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Friday, April 30, 2010

A short story: Journey to a Vortex

Dharini never stopped wondering at me.
“Seshu Bhaiya, how is it that you know so much?” Sesha Gopalan Venkatanarayanan was such a tedious name even for more matured and understanding. So I became Seshu for everyone from tiny tots to golden oldies. Dharini is my younger sister. We were separated by a gap of fifteen years. She was turning from five to six in a month or so and always had a question to ask me.
‘Why is this?’ ‘What is this?’ ‘How is this?’
Once, I tried to prove myself to her as a walking encyclopedia– thanks to Google, Wikipedia and a host of websites on internet that provided any information you wanted in an instant. ‘How can one color one’s hair?’ ‘How can one change diaper for a kid?’ or ‘Why madisar style of wearing saree is superior for ladies?’ You have answer, many times with pictures, photos and videos even. It is there for our asking on internet.
I loved Dharini, her un-quenchable thirst for information and unending questioning. What one day, she became another Nobel Laureate when my name would be mentioned prominently in her biography and her memoirs. “Madam, Can you tell who was your mentor?” an interviewer might ask her. “Oh, I owe everything to my dear Seshu Bhaiya.” She would respond. Good imagination.
We are basically South Indians. Our father was working for Central Government and so we were also Delhi-ites. That answered for ‘bhaiya’ and ‘acha’ that frequently appeared in our conversation.
This morning, I was surfing internet and I was looking at some stories of experiences of people who had visited vortex locations in Sedona in Arizona State in America. I did not notice Dharini quietly moving behind me except when she exclaimed loudly, “Oh, what a nice picture is that?” I was momentarily startled.
It was the picture of certain rock formations in Sedona that shaped like a bell and another like a cathedral. The caption “VORTEX” appeared boldly on the screen.

“What is that? V…… O……. R….. T…….E…….X” she asked.
“It is known as VORTEX” I explained.
“What is meant by Vortex?”
“The motion of the fluid swirling rapidly around a center is called a vortex. It is a spinning, often turbulent flow of liquid. A vortex is created from spiraling motion of air or liquid around a center of rotation.” I googled and showed her a picture of an air vortex.
“Acha! Does it mean that water is flowing underneath swirling?” she showed her fingers in a swirling fashion. She understood a lot.
“No, this is different ………… this is a vortex of energy …………. People over there believe that vortex in Sedona is created by spiritual energy.” I tried to keep the language simple to avoid more bombardment from Dharini.
She was looking puzzled unsure how she could pursue her questioning. To my relief, she asked abruptly,” Have we gone to that place?”
“You mean, Sedona…… Oh, yes! We went three years ago… Paappa took us to USA for some vacation…. You remember Sadhana aunty there!”
“No…. I don’t remember at all. Did I come with you when you had been to Vortex?”
“No…. You were too young and we left you in Sadhana aunty’s place.”
“It was very bad, you people left me at home …. Please tell me how your trip was.”
“It was very exhilarating and enjoyable.”
“Acha……….Tell me in all minute details about your trip. I am very eager to know.”
After parking our car in the parking are, Dad, Mom, Rajan Uncle, niece Malu and me went up a small stream along a small trail. The stream was small and beautiful. Sizzling sound from the water stream falling over several small rocks was music to our ears. The whole ambience was serene and quiet. There was a small water fall as the stream flowed.

At one place, the stream split up to form a small island. We found, a number of people had crossed the stream to reach the island. I couldn’t have gone to that island without completely drenching my clothes. Malu was very insistent, but Rajan uncle refused. Besides, we had to cover quite a good distance of walking if we really wanted to look at things up the stream and meet with vortex locations. Besides, we also didn’t know where exactly we could feel the effect of vortex.
Malu was very sad that she could not cross over to the island. As we just walked up a little ahead of others, there we found a large branch of a tree at the ground level crossing over the stream from our side. Malu and I climbed on the branch when uncle and dad were not noticing us. We slowly crossed over the stream and jumped on to the ground. When they noticed, we were already on the other side of the stream. There were tall dense trees and plenty of shade and across the stream it was much darker. Malu was a bit scared. She was only seven you remember. So, she held my hand tightly and we walked back on the other side of the stream slowly and …….
Eventually we reached that island. We were overjoyed and just ran on that flat rock that formed the island shouting and screaming. Dad and Rajan uncle started waving and shouting at us to come back.
Once we were at the edge of the island, we didn’t know how to get back to the other side. Malu started crying out of fear. I physically lifted her on my shoulders and got into waters even without knowing how deep the water was. Dad was shouting and cursing me from the other side. Partly apprehensive, partly scared and partly daring, I just plunged into walking across the stream that was getting deeper and deeper until it was almost to my chest.
I was really worried now. Malu was sitting on my shoulder screaming though I tried to convince her that we were safe. That is when I noticed a large block of rock underneath projecting out and I climbed over that. From there it was not difficult for me to cross the remaining part of the stream. But we were dangerously close to the small waterfalls. A small mistake I could have fallen into a pit. Another visitor standing over there cautioned us that the place was fairly deep.
Thank God, I was back on the main trail. I was completely wet. I was sure the small and elegant camera phone inside my pocket would have been completely damaged; I was carefully avoided talking about it. However, I was happy about the adventure and I felt like a hero in a movie. Our dad was heaping rebukes on me for some time and I tried to ignore.
We continued our hike. We came across a little open space where we found several miniature stone cairns (cairn is a pile of stones, usually conical in shape, raised as a landmark or a memorial) arranged on the ground. Uncle told me that it was symbolic of prayers by visitors.

Enthusiasm returned back to Malu and she started picking up stones for arranging one above the other. I asked Malu, ‘What did you pray for?’ ‘No, rather I was giving a thanks prayer to God that you were there to save me from drowning in water.’ I just touched her cheek saying she was a nice girl.
We were walking for more than an hour and we could not reach anywhere on the trek. Tiredness was slowly creeping in all of us. Dad was not sure how far we needed to go and was already enquiring whether we could get back.
That is when, uncle noticed a small rock on the sides and he sat down. He called over us to rest for a while before we decide proceeding ahead. I too sat on that small rock.

All of a sudden, I closed my eyes. I could feel the sweat flowing down my nose even while the mountain breeze was blowing across my face. I started feeling some kind of mysterious energy flowing though my body and I began to feel some strong vibrations in me. I could feel my nerves, hear my heart beating, notice some strange smell, see my breathing in and out, and I also felt that for a few moments I was blackening out. I felt dizzy and could feel some strange causeless happiness filling me inside.
Was this Vortex effect? I jerked and opened my eyes. I wasn’t sure.
“Uncle, did you feel anything?” I asked panting. They didn’t seem to. I explained. Then they tried by closing their eyes and observing their breath.
“Yes, we get some strange feelings,” said Mom.
“Wow, what a great experience you had?” exclaimed Dharini. She was keenly listening to me all along, her palm on her cheeks, and eyes glittering with amazement. “Can we go back any time now to Sedona?” she asked.
“Maybe, who knows? Or, one day, you will be old enough to fly down on your own to Sedona and you can feel the same experience.” I replied.
After some thought, I said, ‘But do you know something? Vortex is a place where one can feel the movement of earth’s energy. You need to be tuned in to feel that energy. You can feel similar energy in any other place too, I discovered.”
“Can you show me?”
“Sure yes, come with me.” I took her to the garden in our backyard. I noticed a small butterfly joyfully moving from place to place, one plant to another.

“Now, look at the butterfly closely. Follow the butterfly where all it flies around……….. Now close your eyes…………. Imagine that you are the butterfly, moving from place to place, batting your wings, sucking honey from every flower, resting on leaves, feeling the small dews resting on the plants and leaves, the flower petals gently caressing you when the wind blows gently, you feel so restful, calm, quiet, enjoying every moment of your existence…………………..”
After a few moments, Dharini opened her eyes, saying “What a wonderful feeling? Is there a vortex here in our garden?”
“Maybe! Mother Nature is strange and wonderful.”
She ran into the house shouting and wanting to share her little feelings with Mom.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A new library in every village in Tamilnadu

There was some interesting news today, the 28th April, 2010 in The Hindu newspaper. The Education Minister of Tamilnadu had issued a statement that the government is proposing to ensure a library in every village in the state by the end of this year. This is a yet another positive step being taken by the Government of Tamilnadu. Already Government had initiated moves to create a world class library in Chennai and I am sure in the days to come, we may have much better libraries in every district headquarters. The question is: Will this become yet another standing symbol of governmental efforts? Only time will tell.
Most villages have schools – at least a primary school. But there are reports about many deficiencies about their functioning including lack of basic amenities like proper classrooms, roofs, toilet and drinking water, quality teachers and absenting staff and so on. Government has sponsored several lofty programs for education that have failed at implementation levels. People also seem to lack the discipline and feeling that the facility and the program belong to them.
To me the problem appears to be one of lack of commitment, involvement and dedication and hyper-active politicizing of every issue. Those at the top will have to demonstrate their will power to implement various government programs in an open and transparent manner and ensure that the benefits reach the people for whom they are intended. Before we create more infrastructure and facilities, we need to strengthen and consolidate existing ones.
Book reading habit should be widely spread and encouraged among more people. Through awards and incentives, the school children and college students need to be encouraged to spend a part of the day or the week in reading. Regular library hours in all educational institutions should be encouraged and enforced. Thanks to stupendous growth and proliferation of electronic and visual media, the print media seems to be struggling against their onslaught. However thrilling they are, the children should be weaned away from spending undue time on electronic video games, which may lead to serious health problems over time. Today, we see even children in lower classes spending their entire evening time in tuition classes, and special classes rather than spending their time in a library or playground. There could be many like me who could be interested in opening small street libraries as a social service and this could be encouraged.
Nowadays, many new books are prohibitively costly and only libraries and affluent can afford. The authorities in charge of selecting books should be impartial in buying quality books rather than encouraging favoritism. A number of people have book collections and may be interested in donating them to libraries if they find that the libraries are run well and efficiently used. This may be encouraged in all districts. If private people are willing to open libraries, after proper scrutiny, they could be given state support in getting books at subsidized prices and other means. Language bias should be avoided as far as book selections are concerned –whether we like it or not, English has come to be accepted as a language that is understood by most and used for communicating with each other by most world population.
More than anything else, children should be freed of today’s stressful overloading of homework and compulsive need to be competitive in academic performance. They should be encouraged to seek more knowledge and information (not just filmy tit-bits alone) that improves their awareness and kindles curiosity and seeking that lead to research, development and innovation. Reading helps improving the way we communicate and develop our power of expression that improves our leverage and influencing in human relationships. Today, everything is about selling and persuasion. You see around, anywhere and everywhere, someone is always trying to sell something or persuade someone to buy something, may be an idea, a product or services – be it in family or business.
Reading as a hobby is a great stress reliever and develops our ability to visualize and imagine and develop our creative power. Look at children books like ‘Lord of the Rings’; several million copies have been sold all over the world – the story is just a fantasy. Can’t we create a parallel that sells at least a million copies? At least in Tamil language, some of the older people might remember the stories of ‘Thuppariyum Sambu’ (Detective Sambu), Veera Vijayan pictorial stories, Kanni Theevu daily serial pictorial stories, Chandamama stories and the likes that were great hits among children and elders alike a few decades back. There are many more legendary tales about stories and writers of yesteryears. In my young days, all in the family used to have a fight over who would read that day’s Dina Thanthi or the weeklies Kumudam or Vikatan, when they arrived. Today, probably the TV serials have taken over that place and reading is given a go-by. But what do the serials encourage – revenge, challenge, plotting, enmity, infidelity and what not – look at most of the serials to have some proof. Not that every serial is bad –there are many good ones too, but how many watch them?
I am grateful to the Municipal Library and the Saiva Sidhantha Noorpathippu Kazhagam’s library in my native place during my younger days for greatly influencing me in so many ways in my shaping up. I also thank my college library, the old Moore Market old book shops, the legendary roadside old books shops at Luz, Mylapore, Chennai or Ajmal Khan Road, Karol Bagh, New Delhi for my book collections about which I am quite proud of.
A library in every village! Very good move Minister! Please make them work. We wish you and the movement well. We will support you unhesitatingly.
(Readers may also look for my other stories)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My stay at Tenkasi

When I told some relatives and friends that I had decided to settle down in Tenkasi, a small town in Tirunelveli District in the Southern State of Tamilnadu, not many were really ready to believe me. They thought I was joking. All through my thirty six years of work life, I had stayed in metropolitan cities with best of comforts and life styles and this, they were aware. Choosing to live in a rural town was the craziest thing I would ever do in my retired days - this is what they initially thought.

When the idea was initially floated, my wife was the first to raise apprehensions and objections about living in a village town. She never trusted the small medical facilities in rural towns. Thanks to the intervention of one of our revered Masters during those days, she relented finally.

I took my retirement from work two years before I could officially retire. I had been dreaming about the freedom to do what really mattered to my heart, retirement offered. I loved quiet places, picturesque natural settings, greenery, shades, breeze, open space and green fields and forests.

We zeroed on Tenkasi after lot of deliberation. First of all, I did not consider Chennai as a livable place and so it was ruled out. Coimbatore where I had a piece of land was a choice, but got rejected as we felt we had no base there. Our native place Tirunelveli was too hot and had neither the attraction of smaller towns nor the conveniences of bigger cities and so was voted out. Trivandrum in Kerala was in the reckoning initially as we had several relatives staying there, but was dropped on language issues.

Why not Tenkasi? That idea came just out of blue. We used to be passing by Tenkasi in the last couple of decades to visit one of our relatives. Tenkasi fell within our native district. It was only three kilometers to Courtallam another small hilly town with several waterfalls. It was bordering Kerala and enjoyed sufficient rains. It enjoyed cool breeze throughout the year as it was closer to hills. It was a small agricultural town well connected and growing yet to become busy and nasty. People had simple life styles and there were several temples in surrounding towns, rivers and water dams in adjoining places, and it was only three and half hours from Madurai and one and half hours from Tirunelveli to reach in emergencies. All of a sudden, the idea gathered momentum and strength.

"When our intent is very strong, nature conspires to bring it to reality soon." I have heard this from my Master, but I experienced this as a reality very soon.

Sometime in early July 2006 soon after my retirement, we were returning from Courtallam and Papanasam, another nearby small hilly town with a roaring waterfall across a water dam in the company of my in-laws and we passed by Tenkasi.

As we were just leaving Tenkasi, I happened to stand in front of the Main Temple at Tenkasi and I found myself praying spontaneously to Lord Kashi Viswanath to help me find a suitable house in Tenkasi if I was destined to stay there.
No sooner than we crossed the limits of Tenkasi, my relative phoned to me to tell that there were two houses available for rent at Melagaram, a smaller outskirt of Tenkasi and he had known the landlords closely from his father’s days. Melagaram is another town panchayat, just a kilometer away from Tenkasi on the way to Courtallam. I promised him to return back to Tenkasi from Madurai in the next couple of days to have a look at the house. We returned back two days later and liked one of the two houses he showed us. It was a street house in an 'Agraharam', a predominant brahmin locality. We paid the advance rent on the spot without even bothering to decide when and how we would be shifting to that place.

But we were not to be staying there for long during 2006 as we were planning to visit our children in USA during October. Besides, our debate continued as to how far we genuinely wanted to stay there. We moved into Melagaram house with very small baggage sometime in August and stayed there for four or five days. Our definitive move to Melagaram happened in June 2007 after our son’s wedding. It looked like shifting from Sheraton Hotel thirtieth floor to the nearby hut.

We were total strangers in Tenkasi and we were trying to grasp the life-style in an 'Agraharam'. People over there were supposed to be very tradition bound, conservative, educated, some of them agricultural landlords, many fairly poor. During the initial days, coming to know that we had stayed in Middle East for quite long, the people at Agraharam also looked at us with great curiosity and interest wondering what we would be doing in a village town.

Tenkasi was not to be the sleepy village that we had imagined it to be. We got a BSNL phone connection within a couple of days of making an application and the broad-band internet connection followed in a week’s time. The Indane gas distributor acted a little tough initially about transfer of our gas connection without our ration card, but gave in on the condition that we submit to him the ration card before we could ask for a refill. A stranger neighbor in the 'Agraharam' took us to the Village officer and got us a residence certificate. He also took us to Tehsildar to make an application for a new ration card; as we were staying abroad for almost a decade, we never knew what happened to our earlier ration card. I never realized that staying at Agraharam commanded so much respect among many in the government departments. A ‘Honour card’ which did not allow us to draw any provision supply, but would be sufficient proof of residential address was issued in the next few weeks. Melagaram, and more particularly 'Agraharam' seemed to be a respected place where more of educated people resided. Many friendly neighbors were willing to offer their help for a host of nitty-gritty things.

We met with several pleasant surprises at Tenkasi. Let me tell you some of them:
• We could just walk to many cinema halls and watch even newly released movies for just thirty rupees.
• We could see boys and girls playing out-door games - ‘goli,’ ‘vattil,’ ‘pamparam,’ ‘gilli,’ ‘paandi, ‘hide and seek’, in our street carefree without having to worry about traffic reminding me of my school days.
• Most residents seemed to enjoy lot of spare time that was spent just sitting on the verandah in front of their house and turning to ‘East’ and ‘West’ and that was sufficient past-time for them. I thought, probably, they were in high spiritual state not needing anything specific to engage themselves in or to keep themselves happy.
• Almost everyone seems to be noticing arrival of visitors to any house within Agraharam; this offered us phenomenal sense of security.
• The Ganapathi temple at the west end of the road was kept open by the priest every morning and evening and most residents gathered at the temple regularly in the evening for prayers. The small temple was a convenient place for people’s congregation. The Melagaram Magalir (Ladies) Mandram (Club) met almost every day, after their daily chores, to practice and chant slokas and devotional singing; they preferred this to sitting before the dumb box ( I mean television box). Children used to run to the temple during prayer times when the temple bell rang - the enthusiasm coming more for collecting sundal, puliyodarai and pongal prasadams.
• Milkman arrived every morning at around five and mid afternoon with fresh milk; he had not missed even a single day. Greens, vegetables, curd, atta for making idli-dosa, tamarind, kolappodi (the lime powder for drawing kolams), fruits, chappals, cosmetics, toys, dresses and sarees, metal items, repairing dresses, vessels and the likes and many more were available right at our doors through walking vendors.
• A decent provision store that could be thought of as a Walmart for Melagarm had every supply needed for a house, at fair prices.
• Buses were frequent and a bus journey was so cheap – not more than two or three rupees.
• Hot and delicious vadas were sold on road-side shops on the main road every evening stock running out within minutes of preparation.
• You could take a pleasant walk up to Courtallam in the evening enjoying the cool breeze blowing from the hills.
• On important auspecious days like beginning of Tamil months, New Moon days or eclipse days, male elders clothed in 'pancha kachham’ paraded to the temple to perform ritual offerings to their forefathers.
• Other major attractions were:‘Margazhi’ month early morning bhajans, Akanda Naama bhajans, Sree Rama Navami, Mahadeva Ashtami, Ganesh Chaturthi, Kolaattam, Karthikai deepam, Chokka paanai . All celebrations were reminiscent of my young days at Tirunelveli and things I missed for nearly four decades.
• The children were all quite simple, smart and possessed lot of practical intelligence.
• The Kashi Viswanaatha temple front yard was a Tenkasi parallel to Marina beach in Chennai, but a lot more clean.
• One could eat stomach full any time for less than about twenty rupees in most eating joints. At least one such eating place offered six or seven varieties of dosas and tourists who came there round the year, made a beeline to these eateries.
• The nearby Courtallam provided the cheapest holiday resort for the not-so-affluent. One is never tired of taking bath in those waterfalls.

The above is not an exhaustive list, but only a sample. My wife who was the most apprehensive about our decision to shift to Tenkasi for our retired living initialy is now willing to stay alone there even if I ever get bored with Tenkasi and wanted to travel out. Such was her profound transformation within a very short period of staying over there.

For me, many educational institutions in Tenkasi and nearby areas started recognizing my approach to Youth Development and called me to do programs for their students, and faculty for better motivation, self-confidence and inner development.

Not a day passed by when we had not patted ourselves for our decision to choose Tenkasi for our retirement life.