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Smoke on the water, fire in the sky.

February 2021

As the local saying goes, ' pahaad ki paani aur pahaad ki jawaani ko bachaana hai..'.

The hills are without water, and there is nothing here for its youth. The delicate balance of rains, forests and farming has crumbled in the face of climate change and human greed.

Forest fires were a normal part of the dry summer season. they served to clear the undergrowth and return the nourishment to the earth, for new life to burst forth when it rained.

For some years now, the monsoon rains have been patchy, and the usual winter rains haven't come. The hills are dry in December and January. Forest fires, unheard of earlier in these months, are now common.

At night, from afar,  they are like necklaces slowly being drawn up from the valleys. As you get closer, they lick at the edges of the road you are on. In the day, even when you cannot see it, every breeze carries the acrid hint of something going wrong. 

Spring: Where does a circle begin?
April 2021

Holi, with our village shrine.

Living with nature sets a rhythm. Life doesn't rush down a straight line. It turn slowly, in a circle. The seasons are the drumbeats. The festivals follow, offering tribute.

The 'Indian New Year' is all very well, one day with so many regional names that we memorize meaninglessly in school. But amongst people in whom this rhythm of nature is in the blood, the year awakens slowly, not on one fine day. In these magic places, the year stirs, stretches languidly into flower, and comes to life in the dawn of color that is Basant. Spring. How, then, can this coming of life, this harvesting, this nesting, be celebrated  in one day? Oh no! Holi needs a week or two. Syalde Bikhuti - Baisakhi in Kumaon- spills  over into many days. 

 In these parts, everything is a circle, turning slowly. Events  and people are smudges, merging into this beat that they carry within themselves. And when the "nagara' - the traditional drum- is brought out, when the folks have carried their village emblems in procession into the town square, they instinctively fall into this circle. In the slow, primal shuffle-step of all communities that are bound to the Earth, this circle moves.

This is not just a celebration. It is a retelling of stories, a re-enactment of ancient wars and victories. But to me, it seems more than all this.

I am joined with them, an outsider now one of them. In Holi, with the circle of men at our hilltop shrine. In town, where this Syalde is the first gathering of all villages after a year of lockdown. At my friends' courtyard, where the  village women sway to plaintive songs.

To me, these people in this slow, solid circle of no beginning and no end, of mothers and daughters, brides and matrons, fathers and sons, are also calling out. Bear witness, O Mother Dunagiri, O Goddess Nanda Devi, O Father of  the dhuni fire, this is us. This is who we are. were, will be. The trumpets and the drums and the crackly loudspeakers proclaim both  obeisance and defiance to the heavens. Hear us, see us, they seem to say. You are great and powerful but, together, in this circle you have formed us into, we are no less.


On amrit and mrityu, and the river in between..

May 2021

This year, Hardwar and the Ganga have come to attention because of the Kumbh mela and its aftermath. I am not going to talk about the pandemic tragedy that is unfolding. Around that time, a beautiful word came to be mentioned a lot: अविरल (aviral).

I recoiled at the petty purpose for which this word was being used, but it set off this train of thought, starting with another beautiful word:

 शिपिविष्टः (Shipivishtah)

Sanskrit works well in such times. It takes one far away from the immediacy of the situation, and offers cryptic messages in which one may find some meaning. So, this word is derived thus:

शि: water, that is cool and rest-giving.

शिपि: the rays of the sun, that drink this water.

शिपिविष्टः The one who has entered these rays of the sun.


This leads to a verse in the Gita, which can be read like this:

‘I am the one who as the rays of the Sun, scorches the water. I am the one who holds back the waters, and again pours them as rain.’

The Sun drinks the waters of the ocean, and clouds sweep across the land, holding, carrying, pouring rain. They meet the mountains, and are cast down as snow and ice. The glaciers melt, and uncounted streams become rivers. These waters flow – continuous, uninterrupted - aviral, and pure – nirmal. With these qualities, they sustain life within themselves and in the teeming lands they flow through. They reach the ocean, and complete this cycle. I am in awe of those who sensed, so long ago, the connectedness and interdependence of everything, living and non-living, in Nature.


The verse continues: ‘I am amrit, the immortality of the gods. I am mrityu, the death of the mortals.’

Every twelve years, we congregate in Hardwar, chasing after the mythical amrit of a mythical kumbha. But it is we who have reduced these truly wondrous waters, this real amrit, to stagnant pools, and drains of sewage. Our rivers are poison, our oceans are garbage. Our thoughts are mean, our understanding is limited. Is this what we now mean by aviral and nirmal?

We chase amrit, but by our actions, we have chosen mrityu. 

The verse concludes: ‘O Arjuna, I am being, as well as nonbeing.

Its all the same to Him. The rest is up to us.

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