Saturday, February 27, 2010

Moved to new domain

I have moved to my own new domain:  See you there!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A New York love story

For those of us weaned on endless reels of filmy rail-gaadi romances, here is a New York version.

A train, a girl, a boy. Love at first sight. Girl disappears after train journey. Love-sick boy searches all over the city for her. Inspires everyone around to play Cupid. Finds girl. Starry romance. Everyone lives happily ever after. Ends. Right?

Would have been that easy if only life imitated make-believe. And that too, not if you lived in New York, where illusion is king.

When 21-year-old web designer, Patrick Moberg, hosted this site to become a cyber Taj Mahal, little would he have imagined the end.

Life, it seems, always has the last laugh.

Am predicting this would be made into another When Harry Met Sally. Any guesses on who should play Moberg and Hayton?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Journey Within

Ever since last week, I have stopped wondering how Alice must have felt like when she fell down the rabbit் hole.

I was on a journey unlike any other, exploring a destination where no one had ever landed before: my own mind, the unbearable lightness of my own being.

Only this time for me, unlike Alice, there was no White Rabbit or Caterpillar or Cheshire Cat or dormouse to encounter along the way. What I did come across instead was a 2,500-year-old rarest of rare gem, the ancient art and science of Vipassana meditation, distilled in its purest form and served in the same chalice that Gotama the Buddha drank from. Right down to the Pali chants the Wise One rang out to his followers and what echoes down unchanged through the centuries in the Vipassanic texts.

Some of life's most wondrous turning points, you find by stumbling across them rather than by planning. Thus it was that, two weeks after arriving in Chennai, I found myself in the womb of silence and surprises that is Dhamma Setu, the 26-acre Vipassana meditation retreat, near Thiruneermalai.

Two years back, I had been to the place to have an interview with S.N. Goenka, the pitamah of Vipassana meditation who had come down to Chennai to inaugurate the centre's pagoda. At that time, I had refused to look past the teflon coating my profession so liberally dabs me with. I was not a believer then, only an observer, something which Goenka himself would have had no trouble accepting.

Two years hence, gnashed about by an emotional turmoil I would never have dreamt would happen to me, I landed at Dhamma Setu not so much to look for answers but to shut myself away from all that was causing the anguish. I carried ( and still do) with me my pronounced distaste for any of the pop-spirituality that the Ravishankars and Mahesh Yogis and the Jaggi Vasudevs had made their millions out of.

What initially drew me there was the 10-day enforced silence: no contact whatsoever with the world outside, no telephone calls, no television/newspapers/internet, no notebooks, pens or pencils, no vacuous socializing, and no, absolutely not a single spoken word, not even eye contact with other meditators. All this amidst the rarefied resort-like surroundings of the Chettinad-style lushly landscaped Dhamma Setu (the Bridge of Dhamma), with you having to spend almost nothing. Perfectmente!

Instead, what happens is that within two days of the Noble Silence vow, your head starts exploding with the babel of inner voices, voices that you had never heard before, that you would never have heard otherwise, that come rumbling from somewhere deep within you, where they had been buried for so long under the mounds of noise you had choked them with.

But, let me, like Lewis Carroll, begin at the beginning: I had been adequately warned that it would be a self-willed prison. That for ten days, I would have to stay behind closed gates and that I would not be allowed to leave, however desperately I may want to.

And not without reason: to be able to even scratch the surface of the Dhamma that the Buddha gave, you have to put yourself through a gruelling schedule, from four in the morning till nine in the night, most of the hours being spent in meditating in a hall in which the fans would be switched off so that you will be able to hear your own breath better. In Chennai, that is roughly equivalent to walking barefoot on Arctic ice: it frightens you initially but very soon, simply doesnt matter.

Unlike the fluff that makes up the Art of Living courses (where they give you your own custom-made personal mantra and warn you it will lose potency if revealed to anyone else, and when, curiosity getting the better of you, you actually check it with a fellow meditator, you realise you have been jackassed out of your money), the Vipassana courses offered by the Goenkas throughout the world are blessedly free of commercialism: you dont have to pay a single paise for the ten-day course or for your lodging or for the simple and delicious vegetarian food. You can walk in and walk out with an empty wallet and need to make a donation only if you are convinced the course has helped you. The centres are run purely through such donations made on a voluntary basis by grateful former students.

The idea is to make you live like an ascetic for the course duration, totally dependant on the charity of others even for something as basic as your food, so that you totally lose ego. And if the ever-increasing tribe of Vipassana meditators is any indication, then shedding ego is the way to live.

The meditation itself is a precise surgical operation, performed on the mind by turning it upon itself. As your breathing settles down and the process starts, the technique slices deeply and sharply through the pus-and-memory-filled layers of the mind, peeling away strata after strata of anger, bitterness, loss, hatred, misery, pain and anguish. You smell, feel and hear the pus bubbling up and suddenly feel freer than you ever were.

And the best is yet to come: not only is Vipassana free of Guru or God, it also enjoins you to totally disassociate yourself from your religion for the course period: no rosary telling, shloka chanting, poojas, incantations, incense burning, namaaz, nothing ritualistic that would even remotely call attention to your religion. You need to suspend your religion to see who you really are. Not surprising, if you remember your history lessons: the Buddha's teachings were a direct antithesis to the orthodoxy and high-ritualism of the Vedic Hinduism of those days.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor amidst the heat that rippled through like a desert haze in the fan-less room, each one in the group of 50-odd meditators had come there on a personal quest:
23-year-old pretty Jewish lass Rotem from Tel Aviv needed to know what to do with her life after spending quite a few years in the Israeli army. She would go back with "very clear directions in her head" and a very stiff neck after trying too hard to sit erect in the lotus posture.
Forty-two year old Suchitra from Coimbatore had wanted to come to terms with her husband's detached nonchalance since he, a seasoned meditator, would never show affection to the family even as he made sure that all their needs were met. She would go back loving him more than ever.South Korean friends, Kim and Oh, would come looking for the peace and tranquility that kept eluding their country. From here they would go onwards to Auroville's Maitri Mandir where they would spend the next few years of their lives giving unto others what was given unto them.

For me, the near-nirvana experience would come rather suddenly on the third day: one moment, the still air in the room shudders with the vibrations caused by the roar of the airplane that just took off from the nearby international airport and the next moment, as the plane ebbs away, the gathering silence settles on you and covers you like a warm fuzzy cloud. Your body disssolves into the air around and all you feel is the lightness of breath passing in and out of you Nothing else. Bones, flesh, muscle..all are now luminously transparent.

Yet there is also the supra-real heightening of every single sensation: your skin is alive in every pore, your ears can clearly pick out the chirping of a distant cicada, your nose quivers with the trillion pulses that are zipping through. Suddenly, my emotional bleakness clears and my till-then pain falls off like a reptile's skin.

What you glimpse startles you. Raw. Uncensored. Stripped of everything. When you come out of the state a few minutes later, you realise life will never ever be the same again.

After that moment, you are led to steadily explore the interface between mind and body, your mind and your body. You learn where your pain comes from and where your smile comes from.
You start enjoying playing tricks on yourself: smiling away the pains and shrugging away the smiles.

You realise then that the Buddha had delved deep into and perfected a technique which modern science is just about starting to acknowledge the existence of: the mapping of the human mind. Into my mind springs suddenly a talk I had attended sometime back, in which Dr. V.S. Ramachandran (the Brain Man, as he is otherwise known) elaborated on something that now seems very clear: that it is always mind over matter. Or rather, mind matters most.

I remembered being intriguingly drawn to read more about Dr. Ramachandran's phantom limb experiment: how, in some cases, even after a person has lost an arm to amputation, he or she would continue to feel pain in the lost part and the 'cure' often is, parking the amputee before a mirror so that he sees there is only air where an arm once was. Read more on his work here.

When, in those Vipassana moments, I felt my own body dissolve into the atmosphere, I could clearly understand what phantom pains must have felt like.

One song which I have sung to myself in my darkest moments is Subramanya Bharathi's Nalladhor Veenai. The verses kept churning in my head every time I tripped on the mind and matter interface during my Vipassanic moments. Here is an English translation of Bharathi's prayer to the Goddess, by Sri Vidya :

All I ask for is—
A body that would obey the commands of my heart—with the swiftness of a thrown ball;
A clean enthusiastic spirit;

A life that springs anew into being daily: bright and energetic;
A pure soul—to sing Your praises even when the skin is scorched by fire;
An unshakable mind—

Do You have any issues in granting me these?

I may not have found my answers, but now I know where to look for them.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Whatever next.....I

When I was young and more fancy-free, one thing I totally, totally loved was going for a swim in the river and having the little fish nibble you all over. I loved the way the tiny little things would swim close to you and if you stayed still, would slowly come over and get acquainted. Then the feast would begin. You had to be of a certain kind to enjoy it with eyes closed, several friends would shriek and run for cover, scaring the little pisceans away.

And now, the fish massage has become upmarket, commercialised and salon-ified. Imagine having to pay Rs 500 upwards for half an hour of fish pedicure in a posh boutique in aamchi Chennai.
I remember rolling my eyes in mock surprise when I heard of something similar being offered in Sentosa Island, Singapore.

And now, the fish have come closer home to nibble. Some fishy affair, this!

Sunday, June 29, 2008


If, as they say, those that the gods love die young, then Vinay Chakravarthy must surely be amongst the ones that have an abundance of celestial grace.

In the few months that I have been living in NY, very few lives have touched me as deeply as that of this 29-year-old, who died in Boston earlier this week, after having looked death smilingly in the eye for nearly two years and never blinked.

I am deeply touched by the fact that mine was the last newspaper report on Vinay, and that despite his agonising last moments, he personally acknowledged it.

I first heard about Vinay from a doctor friend: about the young doctor's fight against his leukemia and his herculean effort to stay alive, his never-say-die spirit and how his story inspired thousands of fellow Indians to enrol for the US National Bone Marrow Registry so that, in future, those like him would be able to find bone marrow donors.

Before Vinay, there had also been young Sameer Bhatia and so closely were the stories and destinies of these two men intertwined that they became, to all intents and purposes, blood brothers.

Though Sameer had died only a few weeks before I arrived in the US, I was able to talk to his father, Kumar Bhatia and got to know more about his son's last moments. It also came as a pleasant surprise that the Chakravarthys were from my part of the world: Vinay's father, Parthasarathy, switched over to Tamil as soon as I introduced myself.

Throughout their darkest moments, neither Sameer nor Vinay stopped smiling or being cheerful.
Even after bone-crunching chemotherapy sessions, the families remembered the men never complained nor crumpled up. And they left records of their own lives in their blogs.

As for the Chakravarthy family, to simply say I share in their sorrow is not enough. I have a standing invitation from the family to come and visit their beautiful Californian home anytime I feel like it. I wish I could have gone when Vinay was still alive.

To Rashmi, his beautiful young wife, who held her husband's hand as he quietly slipped into death and to his parents who remained optimistic and cheerful even as they saw their son slowly sink, and to the thousands of his friends who will now carry on his work, Vinay will now be more alive than ever.

Vinay and Rashmi in the days before the leukemia struck and the couple, much later, together again in Vinay's sick ward. All photographs are courtesy Seshu Photography.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

India's answer to Oprah?

History, at times, is made in the most unpretentious ways. Looks like, in its own way, Vijay TV, is setting new benchmarks and breaking barriers with the launch of Ippadikku Rose, a talk show to be hosted by Rose, billed as India's first transgender celebrity host.

Bold and dramatic, Rose in no way fits the aravani stereotype and is honest enough to want to wear her gender on her sleeve and tell the world how beautiful it makes her feel. All of 28 years old, the US-educated Rose, with a masters in biomedical engineering, is to India what Oprah Winfrey is to the US, The New York Times would have us believe.

Watch her in action here and you would not be able to hold back your hurrahs.

Whether the show will match substance with hype or whether it becomes another Truman Show, this is the third dimension of Indian-style reality television.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Death by blogging

I now dont need to look for an excuse to explain away my increasingly irregular blog posts. Looks like it is a going to be a question of life and death, literally.

In those heady days when I first created this blog, I just couldn't get it off my head. Wherever I turned, the world was full of blog-postisms.

I never became a blogaholic, like some of my friends did over the years, peace be unto them. Thanks partly to a large dose of inertia and mostly due to a cussedness in finding things worthy of blogging about, this blog never got around to grandstanding on anything. Back then, I would feel guilty and jealous when some of my more prolific colleagues averaged at least four posts a week.

Now, it seems as ever, the tortoise was indeed smarter.