Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Single blessedness

Today I am tired of all the worry and tension of mining and construction and corruption and all the rest of that basket of bad news. I am giving you a break from that. This change of heart happened after a long telephone call from an old friend I have always been envious of.

He has a battalion of friends from all walks of life, who like having him around. He refused to sit for exams which would guarantee promotion because the same promotions would guarantee transfers which he did not want. He lives in Mumbai with his mum, a cheerful lady who used to fling slippers at him when he was young and reckless. He has always been a positive person taking life and whatever it threw at him with a delighted grin, (even his mother’s slippers) because life threw good things at him.

Our conversation came round to how life throws positive things to people with positive energy and negative things to people with negative energy. I asked him if he was happy with what he had. He thought about it for a second and said, well I would have liked to have a wife, but I have had no luck in the girlfriend department.

I told him it could be that, that was an excellent piece of good luck he had. If he had a wife he would not have been the happy-go-lucky person that he is. Never mind that he remains the quintessential bachelor boy. In his mid-50s, he is the same vintage as I, maybe a year younger, but his face is unlined and he does not dye his hair. He still walks like a fairly strong wind was pushing him forward, the way he did when he was a teenager.

He does not suffer from all the worry of high cholesterol, or blood sugar or aches and pains. He has a simple rule. He lives life king-sized throughout the year and during the 40 says of Lent he keeps away from rich meals and strong beverages. I think he even gives up smoking, but I cannot be certain about that. His healthy Lenten lifestyle keeps him free of the pill-popping regimen that rules most our peers’ lives.

Every weekend of his calendar reads like the diary of a busy socialite. It is full of invitations to engagements, weddings, christenings, anniversaries, invitations to be godfather to new born babies, invitations to birthdays and first salary parties, invitations to picnics and dances, lunches and dinners. This is ample proof that he is liked by many. That he goes to the functions, often involving flying out of Mumbai, is that he likes them too.

He laughed long and loud and said he liked my choice of words: “an excellent piece of good luck”. And I said that except for a couple of couples I know, marriage has not turned out to be such a great institution for most of the people I know. Not for the couple and definitely not for their children.

He agreed and he should know because he has had a ring-side view of many families who count him as one of their own. And he quoted his mother who said, courting time is the best time. Both people are on their best behaviour, but you never know what someone is like until you have lived with that person for some time. I had to agree.

He said, but at least you have children who will look after you when you are old and ill. He laughed again, long and loud, when I used some pretty strong language which translates into “uh huh”.

And then in one of those inexplicable coincidences that life is so full off, I received another call from a worried mother, who was looking for a girl for her son. I asked the question why? Why rock the boat? She was offended.
“Because everyone should marry,” she said, “The Lord God said it is not good that the man should be alone. I will make a helpmeet for him.”
“Then why” I asked, “do they refer to the single life as a life of “single blessedness””?
“You…!” She said and slammed down the phone.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Modern India Goa’s new invader

Goa sat quietly on the west coast since the beginning of time. First we concentrated on rearing cattle, growing crops, orchards and people. Upheaval was the name of the game in the rest of India and every change that convulsed Goa’s larger neighbours affected Goa too, with new rulers every couple of hundred years or so with the only representative of the king being the tax collector.

First it was a series of Hindu kings who set up empires all around, so Goa while ostensibly changing rulers every time, actually was left alone to develop a strong culture of her own. The land was fertile, the weather perfect, the people prosperous and peace loving and we have enough evidence that our ancestors had their own music, art, literature and poetry. They had a very successful system of community farming which remained pretty much untouched for centuries. The Sultans found that it was a good idea to continue the Gaunkari system of village community farming, as did the Portuguese who renamed it the Communidade.

So, it must have been a slight shock when the Bahamani Sultans conquered Goa, only to lose her to the Vijayanagara Empire. After another 100 years the Bijapur Sultans ruled over Goa and the culture shock must have been immediate and long lasting. Islam added itself to the tapestry of Goa and then came the Portuguese with their vastly different culture, clothing and creed. Almost five centuries of being an important part of the Portugal ethos, the Goan people morphed once again into a beautiful Eurasian type of culture with a strong Indian core. Liberation which saw Goa become part of the Indian nation. And in less than 50 years we are bang in the middle of another culture shock and a very different one this time.

The difference is this: In the past the changes in Goa were wrought on the people in their creed and culture; their style and standard of living. Invading armies left the land alone. They added to the forest cover introducing new species from Brazil and Africa. Post Liberation the culture of which can only be called Modern India is cutting haphazard swathes across what was respected as Nature’s bounty. Previous invaders (yes, it’s time to call a spade a spade and Modern India is the new invader of Goa) recognized and respected the traditional systems for nurturing the land.

Modern India has no time for that. Because Modern India worships at the altar of Instant Gratification and has found more than half the population of Goa an eager convert to this way of life. “I’ll vote for you tomorrow provided you give me a motorbike today.” “If the price is right I can change forest land into settlement land with the click of a mouse.”

I wish the news channels would do an aerial shoot of the changing face of Goa as the plane circles, banks and lands at Dabolim. I wish they could introduce it on a fortnightly basis so that Goans could see for themselves, the terrible changes happening in our hills and plains practically every week.

Even when flying in to Goa, it’s the tourists who are all agog with their noses plastered to the windows, Goans stare at the seat backs in front of them. Is it because they cannot bear to look out? Or because they just don’t care?

Hotels and farmhouses are built in seemingly inaccessible places, they spread over what they refer to as a “small area, just a few acres”, but 20 metre wide roads connecting them to airports and road and rail networks, gouge out centuries old portions of the rainforest and the forest cover shrinks again and yet again.

Meanwhile in the towns and villages that were known for the beautiful proportions of their structures are changing by the day with old houses pulled down and apologies for architecture shooting up. Tiled roofs cower beneath steel glass and concrete and art-deco structures, as if the tiled roofs know that their day in the Goan sun is comprehensively over.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The secret of youth

There is something very annoying about the constantly cheerful person. You meet them every so often, grinning like there’s a clothes hangar in their mouth, always breaking out into a ripple of laughter. I’m all for the occasional belly laugh, but if like they say laughter is the best medicine, logically speaking like medicine, laughter should be had in small doses.

Having said that, there’s something equally annoying about the habitual grouch. Mouth always turned down, face set in heavy lines of disapproval. The grouch’s sole aim is to wipe the smile off happy faces. There is nothing to celebrate, nothing to cheer about. And yet under that unsmiling countenance there is a dark pleasure in being a wet blanket. The grouch is cunning, watches you carefully finds chinks in your armour and gets under your skin. The cheerful soul is therefore more welcome.

It has been my pleasure to meet a cheerful person, well into his nineties, yet not bowing to the tenets of age. His face sparkled with the uncomplicated delight you would find in a child, and one discovered that he spent his life finding joy in whatever he did. Even when he complained about getting so tired after reading three newspapers over breakfast, that he had to take a nap, the images his words painted were comical to him and he grinned.

I have met people well past the three score and ten Plimsoll line the Bible tells us is enough time to sail through life. To a man (or woman) as the case may be, I have found octogenarians and nonagenarians to be quiet, a little vague and moving very, very carefully as if making certain all limbs were properly aligned and accounted for before any action. It was not so with this man.

He did not give his body undue attention. He gave me undue attention. I told him, I had come to visit him out of plain old vulgar curiosity, to find out what make him tick. He told me he could not hear very well and would I please sit on his left side and speak up. It is a little tiring to carry out a conversation with flow and nuance at the top of your lungs, but one soldiered on because as I said, he was fascinating. But it was he who had more questions. He wanted to know what I did, who I married, where was my ancestral village, where was my husband’s ancestral village. He looked for and found connections with various members of my family. He wanted to know about my children and what they were doing. It was not out of polite curiosity. He really wanted to know.

We spoke inevitably of politics and instead of griping about the situation as is the case wherever one goes in Goa, he was amazed at the general uselessness of the men who were running the state. Amazed that they kept returning to power again and again. Amazed that we kept returning them to power again and again.

He spoke of Pakistan and how happy he would be if Pakistan joined India. How most of the problems haunting both countries would be over.

I studied his face as he spoke and gesticulated. His eyes shone behind his spectacles and there was no flagging of his voice. His face was hardly lined, avid, eager and the tilt of his body showing his hunger to learn more. He was talking about how he had always read very slowly, because he savoured every nuance of every word he read and that now he read even slower. Of course, like every printed word, he also savours every nuance of every moment of life. And I thought to myself, this is it. This is the elixir of life, or if you like, the fountain of youth. He is the Observer who instead of sitting back detached and letting life wash over him, engages with Life to learn even more. It is that engagement; that spirit to take it all in, which keeps him vital and smiling and walking around without a stick even at 95.