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

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Flight of the Seagull

Last week when I went to Eranakulam, I dived into my favourite joint there - the secondhand bookshop that has been my solace in the last one year. Digging, burrowing, overturning hundreds of books, I delve deep into the mass of printed pages bound. Just being there, among the works of hundreds of writers, on books varying from Abstract Art to Zoology, gives me immense pleasure and peace. Most of them are fiction, romance and thrillers, books for children, on cuisine, on computers, on gardening or on religion. I bury myself among the books on nature. I am still in the search for books on Himalayas- which I had written about sometime back.

Among the books piled up, I occasionally come across books that I already have at home. It is like meeting old friends. I smile fondly at them and wonder whether I should buy them, perhaps to give as a gift to someone. What better gift there can be to your loved ones, than a book you love? And then, hard bound with a plastic jacket, labelled Rs.30/- lay Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

In one of the glass-cased bookshelves at home, on the top row among my most favorites rests J L Seagull. The frontispiece carry my sprawling, long signature with a date - 28/Jan/78. I bought it at Trivandrum for Rs.10/-. Richard Bach's JLS is one of the books that has profoundly influenced me all my life. I might never become another Jonathan, but I will wish to be, till I die.

1978. I had completed my graduation, joined for PG and was going through a crisis; in fact, several crises in different fronts. Looking back, I realize I am not much different from the person I was then, a boy of 21; about the age K is now.

Jonathan is a Seagull who wants to fly, for the sake of flying. "Why, Jon, why?", asked his mother. "Why is it so hard to be like the rest of the flock?" "Don't you know that the reason you fly is to eat?", asked his father. Jonathan is banished from his flock for his irresponsible behaviour. Jonathan beseeches to his elders - How much more there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there’s reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly! Who is more responsible that a gull who finds and follows a meaning, a higher purpose for life? For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have reason to live - to learn, to discover, to be free! Give me a chance, let me show you what I have found!" The outcast is alone, flying, flying all the time, perfecting his skill.

The son of a close friend of mine wants to take a break. He has good openings for a career in a field he likes, the movies. His father has good contacts and all he needs to say is yes. Yet he asked for a year - to experiment in theatre. He says if he fails, he will come back. We advise him how foolish it is to lose one year at this stage of life. Build your career now, forget theatre, it is not going to fetch you money. Yet he is determined to go. I admire his courage. I admire his conviction. I admire the quiet confidence that he has, to take risks. To listen and to act to the call of your soul is not something meant for ordinary mortals.

In 1978, I had contemplated on joining a mission in the northeast. I had visions only I could see. I had lost out - in studies, in career, in love life. I applied to the Vivekananda Kendra asking them to take me in as a social worker in Arunachal Pradesh. They gracefully replied to me, asking me to make sure that this is the life I want. They said - do not join us if you are unhappy with your present life, but only if you love the work we do. This is not an escape, but a reality with all the harshness of the life of a monk. Join us when you have no regrets about your present and only happiness about your future.

How could a boy of 21 know his mind? There are the fortunate who could, but I wasn't one among them. I still am not. I was, I am, too stuck in the mud, too afraid to break out of the comforts of the present into the unknown of the future. Maybe I am just one of the gulls sitting in a corner of that windswept beach, neither among the flock nor with Jonathan flying high, high in the sky. I look up at the blue sky and I see Jonathan flying with his silvery wings, above the clouds, above the winds and storms.

I bought the copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull - it is a discard from a school library somewhere in the UK. I couriered it to K in Bangalore. K is flapping his wings too, testing the air.

********** Balachandran V, Trivandrum 29.07.2012

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Lotus-eater

    P and I were casually talking about some of her relatives; this couple who are quite close to us and are absolutely great people to be with - both in their late fifties, their daughters, professionals, happily married and settled. The one word that comes to my mind to describe them is - elegant. The couple has this aura of gentle charm of true-blue aristocrats, has easy-going manners. They put you at ease straight away - that is one real quality of goodness in people. Right from the time of our marriage 22 years ago, I had liked this couple very much; though never keen on socializing, I was always happy to spend time with them. Both were professional bankers; both took VRS ( Voluntary retirement) when they found the stress of their jobs too much to handle and now lived quietly, content, spending time among their place in Kochi, and the daughters' in the US and elsewhere.

   Contemplating on VRS myself, I said - ' Look at Chettan - he is happily spending his life, reading and travelling and just being himself'. P replied - ' Oh yeah, he was always a 'Sukhimaan'. I would translate the word Sukhimaan to Lotus-eater. My Malayalee readers might help me with a better word.

   It reminded me of the old joke about the 'Development/ progress' - obsessed American meeting the Indian farmer, relaxing beneath a tree, playing a flute and enjoying the breeze. Don't you want development, the American asks, we will give you money to buy cows. Interested, the Indian farmer asked - Good, what then? 'You can make more money and then you will be able to have your own farm'. Wow, this is great! What then? 'You can make more money and buy cars and build big houses'. Awesome, says the farmer, sitting up, tell me more. 'And then', said the American, 'you will have so much money that you can relax and live happily ever after'. The Indian farmer leant back and took up the flute. He smied and said - Thats exactly what I am doing now.

   There is a short story by Maugham, 'The Lotus Eater'.  The protagonist in the story is a banker!  Maugham, like Hemingway and Shute, shaped my interest in English literature. 

   But more than the word Sukhimaan, P's intonation was loaded with meaning - it was an accusation. That stung me. I asked her what is wrong with being a sukhimaan. We are not talking about laziness, of indolence, but of someone in his mid-fifties deciding to take it easy. He opted out of the rat race, of the stress that was affecting his physical and mental health - he just retired. He might be making less money, he may not have a 'status' now, no authority, no influence, no domination, no pomp and postion. But he is happy. Is it a crime not having to struggle, not to suffer, not to take up huge responsibilities, not to be stressed? What is the purpose, the ultimate goal of our lives, the very meaning of existence, if it is not the pursuit of happiness? Why do we envy those who have stopped pursuing happiness and have realised that happiness is not a goal at the farthest end of horizon but is right here, at this moment?

  'Moreover', I told P - 'take that barb out of your mouth.'

********** Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 22-07-2012

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Phases of Life

Crow with phases of moon: Painting by Nancy Denommee

Sometimes I think that  our life is full of cliche'-s. Not only in our conversations, but the whole exercise of living is cliche' -ed. It is when we try to break out of the cliche'-s that we find pleasure and happiness in life. Otherwise our lives remain, as B said, fatuous, mundane and insignificant. Yet sometimes these cliche'-s when uttered in the right situations, reveal to us the doors to meaningful existence.

J called me yesterday night. He is in his early forties. J is a colleague of mine in the Bank. Years ago, he had stayed at our outhouse while working in Trivandrum. Though a Malayalee, he had lived most of his life in North India. J is an exemplary chap. He is a great friend, but since we worked in different branches and he moved away to other places on transfer, our friendship could not develop further intimacy. We kept in touch; in the occasional hello-s, the warmth and affection in our relationship was kept alive.

J is in Patiala now. We asked after each other's family, our rides (J had once done the Ladakh trip on a Scooter!) and our work. I told him that I was now in Alleppey and felt miserable being away from Parvati and Trivandrum. Sensing my dejection, J immediately said- ' No No No, don't worry, it'll pass, it is just a phase of life, it'll pass'.

While trekking in the mountains, one of the unforgettable memories is about water. After a tiring stretch, one would be panting and leaning on to the walking stick; legs would be wobbly; knees would be almost tearing apart. And then you suddenly see this small gush of water, falling from a height, running down through a little forest of green bushes and all you have to do is to press your face against it and the icy water would be cascading over your head, blurring your eyes and trickling down to the insides of your jacket. You fill your hat with the water and put it over your head. Bliss.

When J was at Trivandrum, he used to bring his wife and son occasionally from his native place - Tiruvalla. His wife had terminal cancer and had to undergo radiation therapy at the Regional Cancer Centre. I remember her, the pallu of her sari draped over head. She was so frail and weak. Yet I remember the way she smiled at me, while J held her close. I remember the love that shone in J's eyes. J's wife passed away soon. J would have been in his early thirties at that time, but he never remarried. His only son has now completed his Plus Two and wants to study architecture.

A phase of life. I was silent over the phone for a moment, remembering all that, and how J has lived through so much pain. I remembered all those who have borne much suffering and yet survived another day. I closed my eyes and felt the cool, soothing stream running down and was at peace. The journey was not yet over.

************** Balachandran V, Trivandrum 15.07.2012

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Cup of Tea

Just  meters away from the entrance of Alleppey railway station stand a few shops; among them a little tea shop where I often have my tea. There is a tree beside the shop; it is a little one, offering cover more than shade. 

My cup of tea came and I grimaced at the taste; I don't take much sugar in it. As I took a sip, I saw someone standing behind the little tree. He was a tramp; could  not be more than 40 or so, filthily attired, his unkempt hair and beard matted with dirt.  I looked at him, our eyes met and he lowered his.  I took another sip and glanced at him. His eyes reminded me of the countless stray dogs - meek, wary and in the hierarchy of living beings, the lowest, the pariah.  Like a tentative wag of the tail, he managed to smile at me - and gestured - oru chaaya - a cup of tea.  

Call me heartless, but I am not the kind who give alms to beggars. Because most of them belong to beggar mafia; they are organised and controlled by goons. Every evening they have to give their collection to the leader. I know; I have talked to many of the beggars. But of course, occasionally I do part with a rupee or two, just because I could not turn my face away.  The beggars exploit this weakness, this guilty feeling we have. .

It had been drizzling. I looked at the tramp once again. In his eyes, the way he looked at me, sipping my hot tea, I could see that at  that moment nothing would be more pleasurable to him than a hot cup of tea. 

I ask the tea shop owner if he can give the tramp a cup of tea.  He hands over tea in a paper cup.  I hold the cup and look at the tramp; he doesn't move.  I keep it by the side of a ledge slightly away from where I stood. Again, the dog. Again I see the feeble wagging of the tail.  

Paying, I leave without a glance back at him. I didn't want to look at him because I did not want to own him for a mere cup of tea. I was not ashamed of my magnanimity, but I did not want to be his patron for a five rupee worth of tea. 

In the station, I go to the farthest end, where breeze from the sea blew gently and unhindered. It was dusk. I waited for the train to come. There was no hurry to get home. I was at peace. 

***************  Balachandran V, Trivandrum 08-07-2012

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Lying on my left side, body bared
Waiting for the cold creamed  sensor
Feeling my heart beneath the hair and flesh
I smelt the perfume of the girl,
The warmth, the softness of her arm across my chest 
And like an excited adolescent thought
She had her breast pressed against my back.
I giggled inside, fantasizing 
The girl taking a fancy
To my broad, hairy, muscled chest. 

I smiled at myself, my silliness, my innocence
Happy that even the imagination 
Of the touch of a young body could rouse me.

In her soft voice she asked me after my health
About my BP, cholesterol, and the pains 
All the while I was thinking how nice it would be 
To press my nose against the back of her beautiful neck
And breathe her in, deep. 

'Nothing much wrong here', she said
'But take care, don't let it worsen, take the medicines'. 

My heart was okay for the time being
I could hear it pumping blood
That old tireless machine
Beating on,  for its fifty fifth year. 
I could imagine it, or if I turned around
See it in the screen, my heart, my little heart
Thickening walls, weakening muscles
Beating on, on and on. 

Echo, echoes of the past
Echoes of the heartbeats, of heartbreaks,
Echoes of youth, of love...

In the air-conditioned intimacy
We were together, silent
Except for the loud thuds of my heart
The churning, the sloshing around of my blood.

Her arm resting lightly on my chest
I looked at her graceful fingers, a glimpse-
Before she moved her hand away.

I could fall in love with 
All the women in the world.  

**********  Balachandran V, Trivandrum 05.07.2012