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A Tale of Two Sets of Tails

The Baya Weaver and Purple Rumped Sunbird Vs. the Monsoon Session of Parliament

The monsoons in India may seem overcast by the dark clouds of disruption in Parliament during the ongoing ‘Monsoon Session’, and the habitual whining about how insufficient rainfall will cast a pall of gloom on the already beleaguered Indian farmer. But that doom and gloom apart, there is a brighter side in the real world- the natural kind, if you care to look. Aside from the fascinating cycles of nature that find perpetuation from the smallest rain-shower, this is a time for another beautiful phase- Nesting. Several species of Indian birds build nests in the months between May and July, lay eggs and await the birth of little ones. I’ve had the pleasure of switching off the ‘noise’  that has become Indian TV news lately to get a ring-side view instead of the breeding pattern of two amazing birds- The baya weaver bird that builds incredibly complex hanging nests single-handedly and the purple rumped sunbird, that builds somewhat simpler nests much closer to human habitation. This blog-post is dedicated to them. Their stories also pack in quite a lot about gender-roles and shared responsibilities in the avian world, geared towards the singular purpose of procreation, stripped of all the social trappings of family life the human species feels pressured to endure. There are surely a few things for us to take away from observing how these little birds live their short lives.

I would have to naturally begin with the brilliant baya weaver bird, whose skills and intelligence might almost make the average Indian politician, seem a bird-brain in the sense that the expression is derogatorily used by us humans in all our vanity. There’s unity of design, a classical consistency, a definite sense of purpose and lots of hard-work behind the meticulous nest-building exercise of the baya. The sheer ingenuity with which the baya weaver designs its cosy little home, using nothing more than paddy leaves, grass strands or long strips torn from palm fronds to build its waterproof nest, complete with heat-shield mechanisms can leave you scratching your head. The male of the species is known to make up to 500 trips to gather the material to complete a nest. On the other hand, the purple rumped sunbird native to the Indian Subcontinent seems to suffer from the ‘chalta-hai’ attitude endemic to its human neighbours. It’s somewhat basic ‘jugaad-type’, probably modernist nest is almost embarrassing when compared to the neat, well-finished home of the baya weaver. Choosing to live much closer to human habitation than the baya, the sunbird picks up nearly everything it can find- fine plant fibres, cobwebs, lichens, bark pieces, flying seeds and other materials. Even bits of plastic, and newspaper. In the case of the sunbird, it’s the female that almost exclusively builds the nest while the male hovers around. I’m reserving judgement on the role of genders to distinguish the finesse of the nests of these two birds. I’m clearly biased in favour of the baya weaver, but I assure you that has nothing to do with the fact that their nests are crafted by the male of the species.   

Once the male baya partially build the nests, reaching what’s called the ‘helmet stage’ (which takes a little over a week), they begin to display to passing females by flapping their wings and calling while hanging from their nests. The females then inspect the nest and, if they approve of what they see- the design and location, they signal their acceptance of a male. Only then does the male actually complete the nest by adding the entrance tunnel, which can take up to 18 days. The pair then homes in the nest and breeds happily thereafter. But it isn’t always rosy. When females reject nests, some male weavers have reportedly been spotted tearing up the nest in frustration! It’s all about natural selection. The best man wins, the female gets to pick its ideal mate based on the skills displayed and leaves with a polite no, thank you, if it’s not quite impressed. The purpose of the nest is to house the brood of the fresh pair and carry forward the line. No marriage contracts, no expectations of fidelity or loyalty, none of the complication of morality that afflict the human species. Both male and female baya weavers are believed to be polygamous. After mating with a female, the male often courts other females at other partially constructed nests. Females are on occasion known to lay their eggs in the nests of others. Males sometimes assist in feeding the chicks. It’s a pretty hippy kind of culture. 

The social and gregarious baya weaver is known to nest in areas where they can easily access grains for food. Nesting mostly in colonies, they typically breed during the monsoons and are usually found on thorny trees or palm fronds and the nests are often built near water or hanging over water where predators cannot reach easily. While baya weaver colonies in Asia are usually 20-30 nests strong, the African sparrow weaver birds even build ‘nest apartments’, with 100 to 300 nests within the complex!

This is the colony at our farm in Thally, Tamil Nadu. The chosen branches of the tree are spread over an open pond, which fills up with water, depending on the strength of seasonal rainfall. I’m not sure where these birds have been feeding, but there are paddy fields not far from our farm itself. The pond certainly seems to be keeping off predators, keeping these birds happy to nest in peace.

Known as thukanam kuruvi in Malayalam, thookanaan kuruvi in Tamil and son-chiri in Hindi, both male and female baya weaver birds resemble female house sparrows in their non-breeding stage. From sporting a dull yellow colour with black markings at first, the males grow brighter in colour, with the yellows and the black markings becoming more prominent as the breeding season approaches.

Their pendulous bell-shaped nests are known to be elaborate, reflecting lots of attention to detail. Males are almost solely in charge of nest-building, though their female partners may join in giving the finishing touches, particularly on the interiors. Females may modify the interiors or add blobs of mud. Males have also been seen adding mud and dung to the nest chamber before pairing with a female. Although the real reason for this is not known, some believe the clay may help to stabilise the nest against strong winds. The nests have a definite design that includes a looped attachment to the branch, a roof, the egg chamber, antechamber and entrance tube. The expert craftsmanship is known to be instinctive to the baya weaver. Even one-and-half-year-old weaver birds have been spotted building fantastic gourd-shaped hanging nests, according to ornithologists based in Chennai.

One fascinating story about the baya weaver is the somewhat hard to confirm folk belief in India, that the bird sticks fireflies with mud to the nest walls to light up the interior of the nest at night! That’s an incredible vision. Imagine what that might look like…

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Compared to the baya, the nectar sucking, tiny purple rumped sunbird, is an also-ran when it comes to nest-building. They cobble together an almost comical set of items to build a dainty nest, attached very precariously to the end of a tree branch or even buildings and open porches as ideal nesting sites. They seem unafraid of humans and don’t appear to perceive them as dangerous predators, although they hardly approach them or stick around long enough even to be photographed. We have a few pairs choosing to nest practically outside our windows at home, in the city.

After admiring the work of the baya weaver, you can imagine why I find the sunbird rather disappointing. Just look at the materials it picks. I haven’t had the opportunity to peek inside, but reports say the nest is lined with soft fibres such as from the fuzz covering the seeds of Calotropis- also known as milkweed. That would make sense because we have plenty of those growing around and this is the season for seed dispersal. I sure hope the nests look better on the inside! Every time I look at this nest hanging delicately, I wonder how it might survive the strong gusts of wind and rain common during the Indian monsoon. But then there is much I don’t know… 

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I’ve often caught the sunbird tapping the window, possibly at its own reflection! Turns out they’re there collecting cobwebs for the nest and are startled by what they probably think are other birds staring back at them from the reflecting glass. Like the baya weaver, it is the males amongst the purple rumped sunbird that are brighter and more attractive. Classic mate-attracting traits, perhaps. Maybe the bird equivalent of muscular male bodies, successful careers, fancy perfumes and flashy cars, all rolled into one to grab the attention of the ideal female in our own species. The male purple rumped sunbird is quite a stunner. It has a dark maroon upper side with a blue-green crown that glistens at some angles, bright green shoulder patch and violet/purple rump patch which is generally hidden under the wings. I’m afraid my pictures hardly do justice to their true beauty. But they’re really small and terribly nimble to capture their brilliance on camera! The underparts of the male are whitish with dark throat, maroon breast band and purple/violet patch in the throat which is visible at some angles. The female is relatively staid. Something of a Plain Jane. It has a white throat followed by yellowish breast. The upper side is olive or brownish. That’s about it.

What’s fun is to see them foraging for nectar. They’re so small, they can hover over tiny flowers till their beaks find the hidden honey. They also dew-bathe, sliding over drops of rain collected on large leaves- a sight I haven’t managed to capture on camera yet. These are known to breed through the year and may have two broods, but mainly during the monsoons. For their size, they can be surprisingly loud. The sunbird lays about two eggs and the chicks are known to fledge in about 17 days. The eggs are incubated by both the male and female. I see constant traffic around the nest and research tells me the chicks are fed by the male for a few days. Helpers, females or possibly juveniles from the previous brood may sometimes assist the parents in feeding the young. The great thing about these birds is that they keep the garden blooming and happy by simply hopping flowers in search of nectar. They’re one of the key pollinators, and without them, we’d not have our fruits or the genetic diversity that makes evolution more exciting.      

I’d say, birdwatching has been time well spent, away from the nonsensical drama on TV, that has been my staple in the past. Watching a bunch of politicians hold any likely development in the country to ransom as they get down to a game of one-upmanship in stalling parliament is hardly what the monsoons should be about! What say? 


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I have to force my son to play! And you?

Saturday morning, my son woke up bright and cheerful. After all no school means, getting to sleep in. I was already stretched out on my Yoga mat, so he tried not to bother me. He went to the loo, and then got his toothbrush and declared he would brush his teeth himself! Now, that’s quite an event, because I still help him with it most of the time. He’s six and half, can add and subtract numbers faster than the grown ups at home and teach you a thing or two about how to use the latest iPad, but when it comes to the simple everyday stuff, he still needs a little handholding. It took me about two minutes to figure out the real reason for his voluntary show of autonomy. He wanted to be done with the boring rituals to begin the day, so he could get to the exciting stuff- he needed to get back to where he left off overnight on Minion Rush, Asphalt8 and Vector- his preferred computer games of the season. Obviously, this meant, I and my lil boy were on collision-course first thing in the morning! That has become something of a ritual too. I catch myself regularly giving him an earful just to get him to play ‘regular’ games, outdoors, like I believe is the normal thing for children his age to do. At least that used to be the ‘normal’ thing when I was once a child. But it turns out, this is the new ‘normal’.

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It can get quite bad, this gadget obsession! But then, I have to confess, I am part of the problem. If I hadn’t introduced him to ‘Angry Birds’ on my smart-phone to ‘kill time’ while waiting to meet the teacher at his school PTM, and then not encouraged him to graduate to ‘Talking Tom’ on the Tab while waiting for the doctor’s appointment, and then again let him get addicted to the ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Ben Ten’ on the PSP, could he have reached where he now has? I still remember how as an infant, he would hammer away on the keyboard of my Vaio years ago. And I should admit, when I’m not doing the chores, I am myself on some gadget or other most of the time. It can’t be fair for me to expect model behaviour from from my child, with the example I set! The cold, hard truth is, children do as we do, they don’t do as we say. The answer then perhaps is the battered cliche: to be the change!

Mixed messages only confuse little children. As a parent, I cannot afford to have double-standards. It won’t work for me to ask him to switch on a gadget, just so he can be occupied and stay out of my hair, when its convenient for me, and then reprimand him for doing the same thing when he turns to it on his own. How fair is it to encourage your child to get comfortable with a certain activity and then decide to unplug them, when they have just started to enjoy it? Expecting compliance with multiple sets of conflicting instructions will backfire. So, unless I want to develop a life-long pattern of confused signals, it might make sense to sort out the mess before its too late.

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What truly put the fear in me is the story of this father’s bizarre experience with his 7 year old son, being hooked to the virtual world of Minecraft. Reading about it was almost like a glimpse into the future for me. If I let him, I’m quite sure my son will get there too, and that seriously scares me.

The lure of the virtual world can hardly be underestimated. Its easy to see why a child would get hooked to a fast-moving, snazzy, multi-coloured fantasy world, where everything is always exciting and challenging. The games have been designed to appeal to their sensibilities and they succeed in ways nothing else can, to get the undivided attention of children we otherwise whine about having poor spans of attention. There’s something completely addictive about the combination of the graphics and the music, not to mention the exhilaration of getting to the next level, so they can brag about it to their school-mates the next day. Its plain irresistible.     

But the argument in favour of technology that speaks to me, is its positive aspect. Of course there are people across the globe that have been surviving without state-of-the-art technology. Some because they are too remote, others because they cannot afford it, many because they have been denied by vested interests and yet others because they choose to have nothing to do with it. Be that as it may, what effects me directly is the subject of my interest. I find technological advancements quite inevitable and technology almost indispensable. As more and more aspects of our lives get mechanised, I can’t see my son missing the bus. I’d rather not see him bumbling around with gadgets not knowing what they are or how to use them. As someone who uses technology positively, I do feel the need for him to keep pace. He studies in a smart-classroom with electronic boards often used to explain concepts. He’s taught about computers and their uses and his curriculum requires him to clock supplementary hours on specific apps at home to reinforce his math skills- both numerical and spatial. The problem I see is of over-dependence. Worse, one of addiction. To me, the solution is to strike a balance. Depriving a child of access to gadgets can’t be the best idea. Limiting the time they spend on them, may be a good place to start.

There are many for whom technology is the enemy. I’ve decided, that isn’t my path. I’m not going to fight the inevitable. I’m going to try to use it to my advantage. Much as I rue the state of affairs- the fact that I have to routinely go from cajoling to yelling at my son to just get him to cycle or play ball instead of ‘Temple Run’, and can’t prevent the sinking feeling when I think of how far we’ve come from enjoying simply taking a walk to getting planted to the sofa in front of our TV sets, I’m not giving up just yet. It can’t be all that bad. I’m optimistic that the situation can still be saved.

Those of you who might be struggling with a similar situation, feel free to share your experience, pitch in with your views, comments and possible solutions. Meanwhile, here’s the via media we’ve come up with, as a family. We’ve agreed to agree. One thing that seems to work with my son, is to make a deal with him, before we start on a task. We negotiate the terms of the deal in a way that both of us can live with, and go forward from there. Breaching the terms calls for treatment in the silent corner! This should work at least until the terrible teens strike, so why the hell not try…

I’ve decided that if the iPad is the most important thing in the world to him right now, he only gets to use it once all his assigned tasks are completed to my satisfaction ( I know how skewed in my favour, this sounds!). So instead of waking up in the morning and switching on the gadget before anything else, all regular tasks including downing the glass of milk and outdoor play will be done before he earns half an hour on the gadget of his choice. Based on his performance, the duration of his reward can go up somewhat. Likewise, we now have rules that gadgets won’t be touched if homework is pending. Electronic games have been made a leisure time activity with a stop-watch attached. To beat the couch-potato syndrome, physical activities have been built into the week- swimming, tennis, using the two-wheeled balancing scooter, cycling and some yoga practice are being tried. The practice of taking our three dogs for an evening walk has also now become a ritual. As we’re lucky enough to have some farmland, my son also gets to do what I and my siblings did as children- climb trees! Nothing beats clambering up tree branches like monkeys, finding the balance to stay there, feeling the high and being able to find your way back down.

It definitely is hard to accept that life has changed so much for us that from one generation to another we’ve forgotten the use of our body parts beyond our thumbs, forgotten the value of good-old social etiquettes to withdraw into our little fantasy worlds on our smart phones and computers and found joy, succour and validation in online communities rather than real flesh and blood individuals. But all is not lost just yet. Even if only by the dint of compulsion, those of us who still appreciate the value of ditching the car occasionally to take a walk when possible can hopefully pass on the benefit of that wisdom. Explaining the notion that gaming should only be a recreational activity to engage in, in one’s spare time instead of being obsessively pursued single-mindedly, is proving to be a task. I’m not sure if this is more of a ‘boy’ thing, or a generational phenomenon. But I’m relieved we’re making some progress on keeping things in perspective. How about you? Get in touch if this is something you’re grappling with too. It would be nice to know how you’re dealing with it…

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Inside Out- A great watch

Mum turned 65 over the weekend, an obvious occasion to celebrate. The celebrations included a big decadent family meal followed by a trip to the cinema. We picked Inside Out- the latest Disney Pixar release. For years now, our movie-viewing lists have been decided by the youngest member of the family- my son, who turns 7 this October. Anyone with little children will see exactly what I mean. To my surprise though, I have enjoyed every children’s film almost as much as my son. Inside Out, happens to be exceptional. I can’t decide, which of us enjoyed it more. For one, we haven’t stopped talking about the movie since watching it on Saturday. My son is so full of questions and observations about it, that while answering them I have started to realise how complex the film really is. What’s incredible about it, is that it manages to concretise one of the most intangible things- human emotions. It deftly goes about explaining the nuances of the inner-workings of one’s mind, even the subconscious, in the simplest and easiest possible way. I doubt this has been done before through an animation film targeting little children. It is so effective in its story telling, that it works perfectly well for grown-ups too. There were many adolescents and adults in the theatre, all of whom seemed to enjoy the film. They’d laugh and applaud on cue, but I’m not sure if they realised the many levels the script seems to work on. While the film is ostensibly for children, I suspect there’s quite a lot there for an older audience too. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d really recommend that you do. Why don’t we share notes afterwards?

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The film is essentially about a pre-pubescent girl- Riley. When her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, the changes are too much for her to handle. A normally cheerful Riley starts to feel lost, can’t quite find her bearings in the new city or school and has no friends. A pro at ice hockey, in frozen Minnesota, she can’t even find her peace in the artificial ice-rink in her new city. The film describes her state of mind in the most ingenious way- by taking us physically into her brain, where we see a bizarre landscape populated by the many centres that keep her upright and functioning normally. Her ‘headquarters’ are linked to her main emotional anchors- the core aspects of her personality depicted as a series of islands: family island, friendship island, goof-ball island (fun), hockey island and honesty island. These are the building blocks of her identity. But as Riley struggles to cope with her life-changes, her basic emotion- Joy is tinged with Sadness. Both emotions are depicted as female characters. Joy, painted a bright yellow and Sadness, predictably blue. Each time Riley tries to get back on her feet and navigate her way out of the crises, Sadness intervenes, to the point that she touches Riley’s ‘core memories’ depicted as a series of balls stored up in a massive library of racks. While attempting to correct the course, Joy gets sucked into a seeming wasteland on the edges of Riley’s consciousness accompanied by Sadness. The two are engaged in a gripping roller-coaster as Joy tries literally to pull Sadness out of the shadows in vain through most of the movie and somehow make it back to HQ, which seems to slip farther away with each successive attempt.

In the meantime, there are three other emotions left in-charge of HQ- Fear, Disgust and Anger. As you might imagine, this makes for quite a deadly combination. While these three try to keep Riley afloat, the result is a veritable disaster. Riley inexplicably breaks down while trying to introduce herself at the new school, she can’t bring herself to confide in her parents about what she’s experiencing, withdraws from her best friend in Minnesota, gets into an unnecessary and unprovoked argument with her parents at dinner-time, which ends in an explosion of anger…in all, Riley is a mess.

The rare occasions when Riley and her emotions do get a break is when she finally gets to sleep. As she hits the REM phase, we’re introduced to a hyper-active brain, busy producing dreams. These dreams come out of a fantastical film-studio, with a range of bizarre characters- people, animals, the works. The dreams change unpredictably as they normally do, with new characters stepping in depending on which emotion is at work. During this chaotic interplay of emotions, there are also amazing detours to Riley’s ‘subconscious’! A labyrinth, amazingly pictured with staircases leading into hidden dark alleys that bend into even deeper corners. There, Joy and Sadness are constantly startled by Riley’s latent fears- from the sudden burst of sound coming from her grandma’s vacuum cleaner to the fearsome giant body of the clown- Jangles from her many birthday parties. And you also get to meet Riley’s endearing imaginary friend- Bing-Bong- with a body of pink cotton-candy, that’s part elephant (with a trunk), part cat- bushy-tailed, has striped legs, and oddly drips hard candies from his eyes every time he cries. He’s Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend, trying desperately to re-enter the HQ of her control centre. He helps Joy and Sadness find their way back out of the maze in her head, by hitching a ride on Riley’s “train of thought”.

As the plot progresses, Riley hits the wall time and again, leaving her sad and miserable. Without Joy in command she is unable to find her balance and lunges from one heart-tugging moment to another, as we see her many core- centres collapse. Joy persistently tries to walk the tight rope to each of Riley’s personality islands, just to find them shattering under pressure, one after another. Riley crashes her last island- ‘honesty’, when she steals money from her mother’s wallet to buy a bus ticket to return to Minnesota. She practically runs away, like many young people do. In her confused emotional state, she feels she might find her equilibrium by simply revisiting the city where she once belonged, while forgetting that the sense of normalcy she felt, actually came when she was with her family and friends, had fun and played hockey. After having abandoned each of those ‘core areas’, in moments of irrationality, she is still clinging to the mistaken notion that Minnesota, minus her family is the answer to her woes.

The plot turns when Joy suddenly realises that while she has been trying to suppress Sadness all along, it might be this emotion that holds the key to linking her back to HQ. Sadness, who is always sulking or trying to hide from view comes to life when Joy asks for her help to restore order inside Riley. This is the turning point, when Riley comes to her senses as it were, and steps off the bus to Minnesota mid-way. She returns home to face-up to the truth with honesty in front of her parents. She doesn’t realise then, that her change of course implies affirmative action in getting on top of her predicament. 

Once she’s home, there’s an emotional scene where she breaks down before her parents and comes clean on what she has been going through. This ‘Sadness’ she experiences proves to be the glue, to bring mom and dad back to Riley. As they hug and promise to set things right together, the warmth of that embrace repairs her broken emotions. There’s an outburst of emotions where Anger, Fear and Disgust, all rise to the occasion to let Joy and Sadness break through the glass-panes that are blocking them from the HQ. Once Joy and Sadness are both in, Sadness is in the saddle to bridge the way for Joy to finally kick in. From there on, Riley’s back on track. She has a brand-new confidence, from her experience of having been down in the dumps and back. We get to see a brand-new console take shape inside her brain- one with a whole lot of shinier and flashy buttons. The broken bits are welded and soldered, all emotions have found their seats and are less confused and crucially, Joy and Sadness discover a harmony, they didn’t know before!

When all of this unfolds in 3D with surround sound in a darkened cinema hall, its not easy for an adult to imagine the impact on the mind of a toddler. But from the barrage of questions we have had to answer as a family, I think, the effect was nothing short of profound on the impressionable mind of my little son.

Interestingly, the character he most identified with was, ‘Anger’! As a parent, that set off alarm bells for me at first. Parents, I think are coded to imbue their offspring wrongly with only the positive elements. In hind-sight I realise that I tried quite hard to make him see the value and significance of Joy, by trying to get him to identify with it. I remember repeating several times that Joy was most important as it is a ‘positive’ emotion. I also insisted that ‘Anger’ was negative and hence destructive and he should try to distance himself from it. While this was just me being a well-meaning mother, what I was trying to also do is undo the good work the film and its makers had done. They tried to convey the importance of all the emotions in their right proportion, while I tried to make the negative ones seem unnecessary and dispensable.

By day two, I began to realise I was making a hash of interpreting things. I changed tack to explain that Sadness and Anger are both required and good, though in the right measure. I also realised that one other reason for my son identifying with Anger could be the fact that it was one of the few characters that was ‘male’. Fear was male too, but only a very fearful person will identify with it as the primary character. My son pointedly asked me one night before going to bed if Joy was a girl. That’s when I became convinced about the gender-typing through the narrative. I tried to explain that it was just the way the story had been told, and emotions were not feminine or masculine.

It has been hard over the days to explain that there really aren’t any ‘little people’ of varying colours living and talking inside our heads. It has also been hard to explain that ‘Anger’ is not ‘cool’ and its primary purpose is not to “destroy and beat” the others up, as my son believes. But I’m glad we’ve finally come to the understanding that each emotion has its role and significance and that we’ve understood why it’s as important to feel sad, as it is to feel happy, afraid, angry or disgusted. That a good cry can leave you much lighter, relieved and happier!

As we go, we’ve also come to an understanding that its Riley who actually pulls the strings. That she controls who should run the show, because she’s the owner of the brain, which houses the ‘little people”. A part of me is trying to use Yoga to explain this to my boy. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev talks extensively about the interplay of the physical body, mind and emotions. He talks about the power of meditation to create a situation where, your mind is your slave, rather than being your boss. He talks of using Yoga to first discipline one’s body into stillness, and through that to force the mind to become still too. From that point of stillness, he says it is possible to instruct your mind to do what you wish it to do. This is essentially self-control where you are on top of your mind and body, and in charge. From there, it should be possible to control your emotions, their expression and the reaction to those emotions. Of course that kind of power only comes with understanding and maturity, but knowing that such a thing is possible is empowering, considering that most of us succumb to their first impulse.

I guess, this is a great deal of wishful thinking on my part right now. I doubt my efforts will spare me the experience of eventually seeing my son struggle with the horrors of puberty or the terrors of adolescence. But regardless, I’m really glad a film like ‘Inside Out’ got made. I’m even more glad, we got to see it together as a family. It’s heartening to see a child grappling with so many complex ideas simplified so appealingly for him to grasp. I think it’s really important that people of every age start to talk about how they feel and what they think about how they feel. The value of emotions and empathy have often been underrated in our quest to feed the intellectual appetite. This film hits that goal- it gets you thinking and talking about your emotions. 

The approach of the movie may not be terribly scientific, but if it gets viewers across the board to visit the recesses of their minds to explore hidden ideas, forgotten and unacknowledged memories, realise the potential of ‘negative’ emotions to unlock the ‘positive’ ones, all in the form of popular entertainment with popcorn on the side, what more can one ask for? Paisa Vasool 🙂           


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Bindi Around the Mangoes

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Meet Bindi- the one with the unmissable spot. This morning she also discovered her ‘sweet spot’- in the midst of her favourite seasonal fruit- Mangoes.

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Bindi Around the Mangoes

I call this image ‘Bindi around the mangoes’. Its modelled on a popular radio spot (pun intended) in Bangalore, which advertises a real estate site being developed by a certain builder called ‘ND’. The property is called ‘ND around the mangoes’, because I guess, they bought up a mango orchard and then decided to make that their USP by building homes around the trees instead of cutting them down, and seeming environmentally conscious.

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Long after I wrote this post, I actually chanced upon this ad placed prominently outside a movie hall. It advertises ‘Uber-life Villas’ starting at 2.7 crores, and promises “a home in the lap of nature”! This is the ‘ND Around the Mangoes project.’

Bindi, therefore is now ‘around the mangoes’ and I imagine while she sleeps soundly at her sweet spot, she is also having sweet dreams about munching on the juicy stuff.

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In case you’re wondering why we have mangoes lying around like this, it’s because we don’t know what else to do with them. These are the stragglers of the year’s crop from our farm this year. My brother decided to lay the heap on some newspaper spread on the floor to prevent them from getting crushed under their own weight in a basket. They tend to sweat in the heat too, so its better to air them out. So here they are. Bindi didn’t always sleep here like this. She’d have loved to, but there was no space for her till now. She’s grown so fond of her mangoes that I don’t think I can get her to move anymore. So its going to be ‘Bindi around the mangoes’ till we (she and the rest of us) finish these off.

My brother is something of a ‘gentleman farmer’. He planted all kinds of mango saplings collected from across India on some farmland he bought years ago with his life’s savings. To be kind to himself, the family, our few friends and a new crop of concerned folk, all worried about poisoning themselves with the indiscriminate pesticides used by farmers in India, he decided to go organic on his farm. The farm therefore looks like a shrew that needs some taming. Its wild and unruly, and does as it pleases. The farm grows a bunch of things from mangoes to lemons, star fruit, chikoos/ sapota, varieties of sour cherries, exotic types of guavas, a few litchis, some jackfruit, tamarind, many types of hibiscus etc.

Its always work in progress. But a whole lot of creatures get to have a go at everything on the farm at every stage of growth- from insects and worms to birds, bees and bigger animals like boars and the occasional marauding elephant. At the end of the day, what we get in hand, is what’s left over. This has some benefits too- like the Civet cat that visits at night sometimes to eat the flesh of the ripest coffee cherries to only leave behind the seeds processed through its gut, which it can’t digest. World-over this has been sold as the most expensive coffee and spawned a terrible industry of abuse, where Civets are forcibly caged, force-fed and made to crap the seeds to make the prized brew. But with us, it’s all natural, with zero effort on our part.

Once we get the stuff home, it turns out our dogs don’t mind the organic produce much either. Of the three dogs we now have, Bindi, the oldest female is the one most attracted to fresh farm produce. She’s completely hooked onto mangoes. All the fruit we can’t have is happily devoured by Bindi without complaint. Incidentally I suspect she has no idea she’s a dog. She turns up for every meal at the table and demands her share. Apart from being a real mango aficionado, (mind you, she won’t really have the cheaper kind or the ones that are not too great… those she will simply sniff and give a miss), she also loves the other seasonal best- jackfruit. Water melons and musk melon which are now available through the year have anyway been on her list of favourites. And then she loves coconuts and bananas too. You can’t chop tomatoes or cucumber and not share it with her. Crunchy iceberg lettuce, that has to be shared too. And corn on the cob, without a doubt. Bindi’s quite a salad-dog, I have to say. Oftentimes, to get my son to have his veggies I just have to use Bindi as the ideal role-model to emulate. They’re almost the same age- chronologically and mentally, so it seems to work like a charm!

While I am quite far from finding my ‘sweet spot’ as a blogger, its good to know others are having better luck 🙂


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Where Are Our Girls?

I was at my son’s school this weekend to attend the first Parent Teacher’s Meet for the academic year, now that he’s in Grade I. Was somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of children in Grade I alone. Over 400 of them, as sections run from A through M with each packed to capacity of 40 plus students, which meant some 800 parents! A microcosm of the Indian situation: overpopulated. But what brought on a smile was the impressive number of girls present. The reason I found that important was that at the previous school my son attended, which was more high-profile and elitist, there were only an average of 15 children to a class, but I really had to search out the girls. This has got me wondering whether wealthier families that prefer the sparser expensive schools have fewer girl children compared to the middle of the middle schools that are chock-a-bloc. If that isn’t a mere coincidence, then is it far more sinister and deliberate, indicating gender selection to favour boys?

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Here’s how the numbers stack up in my analysis. At the expensive ‘international school’, that cost me about 3 lakhs in fees and additional amenities for one year of Kindergarten (probably more than the entire cost of my life’s education- upto my Master’s), my son was one of 17 students in his class. Of these 17, only 5 were girls. The school itself was excellent. There were two teachers per class assisted by a helper. Impressive infrastructure, a swanky new building set on acres of open well-landscaped property, big pool, cricket nets, football field, tennis and basketball courts, a cycling path, all the latest amenities, personalised care and feedback, iPads to reinforce Math and English concepts, all school buses fitted with GPS-tracking facility and a guard who’d ping you, in case you were late at the pick-up point- things you can hardly expect to be the norm. But that’s how it seems to work everywhere. You pay more, you get more! Honestly, I couldn’t afford the costs, so I moved my child to a lower-profile school a year later. The differences were striking. For one, the new school was like a bee-hive. Now, not all schools in India are like that. The reasons why so many people flock to it are two-fold: Its well managed, and more affordable. Here, there’s no pampering student teacher ratio to ensure personalised attention to individual students, but surprisingly, the one big change is the improvement in sex ratio.

I realise that this is not much of a survey to draw empirical outcomes from. I am comparing only two schools based on their profile, and drawing a conclusion about the missing girls in two sections of population defined by their financial status. But this is a first-hand observation, one that seems to tell a story. It seems to suggest that the higher-income group, that frequents the so-called ‘international schools’ a segment that has grown considerably lately, has a relatively poor sex ratio (number of girls per thousand boys) as opposed to the middle class segment.    

The new ‘international schools’ cater mostly to the Indian expat, returning home in the hope that that the India story is now looking up and his children can receive quality education here. These schools are also quite popular with the nouveau riche class- mostly those in the real-estate business who have new money, to those who’ve benefitted from Bangalore’s prime export- IT/BT. Then there are foreigners and diplomats in transit to whom these schools appeal.  Their curriculum is more in tune with the international standard, and they offer a host of extra-curricular activities ranging from theatre to rock-climbing even at the age of 5 yrs plus. But these schools have to also often employ aggressive marketing strategies to reach out to prospective clients because of the high costs involved. You can’t miss their big newspaper ads, radio spots and huge hoardings across the city.

But despite this, it is the other school that attracts admissions in their droves. The school incidentally, is only relatively cheaper. At about 2 lakhs annually per child, it is quite expensive for an average middle class Indian parent, especially if they have more than one child. Interestingly, the infrastructure and amenities in this model are also strong. Not the same as the elite schools but most ‘extra’ courses or amenities can be had at additional cost. That way, the school ensures that those who can afford more, get more, but that those who can’t don’t feel bad about it. So, for instance, my son gets to acquire a few extra skills like learning to use the Abacus, or to play the Piano, dance, play tennis etc, all at an additional fee. Those children whose parents don’t pick these ‘optional courses’ on the other hand, are kept busy with the regular fare. Its a win-win.

I’m really curious however, about where the little girls are in all this. Can you think of a plausible explanation for the bizarre sex ratio of 12:5 at the international school? It would have to imply that there are fewer daughters in that segment, or the daughters were sent off to another school! I suspect it is the former rather than the latter.

So what is it, the infamous Indian trend- female infanticide through the pathological preference for the male-child?

I don’t know. A statistical report from 2012 puts the sex ratio in Karnataka, where I live, at only 950 women per 1000 men. This year, my son’s class has 42 students. Only 16 of them are girls. Although the average is higher than at the previous school, the boys still outnumber the girls. The trend seems somewhat consistent with the state’s imbalanced sex ratio. So then, one would have to wonder where the girls have gone! Not a happy place, I presume.

For now, I’m just relieved that my son gets to attend a school where there’s at least a healthy mix of boys and girls, even if its not ideal. At least he won’t grow up with the skewed notions that are widespread in this part of the world!

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I don’t want to imagine the situation in parts of northern India, where the numbers of girls dwindle frighteningly in states like Haryana. The sex ratio there as of 2012 is merely 857. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, the sex ratio is 874. In the union territory of Daman and Diu, there were only an abysmal 618 women for every 1000 men. The ramifications of this frightening imbalance have been manifesting in a range of abnormal social behaviours and trends, all of which could have been avoided with timely and effective intervention. But here’s where we stand… wondering where our girls have gone!

Despite the imbalance, its quite amazing how girls have consistently outperformed boys at all levels academically across India. But whether they are getting their due after that in a patriarchal society remains an open question…


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Turd-green is my valley: Dealing with a crisis called Open Defecation

I take some joy and pride in where I live. A home nestled in the lap of nature, in a somewhat secluded patch. But nothing prepared me for what I saw this morning. While stepping out to drop my son off to his school bus, I noticed a red car parked just outside our gates. I hadn’t seen it there before. Two grown men had just stepped out of it. They were joking around and briefly stood near the bakery just next to their car. I thought nothing of it. Then my brother pointed out that both men were walking into the open clearing opposite the bakery and our property which is fenced-in. The men were armed with large bottles of water- the two litre recycled pepsi bottles that many of us use to store drinking water in. They were walking down the garden-path as it were… guess why? Well, you gotta go when you gotta go! I do get that. But I simply cannot fathom this new phenomenon- people who can afford a car, but not a toilet to relieve themselves!! So they drive up to a suitable place to take a crap. Just how ridiculous is that??

Green valley

The otherwise picturesque area near my house where random people turn up to take a dump!

I’ve seen others go that way before. Mostly men who work at the small shops in the neighbourhood. The shops don’t have toilets attached. Men in India have always felt they could just stand against the wall and let themselves go when they needed to. Its the done thing. That’s precisely why most public places smell like public loos. When they have to crap, they find the greener, wooded patches, the kind, folk like I live in. So, when you go thinking, “ah, such greenery, such fresh air…” you get an immediate reality check. The wafting stench of human waste! Sheer delight. 

Women, on the other hand feel ‘ashamed’, so they do the next best thing- exercise self-control. They hold on…sometimes so long, they end up with infections. Many go out in the cover of darkness at night and that’s also when in several parts of India, women are attacked, raped and killed or even suffer snake bites. Hard to believe we’re in the 21st century, and in a nation that successfully sends its Mission to Mars, we can’t deal with such basic issues on the ground. The UN calls ‘Open defecation’ a global sanitation crisis- It is unthinkable in 85% of the world, yet is the only option in the other 15%! Can you believe that the practice is so rampant in India that it has the dubious distinction of being home to the world’s largest population of people who defecate in the open? Indians excrete close to 65,000 tonnes of faeces into the environment each day!! Around 595 million people, which is nearly half the population of India, defecate in the open. India accounts for 90 per cent of the people in South Asia and 59 per cent of the 1.1 billion people in the world who practise open defecation. Every minute, 1.1 million litres of human excrement enter the river Ganga! Can you believe that??

So what the hell is wrong with us as ‘a people’!? Why can’t a toilet be a priority for someone even in a city like Bangalore, who can drive down to his favourite crap-point in his car? Unicef has some answers: In India, open defecation is a well-established traditional practice deeply ingrained from early childhood. Sanitation is not a socially acceptable topic, and as a result, people do not discuss it. Consequently, open defecation has persisted as a norm for many Indians. In addition to tradition and the communication taboo, the practice still exists due to poverty; many of the poorest people will not prioritise toilets and besides, many are living in rented homes without toilets.

Society does not view the lack of a toilet as unacceptable. Building and owning a toilet is not perceived as aspirational. Construction of toilets is still seen as the government’s responsibility, rather than a priority that individual households should take responsibility for. The challenge is to motivate people to see a toilet as fundamental to their social standing, status and well-being.

A significant gap also exists between knowledge and practice. Even when people are aware of the health risks related to poor sanitation (specifically of not using a toilet and practising good hygiene), they continue with unhealthy practices.

The practice of open defecation is not limited to rural India, as is evident from my experience. It is found in urban areas too where the percentage of people who defecate in the open is 12 percent, while in rural settings it is about 65 percent. Open defecation in urban areas is driven by a number of reasons including, lack of space to build toilets in high-density settlements and tenants unwilling to invest in toilets where landlords do not provide them. When I lived in Mumbai, it was common-place to see grown people squatting in rows with their pants down along the railway lines each morning. While taking the local trains to work, one saw the backsides of these nameless multitudes taking a dump daily. I’d look away, but that didn’t change the reality. In rural India, open defecation is prevalent among all socio-economic groups although the bottom two wealth quintiles practice it most.

The problem is so serious that the government has been running a host of schemes and projects to deal with the challenge. There has been some improvement, but there are still giant balls of turd out there. Did you know that a budgetary promise of a whopping Rs 40 billion has been made to ensure that every Indian has a toilet? The current dispensation had decided to get 5.3 million latrines constructed by the time it completed 100 days in office. I’m not sure what eventually became of that promise. In recent years, NGOs and state governments have attempted to send those who defecate in the open in urban and rural India scurrying into toilets by shaming them in public. It started with equipping children with whistles, which they would blow at any villager caught relieving themselves in the open. In Maharashtra, the ‘Good Morning’ campaign witnessed volunteers hiding in areas where people defecated in the open and detaining whoever was caught. School bands were made to play in front of ‘toilet-less’ households to shame them into building one. In the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, the government put up hoardings which show villagers and dogs defecating in the open side by side, and exhorting villagers to not behave like their four-legged counterparts. Under the ‘Maryada’ campaign in Madhya Pradesh, each village planned a sanitation monitoring committee to take photographs and videos of villagers defecating in the open and threatened a public screening unless they agree to build or use a toilet. Villages in the Nadia district of West Bengal set up “walls of shame” featuring the names and photos of people caught relieving themselves in public. This was done with the idea of attaching a sense of stigma and shame for those defecating in the open.

Here are some more shocking stats about India from Unicef: Only 11 per cent of Indian rural families dispose of child faeces safely. Eighty per cent of children’s faeces are left in the open or thrown into the garbage.

• With 44 per cent of mothers disposing of their children’s faeces in the open, there is a very high risk of microbial contamination (bacteria, viruses, and amoeba) of water which causes diarrhoea in children.

• India reports the highest number of deaths due to diarrhoea in children under five in the world.  Every year, diarrhoea kills 188,000 children in this age group.

• Children weakened by frequent diarrhoea episodes are more vulnerable to malnutrition, stunting, and opportunistic infections such as pneumonia. About 43 per cent of children in India suffer from some degree of malnutrition.

• The faecal-oral route is an important polio transmission pathway. Open defecation increases communities’ risk of polio infection.

While we’re on the topic, it might help to know that child faeces contain more germs than adults’. Did you know? One GRAM of faeces contains:

     • 10,000,000 viruses

     • 1,000,000 bacteria

     • 1,000 parasite cysts

There is a sense that the sanitation drive in India now is a tale of citizens seeing one another as the problem rather than as allies. Some fear that a drive for a fully sanitised India might be driving one section of society to lose empathy for the others. I can see which side I’m on, but I don’t appreciate the need for empathy from where I am. As an Indian and as a woman living in India, I think we’ve completely overdone this turd-ball in the open thing. More power to all those women who’ve recently turned down potential suitors because their to-be husbands did not have toilets in their homes. How and why on earth are menstruating women or mothers post-child birth, supposed to go out in the open?? Its about time the silence on this sort of thing was broken. I’m so tempted to blow the whistle on those car-borne crappers in my neighbourhood, but I so wish they simply didn’t exist 😦


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Expert Tip On How To Stop Procrastinating

For anyone bitten by the procrastination bug like me… a winner of a solution that involves “bundling behaviors you are tempted to do with behaviors that you should do, but often neglect.”

Read more: http://jamesclear.com/temptation-bundling#ixzz3ev4SRz3m

Matthew Killorin

person using computerIf you’re like me you’re always searching for ways to beat procrastination.

I wanted to share an article I found that offers some helpful tips on how to get stuff done.

Check out the article via the link below, and share your anti-procrastination tips in the comments.

“I struggle at the end of a long day to get myself to the gym even though I know that I should go. And at the end of a long day, I also struggle with the desire to watch my favorite TV shows instead of getting work done.

And so I actually realized that those two temptations, those two struggles I faced, could be combined to solve both problems.”

-Katy Milkman, Wharton School of Business

via This psychological trick will help you stop procrastinating – Business Insider.

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Yoga and I- Work in Progress

There’s a new voice in my head. But this one, I added quite consciously about a month ago. Surprisingly, this new entity- I like to call the ‘better me’ hasn’t really added to the conundrum of otherwise constant chatter inside. If anything it has shut some of the more inane ones up and assigned useful tasks to many others. So far, it seems, this voice has been one of my better finds. I should admit though that I didn’t exactly find it all by myself. I got a little outside help- from a four day Yoga program I attended May-end, called Surya Kriya, at Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s Isha Foundation. They call this voice- the Inner Self. The point of waking people up to this entity is quite simple- to help watch-over and guide the process of performing the Kriya accurately. Every time one slides a bit, it is meant to kick in and help you pick up the slack. It already knows the right way and is supposed to hold your hand to take you along on the right track.

Ingenious I’d say. There were some 40 odd folk taking the Yoga lessons in the 6-8am slot for those four days and when we were introduced to this ‘Inner Self’, everybody quite easily managed to find it lurking around. I guess it just means it was always there, but not everyone, including me was happy at first with the mirror this ‘better me’ held out constantly. After all, it tends to reflect things we don’t always want to see or acknowledge, even if we are looking straight at it. Its usually the negative stuff that the mirror shows up- the things you could do right but are just stopping short of. In this instance its just the simple things like bending your back a little more backwards, in Urdhvasana or perhaps trying to lay your palms flat down parallel to your your feet while bending down in Padahasthasana or holding your breath just that much longer during Nadi Vibhajana, stretching the leg backwards enough to feel the strain in the right places and align the spine in the right position in Ashva Sanchalana- all the things that look so simple when being performed by a trained practitioner in front of you, yet, Yoga poses that feel back-breaking the moment you merely try to replicate them.

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Ashva Sanchalana, part of Surya Kriya. Image courtesy, Isha Foundation

One month later, I’m still trying to get it right- most of it, and as I try to do the best I can by myself at home, I’ve had to get used to that ‘better me’, whether or not I like it much. At first, I struggled with the urge to enter my head to deliver one hard punch each time, this know-all buddy would pop out and say, “Uh oh, your shoulder’s all bunched up in Ashva Sanchalana… stretch that leg some more… pull the head up more, flatten the foot and align the hands next to them…now take a deeper breath”. “To hell”, my usual self would say and then proceed to wander off to the next interesting thought- what I’d have for breakfast when I was done, or wonder about when I’d finally get that blog going, after so, so many false start etc… Yes, distractions galore, the mind tends to travel to so many places at the same time taking cues from any and everything, the ‘Inner Self’ really needs to assert its presence! So, gradually, I’ve learnt to make friends with it and decided to call it the ‘better me’. That way all inner voices stay happy and there’s less dissonance about whose turn it is to speak or be heard!

While trying to figure out the basics of Sadhguru’s principles of ‘Inner Engineering’, as a natural extension of my own personal journey towards general wellbeing I couldn’t help feeling really odd  about the very loud conundrum outside. The noise over- ‘International Yoga Day’! My first reaction was of course to dissociate with it. One because my own switch to Yoga had nothing whatsoever to do with a ‘government initiative’ that by then had taken all manner of political hues, and secondly because of the bizarreness of the drama that came packaged with it, as a deal. The unnecessary controversies, associations with religion, opposition, and counter-attacks… “Really??” I wondered.

The truth is, the practice of Yoga is a commitment. If you intend to go with it, its a lifetime thing. There are no short cuts. You can’t switch on for the cameras and then go back to whoever else it is, you really are. Yoga demands its own discipline from it’s practitioner. Whether people criticise it or support it, the hard reality is that, only a stubborn and persistent person will be able to continue doing Yoga everyday (everyone else will try to get a few extra hours of sleep instead).

But its important to swat down the bugs of misinformation released by the detractors. Of course Yoga doesn’t imply any change in one’s belief system, religious conversion etc. You can very much follow Yoga as a science if that’s what you choose, or accept its spiritual dimensions if you prefer, but nothing is binding on you. The practice of Yoga if anything is likely to make you more flexible in both body and mind. And that flexibility lets you be many things at once. It doesn’t take anything away from you, except maybe unnecessary body weight, the pressures of stress and maybe a range of issues that may be bogging you down from dependencies and addictions like cigarettes and alcohol to painful conditions like depression, insomnia, and so many things in between. Religion, has nothing to do with Yoga. I agree with the Sadhguru when he says Yoga is about looking inward and attuning oneself to the universe in a sense of union. The outcome of that can be manifold and only positive. It has nothing to do with letting go of any particular religious belief anyone might hold, or embracing a new faith.    

If you actually follow the rules that the classical practice of Yoga calls for, chances are it could fix a range of problems that you hadn’t quite anticipated. Consider this- you need to begin on an empty stomach free of fresh or digested food and shouldn’t have eaten for at least 4.5 hours before performing Yoga. If you drink, then your last alcohol intake should have been some 14 hours earlier. There are similar rules related to smoking and substance abuse is not permitted. You also need to take a cold shower first. Basically you need to be clean and build on it. If a tipple is a must each night, or your body won’t function without the first smoke, tea or coffee, then you’re going to have to step past these dependencies. In essence, the purpose of Yoga is quite simply to keep body and mind clean to begin with, so it can focus on generating its sense of joy and satisfaction from a state of health and take it towards wellbeing, so you can focus on more important tasks. For those of us who discover Yoga in later life, the process is also about discovering how rigor mortis has already set in, into so many parts of our being- physical, mental, emotional… Switching back to the living state, where organs actually perform to capacity unaided (chemically) and without complaint can seem hard to achieve. But Yoga does that for you. 

Now, to unnecessarily rake-up an ill-informed controversy about a procedure like Surya-Namaskara and liken it to some pagan practice of worshipping a sun-god is just so silly and pointless. But perhaps such a notion can find some takers where there is general ignorance about Yoga and its practice. If an individual has a problem with what ‘Yoga’ means- which is ‘union’ with the universe- nature, the air we breathe, the trees and birds around us, the sky, earth and water, then it might just be unfortunate. However, the tendency of some to sell the idea that Yoga is connected with the Hindu faith and then to stretch that idea to include Indianness or the lack of it is, well, just a stretch.

I happen to be Christian by birth. I could well have been born into a family that practiced a different religion. But to suggest that accepting Yoga might make me a Hindu-Christian is sort of ridiculous. I have no issues with Hinduism or its preachers/ followers. But I don’t see why Yoga should be sold as being Hindu. Yoga as a practice has a history of over 15,000 years. It has survived and flourished without any religious link, force, strong advocacy or conversion. Yoga has in fact survived solely on the basis of efficacy. It will continue to do so if it is propagated on its intrinsic strength- efficacy. Other associations are distractions and could only undermine its popularity.   

I believe respect and gratitude is owed to the Guru. The Guru is the master- one that is enlightened and knowledgeable and willing to impart that knowledge to anyone who cares to learn. Now that Guru maybe a Hindu- a Brahmin or a Shudra, a Muslim or a Catholic… how and why should that matter? The learner likewise may come from any background- religious and social and why would that be of any consequence? Indian and Indianness include much more than merely Hindu or the priestly Hindu. And Yoga is not about them. I find it hard to let any political group or party appropriate Yoga. No such entity qualifies as ‘Guru’, and their tendency to be militant in their method and message to spread Yoga as if it were a virus is plain loathsome. A little more humility- the kind associated with the practice of Yoga, might work wonders instead. Yoga is perhaps the most empowering tool anyone can offer another. If it is rightly presented, why wouldn’t it be accepted with open arms and gratitude? Politicising it is likely to have the opposite effect.    

Surya Namaskar and Surya Kriya are not about praying to the Sun as if it were a god. Both are about awakening the latent energy- likened to the Sun within oneself- body and mind. It is also an acknowledgement that life as we know it on planet Earth would hardly be possible without the Sun.

There has also been considerable opposition to ‘chanting’ during Yoga, implying that it is a surreptitious attempt to introduce the Hindu religion to those who might follow other belief systems. As Sadguru says, this is not true. All Yoga practices do not involve chanting. Chants are practiced by those opting for ‘Nada Yoga’- which is based on the science of resonance of vibrations. The chants happen to be in Sanskrit which reflect their origin and antiquity. Those who choose not to chant, need not. There actually is something quite magical about chanting, if you care to experience it. I remember that I quite enjoyed learning up Sanskrit shlokas when I was in school. In fact I took it to another level by participating in shloka recitation competitions and winning some. At the time it was mildly amusing, that I was the only ‘Roman Catholic’ amongst the participants. It never occurred to me then that I might be what the RSS calls a ‘Hindu-Christian’! I don’t need Ghar Wapsi, trust me. India is home to me, as I am. I accept everything, India has to offer in the right spirit and it might be nice if right-wingers learnt to live and let others live. It may also be nice if those who are convinced about Ghar Wapsi bothered to check why many Hindus turned to other religions as an escape in the first place. They might want to reflect on a thing called the Caste system. I also wonder if the homecoming implied by Ghar Wapsi means every ‘returnee’ gets to become a Brahmin. Not a BC or OBC!

Ok, now I have an ‘Inner Self’ digression alert going off! Am returning to track. In my particular case, I discovered Yoga mostly as a means for physical fitness after a considerable amount of trial and error with other kinds of exercise routines. At varying stages I tried the gym or created my own routines to work on at home. Depending on when I would hit a particularly bad trough, the intensity of focus on dealing with the crisis would build up for me. About a year ago, for instance, I finally admitted (after a longer-than-necessary phase of denial) that I was spilling out of all my clothes. I realised that I had started buying a lot of dupattas and long scarves and would invariably hang it down my neck to ‘cover up’. I would invariably pull it sideways or thicken it in the areas I wanted to conceal most. I realised I was nearly beyond repair and the weighing scale said it all. I was almost 12 kilos over my ideal height-weight ratio. I was obviously overeating. The gluttony was in itself a symptom of other things- psychological issues- stress inducing work, life events, a series of triggers, all of which had taken over. I was playing victim and my body and state of mind said it. I wouldn’t go out much. I went into self-imposed exile, became a shadow of myself and the dimensions of that shadow seemed larger than life.

When it became too much to take, I cracked the whip myself. Ha, so I had that ‘better me’ lurking around after all! I struggled, and sweated through my own routine of workouts- a half hour of comprehensive stretches, then weights- dumb bells and kettle bell, the stepper and floor exercises to tame the midriff. An hour and a half of sweat and soreness daily for about a year had its payoff. I shed over 10 kilos. Consistency is key, when it comes to working out. But when you’re a single parent and are juggling a bunch of tasks and responsibilities, there are other priorities that tend to pull the rug from under you from time to time.

Invariably, these regimens would however cause some damage. I nearly dislocated both my ankles by not using the skipping rope properly once, and had to stay bandaged for weeks to repair broken ligaments. There were also sore muscles and catches. But while I was doing things my way, others in my family had already switched to Yoga. I presumed it was too passive for me. I was sure I wouldn’t even break into a sweat if I tried Yoga. When I finally took to it, though, I was pleasantly surprised. Apart from finding out that I am not half as malleable as I’d like to be, I have found that when I do the Asanas right, the body does very much generate ‘ushna’ (heat) that makes me sweat considerably. There’s nothing aerobic about ‘Surya Kriya’, like my previous workouts, but then there is no comparison.

Crucially, there’s no huffing a puffing involved. All breathing is strictly through the nasal passage. While performing Surya Kriya, I get to pay attention to my breathing for a change- focus on each inhalation and exhalation. I learn to focus. My eyes are shut and I’m neither talking nor listening to anyone else. I only hear my own breathing and learn to stretch it as far as possible. I have renewed respect for the butterfly in the garden after trying to perform ‘Patangasana’ for a month. It isn’t easy to get your legs to move like a butterfly’s wings for two whole minutes if your have your feet pressed together and held tightly by your own hands, as close to the perineum as possible. It can take the breath out of you… yet you have to try to inhale and exhale slow and long in preparation for the 21 step Kriya coming up ahead. Shishupalasana, likewise, is like the answer to any overhanging love-handles that you may have nurtured over the years not so lovingly! It gradually tightens the flab all around, leaving you feeling quite sore on your arms and legs, but the soreness is only temporary. It hardly lasts into Nadi Vibhajana that follows. Getting to imitate a cat or dog, stretching the spine outward and inward, and getting the knee to touch your forehead takes some getting used to, but eventually nothing is impossible!

During the Kriya, everything from Urdhvasana to Padahastasana, and Parvathasana, Ashva Sanchalana, Sashtanga and Bhujangasana are complete tasks cut out. Each need practice and resilience to perfect and that perfection can seem slow and distant… but again, not impossible. At first the process of remembering the sequence of 21 steps and keeping track of the breathing pattern for each, itself, seemed impossible! But that’s where the ‘better me’, came in handy. A little tweaking of concentration and visualisation with closed eyes, with the ‘Inner Self’ at work, managed to get the mind to piece together the jigsaw. 

Surya Kriya poses- Image courtesy Isha Foundation

Sushanti Meditation- which involves Shavasana- the art of relaxing the body and mind in a death-like state has to be the best part of the Kriya as you close. Concentrating on 61 points of relaxation all over the body, in sequence, including my little toe with my eyes shut, makes me feel alive and become aware of myself in an altogether new way. The almost sleep-like state is relaxing and rejuvenating at the same time.

I never imagined I’d able to do anything close to what Baba Ramdev does with his diaphragm. But Uddyana Bandha- which is about locking the diaphragm is a detoxing mechanism that comes at the end of the Kriya and brings me closest to living that experience.

My assessment of the effect of one month of Yoga on me is firstly to wonder why I didn’t come to it earlier. I certainly am not quite as sore as I was while using the conventional route earlier, but all that toning certainly helped ease me into Yoga without much struggle. I feel more relaxed, stronger, lighter and flexible now. Its an entirely new approach and discipline and one that has made me re-evaluate everything that really matters to me. Surya Kriya  strengthens the spine amongst other things. The strength and tenacity of one’s spine both literally and figuratively, is a great starting point for most things in life. This could well be the start of other good things…

surya-kriya
Urdhvasana, part of Surya Kriya. Image courtesy Isha Foundation

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