Friday, 11 September 2015

A story about stories..

In a recent post, I had waxed poetic about the need to tell our stories, its importance for our sustenance and even its sacred connotations. Put me in touch with people and I will unconsciously begin to glean their stories, tell them some of my own and sometimes even save these exchanges for future reference. Yet as my story-telling enterprise continues to thrive, there are few realizations too which have dawned upon me and as they continue to spin inside my mind, I could not help but write this 'story about stories' or more precisely, 'a story about story-telling'.

The realizations seem to have sunk so deep, that I find it difficult to even waste my effort on constructing a parable and would rather translate my erudition in a bulleted form:
  • "Walls have ears. Doors have eyes. Trees have voices.Beasts tell lies." Nothing could have better conveyed if I were to say that any stories one would tell, will echo in several parallel universes.
  • Excerpts of the stories will be used to create contextual truths. Just as there is no such as thing as an absolute truth, there is also no such thing as a 'whole story'. 
  • The stories might be intercepted by the unknown and unasked listener.
  • The theme of the story might be misunderstood or partially understood or not understood at all.
  • The characters of the story may threaten to become too real or make caricatures of us. Sometimes, far from being a dispassionate narrator, one might end up becoming a character of the story itself.
  • The language of the story determines its import. While the language of logical arguments, of proofs, is the language of the limited self we know and can manipulate, the language of parable and poetry, of storytelling, moves from the imprisoned language of the provable into the freed language of what I must, for lack of another word, continue to call faith. 
  • The listener might be too distracted to understand and appreciate what it takes to weave a story and more so, to transmit it.
  • Not all stories have a definitive ending. Some might end rather too abruptly. Just as some poems don’t rhyme, some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Moreover, I do not believe in happy endings. For someone like me who considers life to be like a flowing river, there are no endings. And yet, I also maintain that one should never give up a happy middle in the hopes of a happy ending.
  • Whenever the stories from two different universes collide, the result can never be a happy one but then Happiness, like all else, is purely contextual.
  • To borrow the words of my favourite story-teller Salman Rushdie, "Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts."
  • It takes a lot of courage to exchange certain stories. It takes a lot of courage to speak up one's mind and tell one's heart. But this doesn't apply to storytelling alone.
  • As someone remarked, "Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds. Consequently, stories often pack more punch than sermons. Want to make a point or raise an issue? Tell a story."
  • People did not wait until there was writing before they told stories and sang songs. A lot of stories remain unwritten unsung.
  • Most importantly, a story is told as much by silence as by speech. It is often the stories told by silence which are more profound than the spoken ones.
Lastly, the pursuit of story-telling would be a meaningless one without the faith and devotion of a listener. I could not have put it better than in the words of Brené Brown, "Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: "Who has earned the right to hear my story?" If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky. If we have a friend, or small group of friends, or family who embraces our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power, and fills us with a sense of belonging, we are incredibly lucky.If we can find someone who has earned the right to hear our story, we need to tell it. Shame loses power when it is spoken. In this way, we need to cultivate our story to let go of shame, and we need to develop shame resilience in order to cultivate our story."

Monday, 11 May 2015

When the earth shook but time stood still...

There was a strange commotion about the place. Even before we approached the heart of the town, everybody seemed to be out on the streets. It could not merely be explained by the fact that it was a Saturday, in fact Saturday is not even weekend in this part of the world. Suddenly the vehicle stopped and the driver lurched out suspecting a puncture. It was then that the realization of an earthquake sunk in. It was then that the 'commotion' began to make sense. With a hectic schedule lined up for a long day ahead of us, there was little one could do except dismiss it as a minor aberration and go ahead with one's life as usual. Yet, there is always an unsettling feeling about the safety and security of our loved ones when we are far from them. The fact that we could not contact our families immediately afterward just reminded us of the similar need everybody must have felt at a juncture when the ground beneath our feet shakes and this time, quite literally!!

Alone in my room as we reached our destination, I began to ponder if the tremors we had dismissed as minor aberrations a little while earlier had indeed upset the happiness and lives of a chunk of humanity somewhere in a not so distant corner of the world. Before my thoughts could even find an expression, the aftershocks began. As the door swung like a pendulum, and the walls swayed, no uncertainty remained about the magnitude of the catastrophe unfolding somewhere in the neighbourhood. As we silently prayed for the lives and safety of our loved ones across the world, the news updates streaming in from the mobile apps, just served to lend credence to our worst nightmares. Not only had the upheaval affected millions nearby, but also where we were standing while reading these news, was dangerously close to the epicenter of the seismic shocks. 

Next couple of hours as we flitted in and out of meetings, a new realization began to dawn upon me. I could no longer content myself with the fact that everybody in immediate family and friends was safe and secure, rather being at the helm of affairs in an assignment which concerns young children, I was hoping and praying that none of our kids suffer in any manner. As it took time for my faculties to respond, we could only send directions across the State to relay any information of any damage whatsoever and put any rumors and misgivings to rest. Thankfully there wasn't much.

Despite all the damage and the losses that the quake brought in its wake, it was not what had hit me the most. What I saw over the course of the next 24 hours was far more devastating to me on a personal level. Not that anything is terribly wrong per se but just that while we rue about the lives that had been lost in the wake of a
disaster, how I wish we could develop the empathy to rue over the precious lives we are letting go of unknowingly and unhurriedly each day. As we make tall claims of being modern and civilized and enlightened, as we go about showcasing and marketing stories of our success and as we begin to believe in the truth of the stories scripted by us, we could not be more wrong. As one of my favorite authors Khaled Hosseini puts it, "Children aren't coloring books. You don't get to fill them with your favorite colors." Yet this is precisely what we have been doing all along. It is one thing to be apathetic but quite another to feel something for our own kids but not the same for others'. It was different earlier but now when I look at these angelic souls I see the face of my two year old in each one of them, as if asking me some questions with absolute faith and innocence. Much as I may wish, it is beyond my belief and power to answer all the questions they silently put forth or to even give them hope of a life that they are building dreams of. In moments such as these, I find myself and these little ones being stuck in a time warp. I shall never be able to find the courage to acknowledge that their lives will perhaps be no better or different from the lives of hardships that their parents have led and much as they may strive there will always be a huge chasm separating them from their 'truly blessed' counterparts in the gleaming metropolises. At the end of the day, the questions we ask of ourselves determine the type of people that we will become. Whatever I may do, I can not help but say..

“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.” 
― W.B. Yeats, The Collected Poems

Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Last Leaf

“If words were leaves, would you prefer fall or spring?”
― Jarod Kintz, This Book is Not For Sale

It was the winter of 2007. 11 December, 2007 to be precise (thanks to the time stamp on an old digital pic). Srinagar was freezing and we had less than a day to take a look around. Needless to mention, we had a packed schedule as we hopped from one stunning destination to the other. I remember the Shikara ride on the Dal Lake and the Kahwa we had. It was like a page from a book of paradise and too beautiful to be true. Today when I look back it appears just as dreamy as it did back then and sometimes I begin to doubt if the passage of time has indeed led to mingling of memories with illusions. I had forgotten pretty much all about it till a random thought brought it all flooding back to me and also the 'interestingness' of the stories associated with this random day in the book of my life.

Whiling away time early morning one day and feeling nostalgic about the days gone by, I remembered making random hand crafted cards for some of the 'dearest' people in my life and shooting those handmade treasures off to them all across the world. One such cherished memory that remains unfazed is that of the Chinar leaves I collected back then at Nishat Bagh in Srinagar on a sight seeing tour of the city. How I wish that the story was as simple as it seems. Not only did I find the sight of  a few leaves lying in water truly mesmerizing, but also that I lost sense of time and space and slipped into the fountain while trying to capture that dazzling moment forever in my camera. While I still remember the pain of spending an entire day in wet jeans and shoes in the biting cold of Sringar, I also treasure the pair of woolen socks I had purchased from Lal Bazaar as a replacement for my wet ones. What I valued most however were a handful of dried  Chinar leaves I had picked up that day while most people in my group were busy getting their pics clicked in the idyllic surroundings and I wandered lonely and aimlessly about. There were tons and tons of these leaves all around and yet I wonder why they appear so precious to me now..

The sight that I have never been able to forget
Soon upon our return to the Academy, I had taken it upon myself to preserve those leaves in the form of cards and send them across with love and wishes to those who meant so much to me. The cards were appreciated by each of the recipients and as a dear friend Y puts it today, "it was the only hand-crafted card he ever received". My intent of sending those particular leaves was to let these fabulous people know that they were remembered by me in both good and bad times alike and there was never a moment when they weren't with me in my thoughts and prayers. It was my own designed souvenir and as I write these lines it occurs to me that it must precisely be the point of any souvenir!

The leaves of Chinar are too beautiful to be wasted in one opportunity and I decided to keep a few for myself (in my quiz diary!) for all times to come. Over time the wealth of my leaves dwindled for a multiplicity of reasons and I could do little about it. Yet as in an eponymous story, it was the last leaf that brought me the greatest happiness and fulfillment. Each time I gave a leaf away or lost one, a tiny bit of my life and its stories went away with it. But it was only as I gave the last leaf away that I realized the long journey that the leaf in turn had made from growing on a distant tree in a distant land, accompanying me on innumerable journeys and finally finding its way to the one 'it had been trying to find' all along. As I write this story on an arbitrary note, a lot of things still remain unsaid. Nothing could have summed up the journey of my leaves better than the borrowed lines I reproduce below:

Har sukhe patte ki ek kahani hoti hai,
Barish ki har bund ko koi khabar sunani hoti hai,
Wo to hum unka ishara nahi samjh pate,
Warna har musibat ki chahat hamari Zindagi asan banani hoti hai...

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Stories have to be told or they die..

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” 

― Philip Pullman

I could not agree with anything more. It has been a good number of years since I was told stories. It has been a good number of years since somebody heeded my stories. I no longer even remembered I could reciprocate stories. Constant change of places, dear friends leaving for unknown destinations, long distances and myriad pulls of everyday existence- each day my stories died a little and then came a time I could tell no more and heard no more. Sometimes the feeling of being bottled up would get the better of me and then either these blog posts or marathon phone calls would follow. Yet all these years, what remained was my unwavering love for stories- stories of people's lives and children and parents and places and events and memories and food and of things no more.

And paradoxically enough, in all these years, me and A and more of our family shared millions of long and short stories, which now seem like the vital common knowledge we just 'needed' to possess for the life ahead of us. Yet, it was clearly not enough. To me somehow, the stories we share each day with the ones who know us too well are rather prescient and do not quite fascinate and captivate in the same measure as they would a relative stranger.

How I wish dear (Ma'm) SA was still around and we could spend hours sharing stories and sipping tea, oblivious of the time and space around us. This post would have been meaningless if I failed to mention her and AA (Sir) who gave me my voice and taught me to derive strength from other people's stories. I owe it to them and have never missed them so much before.

A public servant's job essentially involves giving a patient listening to people's stories', deriving quick conclusions about the veracity of their tales and then striving to ensure a happy ending to the incomplete story they present before us. Not all stories however end on a cheery note, whether real or imaginary. This job (or may be life in general) makes us understand the power of belief in our stories. If we begin to believe in the truth of our stories, they start appearing true to us. Today when somebody tells me the same, I smile inwardly, for I could not have acquiesced to anything more. 

Of the millions of stories spun around us at all times, only a few have the power of nourishing our soul. There's a secret bond which unites the storyteller and the listener, the kind which unites a writer and his readers. And there's a certain measure of trust which seals this bond. It may be precisely this reason why the stories we share with complete attachment or detachment fail to qualify for the kind which nourish the soul. May be a degree of both is required.

This voluminous realization swept over me mysteriously one day, (I do not quite even remember the day or the occasion) and it felt as if the floodgates had been opened. My stories began to resurface with amazing alacrity. To me now, storytelling seems like an ancient and spiritual science- its like being able to transcend a higher plane from being struck in a vortex of competing realities, only to realize not only you were struck but also that the vortex was rather small. In the words of Graham Greene, "A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead." It is precisely this lack of definitive mooring that story-telling acquires sacred proportions to my unenlightened mind.

Just as the stories start flowing once again, I hope to ensure that the flow doesn't ebb. I hope to understand the meaning of these stories and also of those which remain unsaid.  And recently, as I found myself losing breath and sleep being struck in the middle of a huge, interesting story, which was rather difficult to interpret, I felt these lines speaking to me, and serenity wash over me again..

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

Song of Myself (1892 version)
By Walt Whitman

Friday, 6 March 2015

An eventful February and the advent of spring..

February in this part of the world that we live in, has always been a season of change. As students, it was that part of the year when our academic session would close, we would write our exams and wait for our promotion to the next class. When life taught us to appreciate the seasons of the year, February marked the beginning of Spring. February coincides with the month of Falgun as per the Hindu calender and augurs a time of festivities all over the country. As a student of economics in the University, February meant the economic budget and year long repercussions of the same. Even on the personal front, February marked a time of family celebration as we would gather to celebrate the anniversary of our parents. As if it was not enough, me and A tied the knot in this very month and later welcomed little N into our lives at this time of the year. 2015 was no exception.

Little N's birthday Winnie-the-Pooh inspired birthday cake
Before February could even knock on our door, the season of change had begun. It was not the first time that I had to change assignments in the month of February. Thankfully, the same did not involve any change of places this year. Yet, when it comes to 'moving' of any kind or at any time, I become a living example of the 'Law of Inertia' and its always the bonds which unite humans, that I find most difficult to deal with. It was not easy saying goodbye to all those fabulous people who had brought up my daughter since she was 7 months old, who helped us move houses, who worked extra hours to keep their commitments and who did much more than their job title demanded of them. Needless to mention, they become family for life.

Much as I believe, my stint as an academician was truly wonderful in terms of fulfillment of my personal and professional commitments, nothing can compare with the sense of satisfaction one achieves while working in a social sector program. Nothing could be a bigger education than working in the education sector in a state as huge as ours. Thanks to a wonderful and committed team, it took no time settling in and barely a month later as I write these words, it feels as if its always been an integral part of my existence and I always belonged here. At precisely these times, I strongly feel, much as government in our country faces bricks and bats for anything under the sun, the devotion of these unsung soldiers who chart the country's progress can not be acknowledged in terms of being on the government payroll alone.

Change of assignments apart, the month of February is also considered auspicious for weddings (that explains ours too!) and celebrations and hence one could easily correlate the same with a packed social calender. Add to that the responsibility of contributing in every-which-way to our annual service week, and we end up juggling our roles as parents who have to organize their child's birthday and as not-so-senior members of a service that we are proud to be part of and feel committed to contribute to in every possible manner. Our experience last year had equipped us with a fair idea of how things are to be managed and neither A nor me found it difficult shuttling between lunches and dinners and yet be able to choose a design and place the order for a wonderful Winnie-the-Pooh cake for little N's second birthday. And yes, service week also brings its own sets of rewards as we ended up winning a Nikon camera, a  power-bank and a 500 GB hard drive as prizes for our entries in the Photography Competition.

Our submissions for the service week Photography Competition

The biggest event however remains little N's birthday (the fact that we too completed six years of marital harmony this year is often relegated to the category of 'mundane' in the larger scheme of things!). While N's both sets of grandparents could not join us for the celebration, N still ended up spending her day with the people she loves most. The fact that Mamma took an off from work was of little significance as she was surrounded by the love and blessings of those familiar faces who have seen her grow each day and have contributed immensely to the same. These generous souls have not just kept our lives chugging smoothly since our arrival in Lucknow but also showered their affection and care upon our little one which was not part of their 'duty' from any stretch of imagination. The only guests who were 'invited' for the birthday party were two little playmates of little N she grew up with in our old house and who still visit her on play dates in the new one. The day was a truly memorable one for us as well. While our zero-guest-policy did not bog us down with the formalities of preparing and serving food and drinks, the fact that little N was also exultant in the company of her own set of people (and wasn't intimidated by the presence of too many strangers in the house) was a blessing for our little family.

Each day we are thankful to the Almighty for our small cocooned existence spun by webs of happiness and contentment.But above all, we are thankful to our family and friends, who have stood by us over all these years , showered us with unconditional love and welcomed our little one into their lives. And now, the little story about advent of spring..

In my older posts, I have often mentioned of our memories of places being entwined with the flora and fauna around us. Yet, a special story that I am reminded of remains unsaid. In the February of 2013, barely 2 days before the arrival of our little one into this world, we too had newly arrived in the city of Lucknow. Strangers to this city as we were back then, and newly shifted to our one BHK accomodation, little else as I could do at that point of time, sitting on our (newly purchased) bed, I would look listlessly at the life outside our huge glass windows. On day one, as the sun was about to set, I remembered a tree at a little distance, with a slight tinge of red on top. Back then I thought, it could be a new leaf gleaming in the orange light of the fading sun or some resplendent bird from the riverbank nearby. Next day, as I was preparing to go to the hospital for the last medical check before the big day, I noticed a small red flower as if it was some omen about the impending arrival of our little one. A week later, by the time I returned from the hospital with the baby, the entire tree was full of red blooms and it was then I realized it was a Palash tree (Flame of the Forest) in its full glory marking the advent of spring. Over the next couple of months, that tree was some kind of an anchor of my faith while I made the slow but difficult transition into parenthood. And over these months, the tree took roots in my heart forever. Looking back, I fondly reminisce about the same tree growing outside Cauvery hostel in JNU and covering the narrow road in a lovely shade of red. Or the lovely forest of Palash on both sides of the NH connecting Chitrakoot to Allahabad which stretches for miles on end and is often the only splash of color against a dreary landscape in summers. Today, as I travel to office each day, I look forward to the crimson canopy of the Palash growing outside CO Mahanagar's office and I often wonder how long will it continue to thrive on one of the busiest thoroughfares of Lucknow. To borrow the words of Stefanie Brook Trout, to me the true nature of the tree no longer is "in the bulk of its shape but in the way its form alters my vision of the world".

As our trio (me, A and N) completes two years of our stay in Lucknow, and we live each day like none before- watching mini adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, baking fresh cakes and pastas and spending time with family and friends, I often imagine myself asking my two kids (the older one and the little one), the words I reproduce below:

Would you like some warm Spring pie?
Then, take a cup of clear blue sky.
Stir in buzzes from a bee,
Add the laughter of a tree.

A dash of sunlight should suffice
To give the dew a hint of spice.
Mix with berries, plump and sweet.
Top with fluffy clouds, and eat!” 

― Paul F. Kortepeter, Holly Pond Hill: A Child's Book of Easter