The Seven Hills School..

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.
~ Aldous Huxley

Vincent was very happy. The hotel chain he worked for in Mumbai wanted to buy a property in Mussoorie. His boss had called and asked him if he would want to go for a site visit. He said that there was no point going into legal verification or price negotiations unless they were sure that the property was worth it. For Vincent, it was as if a wish had come true. He told his boss –

“Sir, I would go even if the company doesn’t pay for the trip.”

“I thought Mussoorie was just another crowded hill station. Never knew someone could like it that much. Anyway, you enjoy – Your trip is all covered.” His boss was laughing.

Vincent smiled back and kept quiet. His mind was already making plans.

Vincent was just 4 years old when his Grandfather passed away but he had very fond memories of him. His parents had told him that his grandfather was quite a free spirit when he was young and had founded a school in the hills near Mussoorie. He had always fancied a young Desmond Golmes in the Himalayan town living up his dream. He had faint recollections of visits to his grandfather’s house in Dehradun but unfortunately he had no pictures of either the school or his grandfather in those days which could help him recreate the adventure. Growing up in Mumbai Vincent had always wanted   to visit his grandfather’s school at least once in his life.

He flew down from Mumbai to New Delhi in the evening and took the Shatabdi Express next morning to Dehradun. The journey from New Delhi to Dehradun was comfortable, taking him through the lush green plains of the Ganga. It was October and after the rains everything was fresh, green and teeming with life. The fierce heat which had given way to sweaty monsoons had now begun to show signs of pleasant winters ahead. Apart from Goa, Vincent had only been to Lonavala and Mahabaleshwar so the plains of UP were quite different from the sea and mountain landscape he was used to seeing on excursions. To soak in the sights and sounds he got down from the train twice – once at Meerut Junction and next at Haridwar. He was amazed how people were so different from Mumbaikars. The influence of UP on Bollywood had clearly created an image of UP which made it familiar to him and yet he found it strange in an unknown way.

The train was on time and Vincent reached Dehradun at 12:43. The 6 hour train journey had stiffened his limbs a little but he was quite fresh and full of energy. He had just one stroller case with him so he walked out without any fuss looking forward to the onward journey. The company had arranged a ride for Vincent and the driver with a placard and a wide grin was waiting just outside the station. He was a proverbial Sardar ji dressed in a greyish “safari” suit and had the proud demeanor of a working man that Sikhs have usually. He was quick in his step and had a very pleasant bearing unlike the cab drivers of Mumbai who always seemed to be having a bad day. Vincent handed over the luggage to the driver and asked :

“Do you know where we have to go?”

“Yes Sir, madam told me we have to go to Mussoorie”

“But do you know where in Mussoorie?

“Sahab, Mussoorie is not like your Mumbai. Only about thirty thousand people live there. You give me the address and I will know where it is” said the driver adjusting his turban in the rear view mirror.

“Shall we go then?” he added.

“Yes. Let’s go but I am feeling very hungry. Do you know a decent restaurant in Dehradun where I can have lunch?”

“There are not many good restaurants but I do know one that will be up to your standard”

“Hmm my standard” Vincent mumbled to himself and asked a bit loudly as the car’s diesel engine was quite noisy.

“What is your name?”

“Ji myself Balvinder, Balvinder Singh”

“Balvinder Ji. Have you heard of Seven Hills School? It’s an old school somewhere near Mussoorie. Actually my grandfather established it so I would love to have a look. May be I meet someone who knew him, if I am lucky”

“There are so many schools here Sahab. Most of them are from the British period. But I think I have heard this name before and if I am right it’s not in Mussoorie but near Dhanaulti”

“Will it take us a long if we were to visit the school after we finish work in Mussoorie?”

“Sir ji Dhanaulti is just 25 Kms from Mussoorie on the Chamba route. So it should not take more than two hours to go and come back. And you are staying back tonight so we have time”

Vincent was quite thrilled. He patted Balvinder and said “Thank you. I will be very glad if we are able to make it”

Balvinder, however, was a bit puzzled about the eagerness of his young passenger but he feigned his enthusiasm to keep the possibility of a “baksheesh” at the end of the trip alive.

Dehradun was a small town when compared to a megapolis like Mumbai. The new founded glory of becoming the capital city of Uttaranchal contrasted curiously with the days of British Raj when Dehradun was probably a small army cantonment with bungalows and bazaars. As the car moved ahead from the railway station into the Doon valley, Vincent was reminded of the book about Mussoorie he had picked up at the A.H Wheelers stall at New Delhi railway station. Turning its pages he was fascinated to know that Musoorie was set up by the British as their summer capital to escape the heat and dust of the plains. Every summer hundreds of Sahibs would throng the hill town of Musoorie to restore their health and recreate their spirits. More than a hundred years back many had made it their permanent address and had bought properties they could afford – bungalow, cottages, farmhouses and orchards. There were other tit bits of information about the various schools, the three graveyards and the famous Mall road but with close vicinity to New Delhi Vincent wondered if the same old world charm would still be there.

As it would take an hour to reach Musoorie, Balvinder suggested Vincent to have lunch at the ‘world’ famous Gaylord restaurant. The restaurant belonged to a Punjabi family which had migrated from Pakistan during partition. From the menu it looked like their food was a mix of north-west frontier and Pahadi cuisine. There was Murgh Peshawari and Nalli ka salan along with Kasuri, Phanuk and Jahngore ki kheer. Vincent ordered a military mutton curry, Phanuk, Rotis and rice and to be geographically correct some Pahadi Kheere ka Raita. The food was sumptuous for which Vincent tipped the bearer handsomely and was ready for his short and beautiful journey up the hill. The traffic en route was more than he had expected but it was nothing compared to the jams on Mumbai’s western expressway.

They reached Musoorie in about an hour. At the very first instance, Mussoorie was just another crowded hill station but a closer inspection revealed it’s very British past – the mall road, library, post office, bakeries, churches, rose garden, cemetery, clock tower and the boarding schools for well-heeled Indian kids. Vincent wondered if it had been a profitable venture in those days for his grandfather to have opened a school that catered to the middle class local population. Then he thought that may be his grandfather did not want to make money and wanted to give middle class children the same quality of education that rich kids used to get. Any which way, the important thing was that he was an entrepreneur who had the conviction to do what he thought was best for his life and living.

The property he had come to visit was in Landour, just 6 km uphill from Musoorie. It was a 5 acre plot with imposing cedar and graceful chestnut trees and had a superb view of the snow-capped mountains on the far side of the entrance. An old and rickety cottage stood in the middle of the property which would have to be restored entirely. But it had a nice feel and being nestled at the end of town away from any ruckus, it could be marketed as a peaceful dwelling in the lap of nature. The owner Mr. Sethi was a Punjabi business man from Delhi who had bought the property few years back from one Ms. Emily Stevens who had lived in the cottage for more than half a century. As she grew in age, it was getting impossible to maintain the place. Moreover, she was old and infirm and needed a good amount of money for her medicine. Sethi had seized the opportunity when his “chowkidaar’ told him about Ms. Emily and the cottage. After Ms. Emily moved out to be with her younger cousin in Kasauli, Sethi had not even bothered to get the cottage painted or to get the grounds cleared.

“Mr. Sethi are you sure that no ghosts live here? It looks pretty haunted to me. “said Vincent.

“Ha Ha you must be reading a lot of stories by Mr. Bond.”

“Oh Yes I loves his stories. And specially the ghost stories.”

“You must be loving the ghosts too. That’s why you asked if we had company.”

“Well, as long as they are sweet and harmless I don’t mind supernatural attention.”

“By the way he lives close by. His house is opposite Domo’s cafe. It’s called Mint Ivy cottage or something like that. In case you want to knock on the door, I’ve heard he doesn’t like visitors that much.”

Vincent noticed that Mr. Sethi was a bulky man with most things about him being circular right from his puffed cheeks to his round belly. He was wearing suspenders to hold his trousers in place and his shirt must have been bespoke as you don’t get that kind of sizes readily. But with his rimless branded spectacles and colonel moustache he looked quite the elegant moneyed man from Delhi.

“Mr. Vincent you can have a good look at the property. The watchman can give you a tour of the cottage and show you nearby places so you can assess if this would be a good place for your venture”

“Sure. Are you not going to come with us Mr. Sethi?”

“I would have loved to but since I plan to go back to Delhi tonight itself I was thinking of saying hello to some friends here. I thought someone senior will be there for negotiations so I came all the way from Delhi. But never mind I had the pleasure of meeting you.”

“Oh I am sorry to have disappointed you. You can discuss with me, no problem.”

“No, No it’s OK. I will call you once you are back in Mumbai. The deal will take a long time I know it.”

In a very sophisticated manner Sethi had said that he did not want to deal with a rookie like him.Vincent understood and he also knew that he was not the decision maker.

It took them another half an hour to have a good look in and around the place. The property was quite good and if the price was right the company could well give it a thought. Vincent came back to the car and asked Balvinder to take him to the school. Having woken up early in the morning he drifted into a peaceful reverie as soon as the car started moving.

After about an hour Vincent was woken up by a sudden halt of the ambassador. When he opened his eyes he saw that Balvinder was looking a bit puzzled.

Vincent asked him “Are you not able to find the Seven Hills School?.”

With a lost look on his face Balvinder replied “It should have been here”.

Vincent got a little edgy “What do you mean- It should have been here! Are you sure we are on  the correct route”.

Balvinder explained that he had never been to the school himself but had heard about it so he did not know exactly where it was although he had an idea. He started looking for someone to ask for directions when they saw a man in his thirties approaching them. He stopped and parked his bike next to the cab and looked at the driver. He had a friendly smile on his face but it looked like he was from a bygone era – as if someone had applied a nostalgia filter on him. He was wearing Khaki trousers with a loose fitting white linen shirt and was sporting a leather messenger bag which looked more like a fashion accessory than actually something of use. He had brown Gumboots in which he had his trousers tucked in. His bike was a 1956 Matchless in faded military green color but was shining and very well maintained considering that it had been in use for about 50 years now. Interestingly, the man looked quite familiar to Vincent but as no one from his family had visited Mussoorie for decades now, they had to be perfect strangers.

“Are you looking for Seven Hills School?” The man on the bike asked Balvinder glancing over Vincent.

“Yes, but how do you know?”

“If you would ask me the directions to the Mount Everest I won’t be able help you my friend. Seven hills is the only place you have in 5 miles in any direction so I guessed.”

The conversation was getting curious. Vincent jumped out of the ambassador and shook hands with the man on the Bike.

“Hi, I am Vincent Golmes. I would like to visit Seven Hills school.”

“Sure. Follow me” said the man with the bike and started walking towards a clearing which led to a small road. Vincent asked the driver to stay with the car and followed him. They had walked a few yards when a large wrought iron gate appeared in front of them. There was a marble plaque embedded in the stone boundary wall which read “The Seven Hills School Estd. 1950”. He could now see why they were unable to place the building from the road. The building was hidden from the view as it was on a low lying plateau downhill from the road at a slight bend. The path inside was neatly lined with beautiful flowers of different kind – Geraniums, Petunias, Magnolias, Roses and Marigolds. There was even a lovely pond with red Water Lilies just before the building’s entrance. Vincent thought how wonderful it would have been to study here compared to the listless grey and white building of his school in Mumbai. The main building itself was straight out of fairytales. It was made up of mountain rock and stones cemented together and was painted in brick red color. The doors and windows were perhaps Sal or Sheesham wood and were polished impeccably. There was a large playground on one side of the building with football posts and a half court for basketball. The other side had a small vegetable garden with tomatoes, bottle guard, chillies and lots of spinach.

“Beautiful. Isn’t it?” said the stranger as if reading his mind.

“Yes, very beautiful indeed. I had always dreamt of such a place. My grandfather used to tell me of such a place in the mountains” said Vincent in a soft voice.

“Come let me show you the whole place” said the stranger pointing towards the building entrance. Vincent followed him as if mesmerized by the whole ambience. It was so surreal for him – he felt as if he has been here many times but how could that be?

“On your left we have the classes for the Kinder Garten up to the Primary and on your right are the higher classes from class sixth to tenth. In the Middle is the Principal’s office flanked by the staff room on one side and the accounts office on the other. There is a small infirmary next to the office.”

They went to each and every nook and corner of the school – the playground, the games room with carom board, chess and TT tables, the Badminton court, the water tank which got its supplies not from the Municipal Corporation but from a waterfall up in the hills. Surprisingly, there was no one in the campus except him and the man who was showing him around with the excitement of a child.

“Where is everyone?” asked Vincent

“It is June. Summer vacations, remember?” said the man adjusting his messenger bag.

“But how do you know so much about the school? Have you studied here?”

“Well you can say I have been associated with the school”

Vincent wanted to ask what does he mean but then let it be. May be he had failed and was thrown out. They chatted for a while. Vincent told him about his family in Mumbai and the purpose of his visit to Musoorie but carefully avoided the reason for his visit to the school. He was not sure of sharing his emotions with someone he didn’t know. The man informed that he had lived in the hills and was ‘associated’ with the school for quite some time. He had moved to the city for a better life but then he realized that the mountains were his calling and had come back for good.

By the time they came back to the car and parted company an hour had passed. Balvinder was peacefully sleeping on the front seat. Vincent decided to soak in the sights and sounds of his long cherished dream. Perhaps he would never come back again. He leaned back on the boot of the car thinking about his grandfather and lit up a cigarette. Usually he didn’t smoke but kept a packet in his bag for some special occasions. This was certainly something to be celebrated.

Just then he saw an old man pedaling towards him on a bicycle. He was perhaps in his early sixties and was dressed in a “khaki” uniform the kind that an office peon would wear. Seeing Vincent standing alone he stopped and asked

“Are you looking for someone?

Vincent thought to himself. How much time do these guys have? In Mumbai if you stand in the middle of the road your whole life no one would bother even if you were contemplating a suicide. He was not interested in making a conversation but then something struck him.

“Do you work there?” He said pointing towards the school.

“Ji Sahab. I am the Peon and the caretaker of the school. We are having summer holidays as of now. No one is there so I had gone to Dhanaulti to get some supplies.” He was looking enquiringly at Vincent.

“If he had been here all along then he must be knowing my grandfather” thought Vincent.

“Actually I am the grandson of Mr. Golmes who was the first Principal and founder of Seven Hills School. Do you know him?”

The man immediately jumped from his bicycle and grabbed Vincent’s hand. He started shaking it vigorously.

“Oh what a pleasure to meet you Sahab. You look quite different from your Grandpa so I could not make out, I am sorry. How can I forget Mr. Golmes?. He was the one who gave me this Job and since then I have been here. He was a very kind man otherwise who would have thought of opening a school in this place. The school has not only given education to kids but employment to local people like myself.” He told gushing with genuine exhilaration.

“Come let me show the place to you”

“I have already seen it. A gentleman on a bike was passing by and he showed the whole school building to me while you were away”

“How could he possibly do that? I have the keys. Look!” he said pointing to the bunch hanging from his hand.

“I must have forgotten to lock it once again. This old age makes you forget things so easily. But please don’t tell anyone. I will lose my job”

“It’s Ok it happens all the time with me. I am much younger than you”

“Did you see the picture of your grandfather in the Principal’s office?”

“No. I don’t think any of the rooms were open”

“I never forget to lock the gates. It is an old habit. It’s good that the rooms were locked. What would anyone steal from the garden anyway? Come let me show it to you.” The old man carefully put the chain around and locked it on one of the bars so he does not forget to lock it again when they went out.

The principal’s office was closed and it took a while for the peon to find out the right key. The keys were all similar and perhaps he could not read the numbers on them.

“The keys are usually with the principal” he explained.

The door opened with a creek. It was a dark inside. The old man reached the switchboard to switch on the lights. By now Vincent had walked in and was looking around.

The old man pointed out to a framed black and white picture on the fireplace mantle behind the Principal’s chair.

”He is your grandfather Mr. Desmond Golmes, founding principal of The Seven Hills School”

It was the picture of a man in khaki trousers tucked inside his Gumboots wearing a white shirt with a messenger bag around slung across his shoulders. He was standing next to a Matchless motorcycle with his hands on the handle bar and a foot on the gear paddle leaning slightly on to the seat. He was smiling. It was not a fake smile that you put on your face for the photograph but a smile that comes from the heart when you love life. For a minute Vincent just stood there – still and in complete silence. He was trying to absorb what had just happened. The peon was staring at him waiting for a reaction.

“Can I take this picture with me?” he asked the peon.

“But what would I tell if someone asks for it”

“Don’t worry I will get a copy made and send it back to you. Here is my number” Vincent pulled out his business card and gave it to the peon.

Walking back to the car, he was filled with remorse that he could not recognize his grandpa.

”Sorry Sir I fell asleep the whole time. Did you meet someone who knew your grandfather?” Balvinder said getting ready for the journey back.

“Yes I did meet someone” said Vincent in a choked voice, clutching the picture tightly to his chest as the cab took a turn and headed towards Mussoorie.

Maya

The great epochs of our lives come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us.

~ Nietzsche

It was a chilly December morning and like every year the fog had taken the entire north India in its fold. Days had become short and the nights extended their darkness until the crack of dawn making the sun wait patiently. Back in the early 90’s Lucknow was still a small town and during winters folks ushered themselves into warm inviting quilts early in the evening. Cracking peanuts while watching their favorite TV soap or just chatting away with family members over a cup of hot tea was the favorite past time of cozy winter evenings. The “city” had not yet taken over so the mornings too were laid back and the charm of not coming out of a warm bed was a luxury that most town folk relished.

Som, however, was not so lucky. He had a job at the only 5 star hotel in town and to make the early morning shift he had to be up and about before everyone else. He had got used to it in the last 3 years but this time the winter was unforgiving and to top it, the morning fog was making things worse. There had been times when unable to see clearly he had lost his way and his bike had wandered off the road. The otherwise ordinary ride had become an adventure for Som. It was tough but his easy going spirit had no complaints.

Som was a typical Lucknow boy from a middle class family who had been born and brought up in this Nawabi city of yore. The proverbial ‘middle class’ values of hard work and taking responsibility of the family as soon as you were out of college were deeply rooted in him. While he did not feel burdened by the thought that his two younger sisters had to be married off, he knew he must help his father to save for their marriage. His father had a government job but it was the kind that did not come with any fringe benefits, so while his father could educate his daughters, he was not in a position to compete in the demanding dowry market. Everyone in the household was conscious about money yet the family was a happy and contended lot. A good education and a loving environment at home had groomed Som to be a confident young man. The only thing where Som had a difference of opinion with his parents was their religious beliefs. Som’s mother was the quintessential “pious” lady and his father too did his bit to avoid the wrath of powers that be but Som had declared that he was an atheist as soon as he learnt that it was cells and atoms that were building blocks of life and everything around it, not some religious mumbo jumbo. As per his father it was a good sign. “In a beginners mind there are immense possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few” his father used to say quoting some Zen master.

It was Monday. As usual Som woke up by buzz of his alarm clock. After lazing around in bed for few minutes, he started the grind – he shaved, brushed and took a bath. But by the time he started making his tea he felt something strange even uncanny about the morning, as if a weird feeling was begining to grip him. He knew he had to get ready and head out. There was no reason to feel depressed but his heart felt as if it was shrinking. Something had taken over his cheerful spirit and he had no idea what it was. It must be the news he had heard about Gauri few days back, Som speculated. Today it will all be over and there was nothing he could do about it. Then he shrugged the thought and concentrated at the water boiling on the burner. A cup of strong tea with buttered toast lifted up his mood and Som was ready to begin the day. He pulled out his bike on to the road to kick start it. To his surprise, even after trying five or six times, the bike didn’t start. It could have been the cold but usually it took just a couple of extra kicks to get the engine roaring. He did not want to take off his gloves to clean the spark plug so he decided to strike once more. Thankfully, he heard the familiar knocking of the Yamaha engine this time.

The fog was dense and the neon lamps were trying hard to light up the road. The dim street lights with fog around them were like evenly interspersed blobs in the sky – a host of UFO’s guiding his way to their alien abode. On clear days Som used to love watching the star spangled sky as it disappeared giving way to the faint rays of the morning sun. Today he chose to go to the alien lands instead. He had been on the road for about twenty minutes when he hit the familiar patch next to the cremation grounds by the Gomti. Som never liked this part of his journey but today he desperately wanted to avoid it. He could have taken the longer detour but since he was getting late he had no choice. As he took a sharp right turn towards the Gomti he resolved to focus on the road so as to avoid the funeral pyres which always caught his attention. It didn’t scare him but it made him think about the fleeting nature of life, about death and about the futility of it all. It wasn’t an inspiring thought to begin the day so he just wanted to avoid it. Once he discussed it with his dad and he came up with something called Shamshan Vairagya. Som had promptly discarded it as spiritual bunkum.

The headlight of his motorcycle tried hard to pierce through the darkness and the fog, but all it could afford was a visibility of less that 5-6 feet. Som wanted to raise the accelerator so he could get past the Shamshan quickly but he was cautious of bumping into something coming from the other side. As if out of nowhere, he saw an outline of a figure approaching him. As it got closer he was able to make out that it was a Sadhu- one of the many mystics who roam the Indian landscape. What was the Sadhu doing here at this time? Was he even real? Even as these thoughts gushed through his mind, the Sadhu began to wave for him to stop. With the fog and the light from the pyres forming a background, the form in front of him appeared magical.

Som wanted to avoid this sudden rendezvous but now it was too late. He would have to stop or he would have run over the man in front of him unless his bike got past through the figure as in ghost movies. Som put on the brakes and stopped. He noticed that the mystic was a lanky man with a long face and deep set eyes. He was wearing light ochre cloth that was wrapped around his upper body and a dhoti to go with it. He did not exactly have a beard but a stubble of a few days. His head was shaved and a few short hair had begun to grow on the sides and at the back of the head. But what really impressed Som was his face – it was lustrous and shining. His eyes had a twinkle that could not be missed and his forehead looked majestic with the Tripundra he was sporting. There was something magnetic and overpowering about him. The Sadhu was someone to whom you just couldn’t say no – not out of respect but out of sheer sense of awe. Smiling at Som, the Sadhu asked :

“Where are you heading?”

“I am going to work. To my office..”

“Work, Yes Sure.” The Sadhu smirked

Som did not know what to say. He knew what the Sadhu meant by his smile. He had himself thought about it many times. What work? Just going to a place in the morning, sitting there the whole day pressing keys, staring at the monitor and coming back listless, drained of life. Nothing to inspire and no passion to drive the energy within. He had questioned this meaningless existence many times when he was in a thoughtful mood but since no answers came he chose to roll over to the next day rather than stop in his tracks.

“Alakh Nirnajan! Drop me till the Monkey Bridge and then you can carry on to your work”. This time the disdain was quite clear. As if the Sadhu was on some great mission and Som was just another uninspired wreck who had no idea what to do with his life.

Som nodded in obeisance and raised his accelerator once he felt the back seat had been occupied. He noticed a very faint but very sweet smell fill the atmosphere. It captivated his senses as he drove on the banks of the river. He was not afraid anymore and was somewhat reassured that he had company for the next few miles of his journey.

“Don’t you feel cold Baba?”asked Som turning his face backwards a bit to make himself audible.

“Even you don’t feel it but since you believe that you do, you feel it. It’s all in the mind”

“How come you are here so early in the morning?”

“I had come to the Shamshan for offering prayers at the Kali Temple. Had some other rituals to perform too.”

“Oh, they have a temple of Kali here?”

“Yes there is a very old temple, a small one, it’s next to the bigger Shiva temple. There is gender discrimination here also.” The Sadhu laughed with a childish innocence.

Som was surprised by the Sadhu’s accent and impeccable English.

“Who are you? If you don’t mind me asking where did you learn such good English? We are not used to Sadhus speaking English. The pujari who comes to my home recites mantras in Sanskrit but I can bet that he understands their meaning no more than I do. I mean You don’t look like our panditji

“Because I am not. I am a Aghori. And as far as the English is concerned you can say that I am a well educated Aghori. I used to teach Physics at BHU before I took diksha.”

Som was shocked. He felt goosebumps and a bit of churning in his stomach. His mind activated the fight or flight response as his blood rushed to his heart and adrenaline started pumping in his veins. A mild sweat broke out and he could feel the moisture in his gloves. He had heard about the Aghoris on a trip to Varanasi.  He had been told that they practiced the occult by virtually living with the dead.They lived on the cremation grounds away from the civilization and hunted for freshly burnt or buried bodies so they can use them for their rituals. They were a cult for whom something as offensive as eating the human flesh was not out of bounds.

“My name is Muktanand.  And there is no need to be afraid of me.”

There was a soothing calmness in the Sadhu’s voice. It reassured Som a little bit. He wondered if the Sadhu could read minds.

“I am not afraid but when you hear things that are otherwise taboo in the society you get a little disturbed.”said Som trying to keep his voice steady.

“I can understand that. So what all have you heard?” Muktanand asked Som.

“Oh I have heard a lot of things. I have seen a few videos on the youtube as well. For instance I read somewhere that the Aghoris practiced meditation sitting on dead bodies. Isn’t that eerie? I mean how could the mind be steady like that? ”

“Well to be honest its true but it’s done only to realize the impermanent nature of life. We all know that we will die one day but do you think about it every day, each passing minute. The truth is that most people even though they see people around them dying  every day have this notion that it won’t happen to them, ever.The Aghori attempts to break that conditioning with a single stroke. Our path is a- ghor meaning not very difficult or a path that is faster, almost like a short cut.”

“What about the other practices of drinking from the skull, living off the cremation grounds, smearing ash all over the body and so on. It doesn’t look like you do all these things.”

“Ha ha. You are right. I don’t do all these things. But let me tell you that it’s not that I have never ever performed these rituals. They serve a purpose and for me that purpose is over.”

“That is an interesting point. What is the purpose to all this? I mean you had a good life.”

“Everyone has their own definition of a good life and mine was perhaps a bit different from yours. As far as the purpose is concerned I wanted to have the darshan of my Isht – Ma Taara.”

“Who is Ma Taara?”

“Out of the ten Mahavidyas or manifestations of Shakti, Taara is the second. Tara is a form of Durga . As per bhagwat, She is the one who created 1st Seed from which the entire universe took birth in the form of Lord Narayana. In your language you can think of her as the primordial energy from which everything is born”

“So did you see her? How was the experience?” Som was driving quite slowly now. He wanted the carry on the conversation.

“Yes she did grant me her darshan after years and years of practicing meditation and rituals. You know why so many mind bending rituals and such rigor of meditation is required if one wants the Goddess to manifest before oneself?”

“Ya because otherwise everyone will start seeking the darshan. Its like climbing the Mount Everest. Isn’t it ?

“That’s a very simple way of putting it. But it is also true that anyone who wishes to have darshan of the Goddess can have it. The problem is this – if she manifests herself before you will you be able to take it? Let alone the cosmic energy, the physical form is such that one can lose all their bearings and go mad. Imagine someone with blue skin wearing nothing but tiger skin appears before you. She has a garland of severed human heads around her belly with fresh blood dripping from them. Her tongue is lolling out and blood is oozing from her mouth. Just close your eyes and think about it for a second”

“Just imagining such a sight makes me shudder in fear. It is quite disgusting actually if you think about it. But I know what you are talking about.”

“That’s the trick our mind plays with us. This is good. This is bad. This is beautiful. This is ugly. The conditioning of the mind has to go. The only thing that remains is the unrelenting desire to become one with the supreme. There should not be an iota of any feeling or desire left. That is why it is essential to train under a Guru. Someone who can tell the do’s and the dont’s. You know what the biggest danger is?”

“What? There are even more dangers than this.”

“Well, it is said that when the Goddess gives you her darshan, your mind must be absolutely pure. There are two main threats – one of course is fear and the other is sexual desire as the Goddess is very beautiful and she is hardly hiding anything. If any one of these overcome your mind then not only will the Goddess disappear but you will go mad for the rest of your life. Many Aghoris who were not ready have died during the process.”

To say that Som’s head was spinning is an understatement. He was least prepared for this encounter when he started from his home today morning. It was supposed to be just another day. To read about such things or to see them in videos is different but to have a first-hand experience is another.

By this time they had reached the monkey bridge and Som stopped the bike for Muktanand to get down. The Sadhu was smiling and his face looked radiant in the first rays of Sun which were now coming up from behind the shroud of dense fog.

“You are a good human being Som. There is a lot of sanchit karma from your past lives. Not everyone thinks the way you do” the Sadhu had an earnest expression on his face.

And before Som could ask how he knew his name, the Sadhu added.

“I want you to give up this dreary existence. I want you to seek the highest goal. For this I must give you a glimpse of the reality – the supreme truth. You must know that it is not by some accident that we have met today.”

He stretched his arms out and gestured Som to hold them. As Som held his hands he murmured a mantra under his breath. He looked deep into Som’s eyes and said.

“I am going to do Shaktipat or transference of energy from my mind to your mind. Make sure that your mind is free from any desire or emotions. If you have any longing within you, it will certainly come true but you will never be able to get to the higher plain where I want you to be. I want you to take a deep breath and free your mind completely now.”

The next 30 seconds or so were perhaps a glimpse into Nirvana for Som. He felt so complete, as if he has been freed from all his limitations. Like a ball of energy he was floating in the air and even the form of his body did not offer any limitations.

When Muktanand let his hands go Som felt a bit dizzy but he was consumed with a blissful feeling he had never known. By the time he regained full control the Sadhu had already left him. Som saw him walking down the bridge towards the dry river bed. Som waited for him to disappear. He was going towards the direction of an ashram which was on an island in the river.

On the way to his office Som drove his bike as if in a trance – ecstatic and complete within himself. Within the next 10 minutes he was parking his bike. It was a usual day at the back office of the Hotel where he worked. Before starting work he grabbed a cup of coffee and checked the attendance register to see if Gauri had come in. It was her engagement today and there was little chance that she would show up but it was a habit Som had picked up over all these years. He was surprised to see her initials next to her name on the register.

Back on his seat he switched on the HP desktop. He had a picture of Mount Kailasa as the screen saver. He was used to seeing that picture everyday but today he noticed that the mountain resembled a Yogi sitting steadfast in lotus position. The mountain was an image of strength, a symbol of great character, an abode of Lord Shiva himself. He thought about the Sadhu. He was reminded of his eyes, of his confident gait, his fit and muscular body, his calm face, his soothing voice and his gentle and innocent smile, like that of a child. Som wanted to be like him. And why not? He had been blessed to follow the divine path.

Just then Gauri walked in. She was looking stunning in the silk Sari. Maroon always used to suit her. Her big eyes spoke in a thousand ways. Her long hair were tied casually at the back and she was laughing as she talked. Som’s heart missed a beat like it always did. Once again he told himself that she was the most beautiful girl in the whole wide world. There was no point in all this he thought and restrained himself by focusing on the picture of Mansarover. He had chosen a different life now.

Gauri started walking towards Som. She must be coming over to invite me for the event in the evening he guessed. But her look was not that of a friendly colleague. Her demeanor was firm and her gaze was fixed at Som. She was taking strong firm steps even though she moved gently like she always did. She came to his desk and stood there. There was silence for a few seconds, then she said “ Som I have broken up with Manu. The engagement today is cancelled.” She waited for him to respond then blurted out “Are you going to say something? Or will you just keep looking at me?” Som gently stood up and placed his hand on top of Gauri’s “What’s there to say. You know it.” They had no idea for how long they kept holding each other’s hands as tears trickled down Gauri’s cheeks. In that extended moment of time a thought crossed Som’s mind – had he traded his chance of eternal bliss for momentary happiness. Did he secretly wish for Gauri when Muktanand held his hand?

He could not recall and He did not care..

 

 

 

Meditation camp at Sri Badrika Ashram..

I had attended Om Swami’s Zen Retreat in Bangalore in December about which I had written a post earlier. Another Zen Meditation camp was announced by Swamiji which would be held at the Ashram in the Himalayas. This camp would have Hindi as the language and since it was to be held at the Ashram the 5 star comforts of the Retreat won’t be there.

As soon as I read about the camp I registered. I remember it was some 1 am in the morning when I clicked on the link. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity as I had always wanted to visit the Ashram. Also, since the fees was not much I could afford to donate it in case I was not able to make it for some reason. All Om Swami devotees know that one must register as quickly as possible when Swamiji announces any program. They are few and far between and registration closes typically in a matter of 2-3 days. Everyone wants to be near an enlightened being as much as possible. You can read as much as you want but one line that comes directly from a Guru can have more impact than one can think of. Such is the divine aura of Swamiji that it exudes and touches the heart of everyone who comes near him – educated or illiterate, wealthy or poor, young or old, believer or sceptic.

Something in your heart just tells you- he is the one.

I took a flight from Bangalore to Chandigarh on the 24th  even though the camp was starting on the 25th March. The idea was to be there when everyone has not yet come in so I could possibly get some quality time with Swami ji. I discovered that many other दुष्ट’s had possibly read my mind😊.

The drive from Chandigarh upto Solan was good apart from stretches where four laning work was in progress. From Solan we took the Rajgarh highway. After Giri Pul which is built on the river Giri Ganga there is a U turn after about 10 Kms. This took us on the road to the ashram. It was about 5:45 pm so we were anxious to reach before it gets dark. The road to ashram is unmetalled and it can get really tricky at the bends.

I would recommend faint hearted folks not to sit in front next to the driver.

We reached when it was dark already. The beautiful LED lights looked just awesome, as the temple stood out against the backdrop of mighty mountains.

Once the formalities of registration etc.were completed we directed ourselves to the the dormitory. I keep saying “we” as the devotees I shared the ride from airport had already become good friends – each of us alone on the path  and yet together in the pursuit.

The first site of the dormitory didn’t look bad. It was neat and clean although the way the beds were arranged on the floor it looked like the place would get really crowded. The first night we had the luxury of spreading out a little but on the 25th when everyone came you literally had to struggle for space let alone personal space. Being used to having our own rooms at home or in hotels when we travel, I was amazed how I took to sharing the dorm with 65 other people like a fish takes to water. The person next to me told me I was snoring away barely 30 seconds after I retired to bed. I learnt a big lesson in life – actually we just need a place to lie down and sleep will come. The only condition is that our mind has to be stress free and our body must be tired. It’s that simple actually. I went back to the time when we travelled during our Geological excursions as students. With 30 boys to a room we used to enjoy as hell. Sharing, caring and daring were our mantra those days. Then that carefree nature got lost somewhere on the road to success and achievement.

I am sure everyone else who joined the camp was also used to same level of comfort as me but the way all of us “accommodated” each other was exemplary. It never felt we were missing anything.

My bed is second from right with a blue pillow 😊

In the evening on 24th we were blessed to have Swamiji amongst us during dinner which was a simple meal partaken with all of us sitting on the floor as you do in a Gurudwara or in marriages in the village. I find it really difficult to sit on the floor and eat but on all 5 days I made it a point not to take the chair but to have my meals sitting on the floor. I realised that if I am not comfortable and if I have to ask for more food I tend to eat less which is great for my ever increasing tummy.

Now the big question is can I follow the same at home ?

I must mention here that the food was delicious even though it was simple. The “prasad” bhav with which I had it helped to satiate my hunger with just one serving on most occasions. I admit I cheated a bit with the “halwa”though. Swamji had asked us to eat with mindfulness and I tried to follow it as much as possible although my mind was more fixed on the taste than anything else. It will take some time but trust me I am on my way.

The real “Tapa”however came in the morning ! The meditation class had to start at 6:30 in the morning which meant all 80 of us men had to get ready using just 2 bathrooms, 2 basins and 6 toilets. The fact that the facilities were at a distance from the dormitory also posed a bit of a chalkenge. I prayed to God I don’t get an upset stomach else you can imagine the plight of the situation. Again I had some experience with using “public” facilities from my university and Chinmaya mission days but years of conditioning made this ordeal really a testing one. I learnt how to cultivate patience during times of “urgency” 😊. Once again the way all of us woke up at 4 am and supported each other to get ready on time made an otherwise daunting task quite enjoyable. I was reminded of one quote from Karla in Shantaram – what amazes me is not the pain that crushes us but our ability to endure it. I know she said it in a different context but you would get the drift.

The dormitory and the toilets broke down my conditioning which defined what is “basic” for me. As a student and seeker in my youth I had lived with such facilities and had never thought too much about it but as I grew up and money came things got a bit different. With little bit of prayer and meditation I do everyday, I always knew that I am not a sucker for material comforts. This test was required to confirm my belief that with the right resolve one can always drop what is unnecessary.

The Zen mediation camp was similar to the Zen Retreat in Bangalore except that the classes were in Hindi so I will not bother writing about it again. I have given a detailed account of it here.

What was really different was the setting of the camp and I want to give you a glimpse of the beautiful ashram and my days spent there. The ashram is surrounded by green hills from all sides and the endearing river Giri Ganga flows just below the ashram in the valley. The inspiring Sri Hari Temple with its red roof stands in the middle guarded by a star studded sky at night. The thing about nature is that it can do to you in an instant what loads of books and words cannot in a lifetime. You just become a part of the scenery. The truth that you are nothing but a part of the mountain, a drop from the river and a piece of the sky becomes evident as you have a look at the surtoundings – take a deep breath and close your eyes. That God resonates in each particle of creation – inside and outside of your field of experience becomes easier to comprehend as the universal truth of our existence.

The time I spent listening to the river, gaping at the mountains and talking to the stars has become a part of me – forever. Swamiji’s divine presence and the grace of Sri Hari Bhagwan only helped to make every moment at the ashram a true blessing.

I am sharing a few pictures below with captions so you can share the joy with me.

The way to the ashram

Swamiji arriving for discourse at the temple. Behind him are his disciples Swami Vidyanand and Swami Parmanand.

Me reflecting besides the river

And posing next to it 😊

Sri Hari Bhagwan..

The temple shinning in the glory of morning sun

River flowing in the mountain valley

View from the ashram side

Footloose, quite literally !

Cow mata wanted to eat my phone. I wish she did 😊

Villagers starting a day at work

Wind takes our payers to Bhagwan

I have heard that there is no problem which cannot be solved by the sound of flowing water.For me it was like a meditative state in which I could feel a river flowing inside me. Fell in love with the wind blowing across my face, the chirping of the birds and the murmur of the river. How I wish I could take a piece of this back to the city. I know I can’t but I also know that it will be there whenever I close my eyes and sit in silence.

Now if you are tired of reading this longish post here’s some Herb to freshen you up 😊

The Rainbow

Rainbow over coastline, Haena Beach, Kauai, Hawaii, U.S.

Chasing his corporate dream Nishant had literally been living out of a suitcase for the last couple of years. His air miles had kept pace with his rise in the company but now it had started to take a toll on him. He remembered the day when he was straight out of college and had gone to see off his uncle at Bangalore’s old  airport. Watching the plane take off  he had thought “Will I ever be able to fly and see the world?” His wish was granted and how.

Nishant traveled constantly, like a zombie on auto pilot, he got a signal for another meeting from his secretary and started from point A to point B whether it was Paris or Portland it did not matter. At home, his wife and 4 year old daughter had given up on him, getting used to living life in his absence. They had created a world of their own and Nishant was not sure if he was part of it or not.

Today, Nishant was flying from Bangalore to Chicago on Lufthansa which was his company’s preferred Airline partner. He entered the airport and encountered a familiar scene. All around him was a maze of people – Techies, corporate executives, family’s going back after vacation, old folks on wheel chairs travelling all the way to show themselves to their grandkids. He was so used to it that from the look on their face and the way they dressed he could tell who was a first time traveller or a typical IT guy going onsite or a business man raring to get that big dollar deal. But what he always found amusing was that people wore overcoats meant for freezing temperatures from Bangalore itself! His wife had told him that her friends did it so they could save space in their suitcase. Thinking of his wife he recalled how things had changed between them over time. In the beginning Aditi used to pack his bags and his daughter would make “come back soon” cards for him with her crayons. Both of them always came down to see him off and waived till they lost sight of him. Now he woke up by the alarm on his cell phone, got ready and left his home quietly so he does not disturb anyone. They slept in separate rooms for this reason or that’s what they told each other. The truth that both of them knew was that they had lost that loving feeling.

The Luftahansa counter was at the far end and he waded through the commotion to reach the comfort zone of his business class check in counter. It was another thing that  Nishant knew that the welcoming smiles were as fake as his own. Battling sleep the only thing he was looking forward to were shots of Talisker to help put him to slumber.

Just then something caught his eye.

The frilled white top and faded jeans stood out amongst the black and grey formals. Curious, he changed his posture to have a closer look. His guess was right. She was a young girl in her early twenties. Even he was not that old Nishant thought. Just 34 – and a young achiever! He smiled at himself and thought – old habits die hard. To avoid getting distracted he started to look at the billboards around on the walls of the terminal building. Most were bright and beautiful with a promise of a happy family life. Nishant resolved he would not look at the girl again.

But the more we try to get away from something, the more it charms us towards itself. Nishant found himself stealing glances overlooking how indecent it would seem if someone finds out. She was at the counter now and the clerk was issuing her boarding pass.”Chalo it is over….you go your way baby I go mine” Nishant mused as he pulled out his passport from his laptop case.

At the lounge he gulped a few drinks and sat down to read as there was still time. He loved reading. It offered a journey into another world, a world he had always longed for but had never found. A world of stories,of characters,of far off places in mountains or next to the beaches. He had picked up a book of stories by Premchand from the Airport book shop . Nishant loved Premchand from the time he was a student. To him, Premchand knew the human condition like no one else. His stories though set in rural India had emotions and relationships so well thought out that one could relate to them no matter where they came from and who they were. His characters were so real that one felt as if they had met this person sometime. If he didn’t fall asleep, he planned to finish the book by the time he reached US.

The mechanical voice of the lounge executive announced that the Flight to Frankfurt was ready for boarding. Nishant grabbed his laptop case and started walking towards the gate. It was 1:45 am already and He was looking forward to a good sleep. “Guten Abend” he said to the hostess and took the left turn towards business class seating. Dumping his belongings in the hatchet above he ensconced himself in seat 2 C and asked the stewardess for a glass of water. The whiskey had made his throat dry and to avoid jet lag he wanted to make sure was hydrated. He took out his book from the laptop case and put in the pocket in front of his seat.

Nishant took off his shoes and pulled back his seat to relax. It would take a while for the plane to be airborne so he thought of finishing the story he was reading in the lounge. As he moved forward to take out the book, he was distracted by a sweet fragrance. He looked up and could not believe his eyes.

It was her – the girl whom he had seen at the check in counter!

Nishant had a strange feeling. He didn’t know how to react or if he should react at all? He hoped his eagerness did not show up on his face. Nishant realized that the girl was not only beautiful but there was something that was pulling him to her – like a magnet. Her big brown eyes, her long straight hair, her flawless complexion somewhere on the darker side and her figure that made her absolutely desirable. Attraction is not about someone being perfect – it’s about someone being just right for you. Each of us has an idea of beauty, almost like a frame waiting for that perfect picture. Only if you are lucky you come across a face which so exquisitely matches your imagination. A whole lifetime can pass before such a miracle happens and sometimes even that is not enough. Nishant was witnessing one such miracle.

She was on seat 2 D.

Nishant requested for another glass as he gulped the one brought by the hostess. Soon the plane took off changed its course to move northwest. Nishant wanted to roll up his sleeves but he felt as if his every move was under a scanner. He remembered he had felt the same when he had fallen in love the first time. “Take out your Premchand and read. A book in Hindi won’t spoil your impression” He chided himself but his hands did not follow his brain. He closed his eyes and sat quietly. Half an hour had passed and he could no longer pretend to be asleep. He opened his eyes and found that she was reading the In-flight magazine. By her watch it was 2:30 AM. Her hair was falling over her hands tempting Nishant to touch her but he figured out that she was a bit afar. “Damn business class ! Why do they have the seats so far from each other?” he thought and pulled away instead. He tried to sleep but it won’t come. Normally, he would have been dreaming by now. But his dream was sitting next to him so how could he sleep.

To end the dilemma he pressed the button and called the hostess. “Do you have Lemon tea?” he asked.

“Yes Sir, we do have.Do you care to have one sir?”

“Yes please, and please get sugar separately” Nishant cursed himself for not remembering that they always did. This was the business class of a premier airline not the student canteen of Lucknow University.

“Lemon tea and low sugar. You are such a fraud!” his inner voice mocked him.

“OK – I do like Red Label boiled 5 times with 3 spoons of sugar because it keeps me alert. I wish to sleep now and Lemon tea will help ” Nishant argued.

A fresh thought came to his mind. One should always try and make friends with fellow passengers and how can you do that unless you start a conversation. Nishant mused and opened his eyes to look over his shoulder. She was asleep. The magazine was lying flat on her chest. Did he expect that she would be awake and looking for someone to talk to at 3:30 in the morning?” Nishant realized his stupidity but felt relieved as he won’t have to put up the show anymore. He felt at peace with himself. Finally, alcohol did the job and he drifted off to sleep.

When he woke up it was 9:30 by his watch. He never set his watch to foreign time zones, it made him feel connected to his home. He wanted to stretch but he didn’t. She was still sleeping and he did not want to wake her up. Also, this way he could look at her without getting noticed. Soon the plane would land and he would never see her again. Why didn’t he talk to her? He could have at least asked what she did or where was she going? What was her name? Who knows they could have become friends. The plane started its descent into Frankfurt. As the moment of truth approached his heart began to sink.

At about 10:00 AM the plane landed at Frankfurt airport. It was cloudy and it looked like it had rained earlier through the night. Everything was clean and fresh. The plane began to taxi.

Nishant felt as if someone was looking at him. He turned around and saw that she was eyeing him. She smiled. He smiled back.

“Can I show you something?” She said.

Nishant was out of his wits. “Ya sure” He nodded.

“What a beautiful rainbow” She said pointing out of the window.

Nishant bent a little towards her to get a clearer view. He could smell her. It was Davidoff Cool Water.

“Actually, I wanted to speak to you the whole night” she said as Nishant pulled himself back.

“I saw Premchand’s book in your seat pocket. It’s quite rare to get people who love Hindi literature in Bangalore. From my school days I really like his work. His characters are so real and his grip on human emotions is better than any other writer. A true master he is” She added.

Nishant didn’t know what to say and blurted taking the book out of the seat pocket      “You mean this book?” She nodded with a twinkle in her eyes.

“But you looked so serious and busy with yourself. I just didn’t want to disturb. In fact, if you would not have smiled back I would not have had the courage to show you the Rainbow”.

They had a few minutes to chat and she told that she was on her way to Los Angeles. She had won a scholarship to pursue a degree in management and as a special gift her father had bought her business class tickets. Nishant introduced himself and she said she would want to become like him one day.

They went together to Baggage claim area and bid good bye. Nishant turned away to catch his next flight to Chicago. He could see her going up the escalator. Her words were still echoing in his ears:

“If you had not smiled back, I would not have had the courage to show you the Rainbow.”

 

Pedro

It was my second day in Lisbon. I had to be back for some urgent work and it was such a shame. I had always wanted to visit Portugal and the reason was not exactly tourism. Vasco de Gama with his curious name and all the tales of his exploration was an object of fascination during my school days. I had always wondered why would someone risk their life and steer into the unknown for the sake gathering riches. It had to be something bigger an adventurous spirit, a wanderers curse, destiny or who knows even Gods own will. I had always imagined Portuguese as industrious folks who were willing to cross the mighty oceans on ships they built with their toil, their grit and with their bare hands. This myth was broken when I visited Goa I found the people there quite chilled and laid back – they won’t even go to Panjim from Palolem unless they were pushed into it. Perhaps all the riches that De Gama hoarded had made them lazy. The question that how on earth did Vasco De Gama brave the mighty oceans in his quest for making a fortune remained and may be the answers that I was looking for in Goa were waiting for me in Lisbon. It was some five hundred years ago but I could still get some clue if not through human endeavor then by divine intervention.
I was packing my stuff when the phone rang. It was Anant, my 12 year old son.
“Hi Dad”
“Hey buddy. How are you doing? Tell me what you want.”
“That’s not fair. I was missing you.”
“C’mon out with it. Are you done with your football and friends? Dad I was missing you.”I mocked.
“OK listen. You know there is a football final today between Portugal and France. How about getting me a Ronaldinho jersey from there? It will be so cool.”
“See I told you it had to be some gift for you. I will get it but remember the last time I got you a Manchester United one it cost me a bomb.”
“C’mon Dad it was a fake. You know it”
“No it wasn’t a fake. It was of dubious origin that’s all. You want the jersey or not”
“Ok whatever. Just get something that looks original. I don’t want my friends to think that you are a cheapo”
“Let me come back and I will tell you what a cheapo is. Bye” Both of us laughed and I kept the phone down.
I changed into Jeans and a linen shirt and carelessly stashed away my suit into the suitcase. I had hardly anything to pack so I was in the lobby for the check out. The clerk at the counter was a lively good looking girl, possibly in her 20’s. She had big bright yes and long black hair which she had streaked with shades of light gold. I thought she would have easily passed off as an Indian if you saw her somewhere in Mumbai or Delhi. I gave my credit card and room keys and checked if there were any cabs available for a drop to the airport. The Oitavos resort was in Cascai just outside Lisbon and was located in a somewhat secluded spot next to the beach.
She asked me “What time is your flight?”
“It’s at 9 in the evening”
“But then isn’t it too early? It’s just 2 in the afternoon now. What will you do at the airport?” She said smiling.
“Good Question” I said wanting to match her friendliness.
“May I suggest something if you don’t mind?” She said.
“Ya sure.I am always open to ideas especially when they come from pretty ladies” I said trying to flirt.
She had finished the checkout process by now and handed over my card and invoice to me with a mischievous grin on her face.
“Well, have you been to Lisbon before?” I said no and added that having to go back without seeing the city was such a disappointment.
“Let me check if I can arrange something for you. I will try if the same cab which drops you to the airport can give you a short city tour. Hope you don’t mind paying a bit extra as it will not be a regular airport cab”
“I am fine as long as I have enough money to go back to India. I trust you”
She made a few calls after that. It seemed to me that she was not able to get the right deal. I didn’t mind it at all as I was in no hurry. It was a pleasure watching her make an animated conversation in Portuguese, negotiating on my behalf. As a man you never want to let go of a legitimate reason to stare at a beautiful sight so I started enjoying my few minutes of ignoble behavior. Finally she kept the phone down and addressed me” Your cab will be here in the next one hour or before that. It’s not an airport cab but a Private city Taxi.”
“Thank you so much. By the way does the driver speak in English?” I asked. She gave me a are-you-crazy look and confirmed “Of course, Yes. Your driver will also be your guide”. “I am sorry Miss.” I said and smiled back telling her to let me once the car is there. Meanwhile I will grab a quick lunch at the restaurant, I thought. All I could eat was boiled Potato and Rice so it had to be quick anyways.
After about 45 minutes the bell boy came to me. I was catching up on social media making use of the free wi-fi in the hotel. He said the Cab has arrived so I put my laptop in the bag and walked out after him.
“This is your cab Sir and he is your driver” the bell boy said gesturing towards a decade old Mercedes Benz which was an old but in good condition. The driver jumped out of the car. He was a bulky man, not fat but over weight just like me. He would have been in his early 50’s and with his gold framed specs and grey hair looked more like a University professor than a cab driver. He was immaculately dressed for a cabbie – wearing a dark grey trouser and a crisp white shirt. Wrinkles were beginning to show on his white skin and they got highlighted when he gave a wide grin before introducing himself ” Hello Sir. I am Pedro. Your driver for today” Instinctively I held out my hand for a handshake and he grabbed it with both his hands shaking it vigorously, the smile on his face and the sparkle in his eyes made the welcome genuine and heartfelt. I had a feeling that we will have a good time togeher.
As the Merc swivelled around the corner of the street and came on the main road the vast blue ocean next to the road greeted us. It was a gorgeous sight. Having arrived at night I was half asleep when I came in so I had no idea about the road being next to the sea. Sensing my excitement, Pedro switched his role to a tourist guide ” Sir, we are in Cascais which is like a town outside Lisbon. I will be taking the longer route as it is more scenic and you can see a few things on the way. This road we are on will run next to the sea right up to Lisbon which is about 20 Km or half an hour away. Do you wish to see anything special? “He had turned back slightly to address me. “Honestly I don’t know much and I am not sure what I would like to see but if possible I would like to see the tomb of Vasco d’ Gama.”
I told him.
” Sure we will go to see the tomb of Vasco D’Gama. You are from India. Right?
“Yes I am. And have always been fascinated about this great explorer. We were taught about him in our school books. I think he was an amazingly brave man to have dared to cross the ocean to explore an unknown land. And that too with such basic equipment hundreds of years ago”
“You are right.Da Gama led two of the Portuguese armadas to India, the first and the fourth. The latter was the largest and departed for India four years after his return from the first one. Vasco da Gama remains a leading figure in the history of Portuguese exploration. You would not know that the Portuguese national epic, Os Lusiadas, was written in his honor. Because of him for a 100 years Portugal had supremacy over the sea route from the African Cape. The English, French and the Dutch could catch up much later. If you ask me Sir, Vasco D Gama is considered our national hero. Never has Portugal been at the top of world economy as it was during D Gama’s time. It’s said that in his first voyage he got back with riches that amounted to 60 times the cost of the voyage. Can you imagine that?”
“Wow Pedro. You know so much. I rightly thought that you were a professor when I saw you the first time” I joked.
Pedro seemed a bit embarrassed” It’s nothing like that. Actually, I wanted to study world history when I was young but I had to leave my studies at 18 after my father passed away. Being the eldest I had to take care of the family. Sir, with such a great history, I feel sad that Portugal is a very small country today which no one cares about. If we did not have a bit of Textiles and Tourism we would have perished.I feel bad about it”.
“Coming from India, I totally understand how you feel. Ours too is a great country but it does not have its rightful place in the world thanks to our politicians and corrupt officials. But Yes there is hope and thing seem to be changing for better.”
I tried to offer some consolation.
“It’s different for India. You have a big population and lot of Industry. Portugal is very small, we struggle for our identity now. By God’s grace we have reached the football finals and today is the big match. If Portugal wins at least we can create an impact in the world news. It will really be a moment of glory for my people. This match is like everything to us today”.
I was pleasantly surprised by the sense of national pride and glory in someone who drove a cab for a living.
“I will pray that Portugal wins.” I said.
“Amen. That’s so kind of you” Pedro seemed to be relived and back in his spirits now.
The drive from Cascais to Lisbon was beautiful. The road meandered parallel to the sea on one side and the houses and streets on the other. The similarity to Goan architecture was striking in many of the buildings. Lisbon was full of tourists and looking at them Pedro suggested:
“Sir, I think you must come to Lisbon next time with your family”
“Yes, even I was thinking about it. There are so many people here and they seem to be having a good time”
“Actually, Lisbon is much cheaper than other European destinations and one could enjoy a lot for less money. It’s a different thing that we Portuguese revel in sadness” Pedro said rather thoughtfully.
“How do you mean? Revel in sadness?”
“It’s kind of difficult to understand for outsiders. We actually have a word for this joyful sadness. It’s called Saudade. No other language has a word quite like this so I can’t even translate it for you.”
“I know what you mean. In Goa they have a word similar to this. It’s called Susagade and means chill out. You guys have a way of coming up with unique words” I said smiling.
“Saudade is a longing, an ache for a person or place or experience that once brought great pleasure. It is akin to nostalgia but, unlike nostalgia, one can feel saudade for something that’s never happened, and likely never will. At the heart of saudade lies a laid back sense of absence, of loss.I think our country has become a good example for it.” Pedro mocked.
As we entered the city our first stop was The Belem Tower. Pedro told me that it was built in 1500 as a fortress to guard the entrance to Lisbon’s harbor, the Belem Tower was the starting point for the voyages of discovery, and for the sailors it was the last sight of their homeland. It is a monument to Portugal’s age of adventure. Pedro was very considerate and dropped me at a point where I have to walk the least. What surprised me was that as soon as he parked the card he jumped out of it and came back to open the door for me. This was something totally unexpected. I was reminded of the Taxi drivers of New York and the cabbies of London who would throw you out if you wasted a minute! I got down and spent some time looking at the monument imagining the ships sailing out, the sailors praying to Our Lady of safe home coming and that how a sailor would have felt going out into the unknown some 500 years ago. I took off my shoes and let the Ocean wash my feet. I had a strange feeling that the same water stretched out to Calicut where D Gama and his crew landed . There were some small shops selling knick knacks. Among them was an old lady selling mulled wine in cups. I bought one and sipped it on my way back to the car. By this time Pedro had already parked at a different spot so it was easy for us to get out of the place. We didn’t have much time and this little gesture saved us a few precious minutes.
“So what next Mr. Pedro?”
“We will now go to Jeronimos Monastery. It is a symbol of Portugal’s power and wealth during the age of Discovery.Vasco da Gama and his crew spent their last night in Portugal in prayer before leaving for India. It was built to commemorate Vasco Da Gama’s voyage and to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for its success. Vasco da Gama’s tomb is placed inside by the entrance, as is the tomb of poet Luis de Camões, author of the epic The Lusiads in which he glorifies the triumphs of Da Gama and his compatriots. I think you will really like it.”
Pedro drove quickly but with precision as if he knew the angle of each bend of the road, even the pace of traffic as it approached us. He was deftly quick but unhurried. Pedro had told me that he has been driving on Lisbon streets for past 20 years. I could see that in his driving.
The monastery was really quite impressive. After seeing the tomb of Vasco D Gama I took a short tour of the place to get a glimpse of its superb architecture.
The cloisters were magnificent, each column minutely carved with coils of rope, sea monsters, coral, and other sea motifs bringing the spirit of sea adventures to life. There was also the entrance to the former refectory that had beautifully reticulated vaulting and tile decoration on the walls depicting the story of Joseph. The church interior was spread out with octagonal piers richly decorated with statuettes,outside was a garden consisting of hedges cut in the shape of various municipal coats of arms of Portugal.
I had taken enough pictures to boast of my audience with the great Vasco Da Gama who changed the history of the world through his spirit of adventure. I came out and could not see Pedro. The parking space was a bit far so I had taken Pedro’s phone number. As the phone began to ring I saw Pedro approaching and waiving his hand so I could spot him. Once again he stopped and jumped out of car to open the door for me. I told him it was absolutely not required. He said it was his duty to make sure his guest is comfortable. I knew He was not going to give up easily.
“Are you hungry Sir. We have the famous pastry shop Pastéis de Belém close by. It is not to be missed when you are in Lisbon”. Pedro asked me.
With all the walking around I had built up an appetite and we decided to make Pastéis de Belém our next stop. It was a typical pastry shop in the city center. I was intimidated by the que in front of it but Pedro who had walked after me sensed my apprehension. “It won’t take long. They are very fast. Most people go for their famous egg Tarts and coffee for the take away. The seating place is inside where they spend more time and even the service is a bit leisurely.”
He was right. Our turn came in not more than five minutes. The que was well organized and was being served by several counters inside the shop. The counter clerks as well as the customers knew exactly what they weredoing and everything moved with clock-work precision. I bought two servings of egg tart and coffee, one for me and one for Pedro. We took our packets of food in one hand and coffee in the other and walked back towards the parking lot. The tarts were Oven fresh and made a great combination with coffee. I checked with Pedro about his family and told him about mine. We chit chatted about how different yet similar it is to grow up in Bangalore and Lisbon. The more I talked with Pedro the more I appreciated his knowledge of various subjects, his clarity of thought and his polite manner of putting his view point across. When we saw the statue of General Albuquerque, for example, at the Central Square, Pedro was quick to add after his description of the great conqueror that coming from India I may have a different view. Had he not been forced to discontinue his education he would have made a great teacher. Life had dealt him a bad hand and here he was trying to make the best of it.
We were ready to go once more and Pedro informed me that he will now take me to the Alfama neighborhood which represented the oldest part of Lisbon. We will be driving through to the highest point in the city and would start heading towards the airport on our way down.
“Pedro I need to buy a football jersey for my son. He is a big fan of Ronaldinho and will be supporting your team today”
“Really Sir ! I thought that France was the favorite team.”
“No he is supporting Portugal as I am travelling to Lisbon. He supports Manchester United otherwise.”
“Isn’t it amazing how sports unites and also divides us at the same time?”
“Ha ha you should have been a philosopher too. But I think sports unites us more than it divides us because one sports man knows how hard he has to work to reach the top. He respects his opponent and knows that either of them could win. Can we say the same thing for politics?”
“Just before we enter Alfama there is a showroom of Adidas. We can stop there and buy the jersey.”
“No I don’t want to spend a fortune. My champ won’t bother about them once the world cup is over.”
“Ok then I know where we will get a copy. Do you know I was born here?”.
“Oh that’s great. Let’s start our age of discovery then”
The Alfama neighbourhood was quite a step back in time. A village within a city, it comprised narrow streets, tiny squares, churches, and whitewashed houses with tile panels and wrought-iron balconies adorned with pots of flowers, drying laundry, and caged birds. Pedro drove through the zig zag alley ways like a true local. I imagined him playing in these streets as a kid, hanging out with his friends as a teenager, cycling up and down the slopes with little care in the world. Pedro took me to the shop which was on the way but tucked away a little in one of the narrow alleys. He said it belonged to his childhood friend. The shop had a variety of T shirts in all shapes and sizes. They were also selling ceramic wares along with some other curios, gifts and keepsakes. The shopkeeper was very polite and gave me a good discount on the shelf price. Having got the jersey We drove up to the highest point in the city. But time when the car stopped I jumped out and pretended to open the door for Pedro. He laughed and said “I like doing that. It’s my duty” I said “No its not. And even if you think it is I am not used to such majestic treatment. Just like you I am a working man who deserves no special treatment” Pedro smiled back at me and we started walking up to the view point. There were a number of tourists but the place was not crowded. There was enough place for us to stand and have an uninterrupted view of Lisbon city. The red roofed building many of them with painted domes looked magical in the setting Sun. At a distant I could see the ships sailing by in the Ocean and the Tagus river. It was quite windy and a TV crew was struggling to set up their shot. It was amusing to see how they moved their equipment from one spot to the other to avoid the gust. I asked Pedro to click a few pictures of me. He turned out to be a great photographer and I had several perfect shots of myself with Lisbon in the background. I asked Pedro for a picture together to which he readily obliged. We stood behind the iron grill with padlocks for some time just absorbing the serenity of the moment. There is something about the time when the sun is just about to come up and when it is just about to go down – time just seems to stop as night hands over the baton of creation to day and vice versa. It is in this change that the message of infinite continuity hides somewhere. We can hear the hum of life clearly at these times only if we are still enough in our actions, in our thoughts.
The ride to the airport was uneventful .Lisbon is a small airport and there was not much traffic on the way. Pedro was his usual courteous self and put my bag on the trolley so I can carry it without a hassle. I told him how thoroughly I had enjoyed his company and that I will always remember him when I think of this trip to Portugal. I tried to thank Pedro with a small tip but he refused saying that I was more of a friend than a customer. I couldn’t agree more and we bid farewell.
I arrived in Bangalore a little after midnight. As I pulled my bag out of the lift I heard a loud roar coming from my apartment. I was greeted by a band of boys dressed in French and Portugal T shirts. The French had just missed scoring a goal and the Portuguese supporters were ecstatic. The atmosphere in the living room was electrifying and resembled a stadium. However, I was too tired to enjoy the game and went to sleep.
I woke up next morning and life started as usual. I had to catch up on a few things, make a phone call to my parents, update my colleagues about the meeting, stack up groceries and so on. My son was still sleeping. Around noon when he finally woke up he came to me and asked
“Dad did you get my Ronaldinho Jersey?”
“Yes I did and you will be glad to know that it’s the latest design. The picture you sent me was from last year. What I have for you is the latest and the greatest. By the way who won the match – France or Portugal?” I asked.
“Portugal won the world cup by 1-0 and it was so awesome. Imagine I will wear this Ronaldinho Jersey coming straight from Portugal. I will certainly score many goals in the evening game today” His imagination was running wild.
I was reminded of Pedro and how both of us had prayed for Portugal’s win just yesterday. I checked my phone if I still had his number. It was there in the last dialed list and instinctively I pressed the call button. After a few rings a voice answered at the other end – “Hello”
I knew it was Pedro. “Hi, it’s me calling from India. Portugal won!!”
I will have to become a writer to describe the happiness in Pedro’s voice.
“Oh my dear Lord. You remembered me. I am sure it’s your prayers which have been answered. I can’t tell you how happy I am. Thank you so much”
“I wanted to share your joy. I knew how important it was for you and I did sincerely pray that this happens. I am so happy for you and your people”.
I kept the phone down and pondered for a while. Whenever I think of Portugal or football or Vasco D Gama or buying a fake football Jersey Pedro will get exhumed just like Da Gama who was originally buried at Fort Kochi.

The Veggie Seller..

Paris is an old city and when you are in the city center everything has a sense of nostalgia. My hotel too was an old building facing an open park like area called Square d’ Anvers. It had a circular staircase made of wood that made a creaking noise with every step and the rooms were so small that they ended as soon as they started. The funniest thing was the shower enclosure in which a large guy like me had to enter in the state of ‘attention’ make a swirl without spreading my arms and pretend to come out refreshed. Then there was this awkward thing about how the French write and Pronounce so differently so I had to try every version of Square D Anvers with the Taxi Drivers to come back to my hotel! Surprisingly it seemed all of them had their own way of saying it and finally I Had to say ‘whatever’ just take me there.

 

I had been in the city for a week now and was looking forward to the first weekend having slept late as we usually always did. It was a bright Saturday morning and I was lazily lying around in my room. The weather was nice which meant you could open the classic door sized french windows without getting Frozen. When I looked outside I could see a hum drum of activity. There were lots of Vans parked outside on the road and men were busy setting up temporary stalls on the pavement of the park. It was quite similar to what we had back home as in Wednesday Bazaar Flea markets. The only difference was that it was much better organized and professional.

While the stalls were being given the final touch, the vans started unloading their content and setting their house in order so they can occupy the stalls as soon as they were ready. What was interesting to note that while there was so much activity there was no noise or confusion and everyone seemed to be in a relaxed and happy mood. I guessed it was perhaps a regular feature so all of them knew exactly what they were doing or they had to do.

 

My curiosity grew as more and more vans downloaded their merchandise. It was amazing to see the sheer variety of goods – Bakery, vegetables, meat and Poultry, knick knacks, Herbs and spices, Dry fruits, accessories, Plants, Cut Flowers, Decorative stuff, painting replicas and so on. However, loosely the whole pavement was divided into two parts – one for Fresh produce, bakery and meat which was perhaps the largest, then for Herbs, Plants, flowers and few stalls at the end were setting up for decor and Accessories.

 

By this time I had started to feel a bit hungry and realized that the On the House in house breakfast served by the hotel would get over in another half an hour or so. I took a quick shower, changed my clothes and feasted myself of freshly baked croissants, fruit bread, Cheese cake and Coffee. It was the same stuff everyday but the good thing was that it was fresh! After the breakfast, I came back to my room and started doing the usual stuff to kill time – check emails, facebook updates and so on. By this time, it had become quite sunny and warm so I shifted my chair alongside the large window to enjoy the warmth. I noticed that the stall right in front of my window was getting ready too. There was a van parked next to the stall and they were unloading crates filled with fresh vegetables pumpkins, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes and lots of leafy greens the names of which I had no clue about. Just then I noticed something unusual, the girl setting up the stall was not somebody you would identify with being a vegetable seller !  With her looks she was more suited to be a model donning haute couture than to be selling veggies on the street side.

 

I was in this semi thoughtful mood when someone knocked on the door. I was waiting for a friend who worked with me and we had planned to complete some pending stuff from work plus have lunch together at the Indian restaurant. Sunil walked in with his usually cheerful smile all excited about the day ahead. Soon we opened out our laptops and started discussing about what all we had to accomplish. But with all the activity just across the window it was kind of difficult to concentrate. Somehow we worked for an hour or so before we decided that it was time for Lunch.  The restaurant Au Palais Du Grand Moghol is conveniently located around the corner and because of the customized service it offered to us regulars it had practically become more of a ‘mess’ than a restaurant. The owner Mr. Gafur, a friendly old man always offered either a starter or a dessert on the house and even made stuff that was out of the menu – I mean who could boast of having Lauki ka kofta curry and besan baadam halwa in a faraway land.

 

After the heavy lunch, to avoid sleep we planned for a stroll and the best thing was to explore the flea market. We started from one corner which had the clothes and trinket stalls. It was interesting to note that a couple of stalls which were selling Euro 2 clothing had the maximum crowd – all of them women! They were all shapes, sizes, age, economic class and all of them had a Single focus, how to get hold of the best as quickly as possible from the heap which looked no less than a treasure island, at least to them. I realized that when it comes to women – SALE was the biggest leveler whether you were in the city of joy or the city of fashion. Moving on there were stalls selling fresh Bakery stuff croissants, baguette breads, Pastries, muffins, tarts, pies and Bagels. Let me tell you that there is nothing better than freshly baked French goodies especially if one has a sweet tooth! At street smart prices we certainly had more than what we should have all in the garb of just tasting. Before ending our stroll we thought it might be a good idea to check out the vegetable stall and of course the seller ! I was curious to see Sunil’s reaction to the shop owner and just as I had thought he shared my surprise and excitement. Just as girls and women have a sixth sense that tells them ‘the look’ is not right, men and boys too have a common language that allows them to sniff something that is of common interest. We casually enquired the girl about some vegetable prices and so as not to arise suspicion bought a box of plums. Who would eat all that fruit we had no idea. We were particularly amazed by the confidence with the way she transacted with a cigarette in hand, the smoke from the cigarette puffs giving her an air of confidence and authority. I think it had more to do with our conditioning about women smoking in public than anything else. It seemed everyone in Paris smoked so it wasn’t really anything special.

 

We came back to our room and started discussing how life was so different here vs. back home In India. With the drudgery of having to work on a weekend the conversation soon drifted to working for a corporate vs. working for your own self. To put things into perspective Sunil pointed out to the vegetable seller we had just encountered. According to him She probably grew the vegetables in a farm outside Paris or bought them from an upcountry farmers Market, drove her own little truck, setup her own stall, decided the prices of the produce, transacted business at her time and finally went home satisfied after a day’s hard work. Her business could be small but at the end of the day she was her own boss…and she was doing what she loved or wanted to do. I argued that though it sounded quite romantic it involved a lot of hard work and thinking, even creativity. This further led to the conversation about how a typical day would be for her. We agreed that it was a lot of hard sowing growing and harvesting or even buying out wholesale at different markets and consolidating to make up the wide variety of product mix she offered. She would have to wake up quite early and by the time she reached home it would be late in the evening. But then the idyllic country life was any day more rewarding and healthy than the maddening city (which I didn’t quite agree as we were talking about Paris). Our debate had turned into a discussion and the discussion had finally yielded to a unanimous understanding that It is best to work for your own self and there is nothing like being your own boss. The grass being always greener on the other side notwithstanding. Make the debate a conversation.

 

It was evening time and the buildings around us had transformed into something magical in the soft and warm light of the setting sun. When you see all the carvings and beautiful architecture with statuettes of Cherubs adorning he corners of edifices it seems as if they were conjured up for this very moment. We had made some tea and we hanged on our balcony stretching out of the French Window admiring the lovely Paris evening. The pavement market had started to wrap up as it was going to be 5 o clock soon. France has socialist leanings and it is quite evident in the way they work. Though the work timings are strictly followed in most of the developed world especially in Europe the French have taken it to another level which is great because as Indians we are scoffed at for our 24×7 strife. We are the only ones who promise on a Friday evening to have all deliverables ready first thing Monday evening. The fact that Indians work on weekends and sleep only 4 hours on weekdays is now an accepted concept across the global business world. Anyways let’s move on…

 

I pointed out to Sunil how well organized were the stall owners, everything seemed to have a place and fitted into each other to get perfectly into the small truck. They also had separate cold compartment for meat and perishables. Our veggie seller had also finished Packing up and lighted up a cigarette as she leaned against the back of her truck. Once again Sunil commented about the glow of contentment and satisfaction on her face. I laughed at him saying you can cut the philosophical crap….it’s OK if you just want to look at her. I went inside the room to keep the cups and was arranging the workspace to finish off the job at hand. Just then Sunil called me out to the window. What we saw was surprising, interesting, saddening, laughable …..all at the same time !

 

A black Renault Fluence Concept had pulled up below our window and the enterprising veggie seller was talking to the fat middle aged lady occupant of the car. It looked like she was explaining something to her. Once the brief conversation was over she took out a bundle of currency and handed it over to woman. The women counted the money and gave back a 100 Euros which was clearly the ‘pay’ for all the enterprising, self-gratifying hard work we had been debating about.

 

We looked at each other and what best explained our smiles is a German term called Shadenfreude – the pleasure one feels by seeing others failure or misfortune.

In our case it possibly meant we were not the only ones!

शाश्वत के संदर्भ में…

एक रोज़

मुझे साफ साफ याद है

शाम थी, दूर का सफर था

और मै चाय के लिये

उतर गया था एक गांव के पास

एक बूढा किसान

पास के खेत में बैठा

ना जाने शितिज के पार

क्या देख रहा  था

उसके चेहरे पर कोई

भाव नहीं था और ना थे

उसके मन मे दुख सुख

लोभ,मोह,चिंता …….

कहने को तो उसके पास

कोई काम नहीं था

पर  वो इस तरह

अनंत को ताड रहा था

जैसे ये भी कोई काम हो

मेरी चाय खत्म हो गयी

और मैं  चलने लगा

तो हमारे नज़रें मिलीं

और वो मुस्कुरा दिया

जैसे कह रहा हो कि

वो वक़्त को बिता रहा था

जैसे वो चाहता था

और वक़्त मुझ पर बीत रहा था

जैसे वक़्त की मर्ज़ी थी

कर्म मे बंधन है

क्योंकि अच्छा हो या बुरा

कर्म अहं को आग देता है

वक़्त को जीत लिया था

उस बूढे सम्राट ने

जो अब घर जा रहा था कि

कल फिर नये उत्साह, नयी उमंग से

दिन भर  कुछ भी ना करे

बस घूरता  रहे  वक्त को

अनंत काल तक….

‍‍~ आहंग