Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Mahabaleshwar: A Holiday in the Hills

Mahabaleshwar is a place we had fallen in love with as children and our love affair with it continues to grow. I wouldn't call it a holiday destination because that does not not do justice to the affinity we have developed for it over the decades.

Our reasons for adoring it have changed. From a fun place which meant horse riding, boating and adventures as kids, our relationship with it has evolved. It is now more of an escape to nature, to mother Earth herself. For nowhere else have I felt that connect with such intensity as here.

So, Diwali time it was and a time to escape the firecrackers into the welcoming arms of this green haven. Everything about our visits is so right...It begins with the pleasant six hour drive Mumbai via the expressway to Pune and thereon from the scenic Wai onward to Mahabaleshwar. The monsoons have just ended and the landscape is lush green for most of the journey. We halt at one of the food courts for Maharashtra's favourite snack, the Wada Pav with its spicey chutney. A warm welcome awaits us at our hotel which is located just right~ amid a thick forest yet not too far away from the main town area either.

In fact, our hotel rooms housed in a bedroom apartment were quite massive with the high ceiling typical of older M'war hotels. The secluded, spaced out rooms and our being among all the trees was reassuring in a tourist town where demand for rapid expansion has changed entire hotel layouts. It had all the trappings of a resort such as a swimming pool, games and activities..not that I care much about these. Give me serenity and nature any day! And for that I didn't have to look far. There's an old world simplicity about the place, the innocence of the locals and honesty in dealings with travelers. Despite rapid development (Mahabaleshwar is a top 10 tourist destination of India), it retains its quintessential hill station charm, thankfully because it falls under a protected zone. The locals continue to live in tiny, picturesque villages, some of them miles away from the main town.

And what does one do if not a lover of the trees, birds, clear blue skies and cool, fresh mountain air? Well, there's a lot to suit everyone. So you have para-gliding (seasonal), water sports at two places, Dhom dam (Wai) and at Tapola, the fair by the Venna Lake and even Go Karting. For me, however, long walks among the words, listening to bird calls and spotting them, letting my camera lens talk and just dissolving into the serenity is my nirvana! We just can't get enough of the lavish views of valleys, rivers and the rugged Sahayadri ranges which melt into the distant horizon.

As the town does not have much of street lighting, the action shifts to two night spots after sun down~ the Venna Lake and the Market place. The lake is a shadow of its former self, what with the work done to increase the capacity of the reservoir. However, a walk down the Market place remains a favourite activity for the aroma of roasted channa, corn, food stuff and bright sight of familiar street vendors and shops. The leather shops are famous for their handmade shoes, bags and belts. Just window shopping and ambling along is such a rich experience. Vehicles are debarred from this street, which makes life easier.
And while walking along, munch on roasted corn or pick up fresh strawberries~ the fruit that empitomises Mahabaleshwar. Also, so many dishes have either corn, strawberries or mulberries as ingredients~ corn patties, strawberry/mulberry with fresh cream, ice creams, milk shakes and other such concoctions. In fact some desserts are so rich, they are meals by themselves! The roadside eateries on the Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani road are our choice for dining. From local Maharashtrian cuisine to delectable berry based desserts, nowhere else have we eaten such good stuff! 

After a week of being spoilt by good food, the quiet and freshness, on the last day of our holiday we experience withdrawal symptoms. We linger at a viewing point overlooking the valley, watching the sunset paint the skies in glorious hues.. one positive is that the drive back is also a joy. Just past Wai, we halt at a roadside sugarcane juice stall. The cane is fresh produce from an adjoining field.

Divine! What begins well ends well too.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Writing is Easier than Public Speaking

A few of my friends on Social Media got in touch with me recently. They needed my advice and assistance in learning writing. It is much easier to write well than to be a good teacher of writing, I realised. In order to create a basic template that might help others too, I decided to write a post on it.

If you are petrified of public speaking, writing is much easier. I believe that unlike painting or music, which might not be everyone's cup of tea, almost anyone can be a good writer. There are of course those highly gifted among us to whom this skill is innate. For everybody else, it is all about practice~ write, write and keep writing.

1) Journaling ~
Before you have the confidence to share your writing with others, you could write for yourself. Maintaining a daily journal helps bring clarity of thought. Your journey as a writer begins with understanding yourself. This is very important if your writing is non-technical content. It also inculcates the discipline of writing regularly and gradually you begin to get the feel of it.

2) Reading ~
When I set out to be a writer as a blogger in 2012, besides my mentors who gave me timely tips, reading well written posts became my best teacher. I became a voracious consumer of tips on importance of the headline, visuals, keywords and length of paragraphs in a post. This inspired me to raise my own standards, and I tried to their match their felicity in communicating.

3) Well etched out characters ~
If you recall the movies which are your all time favourites, besides being well written and directed, they all have strong characters. Characters so strong that they have stayed with you decades later.  From literature, can you easily forget Howard Roarke (The Fountainhead) or Michael Corleone (The Godfather)? A writer has to be alert and observant. Notice how people from various walks of life converse and emote to pick up mini stories from them.

4) Emotions ~
Stories are about emotions otherwise they would be bland and insipid. The emotions can be nuanced or piercing as the turn of events in a story demands. Emotions build empathy with your reader.

5) Audience ~
Who is your audience? Are they teenagers or a mature audience? What are their expectations from you? As a film maker once said, 'Making Art house cinema which runs to empty houses is self indulgence. I make movies for real audiences.' A well defined audience brings alignment between your writing and their tastes.

6) Purpose ~
Why am I writing this? Is it just to enjoy myself (which is perfectly okay on a Blog) or is it with a clearer aim that I have not defined? Is it a social message that needs to be conveyed with authority? If it is meant to stir an audience to action, you would do well by incorporating a 'call to action' hook at the end of the article or story.

7) Genre ~
You might be versatile, however, by and large writers develop their predominant style and are known for a genre. So you might be adept at humour, satire, light romance, erotica, mysteries or non-fiction writing. You don't need to be reminded about who became a legend as 'the Queen of mystery novels'. Maybe she could have picked up some other genre with equal ease. She stuck to that which had become her unquestionable brand. This applies to almost all forms of writing.

8) Voice ~
Watch two good actors playing similar roles, each one leaves his own stamp on it. Besides each one's acting style and mannerism, it is inner creative expression that's making a mark on us. A good writer similarly develops his own voice. The subconscious mind is a treasure trove of wisdom! Meditation and introspection brought my inner voice to the fore.

9) Simplicity ~
The other day I was reading a story by an Indian writer who seemed to have an excellent command over English. Initially, I was thoroughly impressed by her vocabulary. One paragraph into her otherwise fascinating story, I lost interest and quit reading it. The complexity of the words used marred the flow of narrative. My favourite Authors of all time have used lucid, easily understandable language that lends to the flow. Also, very long winded sentences can be chopped into a few shorter ones.

10) Detailing ~

Genres, stories and situations define the amount of detailing required. Accordingly you etch out the character, establish the settings and so on. A great writer makes you smell, feel, listen to and visualise the scenes of his story as if they were playing out right in front of you.

11) Compelling narrative
We live in an era when mini stories are narrated in 140 characters! The advent of the internet and social media has made the average reader impatient. Meandering aimlessly in the narrative is a sure way to lose the reader's interest. Whether it is with twists and turns or with interesting happenings in the story, the reader must be kept engaged all through. Is the writing full of energy? Use of 'power words' lends conviction and authority to your writing when justified.

12) Ebbs and highs ~

Master writers create nuanced change in pace and mood of the story. Creating an appropriate build up before hurling the reader into frenzied action. Nothing is as off putting as monotony of pace.

13) Length ~
According to the format you are writing for, the length of your write up has to measure up to match that. A blog post typically is 300 to 500 words in length (although if the subject demands so you can write much longer posts. A post I wrote yesterday was 1178 words long). I decided to keep my book length to under 250 pages.

14) Editing ~

The initial draft is all about getting your thoughts out on paper (or onto your computer). The grammar and composition does not really matter at that stage. Most writers begin with drafts and then land up with finished articles after a series of corrections, chopping and changing. I, for instance, kick myself when I locate typos or a word out of place in my published post. It signifies that I do not care for my readers enough.

The list goes on and on but I have shared what I felt was most relevant. Hope this post has whetted your appetite enough to go on a writing spree!

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Then I Learnt To Let Go

And I was a bottled up jar of emotions, grudges and memories until my late twenties. A traumatic childhood contributed in part to my mindset being such. The prime target was my father, whom I hated with all my guts. In general, I hated everything. Including life. Self pity engulfed me as I chose to play victim.

Did the circumstances justify this attitude? Not really. Everyone has some problem or other, it is how one chooses to deal with it that makes the difference. While it is true that there were trigger events that were too hot to handle for a child, there was a great support system around me. I ignored that and sulked about how miserable my lot was.

The shift happened very, very gradually. It was only when I was in my late twenties that the first signs of maturity awakened in me. In hindsight, I now know that Bipolar Disorder, diagnosed only when I was past forty, set in at adolescence and played with my emotions and impaired judgment.

Initially my journey of purging my burdened mind did not begin with a design or at a conscious level. Meditation began the subtle shift.

Every event, every person, every challenge has a purpose in your life~ to make you or break you. And even those that break you, have the potential to make you stronger.
My myriad challenges made me look deep within for answers. My spiritual journey took me to an exalted new level of freedom.
When one gets rid of every layer of grime covering the soul, one experiences lightness of being.

So, I learnt to let go.

I learnt to let go of hatred.

To be able to do so, one has to replace hatred with forgiveness, which I did.

So I let go of blame.
All it needed was ownership. That I was responsible for where I was.

So I let go of expectations.
The 'shoulds' which keep on bothering us~ she shouldn't have behaved like this, he could have been more supportive and so on.

So I let go of hurtful memories.
I did nothing specific. A heart full of love finds it difficult to hold such memories.

So I let go of anger.
Anger, the unjustified kind, is a sign that we find we are lacking somewhere and thus need to take it out on a hapless person.

So I let go of fear.
What was there to be afraid of for a man who had full faith in God's ways?

So I let go of secrecy.
And opened up. Writing my gut-wrenching story in the form of a Book was a cathartic experience. People tell me, it must have been difficult. I say, there's nothing more difficult than holding a secret deep in our hearts.

For, we are not designed to hold secrets.

And I keep letting go, for I am not perfect.
Gratitude to Priya Chawla, a friend, artist and thinker.
Her fantastic charcoal sketch, which I have used here with her prior permission, prompted my stream of thoughts..

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Three Paintings and a Canvas

She shivered in the cold, trying to protect herself from the blistering wind as best as she could. Her eyes darted around to see if someone would pass by. Anjali had never imagined that the trek in the forest could have landed her in this situation. She wished she had heeded the call of her friends to stick together and not drifted so far apart in her quest to admire nature..the flowers, birds and trees...the sights and sounds of nature she loved. She had shouted for help until her throat felt sore...they seemed to be well out of range. Now, afraid, cold, she was caught between hope and fear as dusk closed in on her. The beauty of the valley below with a light mist enveloping it seemed lost on her.

A Saviour?
The rustle of leaves prompted her to shout out Help! A thin young man, crept out of the trees. He just stared at her. This made her decidedly uncomfortable and nervous. Trying to hide her fear, she blurted "My friends are just around that bend and about to join me. They should be here any time now. Who are you?"
Surya maintained a stony silence and kept staring at her. Anjali then somehow sensed, with a woman's sixth sense, that her worst fears were true. She was assaulted brutally until she almost lost consciousness. Surya was about to push her down the cliff when she, with folded hands pleaded him to let her live. Thankfully, Surya, just disappeared into the night.

Three years later...
There was Anjali again. At the same scenic spot which brought back the darkest day of her life back to her present..she lived with each wound physical and those inflicted on her mind. Unruffled this time, although she was alone and dusk was approaching. This was the exact day, three years on and nothing much had changed at this breathtaking spot, whereas everything had, for the person who was now reliving it. There she sat, quiet, her feet dangling down the cliff. And then she heard the rustle of feet on dry leaves. Her heartbeat quickened. She kept looking down at the valley. Surya stood at a distance and peered at her in amazement. Then he threw his head back and laughed, wondering at the foolishness of this prey of his. He advanced toward Anjali and she was caught between the edge of the cliff and this monster who loomed menacingly in front of her. She turned around, got up and pleaded with him. "Please, I am just getting over that horror, let me go or I'll jump off the cliff." Surya found this amusing as he snatched her wrist in attempt to pull her towards him. In one whiplash of a movement Anjali swiveled around and pushed him with his own momentum off the cliff. The look of surprise and disbelief on his face made this worthwhile, as her fiery eyes caught a glint of the dark orange sun. Quietly, she trundled back to the car park, walking through terrain which she now knew like the back of her hand.

And a year down the line..
This day had become a ritual of sorts. There was the same cold breeze, the same enchanting beauty all around her. Anjali had, however, lost the ability to appreciate any of this as she sat in a contemplative mood. These were just elements which existed but did not touch her soul. Then the rustle of firm footsteps on dead leaves, the distinct crackle that kept playing in her mind over and over like her own screams. She remained calm, to her own surprise. A man in a bright yellow T-Shirt and jeans joined her. As he admired the view of the valley before them, he seemed to say half to himself, half to her, "This is like the perfect painting. I must come here with my easel sometime." That made her curious but she kept mum. As the sun set fully, he then began walking back and seeing her still seated there, asked her,
"Aren't you scared of the dark that will be soon be enveloping us under the thick forest cover? We should be heading back to safety fast."

Without answering him, she got up and quietly made her way. On the path back, Karan struck up a conversation. "Hope you don't mind but I'm the talkative type." This brought that rare half smile on Anjali's pale, beautiful face. Before she knew it, she had agreed to have coffee with him at a famous hill town Cafe. Karan shared his side of the story which Anjali heard patiently without her facial expressions revealing anything. He paused decently for Anjali to speak. "Do you speak at all?" This made Anjali laugh but she immediately withdrew into a shell again, examining her emotions. Seeing that her thoughts had drifted, Karan chose to remain quiet too as they both sipped coffee.

They met a second time at an old book shop, this time accidentally. She shyly acknowledged his presence.

On their third meet, this time in the same Cafe, "I don't mean to pry but you do seem to be in a world of your own" Karan said. Anjali looked away and her eyes welled up with tears. Karan said, "Let's meet at what seems like your favourite spot tomorrow. If you feel so, let's talk"

It was Karan's turn to be silent. In fact he was overwhelmed by what he heard as the setting sun painted Anjali's face in warm hues, making her look all the more beautiful. The eyes which welled up with tears were now his. Anjali clasped his hand as they slowly walked back.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

To the Mother Born

(Image Courtesy~ Meenal Jaiswal)
Eighty is a mighty number when we consider that life expectancy of Indian women is less than seventy years. So when our Mom, Indumati, recently turned eighty, it was a special occasion. It is unfortunate that we could not celebrate it with gusto as we would have wanted to.

Her frailty and rapidly deteriorating health have taken a toll on her spirit~ well, almost. It is painful to watch the inevitable while knowing one is helpless. That whatever modern medicine can do for her degenerative spine is being done. That eighteen pills a day over many years have failed to reduce her pain and even the brave one is now cracking under the brunt of weeks of sleepless nights and untold discomfort.

I try to mollify myself that all this is the cycle of karma..we are born, grow up and eventually wither away. Is there an escape? Acceptance is a balm.

In her prime, she has been a lady who has never failed to inspire me. Sis and I owe a lot of our qualities to her. If we are honest, disciplined, resourceful and fiercely independent, we owe it to what we learnt from her, the fine example that she herself set.

In the mid sixties, when break ups of marriages were rare in India and virtually unheard of in a tiny village like Vasai where her maternal home was, she chose to take this call. Her children's future was more important to her than the questions society would ask of her and an abusive husband was not an ideal that she wanted us to emulate.

All three of us had the good fortune of the shelter that our magnanimous maternal Uncle provided us. To me, although he wasn't my biological father, he is the hero I look up to till this date. Mom made all efforts to ensure that our financial burden on Uncle was minimised. She took up odd jobs of embroidery and knitting which she excelled at.

When I finished College and stood on my own feet, it was a sense of relief for Mom, for my Uncle would not have to support us any more. So, since the ripe age of twenty I have managed to provide for my family, hopefully with reasonable success. As my business began to flourish, we managed to purchase our first apartment in Mumbai: the first place she could call home in the truest sense. Going out on vacations together gave us most joy.

Life has its ways. My late marriage brought in friction which is a rule rather an exception in India as more and more and more urban families decide to go nuclear. Much against my wishes and a move that brought about great anguish in me, my mom and sis decided to live separately shortly afterward. Fortunately, they stay very close by. All the same I feel everyday that she misses me~ such is her love for me. Also, I cannot comfort her and be by her side as easily as I previously could.

As her illnesses get better of her, she has fallen prey to depression. Unimaginable for a woman of spunk. Everyone used to tease her for her habit of wearing 'matching clothing and accessories', for her zest for life even when well past seventy five. A woman so full of life, bustling with energy, enthusiastic about learning, reading, picking up new skills. Until a few weeks ago, she cooked all the meals..even that joy has been seized from her since the sprightly woman now hobbles across even a few feet across the living room. She has gone quieter too.

I love you Mom. I know over the last few years I have not been able to give you adequate time. The brunt of taking care of you has solely fallen on Sis and she has done a magnificent job of it. Just wish I could absorb all your pain..

God bless you and thank you for all you have done for us. Am proud to be your son!

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Gravity: The Centre Of The Universe

"Isn't Your Ego getting ahead of you of late?" asked the sing song voice inside me.

With my eyes still shut and after due thought, I replied.
"I too have sensed it, What exactly has changed? Can't place a finger on it."

"When was the last time you thought of me, spoke to me or hugged me?"
she asked in her soft voice without any trace of bitterness in it. Compassion flowed from her being.

The silence that followed was a calming experience. At last I was heading back to where I always wanted to be, from where I had veered away.

"There has been an exciting upturn in my life and perhaps due to this, my mind has been racing in multiple directions at the same time."

"It happens to everyone, don't fret about it."
And then she snuggled up to me.

The serenity I then experienced reminded me of my daily sojourns of the past...

I decided there and then that I must not forget this daily refuge of mine.

For my soul is my compass, the centre of my universe. Where I must gravitate to.

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