Saturday, July 24, 2010

Two Minutes Older: The Dying Tree

In my last column, I wrote about death and it seems I am not done with the subject. Recently, a teacher from my old school mourned the slow death of a banyan tree.

This tree had stories gathered under its aerial roots: in 1926, when J. Krishnamurti was looking for some land near his birthplace, Madanapalle, where he could set up a school, he came across a banyan tree in a valley. He was struck by the beauty of the tree and the silence of the place and over the next few years, the land was acquired and the Rishi Valley School set up.

In the years that I was there, our annual dance dramas took place under the tree. We persuaded our teachers to take a class outdoors and took them by the long way to the banyan. Everyone I know from school has at least one annual photo that was taken with the tree as shelter and background.

There was a stage made of cement, and stone benches had been placed at some distance, in a semi-circle. Beyond the stage, some roots had become secondary trees, but most always dangled and never reached the ground – I am not sure if it was because they weren’t allowed to, or because the madly-swinging children put paid to the ambitions of the parent tree.

The big banyan, as it was known – there was another one elsewhere in the school – was as much a landmark of the school as Asthachal (when we watched the sunset from half-way up a small hill) or the distinctive rock formations that surrounded us to which we gave absurd but oddly fitting names.

Such permanence do landmarks have in the minds of people that we forget that even trees must die.

For years there have been rumours of the slow death of the banyan tree. Friends who visited shook their heads in sorrow. They said the cement stage had been removed, that there were supports for the tree, but still it was dying.

I visited the school a few years ago, and I thought the rumours of its death were exaggerated: it seemed to be doing well – maybe it wasn’t as healthy as it was when I had been there, but so many things had changed so why not the tree? Besides, it could have been a matter of perception – the way childhood places often appear smaller and shabbier than one remembers.

Recently, concern for the big banyan has once again erupted. It appears that something – it is not clear what – is eating away at the tree from the inside. The main trunk is dead, so it is unable to support the branches connecting it to the surrounding prop roots. Some friends have been trying to find ways to conserve the main trunk. I’m not sure if it’s an effort worth making.

Of all the trees favoured in mythology and philosophy, it is the banyan which represents immortality, and the enlightenment that comes with the understanding of the nature of death. Its continuing existence is a fact, plain and visible: if another part of it survives, it is still the same tree, no matter how many leaves it sheds or how many roots it puts down. It demands no metaphysical leaps of the human mind – as other trees and plants do – in seeing in a seed the ghost of its parent and the promise of progeny.

In the eighty years since J. Krishnamurti first saw the tree, the big banyan has maybe three of four big prop roots in addition to the main trunk. Understandably enough, the school may not have wanted the tree to spread over a large area, and so it has always stayed in the shape most of us remember it. A banyan that cannot spread probably cannot perpetuate itself in the way it is supposed to.

For this tree to survive, it must be allowed to spread, to change its point of view, to see the world from a slightly different place. Some day, the school children will remember some secondary tree as ‘the’ big banyan, and have stories to tell about it that will also be stories about themselves. There are, after all, many ways for trees to live.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Comment moderation on

Some spam bot has found my blog and is annoying the heck out of me. And here I was, thinking I was getting two comments every couple of hours.

So comment moderation is now on, about which apologies.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Making the Circle Just

There are days when remembering is not a choice one can make. On such days, memories are crazy flies, their flight unpredictable and unstoppable. As I write this, it is two years since my father died.

For the first year, I counted every day, every event and every festival as a first. In this, I was like a new parent counting in weeks rather than months, recording firsts and hoarding grief as I had once hoarded delight, against the day when my father’s absence would no longer be new.

In the second year, I allowed myself to forget. I gave myself the choice to remember what I wanted to and refuse to rise to the baits that offered themselves every day: notes or phone numbers written in my father’s hand; an old pair of shoes or spectacles still lying around; a piece of paper I’d pasted on a cupboard door at his height and not mine.

Other things I thought I would never, ever forget, whose edge I kept next to me on difficult nights, have become blunted. I no longer remember each separate detail of his last two months. I can’t remember the order of events, the names of medicines or even the terminology used in diagnoses. I’ve forgotten the names and faces of the supporting cast – doctors on rounds, nurses, ward boys, parking lot attendants. I’ve forgotten the smell of hospitals. These losses are not ones I regret.

My mother and I refused the prescribed forms of mourning. We claimed that my father had wished for no ritual conducted in his name. This was true, but only partially; we refused tradition on our own accounts, but counted on the respect given to the wishes of the recently dead. In the absence of ritual and its attendant filling up of time with activities, we were left to cope with the inevitable questions about death and impermanence, but with no ready, scriptural or metaphysical answers to hand.

These days, I don’t think about death all the time, as I used to in the first year. These days I feel more immortal than I used to a year ago. At least, that is what I tell myself.

My body has other ideas. It keeps its eyes on dates and gears itself in preparation. It is a spring being wound up tight. For the last week, though we don’t discuss the reasons for it, we have all been sleeping badly. We wake up once in the night – as we used to in the days immediately following my father’s death – and cannot fall back asleep. It is a watchfulness that comes two years too late. If we stayed awake now, we could not prevent that death that came unannounced and was a deepening of his sleep. We know this, but there is no way of communicating this knowledge to our bodies.

This last week, once I am awake, I have nightmares: what if he was only asleep? What if the doctor was wrong? What if we had made a mistake?

For a brief while, my body is filled with a physiological fear that I recognise. Because this happens in the middle of a wakeful night, it is possible to watch its passage through and out of my body. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain, I say to myself. I can’t remember the rest of that litany but it doesn’t matter. I feel my body calming down.

My father died the day before his 71st birthday. When we remember his death, we will always, simultaneously, remember his birth. Of the second we know very little and of the first we know everything. But neither our knowledge nor the lack of it matters. Death is not a lesson to be learnt.

What still strikes me about the coincidence is less the bitter irony of it that I used to feel most keenly, and more the symbolic charge it carries. It seems like the perfect end to a life: to take it to the point where it began and then leave it; and to leave in sleep, where the borders with death are most blurred. We should all be so lucky.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)  

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Epic Stupid

I can't believe how stupid I have been. I have just realised that I will be on a train on the night of the World Cup finals. When the schedule said 12th July, I didn't read the fine print (12 midnight=11th night). So I booked for the 11th.

This means I will (very likely) miss watching Germany pick up the cup this year (there's my prediction for you. No, I'm not channeling Paul, but I wish he were mine).


Thursday, July 01, 2010

From The Man Without Qualities

For Swar

From Chapter 21 of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities:

Brought up in a religious and feudal spirit, never exposed to contradiction through having to deal with middle-class people, not unread, but as an aftereffect of the clerical instruction of his sheltered youth prevented for the rest of his life from recognising in a book anything other than agreement with or mistaken divergence from his own principles, he knew the outlook of more up-to-date people only from the controversies in Parliament or in the newspapers. And since he knew enough to recognise the many superficialities there, he was daily confirmed in his prejudice that the true bourgeois world, more deeply understood, was basically nothing other than what he himself conceived it to be.

Something very like this is what Swar and I were discussing in Bangalore in early May when we were discussing our dissatisfaction with recent IWE. 

What else do people mean when they use phrases such as You really got into my head there or You put my exact thought into words, and say them when they mean to praise?


Of course, my recognition of the truth of the quoted passage only shows that I am equally susceptible to the glow that the confirmation of prejudice gives. When such truth is spoken by someone with talent and precision, it elevates one's own regard for one's intelligence.