought a home in Coimbatore and moved there. They did not have a telephone, but somehow our families kept in touch. Ironic, considering how many means of communications we have in this day and age, and yet how even immediate family members become distant and uncommunicative, lost in their own worlds! We have the means to connect now, and yet this is an age of lost connections! But I digress.

When I got a seat in an engineering college in Coimbatore, the first person my father reached out to was Kamakshi Maami. We visited them after visiting the college, and she became my guardian at my father’s request. By this time, Maami had lost both of her special needs children, and her older son had moved to work in a different city.

She cheerfully took on my guardianship, giving me a place to stay in the first week of college, and letting me transition to hostel life at my own pace. I helped her out in the kitchen, and at night, Maami and I shared a room while Maama slept in another room. We slept on mats on the floor, and in the morning the mats would be rolled up and the room re-purposed into a sitting room. There were foldable chairs, and a bench. Traditional Indian families made efficient use of even small homes and didn’t clutter up space with bulky beds – often people had mats or mattresses, that would be laid out on the floor at bedtimes, and rolled up afterwards. No wasting space!  Maami, despite becoming a home-owner, still maintained a simple lifestyle and had leased out a portion of her home to another family. Maama had retired by then. She still lived in three rooms.

Maami was an excellent cook, and a tireless person in general. She would walk to the market around 2 kms each way, and bargain with the vegetable vendors. This was a new ritual for me, who had grown accustomed to going everywhere in a car that my father’s company provided for our use. Never before had I walked any distance over a half kilometer.

Maami  would rise early, bathe and cook wonderful meals, all the while praying to her gods. She would feed her husband first along with me and a distant cousin who stayed with her (who was in the same college but in the men’s hostel). I once asked how my cousin was related to her; she mentioned that he was the son of her second or third cousin from her native village. I asked how she kept track of all her relatives, and her simple answer was: “In my generation, we don’t measure distances in relationships”.  What a profound statement that is, thinking about it now. These days when families became nuclear, there is so much talk about me and mine, and near relations becoming distant or incommunicado, the statement of a wise woman from my yesteryear gives me goosebumps!

I remember accompanying Maami to a temple in RS Puram, the deity being the Goddess Kamakshi. I asked her once what she prayed for so fervently and she said she never asks the Goddess for anything, as the Goddess knows when and how to provide. The answer remains with me to this day.

Maami had some magical potions for everyday illnesses. When I found myself with any kind of respiratory ailment, I would walk to her house and tell her my ailment. She would let me sleep at her house, and make me a Kashayam in the morning, to be drunk first thing on an empty stomach. She put some herbs and spices to it: tulasi, pepper, coriander seeds, jaggery – I forget what else, and in what proportion. But whatever the ailment was, it would be greatly reduced in a couple of hours, and totally gone in a couple of days!

I lived in the college hostel for the most part, but at the first sign of homesickness, I would be at her doorstep, and she would take me in. She was my surrogate mother in those years, even though I did not realize it then. The thought of her tender loving care in the years that I sorely needed it, and did not know I needed it, fills me with gratitude.

Today in my middle age, having faced ups and downs in life I look back and wonder at her serenity. How did she maintain her balance, after raising two special needs children who were so cruelly taken away from her? How did she find such a deep well of love and how did she keep it nourished, making statements about not measuring distances in relationships? How did she live with such equanimity and maintain the same lifestyle, while living in a small rental home and after becoming a homeowner? I wonder at her energy in maintaining her connections and helping everyone, no matter what her challenges were in life. Her generosity of spirit, and her taking people like me and my cousin under her wing, and correcting the youngsters when we needed that correction, with a sternness and concern that can only come from a genuine heart.

Some days I feel shame that I let the course of life take over my time and energy so much that I did not make the effort to connect with her. I met her once or twice in all these years, and not more than a few minutes on each occasion. Besides exchanging greetings, I did not have words to express my gratitude. I have procrastinated about calling her because I have no words to explain why I did not call her all these years. I think of her often, even though I never had words to say what was on my mind.

But today I found the words, however ineffective and insufficient. “Thank you, dear Maami for being in my life. Your presence greatly enriched it, and I have a lot to thank you for. Your habits shaped my life, and some of my passions. To this day I don’t hesitate to walk long distances, or live simply because I have observed you during those formative years. Hiking is one of my passions now, because those walking days gave me courage to try longer distances. Thanks to you, I don’t hesitate to reach out to children who may need my help – you did it through sheltering me, and I am doing this by mentoring children who need a mentor. And please forgive me, Maami, for being so inept at keeping in touch. You are and will always be in my heart no matter where I am”.