Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Life is a slow dance

She walked. Every morning.

She was frail; that is the first I noticed about her. It was as if her body was fighting a losing battle with gravity, one that was determined to push her down with each passing day.  I could time my clock according to her arrival at the park where I jogged every morning. She would be there at 6am. Every day. She was almost bent double when I first saw her over two years ago. She had abundant, flowing grey hair. It was as though a thousand spiders had conspired to weave a web of silver magic on her head. When the gentle rays of the rising sun bounced off her bent head, it was almost as if she walked with a halo.

And she walked without a stick although I suspect she needed one.

I observed her this keenly because she was one of three people who walked anti-clockwise in the park near our home in Powai. Although, she did not actually walk. She hobbled, painfully. Her left leg was the one that would not cooperate; as though she had to ensure that it didn't get left behind as the bolder and more able right leg propelled her forward. Each wincing step was a small, painful journey for her. Each foot forward, a mini-project. I watched the folds of skin on her face, swelling and flattening like a restless ocean, wave after wave. Her skin would crease and furrow as she dragged her left leg, only to ease into comforting smoothness when the right leg dragged her forward. Ebb and flow. Pain and comfort. Left and right. But she walked every morning.

She must have been beautiful in her youth, I thought. She still was. In fact, I was sure she was a dancer because even as she hobbled along, there was a grace to her walk. The left leg she dragged behind her made a circular movement in much the same way a mohiniattam dancer might. This lady, she danced every morning. Her movement wasn't an ugly yank; far from it, to my eyes, it seemed elegant and graceful. And she had commitment. She could have chosen to sit at home, but no, she was out here in the park, every single day. At 6 a.m. She walked.

Or maybe she danced. -- who can tell -- every morning.

This park has a small 300m walking track; not a big track for someone like me who jogs about six km most days of the week. But it is much better than dodging dog (or human) poo on the main roads of Powai, or jogging with a nose-clamp through the methane-laden smells of Aarey Milk Colony. Of course, I still do my long runs on weekends in Aarey Milk Colony but my daily jogging is still in this park near our home; the park where my silver-haired mohiniattam dancer walked every morning. Anti-clockwise.

In all these days that I had observed her during my morning runs, I had not seen her look at anyone, or smile at anyone. She would struggle through her walk with quiet fortitude and lonely grit. I watched her and grew to appreciate her resolve. She would look at me occasionally and her eyes would signal recognition; however brief. But she had more important things to do. Her left leg would require her concentration. She would look away and prepare for her next step; either a graceful dance movement or a painful wrench.

One day, completely breaking the fabric of quiet familiarity between us, within sight of me, she waved out to someone. Most walkers in our park tend to listen to their personal music systems or talk to their walking partners. Often, one of the walkers or joggers might wave a hello to another. I hadn't noticed the old lady wave to anyone before. But that morning, she did. It wasn’t actually a wave in the true sense of the word. It was half-wave, half-reprimand. She looked up from her hunched position as she approached me and made that movement with her hand. At first I thought she had waved at me. I then looked back to see a most unusual old man, just behind me. I hadn't noticed him before today. I was so immediately fascinated by this man that I stopped by the side of the track and pretended to stretch my hamstring. I was mesmerized as much by him as I was by his strange run. As the old lady hobbled towards us, she too smiled at the old man in an encouraging and knowing manner.

I do not know why I paused that day. But something told me I had to stop to look at the man. Maybe it was the old woman’s half-wave. Maybe it was to see what bond these two old people had. Maybe it was to see this captivatingly eccentric run. Maybe I was just being needlessly nosy. But mostly, it was his eyes.

His eyes weren’t the first thing that struck me about the man though; it was his run. While sprinters mostly look straight ahead, most joggers tend to look at a spot on the ground about four to six meters in front of them. Not this old man. He ran with his eyes fixed straight ahead. It was a very unusual style. He did not run fast, but certainly strangely. His legs would bounce up and down and with them, his hands too. His left hand would reach up to his eyes as his left leg came up. His right hand would reach up to his eyes as his right leg bounced up. Now, most joggers would move their left hand forward, or even upwards, when their right leg thrust forward and right hand forward when left leg moved. But not this man. It was as if his hands were constantly running away from his leg. Sometimes it felt as though he was spot-jogging. But somehow he found the momentum to carry himself forward. I'd often run behind him and observe this quite unique style. Later, one day, I did find out why he ran this way.

But he ran, or rather, spot-jogged; every day.

And that first day, as I overtook him, I also noticed his taut, wrinkle-free face. It was as though he had ironed his face that morning. He did not just have prominent cheek-bones. He seemed to have no face other than cheek bones that cried to be freed from his taut skin. His large, black-rimmed glasses sat uncomfortably on those bones. He had a head full of thick, lovely salt-and-pepper hair; the hair was busy, but always well groomed. It seemed as though, for him, the run was like a prayer; an uncompromising and divine routine that required well-oiled and supremely-honed preparation. His shorts were ironed. His T-shirt, like his face, was ironed too. There wasn't a wrinkle anywhere. Every drop of sweat was meticulously cleaned away with the help of a crisp wrist band that smelled of fragrant washing liquid. Here was a retired army major, I thought to myself. I wasn't wrong. I later found out that he was a retired navy commander. He loved his routine.

And so he marched and ran, his right leg trying to constantly catch his right hand, each time in vain.

His eyes, they were simultaneously severe and kind; deep and simple; firm and yielding; serious and mischievous; exacting and benevolent. On the first day I noticed him, as I paused to pretend-tie my shoe lace and as I stretched my hamstring, apart from his peculiar run, what caught my attention were those eyes. On that day, I looked back involuntarily because I could feel his eyes on my neck. I felt his eyes follow me. And when I looked back, he smiled. It was a caring, benign smile. His eyes encouraged me to run farther away from him. His eyes gleamed in the morning sun and spoke of extreme intelligence, as a complement to it, a wicked playfulness. But mostly, his eyes spoke of a willing reinforcement. He willed me to push myself. Behind these eyes, I could sense experience, contentedness, kindness and some melancholy. I did not know why, but I felt drawn to this man immediately. I continued ahead that day.

This happened every day. I would look at him and he would smile encouragingly at me. I would marvel at his strange jog, his crisp appearance, his immediate smile and his eyes. I would then run ahead.

But he march-ran and his wife half-waved at him and smiled as she crossed him in her anti-clockwise walk. Every morning.

They would dance-walk and march-run every morning for at least 45 minutes. They would do some stretches in the central area of the park and be gone before I completed my run. But one day, I finished early; partly because I was tired and partly because I wanted to talk to these two lovely people. I was thoroughly fascinated by this old couple. I was intrigued by their commitment to a healthy life. I was curious to explore the melancholy in his eyes. I was drawn by the old lady’s encouragement of the old man; or was it admonishment? I also wanted to understand his encouragement of me.

The dancer did not speak. She kept a distance although she did smile regularly at me. But the march-jogger talked. And he talked. He was certainly one of the most loquacious people I have ever come across. In that very first meeting, he told me the various ships he had captained, the fleets he had commanded and much more. In 10 minutes, as he and I stretched, I knew everything about his professional career. I knew all the various towns he had lived in; he loved Bangalore and Vishakapattnam the most. I knew that he lived in Mumbai, “not far from here” and that he did not enjoy retired life. He did not like to read. He did not like computers. “I like to work with my hands and I like to make things,” he said. But he was upset this world had no place for old people.

He appeared edgy and furtive. Even as he spoke, he glanced around him impatiently. It seemed as if the world moved too slowly. He talked quickly and rapidly. It was almost as though the idea that he had would escape from his mind before he spat it out in the form of words. And that is how he spoke: he spat his words out. Not venomously, but with a tangled and intense urgency.

That is when the dance-walker waved her peculiar wave at him.The march-jogger laughed immediately when his wife gestured at him thus. It was a laugh that shook his sprightly frame. It was as though the laugh had to reach every single bone of his body. And that was the first time the park had heard him laugh. The laughter club members who had congregated in one corner of the park turned in unison in our direction to see where this laughter came from. His laughter could easily drown out the combined sound produced by the 10-member-strong laughter club whose sole purpose was to laugh uncontrollably and hysterically each morning. But this lively, nimble, lanky and somewhat emaciated march-jogger was able to laugh out the laughter club! I too was quite taken aback at the roaring bellow and was surprised that his bones held together; he shook so much that I thought his bones might fall off his body. The laugh deserved an explanation and so I wanted one; I raised my eyebrows, waiting, asking.

He said that his wife of 65 years was not a fan of his “nervous energy, his frenetic disposition and his severe intensity” and wanted him to slow down. He was 89 and she was 87 years old. She had been teaching him to slow down and enjoy everything around them. As he continued to laugh and as it tapered off, he continued, “Don’t think she is waving to me with love and kindness every morning. Of course, she is the kindest person I have ever known. But she is not being kind when she waves to me. She is rebuking me and reprimanding me for jogging fast.” She nodded wisely as he spoke to me.

I would talk to him most days after my run and after their jog-march and dance-walk. In that time, I learned that he was a keen long-distance runner in his younger days and had run several marathons; he had a full marathon best time of three hours and two minutes. He had tried really hard to break the 3 hour barrier but was just unable to do it. All of that was before he retired. After retirement, the dancer had put an end to his running. She wanted him to stop being intense and hyperactive. She wanted him to slow down and look at the leaves, the birds, the children and the sunshine. And she would do it by gesturing at him.

I did not learn anything about her. I did not ask. I did not know their names nor did I know where they lived. All I knew was that they lived “not far from here”. I wasn’t curious to know. Moreover, I knew that this garrulous and voluble man would tell me his story anyway; without prompting or provocation. Each day as we stretched, he would tell me a bit more about his life – and never anything about the dance-walker. She would not talk either. Every now and then she would wave-admonish.

Slowly, they became my motivation to run. On some mornings, I would feel unwell or if my muscles ached for a rest, the knowledge that these two people would be out there in the park would be enough to spur me on. I needed that inspiration, that encouragement. Soon, they became the reason I ran. “If they can, I should,” became my stimulus. I never told them that but I think he knew; he was wily,a sly old imp. He asked me one day as I struggled with my post-run stretches, “You were struggling there today. I could see. But for the two of us you would have pulled a sickie today, right? Hahahahahahahahahahaha!”

I nodded while she wave-admonished.

They did not talk to anyone else. Indeed, she did not talk at all. One day I plucked courage and asked her if she had had a good walk. She nodded. When I asked her again she made an incoherent sound. Realization dawned. It wasn’t as though she didn’t talk. She couldn’t. The colour drained from my face.

March-jogger must have sensed my discomfort. He pulled me to one side and started lecturing me about my running. He told me that I did not observe anything around me while I run. He told me to listen to the birds, not your iPod; to listen to the leaves and not the traffic sounds; to smell the rain, not the foul odours from the open drain that ran alongside the park. He asked me to slow down. “You need to enjoy life around you, my friend. You need to look at the world around you and not run through it”. He said he did not see me enjoying my run. “It has become a chore for you, man”, he said. He added that that was exactly what his wife had been trying to teach him all along and it was only now he was allowing it to percolate.

That day, he told me his wife had taught him to slow down. He jogged the way he did because that was the only way he could slow down. His wife had taught him to appreciate the world around him. He told me that she would say to him every day that life is a slow dance. And so as she crossed him every day in her dance-walk around the park, she did not wave at him, but gestured to him, asking him to slow down and appreciate the world around him, to listen to the children, the birds and the rain.

And as he left that day, for the first time, I noticed something other than radiant positive energy in his eyes and his voice. His eyes averted mine and his voice trembled as he spoke, with a tinge of melancholy, “I do not know if you will see much more of us. But as long as I am here, I will remind you to enjoy your morning ritual. Commit to it, but enjoy it.” And with that, he waved goodbye and they were gone.

The very next day, I came out for a run as usual. They weren’t there. And the next, and the next day.

Just as suddenly as they had disappeared, I saw him as soon as he entered the park one day, two months later. Immediately I noticed a decisive difference. The dance-walker was not with him. He was alone. My heart sank. And then as he stumbled into the park, I noticed the rest.

The erect frame was gone; he was frail. He was almost bent in half. It was as if his body was fighting a losing battle with gravity, one that was determined to push him down with each passing day. His hair was still thick and abundant; but it was now unkempt. The black strands had disappeared. The pepper-grey had transformed into silver-grey. It was as though a thousand spiders had conspired to weave a web of silver magic on his head. When the gentle rays of the rising sun bounced off his bent head, it was almost as though he walked with a halo. He wore clothes that were wrinkled. And as he entered the park, I realized that he did not march-jog anymore either. He walked instead. Interestingly, he chose to walk anti-clockwise, like his wife had. But then this wasn’t a walk either. He hobbled, painfully. His left leg was the one that would not cooperate. It was as though he had to ensure that it didn't get left behind as the bolder, more able right leg propelled him forward. Each step was a small, painful journey. I observed him wincing. Each step a mini-project. The once-taut skin had collapsed into many folds. I watched these folds on his face, swelling and flattening like a restless ocean, wave after wave. His skin would crease and furrow when he dragged his left leg, only to ease into comforting smoothness when the right leg dragged him forward. Ebb and flow. Pain and comfort. Left and right.

And so, he now dance-walked.  Every morning. And every time I crossed him, he would wave to me. But it wasn’t a wave. It was half wave, half admonishment. He was asking me to slow down; to listen to the birds, the children and the rain.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Aspirins and music opinions...

On Twitter, I recently noticed off one of the people that I follow say, "Pink Floyd is over-rated."

We then put off one terrific argument. Somewhere and all it went. Here, there and everywhere. Meandering only it was. What and all was said, I don't even know. Mattroffact, I don't even remember half the things I said. But what a jolly good fun I had off aa? I said one thing. The other person twisted it and threw it back at me like 'thoo take it'. I then took something they said, twisted it better and put off 'thooo take this now'. The bigger the thooo, the better the argument. Whatay jolly it was.

In the end, even though we argued and argued like anything, no new knowledge was conveyed. But then, what to do, this Twitter is a really silly medium for arguments and learning no? It is for idle chat about weather, recipes, cooking, putting "aaaaw" over kids photos, or putting "aawwww" over a Junior Master Chef contestant, talking about shoes, and cricket scores and for retweeting an article you have never read. Oh! And also about why IPL is a waste of everyone's time.

After that argument and all was over, after going home, I thought about it little bit more. Then I thought off: 'This argument that I had today about Pink Floyd being over-rated is not really different from the opinions that are put during the Chennai music season in December every year.

'Same to same this is, I thought.'

Opinion after opinion you will hear without substantiation. If you push the opinion-giver little bit they just run off.

Many times you will hear from one of the maamis"X is chumma over-rated only. Why she is getting so much crowd, I only don't know!" The large maami sitting next to her would then often add to this growing body of opinion, "Ya ya. I agree. They only come to see her clothes and her jewels to take off copy of the latest trend. Does anyone in this audience even know music like you and me? And what gaudy clothes this X is wearing anyway? Too jazzy. Tcha. Will refined people even wear these? Her music is as gaudy as her clothes taste no? But what do do? Her fate and neram is good. Anyhow, I think our Mythili has a much better voice." 

I would lean forward and ask the thin fellow sitting next to large maami (presumably the underfed and malnourished husband): "Who is this Mythili? Which sabha is she performing in? Do you have her schedule?" hoping to catch a concert or two of a new, hitherto unknown talent. Often this would be met with, "Saar just now only she has reached varnam stage. But what my wife is saying is that Mythili has too much potential. Her potential is like anything only. The peoples in these sabhas have to giu chance no? Full politics saar in this place. Too full. Looks like you are overseas based because you are carrying ruck-sack, putting shorts and carry water bottle. You giu chance for her no in the abroad? Here take. Here is my card. Giu yours no?" I would often just run away from there.

Everyone has an opinion on something or the other during the music season.

This concert in Shastri Hall I still remember from a few years back. Full mosquitoes were fighting with each other to take me with them to the roof where they will not be pushed down by fan-air. Suddenly one bad breath leaned across and said to me: "Youngsters these days are all fed on instant coffee. That's why they are like this. See this fellow singing today? His tempo (kalapramanam) is all too fast. Most places taalam doesn't stand only."

If he did not have such terrible bad breath I may have pointed out to him that the artiste was singing "bala kanaka maya" in atana in the slowest kalapramanam I had heard anyone sing up until that concert. But I kept to myself and thought, 'Why and how do people acquire such incredibly bad breath?' Anyhow, how to argue in the middle of a concert with bad breath while at the same time fighting this mosquito army? I kept quiet only. It is not that this fellow's taalam was any good or something. And he was putting gyaan on taalam of the musician! He was putting taalam along with the song, but like he was in an exam or something, one eye was on my taalam. I can't cover my taalam with a towel to put no? So I put taalam and allowed him to copy. Suddenly lights went off. In Shatri Hall this is a common occurrence. Concert continued. What could this man do? Nothing. No taalam and no pat-pat-pat on his thigh. Lost he was. When the generator went "vrooom" and lights came off, this man's taalam also started off like that only after both eyes and head were near my thigh to see what I was putting.

Some people couch their opinion with somewhat of an apology. One fellow said to me once: "Saar I do not know too much technikel aspects of music and all, but this musician no... I have some advice for him. If you know him, tell him no? His uchcharippu ... you know, pronunciation ... is not good at all." I did not know the musician at all, but I wanted to know more about this "uchcharippu" business. On further questioning he said, "Saar, I don't know about ragas and all. That and all too technikel for me. For me mohanam and bhairavi are all same to same. But Sanskrit is difficult to sing. I know. No one can sing Sanskrit like MS Amma. All these fellows must listen to tapes of MS Amma singing and then go to Sanskrit college and then only come here to sing. In Sanskrit, the initial consonant should be properly aspirated." I felt I needed an aspirin too. I wanted to tell Sanskrit man, 'Dei. Listen to the music no? If you want to hear a Sanskrit lecture, listen to a Krishna Premi devotional lecture or something like that. Why come to a carnatic music concert and complain you did not have much aspirin that morning.'

What raa? Where do we find such people?

And then there are a bunch of people who might know a little bit more and are able to venture an  opinion with a little bit more substance. In one concert, one fellow sitting behind me said to his friend, "This musician fellow has such a poor voice. How did he come to such a level. He must be well-connected. Must be influence based no? Whatay poor sruthi shuddam this is. Range-e illai saar. And what a meek voice also no?"

This went on for a while. So I turned around and said, "Saar, clearly you do not have a meek voice. First listen to the concert no? Then you may be able to hear a stronger voice." When he started saying that he had also paid for the ticket, I quietly changed my seat to another place. How to argue against a fellow who says that his payment gave him the right to talk over anything that is being sung and complain that the artiste had a weak voice?

Then there was this fellow who sat next to me in a concert of a young musician. It was an afternoon concert where the young musician launched into a wonderful bhairavi raga. This fellow sat next to me and within a few lines of the raga, started saying that the bhairavi that was being sung was more like maanji. "What is this nonsense? These young fellows must be properly trained and then only sing. This is maanji only" he said. These are rare arguments, but sometimes you do come across precise opinion like this. And this is easy to argue against because you can refute this with observation and fact. This was argument-gold -- a rare opportunity. And so, I immediately pointed to the presence of sgrg phrases, the absence of an elongated dhaivatam in the sndp phrases or the absence (haha, yes, an "eschewing") of the pmpgrs too. I pointed all of this out to this bhairavi-maanji man and said, quite proudly "Saar, so this is bhairavi only."

But this fellow was adamant, "I don't know this-that-all-that. But I know I am right. This is maanji only. To my ear this sounds wrong." I simply said, "Saar, how can I argue with your ear?" and changed seats again.

But as I said, opinion is very cheap during season time. And even outside season time, chumma people will have some opinion or the other. I ask for substantiation of such opinion. But most times I have to argue with the ear of someone. How? People will just put off opinion like "I don't like this person, too much body shake happening". Arre, close your eyes and listen no?

One fellow pronounced a definitive verdict once about a popular musician, "This fellow needs to take a two year break,". A full fight only started off when I said, "Why? You take a two year break from him no? Not possible aa?"

Only last year, during the season, one fellow said to me as we were exiting the venue after a concert: "This fellow's repertoire has been exactly same same for many years now. Same songs again and again he is singing" I said cheekily, "Everyone sings the same mangalam only no Saar?" He got very angry at that point, "You impertinent fellow, you are teasing me aa? I am talking of his entire repertoire. Same songs again and again for two years." I did not think so at all. Indeed, I knew it too. The singer had changed completely from a Kannada based repertoire to an entirely Sanskrit repertoire with lots of aspirin. But I said, "Saar, you must know that the word you used is not pronounced reper-tear," and ran away from there.

But the worst kind of opinion that I generally stay right away from is that which starts with "Back in my days music was..."

That is when I know I really need an aspirin...

-- Mohan (@mohank)

Ps: This piece is quite influenced by @localteaparty who wrote a hilarious piece on "looking good". The above piece started off in a different tone, but the tone was changed somewhat after reading the "Good looks. And then?" piece.