Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Heap of sand

Trickling away a grain at a time, the sands of life.
An unconscious moment here, a compulsive thought there
Too much attention to the incessant circuits of the mind
Too much staying
with the mundane, the cyclical
with the body's pains, its myriad niggles
with the same thought that has come around again because I ogled at it when it went by last

Adding up to a heap of sand in the hour glass.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Megha chhaaye

Cusp of a fresh new season and it is time for that almost obligatory change-of-season post.
So we take down this reference to vague, internal worries and wonder all over again at the clouds of life that drift, drift, drift as we stay constant.

The new haiku on the header goes:
cloud animals—
the summer slowly
drifts away

How the Oregon-based poet Clayton Beach knows the ways of our Indian monsoons, I don't know. But he does seem to sense the mood of the monsoon's approach this year. Not thunderous, not dramatic but gentle, almost. Already, the advance guard of clouds is nudging the summer away.

A few more days for Hyderabad, it is almost time.

Status: Arrived


You don’t have to put any kind of strenuous practices
upon yourself in order to realise the Self.
The Self is the most natural.
It is the mind itself that is both entertained by
and entangled in so-called spiritual practices for self-realisation.
Though some practices are good and necessary,
many are aimed only at the ego.
Left unnoticed, they will keep you in a limited state of mind,
perhaps a spiritual mind even,
whereby you believe you are merely a 'person'
on the road to becoming the Self.
Your true Self however, does not need to practice anything,
for it is unchangingly perfect and timelessly present.

~ Mooji

Source Code

Thursday, June 06, 2019


Because I downloaded the blogger app that lets me blog on the go.

Of course, the instinct has tapered off these days... I remember a time when if reach for the laptop almost every day.
Now, there is much to say, some things too important, the rest not at all. So what to say, then?

Nevertheless, a post.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


Irritation, anger, hate, and rage are just progressions. If you feel the mildest sense of irritation, that’s what you need to work on.


thin tendrils of smoke
give away the raging fire
small, almost-invisible wisps rising
from a morass of deadwood, dead leaves, dead moments

like a forest-man I must be
not looking for anything
not hunting necessarily
not even hyper alert (in which is folded some fear, some panic)
scanning against a background of nothing
the taint of something
just scanning
because that's the thing to do

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Andaz-e-bayan aur!

Know what I've been tripping on this past month?

Ghawwalis! (ugh, I know, I know!)

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and group have sung a whole lot of ghazals by Ghalib as qawwalis and what fun they are!

As it happens with qawwalis, they sing the main ghazal through but now and then pick up key words from the preceding sher and intersperse with couplets from elsewhere, either stressing the sentiment, or taking off from it on another tangent altogether.

These are the efforts, I understand, of Yousuf Salahuddin, culture-lover from Lahore, under a series called Virsa Heritage Revived

I share here two videos:
1) Rahat and co singing Koi umeed bar nahin aati

2) A full concert called Nawa-e-sarosh with four qawwalis

Caution: Dost ghamkhwari mein meri is a potential ear-worm! I haven't thrown it off in days.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Colour me green

Have I confessed my deep desire to be artistic on these pages? I must have.

Anyway here’s the thing: I long to draw, paint and colour. Sadly, I am held back, seriously held back by a lack of talent. I stare at a blank page, tighten my grip on the medium at hand and invariably there will emerge – a tree. That is the culmination, the pinnacle of my creations. A gnarled tree, with a few branches, a knot in the middle and tapering roots. And, sadder still, it’s always more or less the same tree. I branched out slightly into coconut trees, but it yielded unsatisfactory results.

In some past life, I must have been surrounded by artists who, with a few magical strokes, could suggest and evoke whole worlds. I must’ve watched and admired, despaired of my own skill. Because I don’t have the imagination and I certainly don’t have the technique. Over my adult life, I’ve bought paints, brushes, charcoal pencils, shading pencils, illustration books... spent rather a lot of money on, as a friend once punned, ‘a paint hope.’

These two pencil shading landscapes from my learning book had convenient outlines that were dead useful as a structure. Perspective is everything!

And then adult colouring books happened. It was godsent. Now, with someone else drawing out the lines, all I had to do was colour within the lines. Now, this was well within my powers. And for a few years now I have enjoyed this – listening to music and poring over printed sheets of sketches. My blending skills have improved, I love using a mixture of water colours and pencils. Then I also bought Johanna Basford’s amazing book, Enchanted Forest

There are many such books now, but I absolutely love Basford’s whimsical, intimate rendering of imagined scenes. I bought myself a rather nice set of colouring pencils and I enjoy the whole process. That is to say, I did. Till yesterday.

I went to pinterest and instagram desultorily looking for finished coloured pages. Awe and angst in equal measure! What imagination, what skill! I hate these showoffs. They should be out there creating their own masterpieces. What are they doing in amateur circuits? Not only is their colouring spectacular, they fill up the white spaces around the illustrations with their own creations, and now alas, in her latest book Johanna has taken to leaving huge portions of blank space to leave scope for these. And WAIL, I don’t know WHAT TO DO WITH THEM!!!

Let me show you what I mean:

3D by night


He or She colours outside the lines! Fancy that.

All that inside stuff is the colorist's own tweak on this wreath

Let's add a story to that flower wagon

Brown fox in the deep wood.

Have you seen anything so beautiful?
Now I have to plod on with my own pitiful efforts. I don't know how I'm going to find the heart to carry on.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Ramnagar ki Ramlila

Last month, I spent a week in Kashi. An absolutely memorable week that seems to have changed me, transformed me. I have never been so hung over over one city before. (Although I do remember going on a bit about my travels in the Himalaya: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

When I came back, I absolutely had to write about one aspect, my last evening in Varanasi, when I went to the famous Ramlila of Ramnagar. It was an immersive experience that delighted me on every level. I have been day-dreaming about going back to Kashi at this time next year, negotiate some reasonable long-term lodgings and stay for the whole month. Wander around the city in the mornings... see the 56 Vinayakas, the Nava Durgas, the Panch Kroshi temples, the secret underground temples, the eight Bhairavas, the 12 Adityas... everything! In the evenings, I would head to Ramnagar to see the lila.

Today, as I write, the Ramlila is playing out its last day in Ramnagar. At this moment, perhaps the swaroops and other primary characters are in the palace-fort, being given a hospitable meal by Kashi Naresh, receiving their dakshina from him, before leaving the palace on adorned elephants.

I wrote about it, and the piece appeared in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine earlier this week. This is a longer, more detailed version of that piece.


Ramlila, the dramatic folk re-enactment of the life of Rama is conducted across North India during the Dussehra. The entire culture has been designated an intangible heritage by UNESCO, and the most notable traditions are those observed annually at Ayodhya, Ramnagar and Varanasi, Vrindavan, Almora, Satna and Madhubani. Against the ten-day version at most places, the Ramlila at Ramnagar is an elaborate, protracted affair, and takes 30 to 31 days to tell. The folk narration is done by gaslight and without microphones. The crowds range from a few thousands to over a lakh on different days.

Patronised by the Royal Family of Varanasi, the Ramlila here is an extraordinary example of site-specific or environmental theatre. The 5 sq km of Ramnagar town are designated to be various locations: Ayodhya, Janakpur, Lanka and so on, and the performance shifts between these locations, sometimes moving to as many as three locations in a day.

Ramnagar’s Ramlila

Chup raho!! Saavdhaan!” hollers a frail man from the stage. That command for silence is the cue that ‘samvaad’ or conversation is about to take place on the raised platform. The crowd quietens and pitches its collective ears forward, straining to hear the dialogue. Surely, without microphones, the voices wouldn’t carry beyond a 100 rows, and the gathering is several thousands strong. But it doesn’t seem to matter: everyone is following the action closely, already familiar with each line, intimate with the characters and their motivations, keenly anticipating the unfolding of a story they’ve been told and told again since childhood. That is the Ramilia at Ramnagar.

It was chance that my visit to Kashi coincided with the 31-day, elaborately-told Ramlila that unfolds here each year. I had heard so much about this spectacle, and although I’d seen performances in Delhi, it is understood that haven’t seen the lila till you’ve seen ‘Ramnagar ki Ramlila’. I dearly wanted to go, but I was a solo woman traveller... Ramnagar is 12km away and across the river... how would I go, would I be able to muscle my way through crowds, and if the lila ended late, how was I to get back? My hosts put me in the care of Shuklaji, automan and local guide, who would take me there, orient me and bring me back. It was perfect!

But the morning of the day brought worrying news. The previous day’s performance had been cancelled much to the consternation and disappointment of the thousands who had gathered –a thing that had never happened for as long as anyone can remember. Four of the five ‘swaroops’ – the children who don the five primary characters of Ram, Sita, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughna – were down with gasteroenteritis. They were in hospital, the newspapers said, and expected to recover by the evening, in time for the next performance.

So we went. We were early, and I had time to wander about the Ramnagar fort and palace-grounds for a while. As I made my way back, elephants were being brought around to the entrance. Kashi Naresh, the nominal ruler of Varanasi, is the patron of the Ramlila and takes close interest in it. In fact, the Ramlila here was started by his ancestor Udit Narayan Singh around 1830 and further honed by Maharaja Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh, who ruled 1857–1889. He not only took the Ramlila out of the palace-fort into the main town but also commissioned scholars to compose dialogue in Awadhi. Even today, the selection and casting of actors for the main parts is done by the king, and the actors are chosen based on their fluency in Sanskrit, diction and throw. He also provides provisions and upkeep for the thousands of sadhus who come to see the Ramlila each year. Naturally, Kashi Naresh Anant Narayan Singh would be attending the festivities and it was just a matter of time before he and his family set out for the performance.

We trundled off deeper into the dusty town of Ramnagar, and I saw the various locations: here, the site for Ayodhya, over there, Lanka. Today was supposed to be the ‘Dhanush Yagya’, a thrilling episode where Rama strings the bow that wins him the hand of Sita but alas, with the previous day’s cancellation, the program has been rearranged. But Shuklaji consoles me: the ‘Asht Sakhi Samvaad’ or the ‘Conversation Amongst Eight Women’ and ‘Phulwari’, the garden scene where Sita first lays eyes on Rama are highly prized too! The women particularly flock on this day, I learn.
Bhajans by the roadside

We settle into the front rows and the crowd slowly swells. Mats and sacks are laid out, some bring foldable chairs, and some, with great foresight, carry steel dabbas, which do double duty for snacks and a low stool! I also lay out the felt ‘aasan’ I’ve brought for the purpose. (This was a recent acquisition at a charming shop near Dashashwamedh Ghat – a mat woven with kusha grass and this bright-red fabric for Rs 25.) It’s warm, and almost everyone buys a palm-leaf fan.

There is uncertainty in the air. If the swaroops are still ill, this could be a wash out again. “We came yesterday as well,” Tulsiji, next to me, says, “I live near the fort but many walk hours to get here. Nirash ho gaye... everyone was disappointed!”

Thankfully, it’s only a 3-hour delay. I saunter around, eating jalebis dipped in jaggery (a delicacy that’s only served during the lila), sample some excellent revdi and buy a cone-packet of makhana. The Ramlila is famous for ‘niyamis’ – these are regulars who ceremonially attend every day of the lila. I get to be on the sidelines of a pageant of what Shuklaji calls their “aan, baan, shaan”, in other words, their pomp and splendour. Typically the niyamis first take a ritual dip in the waters, wear new clothes (usually blazing white) and walk with what’s almost a swagger. I see an array of forehead markings indicating clan, or Saivite/Vaishnavite orientation. One point of pride are the staffs that they carry – ornate, worked wood with inlay and handles of silver and gold.
The elders wait for the programme to start
Staffs of many impressive kinds

In yet another piquant practice, the niyamis come armed with bottles of ittar, and it is customary to smear your friends and acquaintances with a touch of perfume. The cost of a small vial could go up to a lakh, and the kinds of ittar you carry (a different one each day, if you can afford it) says much about your status. Shuklaji met a friend and my heart leaped for joy when the man we encountered brandished a small sheesha of perfume. I was honoured with a dab – it turned out to be an ambergris-based flavour that I revelled in all evening.

“Has the Maharaja come?” I ask. “Arre, madamji,” Shuklaji says scornfully, “Agar aaye hotey toh ’Har, Har, Mahadev!’ ka aisa gagan-bhedi utkrosh hota ke aapko pata chal jaata!” Had he arrived, cries of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ would’ve pierced the skies! Informed of the delay, the king has delayed his own departure.

Finally, he arrives, and so do the swaroops: Ram-Lakshman are bedecked with sequins, sparkling stones and heavy crowns. Their limbs are smeared with sandalwood paste, lightly scored through to form lines and whorls. The scene is the ‘Asht Sakhi Samvaad’ where Ram and Lakshman walk through the streets of Janakpur, setting the town abuzz with speculation. The boys look regal and impassive as they walk through the crowds, both real and theatrical. All the swaroops, even female parts, are played by boys under the age of 16. In fact, all parts in the lila are played by men. In recent years, the character of Soorpanaka alone has been enacted by a woman, I read later. 

Two of the sakhis in conversation
The swaroops

On stage, the eight women (young men in women’s garb) hold forth, exclaiming over the beauty and grace of the two young men from Ayodhya, wanting one of them to wed their princess. Interestingly, although the actors broadly know their parts, each line is prompted by Vyasji, the director of the performance. He stands behind the actors, with a helper shining a torch on the book he holds open. He mutters the dialogue sotto voce and the actors then pick up each line, declaiming them in a curious sing-song fashion. leaving room for the prompts. To one side, below the platform, the swaroops sit, poised and phlegmatic. The villagers attending them fan them continuously. It is a curious mixture of worship and pragmatism: worry for the sick boys who still have IV catheters embedded in their veins as well as reverence for the gods they represent.

What prompted the actors to perform when their bodies are so frail? Sheer mind over matter? The age-old compulsion that the show must go on, but also because this is a tremendous responsibility. From Ganesh Chaturthi onwards, when they’re cast into their parts till the lila culminates 40 days later on Ashwin Poornima, the boys remain in character. No one addresses them by name, and even amongst themselves, the Ram-swaroop gets all the respect due to the oldest brother.

Now, the scene shifts and we all make our way to an antiquated Gomteshwar temple some distance away. We hunker down around the temple precincts and Shuklaji finds me a spot that lets me see, without craning my neck, both the shrine and the made-up ‘garden’ outside, where the romantic encounter takes place. In the audience, Kashi Naresh sits in a prime spot, unimposing but upright, his white kurta and cap gleaming in the falling light. Finally ‘Janaknandini’ Sita arrives on a palanquin. There are exclamations of delight, and everyone cranes to get a better look... she is clad in red, in contrast to the four brothers who always don yellow. Her bearers shoo crowds out of the way, and the dedicated light man replenishes his ‘mashal’ or torch constantly with kerosene from a quaint, old-fashioned dispenser.

The Gomteshwar mandir which serves as the backdrop for Phulwari
Sita and her companions make their way up the temple steps. I come to realise that time takes on quite a different meaning in rural India. The assembled crowd took the three-hour delay completely in its stride. Shuklaji informs me that every day, the performance, which begins at 5pm takes a flexible break at dusk, so that everyone – from the Maharaja to the performers – can do their ritual sandhya vandan. Small wonder then, that when Sita disappears ‘off-screen’ into the sanctum for a good eight minutes to do her Girija pujan, everyone simply waits. The puja isn’t for show and neither is their devotion.

The Ramlila is punctuated by singing from the Ram Charit Manas by Ramayanis, a group of twelve men who narrate the story in verse. This is followed by the actors who then perform the re-enactment. The Ramayanis finish their verse and the samvaad begins. Ram and Sita meet in the garden, and there is a flare of attraction. Each hopes they are meant to be together. In the rapt audience, mobile rings are frowned upon, chatter is sternly shushed. Some just read the Manas by LED light, following events their own way.

An hour more, and it is done. The swaroops stand for the final aarti, a white firecracker is set off to indicate finis. Within ten minutes, the entire crowd disperses. Till the next day, when Shri Ram will string the Shiv Dhanush and win his bride.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Blast from the Past

Every now and then, a disconcerting thing happens to you on the spiritual path.

For those who are not consciously on the road to liberation, I should perhaps explain that the idea is to become empty – of your likes and dislikes, of your identities, of your opinions, of your personality... a complex bundle of impressions received and kept, unquestioned and unexamined, which is collectively called karma. Dropping one’s karma is the attempt at this stage – and a range of tools, methodologies, approaches and schools are available to a spiritual seeker to help one do it. All forms of yoga serve to cleanse you, and each person picks whatever method or methods suit them best.

With the Master’s Grace, you become perceptibly lighter and paler, so to speak. The ultimate goal of this is to become so pale as to become utterly transparent. 'Vairagya' is the word used, and means ‘without colour’. Without any quality of your own.

Now we are progressing happily, complacent under the delusion that quite a lot has been dropped. Mukti and crystal-clear perception are a matter of time... if not tomorrow, then surely the day after that, enlightenment will happen.

And then, your karma bites you in the butt. Something crude, something very basic, something deep-seated will rear out of your accumulated personality and snarl. Leaving you shaken. And very much doubtful if you have advanced at all. What have you been doing? Is your sadhana achieving anything? Have you lost your way? How could this creep up on you unseen? How, in spite of your efforts to be conscious, did this old rubbish manifest? Shame, worry and disappointment.

Apparently, this is par for the course. Stuff will churn up – stuff you didn’t expect, stuff you thought was gone, stuff you’ll sneer at. There’s nothing to do. Be aware. Observe. Let go. Stuff comes and goes. Seek that which is permanent.

Meanwhile, a delicious haiku by George Dorsty:

am I holding
them correctly?
worry beads

Thursday, October 11, 2018

List of Annoyances

Irritated by everything.

This curtain that tickles the top of my scalp as I type.
The lounge-at-home pajamas that I gave to the tailor to shorten, which he did alter but not enough, and the bottoms of which now annoyingly curl under my heel every damn step.
The fact that I got late with everything.
That I had no creative, exciting plans for brunch and ended up making (and eating!) white rice.
The fact that I ATE without doing a single of my practices and then didn't enjoy it because I was too busy carping and feeling terrible.
The NEWS!!! The MeToo campaign. The horrible disgusting men, the unsavoury stories, the gloating women, the airing of old grievances, the jumping on the bandwagoners, the ugliness of it all.
The fact that I am working against deadlines and feeling anxious about it, instead of enjoying the pressure.
My stuffy head and this persistent headache.
My stomach that gets hungry but doesn't really want anything, but which I feed anyway, in a stupid, compulsive way.
Oh, and inflamed gums that hurt the whole left side of my face.
Plus, I forgot to soak the curtains.
AND my shoulder hurts.

Thursday, September 20, 2018


Impatient today.

Of specious sentiment, of aggrandisement of petty things, of small outlooks and small concerns. Of the constant need to pity someone, to tendency to be immersed in sickly sentiment.

Look at the sky, I want to shout!

Stop, or at least stop pulling me in to participate. I am not sufficiently established, and so cannot play with you. I will only get entangled, and incoherent, and confused, and angry.

Just. Look at the Sky.