Friday, May 30, 2008

Joey & Auguste (Letters to Parth 4)

My Dear Parth, My Little Ringmaster,

Over men & horses, hoops & garters, and lastly through a hogs-head of real fire. What fun it was to visit the circus. The first glimpse of the huge tents, the overpowering smell of leftover tiger food, elephant sweat, and horse shit. The light catching the dust as it sneaks out from between joints of the tent. In smaller towns, like when I was at school in a small town in what was then Bihar, now Jharkhand, they would have real powerful searchlights sweeping up into the night sky so that you could see it from miles away, and there would be marches through the town with the jokers and acrobats, horses and elephants, camels and suited-booted billy goats, cyclists and juggler rocking the streets with the band playing old ventures tunes or Hindi film tunes, lots of brass, lots of wind, lots of loud drums and snares, throwing leaflets in the air behind the procession, block printed leaflets on cheap colored paper that taunted you with the mysteries of the female lion tamer from Russia (once you got to the circus, you learned that he trained female lions only), the human fire thrower from Persia (yes, Persia), the lady with the beard, the lady with a snakes body, the two humped camel, the husband and wife knife-throwing act (it wasn't an act really, he just had terrible aim, that's all), and the like.

In the city it was less of a build up. As a matter of fact, one of the popular locations in Kolkata for the circus to set up in is called Park Circus Maidan, though I don't know if the circus sets up there any more. One morning, Dad or Mom would announce, we are going to the circus on Friday, and that would be the start of sleepless nights, and discussing with friends the merits and demerits of the circus then in town, or if there were more than one, debating which was better, and pestering dad to get tickets for the other one, it had the great Iranian wizard who could make a man turn into any height he wanted. You mustn't miss the human cannonball, and remember to close your ears when they do the motorcycle spinning act, and the clown on the trapeze is the best, he is actually the most skilled trapeze guy, but they make him a clown just for impact, in the end, they pull his pants off, and you get to see him running away covering his bum, ha ha ha.

And then the day would come, water bottle and tiffin box firmly packed and slung over, hand hurting from Mom holding it so tightly because of the mad crowd, the dust getting into your mouth, and the smell in your nose, finally make our way into the tent, down shabbily carpeted aisles to our rickety seats, the sections cordoned off by gaudily painted dividers, black, red, yellow, stripes and dots. Then you start looking around and you see how huge and how high the place is, the ring, the entrance to the ring with shiny velvet drapes that get lifted magically whenever someone comes through, the bandstand on top of the entrance, the band, dressed in sgt peppers costumes, and oompah-oompahing away, the huge towers with the trapeze stands, the ladders that seemed to be endless.

The show begins, the jugglers, the clowns, the horses, the dogs, the parrots, the cockatoo, the donkey who can do arithmetic, and then, tara-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra, the flying trapeze, the heartbeat skipping near misses in mid air, and the colorful lithe bodies setting up a gentle symphony against the dark of the circus tent, and of course the clown and his bum. As it gets over, and you look down again, lo and behold, huge iron grills, chained together to form a cage for the whole circus ring, and fires blazing around them, yes, the lions and the tigers. They don't have lions and tigers now, but in those days, they did, and they would make them sit on stools and crack the whip, and invariably, one of the lions or tigers would be very rebellious, but in the end they would sit, jump through hoops, sit on their hind feet, etc. In Enid Blyton stories, inevitably the crucial clue would be hidden away in the boards of the lion's cage, and only the boy who cleaned the cage and fed the lion would be able to find it, and it would turn out that he was actually the son of a wealthy man who had got lost in a carnival as a kid and had moved with the circus and would in the process end up saving his father who was now being framed by the owner to cover up for his losses.

Because a circus is a business, often conditions are not so good, the workers and the animals have to survive somehow, and often the animals would get ill-treated and abused, sometime underfed, or put up in unhygienic conditions. Over the years, most of the circuses have been forced to drop animal acts, especially with wild animals or with endangered species.

There would be stilt walkers, motorcycle stunts, dancing horse, cart-pulling dogs, balancing acts on a unicycle, a human cannonball, and lots of clown acts. I would scream and shout and laugh till I was hoarse, and then the band would start playing the national anthem, which meant the show was over. One arm sticking up where either mom or dad would hold it almost like they would break it, empty water bottle dangling from my neck, i would stumble out between trousers and skirts and sarees of grown ups and other kids, all with one arm sticking in the air and water bottle dangling. Outside, the air would be full of wailing kids, either suffocated, or scolded because they wanted to have pani puris or ice-cream which their parents would not buy them. I had got used to the Bengali tradition of "pet kharab hobe" and "thanda lege jaabe" quite early in life and had resigned myself to mom-made tomato cucumber sandwiches and my water bottle, so I just looked at sympathetically at those kids as they stood still with one arm sticking up, which wasn't unusual, even my arm was up, waiting for taxis and buses to take their tired bodies home to bathe (you had to wash off the dirt and the germs of the circus), eat, and fall asleep, dreaming of running away from home to join the circus and learning how to play the fife from the Ukrainian girl in the tight shiny dress.

The circus, like in the work of Enid Blyton, has been used by many creative people as the setting for their work. Raj Kapoor's Mera Naam Joker is a classic, as is Federico Fellini's film La Strada. When I started trying to write about Janardan, one of the many crazy things that I made him do was to run away from a nagging wife and join the circus, becoming a successful and famous clown. Years later, when the circus came back to town, at one show, Janardan's wife see him during his act, recognizes him from his red nose and goes hysterical trying to get his attention, and to get him to quit the circus and come back home. The audience thinks it is part of the act, and roars with laughter and approval. From that day on, she comes to the circus, for all three shows, and once Janardan's act starts, she starts hers. The audience roars with laughter and approval. The circus moves on. It is time for the next crazy thing.

As one gets older, the magic of the circus wears off. In today's world, the Age of Empires seems more exciting, it seems more fun to sit at a computer and browse the internet rather than to brave the dust and smell and go watch a circus show. By the time you grow up and read this, you might not even know what Age of Empires was, but in our times, it was one of the more exciting (and educational) games for the digital world. But once in a while, one is taken back to days when mystery lurked round every corner, when secret clubs were formed with strange passwords that would allow you into their meetings, where bonfires burnt bridges, and kisses healed hurt, when the wind spoke to you and plants had first names, when the stars in the night sky were your dead ancestors, and the web was what spiders spun. That is when with a flourish of the drums and trumpets, the horses would fly out with the sequined young girls standing in the stirrups into the air above the ring from behind the curtains and you knew for sure that wishes really were wings.

Dont rub your eyes when you get dust in them, just let it tear up from the irritation and wash out on its own.

Till next time,


PS: This post has continued to pick up significant traffic over the years. Many of the links have had to be removed over time since the sites are no longer up. Please leave a comment if you find any of the links broken.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Letters to Parth 3

May 22, 2008

My Dear Parth, My Champion,

You might remember that I started out writing this after reading a similar letter elsewhere. I thought I should share some stuff from that letter, since it is really very nice. I found it at zenhabits, a wonderful blog about achieving goals, productivity, being organized, GTD, motivation, eliminating debt, saving, getting a flat stomach, eating healthy, simplifying, living frugal, parenting, happiness, and successfully implementing good habits.

Dear Seth, he starts, You’re only three years old, and at this point in your life you can’t read, much less understand what I’m going to try to tell you in this letter. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the life that you have ahead of you, about my life so far as I reflect on what I’ve learned, and about my role as a dad in trying to prepare you for the trials that you will face in the coming years.

You won’t be able to understand this letter today, but someday, when you’re ready, I hope you will find some wisdom and value in what I share with you.

You are young, and life has yet to take its toll on you, to throw disappointments and heartaches and loneliness and struggles and pain into your path. You have not been worn down yet by long hours of thankless work, by the slings and arrows of everyday life.

For this, be thankful. You are at a wonderful stage of life. You have many wonderful stages of life still to come, but they are not without their costs and perils.

I hope to help you along your path by sharing some of the best of what I’ve learned. As with any advice, take it with a grain of salt. What works for me might not work for you.

Life Can Be Cruel
There will be people in your life who won’t be very nice. They’ll tease you because you’re different, or for no good reason. They might try to bully you or hurt you.

There’s not much you can do about these people except to learn to deal with them, and learn to choose friends who are kind to you, who actually care about you, who make you feel good about yourself. When you find friends like this, hold on to them, treasure them, spend time with them, be kind to them, love them.

There will be times when you are met with disappointment instead of success. Life won’t always turn out the way you want. This is just another thing you’ll have to learn to deal with. But instead of letting these things get you down, push on. Accept disappointment and learn to persevere, to pursue your dreams despite pitfalls. Learn to turn negatives into positives, and you’ll do much better in life.

You will also face heartbreak and abandonment by those you love. I hope you don’t have to face this too much, but it happens. Again, not much you can do but to heal, and to move on with your life. Let these pains become stepping stones to better things in life, and learn to use them to make you stronger.

But Be Open to Life Anyway
Yes, you’ll find cruelty and suffering in your journey through life … but don’t let that close you to new things. Don’t retreat from life, don’t hide or wall yourself off. Be open to new things, new experiences, new people.

You might get your heart broken 10 times, but find the most wonderful woman the 11th time. If you shut yourself off from love, you’ll miss out on that woman, and the happiest times of your life.

You might get teased and bullied and hurt by people you meet … and then after meeting dozens of jerks, find a true friend. If you close yourself off to new people, and don’t open your heart to them, you’ll avoid pain … but also lose out on meeting some incredible people, who will be there during the toughest times of your life and create some of the best times of your life.

You will fail many times but if you allow that to stop you from trying, you will miss out on the amazing feeling of success once you reach new heights with your accomplishments. Failure is a stepping stone to success.

Life Isn’t a Competition
You will meet many people who will try to outdo you, in school, in college, at work. They’ll try to have nicer cars, bigger houses, nicer clothes, cooler gadgets. To them, life is a competition — they have to do better than their peers to be happy.

Here’s a secret: life isn’t a competition. It’s a journey. If you spend that journey always trying to impress others, to outdo others, you’re wasting your journey. Instead, learn to enjoy the journey. Make it a journey of happiness, of constant learning, of continual improvement, of love.

Don’t worry about having a nicer car or house or anything material, or even a better-paying job. None of that matters a whit, and none of it will make you happier. You’ll acquire these things and then only want more. Instead, learn to be satisfied with having enough — and then use the time you would have wasted trying to earn money to buy those things … use that time doing things you love.

Find your passion, and pursue it doggedly. Don’t settle for a job that pays the bills. Life is too short to waste on a job you hate.

Love Should Be Your Rule
If there’s a single word you should live your life by, it should be this: Love. It might sound corny, I know … but trust me, there’s no better rule in life.

Some would live by the rule of success. Their lives will be stressful, unhappy and shallow.

Others would live by the rule of selfishness — putting their needs above those of others. They will live lonely lives, and will also be unhappy.

Still others will live by the rule of righteousness — trying to show the right path, and admonishing anyone who doesn’t live by that path. They are concerned with others, but in a negative way, and in the end will only have their own righteousness to live with, and that’s a horrible companion.

Live your life by the rule of love. Love your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, with all of your heart. Give to them what they need, and show them not cruelty nor disapproval nor coldness nor disappointment, but only love. Open your soul to them.

Love not only your loved ones, but your neighbors … your coworkers … strangers … your brothers and sisters in humanity. Offer anyone you meet a smile, a kind word, a kind gesture, a helping hand.

Love not only neighbors and strangers … but your enemy. The person who is cruelest to you, who has been unkind to you … love him. He is a tortured soul, and most in need of your love.

And most of all, love yourself. While others may criticize you, learn not to be so hard on yourself, to think that you’re ugly or dumb or unworthy of love … but to think instead that you are a wonderful human being, worthy of happiness and love … and learn to love yourself for who you are.

Finally, know that I love you and always will. You are starting out on a weird, scary, daunting, but ultimately incredibly wonderful journey, and I will be there for you when I can. Godspeed. Love, Your Dad

Nice, no?

And now, here is the recipe for some curry leaf gunpowder that I learned to make. I have also been nice enough to include a link to a blog where I originally learned it from, and then tweaked it to my liking. When you find time, you can try both out, and I know which one you will like more.

Till I get time to write you again, take care and stay out of the sun till it cools down some more.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Letters to Parth - 2

May 20, 2008

My Dear Parth, My Little Buddha,

Yesterday was the birthday of Gautama Buddha. He was born during the full moon many hundred years ago as a prince to King Suddhodhana and Queen Mayadevi. He went on to study and understand the nature of life and death and everything between and beyond these two events, and his teachings form what we know today as Buddhism. Maybe some day you will read up on his summary of the nature of things in a way very similar to what modern science has to say.

The moon looked wonderful as it played hide and seek beyond dark clouds left over from the thunderstorm in the early morning. From the beginning of human time, men have wondered and created myths and stories about things that are awesome and difficult to understand like the moon, the stars, the sun, the wind, the rain. People see what they look for, and sometimes, even in the face of facts, they see only what they want to. The moon, like our planet earth, has seas and mountains (though the seas are dry), and from far, these look like irregular blotches on the moon. But since I grew up hearing about the man in the moon, and the rabbit in the moon, when I looked, and sometimes when I look now too, that was what I saw. I remembered how you and I would look at the moon from our balcony and thought I would share a a story I heard as a kid about the funny figure that shows up when you look at the moon.

Once there was a blacksmith who was unhappy with his work and was always complaining. He felt his work was too tiring and it was too hot, and he wished he could be a rock in the shade of a tree on the mountain side, where it was cool and the wind blew. God heard his wishes and said, so be it. And, poof, he became a rock under a tree on the mountain side.

In the meantime, along came a stone cutter looking for stones to cut, and he came upon the rock that had been the blacksmith and began to cut at it. The rock cried out that he did not want to be a rock, he wanted to be a stonecutter. God said, so be it, and, poof, a stone cutter he became.

As he went seeking stones to cut, he grew tired, his feet hurting, and sweat dripping from his brows in the hot sun, he wished he could be the sun, and god said, so be it. And, poof, he became the sun.

But the sun was warmer than anything he had been before, so he cried, this is too warm, I wish I would be the moon, and god said, so be it. And he became the moon. (poof!!)

But soon he realized that even the moon was warm from the sun's light all the time, and he realized that his life as a blacksmith was the best and wished he could return to being a blacksmith. But this time, god said, poof!! I am tired of your wishes. You wished to be the moon, so the moon you will remain. And so he stays in the moon till this day. If you look hard, you can still see him on a big moon night. Next time, remind me to tell you about the razor in exchange of nose story.

Play carefully and hold hands when you cross the street.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Books are Friends

Letters To Parth (No. 1)

May 19, 2008

My Dear Parth, my Lion Cub,
I trust all is well with you. It is more than two months since I have been able to meet you, and I have no idea how long it will be before we get to spend some time together, so I thought I would write to you. I know you cant read yet, but I am sure you will understand some of the things when your mother reads out to you. Also, as you grow and learn to read, you will be able to relive these days when we were not able to be together. And once you are a big guy, you will possibly look back over these letters and apply some things to your life. If nothing more, maybe these letters will make you smile some day. What more can I ask for?

May in Hyderabad is always more cruel than April, though the dry air does moisten up a little as the monsoon nears, but often it only makes the heat more difficult to bear. I remember how you would run till you were tired and then stop only to stock up on water from your sipper, so I know I dont have to remind you to stay well hydrated during these months, starting out in January, when though it is cool and one doesn't feel thirsty, the relative humidity can go way below the 25% mark and you will dry out even before you know it, and all the way through June till the rains start. It makes more sense to have small sips frequently (like you do) than to down a lot of it at one time (makes you want to go to the loo more than anything else). Also, increased water intake tends to wash away the electrolytes from your system, as does excessive sweating, so do try and get in some salty and something sweet from time to time. Fizzy drinks dont help a lot, but if you must have them, add a pinch of salt to them, tastes more fun and helps more than harms.

It is very important to look after your health. This gift of life that has been given to us is very precious, we can do a lot with this life, but only if we are fit enough to be able to do what we want. When I was a young person, I was not clear what I wanted to do with my life, and so I often neglected myself by doing all the things that I thought was fun, and it took a heavy toll on my health. What helped me a lot was the words of a great thinker, who said,W hat kind of future do I envision for myself? What kind of self am I trying to develop? What do I want to accomplish in my life? The thing is to paint this vision of your life in your heart as specifically as possible. That "painting" itself becomes the design of your future. The power of the heart enables us to actually create with our lives a wonderful masterpiece in accordance with that design.

As you grow up you will realize what a challenging time we have been born in and how each one of us can do our bit to influence the future of mankind. It is very overwhelming, but once we realize the immense potential within us, we can find the courage to take one step at a time to fulfill the mission of our lives.

On a personal front, I am very happy that the Kolkata unit is finally shaping up and we will have an office of our own after almost two years of running out of a leased facility. Today, people from Hyderabad will reach Kolkata to start the interiors and furniture work and the computer network and electrical work. It is a big step for my boss, Ramakrishna, but he says it is not as much as he aspired to do, so it is no reason to get excited. When you and your mother visit Kolkata, do make it a point to visit the office, and make sure everyone is comfortable.

I must be gone now. I must tell you that since I have been on my own, I have a new found respect for the working homemaker. Funny how life teaches you the lessons you need to learn even when you do your best not learn them. I was so excited when I made rasam for the first time on my own. Your mother would have been so proud had she tasted it (not version 0.1 though). She spent a lot of energy trying to get me to learn how to make it, but I never did, till I had to on my own. I know that you are much wiser than I could ever have hoped to be and you will study well, and master your lessons and apply what you learn to make the world around you a land of tranquil light. Do let me know how your rasam version 0.1 turns out.

Bye for now, may the force always be with you (this is a popular phrase from Star Wars, a double trilogy that set the tone for many of the people from my generation, maybe someday you will watch and enjoy them)



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