Within it, the stillness

This is the verdant Cauvery delta. The Vennar distributary glides through lush paddy fields here in Tanjavur, singing songs from a past replete with sea-faring kings, opulent cities, magnificent architecture and enduring culture. Tanjavur — capital of the mighty Chola dynasty that ruled this part of the southern peninsula for many centuries. A solitary pond heron on the far bank studies its reflection. Blood was spilt here. Temples were raised. History was shaped and reshaped on the banks of the Cauvery. The river that knows it all.

water. time.
the relentless movement.
within it, within it, the stillness

A beloved king. A venerated deity. A stunning temple. Legend has it that elephants dragged giant blocks up an inclined ramp to construct the tower that soars over 200 feet. This was more than a thousand years ago. You can sense that energy. You can feel spacetime collapsing. You know several generations have sat where you sit, have felt what you feel, have seen what you see. So has Raja Raja – king of kings. The tower takes on a golden hue as the sun sets slowly. The sun that knows it all.

first light:
the flutter of wings, the temple bell,
a breeze waking stone after stone

That isn’t the only great temple. A few miles down, the heir repeated the feat of his father raising a graceful edifice with breath-taking craftsmanship. A century later, another Chola monarch erected a formidable beauty with decorated columns and horse-drawn chariots carved from stone. The gods were exalted with wisdom and skill, faith and art. Human endeavour that has survived to tell its tale. I wonder as I walk down a pillared corridor, if I have those tools. What do I hold dear? How do I revere? What story do I tell? I see them stand strong and tall. The temples that know it all.

not yet dawn
not quite night, just a fragile hush
as if the sky is about to answer

Paddy fields line both sides of the highway. I stop to watch the white egrets poke around in the water. The roar of the irrigation pump, the outlines of tractors and bullock-drawn ploughs, the bent backs of toiling farmers, kingfishers and drongos perched on overhead wires, large statues of village protector-deities — fierce warriors watching over people and livestock and crops, the romance of pastoral deliberation, the aroma of frothing cups of filter coffee, life as I know it fading into the distance…I can understand how this moment contains everything that came before it. And everything that is yet to come. What matters, what can wait, what we need to do, what is beyond us. That truth has never changed. In all this time. Time that knows it all.

swinging from the branch
of a tamarind tree
the chain from an old tyre-swing

****
India Travelogue… Tanjavur (The Three Great Living Chola Temples)

What the heart knows

Before dawn, the devout wait with offerings on one side of the road, tourists wait with cameras, on the other. This is the traditional alms-giving ceremony for monks and novices from the many Wats in Luang Prabang. An affirmation of community, dedication, faith, austere living and resounding quiet. What is it like to live like that, with the kind of simplicity that questions by just being, with a conviction that answers by not just being? To find yourself, how much do you have to lose? To lose yourself, how much do you have to find? Are these my choices?

inside the apple
the worm,
inside the worm, the apple

A bamboo bridge spans the Nam Khan River where it meets the Mekong, a tranquil horse-shoe confluence at one end of this quaint town. Nearby, an adept performer recounts stories of kings and demons, queens and lovers — myths from the rivers, the hills and the forests beyond — to the sound of the bamboo pipes of the Khene. Once upon a time. That place where everything begins. Love. God. Childhood. Memories. Forever. Once upon a time. The notes ring high into the starless night. Two rivers listen together, hand in hand.

soft starsong —
a cloud opens its arms
to a waiting moon

UXO- Unexploded Ordnance. The way wars from the past still continue to kill and maim. The UXO centre is like a slash of dark reality, away from the busy hub where cafes and temples sit cheek by jowl, where the brown Mekong slithers against the mountains, where the night market opens like a magic box with its bright lights and exotic aromas, where saffron-robed monks walk impervious to curious glances, where you are reminded that it is possible, somehow, to have a parallel reality without ordnance, without unexploded ordnance, without wars that don’t end, without wars, without a little girl picking up one of those deadly bombies in a paddy field.

for the cat
for the pigeon
more than enough sunshine

A small boat speeds across the Mekong. This river is an acquaintance, we have talked before, now it feels familiar, it feels strange. But we talk again. On the other side, on the undulating hills, between old-growth trees, curated gardens reveal surprises of joyous colour. As the evening grows long, the sun mixes in the brown water. Some distance away, in the tropical rainforest, water spills into cascading turquoise pools even as rescued bears recover in the sanctuary below the Kuang Si waterfall. This is tranquil land. Where the breeze gently traces the soft curves of the Wats. Where lotus flowers open and close in ancient ponds. Where the river walks with you. Even when you aren’t walking. Talks to you. Even when you have finished talking. Where lost dreams are found. Where the forgotten lives. Where wounds can, without even knowing it, be healed.

a lone bee
waits for a lily bloom:
what the heart knows, it knows

****
Laos Travelogue… Luang Prabang

Just the unfolding of light

In Phnom Penh, I watch as the sun dissolves into the mighty Mekong, a river that has already journeyed several thousand kilometres and still has more to navigate before it can find the sea. I too have come from some distance. I too have places to go. For one golden evening we contrive a confluence. In the disquiet of liquid light, we will just flow together, just here, just for a little while.

at a stop light
I consider, again,
the moon frozen in my mirror

In the pale dispassion of dawn, what strikes you is not the idea, the being, the craft, the industry, the scale of Angkor Wat, but the expansive stillness. The anti-movement. The not-seeing. The not-knowing. The not-understanding. Which came first, fear or faith? Which came first, grandeur or pride? Which came first, love or incessant yearning?

neither question
nor answer
just the unfolding of light

First, the jungle. Then they clear the jungle. Then they build the temple. Then the jungle reclaims the temple. Then they try to wrest the temple out of the jungle’s grasp. Then the jungle will prevail. I wonder if this is a lesson about impermanence, about power, about retribution or about inexorable truth. I feel the silence of trees older than the sky wrap its fingers, tight, around my soul.

happily
ever after —
another night, another bedtime story

The walls of Angkor Wat tell the story of the churning of the ocean of milk by gods and demons, both looking for the ultimate elixir. The story of good over evil. Heaven over hell. We like life to work like that. We want life to work like that. We think we are like that. We think our demons have lost to our gods. We think, inside us, the ocean will give us what we seek. We think the ocean has to give us what we seek.

whose fault is it —
the paper boat
that waited for the rain

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Cambodia Travelogue… Phnom Penh/ Siem Reap

Some words I feel

Here, in the Dead Sea, I feel possibility. I, who cannot swim, can walk on this water. Here, the sun prepares for its downward journey, slowly, painfully, like a warrior who has seen too much, done too much. Here, the echoes come from a faraway time to brush your skin. Here, nature opens a tiny window to give you a glimpse of her power. This water holds you in a warm embrace even as you drown in the haunting stories of the hills and the wind and the sky.

like the throb of a poem
written long ago
some words I understand, some words I feel

Driving towards Karak, that early Spring, he pulls over, suddenly. Look, he says, pointing to a clutch of black iris plants, standing tall, seemingly alone, on the side of a dry desert road. Fragile, strong, the colour of night, the luminescence of a newly formed sun, a flower I had never seen before. How many things have I met in my life that are made entirely of primal joy?

the daytime moon:
      as if a child glued it to the sky
                     eyes bright with mischief

Within minutes, the dust encircled us, the sandstone rocks seemed to melt, the rat-a-tat of sand on the car-roof was loud, incessant and terrifying. My first sandstorm came without warning to Wadi Rum. We drank tea as we sheltered on a rock. The most morbid of fears are tempered by a cup of tea. This much is true. Storms rage for hours. But then they pass. That too is true. Most life lessons are learnt on that thin edge between how things are and how they should have been. That can be true, if you allow it.

because
the night never ends
it just turns to morning

I leave Petra not through the imposing Siq, but through a longer, more difficult route- Wadi Muthlim, the dark canyon that might have once directed flash floods away from the city. Squeezing through narrow tunnels, clambering over rocks, following a dry river bed, I find my way back into the sunshine. Enough time to wonder about what being in a place where people lived in such magnificence 2000 years ago, tells me about my own life, about what someone or something will know about me 2000 years hence. What is a trail that isn’t a trail left in stone?

everywhere a pebble has been
everywhere a wave has been
a part of me has been there, is still there

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Jordan Travelogue… Dead Sea/Karak/Wadi Rum/Petra

Swimming under the horizon

In Nairobi, after feeding a giraffe, I sanitize my hands with something smelling of lavender and the world I left behind. A safari guide laughs. A driver joins in. And another. They tell me giraffe saliva is a natural antiseptic. Something I should remember if I get lost in the savannah. The giraffes watch us, expressionless.

leaving our shoes at the door
we enter the stranger’s home
with bowed heads

Where the equator crosses the dry asphalt in Nakuru, young men show us science tricks. Water swirls in opposite directions in the two hemispheres. Not just water, I say to myself. It feels strange, standing there, straddling an imaginary line, as if I am larger than life and this planet that neither cares, nor stops to ask, is now, for the first time, beneath my feet.

swimming
under the horizon
fish tell fish ancient land myths

Face to face with a young leopard in Samburu, I wish I can tell what he is thinking. But here, in the wild, I want everything to talk so through their words, through their primal poetry, I can go back to the silence of the beginning. Before I was. Before they were. Before anything was. When everything made sense.

the delicate balance of being —
not one extra movement
not one extra breath

Then the sun sets over the acacia trees, the grass mirroring the hues of the sky, the distant roar of a lion turning everything surreal, the last impalas fading away, crocodiles now invisible in the murky water, darkness pouring down like rain, silhouettes draining into a black sea… between splutter and cough and growl and yawn, all goes quiet.

just the earth
still going round
and round and round…

 

Kenya sunset over the savannah

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Kenya Travelogue… Nairobi/ Nakuru/Samburu

Friend

It is not a tryst, not a beginning, not a confession. Definitely not a conversation. Don’t say anything.

If, in a moment of strange alignment, I make the uneven journey from within myself to what you see, what you think you see; if, in that moment of random foolishness, I peel away the façade, the armour, the wall after wall of defence; if, in that moment of irrational truth, I let you in on something real, then, don’t say anything. Let me have that moment. Let me step into the light. Let me cast my shadow. Let me happen. Let me come free.

You see that moon, alone, adrift in the pitch-dark sky, the moon that doesn’t know it shines, the moon that bears its scars alone, the moon too far to hear a word, the moon that came in through my window once to say it has the darker side…

…that moon used to be my friend.

just one night
without an impending dawn
just one night

Untold forest

It is okay to have stories that you will never tell anyone.

It is okay to have trees grow inside you that fall when no one is around. It is okay if it is an entire forest.

It is okay if that forest burns one night and turns to desert.

It is okay if in that desert an ugly flower blooms. And you don’t know its name. And you don’t tell anyone.

It is okay because a stranger will see you from a moving bus and think to himself that there must be a big desert inside your heart because your eyes see nothing that they see and there must be in that desert a single flower blooming because you still cast a light.

It is okay if you never meet that stranger and he forgets your face. It is okay that the stranger has no light. It is okay even if that was the best version of yourself and the only one who saw it and mistook it has forgotten about it.

It is okay that it is pointless right up to the end, that no one knows the pain, no one shares the surging joy, that no one sees the suffering. It is okay that it is all for nothing, that the erasure will be swift, will be surgical, the space you occupied will fill quickly, easily, as if it never was, as if you never were. It is okay that your existence is not validated by someone else.

That someone too has stories they are never going to tell.

stopping
suddenly, midway,
this too is a destination

Just enough distance

The worst. The worst I was, the worst I did, the worst that happened. The worst wants to find a safe space in which to moult, to grow new skin, or to just feel its scars and wonder if they will ever heal. They said that a safe space would be fiercely gentle, would be strangely familiar, would be there but then would not.

I see the sky on this warm June night. That thing, so luminous, is it Venus? Or is it just the pole star? Where are my bearings? What if it is something still unnamed? Something lost? Somebody else’s sun? Its light has travelled such a distance to fall into my eyes. What happened to it along the way, that tonight it shines so bright? Or is this just a flicker of its burn?

Everything I want to say sits in a bucket of darkness. But when there is just enough distance so we don’t have to talk, just enough light so we don’t have to see, just enough want that we cannot sleep, just enough trust that memories would be but would not, maybe I can tell you one little secret.

just sitting
by the lake all night —
me and a moon and a moon

Left to ourselves

How strange this being, this being together, this moment in curious parentheses, this momentary construct of skin and word — its randomness makes it bearable, a chance event as if the universe rolled a die on a mega-board of compulsive physical forces.

It cannot be that this was choreographed. Preordained. Not you, not me, not this space that contains us, not the space that is still between us… the magic is entirely in how arbitrary this is. How insignificant we are. How vast this space is.

There are far too many variables. Each moment is a revolving door. Different entrances, different exits. Only the moment. Pressed against the sky. Pressed between us. Only the point of crossing. And still you believe this is destiny. Surely then, you wonder if this was the best the big universe could do? Left to ourselves, would we have chosen somewhere, someone, some moment, better?

face to face
with the setting sun —
and then darkness

Two little creatures

You ask me if I am happy. I hesitate, wait for words you will understand. I have nothing to validate this moment against. What is it?

There is no moon, the monsoon sky has swallowed all the light. There is no particular thought inside my head. I can feel the damp cold of the stillness, the empty corners, the echoes rushing back when I call your name. There is no great love. Look at us, so tiny against the giant canvas of being. Two little creatures. How big shall we pretend our love is?

It is pleasant, this moment. This moment that has no past and no future. We are just here, trying to be, trying to be in the way the no-moon sky just is, in the way the quiet inside us just is, in the way being together without some great love, just is.

Words that you will understand. I am happy, I say. You smile. The moon shifts gently, unseen. The silence ricochets off a far wall. The answer fills this moment. This moment with no past and no future.

the wind that
knocks on the door
doesn’t wait to be let in