Thursday, June 24, 2010

A CANTERBURY TALE

Imagine waking up to a shaky morning… No, it isn’t your head that’s spinning. It’s your room, swaying under your feet ever so gently. You make your way past the bed and writing table to the white drapes covering the window and hold your breath… Your heart skips a beat and then… Ever so slowly, you let out a sigh. For drifting languorously by was a breathtaking vignette of beauty.

What was drifting was actually the barge I was in, making its way along the green waters of an ‘English’ channel that wound its way along the town of Canterbury. But on either side of the channel there stretched sloping fields of verdant green. A bay stallion circled its paddock and then reared up on its hind legs and neighed… Perhaps at the red mare and her colt next door or perhaps rain… I don’t know but what a picture it was! Further away, a boulevard of tall trees lined the banks and their branches met, forming an arched canopy over our heads. Beyond the trees ran little gravel paths that led to beautiful little houses. And to think that people lived here and woke up to this gorgeous view of the world made me go a little green. Must have been the water, I told myself as the channel got a little narrower… Here, the houses made of wood, brick and stone, sprang right out of the river, on either side. And thus began my education on England beyond London.

Ashford, a quiet little town and an hour’s drive from London, is where it all began. Ashford, explained my brother-in-law is what you would call a commuter town – a residential zone where people like him and my sister, professionals, who are starting out with jobs in London but aren’t keen on riding the steep rent spirals spinning out of the Thames for now, stay. They’ve been living here for a while now and since all my trips to ol’ blighty had been short stopovers in London, they insisted that we’d never really see the real England and that this trip, they would introduce us to the soul of Britain. And it would begin with a pilgrimage to the seat of English faith: the fortified town of the men of Kent called Cantwaraburh, or what has come to be known as Canterbury.

A canal tour on an open boat or a barge is a wonderful way to see this ancient English town that at one point in history was more a Roman town than an English one. All around town you see Ochre arches with tuft s of grass peeping out of the crown of the arch... Silent reminders of England’s pre-anglo-saxon heritage Round a bend in the canal, our boat went under a bridge that was brimming with tourists stretching and straining to try and capture a white house on the water with red roses on the sills and green-grey panels and a little board that said, “The Old Weaver’s House AD 1500”. “It’s the most photographed house in town,” said the boatman. “It was a sanctuary for Protestant weavers seeking to escape persecution from all over Europe at the time.”

The sun grew stronger as the day grew longer and the boat dropped anchor at The Weaver’s... We got out and on to the street. It was Friday and there was a steady throng of tourists and travellers. Incidentally, tourists are not new to Canterbury. This town’s streets have been laid far more oft en than most others, for pilgrims have been flocking here for a 1000 odd years or more.

For centuries, Christians and adventurers have been drawn, like waves to the shore, to one of the greatest monuments dedicated to the Christian spirit in all christendom - the Canterbury Cathedral. In fact, my first introduction to Canterbury was in a dog-eared book I bought for my graduation in literature from a second hand book store. It was The Canterbury Tales by that ‘other father’ of English literature - Geoffery Chaucer. I found the language a little cumbersome and was glad it finished sooner than it had threatened to, but today, I kinda missed that book. I vaguely remembered it as tales exchanged between pilgrims on their way to the Cathedral.

To be walking in the footsteps of pilgrims who once walked these very streets, perhaps the very same cobbled stones that I now walk on, left me humbled. While I’d fl own, driven and drift ed here by plane, car and boat, pilgrims in those days would walk all the way from London, oft en in bare feet. Their feet would be ripped to ribbons on the sharp rocks and stone paths and yet they would plod on through the mud and the pain, always reminding themselves that their pain doesn’t compare with the suffering and sacrifice that was endured by two men whose images still adorn the walls of this Cathedral. The first is the ‘Son of God’ and the other a bishop, an archbishop actually… Archbishop Samuel Becket.

So while we wait at a tavern to rest our weary feet, let me tell you the story of the man whose sacrifice truly made this town what it is... A place of pilgrimage for the faithful and a place worth visiting for the not so faithful. Samuel Becket was a Chancelor - a high official of the king. He had been a great soldier, of proven valour and victories. Both erudite and elegant, he had a taste for the finer things in life. He soon became a favourite of King Henry II. Though both were men of opinions, they respected and liked each other. At the time Archbishop Theobald was at the head of the Church of England and was a mighty power, one that rivaled and threatened the King’s. So in 1162, when Theobald died, King Henry thought it might be a good idea to have his own man in the church and decided to appoint Thomas as the new Archbishop.

But now that he was Archbishop Thomas, he was a man of God before he being the King’s man, and whenever the King and Church collided, instead of siding with Henry as the King had hoped, Becket stood undaunted in support of the Church. He gave up his riches and became a monk dedicated to serving the poor. Arguments between the two friends reached a point where an exasperated Henry asked if anyone could rid him of Becket. Four of Henry’s knights and their men rode to Canterbury and demanded that he do as the King bid. But Becket refused, as he knelt at the altar in prayer, saying he’d happily die for Jesus than let the Church bow before a monarch. Infuriated, the knights hacked him down with their swords, one blow splitting his head open spilling his brains onto the floor. As I stood in the cold solitude of the Cathedral, under the shadow of the swords that point to the spot where Becket lay in his own blood, I began to understand that more than the power of the Popes and their crusades, and so much more than Christmas and Easter, it is this fearless and forgiving embrace with which Jesus, and his saints like Becket, welcomed death at the hands of their oppressors that made Christianity such a noble and powerful philosophy.

If you are distracted by similarities between Becket’s story and the Amitabh Bachchan- Rajesh Khanna classic “Namak Haram”, don’t be, for that isn’t the point. All that matters in this Canterbury Tale is that there is great power in belief, one that resonates through time and space. Christian or not, may we too find the calm courage of a saintly spirit… Amen!

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

A CALL OF NATURE

So where did we drop off last week? Ah, the business end of the call of nature. And as far as calls of nature go, this one’s far messier and a trifle poignant, an emotion you’d struggle to associate with the popular euphemism. Unless of course, someone happened to have swallowed one’s wedding solitaire at dinner the previous night. We were talking about the call of the hunt…

Last week’s farm-stay with Keith and Carolyn, as sweet and hospitable a couple as you could ever hope to meet, dug up an old debate in my mind – the ethics of a good hunt. Dear reader, if by some unfortunate circumstance, you happen to have read some of the pieces that appeared previously on this page, you might be aware of my crusade for vegetarianism, both with the world at large and my own flesh-starved (pun unintended) soul. And while I believe that being vegetarian is an ethical idea to aspire for in our spoilt-for-choice world of today, I would be so na├»ve as to deny the debt we owe to our hunter gatherer ancestors whose hunting abilities lay the foundation of our various physical abilities… Like binocular vision for instance, just as good for cruising at a 100kmph today as it was for judging how hard to throw a spear at our prey thousands of years ago. Or our large brains that found space to grow once we stopped needing the big strong jaw muscles for chewing stringy plant matter like gorillas and our vegetarian ancestors… So we undeniably owe the shape of our selves and our civilisation to our hunter-ancestors.

So the fact that hunting was imperative for an evolutionary paradigm shift is undeniable. And for the sake of argument, let’s not bring in the ethics of vegetarianism and restrict the debate to the justification of killing an animal for the sake of tradition, sport or pleasure. Which means the debate, for the moment, exonerates those who live in inhospitable climes and depend on hunting, even today, for fulfilling their need for protein...

But in the rest of the world, with freezers and stores brimming with everything from the ubiquitous chicken’s legs to the exotic kangaroo’s testicles, for the majority of us, there’s no real pressing need to go hunting. And yet every autumn Keith and his kind huff and puff their way in their bright red hunting jackets and give chase to the fox. Closer home, around the same time, Vishal, a friend and a former colleague who claims to stand at shaky end of a dead branch of royalty, rushes back to estate in south-eastern Rajasthan where he joins his cousins. Together they oil their rusty old jeep, the crusty Winchester rifles and their trusty old and blind local administration before setting off into the fields and forests in search of wild pigs and partridges. Now these are good gentle folk who love dogs and horses and can appreciate nature, and yet they find joy in killing... I can’t fathom it.

These are not people who are easy to hate... These are not seedy poachers who kill for greed, nor desperate men who kill to feed the fire in their stomachs, for if they don’t, it’ll consume them instead. No, these are people who kill for pride, as if honouring a rite of passage that proclaims their courage to the world and reaffirms their belief in their own powers. Perhaps that is why even kings seemed to bury their insecurities in the thrill of a hunt

If you ask them why, they’ll say “oh, we have too many foxes, too many pigs, too many deer and we only help control numbers and help the farmer by hunting”. Truth is, hunting with a gun always destroys too little or too much and always affects the balance of nature. The only way to hunt naturally is hunt the way cavemen did: by giving chase. That’s the only way to weed out the weak the way nature kills. Trophy hunting or hunting for the pot brings down the biggest, the healthiest and the best... The very animal that nature would seek to protect. At this point I’m reminded of my childhood… I was always kind to every animal but because I was told that it’s ok to kill cockroaches, I seemed to enjoy killing the hapless insects. Now it seems to me that there was this Hyde inside me even as a child and my parents’ sanction with respect to cockroaches brought him out in a manner that still horrifies me. Perhaps it is that same Hyde that emerges out of normal and kind human beings during a riot or raids in the old days where it was okay to loot homes, kill the weak and rape their women because someone said that they deserved it… As if we needn’t feel guilty about our lustful crimes even though we might know them to be crimes just as long as someone else takes the moral responsibility of saying “It’s ok”.

Perhaps it is Hyde, perhaps it’s a misplaced sense of justice, but more than that, I know it is joy... Perhaps you know these people who go hunting... Perhaps you are one such. And I know that you have your Hyde under control, that you are kind and good and yet you love to hunt... And I think I get it now... You hunt for the sheer joy of it. Not the joy of spilling blood, but the joy of being in the lap of nature, stalking, chasing and matching wit and might against the elements. It is that which gives you the greatest joy. Perhaps that is why hobby-hunters are amongst the most avid conservationists in history.

As a hunter who knows his history, you will remind us that India owes its last lions to Lord Curzon who, while on a lion-hunt, urged the Nawab of Junagadh to protect the remaining lions. And nor can we forget that two of our national parks owe their existence to two ace hunters - Jim Corbett for the Jim Corbett National Park and Billy Arjan Singh for Dudhwa National Park. Having said that, you don’t really need to run the gauntlet of the law or your conscience every time you want to match wits and might in the lap of nature for the sheer joy of it. Just exchange your gun for a camera. A good wildlife photograph is not only far more beautiful and ‘alive’ but requires far greater skill and courage. Just walk into a forest with a camera in your hand instead of a gun and try creeping close to a herd of elephants breaking branches with a snap… Your heart will beat faster than it ever has and you’ll know you’re more alive than you’d ever been before. Hunting pictures give greater joy than hunting an animal ever could. I say it. The great Corbett said it, but this autumn, Keith, Vishal and all the others… Don’t take our word for it. Just drop the gun, pick up a camera and give that kind little heart of yours a chance to truly beat…

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

THE HUNTING PARTY

It’s autumn and you can tell from the trees in the Dale. They stand at the foot of the green hills like a tall forest of willowy women standing and talking in whispers of the wind, dressed in leafy gowns of different hues, from a fading green to a yellow bold, from a brown so deep to a cluster dipped and dyed in the finest wine. A scattered herd of sheep and a mottled cow graze the pasture, in gentle peace, unmindful of the travails to come, while a brook gurgles by a tree standing alone from the others, at the foot of which I sit sharing the shade with a pair of long-tailed squirrels looking for hidden treasures to hoard for the winter. Far away from the smoke clouds of London, on this grassy meadow in the country, I finally begin to understand Wordsworth and his muse.

Across the gravel path, I could see shadows against the steamed up kitchen window… Must be Carolyn, our lady of the land, fixing up something just as English as it is delicious (a rare and difficult culinary feat) for brunch. I dusted the dry leaves off my khakis and stood up. And then I heard it… A long lonely howl from far beyond the trees... It filled the heart with a strange sadness in the light of the day… The sun had retired behind the clouds and a light drizzle began to settle on the village. I began to walk toward the farm gate and there it was again… That long lonely haunting howl. The rain was falling harder now… I hurried towards the gate and latched it after entering… I looked at the yellow fields, the emerald green brown and gold of the forest and rolling hills and above them the dark clouds rolling across the inky blue sky and the sheep and cow, now staring into the woods, waiting, like I was, for that lonely howl… In the falling rain it was a beautiful picture still…

I must have been a little lost because I did not hear the car behind me… Carolyn was smiling at me. I opened the gate for her and she waved and drove past. The horse trailer was hitched to her bright red Saab and I could see her thoroughbred Don Juan’s massive head peering back at me through the trailer window as she drove away past the bend. I wondered where she was going… And what about lunch? I jog-shuffled to the house door past the stables… Even in the rain the earthy and sour smell of horse dung was strong. It was a steady downpour now and I ran the last few yards to the door, rubbed the shoes clean at the door and entered the 400-year-old manor house and headed straight for the warmth of the kitchen. It was rather crowded. There was Bertie the cat, curled up by the fi replace and the dogs, Harry and Humphry, stretched out at either end of the dining table… “Ready for lunch, are ya?” bellowed Keith as he looked up from his chopping board. He had a glint in his eye. “Carolyn had to leave. She forgot to tell you I’ll be preparing lunch… You better pretend to like it,” he chuckled. I smiled. Keith was a big bear of a man, with a ready wit and smile. “Keith, what’s that howl,” I asked. The bacon sizzled in the pan and Keith was quiet for a while… I asked him about the howl again and this time he turned towards me and said, “It has begun.”

The ‘it’ that had begun was an ancient English tradition… One that celebrated death, just as much as it did the spirited joy of being truly alive. The inglorious or just glorious tradition of fox hunting. Keith and Carolyn, it turns out, have been hunting the red fox for a quarter of a century now. And so I began to notice the old oils in the hallway. I could hear the paintings now… The hatted hunters urging their steeds over hedges and ditches in their red jackets and bright brass buttons, the baying pack of hounds and the silent fear of the fox in flight. And now I noticed the silverware on the mantle, glories won by man and wife in the field of hunt. “Carolyn’s gone to join a hunt and that sound you heard was the howl of the lead hound…
They’ve found the fox’s trail.”

The words seemed to stir an old longing in the man. “I don’t hunt anymore…” he said, perhaps what he meant to say he can’t anymore, but I couldn’t ask why… “But there was a time I could and I was good,” he drift ed back to another time as he spoke, more to himself than to me, of the smells of the forest and charging horses, the hot-blood in their thick veins, pulsing and pushing against the rider as his own blood rising and rushing in the heat of the chase. And then he spoke of the traditions after the hunt, so deep and old, the whys forgotten and yet a joy to behold. And what of the hunt itself, the fox that the dogs rend, the killing and the bloody end? Well, it just seems to happen as an aside…

Amiable ol’ Keith was now a fireball of passionate storytelling, recounting tales from hunts gone by… Of horses shot and foxes lost… The love of the chase no matter the cost.

At this point the lay reader must know that fox hunting has been as contentious an issue in most countries that allow hunting as job reservations have been, back home in India. And though hunting is a punishable offense in our country, on two separate occasions, for different reasons, there have been calls from people in government to allow the hunting of the extremely endangered Tibetan antelope on one hand and the far too numerous Nilgai on the other. And these situations definitely beg the question, “What, if any, are the circumstances that justify hunting?” If you ask Keith, who glories in everything about the hunt save the killing itself… “The fox when cornered is killed by a single bite, or a single bullet; it does not suffer. If even for a moment I were to believe that the fox suffers in the course of the hunt, I wouldn’t do it. The farmer needs the fox removed, for it takes his poultry. And is it not better to kill in the manner nature intended, hunting and weeding out the weak and old, rather than to trap or poison the young and the bold?”

I knew it to be empty logic, for never have such hunts controlled numbers and I oft en agreed with Oscar Wilde when he said of the fox hunt that it was ‘the uneatable’ being hunted by ‘the unspeakable’. But I didn’t tell him that… He was still making me lunch.

A conscience beating upon tradition, like waves upon an ancient cliff … Will carry the discussion forward, but after lunch… Will keep you posted.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

HANDS THAT HEAL

I was surprised by my own reaction when I said ‘no’. Usually, and as regular readers would testify, I’m a great believer in the energy arts. So when a friend of mine at work suggested we go and sign up for a Pranic Healing programme, I surprised myself just as much as I surprised her when I refused. Now, you must realise that I’m quite an adept at making a conversation piece out of my interests, feigned and real, in the martial and healing arts, so it was quite a shock for this friend of mine and so she asked, “ But why…? You’ve always been such a believer. You’re always pushing us for yoga or tai chi and stuff … so why not Pranic Healing?”

So I told her, “I’m not so sure if this whole Pranic Healing business works. I mean the great Master Choa Kok Sui who created or at least organised the healing system as it now stands himself died rather young – in his 50s, and of pneumonia. Now what good is a healing system that claims to heal both emotional and physical problems, and yet, the one who created it couldn’t heal himself, or be healed by those around him?” She had a frown. She had made up her mind but now she’d come up against a wall she hadn’t expected. I softened. “I don’t know much about this system though I’ve heard of miraculous healing experiences… of people being brought back from their death-beds, surviving cancers that defeated the best of allopathic doctors. So obviously, the system isn’t without merit. So don’t stop yourself… go ahead and experience it. Maybe you’ll make a believer out of me.” She smiled and seemed relieved. Next day she signed up for the workshop.

Meanwhile, I dug out an old article I’d come across in a martial arts magazine. The author, a healer and martial artist suggested that Pranic Healing could reduce both recovery-time for martial artistes and also reduce injuries. I was intrigued. I did some more research and discovered a few more interesting claims and accounts. Some ‘healers’ claimed that they had healed people of chronic ailments and numerous accounts of people with backaches and head-aches claiming immediate relief when ‘healed’. Pranic healing was now on my ‘things to look up in the future’ list.

Later, I met a Pranic healer, through a friend of mine. At the meeting, the healer ‘scanned my aura’. It’s a rather unnerving experience, dear readers, for here was this lady, with her eyes closed in concentration, moving her hands towards my body as one might to push a flower floating in the water towards you. Then she opened her eyes and said that one of my ‘lower chakras’, vortexes of energy

that control the ebb and flow of prana in the body was rather large… I didn’t know what to make of it and she seemed to ponder over the matter and decided not to elaborate unless I asked. I was feeling rather vulnerable… I didn’t ask… but the thought stayed with me. I wanted to know more about this healing system that claimed to feel and heal the emotional and physical well-being of a person by just ‘scanning the aura’ and then transmitting energy through the hands. This was almost magical. All these stories reminded me of the spontaneous miracles performed by the heroes of the Bible and Christ himself, where wounds and sores would disappear with the mere wave of a hand or a pointed finger.

So this time when my friend went for her three-day course, I requested her to seek an appointment on my behalf. And on the third day, I went for an appointment with Abe, the Pranic healer conducting the workshop. I had two questions. First, I wanted to know if there were any tangible accounts of people actually recovering from diseases as lethal as cancer and sclerosis, instead of the mere aches and pains that make up most of the popular cases. Abe smiled a sad smile. She has done her share of healing but told me about this young lady, who had cancer and who she tried to ‘heal’ to the best of her abilities but lost. And yet, this girl went through her chemotherapy and her terminal illness without any of the usual signs of suffering and depression that accompany this dreaded illness. No small victory if you ask me. But Abe also told me about her fellow healer who has been working with another cancer patient who was given just three years to live by his doctors and yet it’s been nine years since and that man is still living a normal life today. So at best, it’ll heal miraculously and at the very least, it’ll make life bearable, perhaps even enjoyable, even in the worst of times.

And what of the master’s early demise? Well, there’s no easy answer, she said. It’s true that Master Choa Kok Sui was working with divine energy and too much of it can damage the body. And yes, he worked tirelessly to spread the healing power and neglected his own body. And who is to say if his passing isn’t “part of a divine plan that’ll help him spread the light” to the furthest corners. Hmmm… Well I don’t have all the answers either but what I can tell you is that when I met my workaholic of a friend after her workshop, she had this glazed look that seemed to radiate peace and happiness. Now if you knew her, you’d have known that this was one small change in expression, but one giant leap for her “beautiful soul”. I’m signing up…


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