Monday, April 5, 2021
Friday, January 15, 2021
What if Covid hadn’t struck
Far away on the horizon, a golden yellow orb rose slowly towards the dark violet, almost deep purple skies. I could see a smaller one trying to keep pace, but with difficulty. And then suddenly, many followed. One after another, they ascended like multitudes of rising stars, each one blessed and happy. Each one had a fire within, and an aura of peace and tranquility without. They seemed to be emanating from the land, but as far as eye could see, there was no one. I watched, fascinated.
Ko Myo my cousin, was with me, watching me. “They are lamps, lit and released”, he said softly. It was November 2020, and I was in Myanmar. I seemed to remember that I had travelled here from Singapore. My mother’s family was so glad to welcome me. The house looked just like it had when I used to come here as a child. The people living in the house had changed though, or rather, grown up; some gone away. But then isn’t that the way of the world? Don’t we all do?
Ko Myo’s eyes shone with pride and love for his country and heritage as he told me all about Tazungdaing festival marking the end of rains. “This festival which is always celebrated on the full moon day of the eighth month in Myanmar calendar, also has a tradition of weaving robes and giving them away to monks”, he said. “Legend has it that Buddha’s mother Maya who had already died and been reborn in Tavatimsa heaven, divined that Buddha would soon renounce the world, so she had spent the night weaving yellow robes for him to wear.” I remember having heard that before. Déjà vu. I could see my grandmother with her silver-grey hair braided with a red ribbon, telling me the same stories. Probably, she told Ko Myo too.
The sparkling festival of Thadingyut celebrated on a full moon day in October, marking the end of Buddhist Lent had always fascinated me; and now, this time over, Tazungdaing was like a magic spell, especially the ritual of lighting lamps and releasing them skywards. It was like an anti-depressant for me- an escape route, a kind of path to detachment. Release. Let go. Watching the lamps go, I could sense a strange kind of peace settling in, and making me understand that all else was transitory; the only three universal truths being:
Everything in life is always everchanging and impermanent.
So a life based on possessing things or persons doesn’t make you happy.
There is no eternal unchanging soul; self is just a collection of changing characteristics or attributes.
I understand therefore, that I am on the path to identifying myself with the universe, dispelling permanence. Whenever I die, my energy passes into another form. Seeking the escape from Samsara. Seeking Nirvana. One step closer if I have followed the Eight-fold path.
I was in Ngapali, on the beach, witnessing magic. The quietly elegant white beach on the Western Coast of Myanmar whispered lovingly and played sensual games with the receding tide, while I avidly took in the vibes from the lanterns on a velvety sky. As if he could read my mind, my cousin got me some lanterns. And as I interpreted the sand patterns in the pristine waters and sent up a lantern or two, I was thinking of Gautama Buddha and his mom weaving robes for him.
I woke up with a start when the alarm rang on my handphone; I had been dreaming! My innermost wish of revisiting Myanmar after all these years had subconsciously materialized, albeit in slumber. Such a vivid dream; I remembered every bit. I drank some water from the thermos and saw the mask and gloves were still there on the bedside table. The camphor burners were running low, a sign that the rosy, illuminating dawn had broken. I could see the masked morning walkers from my window. Back to reality! What a life! Another day of social distancing. Sigh!
What if Covid 19 had not happened! I sat on the window ledge of my tastefully done and very hospitable prison, my home, and thought…
I could have really gone to Taunggyi for Tazungdaing. Or even Ngapali.
I could have actually gone to Bangkok for Loy Krathong. I just loved to release the turtles in the Chao Phraya and watch them swim away. The krathongs at dusk look unbelievably celestial.
My back was packing up, so maybe I could have gone for some relaxing spa treatment and therapy while in Thailand, and taken my mother with me, just so that I could work on her and explain what Mara, my girlfriend, meant to me.
Delhi beckoned; it always was so irresistible in the winters. I could have gone there. The weddings there always left me wanting more!
Or to the Alps, for a fabulous ski adventure, and thereafter to London to spend time with my sister, my soulmate. And enjoy a white Christmas if lucky.
We were looking forward to Olympics in Tokyo and a busy tourist season in Asia. But Covid 19 came along and then you know what happened!
I could have been teaching at school in a classroom, as usual. My students have been writing in, wondering when we can meet. I think they miss me. I miss them too.
I even wanted to visit the doctor for a routine annual checkup – I am over 30 years of age, you see.
It is fair that I give you a background now. About myself. Just before March 2020, my family had introduced me to a suitable boy and hoped we would fall in love and marry soon. I was just about summoning the courage to tell them I already had Mara who would marry me because she loved me, when Covid 19 took control of our lives, and I couldn’t. All their well laid plans were put on hold; and my anxiety temporarily put to rest. I could play Nametests on my laptop when I wanted to hear nice things about myself, and play Scrabble when feeling all agog and attentive, like a dictionary!
But had Covid 19 not happened, I wouldn’t have had this luxury! Perhaps I would have incurred the wrath of the family for my affairs of the heart. Because me, a girl, going on a honeymoon with Mara, another girl, was not so acceptable, though entirely legal and fashionable. So thank God Covid 19 happened. All explanations and wrath got pushed for later.
Suffice to say, if my mother had had her way, I would have gotten married in June and gone on a honeymoon- with a boy!
I got off the ledge and walked out on the patio. The daily papers were a stack of dismal broadsheets, full of depressing facts and figures. “We should stop buying newspapers”, I said to my mother. My father cleared his throat noisily and made his displeasure known. Covid or no Covid, he had to have his daily dose of half a dozen newspapers.
Had Covid 19 not happened, maybe the economic activity would not have suffered to such an extent that it hurt when the poor became poorer and the rich stopped spending. With the advent of Covid 19, theories of economics with their ceteris paribus assumptions started defying reality and called for a relook by the experts in the domain. Because nothing really was the same anymore! Certainly, the painstakingly crafted growth and development plans of the world did not deserve this burial? A mere virus? Eh?
The world would have gone on living recklessly. The glaring disparities in wealth and income and the false sense of well-being would have continued. I would not have believed if someone had told me in February 2020 that a crown shaped virus will rule mercilessly and cause everything to go haywire. To my utter amazement, just two months later, I saw the virus merrily blighting the human race. I saw the confusion and the alarm and realized the world had blinked. If only to say, “Take care. Stay at home.”
I would never have learnt to make bread otherwise. Yes, right! The daily bread that we eat with butter and jam? When Covid 19 struck, we learnt to stay at home. Cooking at home got back in fashion. The videos on food and cooking began receiving record hits. You only had to type bread, and at least 200 or more bread recipes were visible! I used to cook once a week when Covid 19 hadn’t arrived! Now I cook morning and evening.
When under lockdown, I began reading James Joyce with a vengeance- downloaded over 5000 pages of the Complete Works of James Joyce on my Kindle reader and immersed myself in his forbidden thoughts and philosophies. Had Covid 19 not happened, I would never have had known why he lapsed from Catholicism; or why his work Ulysses has often been called a summary of the entire Modernist movement. And all about his so-called pernicious influences, or graphic descriptions of people and characters in Dublin in his novels. Even his famous letters to Nora, his muse for 27 years and then later his wife, which made him sound so gutsy, unique and worthy of criticism. His recognition in the US as one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century seems to me now, a well-deserved acclaim.
Working from home would never have proved so efficient had Covid 19 not happened. The ostentatious office premises seem inconsequential now; at least for the time being.
Allow me to say that even if Covid 19 had not happened, what had to happen would have happened. Like environmental degradation, violence, political proliferation, crime…the virus was simply an addition to the long list. Over the months, it has proved to be a catalyst for some phenomena like economic slowdown and the ensuing evils. The incompetence and the unpreparedness of the world couldn’t have been gauged without this force majeure.
The media focus also would have been different, I am sure. There is so much happening around the world- elections, invasions, secessions, border disputes, refugee problems, war! Talking about the woes of the alarming political, economic and social environments, geo- political disappointments, terrorism, drugs, mafia, etc. would have excited media though they would still have missed out on the ‘real discussion on environment and economy’. As always.
Last but not least, but for Covid 19, we would not have witnessed this historic event, that made my childhood fears come alive. As children, we used to read fairy tales and there was a story that my grandma would tell us about a kingdom which was troubled by a cruel ogre. The ogre would come at night and devour whoever he saw. So all the people of the kingdom would stay home with locked doors and shuttered windows. Even the king could not do anything about it. Doesn’t this sound familiar today as well? If Covid had not happened, I wouldn’t have known how the people of that kingdom felt.
On a parting note, I still have a story to tell my grandchildren. A real, real one, laced with “what had to happen, happened.” Something which I could not have imagined, if Covid 19 hadn’t happened.
I am the local storyteller. When I sit in my verandah every evening, the children playing in the open lawns in front of my house come running after their game of hop scotch and seven tiles, and look at me with shining eyes, waiting for a story to start. Sometimes they even leave the game halfway and come, if they see my story is about to begin. They also bring their friends to hear a good story.
There are so many times when their mothers or elder siblings also join in for the storytelling; and then it becomes a big deal for me, because my story has to awaken their interest also and evoke empathy. You see, empathy is important to make my story real. They have to feel my story.
I have never learnt to tell stories. I have not been to literary seminars and educators’ symposia. I do not know how I became a storyteller- maybe people made me one. All stories are not true- and so sometimes I fabricate on the spur of the moment. If I feel the need to make someone smile, my story just goes in that direction.
I am surprised I can fabricate because I am not a convincing liar. I have never been able to lie effectively even to save my life- my nervous eyes give me away. In school, whenever I tried, I got caught. But I can imagine; and articulate whatever I imagine. It all started when, once in school, we were given homework to write an essay on “My Pet”. Now, I had no pet! A number of my friends came back with glowing accounts of their pet dogs and cats and even budgies. I drew a total blank- I had no pet! My language teacher gave me grace time, but I had to rustle up an essay on “My Pet”, she insisted. At my wits’ end, I asked an older friend to help out and all the “would have liked” and “could have been” and “wish I had” and “if I had” made me go crazy with confusion. My grammar became so complex that when I had to read it aloud in school, I lost all sense of syntax and the whole thing was a biggish mess.
Hard lessons learnt about writing truthfully and confusing the reader, versus improvising and making it easier to understand. In turn, over the years as I grew up, I helped a few children in the neighborhood with their essays and their grammar texts and assignment write-ups, and presto! I found myself transported into the role of a storyteller. So now, my mind works overtime to craft delicious stories, my old passion of cooking forgotten in the acquired bliss of a less messy, less cumbersome and totally inexpensive role of a storyteller.
In fact, often I try to weave in an experience with a tweak here and a tweak there just to ensure that it does not expose me. When my audiences are young children who crowd around me after cycling and even tri-cycling around in circles, the experiences have to be drawn out from my childhood. Then when the teenagers come to me after a game of volleyball, I have to narrate stories from my soul- because I have learnt that the soul is open and really amenable in the early teens- the thoughts then shape the destinies of the soul owners.
Once in a while, on a pre determined day, we play “Chinese Stories” akin to Chinese Whispers. We often have a houseful on the verandah and the garden surrounding it is also full of flowers and children. At times there is no place to sit, and the children sprawl on the lawns and have been telling me to get a mike so that they can all hear me. Some of them come with a burning desire to give their inputs- its usually something that has moved them deeply. Some of them come to listen, and glean some truth from the story contributions so that they can tease their buddies about something – some secret girlfriend or heartbreak or even a spanking by their dad or gymnastic instructor at school. Then there are others who come to understand what life is all about, from all the experiences in the story. “It cannot be so bad, after all”, they say. Yet others like to listen and know that what happened to them also happened to somebody else. Same same. Perhaps it gives them solace.
I start the story speak for a minute, then the person next to me takes the story forward; then the next one builds the next rung, and then the next- the last three have to conclude…. And believe me that’s the toughest job. There have to be no lessons learnt, no preaching, just a soulful musing leading to a better understanding of life. That’s the rule. The other rule is no one can use offensive language- nothing unparliamentary. Just two rules we have. Sometimes on such evenings, a story grows up into something so intense, that I feel worried. And when I am alone, it plays on my nerves. Of late, I have been scared of being alone because the phantoms of my stories haunt me.
One day not so long ago, in fact three months ago, there were twelve of us, and we all wanted to make a story. A mixed age group made it richer. And the way it panned out it became one of my best, oft repeated in different fora, tweaked accordingly for different impacts.
The excited participants started talking all together as soon as we completed the round. Many iterations and suggestions later, the story session ended and then I got up and walked into my home. “Its so lifeless and lonely in here, it would have been good if the story had gone on for a bit longer,” I thought.
“Come on, old storyteller, you have your thoughts and words to keep you busy. The pen is mightier than the sword, they say. Why are you worried about being alone?” someone whispered.
I introspect again, today.
I peep out of my window and see clouds tinged with red on the horizon. Its dusk and I hate this part of the day… everything looks so gloomy and so mixed up for a while. Even the red tinge doesn’t help. I think of the story we wove three months ago and wonder what would have transpired had it started raining? Somewhere in the back of my mind, *Child 1 beckons. Why did she select a situation so melancholy? The piquant little voice saying “…..and she is all I have” does not leave me. I must meet her again and maybe talk to her some, to know her sadness.
I try to escape from my role as storyteller and become a real old man for a while. But I realize I have forgotten how to do that. I only seem to be fabricating for the benefit of everyone and somewhere in the process, creating moments of happiness for myself too. Do I have my own story to tell? Where do I begin, where do I end it? Will anyone understand? Let me try. Think about it tomorrow. I have to stash away the idea of rain for the next round whenever that happens. Melancholia mixed with rain; my mind has already started spinning a story. Its beginning and I am writing my epitaph: “words never die.”
Maybe that’s why I am a storyteller. So young at heart, though old in years.
Crowdsourcing is quite the trend. The storyteller uses this technique to create a full story.
* The story appended just in case you would like to read in context.
Here, each new para is added by one of the 12 individuals who were together that day. The entire episode is fiction, written in first person.
To the finishing line
With every breath
I live, a thousand lives.
Soft golden embers
From another day,
Light up again.
Or is it love?
My hair! Oh, my hair! They dance!
No, no, not Medusa,
Not a Maenad either.
But a Bacchanalian at a festival,
The last feast of the season.
My ribs cannot hold my heart anymore.
If it could jump out of my skin, it would.
Of a ‘starry night over the Rhone’,
A rendezvous with Vincent Van Gogh?
Were you there when-
The hot dog man was singing a song,
And love whispered through the jukebox?
Blinking fireflies hugged the moon,
Till Helios came by on his famous chariot,
Horse drawn, breathing fire-
With his gasping steeds and his golden crown?
We laughed; and sang.
Held hands, held breaths.
As we walked on rainbows,
And blew kisses at butterflies.
Or was it love?
Tomorrow is yet another day,
Oft have I heard the people say.
My measure done, I wait.
So tell me,
Have I finished?
Is it the victory line?
# 1. ‘Starry night over the Rhone’ is a famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh
# 2. “Medusa, in Greek mythology, the most famous of the monster figures known as Gorgons. She was usually represented as a winged female creature having a head of hair consisting of snakes; unlike the Gorgons, she was sometimes represented as very beautiful. Medusa was the only Gorgon who was mortal; hence her slayer, Perseus, was able to kill her by cutting off her head. From the blood that spurted from her neck sprang Chrysaor and Pegasus, her two sons by Poseidon. The severed head, which had the power of turning into stone all who looked upon it, was given to Athena, who placed it in her shield; according to another account, Perseus buried it in the marketplace of Argos.”
#3. “Maenad, female follower of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus. The word maenad comes from the Greek maenades, meaning “mad” or “demented.” During the orgiastic rites of Dionysus, maenads roamed the mountains and forests performing frenzied, ecstatic dances and were believed to be possessed by the god. While under his influence they were supposed to have unusual strength, including the ability to tear animals or people to pieces (the fate met by the mythical hero and poet Orpheus). In Roman religion, Dionysus’s counterpart was Bacchus, and his female followers were called bacchantes.”
#4. “Bacchanalia, also called Dionysia, in Greco-Roman religion, any of the several festivals of Bacchus (Dionysus), the wine god. They probably originated as rites of fertility gods. The most famous of the Greek Dionysia were in Attica and included the Little, or Rustic, Dionysia, characterized by simple, old-fashioned rites; the Lenaea, which included a festal procession and dramatic performances; the Anthesteria, essentially a drinking feast; the City, or Great, Dionysia, accompanied by dramatic performances in the theatre of Dionysus, which was the most famous of all; and the Oschophoria (“Carrying of the Grape Clusters”).”