Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for December, 2009


Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 20, 2009

                        Bathos:  the sudden appearance of the commonplace in otherwise elevated matter or style

The side piece in the supplement to the main newspaper detailing the upcoming performance of Mukthiyaar Ali, the Sufi singer from Rajasthan caught his eye. He thought that attending the concert would be a perfect start to fulfilling what he promised himself prior to returning to India. For forty odd years life has driven him to look for one form of security or the other. First it was education, then job, then financial comfort, then career and foreign postings and now success of his children. It was only in the recent past did he start to realise that there was more to life than this hunt for security. He was beginning to discover that literature; music, being involved with family and society, arts in general and exploring spiritual side of his existence can provide him with the satisfying diversions that he was looking for. Especially in matters of spiritual discovery, he was getting attracted to the mystical side of the Sufis and Buddhists. It is the cultivation of this other side that he promised himself to focus on while returning to India. Did he not read somewhere that Doris Lessing was a great admirer of Idries Shah – the Sufi writer? That a Nobel laureate was also a believer in mystical religion buttressed his confidence in his belief. He was looking for a deeper exposure to facets of these religions beyond what he found in books and Ali’s concert he hoped will be one such. He was especially enthused by the opportunity to experience the much talked about mysticism in Sufi singing

He declared to his wife three days in advance that the coming Sunday evening would be blocked for the concert. The following three days he kept reminding the members of his family of his engagement more than it warranted. The family was getting irritated about these constant reminders but he saw it as an exercise in cementing certainty. He wanted no last minute turn of events to sabotage his plans. He was quite sympathetic to the attitude of his family towards his reminders and he was prepared for their lack of enthusiasm. He knew that life has not yet hurled challenges across them which demanded the need for spiritual awakening like it did with him.

All given, all received and all forgiven he told himself with a sense of equanimity.

It was a free concert and he was not sure what the crowd turnout would be. He advised himself to reach an hour early and was everything to turn out well, hoped to find a vantage place to sit. Besides, it was a Sunday and it automatically meant that he should budget extra time to accommodate the vagaries of availability of auto rickshaws. Auto drivers of his city were a living testimony to the existence of hell and its denizens. He loathed to waste time waiting and carried a collection of Alice Munro’s short stories for reading to fill any free time available prior to the commencement of the concert. Munro was his recent discovery and he was impressed with her writing skills and began to form the opinion that she was one of the most under-rated writers writing presently. He wore a slightly torn and faded pair of jeans on top of a plain checkered shirt and very expensive leather chappals. He was satisfied that the sartorial inelegance at the top in tandem with the leathery elegance at the bottom did support the style statement that he has long been working on. He informed his wife that it would be late in the night before he returned and told her not to wait for him for dinner and if she were to feel sleepy go to bed. He wanted to avoid seeing her reaction, so quickly walked out of his flat, waited briefly for the lift, decided against it, opted for the staircase and in two minutes found himself outside the compound wall of his apartment complex hailing for an auto rickshaw

He realised the loud raucous music in the auto was attracting attention towards him. A couple of bored heads waiting for the green signal at a traffic junction turned towards him and relieved their boredom for a while. He was especially flustered that a good looking girl in a waiting car parked next to his auto at the intersection glanced at him more than once. Her curious eyes were examining the auto, the driver and him without any sense of partiality. It was as if the three were one collective object of curiosity and a source of harmless merriment.  He sat indifferent for a while and when the auto started racing he tapped on the shoulder of the auto driver and requested him to reduce the volume. The driver simply shrugged his shoulders in response. The shrug carried with it a brusque message of blatant refusal. It irritated him to think that he was the person who was paying for the ride and becoming a paid ridicule in public. He wondered how the auto driver was able to enjoy this blaring music in the evening traffic which it itself was out-blaring everything around them. The driver on the other hand was singing along with the song that was blaring in the auto oblivious of the noise outside and this irritated him further. He wanted to assert with his request once again but realised that his attempts would fall on deaf ears. He became conscious of his irritation and the associated frustration. He told himself that his current mood was not conducive to experience the mysticism of Sufi singing and hence focused on being neutral till he reached the venue. Unknowingly, his thoughts wandered to the concept of the unity of souls one finds in Sufism and briefly wondered how he will be able to apply this to his soul and the auto driver’s soul. Lacking an answer and finding the challenge too big for him he started focusing on the traffic. This wandering thought reduced his irritation with the auto driver and the noisy predicament he was caught in. He reminded himself that keeping his thoughts in constant check was the first preparatory step towards any form of spiritualism 

As planned, he reached the venue well in time, surveyed it quickly and found a comfortable seat and parked himself there. He was greeted by a couple of organizers who were busy giving final touches to the stage and sound arrangements. He was surprised to see Ali and his entire troupe on stage helping the organizers in their arrangements. The singer, standing tall, dark, with long glistening hair, flowing white robes with layers of beads around neck and wrists matched his ideal mental picture of a Sufi singer. He started to feel good about being at the concert. His attention now started to wander towards the arriving patrons. He smiled at a few of them who changed their seats multiple times and wondered what they would have done if this had been a paid concert with pre allotted seat numbers. Choice, he thought, was a double edged sword and when combined with indecision was the root cause of uncertainty and unhappiness in human beings. The initial trickle of the patrons had gradually turned into a throng and there was noticeable swelling in the numbers looking for the best available seats. He was a little dismayed at a roly-poly couple and their stick like daughter dropping handkerchiefs and signed pieces of paper on a row of seats adjacent to him as indications of seats taken. He also felt sorry for those who came late looking for seats and getting disappointed to look at empty seats with handkerchiefs in them. The couple posed a smug look on their faces as a shield to defend against the glares of others who did not approve of blocking seats at will. One thing that stuck him unique was the number of male patrons in the concert who were wearing long loose kurtas with ethnic patterns printed on them. He knew that this trend of wearing long loose kurtas in the southern parts of India was a very recent phenomenon. Television and popular cultural programs, he knew were the drivers behind this. He could not stop thinking of the slightly effeminate touch these kurtas gave to men and his own resistance to his wife’s attempts to drape him in one of them. Unknowingly he felt irritated once again. He just sat there with the feeling festering mildly in him.  The hall was nearly full and he noticed that there were many there who knew one another and hence the inevitable shaking and waving of hands and genial enquiries of well being and loud replies were contributing to the din. At one point the din became unbearable and he noticed a couple of lonely patrons yawning as if silently imploring for the concert to begin at the earliest. As if to answer their silent prayers, the microphone came alive and an aged gentleman quickly introduced the troupe and handed over the proceedings with an appeal for donations. Sensing the impatience of audience, Ali and troupe began the concert with a light noted prayer and in fifteen minutes doused the audience with a mesmeric flow of some authentic Sufi music 

The concert itself was beyond his expectation. There were multiple devotional songs which he was very familiar with and lots of qawwals he never heard before; but that did not stop him from enjoying himself. He particularly liked the folk song which dealt at length the dialogue between body and soul at the time of separation. He was especially touched by the portrayal of a majestic and duty bound indifference of the soul leaving the body at the time of death and the pathos filled supplication of the body urging the departing soul to reconsider the decision. It was a see-saw of a conversation which was at once beautiful, tragic, argumentative and sublime. The sublimity was in the emphatic claim of the soul of its desire to merge with the One Supreme Soul which permeated this entire creation. The visceral realisation and acceptance of this merging, the soul proclaimed to the body, was the purpose of human existence and hence ought to be beyond the grief which the body and mind were facing now. The song tripped him through multiple moods and at the end of it all left him in a state where he felt expansive, generous, optimistic and intensely human. To him this song was the highlight of the concert and Ali’s voice added a unique depth to the already heightened feelings he had. He felt an ineluctable headiness. He wondered if this feeling of headiness was divinity all about.  Did he not read somewhere that all yoga is nothing but an attempt to feel this divineness on a continuous basis?  He was baffled to think of the ability of saints to be in this state for long and how unprepared he was to even make a beginning to travel on this path which would deliver him at the door steps of such a state of mind. Another song went by and the concert concluded to a thunderous applause and standing ovation to Ali and his troupe. He realised how caught up he was in his own thoughts towards the end that he missed the final song. He joined the departing crowds and on the way dropped a five hundred rupee note into the donation box that the organizers kept at the exits. He felt very nice about it

He quickly stepped out of the gates and found an auto. He murmured the destination to the auto driver and heard the driver demand a hundred and fifty rupees. He balked at the price quoted but realised he had no option on a Sunday night. Muttering to self of the unfairness of it all he got into the auto. As the auto caught speed, he got lost in thoughts and wandered back to the whole experience of the music concert and his own plans of silently preparing himself for the path of divinity. The loneliness of the path he was planning to embark on worried him a bit. But what option did he have? Was he not aware that it will be a lonely path? Yes, he knew that it was a difficult path but the rewards were disproportionately high and were more meaningful than anything else he should be aspiring for in future. The more he exposed himself to experiences that reminded him and led him on this path, the better it would be for him. Ali’s concert undoubtedly was one such experience. He was overcome with an enormous sense of gratitude that he was in a position where he could think and act about these things on his own. This thought gave him a sense of being a free agent with the ability to act in a way that determined outcomes that he wanted. Once again he was overcome with a sense of being human on an elevated plain. He woke up from the reverie and found himself in a petrol pump and the auto driver asking him for the agreed fare. He parted with the money and wanted to get back to the thought line he was pursuing. As the auto raced, he once again got back into the comfort of his reverie and remained there for a while. After around half hour he realised the auto stopped in front of a well known land mark in one of the popular streets of the city which was a good forty five minute walk from his flat. He looked at the auto driver for an explanation and in return heard the auto driver tell him they arrived at the destination. In a tone that carried an element of surprise he explained to the auto driver that he had told him earlier on where exactly he wanted to be dropped. The auto driver told him that that was not his understanding and demanded another fifty rupees to go further on. He was infuriated at this turn of events and shouted at the driver and called him and his ilk a thieving lot and nothing more could be expected of them. The enraged auto driver shouted back at him and asked him to get out his auto. After some exchange of unpleasant words he realised the futility of the situation and in a huff started walking towards his home. The auto driver called him back and flung the Alice Munro’s book at him which he managed to catch in the air. He shot an angry look at the driver which did not yield any results. He was frustrated with his own sense of what constituted decent behaviour and how that prevented him from teaching a proper lesson to the driver

All the feeling of nice elevation and humming wholesomeness of an ethereal and mystic music evaporated quickly and in its place stood a bitter distaste of being deceived by a fellow human being. He tried hard to remind himself the spirit of oneness of all human beings and the need for patience. In the face of this blatant injustice and aggrieved sense of being treated meanly, the attempt to calm down yielded no results. He felt frustrated with the whole experience and very disappointed with the sudden appearance of the commonplace in an otherwise elevated experience of the evening. He cursed the bathos of it all and started walking home without looking back at the auto and the driver who was still standing there with a sense of casual defiance

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A Saviour In (a) Doha

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 14, 2009

The saviour I am referring to is not a human being nor the Doha I am referring to the glittering Arab city famous for trade talks. I am referring to the doha of Kabir that gave me an abiding life philosophy in an especially dark and crucial juncture of my life and has in the process become a saviour of sorts.  Here is how it all happened…..

A couple of years into the hectic world of investment banking, I realised that I was not enjoying my work. There was more money than I could ask for. With no major sustaining interests outside work, I felt trapped. Workdays started to become weightier and boring. Shopping and partying which acted as temporary antidotes started to exhibit a whiplash effect. I was dragged down by an unbearable sense of misery. I reached a stage where my listlessness began to slide into unhappiness. I started to enter an area of darkness from which I felt I had no escape… that is till I met Panditji back home on a vacation

Panditji was my Hindi teacher at school. Actually, he was more than a ordinary Hindi teacher. Armed with a double MA in Sanskrit and Hindi from Benares Hindu University (BHU) when BHU was at its height of academic fame, he left a career in teaching to join the Indian armed services. He had seen the three wars between India and Pakistan from close quarters and came to our town more owing to his son’s request and his own desire to be with his grandchildren. Besides his deep background and love for languages and literature, Panditji loved teaching. He stayed a stone’s throw away from school and without exception trudged to school carrying his thickset personality. Always in starched and ironed white khaddar kurta -pajama, a mustard or black coloured half-sleeved overcoat with large pockets replete with chalk marks at the edges, broad black spectacles and shining leather sandals, Panditji was an epitome of an elderly teacher. With bushy eye brows and a genial smile, he was a natural magnet to his students.  On his journey back from school, surrounded by a motley crowd of students, he resembled a mother hen with her brood of chicks. The conversations during these trips inevitably began with enquiries about the well being of the students and extended to cover their families. Only after that was done would he move to his topic of extempore and it was for this the students actually waited. He had a knack of initiating his views on the topic just about the time he reached the bougainvillea filled gates of his spacious house. This I suspected he did it on purpose which was to keep his wife informed of his return from school. Not once did Panditji’s wife disturb him from speaking to us. In front of the loving and respectful eyes of his wife, Panditji gave us wonderful insights on a variety of topics. He made it a point that the topic he chose was far removed from the daily school syllabus and this inevitably set us thirsty for more knowledge in different directions. He was so composed and concise in his dwelling on the subject that we were willing to spend an extra one hour standing in front of gates to listen to what he had to say. He gave room for everyone to ask questions, challenge him and yet managed to leave us with heads that hummed with ideas and a thirst to know more.

The topics Panditji chose invariably included personalities from world history, politics, eminent writers, poets, books and movies. However, his special affinity appeared to have rested with philosophy and literature. In literature he was like an ocean and when it came to Russian and English writers he took us into a world we could have never imagined to exist. We all returned home with minds aflame and hungry to devour the books that he spoke about. Yet if there was one topic where Panditji excelled it was the philosophy of Kabir. For every occasion, situation and topic Panditji had an appropriate Kabir’s doha to quote. He was spontaneous when he began but ended up rapturous by the time he concluded explaining the meaning of the doha. Panditji once told us that of all the philosphers Eastern and Western he read, he felt that two were really outstanding: Adi Sankara for his vision, grandness and daring and Kabir for his simplicity of words and profundity of thought. He said that the greatness of Kabir was his ability to deliver philosophical themes and criticism of inequities in society in utterly simple and much used colloquial language.

It was this beloved Panditji that I chanced upon once again during my vacation. I actually met him in our town’s vegetable market on a cold December morning. Can’t say why but I always found a well stocked vegetable market therapeutic. It was slightly over a decade since I last met Panditji and he took time to recognise me. As I touched his feet in reverence, recognition dawned on him and he caught hold of me by my shoulders and gave a warm bear hug. After the usual enquires about my progress in life, he invited me home for a cup of tea. I silently followed him to his house and on the way Panditji told me that he has a half developed cataract in the left eye and that it was quite frustrating as he could not read with the usual ease. He told me that he was waiting for it to grow further to be removed once for all. I enquired about his wife and he slowed in his walk to tell me that she was no more and that she passed away six months ago. It was then I realised the change that I saw in Panditji — he appeared to have shrunk quite a bit in the absence of his wife. There was a deep sense of grief when he told me of the loss of his better half. As we reached home and settled down, he casually mentioned that books and his son’s family were the two reasons that kept him motivated in his life and that he deeply desired to go back to Haridwar and spend the twilight years of his life there. He introduced me to his grandchildren who were now going to the same school where he once taught all of us. For a while the ensuing conversation was quite desultory and aimless. Panditji asked me many incisive questions and I kept answering him to the best of my ability. The alert mind of an instinctive teacher quickly sensed my being slightly withdrawn from the conversation and after a quick scrutiny said “Kyon bhai, kuch udaas lagte ho. Kya baat hai?”. I don’t know why but my eyes brimmed with tears and I could not help baring my heart to Panditji. I told him my sense of loneliness, the feeling of meaninglessness in work and the visceral and urgent need for a rejuvenation and happiness. Panditji listened to my rant patiently and when I calmed down said ” Be happy that you have hit this feeling when you are young and not old when you have no room to make a course correction. Bhai, you should learn to pray and have faith in the purpose and meaning of life even when you don’t understand it”. He paused for a while, looked at me and then said ” A way to uncomplicate life is by keeping your desires simple and relevant. Start doing this and you will see a lot of happiness unlocking for you.The answer to the inevitable question of what constitutes a simple and relevant desire is very intuitional and you will get answers for it if you start observing and questioning every desire of yours intensely. Begin that questioning today and over a period you will get answers to a lot of your personal dilemmas. Kabir did sense this and articulated it quite well“. He laughed out a little loudly as if he were mocking my situation, quickly recovered and in a voice that quivered a bit and carried a ripeness of old age sang a Kabir’s doha

Saaye itna deejiye jamay kutumb samay
mai bhi bhuka na rahu: sadhu na bhuka jaay

(O God give me enough that I may sustain my family
Don’t let me starve nor allow my guest to go away starving)

I asked him to write it on a piece of paper for me. In a wonderfully rounded deva nagiri script he wrote the doha that he recited on a clean sheet of paper and said ” Don’t ever confuse simplicity with not desiring for excellence in life. They are two separate things. Choose what you like and do a good job of it” he paused for a while and then said ” I would like to believe that I was a good teacher for all of you. I liked teaching and being with young minds. I had an opportunity and made the most of it. The world may or may not judge me in that manner but in my own eyes I have never let myself down on my expectations. The benefit of being my own conscience keeper was that I was always rejuvenated and found enormous happiness. You should learn to be your own diligent conscience keeper. That you should learn to do without fail. Always. Without exception“. After this Panditji abruptly stopped talking and we sat silent for an unusually long period of time. I felt Panditji was allowing me the time to absorb the gist of our conversation. I folded the paper neatly and shoved it carefully in a safe corner of my purse, stood up and gratefully took leave of him. He walked me to the gate of his house and said ” Apna khayal rakhna“. I nodded my head and walked away knowing well that Panditji will be at the gate, watching me with affection till I turn the street corner. I did not have the courage to turn back and wave my farewell to him

Many years later when I visited Panditji’s home on a break, I found the doors locked. Not to give up, I knocked at a neighbour’s door and enquired about Panditji’s whereabouts. In response I was told that Panditji had left for Haridwar and that his son’s family emigrated to Newzealand. They had informed that he has never left any forwarding address and a lot of mail keeps coming to the house. I felt quite disappointed. Unknowingly my hand went to my purse and I pulled the sheet of paper that Panditji had given me. Standing in front of the gate, I reread the doha silently. It was actually unnecessary for I had internalised the message reasonably well. My eyes moistened with tears of gratitude to think of Panditji who so lovingly granted me the protection of a saviour in (a) doha

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