Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Great Indian Dichotomy

As my autorickshaw meanders through Pune's chaotic traffic, the disorder around me doesn't cease to amaze me. What is it with India and traffic? We create chaos where none needs to exist. It's like we were given two choices, order and disorder, and we deliberately and knowingly chose the latter. How else would you explain my wonder and amazement when I actually see a straight line of cars driving one behind the other? It's so rare and it lasts for about five seconds, before some smart alec breaks the line to butt in without so much as the blink of an indicator. Why is it so hard for us to drive in lanes, and wait for our turn? This is a question that has bothered me every day that I've driven on Indian roads since returning to India some years ago.

A typical traffic jam on the road to Infosys every morning goes something like this. There's technically only one lane on either side of the road, one for incoming and the other for outgoing traffic. However, every morning, one lane miraculously expands into three to accomodate buses, cars, autos, cycles, pedestrians, tempo trucks, actual trucks, and not to mention those ghastly monstrosities called "shared autos" that spew out freshly vaporised diesel as they chug along, noisy as hell. Every vehicle and/or being on that road is jostling for the right to move ahead of the other. Somehow, this crazy mass of steel, humans, dogs, and sometimes even cattle, moves forward in the general direction of the destination.

Then there's the "law of assured interjection." Just when the road seems like it's going to implode under all the traffic piled onto it, an ambitious vehicle (two, three, or four wheeler - it doesnt matter) will begin to cut through the traffic from the left shoulder all the way to the right, to attempt a u-turn! Of course, not a cycle will stop to let this intruder pass. So the intruder nudges forward inch by inch, literally, until it now blocks half the road. However, the traffic is unrelenting. People are furious that half their road has been usurped. So what do they do about it? Common sense would say - stop and let the intruder take the damned u-turn so we can all be rid of 'em once and for all. But no. We will continue to forge ahead. The only difference is that now, we'll squeeze through the little bit of space that the intruder has not yet occupied. But move ahead we will. After all, we are 'forward looking' people, no?

What intrigues me the most is that contrary to the anarchy that we unleash on our roads, when it comes to societal rules, we're sticklers for order and structure. Do your family proud by studying only science or commerce in grades 11 and 12, (arts and humanities are for dumbos), study something "technical" in college, do an MBA (until you do, you're only half human), get a job in an MNC, get a promotion or two, work "hard" (forget that you have a life outside work), get married (the "good news" that everyone's just waiting to hear), and then have kids (the only event that qualifies as "good news" after the wedding). Then, get the kids into a "good" school, make them study something technical, force them to do an MBA. The cycle goes on. But at least it's all structured and laid out, right? No questions need to be asked. The path must be followed. At all costs. Even it if means that an entire generation is deprived of thinking about what they really want out of their lives, or choosing a career that is meaningful to them as individuals and not as heirs to their families.

Ah, the signal has finally turned green! The mass of traffic has started to rumble and roar. Horns blare. Lanes dissolve. But come on now. Don't you know where we're all going? To an MNC, yaar. We're hard working, career minded, you know! We're "becoming something."

I'd say, yes. We're "becoming something." For starters, we're turning into asthma patients, inhaling all that diesel every morning.

But at least we work in an MNC, no?

Monday, November 23, 2009

To Sai... with love

I remember sitting on the sands of Prashanthi Nilayam, all of five years old, looking towards your mandir and seeing you emerge from the ornate door. Like one who is not of this world, you gently strode towards the crowd. Gliding across the sands, barely leaving footprints. As the orange speck in the distance came closer, my heart beat really fast, until you were standing in front of me, looking towards me, your eyes filled with the love of a thousand mothers. How can I forget that blaze of compassion, as you gazed into my soul and recognized me from many lifetimes ago?

How can I forget the tears of devotion that flowed as I looked at you, intoxicated with your aura, and recognized you as the One from the beginning of time? Not a word was spoken; but so much was said.

When I look back, I see that so much has changed, but you... have always been there. When I felt low and dejected, I closed my eyes and thought of you. You were there. When I was happy and elated, I looked at you, and you seemed just as happy, if not more. There were those who told me that life is serious and that loving God is not child's play. But your gurgling laughter and hilarious quips that day as we sat in your room, told me otherwise. You showed me that life is, after all, just a laugh. And the happier we are, the closer we are to God. How effortless it would all be, if only we'd let go.

When Mom passed away and it seemed like life was not worth living anymore, you reminded me that life is eternal, and the body only temporary. When I feared about the future, you showed me that where there is love, there is no place for fear.

The most precious gift that you have given me, dear Sai, is the gift of my inner voice. The gift of Sai within. When you told me that day that "you are also Sai, I am also Sai", I knew then that there was no difference. That happiness, love, compassion, fortitude... all of these are within me. Just as they are within you. Today, I don't have to see you in Prashanthi to feel close to you. Wherever there is love, there I see you. There I see the Universe. There I see God. You have taken me to greener pastures, yet I feel closer home. What a beautiful journey it has been, from Sai to Sai.

(Today is Sri Sathya Sai Baba's birthday)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Communion

In those moments of silence
you seemed infinite.
Every moment
was like eternity
And there was love,
only love...

Your love.

I saw it in everything,
In everyone.
No one seemed apart from it
Some were just unaware of it.

Creation was bathed
in the sounds and sights
of your glory.

I opened my eyes and saw a sparrow
chirping at my window.

I felt your love for the sparrow,
As I did for the spider weaving its web
in a corner of the room.

I felt your love for the wind,
as it blew across the house.
For the sunlight
streaming through the windows.

Nothing and no one seemed
out of your love's reach.

I felt your love.

Why
must I ever cross a river
Or fly over the ocean
to reach your doorstep?

When the footprints of your grace
are instead leading me
towards me.

© Sai Ganesh Nagpal

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Away...

Sitting on the rocks
My feet immersed in the stream
The water gushes. She flows.
She prances. She roars.

I feel a little stone get swept away
from under my feet.
Away
From all the other little stones.
Gone with the stream now
To touch the ocean some day.

An orange butterfly dances past me
Like a brushstroke
made in the air
She whispers to the white flower
Then to the yellow.
Not stopping. Never looking back.

Purposeful.
Joyful.

Like the water in the stream
And the stone that broke away.

© Sai Ganesh Nagpal

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Rendezvous with Nature

"If you go under the water, you will drink lots of water." Our group of 12 rafters managed a giggle or two as our River Rafting Guide ended his security demonstration with that amusing statement. Plain and simple, what he meant to say was "Keep your heads above the water, no matter what!" We buckled ourselves into lifejackets, strapped on our helmets, and readied ourselves for one of the most exhilerating experiences ever - rafting on the River Ganga.

There were six of us in each raft. Not all known to each other. Swapna and I were on one raft with a group of four others. Saraswati was on the other raft with a group of five Americans. Each raft had a Guide who sat at the rear end of the raft, shouting instructions for us to "paddle forward," "paddle backward," or "relax."

Most of us in our raft (except for Swapna) didn't know how to swim, and even before we could board the raft, the Guide had heard all about it. When one of the girls looked at him anxiously and declared "We don't know how to swim," he looked at her with a straight face and replied "I don't know how to swim either." It didn't help that his response freaked her out even more than she already was, and it took many assurances from all of us to convince her that he was only kidding.

All aboard the raft, the six of us looked clumsy as hell, holding the paddles as though they were weapons that would somehow save us from the treachery that lay ahead. Saraswati and the Americans fared much better. Well, atleast from where we were, it looked like they were going places! They had already completed their practice runs on the water. While we, over here, desperately tried to get our act together, which included convincing certain members that we would not be rowing out to our doom.

When we were finally ready to head out, we pushed away from the river beach. All of a sudden, without so much as a warning, our Guide jumped into the water. He was gone. Just like that. We looked on in bewilderment. I'm pretty sure our horror stemmed less from a deep sense of care for the Guide's well-being, and more from a haunting question that we began asking ourselves: "Is this part of some sort of a practice drill that requires us to follow suit?" A member of our group decided to verbalize the concern. To which we all vigorously shook our heads indicating our extreme unwillingness to ever be party to such a practice drill. We gaped at the point on the water where he had gone under, half expecting him to pop right up. And he did! He popped up and clambered onto the raft, with not so much as an apology for having caused us this unnecessary anxiety. I asked him "Why did you do that?" Pat came his jolly reply "To cool down!" Well, I don't blame him. The anxiety on this raft certainly had temperatures soaring.

And then we were finally off. We did our practice runs, memorized the paddle commands with an alacrity that would be the envy of History teachers trying to make their students memorize the dates of the Russian Revolution and such.

Saraswati and the Americans looked relieved. The party had finally begun! But the relief was short lived. A few minutes into the ride, another member from our raft decided she wanted to "get down." "Get down" didn't mean she wanted to get in the water. She wanted to abandon ship and get her feet firmly on safe land. Putting aside our own trepidations about what lay ahead, the rest of us played pacifier and tried to convince her to "look around and focus on the beauty." The Guide had another response. "You're most welcome to get down right here." I don't recall hearing her plea to "get down" anymore after that.

As we approached the first rapid, I remember my heart starting to beat faster as the Guide instructed us to "paddle forward." The water got choppier and the waves began to swirl around us. Will we make it? We shouted to each other in panicky tones, the excitement was palpable. However, the rhythm with which we were supposed to "paddle forward" went to pieces and the panicked members of our group began to crash their paddles into the paddles of those sitting ahead of them. See that's the thing with paddling. You HAVE to be in sync with those ahead of you. Otherwise it's pointless! But "sync" was not to be. So instead of moving ahead, our raft began to head left towards the rocks. I screamed to the Guide "How do we turn right!!?" Mercifully, we stopped just short of the rocks and floated to safety.

After this close shave, the Guide finally decided that it was time for some tough talk. "When you approach the rapids, you must be quiet and focus on paddling. You can talk later, after we pass the rapid!" We nodded sheepishly and promised to be good children from here on.

The girl behind me, however, took his commandment a little too seriously. As we approached the next rapid, she began to shout "Keep quiet, paddle faster, Faster, FASTER!". As if on que, I began to paddle faster. And then, whilst in the middle of swirling foam and turbulent waves, I asked myself, why on earth is she telling us to paddle faster?? And wait, weren't we supposed to be quiet?

As we paddled against the waves, the river took charge of us. Our clumsy paddles seemed so powerless compared to the might of the river as the raft was tossed up in the air, came crashing down, and then began to rise again on a huge wave. The raft rode the wave and we screamed and yelled and paddled harder, only to realise that it was futile because we were paddling in the air. Never mind the paddling; we were in Mother Ganga's hands now.

For me, this was one of the biggest lessons in "letting go". We were tossed about, drenched with waves, and I nearly tipped over the side into the water. Miraculously, though, it felt like we were dancing with Mother Ganga. She gurgled with laughter, with a joy that can only come from the heavens. The roar was tremendous, and musical at the same time. Adrenalin turned to exhilaration. At each rapid, her arms rose up to meet us in a jubiliant embrace. Water has always been my greatest fear, but all I could do at this moment was love it. After all, my life depended on it right now.

"If you want to go into the water, you can!" Now that kind of statement is bound to make a group like ours jump out of our wits! Our Guide made this declaration after we crossed the rapids and were in clear water. I must admit that all this talk of "getting down" and "getting into the water" was starting to make me a wee bit uncomfy.

Jump into the water? But how? With our shoes on? How deep was the water? Like a volley of arrows. Our questions. He patiently answered each one. Including the one about shoes. We could get in the water with our shoes on. The only catch was that we had to hold on to the rope that ran around the raft, for dear life. Or else, the current would carry us with.

The guys sitting ahead of me decided to take the lead and went over. Swapna was next. I knew she would be. She loves water and she had this gleam in her eyes the moment the Guide so much as mentioned the possibility of getting into the water. I don't know how she puts up with my dread of water! When I saw the gleam in her eyes, I was happy for her, but I thought "Oh Crap!" because I knew then that I would have to go over too. How could I not? I mean, come on. There's something known as peer pressure, people!

So here's what I did. I held on to the rope for dear life, jumped over, and with a huge thud that shook everyone out of their wits, including the raft, landed in the water. Freezing water. Deep water. Flowing water. My fear began to kick in, but I pushed it away. I held on to the rope with every ounce of strength as the current began pulling me under the raft. That's when I realised that it would be impossible for us to get back up on the raft on our own. The Guide would need to haul us up.

My fearlessness lasted all of forty seconds.

I soon began to plead with the Guide to pull me back. He nonchalantly stated "you decided to go in, now stay there." I was like, you have got to be kidding me! After many a plea, he finally relented and hauled me up. It's a good thing he didn't relent to our fears so soon. Allowed us to push our boundaries a little. Heck. Forty seconds in deep freezing flowing water is major boundary pushing for me!

Back on board, as we struggled to get back our balance and take our seats, the Guide mentioned that our adventure would be ending soon. I looked around, at the mountains on either side of the river. Forests clung to them like babies to their mother. A dreamy mist had begun to descend on the river in the distance. The river herself flowed on purposefully, rejuvanated from those bouts of dancing that we had enjoyed with her a few moments ago. So beautiful, so fierce, and so gentle.
All at once.

Today I ceased to be separate from her. It was like a grand reunion. Like the kind between the creator and the created, between the lover and the loved.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My Melbourne Diary - An Excerpt

Saturday

Today I had lunch at the Hare Krishna restaurant here in downtown Melbourne, Australia. It’s just two blocks down the street from my hotel. I couldn’t help but notice the sign: “Vegetarian. All you can eat!” Now that kind of sign is guaranteed to catch my eye.

As I walked up the stairs that led to the restaurant, I was greeted by the aroma of incense. Soft chants of “Radhe Radhe Krishna” wafted down. Inside, there were pictures of Krishna all around. The lovely ISKCON ones. I later found out that the lunch they serve is actually Prasad that’s offered to the deity at the Hare Krishna temple in Melbourne in the mornings. Prasad is always delicious. It has that extra something to it that makes it so much tastier than regular food.

I remember by maternal grandmother – Nani. At home, she used to offer a little portion of lunch to the deity every day. She called it bhog. Lunch would only be served after bhog was offered, and then all of us would be given a little bit of the bhog to eat. Believe me, that one morsel of bhog tasted yummier than all of lunch. Even though they were both the same food, technically at least!

“Eating up the World.” A pamphlet with that heading stares out at me on the restaurant table. It’s about the impact of meat eating on the world’s environment. The ISKCON (Hare Krishna) group is spreading the message about how meat-eating is causing an enormous burden to the world’s natural resources. It reiterates what I had read first when I was only thirteen. I’m happy to see that the message is very much out there, and gaining momentum. I quote from the pamphlet:
“The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations recently released a report called Livestock’s Long Shadow. This report states that animal industries are one of the ‘most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.’”

I was horrified to learn a couple of days ago that some people eat Kangaroo meat in this country, even though the natural habitat for the Kangaroo has greatly shrunk and they’re finding it hard to survive the drought over the last few years. How can we justify so much violence for the sake of tasty food? A question that has bothered me for many years now.

After lunch, I decided to go the St Kilda beach, which is about 15 minutes away by tram. It’s not really “beach” season or anything, but there’s something about the sea that always seems to draw me to it. It heals me, comforts me, and reminds me of Me! The sheer expanse and enormity of it reminds me of my own inner Self. That I’m so much more than I fool myself into believing I am. The sea lifts the veil, even though for a few minutes. The irony is that while the sea speaks to me and comforts me, I’m scared of her at the same time. I have a dreaded fear of water that makes me want to keep some distance. And water in the dark... oh that’s something I cannot deal with. I cannot look at a water body in the dark, like after sunset. Perhaps it’s a past birth experience I went through. I don’t know. Or is it that at some level, I’m scared to face my own Self?

Today my heart hurts. And watching the sea at St. Kilda is like a balm that soothes me. I even saw a Seagull hover above me and that brought me joy. I have this thing with Seagulls – I love them. I have always adored those creatures since my school days in Dubai when I would gladly give away my day’s tiffin to feed them.

I’m standing on the beach looking out towards Port Phillip Bay that opens into the Tasman Sea. I’m facing the south east corner of the world, far far away from Home India. Like a flood of memories, I am reminded of what it was like standing on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, marveling at the varying hues of blue painted across the lake’s surface. I remember standing at the edge of a cliff in the Pacific Palisades in San Diego California, looking towards the Pacific Ocean as its waves crashed onto the rocks way below me. I remember standing on the desert shores of the Arabian Gulf in Dubai. Each of those times, I faced a different direction; I embraced the winds from a different sea. But each time, when I looked out there, I saw… Me.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Paradise

About a half hour into the flight, I looked out the window. What I saw dazzled me, I felt like I was inside an artist's depiction of what 'heaven' would look like. It was late evening. The sun was setting to our left amidst delicate hues of orange, peach, and yellow, into a carpet of monsoon clouds that raced and gushed across the sky. This was no ordinary carpet - intricately woven, soft and delicate on the feet. I'm quite sure I noticed a footprint or two. Ah! perhaps this was where angels trod. And far into the distance, a cloud rose up from the carpet, silhoutted by the golden rays of the setting sun. And that would be where the angels convened at the end of this glorious day. To either side of the peach-colored sun, rising up into the clear blue sky above, completely still in sharp contrast to the rushing carpet below, were two enormous clouds. The clouds assumed the shape of two people with folded hands, bent forward towards the sun. Paying obeisance to the Sun God. There was a stillness all around. Except for the rushing carpet below.

As if in blessing, the rays of the sun filtered through the clouds, forming four distinct shafts of light. I call them the Fingers of God. I watched them, as they flowed down through the clouds onto the earth below.

"Wow...!"
That was all I could say.

I felt closer to God than ever before. No wonder we look up when we talk to God. And it's no coincidence that we sing "...the Lord up above.."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

From the Devotee's Heart

Why hast thou forsaken me?
O Lord! At this time, when I need thee

Thy name is on my lips, thy feet I worship
In the temple of my heart

But yet, when I hold out my hands in prayer
When I call thy name
With the pain that emergeth from my soul
Why then, dost thou not cometh?

Do I prayeth not enough?
Or can it be that my tears that falleth to the ground
art not worthy of washing thy divine feet?

Have I strayed so far away from thee
That I cannot behold thy brilliant form
And look into thine eyes
That blesseth me with the love
of a thousand mothers?

I wanteth not more than to feel
Thy presence
I needeth not more than to know
That thou art with me

O Lord! They sayeth that a blade of grass
Doth not moveth without thy will
Today my soul moveth in love for thee
How can it be that thou knowest not?

And if thou should hearest my prayer
And knoweth my pain
Then surely thou standeth beside me
Holding my hand
Willing me to love thee
And it is I, who seeth not.

 © Sai Ganesh Nagpal

Friday, May 8, 2009

Between the Extremes

Rain. On a hot summer day in Delhi. After two weeks of relentless heat, soaring temperatures, and many an anguished lament that went something like this... "Oh it's so hot!!!," the skies finally relented. And what a downpour it was. Not just rain, but hailstones too. Icy rocks dropping down from the heavens in May. The weather man called it a "Western Disturbance." I called it a miracle.

You could almost see the trees smile, as the dust washed off their leaves. Every few seconds, a bird broke out into song. And then it was silent as it gazed towards the skies, its parched beak wide open, raindrops trickling in.

Instantly, the temperature dropped. Like a raging fever... broken. Finally. Much to everyone's relief. Just when we thought we couldnt bear the heat anymore.

Life thrives in between the extremes, at the point where "balance" is achieved. It's almost like there's this awesome equalizer at work, in nature, and within us too, that's constantly trying to set the balance right. When it's too hot, we crave for rain. But not too much of it . Just the right amount. When it's too rainy, we crave for sunshine. But only until it gets too hot. Then we start praying for rain once again.

It's not just the weather. Take chocolate, for instance. When I eat too many pieces at once, nature does the great "equalizing act" and makes me sick, so that next time, I would know better. It's another matter that, more often than not, I choose not to know any better the next time too.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, the life force within us... nature... the Universe, call it what you may, is constantly pulling us back to center. When we're out of tune with nature, we wander off into the extremes, where life does not thrive. And then she reminds us to "return to base."

Like with hailstones in the month of May.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Beckonings


Far away, in the distance,
a light shines.
It beckons to me.
It calls my name.
I must go.
Towards the light. I must.


How should I get there?
And when I do, how shall I know
that I have found the same light that shone
and guided my rocky path?

Can I ever say
that my search has ended?
Or shall it be that the end of one search
will begin a search anew?

And if that should happen,
what would it be?
But that I would go from one light towards another.

Consider the changeless horizon upon which
a sunset is painted each evening.

For who could tell that in truth,
it is the Sun who is changeless. Unwavering.
And the horizon ever-changing?

Shrouded in the mist of my doubt
I cannot fathom the distance
to the light.
I know not the means that I must choose
to get there.
All I know is that I must go.

Towards the light. I must.

 © Sai Ganesh Nagpal

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Happiness

Moments of happiness. Unadulterated happiness. Not the kind of happiness that has some rider attached to it. Real happiness - like when there's this surge of positive energy from my soul - it's like a wave that emanates from deep within. Not for any particular reason, just "because."

Like this morning. Our neighbors have a dog named Kishmish. She's a furry little thing with the most adorable, soulful eyes through which she gazes into people's eyes as if it's love at first sight for her! But the eyes are where the love ends. She won't let anyone touch her. She just won't. And I have no idea why.

This morning, she was locked out of her house because she had sneaked out and gone for a nice jaunt in the park by herself. Now she wanted to get back in the house. I happened to come home right then, and our eyes met. As always. Only this time, she wagged her tail. She actually wagged her tail! A tentative, stop-start kind of wag. But it was a wag nonetheless. She came bounding up to me. I knelt down to pet her, she immediately scampered back a step. When I retreated, she bounded back to me again, tail wagging. I knelt down, she scampered back. Tentative tail wags indicating she was enjoying this little game. This went on for a few minutes, until her family opened the door, and she bounded back in her house.

But that's all it took. For me to be happy again.

In those few minutes, through this little game of "catch," she lifted my spirits and I was laughing. I felt a surge of positive energy from my soul. I felt connected to life. I felt alive again.