We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.
T. S. Eliot
Yet the timelessness in you is aware of life’s timelessness,
And knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow
is yesterday’s dream
And that that which sings and contemplates in you
is still dwelling
within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the
stars into space.
Niveditha and I
A dim yellow light is aglow in one corner of the tiny, but cozy room. The room is still fragrant with the last traces of ‘dhoop’ that is burning down. Niveditha has fallen asleep on the mattress below. The book she was reading, slowly slips from her hand and falls onto the floor. She must have fallen asleep reading…
…her face, looking beautiful in the soft yellow light. The only sound around seems to come from the fluttering of pages in the gentle breeze. The curtain breezes in. The night is dark and silent, like any other night during this season. It could rain today.
She suddenly sits up, as if jolted from her sleep. Her body tense, she sits upright on the bed. Her eyes still heavy with sleep. She looks around, scanning every corner of that tiny room. The front door is latched. All is quite.
Niveditha (thinks aloud): “Then, who is that? I can sense somebody in the room. I can feel a presence. Maybe I just imagined. Maybe I was dreaming. I should just get back to sleeping…”
She scans the room one more time, not feeling convinced of her justification to herself. The door to the balcony is still open. It seems to be a breezy night today. She reluctantly goes back to sleep. But this time, she is restless, twisting and turning in bed, until she can no longer get to sleep. She sits up and is still groggy. The curtain breezes in again and she looks towards the balcony, thinking, “I know there is someone in the room. It is strange that I can’t see the person, but I can sense and I know that this person is standing there at the doorway. He is looking at me. Go away! Who are you? You make me feel eerie. Go away!”
It is true. She could not see him. But he was there, standing and watching her from the corner of the balcony door.
Niveditha and Rishab
Rishab and she are in an auto heading towards Old City. They are in the middle of a conversation, when he suddenly appears. She cannot see him again, but he is there. And this time, he is at close quarters. Right next to her. She senses his presence and is petrified. Niveditha moves closer to Rishab. But something even stranger happens. She can almost feel his gown next to her. She catches a glimpse of his robe like dress. It is green in colour. She can barely make out the rest of him before she gets a feeling that he is gone. She feels relieved temporarily, but something inside her seems to have lost its sense of balance and peace. And this time she is unable to dismiss it. Niveditha decides to find out who or what it is.
She tells herself, “I can’t be imagining it this time. He is there. I know it is a ‘he’. I need to know what he is or who he is and why do I see/not see him… …who can I ask? Where do I begin?”
Niveditha, Ammachi and I
Prithivi died today in an accident. But death doesn’t seem so distant or strange to her anymore. She has not seen many people die at close quarters, except Ammachi (whom she was very close to and extremely fond of!).
In some untold way, I felt happy for Prithvi. He was young, no doubt. At 27, he was just about to start a new life— get married, have kids. There was a great deal ahead of him.
“But what the hell, he’s going to start afresh anyway”, I thought.
I saw the people around me and a deep sorrow filled my heart. “Why did they cry? Couldn’t they see that if there were anything that was true, then, it was this! It is death, and nothing else? Change and Death. They were the only two constants in life. And the two most predominantly difficult things to come to terms with.”
Niveditha had come a long way since those rainy days in ’98. She had experienced too many deaths of people she was close to.
First, it was Ammachi (grandma). Niveditha was about twelve. Ammachi was ill and it was clear that she was not going to live. The rank smell of death hung like a cloud over everything. Her death was not an easy one. The sound of her laboured breathing followed Niveditha everywhere. Although there was so much suffering in Ammachi’s prolonged dying, there seemed to be an inner peace and confidence about her. She was very attached to Ammachi. They were like two best friends. Ammachi’s death shook her.
At the age of twelve, it was in her nature to question everything. She had had her first glimpse of a truth attached to existence. She did not understand what death meant and the meaning of rituals that followed. She was not convinced with the answers that she received from her parents.
Where did people go after they die? What happened to them? Will we be able to meet them again? And most importantly, why did people die?
There were many a times when she felt Ammachi call out to her and out of habit, she would go to her room, only to realize that it was probably her imagination.
Then, it was Bhavesh— her friend, her brother. Then Roopa— her classmate and best friend. Who would have imagined that they would die so young and so unexpectedly?
But for Niveditha, they were all still there. Alive. Trapped and frozen, in her memories, for as long as she lived.
Death seemed to be indiscriminate.
First, there’s a cool breeze, the tiniest of breezes. And I know it by the tint of the landscape. Then, I notice it: the arrival of the rain. It starts: a drizzle descends on the treetops. There is radiance in the sky. It picks up; no longer a casual descent, it just rushes down, eagerly, like a deluge of children released from the school even as the school bell keeps ringing. Exuberant rain. The treetops submit to an unselfconscious power, bowing beneath the downpour like piano keys moved by unseen hands. A concert is on, the monsoon choir… …
… …I love the rain. It is a proficient mix of emotions— from an explosive bout of untold joy that gradually builds up with the intensity of the rain, to the quiet heaviness of melancholy. Much like the emotions I would probably attach to death. Even the very term seems to attach itself to a different space and time.
The birth of Niveditha saw my birth too. I should have been no different from her. But we grew up contradicting each other for most part of our lives. There was one constant though, that we both questioned and pursued with great vigor. And that, was the concept of death and the embodiments we attached to it to create a space of its own. These embodiments varied in forms. Ideas, thoughts, objects, memories, memorials, dreams, philosophies and even the faiths we were born into. Each of these and all of these put together to give it form, creating a space of it’s own.
Niveditha (thinking aloud): “Ammachi brought back fond memories of everyday storytelling sessions during my growing up years. One story of the death of Lord Krishna seemed to have come to rest in the foreground of my thoughts.”
Ammachi: “… …and Shiva had come to take Krishna with him, when Krishna asked, ‘Oh Shiva, grant me some more time. I am not done with my time on Bhoolokam (Earth) yet’ To this, Shiva smiled down on him and said, ‘I do not wait for anybody. I have come to take you with me and you have to come.’ Even as Shiva and Krishna were having this conversation, an arrow came out of nowhere killing Krishna. This marked the end of the incarnation of Lord Vishnu in the avatar of Lord Krishna. Mahakala took Krishna with him to vykuntam (Heaven- the abode of God).
The arrow that killed him has a long drawn connection. That story, I shall narrate to you some other time…
…But the fact is, death waits for no one. Not even if you are Lord Krishna. Mahakala will come to take you when it is your time to go and when you have fulfilled your duties on this Earth. Then, you can live with Him in vykuntam. With God, your Father. Unless of course, you haven’t been faithful in executing your duties, then, you will be sent back to Earth, to be born again taking a different form.”
Niveditha: “But why couldn’t Shiva give Krishna more time Ammachi? Where did Mahakala want to take him?
(After a pause) Then, who is Shiva and who is Mahakala?”
Ammachi: “Shiva and Mahakala are two aspects of the same being. You can call Him Atman, Purusha, what you like. He is God, your Father.
Just like Lord Krishna is another aspect of Lord Vishnu, who has taken on a different form to do a different duty, similarly, Shiva, the same essence as Mahakala is a different manifestation with a different job to do. We attach various attributes to each of these aspects.
Mahakala is the God of Time. He is the pivot on which the entire universe turns. On the one hand, there is the samsara (Saguna Brahman), which is the infinity of forms, endless. On the other, (Nirguna Brahman), which is the formless infinity, absolutely no form, zero as far as form is concerned. Between these two, connecting them together is Mahakala. He is the fulcrum, the tangent between Infinity and Zero… …”
Then, she went on to draw out an entirely different world that defined its own space and time, very different from the world Niveditha lived in or was familiar with. This other world seemed to be structured in its own accord.
Niveditha was too young at the point to internalize all of what Ammachi told her. They remained with her as stories and characters from another world, another space and time. This was a world she hadn’t seen but a world that was created in her head.
Back then, death was a distant being. Shiva. Mahakala. He was God, her Father. He had a form drawn out in her head. He was a concept. His world was unfamiliar but not scary.
In the Hindu epic the Bhagavad-Gita, a mortal (Arjuna) confronts God (Krishna), not as a creator but as a destroyer. Shaken, he asks the dark god the question: “Tell me who you are?”
And receives the answer:
I am come as time, the waster of the peoples ready for the hour that ripens to their ruin.
Niveditha, Ammachi and I
I woke up to a houseful of people. It was the noise that woke me up. I came out of my room to find small gatherings of people sprawled all over the house, like groups of ants that surround pieces of sweetmeat.
Something had happened.
Ammachi was lying asleep on a coir mat on the floor. Soon there were many people taking her away. I knew that I could not go with her.
Niveditha (teary eyed): “Amma, I want to go with them to see Ammachi off… …where are they taking her? Will she come back?”
Amma: “My love, Ammachi is being taken to the graveyard. From there, she shall go back to God and not have to suffer. She shall always be with you. You will find her in your heart. You will find a new space for her from now on.”
Ammachi and I
We had created a space of our own and eventually, I found her. Not in the crowded, commercialized yearly rituals that was performed to call upon our ancestors, but I found her everywhere. In my heart. In my head and in all the embodiments attached to them, creating a new space. An unseen, virtual space. A secret space that was alive with memories of the time we shared and the things we did together. It thrived on time. I lost all sense of the boundaries of time as present, past or future. Ammachi was there in the photographs, in books, in my thoughts, in her crochet work scattered all over the house. I could feel her presence strongly in everything that I associated with her. It was a space that was undefinable with words. They were like specific images from nature’s picture book, actualizing the desired possibility and trapping it in time. I would relive the event and time would seem trapped. This new space that I began to share with her, was as real as the world around.
Niveditha, Rishab, Manisha and I
May the gods be with you,
in those secret places
you must walk alone.
—ANCIENT EGYPTIAN SAYING
Niveditha: “It was huge, monsterous, overpowering. I felt trapped. Claustrophobic with fear. A primordial fear. I was tiny and helpless, pinned down by this monster. Monster of a wasp, who was ready to sting me to death.
Then, I was standing at the entrance of a sepulchre. And I could hear Jishnu’s voice telling me that it was time to go inside, into the dark catacomb. I felt stripped of the protecting talisman of reassurance.
It was inevitable. I woke up sweating profusely. I knew all of this was metaphorical. It was a sign that I had to look at the one thing that I did not want to face: the Specter of Death. I know it is inevitable. It’s a foreordained doom of each and every one of us. My own personal end of time, an individual death of forever.”
Rishab: “I think, death is unique. The fact is, I’m scared of it too. It is the one aspect of reality that we all cannot look full in the face. We can ignore death only because we have sanitized it’s image and hidden it’s victims in hospitals and cemeteries. We have restricted our contacts with it to those few shocking occasions when it springs upon us unbidden. But the shadow is there, always.
If death is your greatest fear, Nive, why not talk about it. Define it in words. Maybe you can even assign it a space, a form. An open discussion on the issue may help you come to terms with your fear.”
Manisha: “... ...In some strange way, this actually brings back memories of the time we were filming a series on Egypt. Like all tourists, we headed to see the pyramids.
Most photos give the impression that the pyramids stand in the middle of a desert. In fact, they are built on a plateau. Nothing prepared us for the first unhindered glimpse of the Great Pyramid as our car started to climb the plateau. As my eye lifted upward, catching and following the ascending lines of a structure so stupendous, it nullified my preconceptions and numbed my sense of criticism. For a fraction of a second, the pyramid seemed the work not of men but of gods. As it was meant to.
As I stood in front of it, I was awed into silence. The scale of the structure is such that it poses a challenge to time itself. It is a house that was meant to survive the ages, for eternity. It is the most powerful symbol of the ancient human longing to live forever; it is the greatest, if not the first, of man’s attempts to defy death.
Actually, the attempt seems partly successful. The pyramid still stands, ravaged, ruined, but there, contemptuously indifferent to the ants that crawl around its base. But if you take notice, the pyramid is a gigantic monument to failure, in terms of the intention of the builder. It stands witness to the futility of human hopes. The pyramid still stands but the frail body that it was meant to protect, has vanished without a trace.
On one level, it is a magnificient example of Egyptian architecture, including the skill of the ancient Egyptian burial priests and the art of embalming. But the very success of this attempt at eternal life turns the dream of immortality into a caricature, don’t you think?
It brought home to me, most powerfully, the way human psychology is shaded by two features: a fear of death, the primal fear; and a longing for immortality, a yearning to live forever— the dream of eternal life.”
It is only human to fear death. We all yearn to outlive our perishable self— flesh, bone, water. But if you notice, it is from this yearning for forever comes the greatest achievements in art, architecture, music, literature, and science. Images in carved stone and marble, words written in books, beauty woven from sound, ideas captured on film, all these seem paradoxical. These artifacts possess the durability that their creators lack. The awareness, that life is fleeting on the wings of time, seems to direct activities towards the creation of such artifacts. Most of civilization seems to be a by-product of the quest for immortality.
Niveditha, Manisha and I
Niveditha (to Manisha): "I revisited my ancestral home a couple of weeks back. My Uncle still lives there. I was visiting after what seemed like half a lifetime. I went for the usual nostalgic reason: I wanted to make a journey into the past, to rediscover the sights and scenes of my childhood. It was a mistake, of course. Where once there were large courtyards and spacious sit-outs, open to the sky, now, there were densely packed immaculate rooms. The house had been renovated and expanded until it had obliterated the home of my early memories.
My sense of disappointment was enormous. The world of my childhood had gone. I could no longer walk into Ammachi's room, past my brother's study, over to the kitchen where long ago I would play pranks on my mother. I realized the force of the saying, "The old order passeth."
One can never recapture the past, and its traces remain only in the coded crystals of memory, frozen snapshots of things that have gone forever."
But have they? Here is the unfamiliar reality. The past does not cease to exist simply because our awareness moves beyond it.
Somewhere in time's landscape, the ancestral home still survives as a physical structure. The house still opens out to the sky in the courtyards and sit-outs and a brother still chases his little sister away from his study. Ammachi is still sitting at her window seat, waiting to welcome a girl with clumsy movements and ingenuous eyed, who today, I would have difficulty in recognizing as Niveditha.
What is true of a childhood several decades ago is true of any point in the past. Somewhere in the corridors of time, space seems to stand still. The present matters to us only because we inhabit it. In the wider scheme of things, today is no more real than any of our yesterdays.
One of the most reassuring things about the passage of time is the creation of memories. The creations of space-time landscapes that could imbue the form of a mirage, a dream, a memorial...
Niveditha, Rishab and I
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
— T. S. ELIOT
Rishab: “... ...I was in the cellar to pick some wine for the party in the living room. We had already had what seemed like countless barrels. Everything around seemed blurred and misty. The cellar was dark and dingy below. It carried a strange silence and eeriness about itself. There were webs all around and the racks were layered with years of dust. The entire space was dominent with an odour that I could not place. It was not a smell I was familiar with, and yet, not completely unfamiliar to. I just wanted to get out of the place as quickly as possible. I was feeling cold and alone. As I was trying to get on with my job with an urgency I would rarely apply, I thought I felt a hand on my shoulder. I felt petrified. I turned around and saw that the entire place had transformed. Then, the smell hit me.The dead were coming alive. I felt trapped. Trapped in a catacomb. I knew I had to get out of there. I had to find my way out somehow. I headed in the direction of the door. I had to get back to the surrounding I was familiar with. The people and faces I was comfortable with.
As I rushed out of the door, making my way to the living room, I realized I was not on familiar turf. The doorway had opened out into what seemed like a huge space. The ceiling was high above. Actually, it was more of a huge gateway. Gigantic. Overpowering. It was in the center of a crossroad. The roads were deserted. I was the only one around, in the middle of nowhere. The silence was unsettling. I looked around to see a slow, but consistant fire burning on one side of the gate. The walls of the gateway had curious etchings on them. I went a little closer to examine them, only to find that they were innumerable names. Names, names and more names, from top to bottom. Names I did not know. Names that carried stories I did not know. But there seemed to be an entire body of peoples that wanted to remember them for a reason. Remember them for eternity it seemed.
Then, it occured to me, that this, was probably some kind of a memorial. I was taken in by the massiveness of the structure. I was standing in the middle of another space that houses the dead. A huge structure, constructed, for fear of forgetting, to preserve the memory of the dead and gone.
Gradually, noises started to seep into the space that was previously dead with silence. The sounds around began to grow in intensity until they were loud and deafning. I could hear a honking behind me and startled, I turned around. I woke up in my bed soaked. But the relief that ran through me is undefinable.
Then, realization struck me, that this fear had gradually built up over many years. My growing up years must have seen the gradual accumilation of the facts from the stories that our driver Rahim Chacha used to tell us. I was always vary of the fact that our house was built on a demolished graveyard. The dark thoughts found a space in my dreams and I seemed to have created this secret space, somewhere in the hidden corridors of my head, sub-consciously housing the dead. Housing my fear of the dead and housing all those things that we think unthinkable.”
Niveditha: “This might sound scary, but now that you brought it up, if we look around, we seem to surround ourselves with spaces that house the dead— physical, mental and even conceptual.
Films, photographs, old clothes, letters, mementos, ancestral houses, books, museums, you name it, and there lie the dead. Look at museums, they are repositories of Time past. Of course, they are also sites of collective memories. But all of these are characterized by our fear of forgetting. A sort of redemption— to make up for the times we have not lived. It is of course tinted by our quest for immortality. But, to put it simply, they all house the dead.”
Niveditha and I
Myself I must remake
— W. B. Yeats
Niveditha: “I feel a great urge, not to relate to people around me, but to get away from them. To have my forty odd days in the wilderness. I feel a great desire to be alone. I yearn for it. To renew myself. To overcome the fear I feel. To find the deep roots to my life”
We think of this yearing as a desire to be alone, and yet, in the wilderness, we are not alone. We have the companionship of life in all it’s richness and variety.
These bones, this hand,
Brain molten with genesis heat,
This quiet thought, that raging fire.
— MESSAGE OF MODERN COSMOLOGY
I looked up at the night sky with it’s far-off lights and felt an aching longing. As I gradually looked down at the endless acres of blue, interrupted perhaps by the tossing caps of white foam, it seemed to capture my longing for transcedence as few other visions do. In it’s vastness, the sea is like a metaphor for infinity, and in the ceaseless surging of its breakers, waves, ever arising and dying, a simile for the shortness of life.
Even as I stand before the picturesque landscape in front of me, I seem to grope for words to capture this impression. But this book I’m reading, seems to mirror my endeavour. It is the story of a young man’s search for God. The youth in question, Larry, comes to India, to study at an ashram. After spending some years in prayer and contemplation, he goes one morning to a high place in the Himalayan foothills, to spend his birthday in solitude. Larry describes what happens in his own words:
I have no descriptive talent, I don’t know words to paint a picture: I can’t tell you so as to make you see it, how grand the sight was that was displayed before me as the day broke its splendor. Those mountains with their deep jungle, the mist still entangled in the treetops, and the bottomless lake far below me. The sun caught the lake through a cleft in the heights and it shone like burnished steel. I was ravished with the beauty of the world. I’d never known such excultation and such transcendent joy. I had a strange sensation, a tingling that arose in my feet and travelled up to my head, and I felt as though I was suddenly released from my body and as pure spirit partook of a loveliness I had never conceived. I had a sense that a knowledge more than human possessed me so that everything that had been confused was clear and everything that had perplexed me was explained. I was so happy that it was pain and I struggled to release myself from it, for I felt that if it lasted a moment longer I should die; and yet it was such rapture that I was ready to die rather than forgo it. How can I tell you what I felt?
— The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham
Could it be a mirage, a dream or a romantic’s myth? I am certain it is not. It reminds me of a time, some years ago, I went to a concert with a friend. As we came out after one of the most magnificient performances of classical karnatic music I have ever heard, my friend turned to me and said, “Ah, music is all very well, but we have to get back to the real world.” It has taken me this long to realize what was wrong with that statement. It was the wrong way around.
Music seems to lift our consciousness into a more perfect state.When we lose ourselves in music, we seem to become more real. The return to the everyday mode, to the sad, confused world of the ego-self, is like a reversion to unreality.
The essence of the human quest is to break free of time. To find the eternal in all of us, in that space where the past, present and future lose their boundaries, and are interwoven in our own minds. We are all explorers; we are all time-travellers; we are all lost children seeking home.
Niveditha: “I am a traveller. And the last signpost on this journey is slowly coming to sight now. It points to what is, to me, the strangest and most revelatory part of the quest. But, it has to be incomplete. For the only time it can be “known” is when I die.
A great part of my life seems to be finding a definition now. All the questions that had entangled themselves seem to be unwinding. Gradually. All the fears that had made home in the crevices of my mind are slowly turning invisible. Now I am able to ingrain and internalize many of Ammachi’s stories, although, only partly. Back then, they seemed like parables from far off lands. Today, they seem closer home.
Today, I might even take notice of the commercialized yearly rituals that call upon my ancestors. But these cycle of rituals that are reintroduced into life are not grandiose, self-important charades, but participatory ceremonies that have roots in our human needs. Rituals that give meaning to our lives. We all need that human contact. We need to create new rites of passage to celebrate the phases of human life cycle, rituals for birth, for the transition into adolescence, and above all, for dying.
For a long time, death seemed like a dark abyss that would swallow me whole. It was the fear of the unknown. The fear of a space I had created in my mind. All of us, with regards to death, go through our stages of denial, anger and bargaining, which slowly progresses into depression and finally, acceptance.
The journey in trying to understand and internalize Ammachi’s fables, and my own personal need to resolve the ambiguities that surrounded death and space, both individually and in unison, led me to discard and rediscover a great part of my self. It is only now, that Ammachi’s story of Krishna’s death seems to weigh heavy with meaning.
In my search, I was confronted with the paradox of many faiths. Each claiming to have found “the way”. Each claiming to have found the truth. I cannot help quoting a metaphor. It is the parable of the searchers on the mountain.
At the bottom of the mountain they look up, dimly sensing the high place that the intution of their prophets see as “God.” Each searcher starts from the baseline of the mountain where, handicapped by ignorence and trapped by ego, he cannot see around the corner where his nearest fellow traveller is. So each searcher thinks, and believes, that the path he has found, his way up, is the only way and the vision he glimpses is a special privilege granted to him alone. As searchers climb higher, i.e., evolve toward higher states of consciousness, their various paths start to converge, and they see that around the edge of the hill are other roads, with other seekers. At the summit, the high place (pure consciousness), all paths unite. The sense of seperateness that divided searcher from searcher and road from road is no more. They finally understand that all the seemingly different roads led to the same place in the end, the common meeting point.
I have come to understand that death, is when we outgrow our human limitation and transcend time. Death, space and time are indissolubly linked. They are not separate. They interact and interlock. They are inter-woven.
And, there are spaces beyond the realms of human definition and conception. Spaces that defy description.
The birth of Niveditha saw my birth too. I should have been no different from her. But we grew up contradicting each other for most part of our lives. There was one constant thought. Niveditha was I and I am Niveditha. She had to travel far to discover me. Now we have come to a meeting point. The journey shall continue, taking us both, through many more spaces and time. Exploring and discovering, the known and the unknown. And this time, fear shall be left behind.