What Lies Beneath…

I love holidays and I love traveling during holidays. Usually, I manage to write right through my travels. However, this year a combination of poor to no wi-fi connection in places as far flung as Mussoorie and Palghat, and an itinerary that included covering 6 states in 5 weeks, meant that my writing took a backseat. I am now back to my routine.

Recently I got commissioned by a friend, to put down on paper a story that a grandparent told me growing up. It got me thinking. My grandfather (whom I called Velliachan – big father) was full of stories. It should have been easy but it took me a while to think of a few stories that he did tell me. You see, what he really loved to tell me were stories about our home, the incidents and events that shaped our family ties and bonds, and the tharavad (family) history. As I mine my mind to remember particular details of the more traditional stories that he told me, my mind is also busy remembering all the other not-so ‘traditional’ stories he told my cousins, my brother and me.

Velliachan was like any other grandfather in the world – totally unique.  He did not have any pet names for us and believed in talking to us six grandchildren as adults. His favourite method of bonding with us, when he was not playing the fool with us kids, was to take us for a ramble amongst the trees in our family home in Malappuram, Kerala.

I loved those walks. He would patiently tell me the local names of the plants and trees over and over again, year after year. We would check if the hedges needed trimming and if the mangoes and jackfruits were ripe enough to be eaten, and the coconuts ready to be felled. My grandfather was a man who was very good at creating atmosphere. His stories brought the past alive for me.

As we walked down to the front gate, I would ask him to tell me about the well that we no longer use. This well, could be seen from the side porch of the house – the porch that ran along a bedroom wall and connected to the kitchen. Along the open porch, there was a tap and this was where my brother, cousins and I liked to brush our teeth – in the open looking at the greenery around and enjoying the early morning sounds of the birds mingling with the sounds from the kitchen where my grandmother, mother and aunts would be cooking. At least once during this early morning ritual, my eyes would run over the well (Actually the part of the grounds where I knew it was. One could no longer see the well itself) and I would feel a frisson of fear.

The house that my grandparents stayed in was built in the 1960s. The original family home, in which my grandmother grew up, was a few meters downhill. Her aunt and family were still staying in that house. During one particular summer, (I think it was while I was still an infant), my grandparents, parents (who were visiting) and uncles heard a commotion from the old home. They rushed to the old house and heard cries of ‘pambu pambu’ as they neared it. Snakes are a pretty common sight in Malappuram, Kerala, especially during the monsoon.

Entering the house, they came across an ashen female relative who somehow managed to tell them that as she had opened an old almirah (cupboard) she had seen a huge python curled up in its recesses. She had run out screaming.

All the men rushed upstairs to the room where the said almirah was. One of the men pulled the door open as the others raised the thick wooden sticks they were carrying. The almirah was empty. The fear spread thick and fast amongst those in the room. There was a python in the house and no one knew where it was hidden. This meant that no one could rest in peace until it was found. There had been quite a few incidents in the district where the pythons had feasted on goats and calves.Would it eat a human being? My grandmother’s aunt was tiny enough.

The men spread out around the house, carrying the sticks and carefully searching for the snake. But search as they might, there was no trace of the snake on the first floor where it had been originally spotted. They extended the search to the ground floor of the old house. Every single room in the house was searched. So were the cupboards and all the nooks and corners of the old house. And there were many. By then it was nearly two hours since the first cry of ‘pambu pambu’ was heard.

Defeated the men gathered together in the main living room downstairs. At the foot of the stairs leading upstairs to the bedroom, there was a very old wooden trunk. It was so heavy that when it was built, they had just decided to leave it on the ground floor instead of lugging it upstairs! Someone asked if anyone had searched the trunk. Another man laughed and said, “There’s no way in hell the python could have got in there!”

But the snake was not to be found anywhere else in the house. So, my grandfather, father, uncle and a few other men stood around the trunk. They were hoping that it was there and the search could wind down, and yet praying that it was not there as no one wants to deal with a scared and disturbed python that was strong and clever enough to get into that trunk. One of them gingerly raised the lid of the huge wooden trunk. And there it was! Coiled comfortably at the bottom of the case. My grandfather says that it was big and dark.

I don’t like snakes, but I can’t help but feel for the snake that must have had a pretty rude awakening as the men beat it to its death. They say that even three grown men staggered as they carried that snake out. It was getting dark and they were wondering how to get rid of the dead snake. There was an unused well in the land. I think it was unused, because it tended to run dry in the summer months, and the family had dug another well in the backyard. The old well lay neglected and run over by wild shrubs and weeds. I am still not sure as to why they decided to give the python a burial in the well. But there you go! Since then, no one has ever used the water from that well, even though there is water in it.

As we walk to or from that gate, we can barely see the well, hidden as it is behind shrubs and trees. The whole area has an eerie feel. In my mind’s eye, I can still see a python lying curled up in its water, waiting for some poor sucker to draw water from that well. The house and the grounds on which the well stood have now been sold, and I wonder if the new owners have been told about the well.

In the next post, I will tell you about Pambattu Kaavu (the family shrine dedicated to… you guessed it – the snake God.)

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“Do you believe in true love?”

Do we exist in a landfill of relationship debris or is there some magic left?

Binu SivanThis last weekend, I met a young friend – someone who had got engaged a month or so back. This is the sensible generation or maybe they are just scared. They are looking at a longish engagement. I asked her, “Why?”

She said, “We need to be sure.” I almost laughed out. You are never sure. Nearly 14 years after getting married, I am still not sure. It doesn’t matter how long you are engaged. Your husband or wife will turn out to be a different person to the one you were engaged to.

As I mulled over her answer, she asked – “Do you believe in true love?”

Now, why the hell would she ask me that!

The first unthinking words almost out of my mouth were – No! I don’t. I think it is all a lie. There is no such thing as true love. Just look at the disillusionment that you find in almost all the relationships around you! We are surrounded by a landfill of relationship debris.

Even as I thought these words I knew I was missing the point; because despite the disillusionment and the neglect there was something else.

Despite my desire to be untouchable in matters of the heart (a direct result of believing that I am as cool as Clint Eastwood in his cowboy avatar), the fact of the matter is that I do believe in love. Not the Valentine’s Day shit with its cards, candlelight dinners, and roses. I don’t even believe in the we-will-grow-old-together kind of romance. Tomorrow and old age are not guaranteed.

I thought about how in today’s world a growing cobweb of disillusionment and neglect anchor and hold up the photo frames of our relationships. Relationships and marriages, in particular, seem to be made up of what is missing – small acts and gestures that we forget to, or are too lazy or angry to do for each other.

Every expert on relationships has been crying himself or herself hoarse trying to tell us that we got to work at love. ‘Falling in love’ does not guarantee ‘staying in love’. You got to work at it to keep it alive. There is no happily ever after. At best you have a “we like each other enough to want to grow old together” ever after.

So is that all there is to love?

I am not an ace at this. I never was. Time, drudgery, disillusionment, neglect, taking and being taken for granted have taken their toll. Yet I am not just a victim. I am a killer too. Love doesn’t die at the hands of infidelity and violence alone. Its butchers are many.

Like pretty much most young women who get married, I believed in true love or rather the mirage of true love as spoon fed to us by our film industry. My ever after. My one and only. A few heartbreaks and disappointments later (both parties at fault) I revisited my notions of love.

Was love the intense feeling that swept over me as they placed my new-born daughter on my chest and I knew in my bones that I’d kill for this little one’s safety? I have never felt anything close to that for anyone else.

I am married to a guy who is in finance. He loves math. I love words. He watches Bloomberg and cricket for entertainment. I watch travel shows on NG and Discovery and love to read. More than a decade of marriage hasn’t blurred these differences in our case. In fact, we can still only manage a polite curiosity in the other’s interest.

In the initial years of our marriage, he got me watches (expensive, branded ones) for three of my birthdays. The third time I got a watch, I sat him down, showed him my watch-less wrist and told him in clear terms, “I don’t like to wear watches!”

To his credit, he has been learning and has stopped getting me watches.

We live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. A combination of health issues and sheer frustration at juggling a highly demanding job and a growing child made me walk away from regular employment. Now I am a stay-at-home-mom and a freelance writer working on my first novel. A move I could not have made unless my watch-buying, math, and cricket-loving husband had not agreed to finance our lives.

So is this love?

Love.  In my mind, it is a gentle, soothing breeze… something that underlies and supports, and is supported and nurtured in turn by consideration, kindness, generosity and passion. A breeze that wipes away our tiredness and soothes our tired eyes and heart. A breeze that brings with it anew a slow bubbling hope. A breeze that needs a soul to brush against, slowly raising its shrouds… awakening it to the joy, peace, angst and pain that is the accompaniment to love.

A breeze that blows against a rock face or wall will not raise any shrouds. It will just be a weak wind that falters and fades away. Love is like that. One day you are the breeze, the next day… hopefully, your partner. But if you, or he or she, are the rock all the time, then eventually the breeze will die.

When young, due to my movie and Mills and Boons fueled notions of love and romance, I believed true love can be achieved only with one person. Now I know better. You can fall in love deeply many times over. You can be in love with more than one person at the same time. Love can evolve into like, hate and indifference. You can fall out of love with a person and yet love that person.

The magic of love can touch you at any time, across the labyrinth of space, age, societal mores, and even reality. You can be in love in your mind and the world would have no inkling. You can even be in love with an imaginary personification of all that you desire. This love of the imaginary person (that you are yet to meet or may never meet) is like an underground spring that waters your soul and keeps you alive.

You could be in love with a woman’s never-say-die spirit, a man’s kindness, that woman’s smile, that stranger’s eyes… you know that nothing will ever come out of it. For a few weeks or maybe just for a few days, they will add an extra spring to your step, a smile to your lips, an ache to your heart, and a song to your heart. You are not going to disrupt the status quo of your life for this smile or eyes. But just for that magical little while, love and romance brush by you again and you are alive. Just an intense crush, but for those few hours, days and weeks, this imaginary love-story in your mind is stronger than any relationship that actually exists in your ‘real’ life.

And then one day you wake up, freed from the bondages of this crush… you are out of love.

So what the hell is love? To be honest I still don’t know. I am constantly redefining it.

Do I believe in true love? I don’t even know what the hell true love is! But I can tell you this – I am a romantic.

The word romance conjures up different images for most of us – usually dictated by our age and experiences. In our teen years, it is a red heart-shaped balloon and a misspelt love note. In our 20s a public declaration of everlasting love on Facebook and Instagram. In our 30s, a partner who is willing to wake up to take care of that baby who is hell bent on driving you to an early grave.

But now I am in my 40s, and for me romance has broken the limiting walls of relationships. Let me explain…

I had always liked to think of myself as a realist – someone who sees the world for what it is and accepts it. But the truth of the matter is that I am not a realist. I don’t see the world for what it is. For me the world we see is an opaque veil, that conceals the truths that I instinctively believe in, and even know to exist. Even my personal religion and concept of God is based on this.

I believe without proof. Yet I also believe in the theory of evolution and have a deep respect for science and the fantastic mind-bending journey it, and we are on. Maybe because of this respect (and not despite it) I also believe in things I cannot see.

So how can I not be a romantic!?

Not just a believer in romance in its most commonly understood sense… but also the romance of life itself. When I smile instinctively at another person during my walks and they smile back at me, when my daughter walks into my room early in the morning and cuddles up with me, when I watch two young lovers trying to maintain decorum and distance as they walk together, jostling against each other with every step… I am more in love than I have ever been. Not with another person. But just in love.

When I read the wistful, elegiac words of poets like Rumi, Parveen Shakir, Keats, and Ghalib, I cannot help but wonder… How can this feeling, this aching yearning for another even arise in our hearts, if there was no romance!? How can it exist if there was no quest for that one love? How can someone write words that reach out across centuries and lands and grab my heart with such intensity and force? Am I not falling in love all over again when I read them?

Then there are things in this world that make me believe in a love that feels deeper and truer. When I am walking along a deserted beach, when I am watching a full moon shine brightly on snow-capped mountains at 2am, I sense something rare and fragile to my touch, just out of my reach… brushing delicately against my fingertips. It teases me into being more aware. An almost ephemeral awareness, it is by its very nature of being elusive that much more valuable and worthy of being pursued.

Right now, as I learn to live consciously and intentionally, taking steps towards certain dreams, instead of just waiting for them, my notions of love and romance are abstract.

I believe in the romance of the moment. It is a fleeting moment – sometimes submerged in the minutiae of life, buried amidst the debris of our busyness and distractedness. But that one fleeting moment can keep that flame of magic and life burning. And it is not necessarily a moment with your partner or spouse. It is the kind of romance where you are in a moment, either with your spouse or a friend (whatever be their gender) or your pet or a stranger, and you are with that person fully. It is the kind of romance that inspires you even when you are alone.

Right now, love is this very moment.

My newly engaged friend stared dazed at me as I went through my disjointed spiel. “So does this mean you believe in true love?”

“Yeah, yeah I believe in true love.” She will have to figure this out in her own way and time anyway.

 

 

Time To Say Thank You!

A few months ago, when the issue of OROP (One Rank One Pension) for the Indian soldiers, was still headline-worthy, a leading news channel hosted a discussion with a panel of retired defence personnel and a few family members of military martyrs. The focus was not just on the problems relating to OROP but also about what exactly a soldier feels in the face of such political and bureaucratic manoeuvring. A retired air force man spoke about izzat (honour) and respect.

A word like honour can sound archaic – something more befitting a feudal lifestyle… though in India, we never wander too far from our medieval roots. However, this retired pilot was not talking about honour the way, say, a khap panchayat would interpret it. No. He was talking about something more basic. Something, neither he nor any other soldier, retired or otherwise, should have to beg, ask, protest or fast for. This is something that should have been a given.

He was asking for acknowledgement. Acknowledgement for what they have done… for us. The sacrifices they have made. The price they have paid. For being the kind of men and women who realise that being a soldier entails a very real danger of being torn apart by bullets or bombs, and yet sign up for the job.

Acknowledgement not just from their fellow soldiers and family members but from the government and the people of the nation. And it is not just our soldiers. It is our cops. Our teachers. Our municipality workers. It is our parents. It is our watchman.

The world has always been divided along class and linguistic lines, but a lack of time and even worse, lack of empathy have exacerbated the problem. And, while it’s true that not all of us have the wherewithal to change the world we live in, we can change one small thing by acknowledging the fellow human beings who pepper our lives. There is a story behind every face and a hero, a mentor, and a guide hiding in the most unassuming of people.

Listening to that retired soldier speak, I wondered how many times I have bothered to acknowledge, honour and celebrate the people who have impacted me. The answer did not reflect well on me. So I decided to do something about it. Being a writer, pretty much all my ‘doing’ is done here – so here is my rather sorry attempt at acknowledging three of the people who made the greatest impact on my life.

My Mother – The Survivor

I never had to look outside of my home for positive role models. They had dinner with me every single day of my childhood. My mom got married young. When she was 17. She wanted to study and become a doctor. Her dad, my grandfather, however, felt that it was important that she get married before she became an old maiden. She rebelled by refusing to write her 12th school-leaving exams. She rebelliously declared, “If you are not going to let me study then what is the point of my writing any exam!”

She was 18 when she had me. When I was in my grade 10, my mother decided that she was going to get her college degree before her daughter did. We were in Chennai (then Madras) at that point of time. She appeared for an examination that was the equivalent of her Class 12 exams and passed and went on to graduate in B.A. Literature from Madras University… two years before I completed my degree in commerce. She then went on to do a Diploma in Computers at Loyola College, Chennai. In her 30s, she started working. And she worked till she was nearly 55. She worked right through her cancer and resultant surgery, chemo and radiation. It wasn’t an easy journey and there was resistance from many quarters. However, she hung in there.

If today, I have the luxury of being an independent and fiery thinker, it is because of what she taught me.

My Father – The Soldier

Growing up in Chennai, many often mistook my dad for a cop, because of his moustache and deep voice. Then they would get to know him better, recognize what a softie he really is, and start laughing with him about the misunderstanding. In today’s world by all standards my father is an ordinary man. His identity today is of a retired airforce man in his 70’s who still continues to live life independently with my mom.

However, scratch the surface and ask him about his youth and the stories begin to flow. Like all soldiers, Daddy loves to tell the stories from ‘his war’. But only to those who ask and show interest. Even then, he will not tell the stories that really matter. The stories behind why he a JWO (which means he was the ground support staff and not a pilot) was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal (a medal usually reserved for the airborne) for gallantry during the 1971 war. His act of bravery involved stepping out into the airfield when it was being bombarded by enemy aircraft and helping Indian fighter planes land and taxi in. He encouraged others to ignore the danger to their lives and do the same too. The medal is discreetly displayed on a bookshelf at home. For many years, he was happy to keep it locked in a cupboard until my brother and I took it out. The photograph of him receiving the award is proudly displayed in my house.

Sometimes when I see him interact with a shopkeeper, or a waiter, or his own grandchild, I wonder if they know that they are talking to a man who displayed exemplary courage and devotion to duty in the face of extreme danger.

My Teacher – The Task Master

I was in Class 5 and even then English was my favourite subject and Christella Ma’am, my class teacher was my English teacher. Halfway through the year we had, each, to work on a project. I had to do something related to verbs or tenses… I don’t remember. What I do remember is breezing through my work and submitting it the next day. I knew… just knew that mine was the best project work in class. I could see the others struggle.
Christella Ma’am took in all our submissions.

The next day we were told our marks. Another kid in class had got the highest marks. I don’t remember if I came in second or third or fifth. I remember I didn’t come in first. To say I was taken aback would be an understatement. So immense was my feeling of being unjustly treated that I marched up to Ma’am and asked her, ‘Why!? Why am I not the top scorer?’ Ma’am looked at me and said, “Your work may have been the best in the class, but it was not your best.”

In that moment, she taught me one of the biggest lessons of my life. Anything worth doing is worth doing, not just well, but the best that you can make it.

It took me many more years and a tryst with a job in a stock broker’s office (for all of a week) before I realised that I wanted to write. But the seeds were sown by Christella Ma’am.

 

The Municipality Worker – This man did not impact my life choices, but he did teach me a couple of things about attitude.

There is this guy I met while visiting my brother-in-law’s family in Nerul, Navi Mumbai. He is, what we all collectively call, the kacharawala. An ironic tag for someone who clears the kachara (garbage) created by us. I don’t know his name. But of all the people I met during this last holiday, he had the greatest impact on me. Why? Because of his attitude. He always greeted us with this big, friendly smile and said ‘Hello didi!’ He didn’t grumble. He didn’t whine. He didn’t look like he hated what he did. And if there is a job that is easy to hate, it is his! Maybe he did hate what he did. Maybe he never thinks about it. Or maybe he is the kind of human being who does whatever he has to do with dignity… a throwback to the kind of human being Gandhiji extolled all of us to be.

On India’s Independence Day (August 15), he greeted us with a ‘Hello didi! Aap clubhouse nahi gaye? Janda lehra rahein hai aaj. Achcha hai.” [Translation – Did you not go to the clubhouse today? They are hoisting the flag. It is good.]

Above all, I remember the vibe he spread. He was a happy man and it made me happy to just say ‘hello’ back to him.

There you go – that is my list for now. Do write and tell me about the people who have impacted you. If nothing else, definitely spare them a thought and a prayer.

 

 

 

Excerpt 2 – A Dialogue

Excerpt 2

 

My second excerpt from Second Chances. It is the working title of my novel. Manna (short for Tamanna) is my lead. What do you think of this dialogue? Do let me know if it resonates with you or if you find it clunky. Does it give you any insight into what kind of a person Manna is? Do share your thoughts.

 

 

My Post Won IndiaHikes’ March 2016 Blog Contest!

12799411_10153375733901583_8840689304820313377_n I have some great news to share with you guys. My blog post, When the Mountains Calledabout my trek to Chandrashila Peak, won IndiaHikes’ March 2016 Blog Contest. Check it out at  http://indiahikes.in/march-2016-blog-contest-winners/. Thank you for all your support. Do keep reading. You can find this post at https://binusivan.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/when-the-mountains-called/

 

 

Negotiations With God

This was written some years ago – when I was neck deep in fear. Am finally ready to share it. Part of my resolve to grow into a writer who will not hold back her truth – be it embarrassing or painful.

2009

It is the call that most women dread. The one from their doctor. The one where a clinical yet sincere voice tells you, “We have found a lump.” The regret in the voice is genuine and sincere. But the doctor had just got started. “Actually three. In your left breast. And there are six nodules on your thyroid glands.”

As you see the matrix of life rotating clearly around you for a second you’d happily swap all the sincerity spilling over the mobile, for a guffaw and a gotcha! from the other end. No such luck! This is not a prank call. It is real. And you feel yourself grow cold.

It is amazing how calm one can be when one is told that you could be staring down the barrel of a gun that may be loaded with those dreaded cancer cells.

I was at work when I got the call.

I remember calmly agreeing with the doctor that most probably they are just benign growths.

I had three lumps in my left breast and a few nodules on my thyroid. What are the chances that all of them were benign? She did not say it, but we both knew – minimal. You have to be bloody lucky.

I remember standing up and saying to nobody in particular that I needed to stretch my legs. I remember walking to the corridor that ran outside my office and resting my head against the glass panels, near the elevators, that looked out at the outside world. No one else’s world seemed to have come to a crashing halt. People were busy rushing to their meetings, talking on their phones. Maybe some of them carried extra cells, and did not even know it!

The glass panel felt cool against my forehead. But I was burning with a strange fever and fervor now.

I have never believed that very deeply in detailed prayers and rituals. My prayers have always been simple – ‘Thank you.” That’s it. I have never wanted much in or from life.

Yet as I stood there resting my head against the glass, trying to absorb the cool of the glass into my being, I started negotiating with God. She is only 4. Keep me alive till she turns 18. No… 18 is not enough. I have to teach her about life, self-worth, love, strength and belief in oneself. I need time till she is at least 25. Keep me alive long enough to teach her all that is important. Keep me alive till I have hugged her and loved her enough number of times that she will have the memory of it seared into her soul. Keep me alive; take my breasts, lymph nodes, glands and whatever. I don’t mind. Just keep me alive till she is old enough to manage life without me.

That was five years ago.

The three lumps and the six nodules?

All of them were benign! I was the bloody lucky one.

I cleaned up my act for a bit. Ate healthy and exercised a lot more. I quit a stressful job and took on a less stressful one.

Two of those lumps disappeared. So did five of those nodules. No treatment. No surgery. Nothing!

2013

Yesterday I got another call.

The remaining lump in my left breast and the thyroid nodule have grown. A sudden unexplained leap in growth. More tests. More procedures. More negotiations with you-know-who.

April 30, 2016

 

20160418_095454

A simple reminder from my daughter.

 

 

It has been two years since the second scare and I turned out to be bloody lucky the second time round too. This time round I have heeded the lessons better. I have worked towards clearing the stables – emotional, physical and spiritual.

There are some of us who grow without too much of a struggle. Then there are people like me who have to be dragged through life’s classrooms to understand the lessons on offer. It is amazing how despite being aware of time being in short supply we squander it with such impudence. We should know better! And yet… we let it slip through our hands. Oh sure, we are busy. We all are busy. But how many of us are busy doing what we love… at least for a few hours in a week?

2016 has somehow been the year when I grew up. It has been a year of reckoning. Not because I hit a milestone birthday – that was three years ago. Somehow this has been the year when I have become more aware of the unrelenting passage of time. This has been the year when I stopped making excuses for not chasing my most closely cherished dreams.

This has involved going for my walks regularly, going on treks (and scaling some inner walls and mountains), making plans for my eventual move to the Himalayan foothills (even if it involves dragging a reluctant husband and daughter uphill), working (and I mean working, not dabbling) on my novel, and speaking my truth and learning to say ‘Yes’ to all the things that I am dying to do but, which scare the living daylights out of me, and finally, saying ‘No’ a bit more often to things that don’t reflect me.

Maybe it will just save me from further negotiations with God.