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.

Feb 26, 2018

Not so new resolutions

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I am almost morbidly introspective. And to add to that, I have a fascination for techniques and concepts like CBT, Kaizen etc. Naturally, irrespective of the outcome, I happily come up with resolutions every new year, every birthday, whenever I change residence, jobs, heck even when I change devices.

In the past, these resolutions used to be erratic, and somewhat of a wishlist of things to do. It'd range from learning how to bake a cake [which I never did] to making tie-dye shirts for the family [succesfully made rag cloths] to finishing 'Gone with the Wind' [by skipping a considerable number of pages].  They were often indicative of my wide range of, also somewhat capricious, interests. Over the years though I have managed to narrow, shorten and sharpen my resolutions list. Let's face it I am never going to grind my own lens for a Newtonian telescope; I still think it's quite cool to do it, but have outgrown the need to sort my list by coolness factor. Coming up with the right resolutions these days turns out to be an exercise of prioritization.

I notice I have been fairly successful with going from zero to some minimal achievement. For example, until a couple of years ago I had never meditated. I had set a modest goal of meditating a few times over the year which I achieved. [Let us not detract the success story with details like I started sometime in October and I have meditated only for 10 mins at a strtech]. I don't seem to go from reasonable knowledge to expertise. [I can hear my friends and family chortling - 'that's a character flaw, not a problem of resolutions].

With these two data points, the last couple of years I have been a bit tougher on myself. The resolutions of late require persistent action over a period.  Apart from that, I have picked up a new fad of tracking myself obsessively as well. I have spreadsheets that pull all kinds of data from sundry apps and trackers. Good news is I know exactly where I stand with my goals. The bad news is it's not looking that great at the end of two months. Good news is I don't give up that easily. The bad news is I need a lever.

So here's to some success in March. 

Nov 17, 2017

Book hoarder's future

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Two unrelated things I did last weekend got me thinking about the future of books. No, rest assured and read on, this is not a condescending lament about how the young generation does not read anymore.

The first was some decluttering that I did.

When it comes to my kitchen or the wardrobe or the shoe-rack, I am ruthless. If an item does not stand the test of some questions, out it goes. These questions range from the poetic ('does it invoke a spark of joy' a la Marie Kondo) to the efficient ('did I use it last year') to the realistic ('do I have any chance of ever fitting into that dress again'). Thanks to this excellent approach I have used the same amount of storage space all my adult life. That I have lived mostly in the tropics is surely a reason that the said space used is quite small. The other reason being I am an anti-social, lazy, introvert with  no sense of fashion and a blissful ignorance of what does not go with what.

So I breezed through clearing out all that stuff but got stuck with my bookshelf. There are no easy questions to formulate when it comes down to books. Each of the books brings a spark of joy - okay maybe not that unopened 'Half girlfriend,' but still ninety percent of them. On lazy Sundays, tired weekdays or even on a rushed morning, just a glance of a well-thumbed book brings me a spurt of energy and happiness.  'Did I read it last year?' is not really a fair question. And I am never able to or even want to honestly answer, 'Will I ever read it again?'  Who knows what I will get from re-reading the 'Tao of Physics' a decade from now. Or 'Half girlfriend' for that matter.

This problem is only with books. I had accumulated many audio and video cassettes and CDs over the years. Those, I was able to chuck without any qualm. I am more than happy with the abundant streaming choices I have in-lieu. Except for a few that I have placed in my living room as tongue-in-cheek showpieces, or a few that I have retained for sentimental reasons, I  gave them away without any compunction. 

The difference is when it comes to books, the tangibility matters to me. The rustle of the paper as I turn the pages and the smell of books old and new only enhance my reading experience. I prefer the contrast of a printed paper still.  Since I am wedded to the physical object,  the luxury and comfort of on-demand reading is not yet enough. So there, I have full justification to keep all my book until I cross over. 

I do think there is more to it though. It has to do with a certain middle-class unostentatious upbringing that frowns upon unfettered materialism and glorifies the pursuit of knowledge. While an extensive collection of shoes, in this world-view, is unequivocally vulgar, a shelf full of books is not. The latter is associated with the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom and is therefore appreciated. I suppose ultimately though it is vanity - elitist, internal yet eventually a display of a certain superiority.

Despite that introspection, as I type this I am horrified at this equivalency of shoes and books. And part of me is lining up a whole set of outraged responses as to why a collection of books is special.

Clearly, I am nowhere near giving away my books.