Monthly Archives: February 2017

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”

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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