Rajshri’s River of Hope

Most of us, when we read social media posts about a natural calamity like drought, we click angry-face LIKE and hit ‘Share NOW’, perhaps with a dark comment about government inefficiency. Some of us donate money. Very few volunteer time with an NGO. My friend Rajshri Deshpande went a step further: last month, she set out to single-handedly revive a river.

Rajshri Deshpande

An audible groan runs through the Jet Airways afternoon flight to Aurangabad as the captain announces temperature at destination: 45 degrees. It’s the kind of weather in which an actress-slash-model like Rajshri Deshpande should be safely within a cafe near her beachside home in Mumbai, sipping iced latte and discussing the European tour for her debut film ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’. Instead, she is in a village some 350 kms away, mediating a quarrel between two villagers.

As she uses her tough charm to calm down both heated parties, you realize she faces a challenge even more ancient than drought – the human ego. A barter deal she had struck with the village dhaba for free diesel to run the hydraulic earthmover has hit rough weather. We are in Pandhri Pimpalgaon village 30 kms away from Aurangabad, standing on the banks of the river Bembla, or at least what used to be the 160-foot-wide river Bembla until 2002. It is now an arid dustbowl overrun with thorny scrub, so scorched even the dusk breeze stings our eyes. And here is Rajshri Deshpande, using her education as a lawyer, her talent as an actor and some milky sweet chai to resolve the problem so the stalled work for resuscitating the dead river can begin again.

An old villager remembers the beginning of the end came when the trees on its banks were chopped for wood. Every year after that, the riverbed retained less water. The perennial river soon had dry months in which spiny shrubs and cacti began weeding its riverbed. When the rains came, thorns clutched plastic trash and choked the flow. The loosed sediment slid down its banks and morphed the riverbed into the almost-indistinguishable rolling scrubland where we stand right now.

Rajshri Deshpande has taken it upon herself to reverse the process for this little river Bembla. The immediate plan is to clean out three large pits within the riverbed which can become ponds after the monsoon. While raising funds in the city, she has also asked villagers to pitch not only in their spare time but also a small part of the cost. The larger reason, she explains, is not so much to save costs as to have them feel invested and empowered. The biggest problem here, Rajshri says, is lack of motivation.

Drought Farmer

Farmers and their fields await the monsoon in Pandhri

When it comes to drought, most city-folk are like Jon Snow: we know nothing. Reading media reports we picture emaciated farmers’ bodies scattered across deeply fractured lands. As journalist P Sainath points out in his darkly humorous classic ‘Everybody Loves A Good Drought’ the truth is drought comes in many forms, not all of which look like the clichéd ‘endless parched lands’, not all of them caused by the clichéd ‘cruel monsoons’ and not all of them causing deaths of clichéd ‘starving farmers’.

The truth is different. In Maharashtra, as in many parts of India, drought is man-made, so an above-average monsoon is no guarantee drought will not recur. We may point fingers at the government’s indiscriminate digging of water-sucking bore wells, poisonous urea-farming, destruction of ancient ponds, diversion of rivers for city-dwellers’ electricity and water-guzzling sugarcane factories. But other fingers should point at the farmers themselves – at their focus on instant solutions for immediate profits. The cliché of cruel nature causing drought, I learn, is only partly true.

Secondly, thanks to heavy subsidies on dal, rice and wheat, most farmers do not actually die of starvation. This year, the government is providing free tankers of water twice a week to fill the ubiquitous 200-litre blue plastic barrels clustered like oversized garden gnomes outside every hut. With a little stretch, this is enough for the farmer family’s essentials but not enough to support their extended family: the animals who starve with little fodder and lesser water every year. And for centuries-old farming communities, it is not enough to sustain their withering farms. Year after year, men and boys flee farms to work as construction laborers or, as Nana Patekar cinematically put it, to knock on the windows of your car to ask for loose change. This is the broader problem caused by drought. More often out of loss of will than lack of a meal, 6000 Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last four years.

The biggest problem, Rajshri keeps repeating, is lack of motivation. There are farmers here who are dirt-poor, she says, but there are farmers who have money also. Our donations for water-tankers can help them temporarily, but next summer the farmers will be in the same place… and the water-tanker contractors will be much richer. To make a long-term change, the farmers need to revive their land and rivers. They need some motivation to do things beyond immediate gain. For that they need a little push from outside, just like we all do at times.

In fact, motivating herself to take on this project without money, resources or a team was the first challenge for Rajshri. This is what I found most fascinating about Rajshri’s story: while many NGOs, non-profit organizations and volunteer teams are doing praiseworthy projects for drought-relief, hers is the story of how far an individual can walk with a little bit of faith and a little bit of insanity. But that was not how it began.

Initially, she contacted Nana Patekar & Makarand Anaspure’s ‘Naam Foundation’ to take on the Bembla river project. They were stretched thin, they said, but offered her a Pokland earth-mover for free. Another NGO she approached quoted a heavily padded estimate to take it on as a turnkey project. Yet another asked for a 10% profit share from all funds she raised. The monsoon was approaching in less than two months so she finally took a deep breath and braced herself for whatever lay ahead.

Convincing the villagers of Pandhri and Pimpalgaon was her next challenge. It helped that Rajshri’s mother had worked with the Zilla Parishad in nearby Aurangabad so she grew up in these parts; in the parochial village mentality, this Marathi-speaking and Marathi-swearing girl is ‘aamchi mulgi’… our girl. But she still had to work against deeply embedded wrinkles of distrust. Broken promises by successive elected leaders – whose tenure was a snatch & grab race to collect as much money as they could before their five-year term ran out – had made the farmers cynical. On her first visit, an old woman hoarsely predicted to everyone in the village square that like others who had promised to help, Rajshri too would never return.

Dr Ajit Gokhale

Dr Ajit Gokhale’s workshop for the villagers in progress

But she did return, along with an environmentalist and natural solutions expert with two decades of experience, Dr Ajit S Gokhale. He set up a bench in the village field and demonstrated to the farmers using their own soil how urea-farming and tractor-tilling was killing their land.

But information, Dr Gokhale knew from his experience of helping 170 villages, is never enough to motivate. So he asked them his favorite trick question: Has the government done anything for you? In unison, the villagers chorused an angry NO! This was perhaps the only subject upon which they agreed across all caste, class and religion lines. Dr Gokhale smiled and asked: So who made the roads? Did you make them? The villagers were nonplussed by this new line of questioning: roads came from the government, of course. And do you create your own electricity? That too was from the government, they had to agree. The school your children go to? What about ration shops? And fertilizer subsidy? Slowly, the point of the questions began to dawn on them: Dr Gokhale was offering them the option to stop sitting on their haunches and blaming the government for everything wrong with their lives.

When he saw his point had hit home, Dr Gokhale changed tack. He asked: Are any amongst you helping anyone other than your own family? Something altruistic in which there is no thought for your own gain? The villagers squirmed. That, Dr Gokhale concluded, is the real reason for the drought – you don’t think about your neighbor, your village land or even your grandchildren.

He reminded them of the dust-covered ‘Yogeshwar Krushi’ board he had seen while walking through Pandhri village; Pandurang Shastri Athavale’s beautiful concept where the entire village also tills one patch of common land, the produce from which is used to help whoever has unexpected need that year. He advised them to revive that half-forgotten practice. Dr Gokhale’s conversation worked like magic. In less than an hour, they went from helpless victims waiting for relief to citizens ready to take responsibility for their situation.

Next Rajshri picked her two local champions for the project. Dattabhau, at 55, is the senior, experienced and respected one. Having bought his first plot of land by pawning his wife’s mangalsutra, he worked to educate his sons through engineering college and his daughter to an MA in English – so he’s hardworking and future-oriented. Twenty-something Yogesh, on the other hand, is affable and talks with a smile. When most of the farmers were still skeptical, Yogesh was the one who spoke individually to at least listen to her.

But finally, it was the day Rajshri directly dialled veteran Marathi actor Makarand Anaspure to give the villagers a speaker-phone pep talk that they began listening to her with newfound adoration. (An unanticipated side-effect: Makarand mentioned that she was an actress, not realizing she had hidden this from the villagers until then.)

Rajshri Deshpande Drought

The Hydraulic Excavator provided by Naam Foundation. Tractors provided by the villagers.

Since then Dattabhau and Yogesh, along with a handful of village volunteers, supervise the clearing of the riverbed in night and day shifts. It’s been two weeks, and straw-haired Dattabhau who walked with a limp when work began, now sprints with youthful excitement.

He has reason to be: in ten days, they have completed one pit and soon, when the work is done, it will support two villages: Pandhri and Pimpalgaon, with a combined population of 2500. By official statistics, around 80% of them are small farmers with less than five acres for their cotton, soybean, millet, jowar, bajra and pomegranate fields. But for Dattabhau, all of them are faces he has known his entire life. If they manage to complete all three pits before the rains, the water will also benefit a zopadpatti (slum) nearby. And just maybe, if the rain gods are benevolent, then the five toilets in the village can be reopened so they don’t have to go every day for a long ‘morning walk’.

As Dattabhau lithely climbs a concrete backwall across the dry riverbed, he points me its cement slab: This wall is government work… means total duplicate work. Where they need ten bags of cement, they use two bags. That’s why this happens… He shows me gaping holes with exposed twists of metal rods, and then adds with pride: By government rate, our river project would cost Rs 30 lac, with our work it will be not more than Rs 3 lac. Ten times difference…

Later, I discovered this little Bembla river shares its name with another larger, more infamous Bembla river in nearby Yavatmal, which became an icon of corruption for its massive, misguided dam project which remains incomplete even after 25 years. The biggest irony: after spending Rs 1857 crores, the Economic Times reported that the project is providing water to a mere 1,200 hectares – which is the exact size of Pandhri and Pimpalgaon villages put together! When Dattabhau estimated a ten-time difference between his costs and government costs, he was way, way off.

Rajshri Deshpande's Team

Rajshri with her champions. Dattabhau stands second from left. Yogesh second from right.

At dusk, we sit on a charpoy overlooking Yogesh’s field, and a small crowd gathers around. Rajshri tells them she is arranging for a medical camp with the help of a hospital in Aurangabad whom she contacted through her older sister, a doctor. She needs them to let her know through Yogesh which kind of doctor they need to visit them. The conversation flows into dinner at Yogesh’s two-room corrugated-roofed house. Like most village homes, it has porous walls: neighbors and children wander through and join conversations and meals without questions asked. Rajshri discusses the next steps over dinner: once the digging work is done, they should plant trees on the banks, to complete the reversal of the original degradation process.

One of the guests’ cellphone bursts into devotional song. Light-eyed pomegranate farmer Thombre picks up and speaks rapidly in Marathi. He shyly offers his ancient Nokia phone to Rajshri tai. The call is from a woman who heard about the Bembla river work, asking if Rajshri can come to help their village next.

‘If you motivate one village,’ Rajshri says to me as we leave, ‘it becomes an example for others. And in future, villagers like Yogesh and Dattabhau can manage it themselves. I will help from outside. It may not be easy, but it can be done.’ When you consider that a river which ran dry for fifteen years is being revived in a little more than a month, you realize this is not ‘Savior Barbie’ optimism, nor is it too faraway a dream.

At night, after the village babies have rocked off to sleep on their swinging cotton hammocks, after the nightly hari-katha song of the village women in the Vitthal temple porch has fallen silent, Rajshri checks one last time with Yogesh and Dattabhau to see which villagers are going to monitor the work for tonight.

“Yogesh, next year I want to see a bumper crop in your field,” she says, as she sits in her car. Thombre asks shyly if they can talk to Makarand Anaspure once again from her phone. She laughs. But tai… only to thank him… for his support… We should thank him, no? Thombre stammers. Everyone laughs as the car starts.

The battered car is throbbing warm even though the air-conditioning is a full noisy blast. Rajshri Deshpande adjusts the steering wheel and braces for the eight-hour drive to Mumbai, as she has done seven times in the past month. But she knows the more difficult challenges await her back home. So far, through family, friends and a personal contribution by Masaan writer Varun Grover and director Neeraj Ghaywan from their National Award money, she has raised Rs. 1,25,000; somehow she will have to get the remaining money. There are other problems too, some undreamed-of: like the one where a stranger came to surreptitiously take pictures of their worksite to con people online for donations: what can one do in such cases? She takes a deep breath and straightens her rearview mirror. In the distance, Dattabhau watches as the car turns past their tree-canopied Hanuman temple onto the highway: the highway from where the fast-moving world will soon slow down to marvel at the miracle of an ancient river come back to life.

*

THE STORY OF ‘ME’

whatswrongwithme

During the weekly group call last Sunday, my mentor GD spoke with incredible clarity for an hour about the inner monologue that makes us zombies to the present moment. That constant thrum that never allows us to be quiet even during our attempts at peace. That inner screen we are glued to even more than our iPhone screen. I thought it was so powerful and potentially transformative that I decided to share some excerpts. If you would like to listen to the full talk, it is available as an audio download from The Core Healing Archives under the title ‘The Story of Me’.

EXCERPTS:

Pause. See if you can notice the stream of thoughts moving in your head in this moment. That is what we call ‘the story of me’: it’s ‘my story’, ‘my life’. It’s like a non-stop movie inside our head. And it’s always in movement – and this movement is based on all the stories of the past and all the stories of the future. It’s a non-stop river, and it’s always about me, me, me. It’s a kind of dreaming we do even when we seem to be awake.

For most of us, the story of me is so unconscious, we don’t even know it is going on throughout the day. And the story of me can remain active only when there is unawareness. When there is pure awareness, even for a few moments, the story of me disappears. And what remains is just an openness, a stillness, a sense of being.

This story of me is always plotting, planning and scheming. It’s very clever. How can I get all the things I want and need? How can I avoid all the things that I fear? The ‘me story’ is always about avoiding all forms of pain, sickness and disease. And about acquiring all forms of happiness and pleasure. If you notice, this ‘me’ in your head is always going towards something or going away from something. It is never still… ever.

Imagine you are sitting in a movie theatre watching the movie ‘Titanic’ fully engrossed… feeling the emotions, enjoying the drama. And something goes wrong with the projection. Suddenly the movie stops. And we realize there is just a blank screen! We kind of wake up and realize the boat was not real, the characters were not real: there was nothing actually happening there. It was just a kind of hypnosis.

Similarly, there is a movie going in our mind on all the time – stories about my future, my past, my spirituality. They are all imaginary and they are all painful. Why are they painful? Because they are constantly running into the future. They are stories of unfulfillment, they are stories of neediness, they are stories of desperation. In a cinema hall, this drama happens for two hours, but for us it continues for sixty-seventy years. Morning to night, this imaginary story of me goes on and on and on.

All our conflicts with others also arise from this story of me – based on what I believe, what I think should happen, what I think is ‘right’. So the imaginary story of me is not just hell for me, it creates hell for others also. The ‘me’ tries to impose itself on everybody else. If others don’t agree with us, there is violence. The violence can be very subtle, like we may sulk and go into the other room, or it can be very loud and we directly attack the other person.

A time comes in our life when the story of me becomes spiritual – then the story of me becomes preoccupied with getting enlightenment and having the perfect state. The joke is that the story of me can never get enlightened! Because it’s this very story, this dreaming that is the obstruction to what is already always present!

Allow yourself to notice this story of me… again and again. Throughout the day, use this question: What unconscious dreaming is going on in this moment? The moment you pop this question, something will change, something will shift, and the story of me will snap. And what will be revealed is pure awareness – that which has no past, no future, and no story.

***

To download the entire 60 minute talk which includes further insights and a deeply meditative space – as well as other Q&A and clearings from GD’s group telephonic sessions – go to the Core Healing India Archives.

 

This Is Who You Are

AlicePopkorn

Even hurry

is within

the crucible of stillness

*

Even panic

echoes

in perfect silence

*

Sadness is hugged

from every side

by joy so tight.

*

Not an achievement

nor a reward is this:

this is who you are – even

before you read these words.

*

See that loneliness can’t help

but be one

with everything

*

And immorality bathes

in the same

divine light…

*

While this quiet smile

of consciousness watches

your pretense of foolishness.

*

And you can’t shake this off,

no god can steal it:

this is who you are

even before you read these words

*

This is who watches afterwards

as you try to understand –

and what you sink into

when you finally give up…

*

Pic via Alice Popkorn

An Accidental Pilgrimage

Sometimes, when we are lost in our worldly lives and cut off from Source, it takes a minor miracle — and in my case, many little miracles — to remind us that we are are never far away from Grace. Initially, I jotted down these incidents only for my private journal because I knew that in the years to come I would not believe this really happened the way it did. I decided to make this available publicly now because I remembered that I may accidentally be someone else’s reminder of Grace, just as others were accidentally a part of mine.

Arunachala Mountain

The first glimpse of Arunachala

To say that I made a trip to Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tiruvannamalai last month feels like a gross exaggeration – almost like stealing credit for something I didn’t do. It would be more accurate to say that I was pulled there – circumstances were created, alternatives were blocked, unexpected people appeared who helped – in such a way that I found myself in the holy mountain town of Tiruvannalamalai on a warm Saturday morning. And what happened next was even more incredible.

This was at the end of about two months of being cut off from my brother and mentor GD. Why do I get cut off from time to time? I don’t really know – some form of rebellion within stops me from picking up the phone and then the inertia of flowing with work and family drags me along: the routine of working, watching movies, reading, going to a mall on the weekend becomes all-consuming and all-numbing. A certain sadness wells within but it is buried in busyness, in reading or watching movies till I fall asleep, so that I don’t get a chance to think about my feelings. This coincides with a decline in spiritual practice too. As I have often seen in the past, disconnection from GD is only the outward manifestation of disconnection from my Self.

So this time, I had to be literally cornered into going to Ramanasramam. I was stuck during a weekend work trip to Chennai city with all my meetings cancelled for Saturday and all my attempts to create meetings failed due to various reasons. Further, I had to be in Chennai again on Sunday for a dear friend’s wedding, and the office indicated that it would be expensive for me to fly back from Mumbai to Chennai twice in a weekend. In fact, it was my CFO who suggested: why don’t I go to that Tiruvannamalai place a few hours from Chennai that I keep talking about? I had not considered the possibility until then…

On Friday night, at a party, Indian actor Kamal Hassan’s 60th Birthday party, I bumped into an estranged colleague to whom I mentioned the possibility of visiting Tiruvannamalai the following day. It turned out his wife’s family owned a college in that very town. He instantly arranged a car and driver for me to travel there and back the next morning.

So the following morning, I drove some two hundred kilometers from Chennai to Tiruvannamalai with no hotel booking. I would have ideally preferred to stay in an ashram, but those rooms were booked up months in advance. So we stopped near a small temple with upstanding trishuls near the gate, to ask for directions to the best-rated hotel. When we found it, the hotel was all booked. So was the second, third, fourth and fifth option and two ashrams. The manager at the fifth option curtly told me all hotels for two kilometers around Tiruvannamalai were full for the weekend, almost accusing me of being foolish enough to arrive on a Saturday without a booking. I was a bit concerned – what was happening? Had I made a mistake in coming? Finally, I stopped at an internet cafe that listed rental rooms amongst its diverse services. The man suggested I try Sheshadri Ashram, then seeing my plight, he considered a business proposition: he told me to check a room on the first floor of his half-completed building and if I wanted, I could have it for a night. It was the only finished room in a construction site, not very pleasant, but it was near the ashram. I said I would take it — and went off to buy a new padlock.

As the car returned to the main Ashram road where the shops were, I suggested to the driver to take us to the Sheshadri Ashram just next door to Ramanasramam. I walked into the office gingerly, and the unsmiling boy who was at the desk looked at me suspiciously — my heavy desert boots, my raw denim jeans and open khakee shirt over a dark green t-shirt was more suited for a party than an ashram. He asked for ID and finally confirmed he had one single room available! He gave me the key to see it before paying, though by that point, I would have accepted a bed in the temple courtyard if it was offered.

When I went out of the gate to tell the driver the good news I realized we were exactly behind the spot where we had been first “lost” – outside the temple with upstanding trishuls – and had began our fruitless search for hotels. Had we just asked for a room instead of directions there – we would have found this best option, better than any hotel, at a fraction of the price. My room was Rs 400 ($6) for an A/C room with two beds. I was really getting proof again and again that I was being taken care of. I sent my driver with Rs. 50 to the Internet Cafe owner as a thank-you, and to tell him I was not taking his room, and moved my luggage to Room 77 at the Sheshadri Ashram.

An added bonus of the Seshadri Ashram was that they had a canteen which served excellent vegetarian food. I wolfed down a delicious late lunch and lay down in my room. I thought back to the events of the day, and I began to cry. I felt it must be Ramana’s Grace that had worked so many miracles to bring me here.

The room where Ramana gave his final darshan

At the Ramanasramam, I first visited the samadhi room where Ramana gave his final darshan before his passing on April 14, 1950. The room is kept exactly as it was in those days with only a fresh bedsheet on the bed where he lay in pain with cancer, yet not willing to turn anyone away who wanted his darshan till his final breath. Tears began to quietly flow down my cheeks once again.

In the meditation hall, the bells were clanging. I sat through a beautiful Sanskrit chanting and later, an arati of Tamil songs sung in his praise. It was marvellous to see so many people of all shapes, sizes and nationalities circumambulating his shrine in the meditation hall all through the prayers. The sounds would resonate in my ears for a long time. At the end, I walked towards the pooja tray along with everyone else, where we took in the light of the flame and put the tilak paste and the vermillion dots on our foreheads.

One of the highlights of visiting Ramanasramam for any devotee is the high-energy Arunachala mountain upon which it is situated. The last time I had come with GD, five years before, we had done the inner pradakshina, a four-hour circumambulation upon the mountain after which we felt refreshed enough to go for an evening walk.

This time, I wondered if I would be able to do the inner pradakshina. I had heard the inner pradakshina had been stopped due to increasing forest fires, and I knew that the outer pradakshina – circumambulation on the road around the mountain – could take upto a day to complete, so I didn’t think I had time. Yet I knew if I didn’t go on the mountain, my trip would feel incomplete. As I fell asleep, I decided to leave it to Bhagavan – who had taken of everything so perfectly till now.

The following morning, after a quick breakfast and bath, I headed back to the ashram. I sat in meditation – practising Self-Enquiry as taught by Ramana Maharishi. During meditation, after such a palpable presence of Ramana during this trip, I felt comfortable asking Ramana for guidance. I got a clear voice within which told me to listen to GD, he was like a living Ramana in my life.

After an hour, I began to feel pulled to walk towards the hill. As I wandered towards the back side of the Ashram, I found a narrow gate I didn’t know existed. It said this was the route to Skandashram, the cave up the mountain where Ramana stayed for seven years. I walked barefoot up the mountain path and kept walking and walking – it turned out to be almost two kilometers high. As I walked, I began to realize that this was the plan Bhagavan had for me – a perfect journey for me into the mountain!

My heart gladdened with every step. Though my breath was rapid, I didn’t feel tired. On the contrary, I felt energised. I was on the mountain again, as I had dreamed of for so many years since my first visit with GD five years before. Walking on the very stones that Ramana himself had walked, and going to the cave where he had sat in meditation!

Arunachala-Skandashram

Skandashram (Pic Courtesy: Meath Conlan)

Skandashram had a small patio and a green stone frame for a door with a tiny meditation room within with mats laid out, further inside was a photo of Ramana at the age when he stayed here, sitting in meditation with a flame before it. I sat down on the mat and lost myself in self-enquiry again, as if in a solid block of Silence.

When I walked back down the stony mountain path, on a lonely stretch, a large monkey came up to me hungry for some treats from my bag. There was no fear, just a mutual understanding. There was a bottle of butter-milk in my cloth bag which he sunk his teeth into as if to indicate that is what he wanted. I removed it, and offered it to him. He took it in both hands and scampered away.

A few meters down, still practising self-enquiry, I became acutely alert to the radio noise of the mind within, and in noticing it, it suddenly quietened down. I began to walk slowly, noticing everything in great detail now – sounds, colors, smells and the sensations below my feet were vivid and alive and all one.

A little lower down the path, I noticed a tiny dung beetle, pushing a ball of excreta twice his size across the path. I wondered if that was me too, struggling to hold together the pointless endeavours of my life. I watched him for a while, literally almost crushed under the weight of his shit but unwilling to let go. And I remembered the cryptic message I had got in meditation the evening before: “What is pointless is pointless, there is no more or less in it.”

As I walked below, it struck me that the loudest voice in my head was that part of me which was trying to make everything silent. I saw the irony of the situation – the class monitor who was trying to silence the class was the noisiest voice in the class! Alone in the mountain path, I began to laugh to myself. The walk changed to become loose-limbed and relaxed. I sensed this was the final fruit of this trip. Even the doer of the meditation dropped away.

As I walked smilingly, I passed a white peahen in the clearing a few feet away from me. It was marvellously beautiful – like an apparition almost unreal stepping gingerly in the dappled sunlit glade. I stood transfixed.

peacock

The white peahen I saw at the end of my journey

For me, this unplanned pilgrimage was a powerful reminder that even when you have forgotten your guru, He has not forgotten you. Even when you move away, you are taken care of. And even when the only remaining  link is a tiny flickering flame of longing in your heart, it is enough.

As we drove back to Chennai on Sunday evening, I SMSed my mentor GD after almost two months: ‘Thank you for giving me the space to behave like an idiot sometimes. I love you.’ He replied ‘Ditto’. After a minute came another SMS from him: ‘The ditto was only for the last line.’

I realized I hadn’t laughed like this for many months.

*

It’s Not Too Late If You Are Reading This…

One of my dearest friends lost his brother to Dengue this morning. It happened suddenly – he was diagnosed last Sunday and didn’t live to see the next one.

I urge you to take care.

Not just from the disease, but from the regret of not having loved and listened to those people in your lives while they were around. Take care of them while they are alive and well.

I know it feels like there will always be time tomorrow right now. And I know they sometimes ramble and tell you things you’ve heard before. And maybe they phone more often than you would like to talk. And of course, you intend to return their calls, even when you don’t.

They are annoying sometimes in interrupting your plans and life. They may not be in the right place at the right time but put them at ease anyway. Don’t continue to hold against them what they once said because it makes you a winner in some game of moral righteousness. The only way that game ends is with you losing.

You will miss them some day. Not just the sound of their voice which you will hear in your head only then. Not only the secret memories – those polaroid moments of eternity. Not just the smell of them that cannot be replicated – or the touch of their skin pulsing with Life. You will miss their annoyances someday. You will regret those times when a flickering screen was more important than a human being you loved.

Look around right now. You have something beautiful and perfect and irreplaceable – this moment. You may not be as wealthy as you would like but you have something the richest person on the planet can’t purchase a minute more of. Use this moment to say and do what is really important, not merely what seems urgent. Take care to use this moment as if it were priceless.

Use this moment to say your ‘sorrys’ and ‘thank yous’…

Because not all of us get to say our good-byes.

*

A Religion Called Kindness

Kindness

When I was young, I wanted the world to see me as intelligent. When I got older, I wanted to be recognized as successful. As the years pass, I increasingly find that the quality that matters to me is kindness.

All of my spiritual learning, if I were asked to sum up in a word, would be contained within this simple word: kindness. Not ‘love’ – it has been far too glorified and corrupted by songs and movies and clever advertising. Not even ‘compassion’ which stinks of a certain holiness for me. Compassion implies another, less fortunate, being. Kindness needs no other. Perhaps closest to it is the Buddhist term ‘metta’ – translated as ‘loving-kindness’ and described as ‘a boundless, warm-hearted feeling’.

Kindness is a subject that has been gently nudging within, asking to be written for a while now. A few months ago, on my fortieth birthday, I considered writing a blog about forty things I have learned in forty years. Pondering deeper, only this one word resonated as worth sharing. From all the meditations, mastery processes and transcendental travels – the fragrance that flowers, is this simple, sane, human kindness.

Even though my brother and mentor GD rarely speaks about it directly, I see it in action when I stay over with him. From the way he lights an incense before you arrive, to the way he makes you tea. From the way he gives you space to be confused if you choose, to the way he holds himself available as a space for healing whatever distortion is clouding your being. It’s in the way he keeps water for birds in his garden in summer and in the way he feeds a menagerie of cats, squirrels, mongooses, crows, sparrow, pigeons and coucals every day. From him, I see that liberation from the concept of self adds the highest octave of sensitivity and effortlessness to kindness.

Kindness is not sugar-coating. Sometimes kindness lies in being silent when the words would leave longtime scars. For me, sometimes kindness is even in lying when a truth is not asked for. Maybe there are others who would disagree with this – and not without reason. Kindness is also in firmly holding a ‘no’ when my son wants to play a little longer on the iPad. No human is given the power to know all the consequences of his actions, but kindness is in the source, not the outcome. Kindness is not in what you do, but in who you are being; not in what you say, but in what you silently wish within.

Kindness in business is so overlooked. It is the place where it needs to be learned and applied the most. Kindness in dealing with colleagues who struggle to be proficient in areas their body-mind mechanism is not suited for. Kindness in dealing with those who pride themselves on their shrewdness – even as they are constantly proving how they are getting the better of you. And kindness in dealing with fearful opinions masquerading as common sense and ‘reality’. How often do I come to see that the sufferings and faults I blame life for only happened after I had lost my own compass of kindness!

This oft-ignored word may stand quietly in new-age consciousness behind spiritual heavyweights like ‘meditation’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘manifestation’. But without it, no amount of learning, achievement or clarity brings joy. Being kind doesn’t even imply action – it is a state of being that wishes well. It could be a silent prayer for someone having a hard day. A smile to a doorman. A quiet glance to someone used to living invisible. Or just that boundless, warm-hearted feeling that is held like a flame within.

This weekend I finally sat down to write about kindness because I was at the receiving end of such a gracious act of kindness from a friend I met after many years that it moved me to tears. It felt in that moment as if a lifetime of mental learning is tiny compared to a kind heart. (Maybe the function of all wisdom is to hold the heart open when the whole world would advise against it.) Then that person reminded me of a small help I had given her 11 years ago. And I marveled at the power of kindness to resonate across time, even when everything else about that life has been long forgotten.

Do take some time to be kind, please.

Not because it’s going to heal the world. But because, someday, you will see that nothing else was more important for yourself.

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Remind Me

Heart Water Drops

A timeless overcast rainy Sunday before me. White birds flap across twilight greens making their way home. It seems like this moment contains eternities. I watch as tranquil pools of water are broken by raindrops that ripple across and disappear into tranquility again. The water has no fear of being disturbed, no preference for stillness. I wonder at how afraid I am to be shaken up and agitated – how much of my life is managed to ensure it doesn’t happen. Then I remember that beneath this ever-changing persona, there is something else… It’s a reminder I need every day:

 

The water has no fear of being disturbed,

Remind me that I am water.

 

The air holds all, with no distinction:

Why do I forget I am air?

 

Why do I relinquish the solid earth I am,

For a rootless, trembling mind?

 

How do I crumple all of space,

Into a fearful ball of fight?

 

Remind me again and again

I am that Love unshakeable

 

In the midst of chaos, in the madness of life,

Just remind me I Am… just remind me I Am

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