Jul 20, 2019

Flights of fantasy

My enchantment with the moon, stars, and the sky crystallized after reading 'Cosmos.' I must have been about twelve when I got the book as a gift from my cousin. I am sure I feigned stomach-ache as I was wont to do in those days to stay home from school to finish the book. 'Cosmos,' I can reliably say, changed the way I looked at the sky, changed the way I thought of life.

I hadn't been born when Apollo-11 landed on the moon, but when I read the book, it hadn't yet been fifty years. So, naturally, I presumed a man would walk on Mars in my lifetime. Hey, I was a small-town girl,  I hadn't yet evolved in my thinking about gender-roles and inherent biases. Years later, despite a more intricate understanding of all the variables that go into the possibility of such expeditions, I am saddened that we haven't even revisited the moon, let alone establish a colony there like I imagined at the time.

I have a vague memory of watching a grainy black and white program and the moment when Indira Gandhi asked Rakesh Sharma how India looked from space. It was likely staged and thought out beforehand, but I remember the stress and lilt in his voice when he answered "Sare Jahan Se Achcha."  Without a nuanced idea of the nation-state and an awareness of the military deals around such missions, it was easy to feel particularly patriotic you see.

I have over the years been addicted to reading or watching, both fiction and non-fiction material about space flights and colonies and alien species. Voyager, Soyuz, Apollo, Pathfinder, Mangalyaan - ah the romance of it all! I never gave much credence to the conspiracy theories around the moon-landing being a hoax. But have had to consider with extreme discomfort questions posed by the likes of 'Whiteys on the moon.' All said and done though, the space race of the 60s culminating with the moon landing reads like an action-thriller. It's an emotional roller-coaster, heart-warming and in my interpretation has a great ending.

Most of the moon-landing stories revolve only around NASA and the American heroes but to me, the first hero is cosmonaut Gagarin. Cosmonaut has a more majestic ring to it than astronaut; unfortunately, no one uses it anymore. A village farm boy, with a charismatic smile who became the first man on space, he apparently whistled while he went about preparing for his flight. One of the dummies in the previous flight had burned up, and mission control was telling him that they forgot to tape something together, and the man just happily whistled while he went about readying.  And then there is Valentina Tereshkova. Trust the comrades to get the first woman to orbit solo around the earth for a period longer than all the American astronauts combined before her.

I asked my parents if they remembered the moon-landing. My mother recalled how it was raining when she heard about it. My father, a retired banker, dryly remarked - he knew there was moon-landing around the same time when banks were nationalized. He talked about going to an exhibition of moon rocks in our small town some months later. And they both without a moment's hesitation recalled the name, 'Neil Armstrong.'

Well captured in both 'From the Earth to the Moon' as well as in the more recent 'First Man,' Armstrong's reticence and what comes across as an almost prosaic outlook to the moon mission actually suits the story. Dashing pioneers with a dry wit and cool composure work better in thrillers after all. A reporter questioned - 'Will you take any personal mementos to the moon, Neil?' Armstrong responded, 'Given a choice, more fuel.' You got to like that.

To paraphrase Armstrong when you go up there and observe how thin, what a small part the atmosphere is of the Earth - when you get that different vantage point, your perspective changes. An adventurous spirit, a sense of wonder, grit and a scientific temperament  - you must need it all for space explorations.

It's fifty years today since the landing and we haven't been to the moon since the Apollo missions. There are a new set of swashbucklers and am sure new triumphs and glories are waiting to happen. Like the best moment of the last century, I hope there is one this century of the heights mankind can reach.

Jun 3, 2018

Think, wait and fast

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"I can think, I can wait, and I can fast," claims Siddhartha in Herman Hesse's eponymous book when asked what he could do. With my enthusiasm for Kaizen and all things self-improvement, I wondered how I stack up against Siddhartha's advice. After all, he says one can make magic if one had the ability to think, wait and fast.

I can think, I am sure of that. I have always been a thinker; To be honest, I have had to watch for vanity seeping in on occasion about my ability to reflect on a topic. I could potentially be accused of over-thinking sometimes. So that is the easy one on the list. I just need to perfect my pose à la Rodin's Thinker. Let me hasten to clarify, I only meant the chin resting on the hand. Rodin's sculpture has abs and biceps and is muscular. He looks like he is about to sprint or lift weights or box after his bout of thinking. I am overweight and if pushed I might type up a blog.

Can I wait? That is a bit tricky. Time is the most precious commodity for me that I am quite choosy about how I spend it.  On top of that, I am so used to multi-tasking and stealing cycles from every task that I think the true meaning of the word 'wait' is perhaps lost on me. Easy for you to say, Siddhartha, you didn't have a mobile phone reminding you of the chores you can and have to do while waiting. Does it even mean 'waiting' really when you are simply busy while anticipating an event? If yes, then that kind of waiting I can comfortably do. Depending on the magnitude of what I am waiting for, and how fair and transparent the process is, I can be quite patient, not anxious, and not nag. I can save up for stuff, I can wait for my turn. If it is a test of patience then I score reasonably well. If it is also a test of detached acceptance of unfairness or lack of control, I could use some work. If it means close your eyes and meditate - well then I need a lot more work. Oh well, why don't we just chalk it up to 'reasonably good with waiting.'

The third one in Siddhartha's list is firmly in the 'not-going-to happen' territory for me. Masala peanuts and nutty chocolates [need those proteins] are my vices. Um... French fries too. And cashew Pakodas [again proteins]. Appalams. Mixture.  You get the picture. I can polish tubs of them in a matter of minutes. I do realize one can binge eat and also fast - at different times.  That one is not me.  My friends tell me their concentration is sharper, they feel good and that fasting is great for one's health. My concentration is fine as it is, and I feel better eating chocolates. Besides, like the diva in the Snickers ad I can be a total pain when hungry. Ramadan or Ekadashi or my friends bragging about their latest fasting success makes me wonder if I should try fasting. Then after a minute, I am back to eating my mangoes. My few and far between experiments with fasting have usually ended in about hour 5 with me irrationally yelling at my mom or SR. So there I am.

Full marks on 1, very good on 2, and a fail on 3. Not bad at all. It's time for dinner.

May 15, 2018


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No, this is not a post about Karnataka elections, although considering the season this is how close I might ever get to click-bait. The ads about the 'kamalada alaritu' got me thinking about names and symbols.

My grandmother's name was Kamala. For the uninitiated Kamala means Lotus. Uncharitable folks in the family would say that it was originally Kamalam and that she called herself Kamala to seem fashionable. Although very conforming in most aspects of her life, she was a free-thinking woman and the name Kamala, modernized from its traditional form, suited her. There were quite a few famous Kamala-s then. The dancer Kumari Kamala, writer Kamala Das, and Kamala Nehru among others. North Indians typically use the spelling Kamla and don't necessarily draw out the 'a' in the middle. The name seems to have died out in the last few decades. No doubt because it conjures up an image of an old woman with a big red pottu and her pallu around her head or shoulders. Only the name Mangala can beat Kamala in the old-fashioned meter.

Many writers have named their characters Kamala - Tagore in Wreck, Herman Hesse in Siddhartha. There is even a Star Trek character named Kamala [a metamorph if I remember right].

Kamala Harris the US Senator, and the Ms.Marvel character named Kamala Khan are making this name reappear in the media. I hope it catches on and becomes hep again. The senator has south Indian Hindu connections, but the origins of the name of the Pakistani American Muslim teenager has to be tied to the Arabic Kamal, meaning perfection. The Arabic Kamal sounds almost like Kemal but the Americans pronounce it as Kuh-mah-la. Sometimes it sounds like Camilla or worse Camel-ah.

Lotus is also somewhat oddly likened to feet and eyes in Indian literature. Kamalakshi, Padakamalam etc. I am guessing in the case of the eyes, it is the shape and in case of feet it is the softness.

Lotus, of course has a lot of significance in Hinduism. It is also the national flower of more than one country. It is certainly a masterstroke to have got that as a symbol for a political party. I wonder whose idea it was. Quite surprising when you think of it - that they gave the national flower as a symbol to a party.

As I write this, it does look like Kamalada alarittu [almost] in Karnataka thanks partly to operation Kamala.

Mar 5, 2018

Echoes of lost faith

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My memories of the Kanchi Acharyas are faded and creased. But, when I saw the news of Jayendra Saraswati Swamigal passing away, I realized the residual feelings were still alive. My grandmother who steadfastly refused to revere anyone living, made allowance when it came to the Kanchi Acharyas. Especially the one who just needed to be mentioned as 'Maha-Periyava.'  Chandrashekara Saraswati commanded that sort of deep respect with his quiet dignity, wisdom, and majesty. 

Back in the eighties, when I was a young school girl, holy men had not yet started appearing on TV and YouTube channels commenting or tweeting on sundry matters. I only got to read what they occasionally wrote on staid print media or dry pamphlets mostly on philosophical or mythological issues. Or I saw them in one of the seasonal assemblies.

I don't remember ever hearing a sermon or a speech by the elder Acharya, just of him raising his hand and saying a word or two in blessing. Aunties and uncles in their madisar and panchakacham jostled about for darshan, there was the scent of jasmine flowers and incense and the sounds of chants. The mystique of the whole scene called to me. There was something unimpeachable about the way 'Maha-Periyava' conducted himself. There was a prick in my heart when my grandmother, a widow, said convention prohibited her from coming face to face with him. But my otherwise questioning and critical adolescent self, still could not denounce him.

Jayendra Saraswati came on to the scene, adding a personal charisma, a benevolent smile, fresh energy and a seemingly more secular face to the old age institution. That appealed to my young self. He talked of inclusion, of charity, of alleviating poverty. He seemed to have no issue with my widowed grandmother visiting him. We even traveled to the Kanchi mutt once as a family and the taste of a simple free meal that we partook with other visitors, a pungent rasam and rice, is still seared in my mind. 

The day the unprecedented news broke of the Acharya leaving the mutt, it was mainly sympathy that I felt for him. Identity conflicts between the self and the perceived can be deeply troubling.  Like the Dalai Lama, the Acharya took on his position before he became an adult. Is it a life of unequivocal calling? Or a life of constant struggle to reconcile? No one outside can tell, can even begin to guess. But people in positions of power do not have the luxury of airing their internal conflicts. 

He eventually came back to the mutt; the eighties gave way to the media fuelled nineties.  I gave the Kanakabhishekam telecast a pass as a first step on a path of already fading faith. Under the glare, almost no holy man, irrespective of their religion, could any longer hold up to our projected hopes of who they should be. They no longer had the luxury of seclusion and unflinching trust. They were now mired in this material world, stripped off their mystery. As the years wore on, many were routinely exposed for their involvement in all sorts of horrific activities. It was only a symbolic last breach for me when Jayandra Saraswati was arrested on murder charges. 

I broke the news of his passing away Wednesday morning to my mother who was busy in the kitchen. She asked if he had attained Samadhi, unable to use an earthly word like death. I replied firmly that he had died, but a part of me wished I could tell her that he did indeed attain Samadhi.