“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Dog's Prayer

Among my acquaintances and relatives there are those who love dogs ardently, those who tolerate them, those who look at dogs as mere utility for security, those who are scared of dogs and finally those who detest dogs. There are a few who became dog lovers after meeting Tommy. I have mentioned elsewhere how he would win their love and trust.

As a devout dog-lover, I have a good collection of books on dogs. About the numerous breeds, dog care, dogs and man etc, etc. Yesterday, I came across a wonderful book on dog care in my friend Dr Srinivasan’s house. ‘A Vet’s Guide to Dog Care’, by Dr S P Beri, Orient Paperbacks, New Delhi, 1997. I believe I have a good nose for books. I look at the last pages, where he has dealt with diseases. I wince in pain reading about tumors, remembering Tommy. If only I had read this earlier, I would have noticed the symptoms and perhaps got it effectively treated. He passed away on April 23rd, the cancer causing multiple organ failure.

In the opening page, you find this ‘dog’s prayer’. I hope Dr Beri wouldn’t mind it if I quote the prayer here. This is for all the dogs I have known in my life and also for those readers who are yet to befriend dogs. It is not sentimental mush. It is about love, faith, trust, forgiveness – and the happiness that dogs bring to one’s life. You see, nothing else matter. Perhaps some of that will rub off on to us.

A Dog’s Prayer

Treat me kindly, my beloved master,
for no heart in all the world is more grateful for kindness than mine.

Your patience and understanding will quickly teach me the things you would have me do. Speak to me often, for your voice is the world’s sweetest music, as you must know
by the fierce wagging of my tail when your footstep falls upon my waiting ear.

When it is cold and wet, take me inside. I ask no more than the privilege
of sitting at your feet beside the hearth.

Keep my pan filled with fresh water and feed me clean food that I may stay well
to romp and play and do your bidding, to walk by your side and stand
ready, willing and able to protect you with my life should your life be in danger.

And when I am very old, if the Great Master sees fit to deprive me of my health and sight, do not turn away. Rather, take my trusting life gently and I shall leave you,
knowing with the last breath I draw, my fate was always safest in your hands.

******** Balachandran, Trivandrum 30.07.2010

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Perhaps the key word of existence of life is ‘relation’. ‘Web of life’, ‘interconnectedness’, ‘symbiosis’, ‘mutualism’ and such other similar phrases indicate the same thing; that no being can exist independent of others.

K gives me short ‘missed calls’ in my cell phone so that I should call him back. Either P or I talk to him every day. Our main concern is his health, whether he is eating well, not junk food but a properly balanced diet with fruits and vegetables. Fortunately K doesn’t get irritated over our same questions day after day and patiently replies, ‘Yes, yes’.

Now that he is away, P and I have resigned to our dull routine. We miss him all the time; the pain is most at dinner time. With every morsel, either of us would say, Aaah!! What would he be eating now? Probably Maggi noodles!’

The other day when K called, I asked him how goes his studies. He said, ‘Great! Acha, you see, I can RELATE to all this, you know? Suicide, Aggression, abnormal behavior – and in sociology, things like family, kinship – I can understand all this and I want to learn more. That Physics and Mathematics! Formulae and theorems! Whew!’ In an afterthought he adds- ‘You know, many of my friends who have taken up engineering or medicine did so just because their parents wanted them to. They are not keen on it but have no other choice. I am damn lucky.’

K is grateful that I helped him choose his course of life early enough. I think I must have started on the subject when he was in 8th or 9 th standard. Like most children of his age, he vaguely wanted to be several things and was unable to focus on one course. P and I would have loved it if he took after us, with wildlife biology and nature conservation. In his boyhood there were trips to the wild, bird watching and wildlife surveys. But his enthusiasm was damp. K is an average, normal boy and has never exhibited any eccentric or extraordinary talent in any particular field. Western music was the only thing he was keen about. But by the time he was in the 10th standard we narrowed down, not to what he wanted his future to be but what he did not want his future to be. This reverse process of selection was easier. Like – ‘Do you want a career in banking, like me, dealing all the time with money?’ ‘NO’. ‘What about the Army, etc?’ ‘No, nothing to do with physical violence’. ‘What about own business?’ ‘YUK!’ . One day he said, ‘Acha, many boys come to me talking about their problems and asking advice. I am kinda the unofficial counselor’. I knew he had a level head, but counseling at 15? But that seems to have been the genesis of his interest in Psychology.

I am talking about relating. Whether it is a matter of choosing future career or wife or friend, the key thing is to ask oneself – can I relate to this? It might be utterly unorthodox, cock-eyed – but if you can connect to it, whatever ups and downs you may have, you are more likely to flourish. Of course, it is expected that you should be sensitive to recognize this connectedness. Most people are able to connect to their immediate circles like friends and relatives, but I am sure even if it is for a short while, they too can connect to nature, birds, animals, plants and yes, even other human beings, of different religions or nations. You see, another word for relating is, LOVE.

************** Balachandran, Trivandrum 29.07.2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Refuge – An Unnatural History of Family and Place - Terry Tempest Williams

In the northern part of the state of Utah in United States is the largest salt lake in the western hemisphere, covering an average area of 4400 km2, known as the Great Salt Lake. Great Salt Lake is the remnant of Lake Bonneville; a great Ice Age Lake that rose dramatically from a small saline lake 30,000 years ago. There are many islands in the lake. In spite of its high salinity, the lake supports numerous species of birds and other wildlife. Great Salt Lake area offers one of the most spectacular natural sceneries. The lake is landlocked and fed by three major rivers and several streams.

Utah is also home to the largest Mormon communities in the country, having settled here in the mid 1800s. Utah is also site to above ground atomic testing that took place during 1951 to 1962. Utah is home to the author Terry Tempest Williams.

In human life a continuum can be recognized that extends from oneself to one’s family to one’s surroundings and finally extending and encompassing the universe. One of the tragedies of modern humanity is that it has forgotten to realize this fact. The result is alienation from oneself, one’s family, the nature that supports our life and ultimately a disconnection with the cosmos.

Naturalist, conservationist, ornithologist and author of award winnings books, Terry Tempest Williams in her book The Refuge, weaves the story of connections. Primarily, the book is about the ecology of Great Salt Lake and its major group of life, the birds. The descriptions and the mood that her words create can be matched only by the haunting, vast landscape of the Lake. Interwoven through the high and low tides of the lake is the story of her family, especially her mother and grandmother who have been afflicted with cancer. Just as the birds of the lake survive and sometimes succumb to the fluctuations of the floods, so does the author and her family, with the trauma of illness and the joy of love and acceptance of life. The cancer that eats into the bodies of her family and herself is the result of the nuclear bomb testing. In a frenzy called the Cold War, the American government methodically bombed the land. The then Atomic Energy Commissioner said – “Gentlemen, we must not let anything interfere with this series of tests, nothing.” The people were told – “we find no basis for concluding that harm to any individual has resulted from radioactive fallout.” A suit filed against the government was quashed by the nation’s Supreme Court ruling that the ‘United States was protected by the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity. Irene Allen who filed the suit said that –“if my testimony could help in any way so this wouldn’t happen again to any of the generations coming after us …” There is a bitter universality to this. Governments, of the people, by the people and for the people, acts against the people themselves. This story repeats over and over, across the history of mankind.

The overwhelming account of bird life and its observation might be slightly tedious to the lay reader. But the strange birds could be that of anywhere in the world. It is the history of nature, once unruffled, now torn to shreds by humans.

What sets the book apart is not the above politics, but the intimate understanding of a landscape and the family the author loves so much. With maturity and wisdom, in this narrative of dying and surmounting the pain of death, that of nature and womanhood, Williams show how one can accept life with spiritual grace. As an African woman asks Williams- “You Americans, why is death always such a surprise to you? Don’t you understand that dance and the struggle are the same?”

************* Balachandran V balanpnb@gmail.com

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

In love with books

In the weeks that followed my surgery, unable to move around and in pain, time passed for me watching TV or reading. In the first few days, I watched TV more than reading. One could shut down one’s mind and stare at the world rolling out till eyes ached. But, soon I switched over to reading.

There was a time, in my youth when I wouldn’t be seen without a book. But when in mid-40s, I had to wear glasses and the lure of TV and Internet overpowered the love for reading, my reading took a downward turn. Whereas I used to visit bookshops at least once a week, I hardly bought new books. If at all I read, it would be for reference for a project or article or some such purpose. Reading for pure pleasure never occurred anymore.

Well, all that is past! Nothing like reading for soothing nerves and stimulating brain! Now, every evening after limping back home from work, I close the doors of my room, pummel the pillows to a comfortable shape and with a sigh of great satisfaction, open a book.

Couple of weeks ago while on leave, I engaged myself in one of my favourite activities – tidying up books. Shelf by shelf, they were brought out, dusted, thought about, pages flipped through and kept back with affection. Camphor tablets were strewn liberally to ward off insects.

I was aghast to note that there were several books untouched and unread. I wondered how I had missed reading them! But then, there had been too many distractions, I guess. One such book I had hardly read was The Picador Nature Reader. Of course, I had read a few pieces and then had totally forgotten it.

Picador Nature Reader is one of the best anthologies on nature writing. There are works of non-fiction, fiction and poetry, written by naturalists, biologists, and laymen. Writers like Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Loren Eiseley, Terry Tempest Williams, Richard k Nelson, E O Wilson, Peter Mattheissen, Gary Snyder and a host of others. How observant, how sensitive these writers are! No photographer could match with their skills of creating verbal images! No philosopher could eulogize life and humanity like they did! I am stunned and humbled by their eloquence, their magic with words, the loftiness of their thoughts! Observation, narration and reflection are some of the key skill areas for a writer. And these writers excelled in these skills.

At the end of the book, many of the writers had given lists of books on natural history and nature writing that they admired. Pouring over the lists, I narrowed down a few books (I had some, would have loved to have all) and with all the excitement that I used to have long ago, clicked away at flipkart.com or bookadda.com and bought 4 books. Oh my! The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley, The Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, The Island Within by Richard K Nelson ( I love this guy!) and The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louve.

About each of them, later. What I wanted to share here is my love for books. One area I am not keen is physical sciences. I am totally out of depth there.

In the bookstalls, in the libraries that I haunt, I sometimes pause and gaze in awe at the rows and rows of books. Just imagine the energy that has gone into the creation of these millions of books! People over centuries, from far and wide across the world, in cities, in villages, in crowded apartments, in lonely hermitages have sat brooding and thinking and writing, pouring their minds onto paper and compute screens. Let whatever be the subject, whatever be the quality of the writing, each is a creative effort. Only when one sits down to write something that he can understand the pain and pleasure of expressing oneself through words.

And what better topic than Nature to write about! It abounds in and around us. We look at it from within and without, as its part, as a detached observer. At home, now as I write, a Shikra perches on a tree limb just outside my window, relishing a rat. He glances at me enquiringly, unafraid. I tell him, don’t, don’t move. I just want to look at you.

******************* Balachandran, Trivandrum 21.07.2010

Saturday, July 3, 2010

'On the Mindless menace of violence'

The following is from a speech given by Senator Robert F Kennedy on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. I find so relevant, so poignant, so meaningful even now, after 42 years. Senator Kennedy himself was assassinated.

I wish people would read this. And reflect on it. Nothing more.

"On the Mindless Menace of Violence" is a speech given by Robert F. Kennedy in City Club of Cleveland on April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity, my only event of today, to speak briefly to you about the mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.

It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one - no matter where he lives or what he does - can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.

Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by an assassin's bullet.

No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason.

Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.

"Among free men," said Abraham Lincoln, "there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs."

Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.

Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach non-violence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.

Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all.

I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

courtesy: Wikipedia