Bangalore | Karnataka

Seven Little Buddhas

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Seven tender necks supporting seven shaven heads. At a distance behind them, I am seeing the back of them. I’ve been in the hall twenty minutes. I was watching my breathing, all alone in that space, and then I’d gotten up to leave, but sat down again when these maroon-robed boys with Tibetan faces came in. I wanted to see them before the golden Buddha. Why? I don’t know.

They’re only boys: the oldest is about twelve, or fourteen, and the youngest perhaps six-years-old. They look back at the slightest sound, at me, and at another man who has entered, dropped a cushion and squatted on it.

The hall is a fifteen-minute walk from Starbucks, whence I came, where I’ve been two hours through the afternoon. There I’d had a large realtor sitting at the table before mine, his bulk overflowing his chair, challenging its thin wooden legs. A lot of these types come here, carrying two phones each — for some reason, they cannot function with a single handphone. I had businessmen back of me as well, two fellows with sleek silver hair and the complexion of the wealthy, who spoke lofty things: business excellence; benchmarks; Fortune-500 mentors; and so on. Left of me, a teenage girl learnt by rote from a book, waving a finger in the air to better push her material into her head. As anywhere in the world, half the cafe is always in possession of students. Nice.

Here in the prayer hall, after a time the little fellows sink unto themselves before the golden Buddha. On the white marble floor, I see now a pool of water leaked in from the centre of the dome above. (It has been raining unusually hard these days in Bangalore). Otherwise, the hall is clean and bright, and the calm in it subdues the sounds from the traffic on CV Raman Road outside. I like this place. I’ve been for looking something just like this to spend a few quiet moments when I need to.

At Starbucks in Sadashivanagar one seldom goes in to relax over coffee. Everybody drops in for a spot of intense work — alone, or in groups. I enjoy eavesdropping in this care: Men in their twenties discuss startups and targets of twenty or thirty or fifty million — the numbers are all in dollars; girls barely out of the teens announce launches of new stores on Lavelle Road or Cunningham Road or at UB City — boyfriends ask them to mind overhead. They laugh, even as they speak such serious stuff.

Here in the Buddhist prayer hall, the man who’d come in has left. The boys are still. I gaze again at their necks, and the meaning of “green behind the ears” begins to make meaning to me, although the boys are the colour of rice-husk. As regards me, I’ve been squatting longer than my legs can take — blood has stopped flowing in them. I must get up, I must go.

Outside, I make inquiries. The place is a seminary. A total of seven kids are being put through the mill. I like what I hear, but I’m also confused by it. I need all the time the extended drive through jammed traffic gives me, to reconcile to the fact that these kids are committed to monkhood. Who made that decision for them? The kids themselves? Grown-ups on their behalf?

Back at my desk, I’m still thinking about the boys and other kids who flow all day through Starbucks. I ask: Where really is the battle against dukkha being won?

I’m telling myself I should find out. Even if it takes time and some effort.

 Starbucks, Sadashivanagar

Starbucks, Sadashivanagar

My Not So Unquiet Neighborhood

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I’ve given up coffee starting this week. And tea. So cafés are not home to me anymore, which is a shame, because I’ve been enjoying reading and writing in them, and eavesdropping, and watching the occasional odd man or woman. I must work at home, which is a problem because my UK-resident next-door neighbor has engaged a gang for repair for some time now, and from nine until six each weekday men are drilling and sawing and pounding and such. I haven’t asked when their assignment will end.

I’m writing this post at seven at home, after a stroll outside. It is dark, and there’s an äzän going this moment. I don’t know where the mosque is that’s issuing the call, I haven’t seen it, it is not in our enclave. I cannot tell the direction it is coming from. It does not matter — they know, those who need to know. Now as the äzän ends my tinnitus is picking up, rising and falling and swinging around. There’s the drone of an airplane as well, flying low, which reminds me that anytime now the leisurely horn and the long rumble of the faraway evening train will carry till my home and me in my couch. I haven’t lost my love for the sound of trains, although I’ve always indulged an allergy to sound.

These above are the sounds in the evening.

During the night, the dogs. O yes, many dogs, stray, spoiled with leftover burgers and fried chicken and a collar for safety in this dog-loving enclave. They begin barking and yowling and wailing all in a single orchestral performance, each trumpeting its own intense angst, shaking me awake, making me wonder what’s up, how it is that so many kinds of hurts have been heaped in one moment on these mongrels on 2nd Main. Starting around 2:00, they won’t stop until about 3:00. Two hours later I leave home for my morning walk, and at that reasonable hour when their cries could be tolerated they are silent and have disbanded and are in singles, each in its territory, some sleeping and some prowling, some fat and some scrawny.

Doesn’t sound like a silent place, you say?

But I’m not altogether wrong about the quiet about my home that I’ve boasted about in previous posts. No cars are plying on the street as I write. If there are strollers passing my house I cannot hear them. It is possible that soon the Nepali watchman, Balaram, will tune his radio to music from home, and stand in the street for a few minutes holding that umbilical connection of sorts. He does that a couple of times a week. Not today. Today there is not even rain, whereas yesterday and the day before we were lashed soundly by it, making us wonder if we were in Bangalore, or transported by miracle to coastal Mangalore — where rain of such magnitude belongs.

I’m not complaining. This post precedes a holiday week here in South India. I’m leaving for Bhopal tomorrow, to visit the Paleolithic cave paintings at Bhimbetka, and Buddhist stupas, and to read love-notes the great Ashoka ordered carved in stone. I’ll tell you about them.

It was a busy day, and I’m sleepy, and a good night seems assured. Despite those dogs I told you about.

But He Didn't Have a Couch

 Photo by CurvaBezier/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by CurvaBezier/iStock / Getty Images

It was a small room in a small clinic, and I'd come in from the rain. The only window was to my left, and it let in no air, didn't send air out either. The man before me and I sat inhaling one another’s exhalations.

I was on the seventh day on antidepressants, prescribed by a psychiatrist a week ago. They’d set off a raging in my head, and returned me to insomnia that I’ve known only when very young. “Also, you need to see a clinical psychologist,” the psychiatrist had added: “He won’t advise you, but he'll help patch gaps in your thinking.” That order had been given me in a bright room with air conditioning, which I was now obeying, arriving in this sauna, where the lighting was as dim as my worldview at the moment.

“It’s a pity nobody told you about clinical psychologists all these years,” the man said. “Your problems would’ve been solved long ago.”

I nodded so much as to intimate acknowledgement without agreement. You’d understand I was not in a believing state of mind.

“You may need some pharmacological treatment. Please take it. But I can also cure you,” he said. “First, I don’t want you to think you’re depressed. You are not depressed. You're facing inertia. That's all."

I considered the rapid diagnosis. And how he was speaking in earnest, and how much. His enthusiasm had me wondering if I was the kind of patient clinical psychologists pine for. Still, wasn't he speaking more than was my right as the patient? It was then that I remembered movies I've seen, and cartoons in The New Yorker and Punch and such, in which the shrink does nearly no speaking. That's the patient's prerogative. And, looking about the air-locked room, I wondered, Where is the couch, where I should've been reclining, from which I should’ve speaking up to the dark? Shouldn't this man be back of me, on a side and pensive, pen and pad in hand?

"I get people of all ages," he was saying in the meantime. “With all complaints. I get men asking to increase the urge. I get men asking to reduce the urge. Just the other day, I got a 77-year-old man who can't do anything, but he's got too much urge. His wife had given him a hiding. He'd gone and done something to the maid. Now he’s asking, Doctor do something for me.”

(Was that a Freudian spot in our interaction, devised to provoke response? If yes, I'm curious to know how he interpreted the holy blank face I held out to him. Into which pigeonhole did I go?)

"As regards you, you're in inertia. You’re not at your potential. We can take care of it."

How so fantastic. To prove himself, he told me about a businessman who came to him at another hospital where he was working — a high-end hospital that caters to non-resident Indians.

"He had a factory in Malaysia. Doing about 300 crores. 'I should be happy, Doctor,’ he told me, ‘because I make so much money. Still, I'm not happy.' So I said, 'Who told you 300 crores is a lot of money? Just before you a patient met me who is doing 10,000 crores. Here. In India.'

"After that patient left, I forgot him. He came back after three years. 'Remember me, Doctor?' he asked me. I said, 'No.' How can I remember all patients? Then he told me about our last meeting. 'Now I have two more factories, Doctor. One in Dubai, one in Brazil. I spend ten days every month in each place, and now I'm really content. My revenues are up two times.'"

“We must ask you the same thing,” he said, bending forward. “Are you running at full potential?”

"I want to write, Doctor," I said. "I wish to be a writer."

"We can make you a writer also," he said, leaning back in his chair.

A flush of warmth shot across my being, of a kind I'd experienced long years ago when I'd first gone out with my wife — before we were married — when our foreheads had knocked one another's on the bumpy bus ride. On Route 11 in Mysore, from college to NR Mohalla. Electric images of books and newspaper features with my name on top swam before my eyes — but only for a moment. Soon as they came, the sweet visions vaporised.

“How shall we take this forward?” I asked him. He proposed an aggressive and immediate schedule. “Think about your convenience and get back,” he said.


"How did it go?" my wife wanted to know when I got home.

"Great," I said. “Learned guy. He's a PhD."

My wife arched high her brow, puckered her lips, and nodded in appreciation.

"But he didn't have a couch," I said.

Sense and the City

Photo by naumoid/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by naumoid/iStock / Getty Images

Last night’s rain was rough and lasted hours. Spirited thunder and lightning accompanied it, forcing us awake, keeping us awake. We heard the distribution transformer down the street explode twice. The power went out with the first blast, and we were surprised that the transformer had meat left to blow up a second time. This morning, I stepped out a half-hour late for my walk, at 5:30, because snakes are a real threat in the neighbourhood and I didn’t want to step on one unwittingly, on wet streets with no streetlights.

Yesterday’s red patches of the large and juicy spathodea had been washed away by flooding brought on by the downpour. The streets looked almost like their cousins in better-managed countries. A good start to the day.

But the air has turned greyer than the sky. The punishing rain has softened the streets, and constant traffic has skinned the asphalt and ground it to gravelly powder and dust for wheels to whisk into the air, all day long. You’re all right if you are in a car. It must be terrible for motorcyclists. As regards pedestrians, Bangalore stopped respecting them a long time ago.

Such are the sights and sounds of my city these days and, on top of them, it is a time of festivals of all faiths, and some party or the other are setting off firecrackers every evening. They’re also taking out colourful processions (with Bollywood and Sandalwood music) on streets that have no room for a lone pedestrian. I should be happy for them who are rejoicing: There’s invigorated bhajan and āzān, delivered over loudspeakers, early morning and late nights. And I am religious myself. Whatever the faith, God is being worshipped. But to be honest these amplified affirmations of devotion are a bother, even if they’re musical, and I’d rather they performed their rituals in their homes as I do in mine.

In such a state of mind, I was browsing on my Mac just now, and an Osho video caught my attention, in which he preaches, If small things are bothering you then your attitude is the problem. Accept everything, he says, and you will observe your breathing, without needing to force yourself to watch it, and then you will experience deep relaxation. Accept all that you see and all that you hear. And, he says, you must note the smells, and surrender to them also.

I have enjoyed occasional sermons of this compelling speaker on video. He has the eyes and the composure and the delivery (and the flowing white beard) to lock you in and believe every word he says. With quiet force, the man argues that smell has been repressed for centuries and therein lie the reasons for the misery of man.

Whereas I, I’ve always believed that smell is quite rightly ignored.

To inhale Bangalore and to accept it, to correct my attitude. O, Osho, who was never born and who never died! Who only visited planet Earth for a time. I’ll heed you through this week and sniff at our city in this gloomy season. Please, may I suffer no side effects.

A Day in Malnad to Clear the Head

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Depression in the Bay has brought a week of rain to Malnad, about five inches of it, taking the rainfall so far in the year to thirty-eight inches. Two-thirds of the monsoon season is now past. There will not be the historical average of ninety inches of rain this year, like last year and the year before. But the coffee plantations of Malnad have adjusted to the lack, it seems. All signs suggest a healthy crop at year’s end, provided nothing goes wrong in the time left, such as, for instance, rains from the Bay during cherry-picking.

So we didn’t worry for coffee, or for pepper, during this weekend's visit to the thota. We relaxed to the din of the birds that lasts through breakfast. (During which time the birds complete their morning-meal, and fly out to their different day jobs leaving behind an ocean of silence.) But by afternoon the cloudiness got me, boxing me in, in the vast, hilly sprawl of the place. In the evenings the cicada hemmed us in with their racket, though they were fewer this time than usual, as though their scouts had arrived ahead of the army of them, to test if the rain was for real.

And the elephants compacted the place even more. This was the first time the elephants had arrived on the plantation the same time as us, but they didn’t come over to the bungalow. They’ve been camping around our home lately, on the grassy clearing there, but this time they stayed out at their old lodging on a patch of jungle on the northeastern edge of our property.

“Don’t go out before 9:00. Don’t stay out after 6:00.” That was Basavanna’s caution to us as we were turning south at Ballupet en route our estate. That’s the precaution he takes himself, in his place next to ours.

So I sat and finished the novel I’d brought along. And, my wife and I took in the view and the feel of the place from within the bungalow, delighting in the pepper vines that are shooting up on the replanted coffee patch back of the house. A chill crept in from the crevices that the vermin use; the drizzle outside was constant, and the breeze with it; mist covered the distant hills and the tops of the areca palms along the stream which is our eastern boundary.

We did go out during the day, giving due respect to the northeast corner. I looked for the top of the elephant over the coffee and searched for its legs in the hollows below the high robusta plants. I sniffed at the clean air for the reputed stink of the wild elephant. All through, I maintained the bravest face I could and told my wife thrice or four times that we should foremost be calm if the beast should come up.

“We should turn around and walk away. But without haste. If we show agitation, the thing will think it should engage.”

My wife nodded as if to agree, but I could tell from thirty years with her that in the nooks of her mind she had plans of her own that she'd more likely follow, pulling me along as well.

I was happy to be returning to Bangalore, and I nearly said so in the car on the highway. But I checked myself when, in that very moment, my wife sank in her seat and sighed and said, “Just one day in the place and my head clears up completely.”