Hungry, Dirty, Cold and Loved….

Usually the conversation starts with, “where are you from?”

“Pune”

“..Meaning Mumbai, right?”

My imagination zooms back to the two monster-cities that are growing cancerously, almost into each other, Sigh, “Uh, yeah, close enough…”

“Are you here for a holiday?”

I definitely do not look like a jolly tourist, not with frizzed hair and smears of gober on my ragged cloths, “No. I work here.”

“What work?”

“I build”

“What is there in the hills to build?!” accompanied with laughter.

I silently look out for the direly awaited, late night bus to show up.

“Who are you travelling with?”

I feel like saying, “With myself” but I am not hungry or nasty today, so I say “Nobody.”

“How much do you get paid?”

“Nothing, so far… But with time, there will be something.” now really trying to sound polite.

“Are you from an NGO?”

“No.”

“…then?”

“I work for an Architect.”

A long awkward pause, while I do my best to ignore that top to toe scrutiny….

“…married?!”

“No.”

“How old are you?”

“Um… 27…”

I can almost catch them sigh this time, oh…there is no hope after all…

Mostly by end of this question they classify me solidly into some category and start feeling comfortable….almost sympathetic! Then the rapid fire round takes a turn into checking my ancestry up….

Often my skills at shamelessly sleeping through any bus journey save me from this endless interview. And with time I have learned that albeit strangers, most of them are simply good natured and curious about this strange woman travelling alone at night. Their questions, too probing and unnecessarily personal, actually harm me in no way, but might open a new world of possibilities that they have never even considered…. I have seen some of these random interviewers drift into a silent musing, trying to relate with me… mostly, they shrug the thought out with an anxious jerk and fall back into their comfortable, sympathetic zone!

But yes, I admit, there was a time when I used to fire up and fume inside, being judged by strangers like that… Once an over-smart, ten-year old looking me up and down, had asked his mother, “Is this how a spinster looks like?!” I had felt a jumble of emotions varying from violent rage to careless laughter and then, squirmy pity….

This is not about questioning the conventions… or rebelling for or against anything… that activist in me knows that there are far graver things than facebook relationship status, to fight against.

Relationships and their social contexts have become far too controversial and debatable issues lately, for poor me to even dare writing upon.

Do I wish to be in a relationship with anyone or not? If yes, then with whom and why?

To start with, does a relationship (let us call it matrimony, if it comforts) truly complete my life?

For those who bother to raise such questions, these are too personal choices to generalize broadly into socially acceptable frameworks that we live within…. This is about those who silently choose to live their lives by their own rules, without preaching others to do the same… without setting out to destroy the very fabric of our faiths and subsequent comforts.

With time, now I have come to a point where life has started weaving into a beautiful, melodic rhythm of its own. Although delightfully unpredictable like a dance sequence, life has continued to gift me with moments of grace, beauty, warm affection and lasting friendships…. It has brought me to believe that any day that has not been driven by the utmost love for life, is not lived at all.

Life of this 27, single woman, travelling architect is full and satisfying…. Filled with immense questions and challenges sometimes beyond her strength! There is color, glamour, beauty and humor along with mistakes, blunders, failures and massive goof ups!

They have said that I am wasting my life, that I am taking all the wrong decisions…. They have said that this path that I am choosing goes nowhere…. And I promise, this nowhere is so much more beautiful than anywhere! Through this chaotic, rattling bus journey of life, my closest ones have always stood by my silly decisions….

My exceptionally cool-headed father with his flawlessly practical advice, offered only when asked for…expecting me to make truthful and honest choices in life, and nothing more, in return of all the emotional and financial investments he has continued to make…

Friends of family and families of my friends, who have unexpectedly risen to help, guide and shelter me in the worst hours of life….

Teachers who have patiently watched me fumble over the easiest of lessons!

My best buddies who have watched me fall and get back to my feet… taught me to use phones and tracked my crazy travel itineraries… laughed at me and lightened up my gloomy moods!

Silent admirers who have defended and protected me, from a distance, without hurting my independent spirit….

I have always known how much courage it has cost them all to watch me struggle. I know how uncomfortable they have felt late at night, in their comfortable beds, when they knew I traveled, hungry, dirty and cold out there….

For me, they represent love like nothing and no one else…. They give me strength and hope for the great times…. many beautiful futures that we will be building together….

Along with women of exceptional courage and character, many of them are men of varying backgrounds and age groups. They have loved me in their own ways…. Accepted my fussing, hangry, eccentric way of loving them! And they have never offered me a humiliating choice that most women are often offered, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, between being an object and being everything else. And at every moment, if there was such a choice, they have laughed and nodded, as I chose wholeheartedly and in complete consciousness, to remain hungry, dirty, cold and loved as I am!

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From the Radio Station III

I never imagined myself building a radio station and I am certain the radio people never thought they would have a cranky architect working with them, sometimes shoulder to shoulder and sometimes almost nose to nose!

It is, indeed, a curious mix of professions and cultures that they have conjured up here! Also the very concept of a community radio station, broadcasting from a remote Himalayan village, attracts a range of visitors.

Sushila Bhandari from Raidu village, near agastyamuni is one such intriguing lady. This gadhwali woman of immense courage, is fighting for her “jal, jungle aur jameen”, against not just the corporate, but the very government of Uttarakhand. Two months of imprisonment, paid murder attacks or bribes have failed to muffle her voice. Instead, she has learned to write hindi, during her two months imprisonment! Now she also writes poetry and sings the songs of hills and rivers, in her high pitched, pahadi voice….

***

C P Joshi from dwarhat is another frequent visitor and a valued advisor for the MKA trust. A good looking kumaoni poet, he is also a sensitive social worker allied with “Axay”, a TB eradication initiative.

In the day time, he would quietly smile and walk towards me, while I stand surrounded by my construction gang. And he would very defensively, but with pure curiosity, ask questions about earth construction. For a while I wondered why the defensiveness… and I did admit it to myself that I must look like a daunting warrior on a construction site that resembles a bustling warzone!

But in fact, I do love to answer his questions about various forms of earth construction. At the same time I keep it clear that the views we express are our own inferences and learning, and none is a universal law to be enforced on another… He smiles his mild, enigmatic smile and jumps to another question!

Once, after dinner, we all grownups and kids plopped on Joshi ji’s bed, listening to his kumaoni poetry. An informal “mehfil” Somehow descended upon us!

With him, I have started recollecting old Marathi poetry, after quite awhile… on the other hand, Joshi ji, very soon plans to build a house in dwarhat, a rammed earth structure that he will design for himself!

***

My lovely brick maker team of women has been saving up their payments with Vincent. They plan to take the payment right in the end, and invest that into building a new house in stone. They are going to hire my team of masons for the job!

The masons thoroughly enjoy their work. There is significant change in their expressions and body language. The awkward stress and constant suspicion has evaporated long ago, replaced with natural easy grace and a hint of pride…

There is often a faint smile on Jeetpal ji’s face, as he chisels the stone, with his tongue held out, in utter concentration, so much like a small kid! He laughs and cracks jokes… hums along, old pahadi jungle geet (forest song) playing on the radio, and all the time I watch him with great respect and love… feeling like a mother, who has managed to evoke and protect the child within him…

***

Winter rains in the hills are indeed a special thing. There is a vague distinction between rain, sleet and snow as we climb up, but that entire downpour is essential for the forests, rivers, humans and beasts to thrive.

But for the adobe spread out in the field, drying in sun, this rain was very unfriendly. After a week or two of bright dazzling sunshine, suddenly one morning, we have an overcast sky, rumbling and threatening to wash away all our hard work. The whole team of workers rushes to the site early in the morning, moving dry bricks in shelter and covering the rest with massive plastic sheets. Then we all just sit sheltered by the tent, warming our bruised, frozen hands on an open fire of cheed pine twigs. Stories of man-eaters, bears and ghosts taste far better with rounds of chai.

It usually takes a couple of days for the weather to clear and for all of us to get back to the sunny outdoor work. But the chilly winter rains by then, have brought us all close together…. Bonded irreversibly now, we are a construction gang, driven by a special sense of comradeship.

***

The stone masonry in gadhwal, has such a robust and distinct character that we wish to expose it and flaunt it to the world! The crudeness of partially dressed stone and sleek lines of slate pieces, together create a rhythmic symphony of shapes and shades… no two stones in the masonry look alike and yet they all belong to the same astute composition.

Most people, who prefer the formal, strict masonry of fine dressed stone, fail to see the poetry in gadhwali masonry. I had a fair bit of problem, trying to see, what makes gadhwali masonry, so wrong in their perspective. Our visual senses are enslaved by now. We like all things to look alike… we want all kids to be dressed in uniforms and all women to look like movie stars. We want all roads to look the same and all places to become cities…. Just like that, we want all stones to look strictly alike. Every time someone asks why I refuse to use neat dressed stone, I ask them, why they want all the stone to look alike… and I am still waiting for an answer.

***

While I am pouring my blood, brain and sweat into the construction work, instead of making me feeble and desensitized, it is making me, more alive, lot more sensitive and aware…. In spite of all the brain boggling problems and surprising solutions… yet, there are moments that allow me to trace a beautiful Himalayan vulture soaring over my head, in graceful, lazy circles…. At times I stay back at the construction site, just to witness the sky that looks blue fading into orange, so much like a flycatcher’s belly, preceded by a sunset bathed in gold and copper glitter of stone dust around me….
Sometimes, long after those dramatic sunsets, I sit there, planning the next phases of construction. Hungry and tired, I step out from the studio, to find my construction site, drenched in melting silver moonlight…  Fresh, wet adobe glisten softly, and the stone masonry glows as if lit from within … It is irresistible to keep my hands off the rhythmic rough and smooth texture of the stone wall…. On a biting cold winter night, I let my fingertips trace the crevices of ice-like stones… like some magical self-lit objects!

At any time of the day or night, these hills never fail to take my breath away…

***

Although I am sure, my mum never planned it deliberately, I wonder sometimes, if she hoped, growing up in a house with Sanskrit plays and poetry scattered around, along with Hemmingway, will leave its imprint on me…. Before arriving in gadhwal, I carried a strange image of this land… for me it was the land of Kalidas’ poetry… the land where I presumed, Kumarsambhavam must have taken a verbal form. And with that bias, I keep stumbling upon places that, in my mind, match exactly to the setting of various events in the Shiva-Parvati story. It feels as if the gods and goddesses would simply drift in front of me, from behind that ancient banjh (oak) tree, if I truly willed them to appear…

But they do not, nor does the famous man-eater of gadhwal. I hear stories of men and women right from our neighboring villages, mauled by wild bears and snatched away by the panthers… but those beautiful beasts somehow never cross my paths. Although I know these wise ones must be prowling in the dark, quite too close by, camouflaged more by my absence of mind than their stealth… So I keep my curiosity reigned in and usually abide by the rules of village life, that forbid me to walk home, after dark, unaccompanied by a man. I religiously believe that a hungry beast would definitely be distracted by the more flavorsome option of devouring a man, and would spare this inconsequential woman to go home!

One day I will also write about the ghosts of gadhwal, but right now, it is indeed too late at night to think of bodiless voices following us along treacherous forest paths! But I promise, if someday the said feminine forest spirit truly chooses to confront me, I will sincerely ask her forgiveness on behalf of the mankind and promise to protect her beautiful green veil, for as long as I live…. I think she will be a smart forest spirit who will bless me genially.

***

There is something about half done earth masonry that looks like a warm promise of future… For some reason or the other, I keep walking and leaping over its dusty ledges, watching the walls risen and complete in my mind.

My gang once warned me not to do that too often, for it might offend the spirit of this building. They were anyway certain that just like the masons, who work too closely with the masonry, I too am possessed by the “devtaa”. There is indeed a tiny “deoli” temple, topped with brightly colored flags, next to the construction site. Every time we start a fresh phase of construction, our masons offer flowers, sweets and some incense to the deity staying in there….

I think the “devtaa” knows that I totally love being possessed by him! He is not a scary one, who gets offended so easily. I wonder if he laughs at me, if he likes me too…

Homes That Die

A home should be capable of death just like those who live in it…..
Like a faithful pet or rather like a soul brother, the house should die with us, for we do not wish to litter this earth with too many monuments of the dead.
Death is a beautiful companion herself…. I wish I could learn to not fear her…. to befriend her instead….
Then the homes too will become fearless and benign…..

Himalayan pilgrimage part I: Dharmalaya

When I look back on my summer study travels, often it is the flavor and tenor of those places, the light and coziness of spaces, people, their pasts and so many interlinked stories, that fill my heart with some unknown affection, as though I have spread my roots into those places and people, as though they are very much part of my being…

Every day of my stay in Himachal, I woke up to the vision of Dhauladhar snow peaks. I thanked them every day for their mystical blessings that reached me through people, food and endless conversations.

The learning and growing of every pilgrim like me is made possible by these places and people. The smallest things in my routine life remind me of their smiling faces and I feel some warm and pleasant heartache.

I wish to narrate what happened on this Himalayan pilgrimage, and how it has altered me irreversibly… But I doubt if I can convey fully everything I have to say, while tides of love and joy burst against the walls of my heart, even at the thought of this journey… I am still too overwhelmed… Too touched to be able to find crisp words for everything… But I must write this now, with all this vulnerability still alive in me… And I hope that no matter how confused or ambiguous I may write, something will reach you just between those awkward lines.

There are three distinct legs of this journey that were staged through three different places in the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh. The visions, experiences, challenges, and their solutions evolve into an overall flavor of first two places. It keeps climbing and intensifying with every passing day… coming together into an unexpected climax of the story in its last week — a beautiful closing note to a melodious song.

***

It starts way up in the awe-inspiring hills of the Dhauladhar range, winding through the half-asleep village of Bir, when we were dropped at the fringe of a pine wood to hike the last stretch up a hill to reach Dharmalaya. Walking up to the campus with all your baggage is the first gateway into the ‘Dharmalaya lifestyle’ that awaits us up top! And, there, the valley encircled with hills provides a literally breathtaking distraction!

That first vision of Himalayan peaks after so long… every time, it unfailingly takes you away from your urban presence. Your name, designations and credentials are all washed away. You become a being… a clean and simple unit of existence, cleansed and ready to live a life in the hills.

Dharmalaya is a place that functions as an opportunity for learning a sustainable lifestyle by practicing it. Although it is a campus still in the making, it already lives and grows, true to its fundamentals.

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The place staged some simple and obvious challenges that, surprisingly, I had never faced before. It feels differently alive when you work toward the naked, crude reality of survival and stand straight, holding your head high, looking up into the face of a lofty mountain, and smile…

And there were my personal attempts to overcome past records! It is astonishing how much one can accomplish even after crossing the known limits of physical or mental exhaustion. Exhaustion is possibly just an illusory barrier after all, beyond which lies the world of personal miracles!

Every evening, when I would let myself become aware of how tired I was, it felt absolutely the opposite! I felt eased, as if all my limbs were completely relaxed after such a long time! I realize that it was because they had worked well beyond their limit of exhaustion! I would watch sunburns and bruises on my arms and legs, and wonder why it did not hurt even in near-freezing cold wind. But my hands have known a worse pain: that of spotless, useless idleness… bruises rather feel better!

I would think of quiet, peaceful afternoons back home… times when I watched my clean and spotless hands, hurting inside, for I was hungry to know what I could do with those.

It gave me some violent pleasure to think of clean hands while I mixed and danced in cold mud, wiped wooden molds for another batch of adobes… or got funny, throbbing blisters after a day of sod cutting.

There have been long evenings back home when I used to sit motionless through meetings, feeling a dead, heavy fatigue in my legs, for I was dying to find out how far I could hike or run through wilderness with those legs, as I know every human is born to do! It gave me the same violent pleasure to think of those idle evenings while I actually went jumping over boulders through possibly some of world’s most pristine hills, feeling light, strong and so so alive! Village dogs often joined me and raced through the trees by my side, with a grave look of comradeship in their hairy, warm faces.

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Of course there were quiet moments here as well, when there was warm, buttery sunshine and I could stretch out under some random, beautiful oak tree, thinking about nothing too human… Simply balancing sun and shadow over my body, according to how cold or warm it felt that day… Or finding the most comfortable angle to rest my neck into the rough lovely tree trunk! And then somehow the hills would become silent for a long time.

I know I was not there on a holiday! There was architecture happening, taking shape among all of us. We were breaking through the most obvious assumptions in architectural practice and starting our thought process at the very beginning… Somewhere near the instinct of ‘shelter making’.

It frustrates the best of us when we realize that, in the course of sophistication, we have let our instincts rot for generations. We have no clue of how to survive! Most people remain unskilled in this way because they simply do not know there is something lacking. Our schools and colleges have ensured that we remain oblivious to reality. But when one realizes what is missing, it becomes a personal challenge to learn things, to do things by hand… and to know that the most beautiful attribute of human anatomy is its ability to learn and do and create — an ability that often remains untapped!

I am not going to quantify and spoil all the learning that happened to me… To be honest, I cannot measure the depth and intensity of changes that these lessons have brought and are continuing to bring. The lessons of life and architecture have blended together inseparably. I simply believe that they will seep into my being and express themselves as I encounter relevant situations in the design of life. Nobody knows where this learning may take me with time. Slowly, I am starting to appreciate the beauty of this ‘not-knowing’ — a fat achievement for someone who has been such a control freak for years!

There is meditative pleasure in doing things by hand, and it grows deeper and more compellingly addictive with time. For example, before using soil for making earth blocks, one needs to set aside the precious top soil layer, for it contains all the organic nutritive treasures of life. Cutting chunks of sod and replanting them as part of landscaping can, in fact, turn into a blissfully exhausting experience. It also teaches one to watch carefully, at the scale and amount of ecological damage that has to happen in course of building anything, even with the least processed forms of earth construction.

Earth is a highly instructive teacher when we stop being morons and allow her to lead the way. She teaches us to look at life carefully… to treasure it and, at the very least, to limit our destructive activities and find ways to heal life as much as we possibly can.

Every time we make a choice of saving or healing, we must also be prepared to put in additional time, human effort, skill and sensitivity, because acts of benignity cannot be purchased: they must be ‘done’. But somehow modern man often does not care about investing these trivial things into a building activity. He has built his systems such that they compel him to become more and more insensitive, unskilled, thoughtless, and yet surprisingly too busy to do things!

So, probably, we are a funny bunch of people trying to turn the wheel back, while the rest of the world is moving forward. But the increasing number of restless architects setting out to find hands-on work opportunities definitely means something. It hints at things we have lost with time — things that are human and possibly even trivial, but things we have started to miss in our daily lives. It is instinctive and apt for a human to want to go back to the basics and relearn those things. It is no more going back in time; it is not reversing the wheels of development. It is simply nurturing our roots to have better grip in the future.

Apart from making adobes and maintaining the existing building, we also had a design task to finish in two weeks’ time: We had to build a toilet, by hand, without using any industrially manufactured, purchased building material, and without using and help from outside.

Indeed, we did install a dry pit toilet with a bamboo enclosure at Dharmalaya, but only after two highly eventful weeks. It started out with long discussions, calculations, sketches, frustrating setbacks and redesigns. Through this, we architects discovered that none of us actually knew how to build!

So, we learned to select bamboo, clean their nodes and then cut the right lengths. We scavenged the hill slopes with our local thatch consultants, learning to select the right kind of grass for thatch roofing. And at the end, one sunny day, we had heaps of harvested grass — and no frame on which to tie it!

One needs something to tie bamboo joints together. Again, we ran to our local skill consultants and Rajinder bhaiyya showed us how, for generations, they have been making ropes out of the bark fibre of a specific tree that they call ‘dhaman’. After several frustrating and failed attempts at rope-making, finally our hands learned to roll the fibres into a rope! Rope-making is like a rhythmic dance that goes on into timelessness once we learn the motions well. I sat through a beautiful sunset, my eyes closed against the pleasant reddish-purple glow on the horizon, while my hands played with the bark fibres, rolling out seamless, neat spirals of rope. What a blessing it is to be alive!

There were several things happening around us in loosely connected dynamics: We were splitting bamboos, cutting bamboos, tying joints, falling, cutting ourselves, laughing into hysteria — and some of us snoring through the evening sessions!

One day, with outdoor work stalled by bad weather, we had fun with a new instrument: a glass cutter. Using this tool for cutting glass bottles was a quiet, precision task, and I had the warm glow of candle flame right by my side. All the cut bottles will be wrapped in reflective foils and embedded in earthen walls as tiny, glowing day lights.

There was a platter of tasks from which we could pick and choose, learning whatever we pleased! There were a thousand more things I could have learned, but I learned what I could gather in the time available and made a note to myself about things that I now know must be learned.

Dharmalaya is also a place where one learns to live as a community and participates in its daily chores. Unlike urban settings, no invisible cleaning staff comes here to maintain this place while we are oblivious to their presence, busy at work. We are our own janitors, cooks and housekeepers. Tasks as simple as chopping fruits and vegetables, cleaning the kitchen, dishwashing, and toilet cleaning have a very deep effect within us when we perform them with full attention. Chores were indeed highly contemplative opportunities to continue what we were striving to learn outdoors.

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One cannot drift through and remain untouched by the pristine hills and humble lifestyle at Dharmalaya. It is a hard life if not accepted with full understanding — as hard as reaching this place is!

Still, somehow it is much harder to leave this place, once we catch the rhythm of it. Yes, it has a heartbeat of its own that throbs in dung-plastered walls and in a solitary light beam stretched from the ceiling across the earth floor… a pulse that is the sum total of many hearts and hands that have shaped this place.

Himalayan Pilgrimage Part II: Sambhaavnaa

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Jumping into Earth Architecture…..

In the course of evolution, it is curious how life learned the sense of space, to know a cozy and safe space apart from being exposed. With time more advanced life forms learned not just “sense” space but to modify it, to “create” a shelter.

From nest weaving avian to hut making Stone Age man, the action of “building” had already been seeded within, long before its verbalization, into “architecture”.

Every human instinctively knows how to build the best shelter for himself, just as he knows to love the earth as his first and foremost shelter. When the artificiality of civilization and culture, modernity and lifestyle is striped off, there lies the true human spirit capable of “creating” spaces, capable of taking an undefined expanse of space and defining it into an identity, an experience….a flavor of its own kind, unrepeatable and unique.

It is necessary to strip down every aspect of thought and action to that purity if one wishes to discover the truth behind all. All great thinkers of the world have struggled to cut away the frills and loads of unnecessary ornamentation in their own field of expertise. Through many streams and professions they have sought and some of them have reached the same truth.

Pursuit of one of the most fundamental instincts such as sense of space is a straight path to the same goal. That pursuit of sense of space is what I would call architecture in its most fundamentally honest form. Architecture is not just an end to be achieved but a mean to a greater and better consciousness.

The earth is the first definition of space man has known and has founded his cultures and creations ever since.  Architecture naturally rises from that very earth underneath. No piece of architecture can disregard its roots within the soil. Every material that we take and mould spaces within has born from the earth and must return to the same.

The famous term, “Earth Architecture” hence contains a redundant first word, although made necessary by our ability to forget the whole point of every great conception. Conventionally “earth architecture” now means the branch of architecture than accepts and conscientiously responds to its origin in earth.

Practicing earth architecture is simple and most challenging at once, simply because it has no set rules, no guidelines, and no exact instructions to follow. It is not lack of scientific approach but the very natural demand of this path to trust none except instincts, which by the means of education we have deliberately wiped.

One needs to start some point, and may do so by taking a hint from all forms and expressions of vernacular architecture, because it reflects the act of building as man had known in his crudest, unaltered state of being. But simply going reverse in time and technology never solves the problem. History is not for repetitions but for learning from.

With all the study material that may be obtained from the vernacular architecture, we are at a point where we must think afresh, not just the way we build, but the way we consider our resources, deploy and replenish them… It is impossible to think of it in a closed air conditioned room. One must actually build by hand, experiment and create in order to learn to create well. I understand that it is a long way and I’m sure to get lost by the time I find my way. But that is what I intend to achieve in the end, to get lost in the pursuit. This is what architecture means to me. And I know that nobody can “teach” that to me, although, I am hungry to find those who would help me to learn or at least equip me to learn better by myself. Owing to the crippling effect of being educated, I find myself clueless about how to jump into the unknown….and scared too.

INR 1000 to 40… A food journey

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Typical road scape in Auroville….

No matter what, life is often nothing but a food journey. From one meal to another, we survive on hope and promise of the next repast! One could write a travelogue through many perspectives, but food seems like the most appropriate spoon to share this soundhidian experience with yeh all!

It is an ancient faith that the divine mother takes care of your basic needs like food. It means that the man need not worry, work and covet for the next meal. His life is for a greater purpose. The survival part will be taken care of as long as he is “useful” to run the machine of this world…as long as he is doing is first duty of evolving into a better being. It is not just a faith or mythical belief but a crude universal law of usefulness! Some call it the universal energy or the holy mother Mary or the divine mother, goddess Kali, Guadeloupe, mum, aunt, grandma….and so on. The variables in this equation change but the constant remains the same, that we are fed!!

And so was I fed for last 12 days by the many forms of divine mother! It is an interesting account that connects tummy with heart…spirit with intestine!!

During one week at Auroville, most of my day was spent in lectures, case studies, studios and a ginormous stack of books to be finished in such little time. In addition to intellectual gymnastics, I also had to spend first couple of days in trying to get the map straightened in my head, balancing a torch and bicycle at once and such other skills. There was no time to look around for places to eat, though Auroville holds a unique range of restaurants for those who have ample time to bicycle through the woods searching for hidden food heavens!

Stone-like bread splattered with butter and marmalade was my permanent dinner plan. I followed it religiously every night, sitting in a clearing carved out of books and notes spread on the floor! There would be exotic music drifting through the open windows, along with clouds of mosquitoes, I must add, since the windows had no idea of closure at all! French, Italian, Greek or sometimes Middle Eastern folk music was the only variable ingredient of my dinner!

Though when I think of that one week, all I remember is the bright library of the earth institute, quite, except the chirping squirrels and soulful cries of peacocks….soft wind rustling the foliage, sending an array of dancing shadows through leaf- filtered sunlight! The smell of rows after rows of finest books in the world, disturbed only by wafting cups of real south Indian coffee twice a day!

Lunch at the institute is crazy time when all the international pack of students gathers around an international food fest! There is dosa in coconut milk, sometimes a tamil version of chappathy, as they call it! I thought I reached the ultimate global food unity when I was served pasta and samabaram in the same plate!

Accepting that the lunch was the only time I could get a real meal, I thanked the divine mother who had then appeared in the form of “Anjani” amma at the institute! She served with a smile whatever crazy combination lunch was made for us! She would save some for me, in case I spent too much of the lunchtime in the library…

After spending a studious and hungry week at Auroville, finally I grabbed my chance to escape to Pondicherry. First thing I did was finding an authentic Tamil restaurant! Idli wada sambaram and a hot cup of kwaapi was my contemporary definition of heaven! Mere smell of curry leaves afloat in sambaram can change one’s perspective about life!

The driver was smart enough to gauge the silent foodie occupying the back seat, so he drove me to a fine French restaurant for the lunch. It was run by a French architect who, naturally hails from Auroville again! Admiring the ambiance that was casual and tastefully aesthetic at the same time, I settled in a comfortable corner cane couch! An excellent fish cooked in French basil sauce, mashed potatoes, vegetables and rice served with a glass of decent French wine. Divine mother looked very inconspicuous as a tamil server, suggesting me the best on the menu! I like her as long as she feeds me with that charming smile!

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Massive wind chime at the Visitor’s Center, auroville

My time in Auroville finally came to an end with a quick excursion through the town and the beach. It was an absolutely unplanned and obvious thought to spend my last evening in Auroville, at the visitor’s center restaurant, an elegantly structured court surrounded with boutiques and brick arches. The sun was setting beyond high masts of palm trees, there was happy bauble of diners around me, a tiny candle fluttering inside paper lantern on my table, a glass of pomegranate juice and a piece of cake to go with a book about Aurovilliean perspective of education!

Divine mother feeds not just our stomach but our spirit as well…. That evening will remain in my heart forever, like a caress of a loving mother, smile of an appreciative teacher and a warm handshake with the future!!

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A kairali breakfast is incomplete without banana!!

Her lovely care does not leave me even when I leave the mystical land of Auroville. I reach Trivandrum after a day spent with cold airline sandwiches; throw my bags in a hotel and dash to the nearest diner! A sweet mallyali lady welcomes me with a whiff of jasmines in her hair, and looks up intently at my face…. I am not sure I can hide long spells of hunger very well! When she serves a heap of rice with sambaram and typical kairali chutneys, she smiles at me again and adds two pieces of fried fish that I never asked for! We do not really need a language to communicate, my half smile and teary face says everything that was to be said…..

Trivandrum auto drivers are not so gentle though, they drive like a charging bull in an arena! But I must admit that my Laurie Baker pilgrimage in Trivandrum would have been hopeless without their unmatched skills of finding strangest of addresses! This auto driver too soon figured out that the best way to coax a good tip out of me was to drop me to the best food place he could!

On the way to Kanyakumari I slept careless as a child… too full to stay awake! The calm salty breeze from kovalam beach was adding another sedative to my brain…. Once in a while if I woke, I could see a solid wall of green passing by the car window…. Endless coconut orchards make you dream green even in your sleep, I assure you that!

Reaching the quiet serene campus of Vivekananda Kendra was like smoothly drifting from one dream into another. After a strict scrutiny of my documents and probably ancestry too, VK administration consented me to stay with them. In spite of initial strictness, eventually these people loved me and fed me like I was their immediate family! The VK canteen, GouriSankar restaurant is an odd place where all sorts of VK guests and life workers dine together. The manager smiled and showed me a table, and I felt easy, belonged, not a stranger anymore! The so-called limited rice meal was definitely more than my appetite. But the servers rushed again to offer more rice when I had managed to empty my plate with immense effort. What was the idea behind limited meal really, to overfeed?! The manager even offered me a banana, for good digestion, he said, munching one himself!

I never mind having a meal alone because it allows me to read simultaneously. Somehow everyone at VK restaurant found that very quaint. Saying that “You have a very good vibration” is their style of appreciation! Honestly, I am no expert on classifying people by their “vibrations” but the restaurant manager sure is!

I met a Malaysian lady who had grasped her Chinese New Year leave to escape to VK for a spiritual retreat, and a VK life worker who runs a facebook community for spiritual aspirants. Ticket man at the Vivekananda Exhibition blessed me that I would be a “top architect” one day, though I tried to explain to him that there is nothing like a “top architect” in reality!

Often when you speak plain, unglamorous truth, people think you are too modest. Then there is no option left to you than wearing the hat of greatness. It is not a flattering feeling, just too sweet sugary syrup that leaves a bitter aftertaste….

I hoped that it was their innocent goodwill and it need not be destroyed with my harsh frankness. It is simply good to turn deaf when your limit of endurance is reached. These people approached me with a smile and treated me graciously for no reason at all. There cannot be any motif, anything for them to gain from me. I was just a guest, who would be gone in another couple of days. But surprisingly I was not a stranger to them. Probably my “vibrations” were good!!

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VK NARDEP Campus

The main point of my visit to VK was to meet Vasudev ji, who is a secretary of VK’s Natural Resource Development Project, NARDEP, a fine man with multilingual skills who speaks about organic architecture, as a delightful life experience. Meandering through the campus of Technology Research Center, which took shape under his able hands, is a model experiment of sustainable architecture. The office in charge of TRC is a slight lady, sister Saraswathi. The moment when I met her first she was frying papadam in the backyard of Center’s kitchen, singing a “hari-song”! Saraswathi akka sent me to have a look at the campus and then ordered me to return to the kitchen for lunch. I tried to refuse politely, saying that I could go back to the VK canteen. And she turned to me with her eyes wide and yeah, quite scary, “when divine mother says you should have lunch with us, you do not object”. I had nothing to say in reply. I helped her in the kitchen, to serve plates and to clean, hoping that the divine mother would not stare at me again with those dark eyes widened with anger!

She was pleasant once I settled to stay for lunch, said that Pune was an atrocious city. I agreed instantly, wholeheartedly! She said that architects were pests! I nodded to that as well! And so we went on in perfect harmony! I even learned bits of Tamil under her rule! Kunjum meaning little, modu meaning buttermilk and podum meaning enough…. And here I must say podum to my Tamil vocabulary!

Slowly I saw her world unfold around me. Her trees, her people, her trainees, her kitchen, her birds and kittens! She loved all, including me. Saraswathi akka was the one who brought me to realize essence of this travel. It was through her words that I touched the shocking realization of how and why I was fed. not just in last two weeks but throughout my life. The meal may cost me a thousand rupees, forty rupees or just an angry look, but I am fed every day. There must be some reason to it, I wonder…..Image

Built with Love….

Years ago I used to dream…about erecting tall skyscrapers in my home town. I dreamed of watching this city from a lofty terrace up there…. I was young and eager to build a new era for this city. I loved this city.

But something has gone wrong in last couple of years. No…I still love this place, I call it home…don’t I?! But I do not want any skyscrapers here….not anymore. Me and my friends…we have lived here for generations. But we will neither afford a house in those… nor the lifestyle that must be bought as well.

I know who will afford it all…. Those few people for whom we toil day and night. They will buy what was rightfully ours. They will show us a dream…. that if we work harder someday maybe we can be like them…. Maybe! And someday we will really afford it all…but we’ll be too old and worn out with hard work, to enjoy it. We will be acutely aware of those who were robbed of living so that we could buy some luxuries…..and the plushness will feel so vacant somehow. We will learn to not notice the emptiness…not feel too much, not even pure happiness.

It is a cruel joke… such dark humor that I feel not like laughing at all. But the glamor-dressed reality of the building trade has taught me something. The people that I slaved for will never let me change the fate of this city. They will offer me a glorious chance to build my dream city on their terms…just a few compromises! I would build it on any terms… as long as I get to build. But it will be them who own my dream. They will sell it piece by piece, to those who can afford to buy. I will stay in a cubbyhole for the rest of my life and watch the skyscrapers with pride…. “I built it!” I will stand in the long queues, suffocate in jammed roads and I will look up to the skyscrapers once in a while, coughing and retching, “I built it”. Poor will become poorer, rich will become richer, I will watch them rob each other in turns…. I’d want to look away…to the skyscrapers… “I built it”

Ten years down the line I do not want to think that I built it all…I helped them build this horrific world. I know they will build it anyway…much worse without me. But now I do not want any part of it. My home is about to be destroyed. And I am going to run for my life. Many have fled before me. I laughed at them, called them cowards. But now I must run too…jump off from this sinking ship.

Lucky for me I know how to build. I will find a secluded island somewhere… and build another home there… a home that will not be built on the corpses of my fellow brothers…a home that will be an ascetic’s cave…. and nothing more.

I know there are more like me…. They will come too. I will build for them… I will build with love. The land will heal and blossom under my touch. I will blossom with her…someday to die in peace and return back to the sweet earth.