Kashmir

This one’s for you, Mahen-uncle and Vina-aunty.

Can paradise be regained by arresting development in Kashmir?

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I left Kashmir on September 1st after attending a 75th birthday celebration in Srinagar. The event was held near the Dal Lake and the famed Chinar trees (Platanus Orietalis) were resplendent. Kashmiris clad in saris and pashmina shawls gathered to reminisce about the land that they called home. It was raining as my plane took off from Srinagar. I remember worrying about whether that would cause flight delays. The rain continued the next day. At that time, I told my friend that when good events happen, the rain Gods would send their benevolent blessing with a shower. In the Carnatic music tradition, which I belong to, there is a raga called Amritavarshini that brings rain to parched tropical earth when sung. It was this that I had in mind when I made the comment about auspicious rain. I didn’t realize then that this was no gentle shower. The heavens were unleashing their fury; and this, combined with the global warming that caused surface temperatures to rise by a degree and glaciers to break out into water, would result in an apocalyptic flood, the likes of which the Kashmir valley had not seen in over a century.

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Two weeks hence, the floods are slowly receding but the numbers keep growing. The Indian government has to spend an estimated 6000-crore for rebuilding efforts in Kashmir. Thanks to the speed with which this natural catastrophe overtook the state, there has been no concerted coordination of international relief and response to the disaster. Instead, there are terrific grassroots efforts by organizations such as JKfloodrelief.org, run by volunteers; Uber, the global taxi service that uses its cars to pick up medicines and other relief material from Delhi; Goonj, an NGO that collects and distributes vaccines, blankets, and other rehabilitation materials; Uday Foundation and several others. The state government, which was overwhelmed at the scale of the disaster, is now limping back into action. And questions are being asked. Why did the floods happen? Who is to blame? How can this be prevented?

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One of the reasons is staring at Kashmiris quite literally in the face: the Himalayan mountains. Thanks to climate change, Himalayan glaciers are shattering and spooling downwards into the valley, causing its rivers to overflow. Combine this with poor urban planning and a disregard for the environment, and the Kashmir floods, as some experts say, were a “disaster waiting to happen.” Rains proved to be the tipping point and rampant construction was the chief culprit. Comparisons to our neighbor across the border didn’t help either.

In India, it is fashionable to say that we have to focus on growth above all. China is viewed as the model when it comes to infrastructure and growth. Environmental sustainability is seen as old fashioned and slow. Some builders dismiss talk of sustainability as a “rich country’s problem that India must only tackle after we have provided a roof over every citizen’s head.” As the Kashmir and Uttarakhand floods have shown, this approach is short-sighted and economically unviable.

Part of the reason why over 500,000 people were left stranded without homes was because of rampant construction in river embankments, bed, and flood zones. Massive deforestation on the mountains increased the flow of water down to the valley. Kashmir’s countless lakes that were once catchment areas for water are now choked with human waste and filth. Nature, normally an ally against natural disasters was dismissed and run roughshod over. This week, the government stated that the construction on river beds would be under scrutiny. This is an important first step in moving Kashmir to the paradise that it once was.

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Kashmir occupies a conflicted yet sacred place in the Indian imagination. Much of Indian philosophy came from the Hindu scholars who populated Kashmir from the 8th to the 12th centuries. This beauteous land inspired numerous Mughal emperors, including Jahangir who called it paradise on earth. Even today, the land inspires fierce loyalty. My friend’s father flew thousands of miles to spend his 75th birthday in the land that nurtured him. Had he known how much the floods would ravage his beloved land, I imagine that he and his wife would never had left Srinagar.

Shoba Narayan is the author of “Return to India: a memoir.”

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Train Diary 1

Train diary No.1: We’re all in it together Trains, along with cricket, Bollywood and food, are cultural touchstones. They are part of our collective subconscious and define us as Indians

Shoba Narayan

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I am on the Mysore-Mayiladuthurai Express, a long and rather wonderful royal-blue train that cuts through interior Karnataka and Tamilnadu.  Mysore, where it originates, is like the humanities department of a great university, churning out stalwarts in multiple areas: R.K. Narayan the writer; R.K. Laxman the cartoonist; T.S. Satyan the photographer; Thirumalai Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois, and B.K.S. Iyengar the yoga masters; the Mysore school of musicians including Mysore Vasudevachar and Veena Doraiswamy Iyenger among others.  What is it about that gentle city that churns out such creativity? Is it the pace of life or some additive in the water?

The final destination is Mayiladu-thurai, which means the “place/port in which peacocks dance.”  I am getting off in Kumbakonam however, because it is the gateway to the great Chola temples of Tamilnadu.

There is no easy way to get to Kumbakonam from Bangalore.  Red Bus is the best option but my parents are dead against me travelling overnight by bus.  They don’t bother much when I travel by planes except to get broad date of travel and return.  Trains and buses, they understand.  So they’ve jumped in and pulled me back to the time I was a 16-year-old.   The waitlist clears on the train and the advice pours out.  “If you get a side berth, make friends with the T.T. and shift to an inside berth,” says my mother.  “Upper berth is better than lower.”  “Don’t wear jewelry.”  “Take a metal chain and bolt your bag to the berth.”  “Lock your bag.”  I inhale deeply and try to enjoy the parental concern.

Trains, along with cricket, Bollywood and food are cultural touchstones.  They are part of our collective unconscious and define us as Indians.  The farther we go, the more we long for the trains of our childhood.  I know an executive who works at Louis Vuitton.  He wants to take his children on trains “third class or unreserved, just like we used to as kids.”  What is it about trains that produces this yearning?

Perhaps it is the commonality of experience.  Perhaps it is memories of childhood trips with parents who are relaxed and expectant about joys to come.  Perhaps it is memories of quarrelling for a seat in the unreserved compartment to get to a marriage of people you didn’t like and spending a sleepless night stuffed beside strangers who turned out to be not so bad after all.  Or perhaps it is simply the comforting chug of the engine, the toot of the horn into the night sky, and the rhythmic click-clack of the wheels.  No other mode of transport save trains can duplicate an experience that offers the best and worst of travel.  Planes in contrast are anemic, sanitized and soul-less.  Take my own trip on this ordinary train, no different from those plying Punjab and stopping at Bhatinda; or those in Rajasthan between Jodhpur and Dungarpur.  Trains connect India.  Want to go to Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh from Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh? No better way than to catch a train.  Want to get to nearby Kumbakonam from Bangalore? Train it is.

The rituals surrounding train travel are both universal and specific.  You buy your Patrika, Dainik Jagran, or Dinamalar newspaper from the railway stall; throw in a bottle of water and maybe a zarda-paan or two.  Depending on the station, vendors will walk by with regional specialties: hot milk in Erode station; matka dahi or curds; chikki; samosa or packaged idlis.  You buy your tiffin, lunch or dinner in case you haven’t brought it from home and await the train.  The chugging in is always a thrilling sight.  I think it has to do with perspective and proportion.  Train engines are designed for the human eye: not as large or ungainly as an airplane.  The rectangular blue box that is the engine appears in the distance, usually rounding a curve.  Then it pulls in and everyone rushes to board—bag, baggage or suitcase in hand.  In the old days, my family travelled with a magnificent contraption that we called a “hold-all.”  It held some razais or dhurries to cushion us on the metal berths in second-class; and held clothes, towels, shoes and assorted travel accouterments.  Today, everyone pulls along a wheelie and the red-uniformed porters stare at their waning business bereft.

Indians react to train departures like no other nation.  We stand around, holding hands across the window and passing food.  We are a culture of prolonged goodbyes.  Our boundaries are porous, whether it is between people (no concept of ‘personal space’ in India); or spaces (inside and the outside merge in our psyche).  We pass food and drink to relatives through train windows.  My friend, Shelja Rathore, still does this in Jodhpur, arriving at the station at all hours of day and night to hand over homemade kachoris or rotis to travelling relatives as a token of love and concern.  We ask routine questions: are you okay, how was the journey, pass on my inquiries to bhaiyya/bhabhi/nana/chachi/insert honorific.  Perhaps that is all we need to connect: food and a porous train window.

Nothing matches the high drama of a train departure.  Where else can you run beside the train, holding on to hand, finger, then little finger, then scarf, before letting go and waving till the train disappears.  You certainly cannot run after an airline; and you’d bump into the passing cow if you tried this stunt in inter-city buses.  Trains are designed for our sort of goodbye. Everyone is running, sobbing, yelling out instructions, and then frantically waving goodbyes and asking the traveller to call the moment the train reaches destination.

Shoba Narayan runs besides trains and buys banana leaf packets of hot steaming idlis at every possible station.

Travelling with Kids New Zealand

Great headline. The Mecca of cross-country driving vacations is of course, America. Growing up in India, we can go on too many driving trips. Our childhood memories were built around train travel.

Solving being driven to distraction

A driving vacation in New Zealand taught us that being cooped up in a car for hours at a stretch wasn’t all that bad.

Within the first hour of picking up our rental car in Auckland, New Zealand, both my daughters puked. We were at the beginning of a 10-day vacation in New Zealand. The plan was to drive to Christchurch and then Queenstown before looping back up to Auckland. Except that the car was smelling to high heaven. We stopped off at a grocery store and bought cleaning supplies, wondering if we were doing the right thing by driving so many miles with two active young children. Then came the first surprise. “We’ll help you clean up,” said my elder daughter, Ranju. After steadying ourselves, we decided to take up her offer. And so it began, this bonding trip that took us so far from home.

A driving vacation requires proper planning. We had to make sure that there were tasty snacks and drinks, particularly in those long sections where there was no rest area for miles. We brought along games and listened to audiobooks. What was surprising was how much we discovered about each other. There’s something about a moving vehicle and beautiful scenery that brings out the poet and philosopher in travelers. So it was with our family. Our younger daughter, Malu, had always been interested in geography. The vast expanses of New Zealand gave full play to her imagination. Except with a twist. Rather than asking questions as children do, we discovered that Malu ended up answering questions. She had studied quite a lot about the land and its geology. She could point out specific rocks, and tell us about the age of the continent. For any parent, discovering the depth of your child’s knowledge is a particular pleasure. It often doesn’t happen at home, when one is caught up in the routine of homework and extracurricular activities. It took a country at the tip of the earth and driving for hours at a stretch to bring out the teacher in 10-year-old Malu.

It was a little different with our elder daughter, Ranju, 15. She was a practical sort and helped her father deal with changing automobile oil, filling up gas, and examining the spare tire. Ever the diplomat, she even mediated a quarrel between my husband and I while our younger one slept. We were shocked and mortified to discover that not only had we failed in our resolve never to fight in front of the kids but that our child was mature enough to mediate our petty quarrel and that she was good at it. We had little choice, we told ourselves later. How long could one bottle up simmering resentments while cooped up in a vehicle?

Ten days later, ww returned the car to the rental agency, hoping that it still didn’t smell. We giggled and chuckled amongst ourselves as we stood in line to hand over the papers. We had explored a beautiful land and had wonderful experiences. Best of all, we had gotten to know each other in a way that we wouldn’t have at home. That alone made the vacation worth it.

Day 4: July 18 2014

I am so mad. I woke up at 3 AM and surfed the Internet for two hours, looking at Hermes and Louis Vuitton bags.
Fell asleep at 5 AM and woke up at 630 again.
I could’ve meditated but I didn’t.
Instead the day has gone.
I have just sat down from 330 to 345.
I can feel myself slipping back to my old mode again.
If it weren’t for this damn log, I doubt that I would be meditating even.
So what did I do today? I breathed in and out 45 times. My mind was swirling the entire time. I need to find an architect to get the quote for an article. I was thinking about deadlines. Was thinking about what I would write in the stupid log. Mostly, I was mad at myself.
I don’t even know why I’m doing this. I am really looking forward to the yoga class in an hour. At least there, I will be doing something.

Focus

Today was the worst day. I walked around searching for my glasses with them on my head. That does it. I need to start a “meditation project.” Everyday. Ten minutes. At least.

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My inability to meditate properly is really stressing me out
Shoba Narayan
July 14, 2014 Updated: July 14, 2014 05:26 PM

In his book, Focus: The Hidden Ingredient of Excellence, author Daniel Goleman talks about the different kinds of attention. The most obvious kind of focus, he says, is concentration where the mind is rooted to a task until a solution is reached. This type of focus is best suited to analytical work.
Creative insights, on the other hand, occur when the mind is loose, open, and aware. There is a reason why psychologists like to put their subjects on the couch. When you are lying down and daydreaming, you reach into your psyche and touch upon aspects that are not normally on the surface. This is the site of insight and intuition.
There are a few ways to trigger the pathways that open intuition, insight and imagination.
The easiest way is to go to sleep. There is a reason why we wake up and discover that the knotty problem that we have been wrestling with has been solved overnight. Another way is to meditate. Meditating, or accepting thoughts as they come and sending them on their way, allows the mind to relax. It expands and opens the brain and primes its receptors to the sort of ideas and insights that leap across boundaries.
I am a failed meditator. I have tried sitting cross-legged and attempted to “watch my thoughts,” as it were. Sadly, they were all over the place. They did not make sense and worst of all they were mundane, tacking the kind of trivia that is traditionally the realm of children and old women: “Should I have acted differently at the party? Did I pay the right amount for those dozen apples or did I overpay?” my mind wandered. “Did I forget to turn the gas off before ducking out of the door?” The idle mind, they say, is a devil’s workshop. My idle mind was a fool’s paradise, focusing on personal issues and unresolved business of the most idiotic nature. Sometimes, I daydreamed of holidays. Mostly, I fell asleep sitting up. Meditation wasn’t helping me with focus. It was helping me combat insomnia.
Meditation is among the hardest things to do, particularly in this world that values action over stillness and doing over being.
I have tried meditating for years and I have failed. I find sitting still terrifying. I feel guilty for not doing anything. It seems like such a waste of time to just sit there.
The problem with such practices is that their benefits are not immediately obvious. You can read the literature. You can fully buy into the Dalai Lama’s assurance that meditation is the path to rewiring your brain. You can listen to Steve jobs talk about opening the channels of intuition and imagination. You can take online courses on mindfulness and focusing attention, all of which are essential for leaders. It still doesn’t make the actual task easy.
I have tried novel approaches. I have pretended to be a Tibetan monk while sitting cross legged and trying to control my thoughts. It made me feel good. It put me in a good mood and gave me a beatific smile. But as for controlling my impulses, the chocolate cravings only grew stronger.
Then I decided that sitting still was not for me. I would do walking meditation – like Steve Jobs who walked while holding meetings because nature triggers positive neural impulses.
The only problem was that nobody wanted to walk with me. I told my husband that I was going to be Joan of Arc and meditate on a horse. His gaze didn’t alter.
In desperation, I have come to you, dear reader.
Here is a challenge: both for you and for me. Let us meditate for 20 minutes every day. Announcing something like this helps sustain action, according to social psychology. So this in a sense, is my last ditch effort to get on the path to mental nirvana. I will keep you posted as to whether it works.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Intuition/Imagination

Leap before you think

Before he began Apple, Steve Jobs spent seven months in India, something that is described in his biography by Walter Isaacson. In it, Jobs talks poetically about the difference between intellect and intuition. “The people in the Indian countryside do not use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect in my opinion.”
Jobs was not a fan of India. If he identified intuition as the one Indian thing that he wanted to emulate, that is worth considering. There are a few Sanskrit words for intuition: pratibha being the most common one. Developing intuition, discernment (or viveka) and wisdom (vijnana) have been Indian preoccupations for centuries.
Different cultures are obsessed with different things at different stages in their evolution. Japan, for instance, is obsessed with refinement and perfectionism. Singapore is obsessed with systems. China, with scale. The US, with innovation. Ancient Indians were obsessed with self-cultivation; to figure out “how God thinks”, as Albert Einstein said.
In a quote attributed to Einstein, he said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Notice that this scientist used the word sacred—proving that the rational and the intuitive are not as disconnected as we make them out to be.
Intuition is something that every religion knew about. Jesus, as the story of Lazarus (and the fish which had a four-drachma coin in its mouth) illustrates, was a man of intuition. As was Mohammed the Prophet. In today’s world, we call these intuitive thinkers visionaries. Religion teaches us that the way to develop intuition is through prayer and meditation. As Jobs says: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to comment, it will only make it worse. But over time, it does calm down, and when it does, there is room to hear more subtle things—that is when your intuition starts to blossom.”
Typically, flashes of insight that are the result of intuition occur at dawn. This is the time when the free-flowing, loose, flexible stillness of the mind gives rise to solutions that are fully formed. During the day, the mind is a wandering beast. Typically, when you try to sit still and meditate, the mind wanders to knotty problems that need to be solved: who said what to whom and how to resolve unfinished business. But if you can still your mind and keep it loose, you increase the chances of insight; of the muse sitting on your shoulder and allowing your imagination to flourish.
Focusing on the moment is the gift that prayer and meditation afford. There are many things that civilizations use to centre their mind. Tibetans use bells. In Aldous Huxley’s novel, Island, which recreates a utopian land, parrots fly over people screeching, “Here and now, boys. Here and now.” They were reminding the islanders to focus on the present; to live for the here and now. The anklets that Indian women wear serve a similar purpose. Try it. The rhythmic jingle of these anklets when you walk serves to bring your mind back to the musical sound; to the here and now.
The ability to voluntarily bring back a wandering mind again and again and again is what we call meditation. American psychologist William James said that this ability to focus was the root of judgement, character and will. The wandering mind is also the root of imagination and creativity.
Paradoxically, it is the controlled kind of wondering that elicits the best results. Think of a kite—rooted to the earth and yet bobbing in the sky. That is the kind of mind-wandering that we need to create. In a famous Time magazine cover that appeared decades ago, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg said, “I dream for a living.” Daydreaming creates the kind of associations that lead to blockbuster movies—and companies, I might add. The trick then is to allow the mind to fly and figure out how to rein it in. Indians have numerous tools for this. We have anklets, for example.
Neuroscientists ask people to close their eyes to see how much the mind flits around. When the eyes move behind closed lids, so does the mind. Bharatanatyam has a famous saying that is taught to every new dancer. It is from the Abhinaya Darpana (Mirror Of Gesture), by the redoubtable Nandikeshvara, often spoken of as a rival to Bharata Muni, who composed the Natya Shastra, the foundation of dance and other arts. In Sutra 36-37 of Abhinaya Darpana, the author talks about how to focus the mind and create rasa or emotion. This famous verse goes: “Yatho hastha thatho drishti. Yatho drishti thatho manah. (Where the hands go, there the eyes will follow. Where the eyes go, there the mind will follow)”.
You want to meditate? Hold your hands in a certain position (mudra, according to Buddhists), and focus your eyes on an object.

Shoba Narayan’s favourite mudra is “bhoomi sparsha mudra” or “caressing the earth mudra”. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com