The real poor

What does it mean to be poor?

It is easy to describe poverty through the lens of money. Somehow that is the one definition that seems to stick across the spectrum. There are programs for alieviation of this wretched state. Governments are made and unmade on this topic.

But what does it mean to be poor?

On a summer morning, from a construction site that was fast making realty a reality, I saw a lady pass by. A hop now, a skip otherwise and a jump now and then.. In tow was her daughter. Playing with an empty water bottle and struggling to keep pace. On her hips, her little son cackling with laughter and undoing her hair.

She spoke in a language I didn’t recognise. But her tone was enough to tell me a bit about her love for her children and the richness of her heart. Atop her head were building material in a red basket with a yellow safety helmet sitting pretty. Like a crowning diamond on Her Majesty’s crown.

The bright red flowers on her saree sat easy with the glass bangles and matched her happy step. Her work shift was all set to start. The anklets on her feet seemed to announce that with every step she took. It was going to be some time before family time in their temporary dwelling that they lived in. The builder had given them one until the high rise that they were part of constructing, got done.

There was genuine happiness in them. All three of them. The daughter often stopping to pluck flowers and throw them at the wind and then scampering to catch up with her mother. They went about reaching out to the morning with a joyous spirit and a gentle sprint. So full of life and yet with tenderness and care. Oblivious to the stranger in me watching them walk by.

Are they ‘poor’?, I remember asking myself. A monetary lens will affirm. But look at it this way.

To walk by with a happy stride.

To carry a weight but not seem bothered by it.

To provide life in real terms to your children by exchanging your living moments for it.

To embrace each morning with  smile and all the possibilities that it brings in.

That is not ‘poverty’! Ask any rich man. Or the office goer. Observe faces on a Monday morning as they come out of trains, buses and cars. It often is a weary lost look and an impossible to miss sadness. Not in all, but in many. And even as you wonder why, remember to look into the mirror as well.

What are we chasing? What do we have to give up in order to be ‘rich’? Poverty, as they say, is a state of mind. So is ‘Richness’. To be truly ‘rich’ is to be mindful of ourselves and our choices being fully present to how we think of our state of the mind. The lady with the red flowers and the eloquent yellow diamond atop her dirty crown showed that to me. She is long gone but the happiness in her voice and the cheer in her children remain in my memory.

The high rise she helped build now is lit by big swanky cars, sophisticated scents and solemn looks. Especially so, on Monday morning. Often it takes me back to the laughter of the lady with the bright red flowers on her saree. We have choices

We have choices! Lets remember to choose a rich life.

Two women and their music

A wedding  holds unequivocal attention. Always. For, it means a new set of promises. A new beginning in togetherness, love, joy and such else.

I sit in one such wedding today.

Before proceeding any further, I must make a confession of sorts: Every time I am at a wedding, for some reason there are tears in my eyes.

Its a curious kind of emotion tinged with joy, resulting in the odd tear to pop up first and then opening the flood gates. There have been occasions where random strangers seated in the next chair would shuffle their feet, slowly lean away and do everything possible to make it known to the everyone in the vicinity and passing flies on the wall, that we were seated next to each other by quirk of fate and nothing else.

Sometime back, me and missus were invited to a wedding. The groom was a friend. The bride was an acquaintance. They were really nice people. We wished well for them. As the wedding vows were exchanged, tears commenced their solemn roll down my cheek.
The missus, visibly embarrassed, left to herself, would have gone incognito. She did pass a few boxes of tissues with delectably discreteness. ‘Stop it’, she said in a hushed tone, ‘before someone thinks you had an affair with the bride and still long for her.’

That thought stopped those damn tears on their tracks. Since then, I have tried to adorn a monk like poise wearing a visage of intensely meditative calm, at weddings. The tears somehow contained just before they broke free of the eyelash. Or thereof.

Those memories run amuck as I sit in this wedding.

The bride is almost family. The young lady, who my mind still places as the school kid from next door, is getting married today. All the interspersed years between her being a school kid to now stand in reams of gleaming Kanjeevaram she is draped in. I realise that ‘time is fleeting’ is a saying that is greatly understated.

The wedding is at Tirunelveli. Down in the deep South. The quaint place and all the simple conversations hold every inch of my mind.

As the music wafts in, the aroma from a surfeit of jasmine flowers on many several heads are only suitably contrasted by the bright jewelry on many necks. The atmosphere of a Tamil wedding in Tamil Nadu, with food served on leaf, is barely settling down with filter kaapi beginning to course the veins, when I slowly become aware of the tears are brimming at the corner of my eye. Again.

I let them be. But this time, I realise that it is the music that is playing its part. There are two women playing the nadaswaram. I keep looking at them and soak in every nod of their head, tap of their feet and the wafting tune from the instrument. They have poise and panache, suitably matched with a certain playful practice to their craft.

They seemed to be in the flow. It shows on them. And on my eyes too. These were two women with many years behind them. They must have taken to music a long time ago. They are devoid of the slickness that city dwelling offers and retain a familiar rough edge to the smooth music.

They finish.

As they are packing up, I walk upto them and tell them that their performance was awesome. They fold their palms in unison and say ‘thank you’. Head bowed. I linger.  I ask them where they are from. ‘Valliyur‘ they say. A small picturesque town that is a distance away. Some more conversation reveals that they have a pretty busy calendar.  They have been playing the nadaswaram since they were eight years old.

I have a lot more questions to ask. How did they start? How do they survive in a man’s world, in a small town? How many hours do they practice and so on. But they don’t have time for me, as they reach for the filter kaapis from the brass cups.

There is something in them that moves me. My eyes brim again with precocious tears. There is something in these women that move me beyond words. The tears lurk and then fall over the brim.

Then I think of a poem a colleague shared.

I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not a comment on my life
David Ignation

I think of these women and their music.  Somethings become clear.  Ah, poetry. Somethings remain muddled. Maybe thats were the music is.

In praise of braids

The braids have almost but disappeared. (Except in rope designs, ofcourse). In the neighbourhoods that I live in. Or maybe, I am not looking thoroughly. But their omni presence in smaller neighbourhoods bring about the curiosity about what makes them disappear from the big cities !

‘It takes a while’ said a young mom back in the city. And went on to explain that hair has to be oiled well, combed free of small intertwining, and then, carefully ‘woven’ together and finished with a flourish with a striking red ribbon! (statutory disclaimer: This is both a recounted and translated version. So, mistakes could exist in the order and content. Please do not attempt it in this order, without expert help).

With fast lifestyles, TV and late nights, there’s just about time to make it to the school bus before the helpful school bus driver’s second honk! And of course, with twin careers (both in knots) and thoughts braided within the brain, who wants one (or two) more outside? And not in the least, the kids!

But, this is still in vogue. Atleast in South India. Atleast in villages. And most definitely, in certain sections of society. Where the hair is worked on with care. And the braids come on with a certain shiny oily elegance. Finished with love and a flourish of white Jasmine to go with the gloss of oiled hair topped with a blazing red of the ribbon.

I am told by people with insider information, that this process helps in strengthening hair! I have the faintest of ideas. The balding plate is further excuse. The closest that I have come to such knotty affairs in recent times is knowing Lolla Kutty has a group on Facebook. (Of which I am yet to become a member. Ok ?) Just saying.

The travelers roving eye spots many things. Many stay knotted in the mind or on the camera. Some find a way to the blog. This was one such.

Defining Images ’08 : Women of the year !

Clicked in Mumbai Sept ’08

There are iron rods that jut out in the incomplete apartment complex next door. Seeming to arch out and reach the sky. Getting closer to the blue beyond and cotton clouds, everyday, a new floor climbed. Hoisted with bricks, cement, mortar, steel.

All in exchange of perhaps three square meals, happiness on a toddlers face and for inflaming the hopes beyond. At lunch time, they take a break. All those who climb those incomplete stairs of the yet to be complete buildings, hauling over bricks and mortar.

There is one lady who i watch today. A lady who hurriedly canters to a small shed. From a distance, through all the din and dust, i hear a toddlers smirk of happiness and a mothers voice.

In a moment they emerge. An elder daughter swinging a discarded bottle follows. She has him on her hip. Sings a song in a language that is alien to me as they walk by. Mother. Daughter. Baby. Unaware of my or anybody elses presence, they seems present in her world. Fully present there.

The lady stops for what seems to be a fleeting second. With one swoop of her other hand and a slight bend, wipes clean construction equipment from the floor and ports it atop her head.

My camera goes click click obscuring the chord that tugs the heart. From somewhere, my own amma telling our childhood stories stream in. ‘kandhalile muthucharam kappathi kattivaithen..’ ( From tatters i saved this string of pearls just for you..), she used to say, repeating lines from a film song.

Today, with an elegance that could compare a Russian gymnast on a trapeze, this lady of this hot Mumbai afternoon sways along. Presumably for lunch. Lullaby on her lip, work load on her head and love on her hip.

Long after they are gone, the alien lullaby & toddlers response still rings my ear. And i do not wonder why.

Image II

Mahabaleshwar ’08

It is around 6.30 AM. Mahabaleshwar. I walk the road to breathe in the fresh air and soak myself in. In some distance, a bundle of quiver seems to canter in my direction, at a brisk pace.

As she comes closer, i see a frail old woman. A bundle on her head. Barefoot. Carrying her slippers along. One on each hand. She seems to canter on. Each step is a struggle, i can see. And it takes a while for her to cross me. Slippers. Bundle et al in hand.

I am curious. To say the least. I turn around. And walk. Following her. In an obscure distance.

From afar i see a young lady approaching us. We walk on. They cross each other, with a greeting and wave. A slippery wave that is ! And the young woman tells her aloud, just as they are passing each other, ‘you should be wearing those slippers and not carrying them’.

She replies, with a panting quiver, ‘Shiri gave this to me. I don’t want to damage this…these will look good on ..( i cant quite catch the name)..’. She walks on. A few seconds later, a louder quiver emerges from the same throat. ‘I can do without these..‘ and as the voice trails off, i realise that the trail leads somewhere where i have no access to.

I drop off the trail. Staring into the sun, and the mist soaked land. I don’t have to look very far for love & promise. I realise.

Pedantic incidents, these may seem to you. To me, these shaped my 2008. Perhaps re-shaped, my mental map about hope, possibilities and women! There are two other women that i wrote about earlier. Do check out Vanita and the other woman that i know for a while now.

PS: On a completely different note, the missus and the mother-in-law are not featured here. Given the fact that they have ‘controlling interests’ in my life and therefore on this blog, featuring them here may involve a certain degree of conflict of interests. So in the interest of probity in public life… !!!