Friday, 28 July 2017

The Monsoon Mountains

Let’s meet tomorrow.

At the pine forest, one where the tree trunks trace haphazard lines and pine needles gather in thick brown piles on the forest floor.

We could sit on one of those black slate rocks that lie like sleeping mammoths or their fossils long forgotten, half buried in the soft pine beds. We could even flop down, right on the spongy pine stacks and, laying back against the cobbled pine trunks, watch the cloud swathes sail down the mountainside and gather in great white swirls at its base. 

The little mountain stream, now in monsoon spate, its confidence boosted by the deluge of rain water it is carrying, would chatter and chuckle and chortle to some watery gossip at our feet. The fork-tailed swallow would swoop, startling the busybody bugs buzzing around us. Somewhere high up on the road, the milk woman would herd her two white cows, the brass bells at their neck tinkling faintly, their music merging with the mirth of the stream’s babble.

We would not need to talk, You and I. We would just sit there and let the soundless clouds dance between us, filling our noses with their smoky moist smell and as they floated on their way into the valley below, leave footprints of tiny raindrops on our skins.

The thin brown dog with a black back and spiral tail would trot down the mountainside. Then, sniffing at our feet, it would lie down alongside, head between its paws and gaze into the rain shadowed valley below. But we would let it be. Let it be and not even dodge when now and then it stood up and shrugged great showers of rainwater all over us.

It would be nice, you know, to sit there, only You and Me. 
Like that cluster of pink rain lilies growing beside the giant fig tree. 
In silence.
In solitude.

It would not matter right then who I was. Or what You were.

What I had said. And what You did not.

What You remembered. Or what I forgot.

What I had lost. And what You had won. 

What You became. And what I could not.

Why You left. And why I lingered on.

We could sit, up there on the mountainside where few went and came and be just You and I.

We could sit thus, this only You and only I, as long as we wanted. 
Or till the dripping sun faded over the horizon, staining the sky and the clouds a pinkish red. 
Or till your cell phone or mine beeped us back to ourselves and to Today.

Lets meet then. 
The Monsoon Mountains are waiting.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Of Gods in Big and Small Places

I like little shrines in wayside places: nestled against grim green hills, sitting atop lone black stones, on mud islands in the middle of a rushing river, clinging to the edges of curving hill roads under old, old peepul trees....
Sometimes these shrines are little temples with conical roofs, faces of the tiny Gods within them covered in vermilion and chandan. Sometimes they are lonely mazaars draped in frayed green chadars whose silver ruffles flutter in the mountain breeze. Sometimes they are moss grown grottos cocooned within the heart of the hill, the Mother inside a little blurred behind the dusty glass.

On your way up or down the mountain, you can stop the car anytime at these shrines. You can then stand by them and say your prayers, as you wish, in any words you want, either old prayers from your childhood or new mantras learnt over the years. Or if you wished, you could simply not say anything at all, standing in silence and letting your soul do it's talking with the Gods. Then, if you wanted, you could bow down and touch your forehead to the stones in reverence. You could click a few snaps of the shrines on your phone and even selfies, if you wanted to and send those to old friends. If you felt like, you could even place a few coins at the feet of the icon. If there was the stem of an old candle on the alter, you could light it if you happened to have a match box on you. And all the while, knowing that if you did not want to do any of these things, that was quite all right too. On those lonely roads where few ventured, there was no one to stop you, no one to tell you how to pray, what to say and how to be, no one to come between you and those Gods.

We are at a famous Tibetan Buddhist temple. Inside, there are serene shrines to the Gods of the Tantric influenced Tibetan Buddhism, the wise and mighty Guru Padmasambhava, the compassionate Avalokiteshwara with his thousand eyes and thousand hands, the beautiful Green Tara, mother and nurturer, the Kalachakra or the inexorable wheel of time, all larger than life, all serene and very sacred. A monk in deep maroon is pouring yellow water into the sixteen brass bowls kept at the feet of the Gods. A little boy around four or five in his curiosity has climbed up a wooden step trying to get a closer look. The monk admonishes him harshly,
"Get down, get down, get down!!"
The boy retreats slightly scared, pulled back by his apologetic Mom.

I am peering interestedly at a tall wall cupboard full of ancient Buddhist texts, wrapped lovingly in red and yellow cloth and stacked neatly in vertical rows. The accompanying placard says that these contain the entire teachings of the Buddha, translated from the original Pali/Sanskrit into Tibetan many hundreds of years ago. Suddenly I hear a commotion behind me. I turn back to find the monk gesticulating to a man taking photographs:
"No no!! No photo."

He is unduly rude in his tone and coarse in his gestures, just like he had been to the little boy. The man taking photographs appears stung by this needless rudeness.
He retorts defensively, 'I didn't know."
The monk barks at him, "Written outside." In broken Hindi.

The persistent rudeness seems to bite the guilty photo-taker. He shouts back: "You don't have to be so rude. You could have said the same thing politely. I had missed the sign."

But the monk is haughty and continuously rude. As another fellow accompanying the photo-taker puts his arm around the monk and tries to calm him down, I hear the photographer still protesting, "Here in this sacred temple, you have no right to be rude. This is a temple.......! How can you be so rude here...this is a temple, a temple........." But under the pin-drop silence of those beautiful Gods, the man's protests peter away into garbled mumblings under his breath....

I exit from the sanctum quickly for the spell of divinity cast by the Gods has cracked. Though I don't condone the photo-taker's raising of voice, I cannot help but agree with the spirit of what he says: here in the sanctum of sanctums, in the presence of the Gods, how can a priest, a man of God and that too such a beautiful, compassionate God, be rude and intolerant of such tiny trangessions?

He was right, that short tempered photo taker: in that temple, the monk had absolutely no right to be rude.

That is why I like small wayside shrines. The Gods there have none of the haughty indifference of these large and famous temples. Alone, sans their human interpreters and interceders, they are kind, compassionate and tolerant, as Gods should be. And that is why I like them, for they are my kind of Gods.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Happy Doctor's Day

I woke up today to an early morning four am WhatsApp forward with one cute teddy bear auscultating another with a stethoscope.
"Oh, first July!" Went my thoughts. "Doctor's Day!!!!
And it felt kind of nice to be wished well on this day, for it was kind of like being greeted on your birthday. You know, as a kid, I'd wait with  nail-biting excitement for my birthday to arrive; not for anything else but for the happiness that I would be wearing a 'colour dress' to school that day and also because that evening dinner would be a luscious masala dosa and a too sweet Fanta from Bharat Coffee House across the road.

But with passing of time, the 'colour dress' has lost some of its charm as has the masala dosa.

So then, what is it that I would like this Doctor's Day?

A bunch of fragrant peach lilies, a packet of the bittersweet Cadbury Bourneville and maybe a bottle of Chanel No 5 would be really nice, you know. But since even that Uriah Heep of an MR peeking insistently at the doctor's clinic door is unlikely to indulge me, I'm forced to think of an alternate 'I'd like' refrain.
What about some respect, coming straight and sure from the heart of a patient? Wouldn't that be nice?
In fact, it would be very, very nice; seamlessly replacing all the peach lilies, dark chocolates and Chanel perfumes in the world. It would be the perfect gift on this Doctor's Day.

Medicine is my profession. It is my source of sustenance and it feeds me and my family. But when I had chosen Medicine, I distinctly remember that it was not because it bore the promise of being a lucrative profession. In fact at that juncture, I was rather naive about the importance of economics and finances in life. The only reason I had pursued Medicine was because I knew it was something that commanded respect. Loads of it. And how I had lusted after that respect.
But today this respect from a patient has become a rare and precious commodity. It's not available easily and when available, is rather fragile, disintegrating at the slightest chance. And that is why I think I'd like some respect gifted to me this Doctor's Day.

And as I wait in nail biting eagerness for my gift of respect to arrive, I ask: why has it become so rare? Like the silently depleting ozone layer, this respect too is vanishing, sometimes silently and sometimes with the thunder of sticks and stones raining on the skull and ribs of doctors on duty in some godforsaken government hospital in the innards of our respectful nation.

Many years back, as a fledgling doctor just emerged out of medical school, sitting in the busy busy OPD of a tiny rural hospital, I had penned a single line, one of my earliest attempts at writing. This was just after an elderly lady, an old patient of mine, had taken a little bottle of home-made ghee out of her jhola and placed it on my lap.
"Eat ghee everyday." She had told me. "It is good for your health. This one's home made."
She had mild hypertension, age related and had been under my treatment for a few months. She was a diligent patient, coming to me religiously on the fifth of every month for her review. But I knew that this review visit was only an excuse. She came to talk to me, to pour out her woes, her fears and rant against her son and his wife, her relatives, her neighbours and life in general.
Once her evaluation was over, I'd sit back and Indra Maya would begin to talk. All I did then was to listen and nod. Nod and occasionally put out my hand and pat her arm. That is all. That is all that Indra Maya needed to feel well again. And feeling well, she attributed this healing to my skill as a doctor and offered to me the little jam jar of ghee as a mark of her gratitude and respect.

I knew that Indra Maya was a part hypochondriac and wasted my time with her purposeless queries and endless complaints. I knew I could have easily thrown her out of my OPD with some terse words. I knew I could have explained in clear terms that she was a hypochondriac and that she needed to behave better with her family. I knew I could have simply given her a piece of my pretty no-nonsense mind. It wouldn't have mattered to me in any way, for she was just a patient on 'gratis'. But somehow, for whatever reason, I had given her my ear and my time and in return earned her respect and a jam jar of ghee.

So that day, placing the jam jar next to the vase decorated with Mary's flowers, I had pulled out a ruled patient case-sheet and with a ball point pen, had written:
"Being a doctor is not about being in a position of power. It is about being in a position of trust, of compassion and a patient understanding of human behaviour."

I wish I had that piece of paper with me today. I'd hang it up in my office and read it everyday. Read and meditate and work on it.

Maybe then, the lost respect would return back to me. To me and to all of us, my brotherhood of doctors. 

Alu and the Crown God

I had rolled barely a hundred metres down the road when I spotted her gambolling in the adjoining park. "Heyy Alu," I called ou...