Sunday, November 25, 2007

In the right spirit

Sometimes I really struggle with these weekly columns. You know, do I write about this, or should it be about that? These struggles I hoped would cease when I came across a rather well known Latin American poet’s thoughts who said “write as though it were your last day on earth and all would be clear”. Well, the sheet’s still clear, but a chance meeting left me thinking that there would perhaps never be a last day on earth for me – or for you! Old hat you say? Well, I don’t know… let me tell you what this interesting lady, I met at a friend’s place, had to say about her experiences and then you and I’ll go about making up our minds together. Now don’t laugh, but this woman I met volunteers, so to speak, as a medium at séances. And she isn’t a lonely loony widow but an attractive woman in her 20s with a blossoming corporate career. NN was your everyday teenaged girl who rebels against parents, parties with friends, swoons at the movies and spoils her dog silly. And it is that dog that wags this tale. NN was besotted with her Yorkshire terrier Murphy, and treated him like a dear friend, her confidant, her child. But dogs being dogs, tend to curl up and die sooner than we’d expect and so was the case with poor Murphy. NN was inconsolable. She cried, she pined and she questioned; questioned her family, her friends, her beliefs and her god, until one day she met a lady, a friend of her mother’s who told her she could make her talk to Murphy. This clairvoyant aunt of hers acted as a medium between her and her dog and revealed to NN secrets that were known only to NN and her dog. “No matter how improbable, once faced with such a situation, it sure makes for compelling evidence, don’t you think?” she asked wide eyed.

I don’t think I would’ve had the heart to disagree even if I felt otherwise, but going by what she said, I could see no avenue for disagreement. But a greater revelation awaited her. NN underwent a hypnotic trance that took her back to her days with Murphy, to her childhood and then, in a vision, she saw a grey-bearded man, walking through a field toward a great banyan tree. Around the tree there sat a group of men and women. They were chanting and the bearded man joined them. This man looked familiar, very familiar… where had she seen this man before, and then she knew it – she was this man. NN believes this was a vision from a past life. That moment, she believes transformed her. She lost her fear of death and more significantly, she lost her fear of losing those she loves because she believes she saw in that vision the very people she is close to in this life and that no matter as what or where, we are always likely, in every life, to be close to those we love - and you thought it happened only in the movies Compelling? Debatable! Interesting? Undoubtedly! The friend I had gone to meet was still mourning the loss of his mother. I had picked up a set of books by a psychiatrist called Dr. Brian Weiss (see pic) for him. Brian Weiss’ first book ‘Many Lives Many Masters’ is about one of his patients who stumbled upon her past life during a hypnotic session and the many journeys they take into past lives together. I have found that his books are a wonderful healing agent for those who have lost someone they love because unlike everything else around us, his books reiterate the permanence of life and love.

Following my meeting with NN I sought out other individuals who had dabbled in past life regression. Some had attended workshops and still couldn’t believe what they had experienced while others were reluctant and refused to share their experiences because they suspected they would be mocked. So where do we stand on the issue, dear reader? I for one, remain an interested sceptic. I really want to believe it all, but not until I’ve experienced and understood it all for myself. But it definitely is a course worth chasing for in it could lie the answers to all the mysteries that shroud our understanding of ourselves, our lives and death. I am ‘dying’ to find out, aren’t you?

The slip stream

The Immortal Cycle

The concept of reincarnation is very strong in the Hindu religion. Thousands of years old Upanishads, the guiding force of Hinduism, make powerful arguments in favour of reincarnation. It’s believed that body is nothing but a vessel for the soul, which is immortal. The cycle of death and rebirth goes on indefinitely until the soul itself becomes dissatisfied and hungers for Moksha–where it attains spiritual enlightenment, thus ending the cycle of death and rebirth. However, the concept (of reincarnation) isn’t restricted to Hinduism alone. Throughout history there have been numerous recorded instances of people claiming to be reincarnated. People suddenly remembering, or claiming to remember their previous lives with accurate and verifiable details–such accounts are dime a dozen with Dr Ian Stevenson, a psychiatry researcher who’s dedicated 40 years to study this phenomenon. He claims to have over 3,000 similar cases with him, involving mostly children, where the only plausible explanation has to be reincarnation. With religion and science, both coming out in support for this ideology, maybe it deserves a closer look.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Monkeys, babies, rabies, et al

Dusk was approaching a lonely outpost on the outskirts of Delhi. The wide, well lit double carriageway had narrowed into a broken, unmarked road. Temples, schools and markets had given way to thorn-scrub on both sides before the road turned left to reveal a shanty hamlet that was now in the eye of a raging storm. This was Sanjay Camp, Bhati Mines – yet another battle-zone in a strange new turf war that has gripped the city of Delhi.

As the car rocked and rolled over ruts and road, the usual vignettes of India’s squalor waved past – a mangy dog and scrawny chickens; fetid ditches and broken walls; thin, bent women, their hard life etched on their faces, running after happy, hungry children - a slum like any other. However, at the break of dawn, fear grips Sanjay Camp. The children are scared to walk alone, the men huddle in corners over decks of cards, trying to bury their fears and frustrations in the game at hand, women hurry on the streets, hoping to get indoors before they are assaulted, while traders arm themselves with sticks and catapults, in a desperate bid to defend their homes, their families, their livelihoods and their person from the marauding bands that have terrorised this forgotten settlement of two-thousand odd families for the last 8 months. For now though, late in the evening, a sense of uneasy calm hangs over the slum as we drive past it to the great green gates that separate the dark and dreaded forests of Bhati Mines, the source of all their fear, from the hamlet. On top of the gates and the high boundary walls, in the gathering gloom, I could see scores of silhouetted forms, the villains of the piece – a rag tag bunch of starving monkeys.

Monkeys, more specifically Rhesus Macaques, aren’t easy to live with. They are wily bandits, opportunistic bullies who, when driven by hunger, wouldn’t run shy of raiding your kitchen, or snatching your lunch from under your very nose. Unpredictable and aggressive, they are known to bite, often without provocation. They carry zoonotic diseases so terrible - like rabies and herpes B- that such a bite could kill, and when not busy stealing or biting, they seem to enjoy demolishing car mirrors and cables. So here we are, stuck with a revered and protected religious icon that scratches and bites, robs and wrecks and makes babies faster than the Chinese can make brassieres. (In fact, macaque populations in some urban centres grow at the rate of 10% every year while by comparison, India’s fairly prolific human population grows at a measly 2% percent or so).

But why blame the little devils. The Indian government was once the largest exporter of Rhesus macaques for medical research and whole troops of macaques were callously trapped in India’s forests and then shipped to laboratories around the world. There they were exposed to atomic radiation, pitilessly cut open without anesthesia, shot, burnt and drowned alive for the sake of research. Stragglers from these troops became outcasts and drifted into the cities. As forests were cleared, more homeless monkeys entered the cities. Today, a city like Delhi has about 6000 of them. Since March this year, nearly 2000 of these simian refugees have been trapped and bundled off to Bhati mines, a poor habitat which offers little forage, thus pushing the brown buggers to thuggery. Under these depressing circumstances, where designated sanctuaries are ill prepared to hold or sustain a burgeoning primate population, there’s still light at the end of the tunnel and it’s from a Chinese lantern. You see, Hong Kong had a similar problem with monkeys, and instead of culling them, they started what was perhaps the world’s first monkey sterilisation programme. Himachal Pradesh followed suit with some success and it might solve Delhi’s problem too, at least for a while.

But sterilisation and culling are merely symptomatic measures. Forgive me for screaming from the pulpit, but the way I see it, every time we exploit nature – whether it is the nature of water, the nature of an animal or good old human nature – in a manner that is cold, callous and cruel, we trigger off a domino effect - like the hurricane in New Orleans, like the ‘monkey menace’ in New Delhi and like we did on ‘9/11’ in New York - that brings the chickens back to roost.

The slip stream

When monkeys attack!

The Deputy Mayor of Delhi, S.S. Bajwa, tumbled to his death last month while trying to chase away a troop of monkeys. Like most animals, monkeys too avoid coming into conflict with human beings but when the two primates are thrown into the close confines of urban living, something’s gotta give. Here are a few do’s and don’ts which might help with the primate protocol between cousins - A universal rule applicable with all animals and especially monkeys is to avoid eye contact. This might be taken as a threat, provoking an attack. Abstain from feeding the animal as this act of generosity would condition the monkeys to associate people with food and might prompt an attack when refused. If you feel threatened, pretend to pick up a stone to scare the monkey away and if it still charges, don’t let the animal get a grip on you because unlike dogs, it can only bite what it can hold. Monkeys are bullies and the sight of children emboldens the naughty ones, so protect your children in their presence. Treat them with respect but not with fear, and you should get by just fine…


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Miracle on whatever street

The Dutch often claim that God lies in the details. Well, no one can accuse an Indian of looking for Him there so I’ll spare you the same, but honestly, if you’re ever in need of a dash of divinity, look up the details about the man in my story and go pay him a visit. You won’t be disappointed. I had seen his pictures and read his books, but he seemed different when I met him in the flesh. He seemed to have been hewn out of the rugged rocks of Vetal hill, now casting its lengthening shadow over the city of Pune. It was late afternoon, and since I seemed to have disrupted the man’s siesta, I sat across him with some trepidation. He wasn’t a big man, but his diminutive 90-year old frame seemed hard pressed to contain the colossus that breathed within; his voice rumbled deep inside him and hit me with the heat and force of a freshly ejected cannon ball. I’d been warned that he did not suffer fools – especially fools with press cards – gladly.

And why was I here? Well dear reader, like any self respecting gadfly with a pen, I was out risking life and limb to bring you the truth – the truth about miracles. And since yoga boasts of more miracles per century than any other art or science, I thought of meeting the man who the BBC described as the Michelangelo of yoga – Shri B.K.S. Iyengar. In the beginning, I was a little disappointed. When I asked the great yogi if he had acquired any siddhis, he responded with what a rather egotistic rant, “I have conquered the world”, he boomed, as the windows rattled “…but do you know how I was as a child?” he asked with a boyish smile that made his bushy eyebrows dance. I was beginning to like the man… “I was sickly and weak, I had tuberculosis and couldn’t attend school... the doctors said I didn’t have long to live…” and it was then that yoga found him and breathed health and strength into his dying body. Thus resuscitated, Iyengar surrendered himself to yoga and was perhaps singlehandedly responsible for the yoga revolution that is sweeping the world today. “From a dying child, I became a man who taught yoga to the world, isn’t that a miracle?” he asked. Yes, yes I wasn’t convinced either, and ‘Guruji’, as his disciples call him, must’ve noted my disappointment.
While the interview was in progress, he called out to young lady who walked past us. “You wanted a miracle? Well, here is one. Nivedita, tell them your story” Nivedita, a little bashful to begin with, began her story “I was bed-ridden for 15-years of my life. The doctors couldn’t tell me what was wrong with me, the tests couldn’t… I was told I’ll never walk again. My life was as good as over, until I met Guruji. After one look, he prescribed a set of asanas and soon enough I was able to sit, walk and run on my own. Today I’m in the best of health, and teaching yoga – a life that my doctors and I believed was impossible for me.” Just then, a blonde woman walked in to ask ‘Guruji’ something about a class that was in progress at the time.

“Ah, here’s another ‘miracle’!” exclaimed Guruji. “ Shai, tell them your story.” Sure enough, Shai, from Israel, revealed how she had an obstinate brain tumour that simply refused to respond to medication or surgery and how her life had become intolerable with constant nausea and headaches but once she started yoga with Iyengar, the pain and the nausea went away, she stopped taking her medication and even her doctors say that she should “keep doing yoga because nothing seems to work the way this does.” And so it went on… there was Raya, a reformed Indian delinquent, there was the charming Danish breast cancer patient, Ingellsen, an ever so sweet woman in her 60s who said “I’ve surrendered myself to Guruji, I owe my life to him… there is something divine about him.”

B.K.S. Iyengar may not have resurrected the dead (yet!), but he sure comes close. As I walked away, I was filled with a deep sense of regret, for not too long ago I had lost a relative who might have lived a longer, fuller life if I had had the sense to bring him here. If you share your life with a Nivedita or a Raya, go to that miracle worker on Hare Krishna Mandir street, because for you or yours, God might actually lie in that detail.

Heal the world

It’s been long overdue but the world is finally waking up to the health benefits of Yoga. This 5,000 year old spiritual practice continues to find new believers and converts, in search of inner enlightenment or a good old fashioned workout. Indian Yogis had forever been a source of wonderment and awe among the ‘cultured’ westerners, with their impossible feats of endurance and famed longevity. Nobody was sure how they did it till very recently, although yoga obviously had something to do with it. Now researchers from all over the world have started to find that a steady and diligent practice of various forms of Yoga–Iyengar, Ashtanga, Raja etc–has the ability to treat or lessen the symptoms of various ailments. Hypertension, asthma, cardiovascular ailments and even OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) are–just to name a few–diseases which have been successfully treated with Yoga. Not to mention the happy side-effects, improved flexibility, glowing skin, a well toned body and a peaceful demeanour. With so much going for Yoga, is it any wonder that this ancient practice continues to evolve?


Sunday, November 4, 2007

Surviving Education

“He has to go! He is extremely indisciplined and an absolute failure! There is no place in our school for such students!!” I stood there feeling a little awkward but don’t remember feeling terribly ashamed. My parents had been pleading with Father P, the principal, but all to no avail. Finally, he insisted that we leave his office. As I walked out of those hallowed gates for the last time as a much maligned nine year old, my parents were inconsolable. Hitherto, they had taken a lot of pride in the fact that they had managed to send me to one of the country’s most respected schools, but now, here I was, expelled even before I could learn to spell the word.

Now, think about it! I hadn’t killed a fellow student over lunch money, nor had I been an instrument of moral capitulation for any of my teachers (as far as I know or can remember), and yet, the headmaster was calling me a failure and my parents were ashamed of their only son, simply because I found science and math too boring to pass. Let me remind you that I was in the fifth grade at the time.

Was I a very bad student? Honestly, I don’t think so. Other than obstinately holding on to the notion that every number had to be an ‘odd number’ all through my early years, I was a surprisingly pliant child. I was good at languages and history and too shy to be naughty. But sadly, I was being ground between millstones that demanded conformity and industry, a system that condemned an obvious weakness far more than it praised an obvious strength. All I was told was that I was bad at this and bad at that. My parents, with their misplaced sense of reverse motivation repeated the same patter, thus driving home the point that within the walls of ‘school’, I really was good for nothing. And since no human being, child or adult, particularly likes feeling like he is good for nothing, I would cycle to school, contemplating the prospect of another dreary day, and on occasions end up in a garden instead where I would spend a happy day with Alexandre Dumas or Conan Doyle… That was of course until the bubble burst and I and my parents made an ignominious exit from school one.

I went to a new school, made new friends and was lucky enough to make new friends who helped me discover that I wasn’t all bad. I still was embarrassingly inept at math (my scores all through rarely crossed the 50% mark, and consistently hovered around 20% or less) but it really did not matter because I wanted to work with what I enjoyed, the humanities, and as long as I did better than most at them, I was happy. I know what you are thinking. Did I make it to an IIT or an IIM? No I did not. But one of my friends made it to IIT and the other went to Delhi School of Engineering and then to Wharton and while their cars and bank balances might be marginally bigger, I suspect I’m having a little more fun.

This just isn’t my story. This perhaps also is your story, or your child’s perhaps…. And I’m putting it down for you because I really believe that while most of our schools might forever remain institutions where we are sent more to be judged than to learn, let us as individuals retain a balanced perspective about a school report card. Every child is good at something because of a certain genetic or cultural orientation, and perhaps because of the very orientation, is also disinterested in certain other things. Academic excellence is usually proof of discipline and industry, not potential and as long as that potential is encouraged, one will emerge a happy and a successful human being, neither of which can be measured in ‘degrees’.

The slip stream

‘Great’ Failures?

The carefully regimented lifestyle that schools claim to foster often ends up constricting the creativity and enterprise of students. Those who conform are held up as paragons of virtue, to be emulated and followed, whereas those who choose to differ are often derided and humiliated. Most often, schools fall into the trap of having a ‘tunnel vision’ towards the achievement of good grades by their students, of getting the highest passing percentage and grooming the kid who would top All India rankings. Rather than realising that a student who tops in every subject perhaps needs more direction than one who knows his strengths and weaknesses and concentrates on the former. Great personalities and free minds over the ages have often rebelled against this system of ‘rote learning’; prominent ones include Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. Churchill who was rebellious and a non-conformist did poorly at school and often got unduly punished. Einstein on the other hand found the careful regimentation too stifling for his creativity. These once-upon-a-time school ‘failures’ ironically enough went on to rewrite school books, which students continue to memorise, unfortunately, still by rote.