The tiny bulb burned itself out. And so did her friends. But the night was far darker than all of them combined.
“Oh what’s the point?” they sighed.
“But that IS the point,” said the divine light.
“Darkness will always exist. In the skies above and in lost souls below. It is your duty to burn as brightly as you can, so that even in darkness, the world can navigate.”
The night is long and bitter and it has only begun.
Shine. Shine as bright as you can. Till darkness gives up.
Sometimes life can be frustrating: Perhaps a loved one is unwell. Perhaps your own health is troubling you. Perhaps you miss old friends. Perhaps your manager spoke in an unjust manner… The list of things that can rattle us is endless.
It had been one such frustrating evening, not long ago. Being the night of Kaarthigai Deepam, I tried to put the day behind and hastily set out to make a kolam. It didn’t turn out too well, making me feel even worse. And then I lit a beautiful wax candle. Suddenly, everything seemed to be alright.
There’s something about a flickering flame — be it from an oil lamp, a wax candle, and to certain extent, fairy lights — that brings us happiness. Perhaps that’s why we light lamps at places of worship.
This post is inspired by two posts on Instagram, separated by time and context, and yet connected by light.
One of the strongest memories of my childhood is that of AM Radio. It would begin playing on the ancient transistor even before I woke up. Sanskrit mantras recited by M.S. Subbulakshmi, followed by the railway timetable, and finally, news in Sanskrit that would end with a few beeps. The last of the beeps would be longer than the first few — the clock had struck 7 AM.
I’m not sure if the order of the programs is right. There’s no way for me to verify either. We don’t listen to radio anymore, unless we’re in a car — and even in a car, it’s FM, or a USB stick, or internet radio that’s streaming from a smartphone — not AM.
Back then, on Sundays, the radio played Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram — the thousand names of Lord Vishnu. Towards the end of the half-hour long recitation, is a conversation between Goddess Parvati and Lord Vishnu. The Goddess asks, dear Lord, what might a lay person do, in order to pray to you. Not everyone can possibly recite all the thousand names every day. Is there a shortcut to this? And the Lord obliges. He says, repeat this one verse three times, and it is equivalent to reciting all the names. I am paraphrasing, of course.
I learnt this one specific verse very early in my life — long before I learnt about its significance. I learnt it because every single Sunday, at precisely the moment that this verse was recited, I would wake up. One could say, I learnt it by accident, or divine intervention, or coincidence — I leave it to you, to decide, which of these is more accurate.
I don’t think I am very religious — certainly not to the extent my parents or grandparents are. I don’t perform the elaborate pujas that my mother performs. Nor can I recite any of the Sahasranamams the way my grandparents can. But religion does interest me.
True to the stereotypes of TamBrahms, as children, our summer vacations were spent touring temples. We were taught Sanskrit shlokas (couplets / verses), that I can still recall. I was also taught how to perform a basic neyvedyam (sacred offering). I pride myself in knowing what little I do. And I wish to learn the proper neyvedyam that my mom performs on special occasions. Hopefully, one day, I will be able to perform one of those with the camphor flame… But I digress.
What I am trying to say is, I am religious enough to take the shortcut of reciting one verse three times, as opposed to 108 verses.
Over the past few years, I have realised that being religious and being spiritual are not the same thing. Religion, is the path towards spirituality. And spirituality, is the path towards peace of mind. I came to this realisation when, a year into our marriage, Atul began playing a playlist of bhajans.
Knowing him for as long as I did — he who who wasn’t particularly interested in going to temples or explicitly praying — he was playing bhajans.
He wasn’t listening to the lyrics of these songs, he said. The melody just made him feel relaxed. It gave him the peace of mind that is so essential in today’s rage-infused society.
This inclination towards peace of mind, came up again, when he insisted that we visit the temple I frequented. It wasn’t that he did not like visiting temples at all, he said; he just had not found such peace of mind in the ones he had visited before.
Atul is not an atheist. He is spiritual. I began appreciating his world-view, when he said this: I don’t need to go to a temple, or speak a certain language, to speak with my God. And that was also the essence of the verse in Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram — you don’t have to say all the 108 verses. Just one, repeated thrice, was enough. The Lord himself, was giving a shortcut.
Over the past few months, I have begun my own morning ritual — somewhat similar to what my parents did back then. What used to play as clock-work, every morning on AM radio, now plays on an online streaming service, as soon as I wake up (let’s just say, the morning is a spectrum).
As one wise man said to me, language and form shouldn’t come in the way of spirituality and peace of mind. Hence, I will not share my morning invocation playlist with you.
What I will share, though, is another feel-good playlist that focuses on spirituality and peace. Here it goes:
1. Ma Rewa
Band: Indian Ocean Album: Kandisa Year: 2000 Language: Local dialect of Hindi
It was during last year’s Indian Ocean Concert (in picture) that I first heard Ma Rewa. I swayed and clapped and danced on this number. It was only later, that I saw the lyrics.
Rewa is another name for the river Narmada. And life-sustaining, as all rivers are, Rewa is called Ma – mother. This song praises the holy river, and apparently, was used as a protest song by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (save the river Narmada). There is enough feminism and rebellion in this to become my week-day alarm.
Growing up, this song, and all the songs by the duo (Leslie Lewis and Hariharan) hit the sweet spot for us, bringing together classical music and English pop. We were such big fans, our parents bought two cassettes(!) of their albums — the only band accorded that multi-cassette honour.
Band: Indian Ocean Album: Kandisa Year: 2000 Language: Aramaic-East Syriac
This song is familiar. I’ve heard this, yes… Alam Alam Alam… I fished out my memories. “It’s Kandisa,” said Eeshta. And just like that, I rediscovered Indian Ocean. There’s a chance you’ve heard it before too. You can thank me later. Also, this my week-end alarm.
Band: Faridkot Album: Ek Year: 2011 Language: Local dialect of Hindi
“You now owe me some songs!” This was the message Sunaina sent, after sharing the album by Faridkot. If it weren’t for her, I probably wouldn’t have known about this beautiful album.
From where I sat in the office, I was within earshot of everyone in the office (and yes, I could see folks, before they could see me). I’d asked her for the songs after hearing them on her work-station — on loop. Haal-e-dil and Banjaare were her favourites, I think. I liked them too. Eventually, though, my favourite became, Madho. The song is about a devotee, who wants Krishna to come and help her cross the river on her boat.
Singer: Atif Aslam Album: Coke Studio Season 8 Year: 2015 Language: Urdu
Because no playlist of melodious music can be complete without Coke Studio. I’ll admit, I am no fan of Atif Aslam’s music (based on the songs sung for Hindi Cinema / Bollywood). But this one is an absolute gem!
6. Gurus of Peace
Singers: A.R. Rahman, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Album: Vande Mataram Year: 1997 Language: Hindi, Urdu, English
The stage is set at the school assembly ground. On the left side of the ground is the administrative block. On the right are classrooms for primary students. Connecting these two blocks are two bridges on the first and second floor levels, running behind the centre stage. The music begins playing, and the performers enter. As they begin performing their choreographed moves in perfect sync, more dancers enter in front, and below the main stage. Others stream in from behind the audience. And more fill in the bridges above the stage. This was the first block-buster musical I had seen — long before Kingdom of Dreams was even dreamt of.
The song, Gurus of Peace; the dancers, students handpicked from the primary, middle and senior secondary classes; the occasion, the school annual day; and the audience, an awe-struck set of students, and some very proud parents.
I was in school when this song was released, and it became an instant hit. Perhaps, because it cut across all faiths and cultures; or maybe, because it shattered stereotypes of Sikh musicians, the topics that rock music could cover and the format in which Sufi could be performed; or maybe, just maybe, it resonated with teenagers trying to figure out their identity. “Bulla, ki jaana, mai kaun hoon” (Bulla! I know not, who I am).
It is fitting, that this is the only song that I could not locate on the music-streaming site Gaana. Because this is one of very few songs that I remember seeing. Apart from its deep philosophy, what has endured through all these years is the visualisation of the song.
There are a number of versions of this song on YouTube. The official version is live in concert. There is another version with better audio quality and lyrics. But I’d rather show you the original music video (you can check out the better audio later).
PS: I know there are only male singers in the playlist. I’d love to hear more female voices in this space — if you know any, I’d love to listen to them. In the meanwhile, I have my morning invocation, dominated by M.S…
PPS: Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Here’s wishing for a peaceful dinner, and world 🙂
Featured Image: The stage for Indian Ocean’s concert on 23 November 2018. Here’s the story about that concert: Behind the Sounds.
As I make my way to the main road outside our home, I take a quick look at my watch.
Quarter to eight.
Dang! No time to walk.
It’s a Saturday morning. I should be lazing under the fan, pressing snooze on my alarm for the fifteenth time. But no time for wishful thinking.
There’s an auto rickshaw on the other side of the road. There’s not much traffic. I cross over as quickly as possible.
The driver nods and we don’t speak a word till he’s reached the station. Thoughts of the big day ahead, how ill prepared I feel, and the pressure I had been under for the past two weeks begin to overwhelm me.
I mumble a robotic thank you as the driver returns the change.
At the station entrance, I dump my bag on the x-ray machine and nervously glance at the train timings.
My sandals are slippery. I skid my way to the frisking area.
The lady with the metal detector looks at me and throws me off guard.
“Ma’am!” She squeals with delight.
“You are looking so amazing!” Her smile is big and genuine.
For an instant, my mind goes blank.
Oh my! Thank you so much! That is so very nice of you! You know, I was under so much stress. And I feel so much more relaxed now. You just made my day…
That’s what I want to say. I want to go on and on and pour my heart out to her.
But my throat is dry. I just about manage to blurt out a thank you, and a rehearsed “how are you?”
For what I lack in words, I try to make up by returning her wide infectious smile.
She says she is is fine, and I rush to collect my belongings.
I run down the stairs, as fast as my sandals allow. But I am late. The train doors close and it leaves the platform.
Sigh! Missed by a whisker.
The next train is 5 minutes away. I sit on the bench, take out my phone and stare at the smiling reflection on the black screen.
* * *
In the mad world where we are constantly running, racing against a faster, invisible opponent, towards an infinite goal, when was the last time someone smiled at you while doing their job?
More importantly, when was the last time you smiled for yourself?
Who made your day in the recent past? Whose day did you make?
Have you ever felt like the universe is sending out messages to you? I ask because that’s what I’ve felt lately. Take for instance, this chain of events that have taken place over the past two days.
Yesterday, quite by accident, I came across a TED talk by Manoush Zomorodi, in which she explains the connection between boredom, or ‘spacing out’ and creativity. She conducted a challenge with her radio listeners, and asked them to switch off connectivity, and actually experience boredom. As she continued explaining, one of the things that struck to me was this:
Some of them (the people who took the challenge) told me that they didn’t recognize some of the emotions that they felt during challenge week, because, if you think about it, if you have never known life without connectivity, you may never have experienced boredom.
Watching the video, I couldn’t help feel smug. After all, I belong to the generation that grew up without affordable & accessible connectivity. I was also a very very reluctant social media user—mostly because of privacy concerns (I signed up for Instagram only last week!) I thought to myself, ‘we’d always find ways to remove the boredom from our lives through creative pursuits. What a pity, the youngsters of today have no idea what it was like, without phones and apps!’
In reality though, I was in denial. Over the past two days, Atul had chided me for looking at the phone constantly, checking my notifications, and not realising that there was tons of work to be done. (I’ve heard very similar rants from my parents too!) Okay, so maybe I was a bit caught up with this month-long challenge. “It’ll be different after November,” I had protested.
Today, I visited my Alma mater, Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, and saw these beautiful murals outside the cafeteria. As has been the case for quite some time, my friend Ankita and I took out our phones to take pictures.
“So, are you going to post these to Facebook?” I asked her. “Oh, it’s not me, it’s you who’s going to be posting it!” she replied with a hint of mischief.
And that did it. With this chain of events coming together, the full effect of my denial towards my phone addiction, stood mocking at me.
I first applied homemade kajal when I visited an acquaintance many years ago. While I waited for my friend to get ready to head out, I chatted with her mother — a tall and slim, simple rural Haryanvi lady. As our mundane conversation veered towards the use of kajal, she mentioned that she had prepared some herself.
I had a vague idea about kajal being nothing but soot. But the small boxes available in the market contain a sticky substance which smeared, so I wasn’t quite sure. She showed me her preparation. The homemade kajal that I saw was, indeed, soot and a tad rough to the touch. I gingerly dipped my finger in it and applied it to the waterline of my eyes. To my surprise, it spread easily and gave a beautiful definition to my eyes. I wondered how she had made it, but our conversation was interrupted, and I didn’t get the chance to ask her.
Life has a funny way of answering our questions, and seemingly disconnected memories find themselves being connected into one big picture. I had shelved this memory of the homemade kajal in the corners of my brain. Until one fine day — on the first Deepavali after our wedding, to be precise — I saw my in-laws performing a puja.
I saw them pray, and then light a large earthen lamp. They then placed an empty lamp, upside down atop the flame, supported by smaller lamps around the flame.
The next morning, I saw our own kajal, ready to be used.
This is post #13 in this year’s NaBloPoMo, or as Ra calls it Nano Poblano
NaBloPoMo = National Blog Posting Month = Thirty straight days of blogging
On a hot and sultry Sunday, I step out to go to the market. It seems like it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the local roads. Perhaps it has. In the daily hustle and rush to the workplace, subtle things go unnoticed.
Of course the roads are nothing subtle really. One misstep, and the pothole can trip you. It would probably by fair to call it an obstacle course. I wonder if professional athletes train on the by-lanes of Delhi.
But today is different.
Between me and the market, stands a bright, black strip of tar.
I never thought the sight of roads would be so delightful. Like a weary traveller in a desert, I rush towards, what is possibly, a mirage.
I take a step, and my shoes grip the road. The tar has not yet dried out. I can hardly believe that after so many years, we have smooth road. I walk along, sceptical of it all. A while later, I let down my guard, and begin enjoying every moment of the sticky grip the road had to offer.
But thankfully, it doesn’t take long for me to return to reality.
Towards the side of the road, there is a patch of road which has not received the fresh coat of tar. It looks absolutely dry, and almost perfectly circular. It is almost as if it was deliberately left out, just to prove that the road is, indeed, new.
This circular patch presents itself every few metres, like milestones—only much more frequently.
Strangely, I feel reassured. A new road was too good to be true anyway.
* * *
I’ve pretty much wasted my free time today listening to old Shania Twain songs. I have a bunch of ideas I’ve been wanting to write about. But today, all I want to do is listen to songs by Shania Twain.
Going through the drafts of my blog, I unearthed this post — written 3 years ago, but never published. Quite like the pot holes of our streets, my blog swallowed this one whole! Oh, well, it’s on lazy, slightly confusing days, like today, that a draft comes in handy.
I read a blog post today that, at first, irritated me. I typed out a comment, pointing out that the article had a sectarian and elitist outlook. Then I stopped myself.
I stopped because I felt it would be useless. I have come to believe that certain thoughts are ingrained in our sub conscious, and any change in opinion can only be brought from within — a realisation, you may say — and not from preaching.
The author had written about not understanding a different culture, and still criticised it as being backward.
I wanted to write that making such assumptions without even understanding why things are the way they are, was not fair, but I stopped myself.
I stopped because I saw myself making assumptions about the author’s motives. I did not know what the author saw that made them make the observations that they did.
I stopped because I was doing that very same thing that I had set out to make ‘right’.
And that is what I learnt today.
That silence isn’t necessarily a bad reaction to negative thoughts. And, perhaps, that’s what we need in today’s hyper-reactive world of 140 characters (or 280), that jumps to conclusions based on partial information, and can’t wait to throw in a comment.
Sometimes, we just need to stop.
This is post #6 in this year’s NaBloPoMo, or as Ra calls it Nano Poblano
NaBloPoMo = National Blog Posting Month = Thirty straight days of blogging
A prominent feature of Rajasthani architecture are the windows with their characteristic floral silhouette. When visiting monuments in the region, it is hard to resist the temptation of framing the magnificent views with the window. Ah, what a feeling it must have been, living in those palaces!
Alas, for women, not a very good one. The queens and princesses had their share of riches and maids and all luxuries that a royal household could provide. But freedom? Trapped in a tower, looking out of the window was the only freedom they had. Called jharokhas, the beautiful latticed windows were built to allow women to look at the world outside, without themselves being seen.
Here is one such window at Bagore ki Haveli, Udaipur. I wonder what must be visible through those tiny windows within the main window.
So this week, when the Daily Post asked us to show windows, I felt cheated. But considering what it must have been like for the women who looked out of these tiny windows, I don’t have any reason to complain.