Musings

Taste of Oneness

[Adapted with gratitude from ISRO’s Insat 3D photo]

As always we were at the park by 0700: to amble and breathe the crisp clean air, absorb the rare element oxygen and do a bit of yoga on dew-damp grass, enjoy breakfast and coffee beneath the trees…ah, all so good for body, mind and soul in these troubled times.

Presently we strolled around the stalls and tables in the farmer’s market, picked up a few leafy vegetables and some little green elaichi bananas to ripen at home. We didn’t really need dry fruit, having stocked up amply the previous weekend; yet we stopped by Her table. She comes from a village near the twenty-five-centuries-old trading town of Herat on the Silk Road— in western Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s iron fist has struck the hardest. Her family trades in almonds, pistachios, walnuts, dates, figs and other dry fruit from Afghanistan, of such exquisite and unique flavor that we value them infinitely more than the slight premiums at which she sells them compared to the prices of similar produce marketed by the mega-kirana shops of Bezos, Biyani et al.

As always, we shared a smile and a quick word or three. As we turned to go, she softly called: “Wait!”  She picked up a date in delicate fingers, deftly opened it down the middle, selected a walnut kernel and placed it inside the date, folded the date shut, and then offered it to us with both palm extended, eyes shining, radiant with the invisible smile beneath the mask that erased the lines of anxiety and weariness from around her eyes and forehead.

Not long after, we were sprawled in deep shavaasana at a favourite spot—a little grassy plateau in a secluded corner of the park, shaded by a thick cluster of young trees, with the scents of myriad flowers and wet leaves in the air, inquisitive squirrels scampering about, and an orchestra of sparrows, mynahs, crows and an occasional lapwing providing ambient music to soothe the senses. A murmur reached our ears, a gentle ripple that brought us out of dreamy reverie: four women, young to middle-aged, had wandered into the grove. Briefly, they glanced at us: quick smiles and nods, and then they returned to their quiet converse, their eyes scanning the foliage above them. From time to time they reached up and plucked slender stems lined with light-green leaves, which they gathered in their palms like little bouquets. As they came close we sat up and exchanged namaskaars,

“What will you do with those leaves?” we asked.

They laughed and chorused: “We’ll eat them, of course!”

“But…what leaves are those?”

 “Why, tamarind of course!” they laughed again. “Haven’t you eaten tamarind leaf?”

“Tamarind!”

 “Yes, tamarind,” murmured one of them, clearly the eldest. “The young leaves are sweet to eat,” she went on. “They’re good to flavor your dishes with too.  The leafing time is nearly ended now; it’s hard to find any young leaves, they’re the most filled with flavor. But still, if you look hard enough you can find some…” Her Hindi carried the flavors of Rajasthan, her smile smoothened the deeply etched lines of a thousand cares and never-ending drudgery.

She nodded in farewell, and the group wandered off through the trees. We sank back into reverie, emerging when she suddenly reappeared. “Here, these are for you!” and she thrust a bunch of light-green leaves at us. “Enjoy their freshness,” she cried with a laugh and darted off to join her friends.

Two little flavoured moments: sweet nuttiness blending with earthy, lemony tartness. Two little moments: so inconsequential, yet filled with so much affection, spontaneous generosity and warmth, power, shared joy… elements that will endure long after the toxins of these dreadful times have dissipated; the elements that make up timeless memories, that become anchors for us to find stability and equanimity in the choppy unpredictable currents of life, blessings for which we are infinitely grateful.

General ravings, Musings, Remembering

WTF should I WFE when I can WFH?

A ramble in 23 disconnected parts

One of the major impacts of the Coronavirus Era is that a whole lot of people are now working from home (WFH). 

I realize, with considerable delight, that WFH is what I’ve been doing since 1993.

That was when, after just about 13 years as a lowly and descending-ever-lower State Bank officer, I awoke one day to the realization that, judging by my precipitous career graph and the learned and corrosive opinions of several influential senior management functionaries, I was both unlikely and unfit to become even the part-time trainee-assistant to a certain peon who had been placed under suspension at the bank’s Thalayolaparambu branch for interesting-sounding offences such as  ‘moral turpitude’ (I was informed by usually unreliable sources that the peon later rose to be the chief vigilance manager of the bank).

It was an epiphany of sorts. I suddenly became aware that all that I’d ever wanted to do since the age of six was to work as  engine-driver or coal-shoveller in the Indian Railways—preferably on the wonderful WP/M Class 4-6-2 Canadian steam engines that hauled express and mail trains.

Or, as Plan B, I wanted to be a writer. 

And so, to resounding cries of joy from the senior bank management functionaries and other colleagues, I quit my memorably erratic and obscure career in the world of banking and finance in September 1992 to begin a new and even more erratic and obscure career as a writer—my dreams to join Indian Railways having, alas, been derailed because I had no engineering or coal-shovelling qualifications, and in any case by the early 1990s almost all the coal-fired steam engines had been phased out.

And so, O Patient and Worthy Reader, here I’ve been ever since then—WFH, scribbling and clacking away with pen and keyboard respectively, often disrespectfully, and sometimes retrospectively on almost every subject under the sun and a fair number of objects well beyond the sun too.

The Coronavirus Era is indeed terrible. Yet,  I’m happy that millions of others can at last discover the joys and benefits of WFH, even in these viroid paranoid times when people can’t sit together in persona to waste pleasant and unproductive hours in meetings, workshops, seminars and conferences, but are forced instead to sit in separatum (or alag alag, beleg beleg or taniya taniya) in their own respective abodes and waste even more pleasant and unproductive hours Zooming and MS Teaming and Webexing their angst at not being able to sit together  in persona to waste time. 

I just love WFH. I believe WFH is infinitely better than WFE (working from elsewhere).  

Join me in a few whoops of ‘WTF should I WFE when I can WFH’!   

Of course, I realize that WFH has been quite different for me than it is for most other people today, in two fundamental ways:

1.  I chose to WFH; a virus didn’t make that choice for me.  

2.  I’m doing something totally different while WFH (writing) from what I was doing before WFH (being a banker); whereas a lot of people WFH today are doing the same things that they were doing before WFH.

So, I’m fully aware there’s no comparing my WFH with your WFH. Still, I dare say there are a few wonderful joys of WFH that all we WFH-ers share.  Like:

  • Avoiding the drudgery and tedium of spending hours driving or otherwise commuting scores of kilometres to and from work—in uncomfortably close proximity with thousands of co-commuters of assorted aggressiveness, aromas, and angularities.
  • Doing the same amount of work – or often, much more work – from the comfort of home, where you can take breaks for tea and coffee  and snacks and a stroll and a quick goof-off or even nap as often and for as long as you like.
  • Learning new or long-forgotten skills – like listening to bird-calls, sharing comfortable silence with a friend, chuckling to oneself, reading, reflecting, simply being. 
  • Breathing deeply – even if only through a mask – for scientists claim to have found increasing traces in the air of the rare element oxygen (alas, that blissful state has long since been obscured in Delhi by vehicular and political smog). 

WFH gives me the chance to work flexible hours. I can better manage my time, and so create time in which to do more of what I like to do, as well as explore doing all kinds of new things I always wanted to do but couldn’t or didn’t because of lame reasons like “Got to get up early” or “I’m too tired” or “Where’s the time for that?”

And it’s funny, but even though I’ve been WFH for over two decades, I’ve got more work done since March 2020—during the Coronavirus Era— than I have during the same period in earlier years. 

By ‘work’ here, I mean writing stuff about clean, energy efficient technologies, which I do for a research institute that has – much to my pleasant surprise – retained me as a consultant for over 25 years.

Could my improved productivity be some weird synergistic effect of WFH and Covid-19?  

Many a night these past six months have I tossed and turned sleeplessly while exploring this idea; twice have I fallen right off the bed and into deep sleep. But still I have no answer.

Enough to say that besides posting a dozen blogs since March, I’ve also started to write about seventeen much longer pieces about far more serious things as well. Things like:

  • The rapid spread of Left Liberal ideologies among red ant colonies in the National Capital Region
  • Violent conflicts over power stealing and parking rights among members of Resident Welfare Associations and Cooperative Housing Societies in Delhi, and their striking parallels with violent conflicts among members of Lok Sabha, state assemblies, and media houses over power broking and barking rights
  • An interim report on my ongoing psycho-sociocultural study (tentative title: ‘Growing Influence of News-Reader Squirrels on Main-Scream Indian Media: is Democracy Safe?’ ), which focuses on the behavioural characteristics of squirrels that perch at great heights on trees and buildings and chirrup the day’s news loudly and aggressively with threatening tosses of their heads and tails—mannerisms that have been adopted with great success by leading TV news channel hosts such as Navika Kumar of Times Now and Arnab Goswami of Republic TV.
  • The urgent need for government to seize the opportunity provided by social distancing norms in offices and public places and public transport systems, and implement a National Awareness Mission for EBOLA-PS (Eradicating Body Odour and Like Aromas in Public Spaces)

I’ve also read more books these past eight months than I read during the five year period 2014–2019. These come to mind:

  • The Greatest Show on Earth—the evidence for evolution [Richard Dawkins]
  • Amusing ourselves to death—Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business [Neil Postman]
  • Bridge of Clay [Markus Zusak]
  • Biology of belief [Bruce Lipton]
  • Permanent record [Edward Snowden]
  • Last chance to see [Douglas Adams & Mark Carwardine]

Oh, I’ve also been reading—rather, re-reading with renewed enjoymenta few books that I’d first read in the 1970s and 1980s: like Opus [Isaac Asimov], A History of England [G M Trevelyan], Tribal folktales of Assam [S N Barkataki],  and The Deadly Element [Lennard Bickel].  Oh, and a P G Wodehouse anthology or two, too, in between.

And then, I’ve taken some guitar lessons. From Fender, the US guitar makers, who in April 2020 offered three months’ online lessons for free to people across the world, just to cheer us up during the pandemic!  So I registered at once, and hauled out and dusted off the old guitar, and logged in about 37 lessons.  I’m not sure how much I’ve learned, but I’ve certainly unlearned a whole lot of wrong ways of playing guitar that I’d taught myself 50 years or more ago. And then, while I was still practicing to transit smoothly from G to C, suddenly it was October, and I realized that my three months’ free lessons had long expired and I’d been taking lessons for nearly three months without paying one paisa or cent to Fender.  So I checked with Fender, and learned that they’d quietly and generously extended my free online lessons by four months.

 Just like that. 

That little thing that Fender did meant so much to me.  The memory still brings a warm glow. As do the  countless such little acts of generosity, insaaniyat, kindness and selflessness that millions and millions of people have done and are doing for others, for complete strangers around them and across the world, without fuss and without making a big noise about it and without expecting anything at all in return, least of all publicity.   It restores hope and courage, strengthens faith: that even amidst the roiling clouds of violence and war and hatred and selfishness and cold cynicism that seem to be engulfing the world and filling the minds and hearts of young ones with hopelessness and apathy and numb terror, the essential ‘goodness’ of people will surely endure, shine forth, evaporate the clouds as the warm light of dawn disperses night.  

More on that anon…

In conclusion, O patient Reader, here’s something else that I’ve tried during WFH in the Corona Era: writing a diary.

In junior school, in class 3 or 4, an enthusiastic teacher gifted each of us a diary and asked us to write down something in it daily – thoughts, poems, a paragraph, a line – and read aloud from it after a week or two. Each day’s effort was to be addressed to ‘Dear Diary’. Alas, driven insane by our inane and incoherent ramblings, our teacher soon abandoned the entire project and my diary became a rough book duly filled with doodles and scribbles. But Demented Desire for Dear Diary has blazed on in the heart for over five decades, like a young love remembered.

And so I found a battered old notebook and wrote ‘Diary’ on the cover, and scribbled my first diary post. Here it is, typed verbatim from the original scrawl:

Dear Dairy,

How are you? I am fine.

It’s now just after 23.00. I’ll keep it simple and try to summarize what I did today.

  • Woke at 05:45.  Popped in daily thyroxine goli, dozed off again.
  • Re-woke at 06:20 with rush of energy from thyroxine and smarting elbow from mosquito bite.
  • 06:25–06:50.  Brush-wash routine; brewed pot of tea with ginger shavings, quaffed large mug-full.
  • 07:00–08:00.  Yoga on terrace.
  • 08:00–08:30. Pottered around terrace and balcony, getting some ultraviolet; watered plants on balcony, gave sunbirds a shower, chittered mild colloquial Malayalee insults at squirrel which chittered chaste Gilayree insults back at me in a distinct Haryanvee accent.  
  • 08:30–09:15. Ate a few walnuts and a couple of raisins. Brewed coffee, drank a cup. Shaved. Showered.
  • 09:15–09:40. Made and ate breakfast—a toasted cheese-chilli sandwich, carbonized to nano-scale at the edges, with a fried tomato. Quaffed shot of coffee.  Cooked up lunch (tomato peppery rasam; chaalu sabzi from one small leftover brinjal, one carrot, one potato, segment of lauki; confirmed plenty of rice leftover).   Washed dishes.
  • 09:50–10:15. Settled down at desktop. Read headlines on People’s Daily, The Quint, Indian Express, Times of India. Posted comment on The Quint, knowing full well it might disappear without trace (it did). 
  • 10.15–13:15. Worked at desktop.  In between, took tea and biscuit break, and goofed off to:
  • read blog-post by colleague-writer
  • play one game of chess with computer-jee, which I won in 18 minutes, hitting ‘undo’ only once after making colossal blunder on move 14 (record now: 51% wins and 10% draws at Level 7…haw, preen preen). 

13:15–13:30. Stared at emails, phone messages, small wolf-spider on wall. Processed, replied to and archived/deleted all but the spider, which scuttled off in hot pursuit of energetic ant. (When reports last came in, ant was leading by several spider-stride lengths).

13.40–14.20. Lunch. Aimless one-kilometre stroll around terrace and balcony.

14.25–1715. Back to work at desktop and later at writing desk. 

17.15–18.00. Coffee. Guitar lessons, a bit of practice.

18.00–1840. Walked 4.8 km. The circuit, repeated nine times:  downstairs bedroom – drawing room – kitchen – back to drawing room – up the stairs – { [terrace –  upstairs bedroom – balcony] × 3 } –  down the stairs – drawing room – kitchen – back to drawing room – bedroom.

18.50–19.15. Relaxed on terrace; watched sunset with assorted fauna.  Ate apple.

19.30–20.45. Drummed on clay pots, doumbek, chairs and tables; played kartaals.  Listened to music.  Long chat with brother Bala. Roasted up some murmura with hing-kari patta- peanuts;  ate a kinnam-full.  Sipped mug of chai. Fixed dinner : four geographic chapattis (two shaped like Australia), masur dal.

20.45–21.15. Watched TV: Wion, CNN, Rajya Sabha, Republic TV.  Yelled encouragement at Arnab Goswami as he launched a spirited argument with himself and lost it.

21:15–21:40. Showered. Dined. Washed, dried and put away dishes.

21.45–23.00. Read about 12 pages of book. “Amusing ourselves to death”.  Now scribbling this.

23:00 – Now a little sleepy. Tomorrow I plan to wake early and fnm with rjo3pvm ssokwmd bfs

[Incomprehensible hereafter]  

This diary post is dated Saturday April 11th 2020.

It is my first diary post since 1965.  Alas, it’s also the last.

WFH is wonderful, but in some ways WFH is no different from WFE— a never-ending battle against procrastination.

Jai Hind, Happy WFH-ing, Happy Deepavali.