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let’s go hunting for poetry again

March 19, 2014

‘let us go hunting for poetry in the woods, shall we?’

‘but why?’

‘because that is where poetry hides?’

‘no, poetry doesn’t hide, she’s not to be hunted either, we can find her right here, in the sounds, the smells and the riot of colours, or the cracks on this glass window blurring our view of worlds on the other side, thirsty worlds awaiting the first scent of rain, or in the wail of the ambulance that rushes past us, lest life succumb to that temptress death again.’

‘but we must find it and kill it and eat it. i’m hungry.’

‘you hunger for poetry, you say. and you would hunt for it, and kill it and eat it? it doesn’t work that way.’

‘how does it work then?’

‘you don’t hunt for poetry, you grow it, you sow a seed, till the earth, water it gently, and you wait, patiently. although you could go to the woods i suppose, but there are no woods to make poetry any more. and, anyway, haven’t we written enough about the woods and bubbling brooks already?”

‘i haven’t.’

‘hmm, you could buy some poetry you know.”

‘buy it? who sells poetry?’

‘i know someone, she just sold a poem, though i do not know what she charges for them.’

‘but i don’t have any money to buy a poem..’

‘let’s hope you can bargain your soul for a poem then’

‘my soul for a poem?’

‘great deal, no?’

‘no thank you, i’ll keep my soul, and hunger for poetry forever if i have to, than sell my soul to buy it..’

‘hey look out! open fields, coconut palms, also barren land; a colourful tent, and flags pink and white, a celebration perhaps. that must have been a school i saw, couldn’t read the signboard though. a railway crossing, vehicles big and small, pillows and unripe mangoes, and in another world: the pre-dawn shimmering of a city of lights that sleeps atop a mountain, and in an empty coach with a few men, women, and children sprawled on the seats, she sits opposite me, looking into that portal which separates our world — with its real windows, chilly mornings and temples and birds and railway tracks, smells of all kinds — from what’s replacing it: twittering tweeples and epic fails, ‘likes’ and a subversion of the meaning of ‘unlike’, and #hashtags for subtext..’

‘what are you going on about?’

‘oh, nothing, i was daydreaming, windows do that to me..’

‘let’s go hunting for poetry then?’

‘yes, let’s.’

turn that frown upside down

March 18, 2014

I wrote this for someone’s upliftment, trying to answer what ‘uplifts’ me in challenging times..


I think conversations do, over anything at all, with a friend or a stranger. Also, unexpected rains on a dry summer day. Free food, filter kaapi. And a good story, real or imagined. A long walk to the beach where I sit and listen to the sea and, if it is a good day, I might even see a brilliant moon rising over the horizon as night descends upon us all; sometimes I walk overnight with a few “turtle walkers”, especially during December-March, for that is when the Olive Ridleys nest by the coast and their hatchlings, when released, are the most beautiful little things I have seen, rushing straight to the sea after they hatch, no parents obsessing over whether they are ready to do that. Kids, their bright eyes, and unnecessary questions. Older people, who usually have stories to tell, of when they were young and the world was different. And walks in the crowded streets of south India, usually in and around temples, the colours and the sounds and the smells, a rich spectrum that’s almost an assault on one’s senses, and cats selling coconuts.

Postscript: This was adapted into what I called ‘Turn that frown upside down’ in response to Madhu’s disappointment at my lack of contribution to the beautiful little magazine they call aainanagar (the city of mirrors).

Before, during, and after the Sachin era.

November 15, 2013

I feel old today. I was born a little before the Sachin era, grew up in the shadow of his cricketing career, and will soon step out of this era as the man bids us farewell. Cricket, perhaps like most Indian kids of the time, was the first sport I learnt. I can’t recall the first time I picked up a bat or learnt how to bowl, just as I can’t recall the first time I uttered a coherent sentence or put pencil to paper. I suppose it must be true of a lot of other kids my age, but at some point I wanted to be a cricketer.  Spending hours out in the sun, playing with friends from the colony, and fighting over run-outs and scores, a big part of my childhood was spent running between the wickets; besides, of course, having to bear the brunt of the neighbours’ anger when the ball went into their house and I had to go get it because I hit it there. Once into my teens, cricket became less of a part of my regular routine as we moved cities and the new place had no kids my age that I could play with. Besides, my interests shifted to more academic ones, and my only connection with cricket remained the odd one-day match I happened to watch, particularly if it was a world cup match. Or the match summary I read in a newspaper after the fact. The most memorable match, for me, remains the India-Pakistan World Cup match in 2003, and Sachin’s first six off Shoaib Akhtar. I am not much of a cricket fan, but I suppose as long as Sachin played I followed it with some interest, even if I wasn’t playing much. Perhaps it was because I found the man inspiring in all his tenacity and skill, and wondered what it must take to shut out all the noise in the world and focus on the next ball. I aspired, as I still do, to that meditative state.

Why am I writing this? I don’t know, it’s just an impulse borne out of a need to mark the occasion, to make note of it before it becomes part of collective memory. And to place on record the fact that tomorrow and everyday after that will be different from all that has so far been, simply because the only thing constant in my life so far—that Sachin played for India—would have changed. I’ll live in a different world tomorrow, so let me say, on a parting note to Sachin and the times gone by, that I am grateful.

What’s on your mind?

June 5, 2013

I’ll let you know what’s on my mind. There was a big, bright orange moon I saw rising this evening, by the sea, sitting in the sand. I was dazzled by its shimmer on the black and white skin of the sea, and I waited for the moon to rise up above the clouds, so that when it did, I left. The moon was more beautiful when the clouds covered it, when it melted into the sky and the whole thing looked like an ice-cream melting away, vanilla and orange. I could eat it.

I also saw a little girl standing by the sea, drawing on the sand with her precious little fingers, her left hand. I was left-handed once, at least an old photograph tells me I ate with my left hand when I was her age. I also wrote that way, only my ways were changed to right-handed ones when I grew up, so that now I write with my right hand and punch with my left. I kick with my left leg, am a left-handed batsman and bowler, and if I were to shoot you, I’d pull the trigger with my left hand. But I won’t shoot you because it doesn’t make any sense.

There were little Olive Ridley hatchlings, making their way to the sea. I watched them, and I wondered. I wondered how protected that little girl was, for she had her uncle holding her hand while she faced the sea and jumped in glee when the waves crashed at her feet. She knew she was safe, the sea couldn’t hurt her. On the other hand, the hatchlings were fumbling around, trying to make it to the water; one of them was upside down, so I helped it back on its feet, and it rushed to the sea. They were children of the sea.

There were stars, lots of them, and I was mesmerized by them, I’ve always been. There was also a plane, that rose up on the western horizon and made its way across the sea, to the east. I like flying planes.

I also saw a new bird, a bird I could not name, but it definitely wasn’t a crow. It was hopping across the path I walk past everyday, and I thought its hopping was cute.

(Adapted from my answer to Facebook’s perennial question on an evening when I was particularly ‘high’ on life.)

Let’s not have a sniffle, let’s have a bloody good cry

June 2, 2013

And always remember the longer you live, the sooner you’re going to die.

(The song starts around 54:00, although you may want to listen to the whole concert.)

I was humming this song all day long today, finding it oddly cheerful. I wonder if it’s because of the song or the voice that gives it a voice. Or, perhaps, because it rained today and I was singing it to myself as I walked to the beach. Rains always make me happy, particularly when they are rare, like in the middle of the Chennai summer. Unlike my usual walks, I wasn’t thinking much; just singing my way to the sea. I might have been a little loud with the ‘bloody’ bit, for I did get some stares from a stranger or two. Or so I imagined. The sand was wet, and I found it amusing that the thing about sand, that the tighter you hold it the more it slips out of your hand, is not true if the sand is wet. I thought of a friend who would always tell me this thing about sand as a sort of metaphor for why one should not cling to the past or its people. I wonder what metaphor she would see in wet sand. Perhaps one for the past clinging to you, unwilling to let go?

It was the perfect afternoon, with grey skies, a downpour, people rushing to bus stops for shelter, waiting for the rain to subside. (It’s my idea of a perfect summer afternoon anyway!) The beach was almost deserted when I reached there, except for some kids. It was still raining, the raindrops making little dents on the surface of the sea before losing themselves to its vastness. The crowds started coming once the rains subsided a little, and the sky opened up a bit, showing patches of blue, grey, and orange. It was almost sunset. My favourite people on the beach are kids — spontaneous, and unashamed of their enthusiasm for the simple things, like seashells and crabs and crashing waves. Of course, not all kids like the sea. To some it’s exciting, to others it’s scary; there was a little girl who would  laugh when the water touched her feet and whine when her mother took her away from the sea; there was also a little boy who was watching the sea from a distance when his father picked him and made him face the sea while he squealed in a fright of sorts. Parenting is delicate business.

I sat in the coffee shop, wondering if I could write something like the quintessential writer-sitting-and-scribbling-in-a-cafe. I asked for a regular cappuccino. Staring out into the eastern horizon, coloured by a greenish sea, an orange sky, brownish sand, and people in many colours, I thought of the brilliant brown of the burnt bread I toasted in the morning for breakfast. I also thought of how the other day I declined taking up a responsibility citing a crisis of credentials. I thought of truth, and I thought of beauty. I figured I prefer truth to beauty. Offer me truth and I will come with you all the way, and maybe we will find beauty somewhere. Offer me beauty, but if truth doesn’t have a say, I will not come your way. I thought about living in the ‘here’ and ‘now’ and how I used those words liberally there and then, how I would love to go hunting for poetry again, and how writing for me is often an act of letting go, of laying bare words that would otherwise weave a prison of my own making for me to wallow in my nostalgia, confusion, and the usual existential crises. I thought of heartbreaks, and wondered if it would help everyone to have at least one good heartbreak to heal them all.

At that point the cappuccino arrived, I looked at the heart-shaped foam on top, smiled, added sugar and the little heart dissolved in the coffee. The coffee was good.

What is Happenning in Istanbul?

June 2, 2013

‘Where the mind is without fear and the held is held high..’

İnsanlık Hali

To my friends who live outside of Turkey:

I am writing to let you know what is going on in Istanbul for the last five days. I personally have to write this because at the time of my writing most of the media sources are shut down by the government and the word of mouth and the internet are the only ways left for us to explain ourselves and call for help and support.

Last week of May 2013 a group of people most of whom did not belong to any specific organization or ideology got together in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Among them there were many of my friends and yoga students. Their reason was simple: To prevent and protest the upcoming demolishing of the park for the sake of building yet another shopping mall at very center of the city. There are numerous shopping malls in Istanbul, at least…

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Turtle dance!

March 19, 2013

The following is an account of a few things I have learned first-hand on night walks during this ‘turtle season’. I have chosen to stick to the happier part of the story but that is by no means all of it.

For a few weeks now I have been walking on Friday nights on a stretch of the beach that runs northwards from Neelankarai to the south of the Adyar estuary in Besant Nagar, Chennai:

(We walk along the beach.)

These walks have often been exhausting but that has hardly kept me away from walking by the Bay on Friday (and sometimes Saturday) nights. Partly because I like the idea of spending a night walking by a dark sea, listening to the white waves, staring up at the twinkling stars and planets, and often bathing in the moonlight. But more so because there’s beauty to be witnessed and a lesson to be learnt in one species’ struggle for survival in these times when we are stuck in a relentless race to consume more and contribute less to the planet we call home.

The Olive Ridley sea turtles nest sporadically along the Chennai coast every year between late December and March, and in these walks by the coast, I’ve come to like these creatures in a way that is rather uncharacteristic of me, especially when it comes to reptiles. Along with SSTCN, I walk on a treasure hunt of sorts. The treasure? Turtle nests! The idea is to relocate the eggs that the turtles lay to a safer hatchery on the beach so that the hatchlings have a greater chance of survival, and of making it to their home, the sea. This exercise is necessitated by the fact that, left to their own devices, most wild hatchlings are never able to make it to the sea because of the bright lights on the beach. On starry nights, especially the moonlit ones, the surface of the sea would ordinarily carry a gleam, forming the brighter horizon towards which the hatchlings should instinctively move on emerging from the nests. However, owing to the artificial lighting on the beach, the hatchlings often move in the direction opposite to the sea, towards the land, and either starve to death or are eaten by dogs. It is to prevent the extinction of this vulnerable species that we have to relocate the nests to hatcheries in the darker parts of the beach, fenced off from the dogs, so that when the eggs hatch the hatchlings don’t go astray and are safely released into the sea. Of course, ideally we shouldn’t do this because, as Arun says, these animals have been nesting along these beaches for millions of years and to recreate and relocate the nests that the turtles know best how to make is tricky business. In our less than ideal world, though, we have to do this to ensure the hatchlings find their way home.

Treasure hunt

The key to identifying the nests is to look for a flat ‘clearing’ on the beach that the turtle makes to camouflage the nest. Also, one has to look for the turtle’s tracks, which are easier to spot because of the distinct shape of the flippers. The nest is an interesting structure, it’s neck about 20 cm deep and beneath the neck is the chamber in which the eggs are laid. The chamber is round in shape and more spacious than the neck. You could think of a flower vase with a round bottom and narrow neck to get some idea of what the shape of the nest is. Apparently, the Olive Ridleys come back to nest on the same beach where they were born, although I have no clue how they do it.

2013-02-02 05.57.18

(Eggs being collected from a nest for relocation to the hatchery.)

The Olive Ridley’s eggs look like ping pong balls. The egg-shell is soft when the eggs are laid. This ensures that when the eggs fall on top of each other in the nest they don’t crack. The shell hardens in about five to nine hours from the time of the nesting, and relocation makes sense only within this five hour window. If the nest is found after the shells harden, we usually leave the nest wherever it is and watch out for the hatchlings when it’s time. Another interesting fact about turtles (and reptiles in general) is, what is known as, Temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD). The mechanism of this process is not very clear to me, so I’ll refer you to this. Our friends at Wikipedia tell us that the pivotal temperature for turtle hatchlings is about 29 degrees celsius. Eggs incubated below this temperature (28 deg C or less) yield male hatchlings and at higher temperatures (31-32 deg C) they yield female hatchlings, with a mixed bag of male/female hatchlings at intermediate temperatures. Clearly, extreme sand temperature can severely skew the sex ratio in these animals.

Olive Ridley sea turtles typically nest two to three times during the nesting season. The first nesting may have 120 to 160 eggs, second, 80 t0 120, and the third anywhere from 60 to 80 eggs. The incubation period for the eggs is roughly around 45 days.

Turtle dance

In the early hours of the morning of February 9, around 0530 hours, I was fortunate enough to witness a turtle nesting near the Adyar estuary. We were close to the end of the walk and by the time I reached there the turtle had started nesting so I missed the part where the turtle climbs ashore to find a suitable nesting spot. While the night was making way for the dawn, most of us stood transfixed as the turtle went into a “nesting trance”:

Nesting Olive Ridley

After the turtle was done laying eggs, it was time for the ‘turtle dance’, an elaborate exercise to flatten the sand covering the nest and camouflage it. The turtle dance starts around 5 minutes into this video:

Turtle dance!

Done with the reproductive chores, the turtle made its way back to the sea. With some difficulty we managed to steer it towards the sea after it wandered around the sands for a while, perhaps confused about directions or maybe in the mood for a little stroll by the beach before going back to the usual humdrum of the sea:

Going home.

‘Hello world! Here I come!’

This Sunday morning I had my first glimpse of the hatchlings. After a long dry walk (we did not find any nests), on our way back from the hatchery, a few wild hatchlings were spotted in the fishing hamlet nearby. One of them was stuck in fishing nets, and had to be carefully untangled from it. Two others were also found. However, much of the rest of the nest (a typical nest has about 100 eggs) was not found. Clearly, chances of making it to the sea if you are a hatchling born in the ‘wild’ are rather slim.

I was holding one of the hatchlings and carrying it to the clear sands near the shore so that it could make its way home when the little fellow started waving its flippers in the air, as if in excitement, “I’m flying!” That brief moment was more beautiful than any I have known in a long, long time. I have never been a big animal lover in any real sense, and I barely even deal with dogs. I have never been into wildlife, forget marine life, except looking at pictures and watching it on video. But this time it was different, perhaps because I felt relevant, and my usual indifference to animals melted away when I saw the little fellow wave its flippers. It made me happy.

When I placed it on the sand, and another volunteer stood in the water and used the torchlight to attract the hatchling towards the sea, after an initial tense moment in which it stood still, the little fella rushed towards the sea taking quick short steps, as if eager to say, “Hello world! Here I come!” Almost like a little toy that magically comes alive and rushes towards the sea on cue.

Hello world!

The folks at SSTCN have been doing some great work in turtle conservation and I’m quite grateful they let me walk with them during this turtle season. This was my first lesson in conservation and, hopefully, not my last.