Through the glens and glades of the relatively remote Soan valley of the Punjab, I have found still thriving in secluded corners a world where a stranger from the cities could, hiking through the leafy cool of the woods, breathe air that lends vigor to the lungs and the senses, pick figs and berries to nibble on, and stumble on bubbling freshwater springs to drink from. And one such spring on a slope near the lake is where my journey ends and I see the familiar face of my friend. I knew him briefly in the city before he invited me to his home which was this hill by the Kabakki lake.

Far away from any inn or resthouse, here hospitality is not a business but the way of life – an unpretentious traveler with a readiness to mingle could easily find himself eager hosts here. With their large families, it matters little to the people here if there is one more mouth to feed for a few days – especially since the food is not bought for, but either caught from the lake (1) or hunted from the woods. You would sleep under the starry sky and wake up to a breakfast of eggs or bird-meat, with bread fried with ghee, to wash down with a refreshing glass of a buttermilk drink. With little possessions to speak of, people here live without any fear of robbers or theives, who wouldn’t dare disturb them anyway for during the day, they would be deterred by the presence of the dozen or so members of the family all up and about, and during the night, by the wild animals and snakes. Their land not only gave them food and water, but also protection. It was thrilling to discover this life of harmony.

This was a self-contained world in more than just material terms. Socially, people here are individuals, each with a past stretches back through ancestral time and with a place in a grand unfolding tapestry of family sagas that are all part of the collective living memory. Spiritually, their devotion and reverence is rooted in their home, with spirits of ancestral saints or their jinn-disciples still walking amid them, especially in sacred places located in caves and creeks. Culturally, their narratives of adventure and miracle celebrated in storytelling and song bind them all, woman and man, child and adult, especially when revived during times of joy and sorrow, which are always shared. Social taboos are strong, but no stronger than the kindred feeling that leads to an attitude of acceptance, if not outright than tacit – a kind of begrudged benevolence – towards all.

In all of the strangeness, there was an even stranger feeling of recognition, of something dimly remembered. I realize that all those dream who have dreamed of a world stripped of its supercifical excesses to its bare minimmum where community and harmony with nature prevails, will feel exactly as I have felt here by the Kabakki lake in the Soan Valley. I leave here feeling that this is home – a feeling anyone who dreams will recognize.

(1) Note: This article recalls an experience of around a decade ago, when the locals had not been banned from fishing. Now, it is done by a for-profit business with endorsement from the local government.

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Identity and Software Piracy

February 15, 2013

For as long as he knew, he had been inventing himself. Maybe it was the spirit of the times – beta versions become final editions, and then there are all the updates, which mean bad news if you were using pirated software all along. In his world where reality seldom matched the end user experience assumed, nothing made more sense than bypassing the fair usage policies through cracks and key-generators. And of those you needed multiple simultaneous ones, because that’s the only way to beat the system when the rules keep changing.

(part of a novel I’m working on)

“I want to stop letting a sense of purpose override everything else in life. I want to live a little, and love, without the deadline for this or that scholarship I need to apply to, or this or that brainwave I need to put my life on hold for to follow through to its intellectual end – a poem or a mathematical theorem. The world doesn’t owe me any glory – glory is for the gods. I’m a mortal, and I don’t owe an enduring work of art or an invention to a world that doesn’t acknowledge my mortality, and expects my sweat and blood for glories it will take away from me as soon as there’s someone else in the limelight, or when I’m not “game” anymore, glories it will, after I’m gone, take for granted and forget.

Life can be lived much more meaningfully if you love and respect the little things around you, and not chase after the things you don’t have. I will take whatever knowledge comes my way, but I will not let my pursuit of knowledge or glory blind me to the beauty around me that I need to celebrate right here, right now. The sound of my beloved’s breath in slumber, as if issuing from the depths of his dreams. The many emotions that play on his beautiful face. The way his glass frame pushed back over his head makes partings in his heavy heath-like hair. The way he struggles to love a life that’s always falling short of his expectations, the way he loves me and is kind to me and loyal to me in spite of… everything, and not the least, our mere mortal selves.”

With his enkindled spirit, he pulls his body away from his beloved and off the bed. His feet already cold, the floor they tread feels like another layer of cold. In the kitchen, he turns the stove on and puts the water on heat, and his body, stimulated by the heat, starts to shed the cold stupor that lay encrusted on it. He watches the water dance through the opening of the vessel, which presently clouds over with incipient vapors. The heat clears up the pathways of sensation, and he hears the water sing. The water has started turning to steam, and the sound of a half-remembered dhamaal echoes in his ears as he imagines a whirling dancer’s spirit hovering over the body like this vapor over the bubbling, boiling water. He imagines the spirit soaring in its ecstasy like the vapor, diffusing into oneness with the all-embracing divine, and he imagines the dancer who lingered on this phase equilibrium too long, draining his bubbling life into his spirit.

Intending to breathe it in, he lowers his head over the open kettle after it has lent its liquid heat to his cup. The steam heals his aching sinuses just by becoming a part of his breath, and clears his eyes of the remnants the night’s shadows.

Birthdays and Death-Dates

February 14, 2013

The idea of destiny has always interested me, so bear with me as I revisit it from time to time on this blog. It is a part of our cultural genome, manifested in the celebration of birthdays, independence days, anniversaries, etc. It is closely tied to the very basic human feeling that events are not random, or meaningless, but in some intrinsic way, interrelated. As such, we take pains to mark dates, not merely for the purpose of an objective, impersonal history, but for a deep-rooted sense of their personal significance, almost as if these dates have a claim on our lives, or what defines us,  our “essence”. Even in some objective discourse, there is a focus on events rather than the processes which they are a part of, as if these events constitute a break with history. Thomas Hardy, in a stream of thought representing his character Tess, muses in his book Tess of the d’urberVilles, how in our catalogue of important dates that we mark as we progress through each day of the calendar, we always leave out the one most important date, that of our death. One wonders how this date passes us by every year and we barely notice it, until one day, it sneaks up on us, and claims our life, literally and metaphorically.

Those who feel that certain dates contain some source of “power” (such as birth-dates of religious personalities) other than what they themselves invest them with, through remembrance, are thus easily contradicted by their lack of feeling around these end-dates which remain in the shadows and induce no “power” until they have come to be.  If there is a “power” associated with the night the Quran was revealed, or the day Muhammad or Christ was born, and people claim they can feel it, why does no-one feel the power of so many significant dates of human experience that preceded it, which have lapsed into oblivion, or of those dates which are yet to be claimed by future “breaks” with his history? Why are there no horoscopes around deaths? One wonders if anyone has ever done a reverse astrology, reading a person’s life in terms of the astrological significance of their date of death. Or is death, perhaps, considered less destined than birth?

Thus we can say that it is only their symbolic import that makes events and dates seem significant. And if destiny is causality, then it is rooted in processes combining various factors.