Friday, April 29, 2011

The Little Boy Who Danced!

Strange are the trappings of a troubled boyhood. You might think you have grown up, weathered the many storms of adolescence, teenage, and those particularly painful years of early adulthood that were made bearable only by bad verse and long love letters that were never posted; you might think you have outsmarted those years that made you flagellate yourself with a sudden sense of responsibility that pushed you to make it in the world; you might think you have finally come to occupy your body with a reasonable degree of comfort. But small things could catch you unawares and, in a flash, make you that little boy again, who stood petrified in front his classroom as the other boys jeered at how his long arms flailed, and how his limp wrists weakly sliced the air every time he flung them about...

That was how I felt today when I went to be part of a lecture-demonstration by my dance guru, Chitra Visweswaran, in a school. I was fumbling about in the staff room, that had been graciously offered as a greenroom, trying to get at least some of the creases out of my dhothi that was crushed beyond measure during the long, killer commutes through Bangalore city.  The sweet young lady who had received us at the entrance walked into the room and introduced herself as the dance teacher at the school. She said, "I am delighted you are here with Chitraji! Lots of girls learn dance here, but the boys, even those who want to, don't. That's because there is a general belief among boys that it is not a very masculine thing to do. Today, they can see you and see how wrong they are!"

Though I laughed and managed to appear flattered, I was very aware of the churning feeling in my stomach, the same feeling that has gripped me in its throes several times before. Many years ago, I used to experience this so often that I was convinced these were the shudders of another creature that lay coiled within me, that was sensing danger around. This feeling of dread, which I would feel in my very gut, was like a response to a threat to my survival. It would start in my core and send out its tentacles that held me tight and made me breathless. But, strangely, it also gave me, every time, the will to brave whatever awaited me, to show up to the world no matter what, to live through whatever instance lay ahead of me. "This won't last for too long," I would tell myself, "this will be over soon." And in a bizarre paradox, I would draw my strength from this same threatened creature in my tummy, and manage to live through those instances - the several performances in school, the many times I had to respect the urge to put up my hand to ask the teacher a question, the umpteen speech competitions where I looked, as I reeled out my prepared speech, determinedly in the direction of the girls, who were always, for some inexplicable reason, wordlessly empathetic.

Today’s setting, I realized, was a scary re-creation of those school days. Here I was again, just a stride or two away from being thirty, feeling like a young boy again, acutely alarmed at the prospect of performing in front of boys and girls gathered in a courtyard that had an uncanny resemblance to the one in my school back in Kumbakonam. I did not know where this other scared and threatened creature lay inside me all these years. Don’t get me wrong. I have not exactly been an intrepid embracer of life in the years that have passed between then and now. I have had other frightened, upset and angry little creatures inside me that I have been, one by one, releasing patiently, compassionately and with a great love that I have had to learn to feel.

While I struggled to get the thread into the needle, my teacher waited patiently to secure her ornaments onto her costume with small stitches. My hands trembled, and I felt great love and protectiveness for my body that was manifesting in these tremors trauma buried deep within. Quietly, I started to speak to this creature that was responding in conditioned ways to perceived threat to its survival.

Once I chose to address this being with love, I saw that it was no mystical creature. It was a little boy shuddering and gasping. He was cowering under memories that were weighing down on him. I held his hand and said to him, “Please do not be scared. I am here. And there is help. Remember we have done this before. Many, many times. Don’t you think it is funny that this situation should arise now after several years? May be this is a chance to do something more about it. May be we don’t have to give ourselves the temporary assurance that this will pass. May be we can do better than dealing with it in such provisional basis. I am sorry I did not know you were still hurting, suffocating, and hiding. Let’s go and face this squarely in the eye. Let us not cower. And let us not be armed. Let’s just go there and have a good time. Remember the pleasure we have always felt in dancing, in surviving. No, not just surviving, but living gloriously. Come.”

And we went, me and this scared little boy within me; we went not to war, but to dance. Oh boy, did we dance! No one would have known that I was not dancing alone, that I was dancing with a little boy who badly wanted to dance, but was too scared to let go of his fears and drop his guard. No one might have known the joy both of us felt, or heard a little boy’s laughter floating in and out of the cheers of a happy young man. But it happened. They both had a wonderful time. They danced like no one was watching.

I am very lucky that I have a great teacher and friend in Chitra akka. Though she had been part of the conversation with the school’s dance teacher about boys and their notions of masculinity, she chose to circumvent this troublesome and unproductive terrain when she spoke after I performed. She said to the many boys and girls gathered there, “Did you see how much he enjoyed himself? Didn’t it look like he had a lot of fun dancing?” And the crowd of children went in a thunderous chorus, “YES!”

For now, that is all that matters.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Panappaarai Mattam - The Treasure Mountain

I am on a train back to Chennai from Coimbatore. Last evening, on the long drive from Panappaarai Mattam to my parent's place in Coimbatore, I got to reflect on my four-day stay at my friend Siddharth's at Panappaarai Mattam, an hour from Coonoor in the Nilgiris. My friend Lakshmi called me to ask about the trip and that helped me further in unravelling the bundle of amazing thoughts that I felt was snuggling inside my heart.

A few days ago, I was sitting in the guest room at Rana's (Siddharth) house, the big windows completely open, giving a clear view of the mountains and the valley in front of me, a red-whiskered bulbul playing in the bushes right outside the window, a jungle fowl incessantly crowing somewhere nearby, and I was writing to a friend of mine. I wrote that I thought the primary purpose of this trip was for me to heal. For that's what I felt when I arrived at Siddharth's place. I have heard and used, innumerable times before, phrases like “breathtakingly beautiful” and “unbelievably beautiful,” but when I landed at Rana's place, I felt I had been very loose with language, that I had hitherto used these phrases rather flippantly, not really believing either the “unbelievableness” or the “breathtaking-ness” of the beauty I was praising.

The place was so - and I say this with a great degree of consciousness now - breathtakingly beautiful that it made speech difficult. It commanded nothing but a respectful silence. I feel very grateful for having friends like Rana, friends who care for me very deeply, who love me, who say so at every opportunity they get, who express it in the most beautiful ways.

Yesterday, on my way down from the mountains, I realized that this trip had had two more purposes, actually more like two sub-purposes under the grand one of healing!

One, to be reminded of the fact that I am a very ancient soul. I live close to the sea in Chennai. In the last many years, I have formed an interesting relationship with the sea. Just the thought of it calms me down. Sitting by the sea makes my heart jump with joy. By the sea, I always feel like a very young, rather new, soul being cradled by the eternal waters. But, in the past few days, taking long walks and hikes on the mountains, I felt like I was an ancient soul who has walked these hills and vales several times before, that these mountains have known me from before. For everything seemed to smile and nod in recognition. It was good to be reminded of my eternity.

The other purpose of the trip, I felt, was to be able to access a quality of quiet that let me hear each of my thoughts. And I am glad I came to this after I had done some good work with non-judgment. For many of the thoughts I heard passing through the thoroughfare of my mind were not ones I would admit publicly to have entertained, let alone be proud of! I could hear each thought and let it keep moving. I could release these thoughts gently over the hills and the sun and the sky, trusting that these powerful healers would heal them for me.

Siddharth is a wonderful friend, one of those people whose friendships I have always doubted if I deserved. And one genre of thoughts that I let go of  this time were such thoughts of unworthiness. They don't help. They are not respectful to the wonderful people and experiences that life tirelessly brings my way. To suggest that they are wasting time with someone unworthy of their time and love; to suggest that life is doing a mistake in bringing along all the many lovely experiences it does bring along, is not very respectful. Our sense of unworthiness is actually a source of disrespect to life and to all those who see our worth. We take the impossible position of deeming ourselves unworthy while somehow being capable of knowing how others are settling for less by choosing us! Such twisted arrogance!

Anyway. Panappaarai Mattam has been so named because it is believed that Tipu Sultan hid some treasure there somewhere under a rock. I don't know about that, though, I must confess, it makes me want to write a thriller fiction about a group of people going in search of this treasure. But Panappaarai Mattam has already revealed its treasure to me with great openness and generosity. The treasure of finding more of myself. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

"The Wind Will Rise, We Can Only Close The Shutters"

An episode of depression is often characterized by an utter lack of will to do anything. Let alone work, school and other such tasks, it becomes a humongous effort even to get out of bed, have a shower, and fix breakfast for oneself. Needless to say, everything suffers. Backlog of work piles up, people get upset with you for not taking their calls, for not returning their calls... And you cannot understand why you face so much resistance, from yourself, to pick up the phone and wish your friend on her birthday.

I find it very hard to do anything at all when I go through my phases of depression. It is like I am wading through a long stretch of greyness, surviving and getting spat out of which is a blessing enough. It almost feels too much to ask for to want to be productive, to push oneself to finish some tasks, to get up from that chair or bed to the bathroom to wash one's face, to open that file that needs to be looked into, to start writing that article you committed to. It is even harder not to hate yourself for being so dysfunctional periodically, for having gained a reputation for being flaky. I cannot insist enough that the most useless and unproductive thing to do is to blame yourself.

I am definitely not at my productive best when I go through these tunnels, but I have, in course of being committed (varying levels of commitment, I agree) to help myself cope with clinical depression, tried out different strategies. One of them is to work in collaboration with a friend or two. I keep at least two of my friends informed that I am slipping into a depressive episode, and that I am going to need a lot of push to be able to do even the simplest of things. I make a list of things I want to be able to do in that time, and I share it with a friend and ask her/him to push me to do them. I even ask them to force me to get out of the house for a walk, a concert, a visit to the temple. I tell them that what I am going through is not my often-touted "need for space," but, largely, an involuntary journey through long and dark tunnels.

One important thing to remember while implementing this is that you should be careful which friend you entrust this work to. It is good to pick someone who can be firm and loving, and who does not have a lot going on in her/ his life at that time. I try not to overload someone who already has enough on her plate. What is best, of course, is to work with someone who understands clinical depression, even goes through it, with yours and her depressive episodes staggered enough to allow you to work with each other.

I know how hard it can be. To get out of a phase of depression and find that your immediate world has moved ahead of you, that your deadlines, far from being dead, are now chasing you with great vengeance can all be very difficult to handle. That is why it helps to do what one can, even while smothered by the dark clouds, to push oneself to do some basic things. Besides all these, I do hope that you have a healthy attitude towards seeking professional help, to get the right medication prescribed.

A line from one of my favourite poems by the American poet Adrienne Rich comes to mind: "the wind will rise,/ We can only close the shutters."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Stories We Tell

I am a seeker after stories. Sometimes we posit a very simplistic binary between reality and story. A whole lot of theories talk about how our stories about our realities are all that we have and can hold on to; that the thing called reality itself cannot be apprehended outside of language. I don't really believe in that. But I do believe that our stories are very potent. Narratives shape us in bizarre ways. Even to locate a source of a dysfunctionality in my life within a story that I have been narrating about my life, is very empowering. In the first place, it makes me aware of how I have been narrating a story all the time believing that my words are perfectly transparent and show nothing but the truth of the life-situation that the story is about. I forget that my story is a story, a perspective, an interpretation that I have chosen to claim as my own. 

When I get present to the story-ness of my story, not only do I become aware of my role as an interpreter of my own life, I also realize that I respond to life a lot through the story (or a web of stories) I have made up. The brain, I feel, loves these stories and the images they conjure. I feel empowered by the possibility that I could re-fashion my own stories that help me live better, more positively, more magically, more life-affirmingly, more joyously. That does not mean I concoct lies. It means I sit quietly and see what other lenses there are through which I could see my life and the situations that I draw to myself. I am not sure of this yet, but something tells me that at some point I would graduate to abandoning stories altogether, that I would meet life in an unmediated way and become one with it. For now, stories appear to have a provisional utility.

For instance, if you have read my previous blogpost, you would know that I now have a story that connects me to my maternal grandmother! I had always yearned for something that would make me feel my connection to her very concretely. Silly as it may sound, an old eversilver ladle that I stir my sambar with is what accomplishes that for me. 

This desire to feel a sense of connection on the maternal side has always been there. As a young brahmin boy, after the sacred thread ceremony, I was always very uncomfortable with the Abhivadanam, a practice wherein a brahmin male prostrates in front of an older, brahmin male and announces to him, in Sanskrit, his patri-lineage starting with the Rishi who is supposed to the origin of that line. I wondered why I could not reject that and claim my lineage to be that on my mother's side, and that too only the women -- my mother, my maternal grandmother, my maternal great grand mother etc. However, I did not get anywhere with this, because my mother did not have much to say about her mother. For she had lost her mother when she was only eight years old. She did not remember much. So all I could hold on to were snippets of memories and some photographs my mother has shown me.

Knowing that my grandmother used this ladle, which also happens to be my favourite one in the kitchen ,makes me very happy. It gives me a sense of connection to this person whom I have never met, but who is, nevertheless, a part of me. This story is very important to me. It almost rewires me differently.

One of the reasons I find the act of storytelling very engaging is that the way we talk about ourselves, narrate our stories is not only indicative how we perceive our place in the world, it also points to how much agency and power we will claim in the course of living that life.

What I infer from this about myself is that self-narratives fascinate me. As a peer in the LGBT community, whom a lot of people talk to, consult, confide in, and as a trained peer counsellor, I listen to *stories* all the time. On the surface, it might look like people are sharing with me their life situations, but the truth is that they are sharing with me their *stories* about their life situations. It is never the situation or circumstance itself. It is always an interpretation. Often, I have noticed that with a significant shift in someone's *story* about herself and her life, something major happens. They start responding to life from a place very different from the one they had hitherto occupied. Stories are very powerful.

Thinking about this further takes me to another place. I believe that what we tell ourselves about ourselves has a crucial role to play in what we tell others about us, which, in turn, has got a lot to do with how we live, what choices we make,  how much agency and power we think we have, etc. So, at some point in my life, I started paying a lot of attention to the stories I was telling myself about myself. Prior to that, I used to think I was a very positive person brimming with nothing but love and respect for myself. But when I started paying close attention to my self-talk, I was shocked to see how unkind and uncompassionate I could be to myself. I realized I had an incessant commentary of self-criticism going on inside me. Just getting present to that has made a lot of difference.

Sometimes I have seen that others have better and more positive stories about me than I do myself! I can be a cynic and say I know better. But do I know better? Not necessarily. As long as I am here in this world, I can't do my work in isolation. I don't think I can get my self-knowledge on my own. It is in the intricate web of relationalities, in the ways I show up in relationships, for people, in the way I live with people, work with people can I know myself.  It is also in the ways I fail to do all of these that I can know myself. That is, if I am smart enough not to judge myself too harshly! Oh, that's another story! :)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A ladleful of granny-memory!

My parents are visiting me now. Determined to make use of this time with my mother to learn some recipes definitively, I started cooking with her today. She likes my cooking and is a good master to apprentice with. A lot of stories come out, random tips about why it is better to add a pinch of this ingredient only at this stage in the making of a dish, why so and so never got it right, why so and so always got it right, what shortcuts to take when there is not much time, who taught her that, or how she figured that out herself, so on. Kitchen is a space where my mother and I connect with each other in the most collaborative, anxiety-free, non-neurotic way. Even when I work by myself, other than the performance stage, it is the kitchen that brings out the best in me, it is the place where I am my most unfragmented self. 

And today, I was awakened to the presence of someone else in the kitchen along with my mother and me -- my maternal grandmother, who died long before I was born; in fact, she died when my mother was a kid. I happened to mention to my mother which of the ladles in her collection I love most, like to use most. She exclaimed, "Me too! It is my mothers!" I immediately got present to my grandmother's presence there with us in the kitchen. Of course, she is present in my mother and through her in me. But it felt beautiful to see that I was holding this ladle that my grandmother once used. It delights me to tears to think that the kitchen, a space I so happily and lovingly inhabit, also thus connects me to my grandmother, someone I have never met but have heard a lot about, whose image in my mother's memories, the few photographs, and my own idea of her in my heart I so love.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

From the Sun to the Sea

I have said sometimes that I feel I live better when I have a witness to my life. And I have said this usually in the context of relationships, being single, my loneliness, etc. I felt this way again recently. I felt very lonely. I immediately felt ashamed for feeling lonely, partly because it felt like a very unspiritual place to be in, and partly because I thought I would appear to be so regressive and mainstream to many of my happily single friends! And I thought: "Oh I would live so much better if I have a witness to my everyday life."

Then something strange and beautiful happened. I came home late one evening and walked, rather mechanically, to the balcony to leave my sandals there, and I happened to glance in the direction of the neem tree outside my second-floor balcony. A light from the next apartment building silhouetted a good portion of the tree, and I saw lots of crows sitting quietly on its beautiful branches. The neem tree was studded with several crows sitting motionless. It stirred something in me when I realized that these birds stayed day and night around me.

Everyday, both my mother and I leave food for the crows on the kitchen window sill. I do it even without thinking about it. My mother and I also speak to the crows. When a lone crow sits on wrought iron grill in the balcony and caws away, we tell her the food's kept on the kitchen window sill. Or we tell her we haven't started our day yet. All of this came to me when I stood there in my balcony late at night looking at these crows perched like silent angels on this neem tree.

The other moment of insight occurred recently when I returned home from a trip, I saw that I had forgotten to water the plants in the balcony. I cursed myself and rushed into the house, without even taking off my shoes, to get some water for the plants. As I watered them, it struck me that these plants were there everyday witnessing my life.

I am not going to say that knowing that these crows and plants were witnesses to my everyday existence drove away my feeling of loneliness and the desire for human company. But some shift did happen. I looked around and felt that everything around me was bearing witness to my life. From my meticulously organized interview tapes, to the cobweb on the southeast corner of the room, to the neatly wiped stove-top, to the dried coffee stain on the outside of the filter, everything was bearing witness to my existence. 

It also reminded me of something else that I had experienced many years ago. I was helping my dance guru Chitra Visweswaran rehearse Muthuswami Dikshitar's "Sooryamoorte Namostute...," a most beautiful prayer to the Sun God. In this composition replete with stunning descriptions and epithets of Soorya, Dikshitar also praises the Sun as one who witness the actions of everyone. I remembered how my teacher stopped at that moment and exclaimed at the beauty and truth of this description. She said,"How beautiful! The sun is a witness to all our lives and actions!"

How could I have forgotten it! I go to the beach everyday. The sea touches at least my toes everyday. Sometimes, when it is very quiet, I can hear the waves from my rooftop. Once when we were standing in the waves, my friend Matthew Regan said to me, "Ani, I feel a great affinity to the sea too. It excites me to think that at this same moment there could be many others playing in the waves of some ocean somewhere, and this water connects us to them." I remember shivering in goosebumps when he said that.

Quite unconnected to all this, I also remember standing one sunny morning on the beach, the waves teasing my toes, the sun beating down on my chest,  and these lines occurred to me: "Sea at my feet/ Sun on my chest/ That's how tall I am." It is good to remember that. I makes me smile now.

Do you wonder what the point of all this is? I do not. I feel connected to everything around me at the moment. That's all. It suffices. It is not a means to an end.

Of course, I sometimes feel that it would be great to have someone to share the everydays with. But the feeling does not consume me. It is not even a complaint. On other days, I would not trade my solitude for anything. So there is no single story :)