The Last Words


It was a crisp winter morning last week . While the AQI  for Delhi was in the severe zone making healthy people cough , in the lush green and enchanting  environs of Lutyen’s Delhi where the Ministers , Governors and very senior bureaucrats have their heavily guarded Bunglows  ,the air seemed fresh and rejuvenating (Phew!! The air is also different !). The 2 AK-47 toting gunmen looked at me suspiciously as if I were a terrorist , finally grudgingly granting me entry into one of these guarded beautiful fortresses.

Enough mystery I guess ! !!I had come to meet the Master of Mysteries . A very close friend’s father , I will refer to him as Uncle D in this piece (in accordance with my friend’s wishes) Uncle D among his many achievements , headed India’s premier Intelligence Agency ,worked closely with Mossad in Israel and other intelligence agencies , preventing several terrorist attacks on Indian soil . He worked silently to catch several terror masterminds and uncovered uncountable  heinous plots in India and abroad. Yet, bound by the Official Secrets Act, he could not even tell us half of what he did and what went on in the murky waters that were his domain.

An ever smiling ,  soft spoken diminutive and shy persona ,you could have never guessed that Uncle D was a powerful IPS officer who  rose from the ranks to command respect from leaders across the political spectrum.  The Government summoned him back post his retirement to give him important roles in Kashmir and then rewarded him with a high constitutional post. He was the target of several shootouts during his tenure in Kargil and then in Arunachal but God’s grace saved him every single time and undeterred he went about his duty with single minded devotion. Until ,the air did what bullets  and bombs could not . He was struck by pulmonary fibrosis – or the scarring of lungs – which made his oxygen levels drop sharply and made breathing hard for him.  . Finally, the whirring wheels of his mind were brought to a grinding halt when he started gasping.

With several notable doctors in attendance , Uncle D started a slow recovery a couple of months back but last week his condition deteriorated again. When he was in Kashmir , often he would ask me,  “What do stars say ,when  will peace come to Kashmir?”. Last Friday he called me and asked me –“Divya , can you see from my horoscope , when would peace return to me ?” I could barely stop my tears and went to see him the next day .

That was perhaps the last day he spoke to anyone – from Sunday he has been in the ICU struggling for every single breath.

As I fervently pray for his recovery, his last words spoken to me in gasping and broken sentences flood my consciousness every now and then.

 Smile More : As he beckoned me to sit he asked , “khush ho?”( are you happy)Concealing my tears , I nodded . He laughed till coughing overtook him and said, “I wouldn’t have caught so many  crooks  if I couldn’t catch lies and yours are quite simple, my dear” Ignoring my protests he continued – “When you were in College , your smile was like a 1000W bulb- it  verily lit the whole room, and now look you! not even a 5W bulb !!!Success in life should mean smiling more and laughing more – but as we accumulate wealth and  success God knows where that laughter recedes . Then is that really success? Would you call something that makes you grumpy and  unhappy, – success?”

Do what you care about : My friend chimed in saying I was unhappy as I wasn’t really kicked about my current role . Uncle D wistfully added , his retirement dream was to teach kids in the backward village of Orissa where he grew up . But instead, he got caught up in the glitzy corridors of power in Delhi . Did he regret that, I wondered  ? Serving the Nation was his dream  he said and that gave him his purpose and drive each morning . But every Saturday he assembled the kids of all servants in that area and taught them Maths . One of his proteges scored 100% in CBSE in 2019, he said with so much pride and glee , confessing that it was a happier moment for him than when his children cracked IIT and IIM with top ranks. “Do something that matters”, he urged me , “something bigger than you ! Build something you care about deeply and you won’t be unhappy even on a single day “, he promised .

Learning makes you grow :  The direction of the conversation suddenly turned when he asked -“What is the new thing you are learning in your role ?” As I hesitated ,the sleuth in him gleaned the truth . “That’s why you are unhappy” , he ventured . He didn’t know the C of computers or coding when he was young, he said ,but his last assignment  at age of 60 required him to understand sophisticated coding to decipher cryptocurrencies like the bitcoin . He picked it up bit by bit. It was tough he admitted but he says triumphing challenges is what excites the mind- and today he codes better than his IIT graduate son! Don’t lose that sense of wonder that kids have , it makes them learn  and when they learn they are so happy . Nature itself has been learning for billions of years . “Look at how imperfect we are “, he chuckled, “so, still lots of scope for learning !” “Challenge yourself everyday and keep learning , he said , “that’s what makes for an exciting life !”

No regrets : “Either stay in the job or leave it he said , don’t regret that you wasted your time just thinking about it”. You can drive when you look ahead he said , not if you keep your eyes fixed on the rear view mirror . “Regret is the biggest waste of time” he mused .”What’s the point of living in the past?”

Habits define you : He narrated a tale when working with Mossad they got a tip off on a dreaded international terrorist . As they stormed the mosque to capture him , they found 11 identical looking people . Its a story stranger than fiction . Uncle D and the team faced the daunting task of singling out the terrorist and not detaining the others as it was a hostile territory  and they didn’t have much back up . Not much was known about this operative aside from a couple of his habits like being a chain smoker . Uncle D observed the detainees during a brief interrogation when all 11 claimed they were the feared warlord .He offered them a cigarette after a few hours .Most of them hesitated  for a second before  accepting it from their captor  and enemy but the terrorist couldn’t control his temptation and grabbed it eagerly . “Habitual responses define you and your response in crisis or leisure ,  irrespective of the circumstances “, he concluded , “So, build the habits in  you want to see in  yourself and in your kids” he coached .

Life is a mystery : Getting worried about the long and tangential  conversation, my friend prodded me on uncle’s horoscope .But he raised a hand and smiled. “Life is a mystery, he said  . That’s the Creator’s Grand Plan for you .Whats the fun of watching a mystery movie when you know every twist and every plot . And I don’t want to ruminate over your spoilers  that will come as your predictions . Let me explore each day . Every single one is a gift,”

The  Master of Mysteries  suddenly became fell silent in mid-speech and his head dropped to the left side .

The Bliss of Unconditional Love

Unconditional love …the fabled feeling that each one of us longs for our entire life  -and  yet a feeling that only exists perhaps in movies and story books .So I thought until I encountered an ocean of unconditional love and the bliss of which still overwhelms me at times

In October 2019 , I went for  the most  unusual journey  of my life -with my close friend Neha who had flown in from Singapore . We spent a week  in Kolkata ,at Parivaar – a NGO dedicated to the education and upliftment of kids from the poorest and most malnourished parts of the society . Parivaar is founded by Vinayak Lohani – a dynamic graduate from IIT Kharagpur and IIM Kolkata ,who renounced the lucrative life of riches which lay ahead of him and instead  devoted his life to the uplifting the lives of thousands of kids from absolute and overwhelming poverty , deprivation and destitution . Our objective was to volunteer our talent and time to serve any goal that Parivaar had  for us and just  presumed that most of it would be in the area of figuring out better management practices or some marketing or finance gimmicks .

We landed in Kolkata and after another 2.5 hours of a painful journey at a snail’s pace , reached Parivaar Sharda Teertha – their residential hostel located at the end of a large slum in Joka . Lines of girl students of all ages from 4 yrs to 18 years  looks at us with open curiosity and wonder  and smiled at us shyly . A smile that came from the heart ,open  and accepting  – that touches the deepest recesses of the heart ,lighting up every fiber of existence .

Sandhya di and Raju da- who were in-charge of the centre welcomed us so warmly that we immediately felt at total ease – despite neither me nor Neha knowing any Bangla . Surprisingly , Vinayak, the founder ,felt that  he didn’t need our expertise on finance or management .Post taking a tour of their campuses – Sharda teerth for girls and Vivekanand Sevashram for boys – we should devote our energies as we saw fit with the kids . A quick tour of the school and the hostels gave us an opportunity to observe the kids and their routine at close quarters . The hostel wardens were called “Ma”( mother)  and the cooks , and male teachers , Dada( elder brother) – to deeply embed the family ethos in Parivaar .They weren’t just named that way – they behaved like caring mothers and elder brothers too .

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The kids came from extreme poverty and deprivation. Forget electricity , even potable water and basic sanitation wasn’t available .Unfamiliar with toilets, when they came for the first time , they would defecate in classes and on the floor until the  Ma and teachers lovingly  “toilet  trained” them . Kids coming from tribal backgrounds told us that they would eat rats and red ants for dinner when there was nothing else . These heart wrenching tales , sometimes told directly ( by the kids who knew a smattering of hindi) and sometimes translated -left us in tears . No wonder malnourishment left 14 year old kids looking like 4 year olds ( see pic of the little girl in Neha’s lap- she is 14!!)

In a couple of days- the little girls  aged 4-5 and the older ones gathered the courage to drag us to do skipping with them , play basket ball and generally chat with them. The mornings began with Sri Ramakrishna Ashram bhajans and the evening ended with them . The sonorous bhajans sung with feeling and devotion by a hall full of  kids – filled one with the feeling of deep gratitude and peace  and what a way it was to start and end the day.

As we racked our brain to think of suitable activities to do with them – we picked up Yoga in the morning , craft and music in the evening and story telling in the night . Story telling was my forte and  I asked the kids what type of story they wanted to listen to . Their immediate response was – bhoot ki kahani . So, I started with the story of Bhasmasura who self destructed with the intervention of Sri Hari taking the Mohini avtara . I made the story interactive , inserting a couple of games requiring concentration in between – the kids loved it and wanted to listen  to the story  again and again. On the first day I would have repeated the Bhasmasura tale atleast 20 times till my vocal chords ached . We painted the wall with the kids , served food and cleared the mathematics doubts of the senior students . We volunteered at the school dispensary and heard gut wrenching tales of how when the  tribal kids came back from a  vacation spent with their family – some developed severe infections caused by worms ingested under un-hygenic conditions – worms more than a foot long which ingested the entire veins of their arms and legs. Patiently caring for them  during the weeks they recovered in the hospital were Sandhya di or Raju da .

As we sat one day eating a packet of chips, we had brought along, watching a keenly contested football match between senior girls and senior boys team – the kids looked at it with undisguised  temptation . When we noticed , we beckoned them and offered them a few chips . Instead of devouring them on the site , they thanked us and went back to share the bounty with their friends and refused to accept a second helping . Their spirit of sharing and caring -when they themselves are so  deprived – whereas we  who are blessed with innumerable comforts – often forget and fail to do so   – really amazed us .

Kids would learn music ,craft , English and Math from us and sit still  listening to stories despite being bitten by innumerable buzzing mosquitos – until they were shooed away away after the last bell at 9.30pm by Sandhya didi.  Sandhya didi herself  became our “parivaar”discussing her diabetes medication , her family troubles and the little joys she found in bringing up these kids .

As the Durga Puja started – it was time for us to leave . On the day  of our departure  4100 students of Parivaar stood outside the building . Some wanted to hug us ,  Some shook  our  hand and some just told us with tears streaming down their eyes to come back soon . We could not hold back our tears either .

It felt like I was leaving the Parivaar which loved me unconditionally beautifully and with absolute purity . The bliss of that pure love still brings tears to my eyes. It’s a family , I am yearning to go back to – and would request you to contribute towards as they undertake their next mission to serve the most malnourished areas in Madhya Pradesh through Vivekanand Seva Kutirs

The memory of Parivaar always engulfs me with a sense of deep gratitude for the privileges I have in life. And for the opportunities I have to serve and make a difference to this unconditionally loving family of mine and others .

Astrology-Kindling Hope vs Fear

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Jyotish shastra is a vedanga – part of the Vedic knowledge and therefore an important pillar of Santana Dharma . Your kundali gives a picture of your cycle of Karma – from all your previous births and therefore the Prarabdha karma that will impact the current life . Our sages could map out each breath of life , with the help of 9 planets in 12 houses and 12 rashis . Sounds Simple ?

Sorry , but  that’s 9^12^12 combinations -hardly a number that’s easy to decipher even for the most gifted mathematician .  Add to it the fact that the predictions are not linear . Planet and house combinations form Yogas and then bhangas or combinations for the destruction of these yogas . Also these are just the static number of combinations at birth . Current forecast depends not just on these but also the current Mahadasha ( and there are several dasha systems ) and the dynamic planets movements – called Transits or Gochar .

Yet starting with Sri Ganesha, the deity of astrology, to  Mahrishi Parashara , Bhrigu and then a multitude of others charted out clear rule sets and principles to make accurate forecasts from the arcane combinations . Swami ji talks in his memoir about how he could arrive at the exact date of his Mama’s demise and various other bang on predictions . But he  defied the most important prediction of his own longevity .

The famous mathematician Bhaskaracharya was an accomplished astrologer too . He saw in his daughter Lilavati’s horoscope , the possibility of  her being a widow. Being the Master of astrology and science both – he resolved to overcome this predicted misfortune by marrying her in a muhurta that promised akhanda saubhagya (  literal meaning -eternal good fortune and meant  metaphoricallyas the good luck of always having your life partner around- although I doubt in this century people would think of it as saubhagya  😊) So, he constructed a sun dial himself to see the muhurta and monitored it carefully , marrying his daughter at the precise hour for this saubhagya yoga . It was only after the rituals were solemnized that he realized the sun dial was showing the wrong time -since his shadow fell on it and hence all his efforts to change  the destiny were in vain.

So, is your fate cast in stone ? Irreversible ? I am not qualified enough to answer this question authoritatively . But from what I have learnt thus far  there are 3 categories of people , who escape unscathed from the jaws of destiny

1.       Yogis or those who are masters of their own life energy and hence no longer constrained by the hamster wheel of karmic compulsions. Such as Swami ji himself or other self realized enlightened beings

2.       Those bestowed with Guru’s grace – which is a powerful blessing that can change the direction of the Universe -Paramhansa Yogananda  describes in Autobiography of a Yogi how his Guru Sri Yukteshwar holds him through life threatening illnesses and events

3.       Those who are ensconced in the cocoon of meditation – and hence those who look at life as a river and don’t get swept in by the tides of emotions caused by karmic energies . Meditation and mindfulness therefore ,serve as a shield against the ups and downs brought by Prarbdha .

Astrologers often scare people out of their wits with statements like ,your Shani ( Saturn) is maha papi(super sinful) or very strong , your sadhe sati ( 7.5 year period of Saturn in transit around your birth rashi) is a killer period , your marriage cannot happen due to you being a mangalik , your rahu is a killer and so on and so forth . Once the fear over whelms you – they offer what seems like  a life support raft – like – you should wear XYZ gem or your should do ABC Puja to placate the stars.

Ofcourse , one stop shops are in vogue not just at airports but also for your fixing your destiny   – they only provide you with the gem and they only do the puja for you . Quick fixes have become a way of life  in this century and it is no surprise therefore that quick fixes for your destiny are thriving too

The alternate tactic taken by astrologers is to praise your fortune to the stars bestowing you with all known wealth and happiness and then when you are swimming in the ocean of contentment and happiness , listening to these happy predictions , they let loose on you the shark of the impending disasters (most of which may be their own creation )

And hence it’s a much maligned and hated community with rare qualified , knowledgable and pure souls -who show the right path without fear or favour .

As I wrote in my previous post , the motivation for me picking up astrology came from the stark difference between how I saw my Tataji practicing it and how I saw the professional astrologers abuse the vidya .Despite being forthright and blunt , when it came to astrology , in keeping with the tenet of being optimistic and sweet – Tataji always inspired hope . He never charged a penny and nor do I no matter how rich or poor the questioner is

I resolved therefore to never scare or frighten anyone with any predictions  or to predict recklessly but to put hope in hearts and stay true to my purpose of learning the vidya . From whatever I have learnt , predictors should  first outline the positive and happy aspects and address the negative aspects only if there is a specific question around it . In extreme situations ,this is very difficult to do – such as when parents of a dying child ask about their child’s remaining life . I pray to my Guru for strength then and try to land the prediction as softly as possible .

As Swami ji insists , the so called  upayas don’t work and hence its  cheating to  encourage people to go  chasing gemstones or pujas or other remedies . The peace brought about by surrender to the almighty is the only upaya that works. Swami ji made us take the pledge at his astrology workshop.

Kindness and compassion is a must, as is equanimity, for life’s current will not always be favorable . No planets are absolutely good or bad as professional astrologers often make them out to be .They are just the instruments of the divine to give you the fruits of your own actions – so if your actions or karma becomes good- so will the fruits . So, indeed we create our own destiny .

When I am able to bring a smile on a sad face or inspire someone who has been frustrated – it makes my effort worthwhile .Sometimes all you need to know is that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel. And Jyotish – the divine light – instils that hope . Jai Sri Hari

Fate vs Free Will -The Story of Sri Krishna

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“ And now, can you guess whose horoscope this is ?” Swamiji’s deep and resonant voice rang out. There was pin-drop silence in the hall. The audience at India Habitat Center being completely mesmerized by Swamiji’s analysis of different horoscopes – from his own to that of JL Nehru and Bill Gates. Being a student of Jyotish, I remembered the chart – it was Sri Krishna’s Kundali. And what a chart it is -truly befitting of a God.

4 planets, Mercury (Budh) Mars (Mangal) Moon (Chandra) and Saturn(Shani ) are exalted (Ucchastha). Sun (Surya)is Swa-grahi or in its own Rashi in 4th house -signaling universal fame. Jupiter (Brihaspati) is Swagrahi too in 11th – indicating a multitude of wise friends and wealth that emperors would be envious of and Venus (Shukra )isSwagrahi in 6th.

It is not for nothing that Sri Krishna is considered the perfect and the most complete avatar amongst the Dashavataras (10 incarnations) of Sri Vishnu. He was supposed to Shodash Kala Sampanna ( the Master of 16Kalas(skills) – an irresistible lover ( thanks to the exalted moon in his Lagna), an indefatigable warrior (Exalted Mars )  who defeated the most powerful of emperors, an exalted yogi and a Jagadguru( Guru of entire cosmos). The architect of Mahabharata, the creator of SrimadBhagavadgita (truly a divine song)- no wonder, Sri Krishna is regarded as  Supreme God.

I thought Swami Ji would dwell on these points. Gods do indeed have perfect horoscopes, I thought to myself…..and that’s why they are Gods, not feeble humans like you and me. Sri Rama had a great one too, as did Ravana – but his chart has a few critical issues. But breaking my reverie, the next words coming from Swami Ji astounded me. Swami Ji said –“Look how embattled he was throughout his life. Always fighting and often getting involved in the struggles and battles of others.”

While my mind reeled for a second, suddenly Swamiji’s assertion seemed absolutely bang on. An infant whose siblings were murdered and who was whisked away as soon as he was born, to foster parents away from his own imprisoned parents- the very beginning of his life was full of disasters. Within a few days of his birth, he had to fight dreaded demons in disguise – Putna for example bent on killing him. As he grew up he battled Trinavarta ( the whirlwind demon), Kalia Nag, Bakasura (the crane demon) Kagasura ( the crow demon), Sakatasura, and more when he was just a kid. His own uncle Kansa conspired to have him killed and when none of the demons worked – he called Krishna to Mathura – to have him run over by an elephant. And have a fight to the death with Chanura the world-famous wrestler and himself.

Even as he freed his parents and the king of Mathura – Sri Krishna didn’t get time to sit down and enjoy his freedom and glory. He was packed off to a Gurukula – where again he took upon himself the battle of bringing back his Guru’s son Punardutta fighting demons, pirates like Panchjanya and other mystical creatures. He had to fight against Jarasandha – and defend Mathura 18 times against this powerful emperor – whose very name inspired terror.

Mahabharata wasn’t his battle. And even as he tried to protect the Pandavas by tricking Duryodhana, he was cursed by Gandhari – that he will witness the annihilation of his own clan.

But what we remember him for is, not the demons he defeated or the wars he fought – what we most remember him for is his playfulness( Leela) and his equanimity(Stithpragyta). The beloved Makhanchor Balgopal who got his friends together to steal butter and smiled when he got caught.The center point of Rasaleela whose flute mesmerized all creatures. The prankster who stole clothes to get his way.

Even as an astute statesman and King, he didn’t lose his humility and spirit of fun – when his poor friend Sudama came to visit him, Krishna washed his feet, bathed him in luxuries and yet  begged Sudama to give him a present  He played pranks with Arjuna in the midst of Mahabharata – for example in the battle with Jayadratha -only to remind Arjuna of the fallouts of rash vows and actions And  even with his wife Satyabhama – to destroy her ego during the Tulabhara( Weighing in gold episode)

He stayed equanimous when his son Pradyumna was kidnapped when he was accused of being a thief and murderer when Syamantak mani was stolen  and when towards the end of his life –  he saw his friends family destroy each other murderously

Amidst the dark clouds of most cruel and adverse circumstances that he came across,  what shines forth the most is his sense of purpose ( the victory of dharma) his equanimity,  playfulness, and cheerful spirit. His unbounded love for his devotees – Meera or Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is again the subject of many bhajans.

So, despite the amazing horoscope he had, he faced more challenges and more adversity then probably anyone else in the entire pantheon of Gods or humans ever did -but there isn’t a single complaint uttered by him  Yet in each one of those calamities,  his response- poised, compassionate, playful and purposeful is what we remember him for.

And when you are playful and joyful – nothing -no matter how serious or worrying affects you and everything is taken in a stride and converted into yet another Leela. Godliness isn’t defined by planets – it’s defined by your responses to the challenges of destiny

Fast forward – 7 months. I was ruminating on life, cursing my fate and blaming the stars for the terrible combinations they have made resulting in the numerous challenges in my life – when I came across the workshop notes again. Reading them again leads to the proverbial aha! Moment. Swami Ji had shown me the light – that ray of hope amongst the dark clouds of depression

No matter what the circumstances in life (most of us would crumble if even a tiny fraction of what Sri Krishna faced hits us ) it is our response that counts. If we can take it playfully, one day at a time, responding consciously and with equanimity – no planet can take away the happiness, the joy, and freedom that we would hold inside of ourselves. This Janmashtmi onwards,  I have been trying this little experiment on myself of being kind and equanimous and reading the workshop notes whenever I feel down. While Sthitpragyta may be the forte of the enlightened yogis- a conscious response and remembering the stories of Sri Krishna definitely elevates every part of existence.  Jai Sri Krishna!

I-phone and The Invisible Gorilla

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January 9th , 2007 . It was a momentous moment , a historical one .  In his  trademark crisp speech Steve Jobs said , even  he- the legend of innovation –  was waiting for it for over two and a half years ! To a continuous applause he announced a device that will change the paradigm of communication and entertainment forever . A revolutionary device that combined an ipod , a phone and an internet communicator – namely -the iphone .

The world has indeed not been the same ever since . The advent of the iphone and the generation of smartphones that followed –transformed not just the devices and the paradigm – but us – the human race . The smartphones became the single click access to world’s largest library of literature , music , movies, even porn – the haven of shopping – from humble groceries to the swankiest luxury products . The hub of instant food ordering , instant news, instant messaging  and instant social media updates and ofcourse  amazingly addictive games  . Every time you had to wait for something- even if for a minute whether its at the traffic light or the hospital  – people will pull out their mobiles . Even when sitting together for dinner – you would see family members busy texting / scrolling on their own phones. Whether in restaurants or in movie halls or in queues at the train station, airports or even on trips to the mountains and to the monuments – smartphones have made their presence  ubiquitous .

Human attention is a very scarce and valuable thing . And over the last few decades , Psychologists have proven that when our attention in focussed on one thing – we tend to miss other very obvious things. Try talking  to someone and balancing your books together .

In a Ig Nobel Prize winning experiment in 1999– which is arguably the most famous psychological experiment of our times, psychologists   –  Daniel Simons and  Christopher Chabris – came up with a term inattentional blindness . The experiment was called The Invisible Gorilla . In the experiment , a basketball game was screened. 2 basketball teams wore white and black colours. The participants were divided into 2 groups – one group was asked to count the number of passes made by the white team and the other group had to do the same for the black team . Both groups performed reasonably well on this metric . But bang in the middle of the game ,a person in gorilla dress – walks right through the screen, pounds its chest and then walks away  . How many percentage of the participants do you think spotted the gorilla? Less than 30%.  How did people miss something as big as a gorilla right in the middle of the screen ? This experiment and its many variations have been repeated by researchers ever since . The conclusion is the same – because when people are concentrating on counting the passes – they tend to be blind to what is happening around them even if there are gorillas dancing right in front of them. Attention is finite and mental resources limited .But being unaware of the limitations – we rarely see the world as it is .The vivid visual experiences belie a striking mental blindness .

How many of these gorillas do we miss everyday because we are distracted by something else ? A beautiful flower blooming to its full glory  , a cool waft of breeze , birds chirping , your mother making the most delicious laddoos – are some of the gorillas that we miss when we are  just updating our social media or ordering on Zomato.

The already scant human attention is reduced further by the constantly buzzing mobile phones . Instant social media updates , news , emails , whatsapp messages – the endless notifications keep the phone buzzing all day – compelling us to interrupt whatever we are doing and check the mobile every few seconds . We feel compelled to respond, taking attention away from whatever we were doing before – even if it was driving at the speed of 100kmph on a highway – causing multiple unfortunate accidents .

I work for a FMCG major . In big modern retail stores – the aisle counters are the priciest assets – as they trigger impulse buying . Retailers often stock cigarettes , chewing gums and chocolates there .While waiting for their billing to happen – people get tempted and buy these items – which is why these counters are so valued . But come the smartphone revolution – the sale of chewing gum has gone down 20% – as now, when people are in queue and awaiting their billing – they just pull out the phone and don’t even notice the counters  or the products .In zoos and parks, parents are buzzing away at their mobiles instead of enjoying the time with their children .Studies show both the sense of connection as well as the happiness is reduced significantly in such instances .

Personally , I felt the constantly buzzing mobile was like the perfect distracting device . It derailed my productivity at work and also prevented me from noticing the gorillas( big things)  in my life – my joyful children, enjoying a deep conversation with my mother, enjoying a hot cup of tea with my husband , listening to an Om Swami lecture with full attention. So ,I decided to concentrate and not let the mobile take away my limited attention . Its easier said than done .

But the meditation in the Black Lotus App on building mindfulness and building focus enabled me to do just that .Focussing intensely when needed and being mindful at all times .Alongside a few practical tips of keeping the mobile on silent when in meetings or at night , having fixed slots to respond to messages and emails and minimizing inane communication- I tried giving attention to and savoring the wonderful things in life that do need attention . A better concentration , higher productivity and better sleep – and noticing the multiple other gorillas that I was missing on in life – unlocked for me new sources of happiness . My meditation became more enjoyable as did my morning cup of tea. In my conversations I felt more connected and joyful rather than being restless and distracted. It’s still a long way to go for me , but it’s a start. I hope you too find the joy of seeing some of the invisible gorillas of life .

The Magic Pill for Diabetes

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When the newspaper headlines screamed that India is fast becoming the diabetes capital of the world — it was just another statistics for me and just another  sensational headline. There are more than 77 million diabetics in India, that means every sixth diabetic person in the world is an Indian.

Diabetes often leads to complications like glaucoma, kidney disease, blindness, heart disease and hypertension. Diabetics have a higher risk of almost every known disease — cancer to corona virus. But then once upon a time, these were just dry facts — unimpressive!

One  common human blind spot is the belief of invincibility — that nothing would happen to us (even if it’s happening to everyone around us) — and I was a major victim of this ‘invincibility syndrome’. Despite knowing that my grandmother had serious diabetic complications and my mother also was a borderline diabetic, I somehow believed that I would be the exception.

I was indeed an exception. Coming from a family of lean and
health-conscious people (who still had the affliction), I still piled on weight recklessly, especially after the birth of my two children. Being married to a foodie and having acquired a taste for good food (read fried, oily, spicy, outside food), it was very difficult to stay away from the temptations. And  while I didn’t inherit the good sense and health consciousness, I  did have the family heirloom of a sweet tooth — gorging on sweet kalakand (a sweet popular in India) or chocolates was my favourite stress buster.

I did a bit of exercise once in a while  which didn’t reduce even a gram. Once I put my determination and will power to use somehow, I did lose weight — some 8 kgs. But every fairy tale has its end. As soon as that  strict exercise regimen and focus on staying healthy went away, the calories and the weight surreptitiously climbed back up. The learning was that it’s tough to maintain demanding exercise or diet regimens in the long run.

In January 2019, I was transferred to Mumbai, away from my family. There, I learnt and practiced Isha Yoga practices taught by Isha Foundation. That gave further strength to my invincibility syndrome and misplaced confidence that now Yoga will protect me from any malady, despite being clearly obese .

My mother’s fervent pleas for controlling my diet and lifestyle fell on deaf ears. The sarcastic comments of my in-laws, again did not affect me much since food and sweets became my only escape from loneliness as I stayed away from family and combated more than usual stress at the workplace. Binge eating soon became my only effective strategy for handling stress.

August 2019 was a watershed moment when in a random test, done for additional health insurance, my HBA1C value came at 11.2 indicating severe diabetes. I couldn’t believe it. Accusing the insurance company of fraudulently increasing numbers, I decided to get re-tested. But just as the world is not a slave to my whims, the test results had their own independent will, and they refused to budge despite my fervent prayers. I was suffering from diabetes!

The doctor started me off with insulin injections, along with oral medication, as my fasting blood sugar was 269, and postprandial level was a whopping 413. Coping with the many side effects of medication, pricking my stomach every night with the Insulin pen and my fingers every few hours with the glucometer, I looked into the mirror and asked myself if this is the life I wanted for myself! And if I was ready to face the further  onslaught of multiple other friends of diabetes, like hypertension, kidney disease,  neuropathy and others?

The pain became more than the pleasure of savouring sweets, more than the addiction highs of a toxic lifestyle. When I went to my sister-in-law, who is well-known dietician, her food list knocked off all my favourite food items, including rice, wheat, mangoes, potatoes, carrots, and grapes. In fact, the list of not-to-eat foods was so long (running into 4 pages) that I asked her to give me a list of the foods I can eat which came to just about 5 lines! You can only imagine how I felt then.

But the limitations of observing this very austere and strict lifestyle among challenges — like a lot of air travel (especially in late night and early morning flights), eating in office, and still being away from family — made me struggle badly, depleting all my energy and willpower to combat the disease.

Advice on what to do and what medicines to take, desi nuskhas, and
Ram-Baan cures, just poured in on its own. That’s when I realised I was in  very august company, and what the statistic ‘one in six people has diabetes’ meant. While I was grateful for the well-meaning advice I was getting freely, it was like most Whatsapp forwards — unverified and generally invalid. And that made me wary of popular suggestions.

There is a hobby of mine that came to my rescue — Reading. I am a voracious reader and I devoured whatever credible, technical and general literature I could find on the disease across medical streams from Ayurveda to Allopathy. And then, based on my understanding, I decided to experiment a bit on a guinea pig… Me. I made small but significant changes to my lifestyle, and then waited with a bated breath. Actually, no, I just made those changes and continued to persist.

The results started showing up in 4 weeks. I started losing inches although the weighing scale  decided to be blind, it behaved like a jealous enemy and only showed 1 kg less — and that I thought could be an error. But the loss in inches was unmistakable as were other effects. My constant sense of fatigue and irritability vanished. I was happier and felt  much lighter (approval from the weighing scale didn’t matter:)).

The numbers on the glucometer changed, too. From 269, the fasting blood sugar started touching sub-90 levels, and the random blood sugar was never over 160. My doctor progressively brought down the insulin and eventually 5 months down the line, I was free of insulin — which was a big milestone! Sometimes you don’t realise  when an  unpronounceable hormone or enzyme might be spoiling the hormonal soup needed for happiness — but then when health is restored, the gratitude for the miracle machine called your body cannot be overstated.

My weighing scale now became a friend instead of an enemy as I lost 10 kgs without breaking a sweat (you really believe that? Just kidding). I received compliments on how I had started looking younger, while those were pleasing, what mattered the most to me was how I felt inside — hopeful, energetic and charged up. My medication was reduced to half after 6 months, and my HBA1C came to 6.1

My sister -in-law, the dietician, became very curious to learn what magic pill I had taken to combat the silent killer (diabetes), as I clearly hadn’t followed her tips and was happily devouring mangoes this summer .

Here is a summary of my learnings on the journey of reclaiming my health from diabetes:

What matters more than what you eat is, when you eat: An early dinner at 6:00pm was the most significant change I made.. I didn’t know it then that I was switching to the Intermittent Fasting (IF) by doing so I  read in Swami ji’s blogs that eating 4 hours before the bedtime helps in staying light, so it also helps in getting a much better sleep. And I trusted that wisdom.

Circadian Rhythm fasting (part of IF — eating at the same time everyday in synchronicity with the sun) – what came naturally to our ancestors and which is so difficult to adopt for us, is what  eventually proved most effective.

Walking everyday for at least one hour: This habit was hard to build but whether it was 2°C on an icy-cold Delhi morning or thunderous rain in Mumbai —I walked outside the building on a 100m-long podium in Mumbai and a long and beautiful walking track in Gurgaon for at least 60minutes. Consistent walking lowers blood glucose and releases endorphins which make you happy! And walking is an exercise you can do anywhere.

Black lotus (BL) and mindfulness: Mindfulness doesn’t come easy, but like any other practice it does build up slowly, and Black Lotus RARE exercises just honed the practice. I mindfully chose what I wanted to eat instead of attacking sweets. Before attacking every samosa, I could see the red warning board with a danger skull sign saying 900kcal. (Well, no,I didn’t develop schizophrenia —this was just a visualisation).

Before RARE framework too, the habit of meditating that BL helped me create for a stretch of 108 days straight, is what helped me put my health before my cravings. I now eat when I am hungry and not when I am with friends and they are gorging on mouthwatering dishes. Social eating and peer pressure are some of the most difficult to avoid drivers — but being mindful helps in avoiding these drivers before they  sweep you and your habit in their strong tide.

Giving up dairy: This was true sacrifice or Tyaga for me. But after reading Swami ji’s blog on his own health  and numerous other articles on the efficacy of Dr Neal Banard’s suggestion that those with diabetes suffer more from dairy, as milk has IGF (Insulin like growth factor) which keeps the blood sugar levels elevated — I finally steeled my heart and gave up my age old favourites: milk, curd, paneer, and butter… other than very occasional use in salads or dressings.

I also switched to barley and ragi for my rotis and gave up the joys of sharbati atta. Fruits made my plate and palate more colourful as the grains disappeared.

It wasn’t an easy journey but  surprisingly it was a joyful one. Reading Swami ji’s writing on willpower, I fulfilled a little promise I made to myself every day to walk and to be mindful, and everyday it built my willpower just a bit more. And  lo and behold! What a transformative effect it had in 7 months — I felt I had become totally fit .

Psychologists find that changing the context and environment changes the habits completely. Heroine addicted USA GIs in Vietnam could kick the habit easily when they returned back home as the context and the environment had changed. From dull drill routines in barracks with easy availability of narcotics to ease the pain of loneliness and boredom — now they were amongst family and friends but without the drug, and to everyone’s surprise, they discovered they didn’t suffer any withdrawal symptoms.

For me, the change of environment and the home imprisonment mandated by Covid had the opposite impact. The disciplined schedule I had built up with a lot of effort started crumbling as my kids wanted to enjoy movies munching on popcorn, having feasts at home and basically using good food to battle the isolation caused by Covid. And I was willing to fulfil every indulgence as I was enjoying their company after a long time. I then realised that it’s easy to succumb to temptations but difficult to build a habit back.

So, I have started making those little promises to myself  again. Every night when I fill the Day Evaluation Tab on the BL App — I am either delighted to have kept my promise and make one for the next day or I realise what I need to be more careful about. The next goal is to give up sugar and my medication — completely. 

The magic pill for diabetes? The magic pill for diabetes is that… there is no magic pill. It’s a sweet journey of discipline and mindfulness which brings back the sweetness in life .

The Sparrow Economy

Just before the microscopic virus Covid-19 caused a macroscopic calamity and made home imprisonment mandatory for everyone  ,  I had gone to meet my dear old friend Shiv after several years.

Shiv is a brilliant economist and a revered teacher – for hundreds of bright young graduate students . He had been in indifferent health recently and I was worried about him . After exchanging pleasantries and forced chit chat  over a sumptuous lunch , we went out  for a walk in the nearby park. It was a cosy spring afternoon . Nature’s showcase of ethereal beauty and vibrant colour was on full display in the form of blooming flowers and blossoming  plants . Several birds- some local and some exotic and migratory – were enjoying themselves too- some having a feast on the bird feeders hanging on lamp posts , others playing in little puddles on the lush green grass and yet others being curious spectators to a game of cricket .

We walked in silence taking in the beautiful sights , when suddenly Shiv said –“Look at these sparrows , how much freedom and happiness they have , flying and hopping from puddle to puddle , without a care in the world . In fact if you think about it , The Sparrow Economy is such an efficient system . Being bird brained should be a  real compliment and not a insult , I think”.

“Sparrow Economy ?”I blurted out , with concern , secretly wondering if one of his manic attacks was back and trying to figure out ways to take him home .

He smiled serenely , having worked out some complex equations in his head and then his professorial manner continued . “The sparrow economy would be based on 3 pillars – contentment , living in the present moment and …..”

“What are you talking about ? ? I interjected  with apprehension , now really worried about his flight of fancy. He wasn’t worried at all,  however and continued with the same enthusiasm .

“ Look at these birds – dancing and singing and enjoying in this warm afternoon . Do you see them sit and brood about how tomorrow will be ?  Have you seen them hoard anything or worry about hoarding anything ?  No .

They are perfectly happy and content . Contentment is so  efficient  . It enables them to maximize their happiness in the present moment. They don’t spend efforts  and hours on hoarding – as tomorrow again they will take another flight and find some food to satiate themselves . They are not enslaved to hoarding . The Creator provides for them everyday ….atleast on most days .

 The Creator provides for us too on most days atleast for our basic needs  …but we don’t have the faith, as these birds do , in God’s power and keep hoarding , believing fiercely that what we are hoarding is to take care of tomorrow and to take care of a rainy day .  We trade our present happiness for our future happiness but does that tomorrow ever come ?  Is our future happiness maximized ? I don’t think so , since instead of enjoying the aroma of contentment we are always brewing more discontentment . We are always in the race to accumulate more -always postponing that future happiness – Always trying to have a bigger house, a bigger and better phone and a swankier car -that’s what is  supposedly rational human behaviour right ?

In this model – neither present nor future joy is maximized and the human economy isn’t as efficient as the sparrow economy .QED  Hence proved .” He chuckled .

I was startled but then irritably challenged him. “Come on Shiv , lets not forget the basic premise of economics and rational human behaviour . Saving today is necessary to take  care of an uncertain future – otherwise we can blow up everything in consumption  today and have nothing left for tomorrow (an adage for the old age when our earnings and productivity go down). Why , just look at the  spiralling credit card debts in USA or parts of India for example .These guys are furiously consuming even their future incomes ,today and how has that helped ?”

 Shiv was unfazed.“Do you see these bird over stuffing themselves? Do you see- one bird sit there on the feeder forever and finish the feed ? No, you don’t . Birds only eat to satiate their hunger -they don’t overstuff themselves .Infact in  the journey of thousands of miles that these migratory birds cover  , its not like they have stashes of grains piled up for them at regular intervals  . Food is uncertain on the journey -but they don’t pile on any excess or carry any bags full of it with them .

Look at us on the other hand. We are the very models of excess . Look at how much you shop in that end of season sale , how much you binge in the happy hours and how much excess stuff you have in your house. The consumption binge on cards you are citing, is the same piling on , the same excess hoarding that’s happening . But just pause there and think – is it bringing any peace , any joy or adding to anyone’s freedom? The spiraling debt only makes people more worried , more frantic and more  frenzied to try and cope. They may  work harder and consume even more as they are stuck on the hamster wheel of excess consumption . But are any of the frantic savers or the frenzied consumers really free ? The real song of freedom is right here . Just look at these sparrows playfully prancing around and you will know what freedom is .”

I jumped in and added sarcastically  “Are you saying we should all be lazy and should just sprawl out there in the sun ?” Is that the sparrow economy ?

Shaking his head, Shiv responded .”No . Of course not . Are these birds lazy ? Not at all. They fly out every single day to get their food and also to feed their little ones. Being lazy is to risk death for them.  They will fall behind their flock  , they might not get any food  They are fulfilling their responsibilities but not getting crushed under them.Even for us , how many days can you lounge around and enjoy Netflix? We all are wired to work , to exert to be productive . The meaning of our life (sarthakta) lies in the efforts we make (purusharth).

All I am saying is, like these feathery creatures – live in the present moment . Be content . Ofcourse those two are linked . If you are living in the future and continuously worrying and anticipating the next moment , then how can you ever be content ? And if you are not content, then clearly you are thinking of either your past or your future and not relishing the current moment .”

I wondered how to respond . But he didn’t wait for me and went on to summarize his theory .

“The sparrow economy is about everybody striving  , not just a few and everyone enjoying . Everyone is content and therefore the same resources , a birdfeed for example , are sufficient for a large flock as there is no excess or overconsumption by anyone  . So, the individual bird is happy and the welfare of the entire society is maximized . The joy of the present moment  is not traded for any distant unknowable future . The simple pleasures of life are available to all of us  and they are right in front of us , right here in this moment .So , isn’t the sparrow economy efficient ? Being bird brained ain’t so bad after all . And then he broke into a laughter . As did I .

In that moment , the beauty and wonder of the sparrow economy engulfed us both .

May be you should talk to someone

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If you were to Google search a sentence that has climbed up charts in popularity -post 14th June 2020- the unfortunate day, when Sushant Singh Rajput – one of the brightest stars of Indian cinema- decided to take his own life – the sentence would likely be May be you should talk to someone .

Talking to someone when you are feeling low or embattled became the most frantic dished out advice .  I think its equally important to look within and talk to yourself. Talking to someone may offer you “idiot compassion”- ie misplaced concern and sympathy instead of a” love bomb”- ie a good reflection of the issue and a mirror on how you may be aggravating your own issue.( ** watch Lori Gottlieb TED Talk)

Here , I want to ,however ,share my thoughts on a book – with this title – that I think everyone should read – whether or not they are facing a crisis in their life . I have now read this book thrice in the last 3 months and each time -it has given me strength , made me reflect  on my life choices and  changed my emotional state positively -every single time .

May be you should talk to someone, is a bestseller penned by Lori Gottlieb, a writer and a practicing psychotherapist . I first  came across Lori – when I heard her TED talk on being the Editor of our life story rather than being the hapless helpless protagonist- and it instantly resonated with me .And then I came across this book which was climbing the charts on Audible and  I went for it without a second thought .

 In the next few weeks , the lives of Lori and her patients  John , Rita , Charlotte and Julie intermingled with mine . I laughed and I cried with them. I cringed at their poor jokes and admired their wit and sarcasm and appreciated the simply and beautifully put wisdom as they did . I saw their reflection in my own existence and that’s how the book became a part of my own existance .

The Plot : The book is about Lori’s life and the life of her patients . Lori goes through a shattering heartbreak and despite being a therapist herself -seeks therapy to get some peace . She candidly talks about her sessions and her story as well as the stories of 4 of her patients – John – a celebrated but disturbed TV producer , Rita -a 70 year old seeking love and acknowledgement in her life , Charlotte- who missed out on her childhood and is struggling with addiction and Julie – a 35 year old newly married Professor , dying of cancer and seeking meaning and joy in her remaining life .

As these characters battle their daily issues – you see their reflection in your  own  moments . How we all avoid uncomfortable truths to the extent of over looking them and keep falling into the same pits over and over again , how we all seek the cocoon of our parents protection and grow up prematurely if we don’t have it . Some controversial elements like -Theories of how we “marry” our parents and how our lives and relationships are profoundly influenced by what we faced as children and yet why as adults we alone are responsible for our feelings .

 Lori demonstrates -how we are shaking the bars of a prison cell which is actually open on both sides and thus without realizing it how we are prisoners of our own limiting beliefs and despite being a therapist she herself isn’t immune to it . She comes across as candid , vulnerable , open and thoughtful .

The book is peppered with different psychological theories – but not for a moment does it becoming boring . Its layered with wit , humor and well told stories – plots and sub plots which keep you on the edge of your seat . Its as if you are watching the stories of these characters unfold in front of you.

May be you should talk to someone is about changing your limiting beliefs , finding your freedom and joy and accepting your grief, loss and sadness instead of trying to hide it to appear strong  and brave as we are expected to be   . Its also about breaking free from your past , however traumatic it may have been , living in and enjoying the present moment without worrying about anyone’s approval , embracing your fears and being your true authentic self

None of these is “preached” as a lesson but comes across effortlessly through the conversations she has .

 Ultimate Concerns : Meaninglessness and Death ,she says ,are ultimate concerns for everyone – aspects which worry all of us – and something we all run away from . The quest for finding meaning in her remaining life- makes her turn down a lucrative book contract something that’s critical for her and yet has been a drag on her. A book on Happiness infact

As she narrates the story of Julie – the young professor dying of cancer- she brings us face to face with the uncertainties , the injustices and the deep sorrows of life . Of how dreams and ambitions can all fly out of the window in a second – and yet, despite that how you can choose to find joy and freedom. Julie decided to become a cashier to find  her happiness . Lori talks about the pain of dying  through Julie’s eyes and one of the chapters is infact titled – what not to say when someone is dying !

She talks about  healing through compassion and forgiveness  and brings it to life in narrating her sessions with John, who by appearing strong and always in control is hiding his tears , his trauma and pain – but once he accepts his grief and sorrow – he is able to connect with his family , express his love and feel genuine contentment and happiness .

Love Wins : Perhaps an alternative title to the book would have been, Love wins . Because Love wins is at the center  of all of Lori’s stories . When Julie’s parents separate for 5 days and then get back together again her father says – “ In the end -Love wins – Always remember that girls!”

Julie decides to sum up her own obituary as – Julie loved and was loved every single day of her life . In case of Rita – she is brought back from the cusp of suicide and the burden of her life long grief gone when she finds and accepts love in herself and in others .Even in the case of John – the narcissist writer  – the story concludes only when feeling and accepting love transforms him

Lori doesn’t shy away from shining the light on the dark recesses of her life or letting her inadequacies and vulnerabilities come forward . The most important question that makes you feel most vulnerable as she writes are– Do you like me ? Do I matter to you ?

The book doesn’t force you or impose psychotherapy on you . But it does illuminate your reflections of and on life .

Her stories light the lamp of hope in darkness and inspire  the faith that you can change your life – just by talking to someone . May be you should talk to someone too…….

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Raajyogi Raaja

A portrait penned by my Tata ji Late Prof Dharemndra Kumar ,on his younger brother , my father late Dr. Rajendra Kumar Popli some time post his demise . While he wrote it in his small , beautiful and cursive writing , I just picked it up and typed it years back in 2011 . All grammatical and typing errors are mine . The double emphasis is as written by Tataji himself. .

Raaja was born as a doubly prized baby, prized as a longed for addition to the family after a gap of nearly eight years and prized as the reincarnation of the most luminous ancestor. Even before the newborn child could be handed over to the attending nurse, our maternal grandmother hurried to look for a mark on his head and was delighted to find it. It identified him as her late father reborn. She was tipped off about the impending rebirth in a dream she had some time between her father’s death in August and Raaja’s birth in December 1943.Our father wanted to give the baby a name that rhymed with the one I was given by the ancestor he was believed to be a reincarnation of. He could not have been thinking of naming him after the national leader Dr. Rajendra Prasad whose health he was to supervise years later. He was possibly unaware then that their birth anniversaries fall on the same day. Almost everyone who ever knew Raaja closely knew him as Raaja rather than as Raajendra Kumar.

The doubly prized baby became a super prized child as the family heard with bated breath the knocks of death a couple of years later during a short spell of brain fever coupled with delirium. He was virtually reborn. Fortunately, there were no tell -tale signs of what he had been through, what was manifest was a blessed make up. Neither his virtual rebirth nor the meaning of his name made him a demanding child. The status he owed to his rebirth however, was transitory. It was virtually lost to the countervailing effect of the threat his younger brother’s life repeatedly faced.

My memory of Raaja’s early childhood has just two dots of medical attention apart from that traumatic patch. Both of them are of successful topical treatment over period, one following a head injury caused by falling from a table and the other following the appearance of an eye ulcer during the course of conjunctivitis. Raaja was neither robust nor sickly as a child or later. For over three years after his virtual rebirth, he did not encounter any serious health problem as far as I know. He took interest in physical exercise as he grew up. He learnt swimming and something of hathyoga at Pilani. Later, he bought a mechanical system for rather strenuous exercises which he combined with aasana exercises. Strange as it may sound he took interest in naturopathy, rather than in Aayurveda which our father practiced with distinction. He once showed me an injury which had not responded to his naturopathic treatment. Its modern dressing as suggested however succeeded. At some stage he came to know of urine therapy. That was years before a practitioner of it became the Prime Minister of India.

Raaja was always cheerful rather than morose or melancholy. His liveliness however, was subject to the limitation of his absorption and introversion. He was too engrossed in thought to know his need for his feed or to remember to pick his glass of milk or his Tiffin. And he was reserved rather than outgoing. The number of individuals he called on once in a while or oftener was rather small. Even fairly close relatives calling on him could find the conversation rather labored. But he was not disposed to shun all fun. In his childhood he was thrilled more easily than other children of his age. He remained somewhat childlike throughout his life in certain ways. He could heartily laugh and regale us with mimicry or even with utterly unsophisticated humour of Kaakaa Haathrasee.

He was docile and considerate rather than boisterous, adventurous or assertive even in his childhood. Rather than disturb anyone’s sleep or flex his muscles he quietly vacated the bed one night for the sneaking kitten. He was generally soft spoken all his life. He could not be a yes man or a flatterer. But he generally shunned harshness. Raakesha’s mother- in- law was possibly the only one of his relatives ,outside the family, with whom he had a harsh word. Even in official matters, he did not mind expressing dissent, which was however, expressed without offending. In his later teens he proved to be adventours enough to trek all the way from Rishikesha to Badreenatha,  without preparation and without  much money. I was rather surprised to see him assert himself to get Kalikaa admitted to B. A. (Hons) course in Mathematics in the face of her mother’s caution and other considerations. He was presumably relying on his disposition to help her in her studies and actually did so before he was incapacitated by illness.

Raaja was born bhakta  . The story of his reincarnation I had heard in my childhood turned out to be more than a cock and bull story as he grew out of his childhood. He had inherited from Bhagat jee –as our maternal great grand father Pushaka Daasa was generally known- the make up of a bhakta  alongside inheriting his appearance and voice and even his mission to nudge humanity around to drink from the fountain of divinity. The most distinctive and durable feature of his life after his childhood was his communion with the divine rather than  excellence as a researcher, or , of a teacher. His spiritual pursuit unlike Bhagat jee’s however remained veiled by his academic pursuit. It was invisible to the folks around although almost everybody who came close to him knew him as a bhakta and almost everybody he made friends with was a bhakta of some grade. He had also inherited Bhagatjee’s equanimity which was visible even in his childhood and glaring in the  last year of his life.  There can be no surrender to the divine without equanimity. But one may well be blessed with equanimity without being a bhakta  . Our father and his father were also known   for equanimity although none could be said to be a bhakta.

 Raaja needed minimal environmental support for his bhakti to sprout. Our father was a dedicated social worker rather than a bhakta. Only occasionally, he engaged in worship in any form, even for a while although he meditated for  few minutes quite often. Our mother had turned her back on her parental Vaishnava background .Our maternal grandmother who lived with us however, gave him a glimpse of Vallabha Vaishnava ways. The process of his spiritual unfolding was probably facilitated by his teachers of Sanskrit and accelerated during his stay at Pilani. He was soon enough soaked in Bhakti which percolated down to his senses. He found Karnaataka music more appealing than Hindustani music . Its association with bhakti in his mind, outweighed his unfamiliarity with South Indian languages as well as the kinkiness of South Indian speech and music. He also wanted his intellect to be occupied with the divine. It was philosophy rather than physics or mathematics that he wanted to study after dropping the idea of studying engineering. He had to be disillusioned about the concerns and courses of philosophy in his days. but his intellect could not be weaned away from the divine. He kept turning to writings which made metaphysical capital out of modern physical research.

Raaja – as our father called him sometimes- was a raajyogee. His bhakti; like Ramana’s was meditation rather than prayer or pilgrimage in essence. He was irresistibly drawn to Ramans’s aashrama or to Aravinda’s rather than places of traditional pilgrimage. He revered the Raamkrishna-Aravinda-Ramana trinity of spiritual giants and even much less known yogee Swami Nityaananda rather than a famous bhakta like Tulseedaasa .His music teacher had an inkling of his bent of mind and introduced him to the notes of Bhairava Thata straight after those of Bilaavala Thata.  

Keertana or Satsanga  or traditional pilgrimage was of course a gratifying shower. But it was no substitute for the dip of shutting out the senses in meditation. His bhakti took him to Buddhist system of Godless meditation in his forties some time. he had possibly landed on a plateau and taken a turn to see if that improved the prospects of progress. Neither did bhakti keep Bhagata jee  within the confines of his Vaishnava tradition. he revered and preached Naanaka. Of course Raaja knew pretty little of his ancestor to be able to follow his example.

I often wondered whether a born  raajyogee was born  to be a yogeeraaja. He was still in his teens or barely out of his teens when I started calling him Swameejee. He could immerse himself in meditation more easily than many who had practiced it for years. He had a crucial role in Ravi’s spiritual initiation. But, he was himself, virtually self initiated. His spiritual pursuit was endogenous unfolding rather than grafted scaffolding, there were no cravings or distractions to wrestle with. I once took him to a coffee house. After sipping hot coffee he wondered how anybody could relish something so bitter. I made him see two feature films Upkaara  sometime before him marriage and Guide after his marriage. He did not dislike either. But the one in which he evinced interest was on Aadi Shankaraachaarya. The pilgrim’s progress, the pace of the spiritual journey depended on the time his situation permitted for meditation , the reinforcement and guidance to maintain and boost the momentum. Raajaa could not have taken his research obligations lightly, any more than his teaching obligations. A university job with research obligations might have left him with half as much times as his college job allowed for meditation. The guidance an accomplished yogee could provide at the crucial points had no substitute. few words are so haunting or set in tune enchanting as : Guru bina jnaana naa pawe. The guidance initially provided by Swamee Shivananda or published works did not seem to me to make further guidance dispensable. The limiting factor hardly figured in Raaja’s calculations. I never asked him anything about his spiritual journey , and he never thought of sharing with me anything relating to it. I was not a fellow traveler and even made some irreverent references to certain thing Aadi Shankaraachaarya and Shivananda had said in their missionary zeal. But I had occasion to stress the role of continued guidance in yoga. Around the time of Rashmi’s marriage in 1972, I urged him to think about marriage ,if he had not thought already. I did not want flimsy grounds or sheer dilly-dallying to delay anyone’s marriage. And I did not want Raaja’s thinking about marriage to be vitiated by the break-up of my marriage. He said that he contemplated the life of a spiritual seeker  rather than marital life. Marriage could of course marginalize his spiritual pursuits for many years. Bhagat jee could not get his guru’s permission for taking sanyaaasa  because he had already landed in a mesh of family obligations. I asked him whether he had found a satisfying guru. I suggested setting a time limit for finding a satisfying guru or reorienting the primacy he wanted his spiritual pursuits to have. By the summer of 1973, I heard of moves to find a match for him.

His marriage was a blessing for the parents.

Divyaa was born seven years after his marriage. The divine delay had a silver lining. Raja could find more time for meditation. The vacations were sometimes used to combine  sight-seeing with spiritual pilgrimage. It presumably made it easier for  Ranee,  to adapt to the deficits in the domain of entertainment and social interaction. The family was completed with Chirantan’s birth within two years after Divyaa’s.

Raaja was a dedicated teacher, who studied to make his teaching superb, as attested by his brilliant pupils who later worked with some of the leading physicists of the world. But he found time to take the kids out , chat with them and even scout for fancy illuminations for them or to fabricate them. He found their postures and expressions fascinating enough to inspire him to click the camera ,which little else did. His children were however unusually undemanding when not faced with health problems. there was little difficulty in finding a satisfying school for them. They needed little vigilance in any domain and little help or motivation to cope with their studies.

 Meditation survived the bliss of being blessed with children and concomitant requirement of sparing time for them.  The joint family made it easier than harder. The spells were presumably shorter. They were possibly even skipped now and then  under transient stress. The ground he could cover while the children were growing up was part of what determined his chance of becoming a yogreeraaja.

My life came to be intertwined with the lives of his children as I lived with them. my incorporation into the joint family coincided with his marriage. He was instrumental in my return to Delhi after fourteen years. But for his insistence and assistance I would have missed the interview ,which clinched the Delhi University job. Living with him had an impact on my academic pursuit, which brought an unthought-of of bonus. A visit to an astrologer with an order for making some birth charts a few years after his marriage lead him to look up the sidereal system of making  birth charts. He made many birth charts but his astrological counseling remained virtually confined to matrimonial matching. He found Krishnamoorty’s system more appealing than the traditional system and looked to Prashna maarga  to bypass uncertainty of birth time. He was put off by the system’s answer to his test question. While he was instantly weaned away from Indian astrology, my interest in it was resurrected after decades. He often made fun of my plea for auspicious time for non- routine worship. He remained unmoved by the fact brought to his notice, that in its earlier phase Indian astrology was concerned solely or primarily with determining auspicious moments or periods for a yajna.

Homeopathy claimed him even before astrology took leave of him. The classics of homeopathy  he brought home prompted me to review my summary dismissal of homeopathy as tukkapathy(guess pathy). Some understanding of some homeopathic medicines emerged as a by product as I tried to make out the general features of the system and therewith its leverage and limitations. Homeopathy did after his departure what astrology had done earlier. It added an increment to the modest base of my interaction with the near and dear ones.

It was homeopathy rather than meditation or physics or anything else that dominated his life in his forties. He seemed to think of homeopathy as the sweet alternative to Aayurveda  as he recovered from jaundice. I thought homeopathy could be a helpful complement to the health-care provided by our ageing father. What began as a modest benign pursuit ,however , turned malignant in the course of time.

Without the success of his homeopathic prescriptions his pursuit would have been frozen. But he was not equipped to absorb the impact of his success. Divyaa’s malaria gave his success in 1989 the critical mass to blow away the critical lid. His instinct for survival was paralyzed. Nothing short of  a dramatic crisis could make him step aside. Repeated failure was a part of the game. He never ceased to think that he had only to read or reflect a little more to hit upon the right remedy for Ranee’s headaches. He amassed a couple of hundred volumes of homeopathic literature and a similar number of medicines. A couple of years after Divyaa’s malaria, I pointedly asked him whether he contemplated his life activity being substantially different in his fifties when none of his children would be under ten. He said he was possibly considering the voluntary retirement option, to divide his time almost entirely between meditation and homeopathy.

His life was cut short by cancer which stole a march in the shade of confidence in his medical judgment . I could not help telling him in the spring of 1992, that persistence of his vocal affliction called for proper examination. It was not a matter of patience. One had to be either innocent or callous to be a mute witness. But he was offended rather than amused or inquisitive. He had come a long way from the days when he could heed any counsel on matters of health. He dismissed as imaginary my assessment of our mother’s condition. He was on the verge of being bed ridden when he went for a check up in May 1993.  The needle prick for cellular examination was however resisted for weeks thereafter,CT scan for months. I refrained from pressing him for any examination but I countered his innocent denial of the possibility of cancer by reminding him of Raamkrishna and Ramana. His kin and friends plunged into the struggle for his recovery despite the nagging feeling that precious time was being lost to whims. He reluctantly agreed to consult two eminent homeopaths ,who suggested some modern examinations. He said they had no faith in their own system. Their faithlessness drove him to consult one he had himself  known to be reckless. He was given a high potency (10M) dose strictly forbidden in cancer. It became difficult to swallow anything. The homeopathic  disaster threw him in the lap of naturopathy. He fasted living on coconut water for several days. He was emaciated even dehydrated. But he had dramatic amelioration one day in August after several difficult days. It was transient. There was a set back after one month .

In the meantime, there was mental transformation that was durable. The flawed judgments, the fundamentalist  streak passed into history. What was left of his make up was pure gold. Speech deprived ,tube-fed ,multiply afflicted Raajaa was till the end a picture of cheerful resignation.

A Journey through Heaven

A Journey through Heaven – Memoirs of Leh Ladakh-

Part I

I sit on the sofa , feeling lost and nostalgic .  Like all good things , the much anticipated Leh -Ladakh trip has finally come to an end . Like a count – down to a critical launch , I had waited for it so eagerly  and breathlessly- marking down every single day in the calendar  . As  I said bye to my friends and gave them the last hug at the airport  today afternoon, the crushing realization that , the trip is finally over , overwhelmed me .

However , each moment of the Ladakh trip is a treasured memory – which would be cherished and loved always – in the deepest recesses of my heart. In writing this – the intent is reflect – both on the journey and on the feelings .

There are a few things that cannot be put down or described in words . There is love ofcourse and may be a close second is Ladakh and its beauty. Nestled between the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges Ladakh has snow peaked mountains , mesmerising glaciers , gurgling and gregarious  streams , relentless rivers and bedazzling lakes .  They are all mesmerizing sights , wonders of creation that can leave one speechless . Ladakh also has world’s highest roads , motorable passes ( Khardung- La and Chang -La) , the highest saltwater lake (Pangong Tso) and the highest battlefield – Siachen .

To start with a few basics here are a few :

  • Average height of the valley floor : 14500 ft above the sea level
  • Mountain ranges : Great Himalayan Range , Karakoram and Ladakh ranges
  • Rivers : Zanskar , Indus and Shyok
  • Lakes – Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri ( tso means a lake )
  • Prominent religion : Tibetean Buddhism
  • Highest Motorable pass – Khardung-La 17882 ft above sea level
  • Most common word – Julley

Travellers :

I and  three of my dearest friends : Priti Agrawal , Neha Desai and Priyanka Gupta

Route taken and key attractions  –

From Delhi  we flew to Srinagar . Then we took the Srinagar -Leh road and passed Sonmarg and Drass enroute to kargil. From Kargil we moved to Leh crossing on our way the Fotula pass , Lamayuru monastery , Mulbekh monastery amongst others . We did make a feeble attempt to climb up the meditation hill.

We paused in Leh – sight seeing – Thiksey and Hemis monasteries , Shey Palace , Rancho School, Sindhu Ghats and Shanti Stupa . Getting adventurous we went for river rafting at Zanskar – which culminated at Sangam – the confluence of Indus and Zanskar .

We then moved to the Nubra valley – praying at the Maiterya monastery , looking at Bactrian camels and riding quad bikes in the mountain deserts . From Nubra we went to Pangong Lake , arguably the most beautiful and famous sight in Leh . The highest brackish water lake in the world – Pangong is only 45km inside India and the balance is in Tibet . From Pangong we visited another Lake- Tso Moriri  going via – Mirak, Chushul, Rezang La Chang La – one of the most desolate regions and yet one of the most beautiful drives .

Tso Moriri is one of the highest fresh water lakes . From here we returned to Leh and after a day spent recovering flew back home.

The route and the sights :

The route from Sringar to Kargil was scenic , beautiful , green and vibrant . Cool breeze , tall and elegant poplar and chinar trees ,mountains dotted with vibrant vegetation – made for a picturesque journey . They evoked the picture of heaven on earth – which is what Kashmir is known as anyway . Along the highway NH1 ,was the river Indus or Sindhu . The crystal clear blue water of Indus – which cut across mountains and foamed over boulders and rocks – looked like the mirror of life – enchanting and beautiful. The water was icy but refreshing . It seemed to wash away my tiredness and filled me with joy and energy.

We passed Sonmarg – and saw the majestic Thajwasa glacier . The sheet of snow covering the mountains looked majestic and imposing .As we raced to capture its beauty , I realized there was little warmth or welcome in its sight . It seemed divine but distant .

The mountains slowly became barren – a sight then that was common across Ladakh . Jagged rocks , sharp peaks and completely barren surfaces . They seemed desolate  and depressing . I wonder how the people and the armed forces in the region keep their spirits high and their warm smiles intact in this testing terrain .

We passed Drass – the second coldest habitable region in the world  with temperatures dropping to – 50 C . And then we climbed down to Kargil – which looked like a bustling town . Our hotel – Royal Inn – was on the bank of Indus offering a fantastic view of the serene river .

From there on the journey to Leh and to Nubra , Pangong and to Tso Moriri had a similar terrain – barren mountains , numerous small but cheerful streams , rivers – some serene and some angry and relentless . I will write in greater detail where needed  as I move along.  But somehow the aforementioned terrain became ingrained in me as the Leh terrain – and I saw it as the spirit of Ladakh .

The Mountains :

The mountains in Ladakh are different from those I have seen anywhere across the country .  Totally barren with no trace of green shoots they seem majestic but imposing – almost  as if they don’t want any one to come close . Big rocks jut out in places threatening to fall over. As you stare at them for some time  they  seem like gargantuan piles of rubble . And the rubble keeps falling over too .

But while the creator hasn’t made them too friendly it has made them distinct and magnificent nonetheless . Hues of brown , purple , pink , green and black – are what the rocks are made of . The interplay of light and shadow brings out their unearthly and unusual beauty in its full charm . Some have snow peaks – the white snow glistening and shining making them look ethereal like the abode of Gods .

The colourful Buddhist banners of thanksgiving and prayers dot the roads and can brig cheer even on these desolate mountains. Indian Army has a lot of posts and camps in this terrain given that it is adjacent to two  unfriendly neighboring states- Pakistan and China . I wonder how the jawans might be feeling – waking up to utter silence , other than the sound of gushing streams . How would they feel looking at these tall and imposing but distant and dry hills – which don’t resonate with the song of life ?

Stretches of the mountains where gushing and gregarious streams cross them – the sunshine illuminating  the water droplets like crystals – are the most beautiful stretches though . These always reminded me of the story of Bhagirath bringing down Ganga from heaven. Crossing these streams – on foot or in the car is delightful like nothing else .

Rivers and Streams :

Ladakh has 3 main rivers – Indus ( Sindhu) , Zanskar and Shyok . Zanskar and Sindhu eventually flow into Pakistan . Sindhu is the most welcoming river – crystal clear , shining and friendly . In places its serene and quiet – carrying its deepest secrets and thought – like at the sangam . In other places such as along Srinagar -Leh road its as cheerful and delightful , restless and yet lovable like a jumpy young kid . IN other places it rages along angrily washing down mighty rocks and stiff boulders  forming whirlpools and rapids .

Shyok looks like a relentless river – bringing down rocks , mud and stones in its flow . Its unstoppable , fast and almost looks angry as it bangs against mountains and boulders foaming , forming rapids and crushing anything that comes in its path.

Sometimes , I think I am like the Sindhu.  Most people see my warm side – some bear the brunt of my rage and anger but very  few are able to understand or recognize the feelings that flow inside when I am quiet and calm on the outside .

Sangam – where a warm sindhu meets a choppy and cold Zanskar is indeed a special place- You see not just the difference in colour but also feel so distinctly the difference in temperature with the Sindhu warming the cockles of the heart and mind both. Its as if a mother hugs and lifts up a naughty and jumpy kid .

The innumerable streams flowing down from the glaciers make Ladakh a land dotted with brilliant streams – narrow and wide , long and short – bubbling and jumping along from the high mountains to the rivers below where they merge and lose their identity. But while they flow they spread joy , clarity and cheer along – without worrying about what will happen when they merge or caring about the grumpy silence of the mountains . Shouldn’t we all be like that? Lamps of light and cheer irrespective of the context , environment or the conclusion ?

Lakes :

The brilliance of the lakes can hardly be over- stated. Mysterious , brilliant , dazzling and blue – the lakes are indeed the chief attractions of Ladakh. Pangong lake at a height of 14270 ft above see level – has featured in multiple movies – Dil se , Jab tak hai jaan and most famously 3 Idiots . Its brackish – with its outlets blocked and hence the salt content being high. There is no aquatic life . On a sunny day you can see different shades of blue – turquoise , deep blue and the light blue waves gently coming to the shore . The 135 km long lake has only 45km stretch within India and that itself seems like a miracle of God . Pangong – while mesmerizing me with its sheer beauty of clear blue water amidst majestic mountains also looked very silent and mysterious to me . it transported me to a land of peace and tranquillity . The serenity of the lake makes you speechless and over whelms you completely .

Tso Moriri –  The journey to Tso Moriri was tough – crossing absolutely desolate and lonely stretches – with no sign of human or animal life – even in an over crowded country like India ! Tso Moriri is the mountain lake on the Changtang plateau , 19km along and 248 ft deep at an elevation of 4522 m .The water here wasn’t particularly icy despite the rainy weather . But Priti did have to face the wrath of insects and leeches as she tried entering the lake for a dip . The lake is silent , long and beautiful . It doesn’t dazzle you like Pangong but it does delight you with its simplicity and serenity . Its considered a holy lake and indeed embodies you with a sense of tranquillity and peace.

Deserts : For the first time in life , I saw mountain deserts .  Having travelled to Gujrat , I had seen the Rann of Kutch which turns into a massive white desert and major tourist attraction . But here in the mountains seeing miles and miles of white sand with the Sindhu meandering its way through it was another experience altogether . The deserts didn’t give  feeling of being devoid of life – and that possibly was because of the vibrancy and the life giving touch of Sindhu In Nubra valley , we stayed in the Sumur valley and not in the popular Hundur valley nestled in the desert . Watching the night sky come alive with brilliant and dazzling stars was mesmerizing and enchanting to say the least and I felt blessed to be fortunate enough to see some of these natural wonders .

Being in nature somehow makes you look within , connect within and with the surroundings . Whether it was the star studded sky or the gentle waves lapping the shore of Pangong lake – they gave me a sense of being a part of the Infinite . The joy I felt every morning despite sleepless nights – kept me on a high . The peace I found within took me to another world . Beauty springing out from every corner of existence is what I saw. I felt the Zen saying – One flower blooms in the heart and its Spring in the world come alive with meaning .