Perfection IX


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The main thing I’ve realized is that the sepals of a sunflower — those green petal-shaped things, that lie right under the petals — are the most beautiful part of the whole. The flowers themselves are unambiguously yellow and cheery — bright and turning to face the sun, is there anything more cliched? — but the sepals are more nuanced. The flat portion curls at the edges, and the end tapers to a curvaceous point. It’s like an artist saving the flourishes for a quiet corner of the canvas.

The sepal is the protective layer when the flower is in bud form. As the flower opens, I can picture the sepal tearing open, and with the tension released from the inside, the curls and tapers must form, as if by spring action. Sepals too must obey the laws of physics.


Amidst their prettiness, it is easy to forget that the primary function of a flower is procreation. And so the stamens and carpels are not to be dissed. These are the fine structures in the middle of the flower, charged with propagating the species, ready to sprinkle all over the surroundings, hoping to bring to life new plants and future flowers with their own stamens and carpels — but their efforts are ultimately thwarted in this case, thanks to being stuck in a water bottle on my dining table.

Though I call them cliched, I don’t want to give short shrift to the petals. Their yellowness is the kind one wants to swim in, bathe in. For the week that those five flowers were on my table, the entire scene looked so elegant, especially while looking in from the window, that a passerby would be forgiven for thinking that an entirely more sophisticated person than yours truly inhabited that space. That yellow made me appear classy, even to my own eyes. Now that they’re gone, I kind of miss that.


(Here is the complete Perfection series.)

A neighborhood walk (in the rain)


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I wanted to run this morning, but it was raining, and I decided to walk with an umbrella instead. Rain makes me happy and my umbrella, which is covered with yellow, red, blue, orange flowers, proclaims this loudly.

The students lining up for the university bus were all carrying umbrellas — when was the last time you saw 17 umbrellas all in a row? Of the two hands needed to text furiously, one had suddenly been taken away, but they seemed to be doing fine. The tardy ones who are often seen running as the bus pulls in were today seen running with gumboots and umbrellas.

One runner was resolutely sticking to her morning routine wearing a plastic cover. Parents were inserting children into blue and yellow ponchos. Snails and earthworms had abandoned their waterlogged homes and taken to the pavements.

The grass looked greener, the way it looks in places that get much more rain than San Diego. I don’t know if the grass is actually greener in those places or if the wetness and gray skies make it appear so, but, without question, in my neighborhood this morning, the grass was greener, like it was making a real effort. (Incidentally, the Lake District gets my vote for the greenest appearing grass of all, worthy of inventing a Greenness Index for, just so it can come in first place.)

My inner dialogue in which I often examine every single failure of my life was replaced with an equally ridiculous but entirely more congenial one. “Hi you papaya tree laden with dozens of green fruit, peeping over the fence! Will your offspring turn orange and sweet come summer?” “And you lemon tree covered with fruit and blossoms, you’re very pretty.”

The gardeners were at work through the rain, planting in the flower beds. Tiny cactus, chosen for their red rims, white and purple flowers looking bedraggled even as they added color, hedges and trees chosen for the blossom that exists for three weeks out of 52, all put in by those gardeners. The winner in the color category, as it so often is, was the bright pink bougainvillea. Instead of screaming, “Look at me!” as it does when the sun is out, it was today uttering a rather more coy, “Oh won’t you spare me a glance?” Who was I to refuse?

Yup, rain makes me happy. One look at my umbrella, you’ll know.

Scenes at a neighbourhood park



Most everyone owns a tree.

Amorous couple #1 gets a liquid amber tree. Tall and thickly-leaved, its shadow is small but dense. As it moves with the sun, so do they.

Amorous couple #2 is way more amorous. They too get a liquid amber. She wears a long, strapless dress and they exchange passionate embraces. I wonder why they don’t get themselves a room. But kissing in the cool, breezy shade of a tree on a hot July day is so much more of a story, a painting, than getting themselves a room. They get points for their art.

I am myself under a sycamore. My novel sits unread while I take in the scenes around me, finally giving in to the urge to put pen to paper.

The conifer and its paltry shadow is owned by four men. By turns they smoke, check their cellphones, joke, take off their shirts and play some soccer.

The largest group is treeless. They play frisbee. They have a mat, some chairs, food, water. One of the girls steps away to do a yoga sequence — crow, head stand, wheel, and back up on her feet. As I watch the group play, I wonder about hierarchies. Do they have a Messi at one end, acknowledged great, and an xxx at the other, whose presence or absence this Sunday barely registers?

A man plays with his little daughter. He speaks Spanish to his wife. Another cycles past, precariously balancing a large plastic bag over one shoulder, steering the bike with one hand, slow, careful. A pregnant woman walks by. So do some people with dogs. One dog has a highly styled tail, and an even more styled head, dyed in three bands from front to back, pink, green, pink. Some teenagers walk in with a bike, and some slurpees. They stand around awkwardly, and I can’t tell what they plan to do. Maybe they don’t know either?

Cars flow relentlessly on the freeway behind, their hum matching the rustle of my sycamore’s leaves. The grass around me — ill-gotten greenery in this drought-ridden state — sways gently in the breeze, a bird chirps.

I get up to walk home, sun beating down.

In praise of… the long haul flight



moon, airplane

Do you think that the world is too much with us? That the constant chatter inside the head of rising, working, eating, socializing, exercising, thinking, laughing, planning and, well, chattering, becomes deafening from time to time? That taking care of things — people, laundry, bills, housework, yourself — all becomes a hamster-on-a-wheel routine where one is running to stay in the same place?

Do you have a palliative for this? A cocoon that you can withdraw to, to rediscover your spirit, to rest and recuperate, to still the mind and body, to reinvigorate before engaging with the world again?

No, I am not writing an advertisement for a yoga workshop or a meditation retreat, although those fit the bill as well. I am talking of a long haul flight, or, perhaps, a long train journey. Heck, even a car drive can sometimes do that for you. The days and hours leading up to a long haul flight can be too full, and so can the days after, depending on the destination, but the flight itself is likely to be amazingly, deliciously boring. [1] And that is the main point — to be bored, and to have no option but to be bored.

The boredom is important to still the constantly stimulated brain and senses. The lack of options not only means a lack of “useless” distractions (cat videos), but also a lack of the means to be productive, or “useful” (washing machines, work email). If most people, most of the time, intend to be the latter and end up being to the former, a state of true freedom is when you have no means to be either. And this blessed state of release comes about in a long, boring, interminable long haul flight. This is when the calm descends, when we have time to focus on nothingness, meditate on it, and find it light and lovely. When we, for a while, disengage from our lives, and see them for what they truly are — an interminable circus, where most of the acts are purely for our own amusement.

And so I look forward to it each time. Being 35000 feet high, with no control over where I am going, my life temporarily fading to a speck down below. Sitting in a cramped seat, packed together like sardines, possibly dehydrated, and finding zen.


[1] Well, hopefully. For someone who loves the internet, I think that the increasing occurrence of wifi on planes is a terrible thing. I am generally able to ignore the movies on offer (well, mostly) but resisting wifi is a damn pain. I hope it always remains slow and/or expensive, amen.

Beside the still waters



stream, trees

It is not the nature of the universe to be still. Much of what the wise people say is about change, the eternal constant that is change. It is not the nature of animals to be still, it is not the nature of human minds to be still, it is not the nature of leaves to be still, and it is certainly not the nature of water to be still. Mountains have the right to be still, it sometimes appears, but they move too, if only at the rate of one centimeter a year. Everywhere there is churning, tides rising and falling, and equilibrium, when it exists, is dynamic and merely statistical — inside a solid block of iron, the individual electrons are still going nuts.

And that is why I like the picture on top. Because on one side of that spot right there, is a wonderful and wonderfully busy bakery. On the other is a parking lot. And in the middle of all the chaos that is the hallmark of life, there is stillness. Not just any kind of stillness, a fully vibrant stillness, that includes water, and trees, both of which are changing and yet still. Trees in colour, trees naked, trees green, and water flowing softly below.

I like it because it gives me hope. Hope that what the wise men say is fully true in the end — that in the midst of all the churning chaos, there can be stillness, there can be peace, and not of the stagnant kind, but of the spirited, life-like kind. It gives me hope that we can hear the silence hidden within the discord, if only we keep an ear out for it.

The world is full of uninteresting things


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shadow patterns

There are so many things I am not interested in doing, it’s kind of
wonderful. Most of the time I focus on all the things I want to do and worry
about whether I will ever have the time and opportunity to do them all. I am
quite grateful for all the things I get to do that I actually want to do,
but reversing the question makes me even more grateful for all the things I
don’t want to do -and- don’t have to do.

Getting a degree in business in pretty high on the list. I have never at all wanted to get one. Getting a degree in law is another of those things. So when I see people who, like me, started out as engineers, and then went on to do one of these other things, and are now rich and famous, instead of envying them their wealth and fame, all I feel is a great sense of relief. “Man, it’s so great that all I ever wanted to do, and anticipate ever wanting to do, is technical work.”

Another thing is writing a food blog. Don’t get me wrong. I love the damn things. There are so many great writers and creative cooks out there, all offering us their work for free, and I admire many of them. But please. I have no interest in writing one myself. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy taking pictures, and I enjoy writing. But food blog? Umm, not so much.

On a related note, I have no interest in finding the best coffee/cheese/pizza/chocolate in town. Honestly, all the elitism surrounding these things is so utterly boring. Nor am I interested in finding the best French/Ethiopian/Peruvian restaurant in town. And all this talk of “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants and the joy and excitement associated with discovering and sharing them? Leaves me totally cold. I will gladly go home and eat steamed broccoli, thank you very much. (I will confess to being interested in good bread though. But only to the point of knowing which one is my favourite from among the options in the stores I already go to. I refuse to go to a new store for bread alone. I mean please.)

Finally, I confess to having no interest in popular culture in general. I have no idea what Justin Bieber looks like, or Kim Kardashian. I have no idea which bands are the most arcane and/or the most popular and the not knowing of which marks one out as a sad loser and philistine. (If this is what it means to be a sad loser and philistine, I am happy to be one.) To be honest, I don’t even know a lot of Beatles music, and have no shame in admitting that or interest in changing that. I can’t always recognize the top Hollywood actors either, and have no idea what the actors in Breaking Bad look like. (Even though I confess that I often read about new movies and TV shows, so I do know the plots and themes better than the above indicates.)

To conclude on a positive note rather than a curmudgeonly one, I will say that writing this little essay is one of the things I wanted to do, and actually got to do, and for that I am grateful. Yo!

A few thoughts on MH17


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Abu Dhabi - Los Angeles flight path

my flight’s path from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles

On July 17, the Malaysia Airline flight MH17 crashed near the Ukraine-Russia border, believed to have been brought down by one or more groups in the conflict-ridden region. It appears that the surface to air missiles that brought it down weren’t trying to target commercial aircraft at all (which is unsurprising), but were targetting aircraft from one of the other groups involved. They simply failed to identify the aircraft correctly before bringing it down.

There were 298 people on MH17, all of them presumably dead. There were at least two other aircraft within about 15 miles of MH17 when it was brought down. After the incident, all airlines have naturally been giving the region a wide berth. (This, in some ways, is faintly comical. There is no way an aircraft is going to be targeted over that region anytime soon. Yes?)

About eight days before the incident, I was on an Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles. I hadn’t realized until I was on the flight how far to the north it would go. Great circles work in surprising ways, I suppose. As you can see from the flight path in the photo, it went over parts of Iran, some regions of Russia, then over Norway and Greenland, and then Canada, before entering the US. Even as I saw the flight path, I was thinking to myself that we were going to fly over, or at least near many unstable regions. I had never wondered before whether airlines did or didn’t avoid these regions, but it was now clear that they didn’t. The operating costs of fuel and time meant that the potential risks of flying over those regions were ignored, and I didn’t exactly blame the airlines for it either. It is a business of thin margins, after all. Furthermore, it was somewhat exciting to fly over all these exotic places that I despair of ever visiting, thanks to the conflicts raging there, and also exciting to fly over some exotic places that I have in fact visited. Besides, the flight path included such a wide range of landscapes, from deserts to snowfields, that I had no complaints. I also thought that the altitude of the flight was probably enough to make it safe, because I assumed that the conflicts were all largely restricted to the ground.

The story of MH17 told me how wrong I was. That aircraft was 33000 feet above ground, and the belief was that anything above 32000 feet was safe. And yet it was brought down. The people on board were in no way, shape, or form connected to the conflict and even to call them collateral damage feels like a farce. And last of all, the fact that it happened to a Malaysia Airlines aircraft, just over four months after one of their vessels inexplicably disappeared along with 239 people on board is the kind of bad luck that tops all bad luck. It is possible that the airline may not survive this.

That is what strikes me the most about this situation. Of all the airlines flying in that region, of all aircraft of all the airlines flying in that region, it had to be an MH flight all over again. I mean, what are the chances of that? If a novel or a movie had two such unlikely incidents happen to the same airline just four months apart, it would be derided for being unrealistic. But here were are again, in a place where fact is proving to be so much stranger than fiction. (And so it perhaps makes sense for other aircraft to continue to avoid the region, even though the horse has bolted, as it were.) If the story weren’t so outrageously real and so outrageously tragic, and, frankly, just generally outrageous, it would in fact be darkly comic.

River Beas: a meditation


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river beas in kullu valley

River Beas is one of the five rivers of the Punjab. The word Punjab itself means five rivers. Chenab, Jhelum, Satluj and Ravi are the others. I am doubtful of the veracity of this, but I am told that the names are all names of girls, including Ravi, which is in fact pronounced Raavi, rather than the sun-god Ravi. I should confess that I have only ever known a Jhelum, and the friend who told me this had only ever known a Raavi, but the next time someone I know is looking for a name for a girl, I’ll be bound to suggest Chenab, just so they can ridicule me.

About eleven days before my first sighting of River Beas this past June, there was a terrible accident on its banks, in which more than twenty people had died. A dam built on the river, associated with the Larji Hydroelectric Project, was opened without proper warning, and a group of students who were very close to the river were swept away as the water rose too high, too fast. River Beas had swallowed them whole.

I suspect that the Larji dam is one that the bus drove past on its way from Delhi to Manali. I didn’t identify it as the “culprit” dam then, but perhaps I would have been awe-struck by it anyway. The pressure with which the water sluiced through and the height to which curved up after hitting the ground were an homage to gravity and engineering.


River Beas originates at Rohtang Pass, at one end of the Kullu valley in Himachal Pradesh, and loses around 3700 mts of altitude over some 470 kms before it merges with River Satluj, well into the state of Punjab. By then, perhaps, it is like a mature woman, with girth and fertility, capable of feeding farms and feeding people, not just with its water, but also with its rich soil deposits. But up in the Kullu-Manali region of the valley, the river is still a young girl, footloose and fancy-free, more about pace and electricity than anything else.

While in the valley, much of the NH21 highway runs right next to the river, and the views left me transfixed as the bus wended its way through. I think I have never quite swallowed the fact that water wears out rock. Limpid, flowing water, catcher of light, dwelling place of foam and spray. Hard, monolithic rock, born of the Earth’s womb, dwelling place of metal and ore. Pit one against the other and give it time, lots of time. Wait and watch. There is only one winner. The water continues to dance along its merry way, beating poor old rock into submission, as it cascades, crashes and carves over it and into it.


The closest I got to seeing the water in action was on a short white water rafting trip. It wasn’t totally free of apprehension that we went. Apparently people had died there earlier in the season. Apparently it was better to go rafting earlier in the day, before the snow melt raised the water level. And of course, they also told us beforehand what to do if we fell out — basically, you had to act like the dead Boromir from LOTR, arms across chest, flowing down feet-first, the only difference being that you were in the water waiting to be rescued, and he was in a little boat, well past the point of rescue. As a response to the “be like Boromir” intructions, we just decided to hold on to the ropes tighter.

The rafting itself was uneventful and thoroughly enjoyable. Well, I say in retrospect that it was uneventful, I don’t think I would have said that the first two times we encountered rapids. But I realized at some point what expert hands we were in, which hands were precisely controlling how much of a thrill each stretch of rapids was going to be simply by maneuvering the angle at which the raft approached the rapids, and after that the ride was uneventful, at least mentally. It was still very enjoyable, and the yells of “Oooooh ah” from the raft never stopped. The river left us completely drenched, in body and in mind.

Beyond the rafting too there was the Beas. There was the sitting near it, the walking along it, the staring at it, the skipping rocks into it, the little bridge over it and the contemplating of it. I wish I could say it was all Beas, all the time. It wasn’t quite like that, but there was a lot of it, and what was there was enough.

bridge on the river beas


As the bus left Manali a few days later, again wending its way right by the river, it seemed strangely unfair to know that the river would continue being its own true self even in my absence, like a lover who doesn’t quite love you enough. I might leave, I might return to the other side of the planet, but River Beas would just go on being. Sometimes taking lives, but mostly giving to them. Freezing, falling, rising, carving, all even after I was well and truly gone. Impervious and indifferent to me, personally, but blithe and joyous to whoever came by. And so it would continue for millenia.

I wonder sometimes if sitting by a river for a little while, walking by it, rafting on it, or just being next to it while on vacation, can give one sustenance for life after vacation. Whether it makes one stronger, or wiser, or calmer, whether it has any lasting positive influence at all. If life is an aggregate of all one’s past experiences, I’m glad to have a sliver of River Beas in my past. But what if life is not about past experiences? What if it’s just about the present moment, as all the wise men constantly tell us? What then?

Well, what we have then is a thousand cliches clatteringly coming true, because the river embodies them all. Or perhaps they aren’t cliches, perhaps they are wisdom. Sometimes the difference is hard to tell. First of all you get Heraclitus, telling you that you can never step in the same river twice, both because you change, and the river changes, from instant to instant. And if the ever-changing nature of the universe weren’t enough wisdom, you also get the unwavering Zen teachers telling you, gently, smilingly, that the river, it is exactly the river, nothing more and nothing less, always. It is what it is, they want you to know. And they’ll let you know in this way: “Before you come in contact with zen,/ you feel rivers are rivers and mountains are mountains.// Once you start learning about zen,/ you feel rivers are not rivers and mountains are not mountains.// Once you have mastered zen,/ You know that rivers are rivers and mountains are mountains.”

And so the river, constantly changing and never changing, is telling you the three things that matter, the only three things that have ever mattered, and the only three things you have ever needed to pay attention to. Every moment it flows, the river offers them up to you, like a meditation. “This. Here. Now.” And that, at the end of the day, is what River Beas really does. She teaches you what matters, and she makes sure you hold it close to your heart. “This. Here. Now.”

a walk by the river

Snapshot from a sunroom


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I love these grey days, and the threat of rain, and I love the rain. The heavens are raining down now, pounding loudly on the roof. It drizzled, it stopped, then it decided to just come down. The rose bush outside the window is not so much in bloom as decked out in glory. It is so covered in orange-white-pink blossoms that I’ve been totally distracted by it all day. It’s just totally over the top. Beside my laptop is the busy clutter of picture books, crayons, glue, binders, craft sheets and a dish scrubber. The broken old fence with the neighbours was up in the morning, then the workers came and ripped it down, exposing the not-quite-ripe-yet fruit on the marionberry tree. And then they put the new fence up, working through the downpour. The berries are hidden once again. There is a squirrel with a splendidly bushy tail patrolling the electrical lines. I wonder if it is interested in the berries. There is a little plastic windmill with six colourful teardrop shaped “petals”, right by the fence. Sometimes it spins like crazy, then the wind dies down and so does the spinning.

I sometimes wonder where peace is found, whether there is a time and place where one can find it consistently. I’m not quite sure yet, but this sunroom I’m sitting in right now is the first place I would start looking.


The weekend nap


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daffodils on desk

Bright light filters in through the blinds
But the sheets are cool, inviting
The body reclines, book in hand
To sleep or not to sleep, that is the question

The afternoon quiet is a shroud
Pierced by the cawing gulls
The clock ticks audibly inside
Grains of time leaving the granary

There are daffodils on the desk today
And gleaming leaves outside
Scattered thoughts flit through
Of past and future, and a line from Tennyson too

The daffodils are the lingering image
As the mind slows down, the body, breath,
Hungry sleep claims them all,
And the grains too — gently, irrevocably