Snakes and Ladders

I hate those squares in the Snakes and Ladders game, the ones with the long snakes. They set you back SO MUCH. Several rows in just one move. There’s even one long snake really close to the finishing square. This is cruel, when you are so close to winning the game, you suffer, what’s not a setback, but a major fall. All those “one step at a time”s for nothing! And after that it’s disheartening even to continue playing the game. Throwing the dice umpteen turns again, to try not to be bit by the long one, AGAIN!

Pretty much like how I don’t want to do something bad, try to avoid it, take baby steps, carefully, cautiously, hoping and praying to reach the finish line, only to be overtaken by a single moment that sets me back so many steps. Back to square one. Just one moment, one hasty word, one uncontrolled outpour. The pot’s not in my hand anymore, it’s on the floor, million pieces, scattered. If only I had caught it midway. Or if only the ground I was treading on was soft enough to cushion my falls. And it’s always always a clay pot, never plastic, never rubber. There are always casualties. Damages done, feelings hurt, anger and fear evoked. If only I had a warning system that alerted me that I am about to do some irreversible damage, that will alter things permanently. However, when I think about it, I would silence the alerts too. And just like the treacherous board game, the fall usually happens after days of improvement, days of holding it together, days of “being better”, rendering whatever background struggles I had to endure, meaningless. Someone who passes by the board, or is pricked by the pieces of my broken vessel only sees how I am in square two after so long, or how I have a broken mess under my feet. I can try to explain that I have played hard, but when there are too many pieces, it just doesn’t make any sense. Explanations fall short that they are better left unsaid.

As the pieces tear their skin, do they realise they break my heart too?

Dear Mr.Paul also did the very things he didn’t want to do. Who knows how difficult the thorn in his flesh was?!

…For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Romans 7:18,19

However, he seems to have done so much good too. Good enough to make his mistakes fade away, maybe? In my life, only the bad seems to accumulate. And in my pursuit of doing and being better, worse things happen. It’s like I’m running on a treadmill. I’m sweating, I’m tired, I’m hurting, but I am just not getting anywhere. The reading says I have run two miles, but I haven’t moved an inch.

How much is too much? How many more chances till I have no more chances? Do I simply give up, because this seems too much right now. When I cannot understand myself, how can those around me? I wish I could cut my heart open and put it on display, so that they’ll know what goes on. If only!

You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. Psalm 139: 1-4

So, there’s someone who is not oblivious of what goes on inside of me, when He sees what I do on the outside. Even more, He promises to make it all better, He promises deliverance.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! Romans 7:24, 25

Who will rescue me? Who will understand the war? Who will end it all? He. Who helps me make peace with all the damage that I have already done? He. Who will not spare me of the consequences of my actions, but discipline me lovingly? He. And so if Square Three is my lot now, and a hundred snakes are what it takes, even then, even so, I will keep playing. I may have to go through more pain, trying to fix what I have broken, I may have to let go of people to avoid more damage, but still I will play, and wait, and endure. And maybe it will get easier, or maybe not all. I may have support, or none at all. But He is my portion, and I will try to rest secure.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:26










Am I my brother’s keeper?

Earlier this year, I went on a trip that altered my perspective towards life irreversibly. I’ve been wanting to write about it ever since I was back home, but I just couldn’t find the right words. I gave up after too many days of staring at this blank screen. I didn’t want this post to be ordinary, because my experience wasn’t. But it’s been four months, and I’ve finally realised that if I keep waiting for the right words, then my story will never be told. So here goes.

My uncle and aunt serve as missionaries at the rural areas of Jharkhand. Dad, being a veterinarian, has been visiting the villages for ten years now, educating the people on how to rear goats and cows and make a living out of selling milk and meat. So he has a good relationship with the other missionary families there. The first time I visited the Malto and Santhal tribes was in 2011, right after my board exams. So this April wasn’t my first time there, but it was my first time getting up-close. Back then, I was almost like a tourist trotting here and there, just grazing the surface, when there was so much more to be seen.

This trip was special for two reasons. One, this was my first ever father-daughter trip, just the two of us. Two, of course, all the things I saw and the way it tugged at my heartstrings.

Our typical day would involve us getting on a jeep and driving to a village perfectly hidden miles away on hills. On the way to some of these places, I couldn’t believe that the paths could actually lead to an inhabited area. That was how rough the paths were, some not paths at all, just stones. For these people to come all the way down to access schools, villages, or hospitals is just too tedious. So the missionaries go to them instead. They spend days, months, even years sometimes, surveying an area, learning the local dialect, finding out how many families live there, stay with them, teach them basic hygiene, tell them of God’s love, educate them about malaria and how that could be prevented, set up schools and dispensaries, build houses, toilets, etc. Just because I packed them all in a sentence doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Now a little about the people. I literally felt as though I travelled a 100 years into the past. Negligence has left them leading primitive lives, not knowing some of the very basic things that we as “civilised” humans know. The so called “toilets” under the Swachh Bharat scheme are pointless, just three walls, no door, no closets, serve as perfect hiding places for kids playing. Mortality rates are so high that death in a family is just another happening to them. So obviously, they are not as receptive as we would like them to be. It’s not like you could tell them to dress, drink clean water, eat better, and expect them to change in a day. Change takes generations! Missionaries from the South and other states have voluntarily chosen to stay there, sacrificing comforts, leaving their children behind, to go serve the people, who for all they know would never accept them. I met some women who have undergone as many as 10 surgeries because of the poor living conditions and the poor food, but still choose to go back after every single surgery because that is what they are called to do and that is how much they love the people they serve.

To meet their educational and spiritual needs, you need to first meet their physical needs. High up in hills, I see humble school buildings where kids are sent because they would be fed. I see glowing faces at the sight of food, as opposed to the faces we have when we trash something because we don’t like the taste. After meals, it’s study time. Thanks to several decades of efforts, some locals have graduated and come teach their own people. I see a lot of emotionless faces too, of parents who come to leave their children. It’s difficult to decipher what goes on in their mind. But I do occasionally catch glimpses of smiles on their faces when the missionaries greet them and enquire about their well being. I can see joy in places where I least expected to. With the very little they have, the locals are more than content and find time to laugh and play. And even with so many difficulties like finances, poor funding, sick parents, or homesick children, the missionaries too are joyful and are always looking for more ways to give a piece of themselves.

I also visited a couple of animal farms that dad had helped set up, now maintained by the missionaries and the local people together. Dad walks around examining the animals and making remarks in Tamil, while our uncles follow behind translating. The people are visibly thrilled to see new faces and greet us with warm and firm hand shakes. Schools are set up near the farms so that while parents work, children can get some lessons. I also saw the parents getting together to worship and sing, in voices so beautiful that my heart melted. Who doesn’t like roses in a desert, smiles in troubled faces?

I can go on and on about the poor living conditions, tell you heart wrenching stories of life and death, show you pictures even. While on one side, I’m deeply troubled by how when some of us are so far ahead, our other brothers and sisters do not have access to even their basic needs, on the other side I am surprised by how privileged men and women like you and me CHOOSE to leave behind their familiar ground to come here to serve, give, and, sometimes even die? Men as young as 26 years old have come here, carried ailing villagers to hospitals, saving their lives, only to die of Malaria later. It’s not easy for the family back home either. I  met a little girl named Grace who will soon be moving to a hostel, as her parents decide to do more of mission work. She runs around her humble house, climbs on her father’s shoulder a million times a day, effortlessly switches between Hindi and the local tribal dialect and is full of cheer. It breaks my heart a little that she’ll have to leave all this soon. How much more will her parents be broken? They can just choose to go back to their hometown and pray and give money for missions. But they don’t. They give themselves instead. Why? And how?

Maybe this is what love really is. Maybe we’ve diluted the whole meaning of love, putting it in small shiny boxes to give away ONLY to our close circles, and to people who would give it back to us. The times I’ve cried over a friend’s betrayal or unreciprocated love now seem so trivial to me when I look at these men and women who lay down their lives consciously. The times I found forgiveness hard to give now seem so stupid to me. The times I’ve sulked over nothing, the times I’ve complained, the times I held a grudge for too long, all of it now look like absolute nonsense. No, I don’t mean to say I’m magically a better person now. But this experience does make so many troubles seem so small.

I’m reminded of the Good Samaritan story that Jesus narrates in response to the question “Who is my neighbour?”. These men and women, I believe, are living examples to this story. If only we could keep our eyes and arms wide open and not pass by our neighbour!

Am I my brother’s keeper? I most certainly am called to be.


Can you live with it?

Train journeys have become my routine. Once a month I travel from Chennai to Tirunelveli, a 12-hour overnight journey. No matter how uncomfortable they can become at times, I would always prefer trains to buses. What do I say? Love is blind. 😉 Or should I say, love is long suffering. 😀

I embarked on one such uncomfortable journey a few days ago, where I had to share a single berth with a co-passenger due to non-confirmation of tickets. It isn’t much of a big deal, except that both of us will end up waking up tired with the space constraints and awkward sleeping positions. But if we are lucky enough, some berths may clear up along the journey as people get down at intermediate stations and we’d finally get to stretch. Unfortunately for us, berths cleared up only as we almost neared the destination. But something is better than nothing, eh? So we gathered our belongings and made a move. I was just moving to a different compartment in the same coach, so I figured my suitcase could stay where it was.

Observing this, an old man asked if I am sure about leaving it there and if there were any valuables at all inside.

“Oh, just clothes.”

“If you were to lose them, can you live with it?”

*awkward silence* “Yeah uncle, I can.”

I mean, I did think about how much the suitcase was worth, if I had any of my favourite clothes inside and all that, but at the end of the day, I could live with losing it.

“Well then, you have nothing to worry about.”

Ha! Random stranger offers me words of wisdom. If I can probably live with losing something or not getting something, then there’s actually no point worrying about it. This can be my material possessions, my job, my friends, just about anything.

This really doesn’t mean I can go about being careless about every other thing of mine. But if there isn’t something I can do in my power to safeguard it, then I might as well give up worrying.

If I were to lose the most precious thing I ever had it would break my heart, but I can live with it. If I were to be judged several times by strangers, well I could live with it. If I were to be judged by friends and family? Ouch, yet I can live with it. If I don’t get the attention I sometimes yearn for from dear ones? They have their own struggles, so I can live with it. Strained relationships? I need to get myself together first and try my best to fix it, but at the end of the day, if it still doesn’t work out, I should accept it and live with it. If I were to face issues at work, I should try my best to deal with them or look forward to what I can do, but still it’s just a job and not life itself and so I can live with it. Aging? Lol, I have to live with it! Worrying about any of this is just pointless or more subtly, fruitless.

But, there are some things probably you and I cannot live with. Hurting someone you love with quick words. Doing that one act of selfishness when you could have just been considerate. Saying things you will regret later. Doing something impulse driven. Going to bed angry. Giving up eternal joys for temporary pleasures. Trading heaven for the world. Now these, these are the very things I cannot live with. And probably the only things I should be concerned about.

Dear Reggie uncle, thank you!

A numbing news made its way to me on Sunday evening through an SMS. Honestly, most of us knew this would eventually happen but just refused to be prepared for it. Dear Reggie uncle had passed from his temporary home after more than a year of fighting  cancer with much grace and patience. I’m pretty sure he was ready because cancer or not, he always lived life one day at a time and never wanted to plan far too ahead.

Being a professor, a writer and a wonderful human, uncle had touched the lives of many, and gently influenced mine too. I wanted so badly to bid farewell to uncle and see his face for one last time, but couldn’t make it. But I did go on a quick trip home to meet his family and friends a couple of days ago in his thanksgiving prayer gathering. My, what a blessing it was. I’m sure everyone carried back not just great memories of him but also lessons for a lifetime. This one line that uncle’s sister-in-law mentioned while talking about his life and death has stayed with me.

Reggie, you showed us how to live. Now, you’ve also showed us how to die. What more can we ask for?

As I was struggling to find words to comfort his wife, dear Caroline aunty, I was once again amazed by how gracefully she handled everything, though it was too big a loss for her. She said, “Pearlyn, I’m so glad you are here. I was even thinking about making you talk today. But with lots of things going on, I couldn’t coordinate.”

Oh aunty, how I wanted to talk, not exactly before a gathering, but to uncle himself. How I wished to sit and talk with him and tell him how he not only has a way with words, but also a way without words. How he was not only a great teacher in the class, but outside the classroom too. How I never finished the letter I started writing for him when I knew he was sick. Oh how I wish.

As I reminisce moments with uncle, here are the ones that stand out. His beautiful “Hello,ma” with which he has always greeted me. His soft yet authoritative voice was to me a perfect oxymoron. Our conversations were limited but rich. I had what I would call the honour of translating one of the articles that uncle had written. He had strong diction over both Tamil and English, but still, uncle and aunty were always supportive of up and coming writers, and hence my chance. Uncle had such brevity in his writing, with the right amounts of humour infused in it so as to not dilute the essence. It was a huge challenge achieving the same in my translation, but I was so very excited. I put my very best into it but I was also ready for uncle to tear it part by part, because how else will I learn? But what he did was beyond my understanding. He printed out my copy and edited it with a pencil and called it suggestions, not corrections. He could have very well taken a red pen and made the corrections even without consulting me, but he didn’t. He treated it as if it were my own piece, though it was just a translation. His words of appreciation were more than what I deserved. Uncle was an encourager all along.

There was also this one time my writing got published in a national daily. We met many months later, when he remembered and expressed how happy he was to see my name in print. He said wonderful things about the piece and insisted that I keep writing such satirical pieces. “I read your article to my class as an example of a great short piece. You should definitely keep writing, we need people like you. And I started typing a long mail to send you. But I never got to complete it, but good that we’ve met in person now”, he said. I wish I could read his half finished mail now, just like I wish he would read mine.

I’ve also observed what a loving husband and father uncle was. He was the unsung hero who always pushed aunty to do more for Christ and also supported her along the journey. When I used to volunteer at their office, uncle would get us lunch along with his favourite chicken and also hot and fresh snacks for the evening. His hospitality was overwhelming, yet he did it so subtly and without attracting attention. I’m filled with a blend of emotions right now. Of course there is sorrow, but I am also immensely happy and grateful that I got to learn from him.

Dear Reggie uncle, thank you for mirroring Christ to us. I know you wouldn’t like us saying that we want to live like you, but we really do. Thank you for all the love and appreciation. Everything I ever write, I attribute it to you. We will try to live a life worthy of heaven, so that one day, we will meet in Christ and worship together.

Dying one final time

To see the extraordinary, you must know the ordinary

November 14, 2016. I expected it to be that time of the year all of us in India pull out our childhood photographs and post them on social media with a very nostalgia-evoking, heart-sinking, wish-I-were-a-kid-thought-stirring quote. Well, that happened.*Guilty as charged.* But something else took dominance this year. The November supermoon. The moon’s closest encounter with Earth in over 68 years.

All of mankind can be split into the following three categories based on our reactions to the supermoon:
  1. Supermoon enthusiasts:  Ones well read about the phenomenon and actually looking forward to it.
  2. Supermoon mushrooms: Ones excited by all the hype, driven by the desire to join in and make some noise. After the rains, the mushrooms disappear too.
  3. Supermoon who?: Ones who go- What supermoon? What’s so great about that? Wait, it’s just the same freaking full moon!
I’d like to think of myself as a supermoon enthusiast. Being a sky gazer that I am, I was stoked about the phenomenon from the minute I read about it. Supermoon or not, I gaze the skies everyday. The sun, the moon, the clouds, just everything about the skies thrill me. So much so that my friends think I should get married to the skies. And when you love something that much, you tend to observe and soak in every little detail. I know what shade of orange the sky was yesterday and how it was different from today’s sunset. I know if the moon is shrinking or growing without looking at a calendar. I observe cloud patterns with such engrossment that I can recreate the image in my sleep. This is the reason the supermoon was so special to the enthusiasts. We were actually able to see how much brighter and bigger the moon was than its usual full moon self. Because we spend hours everyday enjoying the ordinary scenes, when the extraordinary happened, we were the first to notice. We could see the difference and appreciate the phenomenon for what it was, not for what it was projected to be. Enthusiasts stay enthusiasts, since sky watching is more of a passion to them, than a habit.

Most of the people, however, are supermoon mushrooms. They were just way too excited, even more excited than the enthusiasts. My guess is they’ve never stopped to look at the skies or the moon. The supermoon is just an excuse for them to go out and moon gaze. On November 14th, the perigee occurred in the evening around 4:50 when the moon hadn’t risen for us. We started spotting the moon in its reddish orange glory from around 5:30, after which it slowly rose and became its usual white shade. So, those who saw and marvelled at the moon well into the night were not actually seeing the supermoon, because the moon had already started drifting away by then. If you had told the mushrooms “Today is supermoon” on any other full moon day, they would have enjoyed it just as much. So if you really loved the moon that day, please do look at it more often. The more you know the ordinary, the more amazing extraordinary would be to you and you might even become an enthusiast. But if that doesn’t happen, mushrooms tend to become the supermoon whos with time.

Coming to the supermoon whos, don’t hate on them. Because they are just normal and honest people. They don’t let the hype get to them. If they like something, they like it and if they don’t, they don’t! As simple as that. They may become enthusiasts in the future, but never mushrooms.

Experiencing Vardah from my windows

No beating about the bush. Cyclone Vardah was a beast, a beast that scared the life out of most of us. The Chennai floods was another devastating disaster last year, but for me, personally, Vardah had a vaster impact. Something I wasn’t ready for, despite warnings issued in the news. As I write this post, the city still struggles to be up and going. This is one of those times one realises how grateful we ought to be for a roof over our heads and food on our plates.

I was in my hometown (580+ kilometres away from Chennai) this weekend as warnings of a cyclone with winds as heavy as 100 kms/ hour were issued. But none of us at home worried about me traveling the night before Vardah because one, we did not know what a 100km/hr wind meant. Two, a similar cyclone warning was given earlier this month but it kind of passed without much damage, just spells of heavy rain now and then. So the thought was “How worse is this going to be, no big deal.”

Rains started to pour as my train neared Chennai accompanied by gusty, howling winds. I thought the winds seemed that strong because we were in a moving train. I was proved wrong soon enough. Umbrellas couldn’t stand the force as I ran to catch my next local train to my place. Rains intensified by the time I reached home, so going to office was not an option. Power supply was cut leaving my mobile phone with no battery charge and my emergency lamp flickered and died after a few hours. Who wants a lamp in the morning, right? Actually, we did. It was dark the whole day.

Next to go was the water supply. I was already short on food. So, hungry and dizzy and tired, I sat by the window to watch the cyclone hit us hard. It was no less than ghostly. Rains weren’t heavy but they fell on us with such great force. The winds were insane, with the sturdiest of trees bending and breaking like pieces of styrofoam. But what was really blood curdling was the noises that accompanied. It alternated between a child wailing and a wolf howling. The winds fell so hard that the doors and windows shuddered with each blast. Trees were uprooted, electricity poles fell and thatched roofs destroyed, all before our eyes.

I spotted leaves being carried by the winds, then came umbrellas and small pieces of wood. When I saw bigger logs and roofs flying away, I knew how worse this was getting. Then came a point when deafening noise of the winds, flying particles and rain filled the atmosphere that nothing was visible anymore. I feared that the windows would give way, but what I did not anticipate was rain water entering through gaps as thin as hair. Such was the force of the winds. It was pitch darkness as I stepped in my hall, shocked as I felt water on the floors. Rest of the evening I tried my best using sponges to remove as much water as I can, mopping the floor and trying to seal the window gaps, but in vain.

The wind died down later that night and it was just rains for a while. Totally exhausted, I don’t remember when I fell asleep. When I woke up around 6:30 yesterday morning, the sun was up- a welcome relief. I made it to office, to see the beautiful bucket shaped glass building damaged in places. The campus trees were uprooted, our ground floor lunch destroyed completely, the car parking fences resting on the cars. But the most heart breaking sight of all, our favorite signature banyan tree took a heavy beating, something we hadn’t expected at all.  As painful as it was to see all of this, I was happy that I finally had a way to call my parents and also found something to eat. Hunger is cruel. Talk about the everyday things we take for granted!

Many took refuge in office, which was evident from the overflowing dorms and dinner queues. It is a blessing to work for an employer that took care of its struggling employees during such a catastrophe. This is the second time we are experiencing this, the 2015 floods being the first. It’s been two days since the cyclone hit. My floors are still damp, power lines are yet to be restored, there’s water scarcity throughout the city, but things are looking up. Yes, it will be a long time before the city is back to its former glory, but that’s the thing about Chennai, it is known for its resilience.

I do not have any photos to share, and there are enough photos on the news already. But this I can say. Vardah has taught us, yet again, to be grateful, compassionate, helpful, and maybe in some ways, joyful- to take things as they come and move on.




Where is my gaze?

Febiet lives with my uncle’s family. He is 13. If you had to convert that into human years, he is well over 90 and approaching a century. My parents were not very keen on having pets at home, so Febi was one of the two dogs I even got a chance to get acquainted with and to pet. The other one was a very good friend and play partner at a relative’s house, but I ended up being bit by him when I was around 7. Since then, I’ve been like, “Okay doggy, I love you, but I am NOT coming very close to you”, with every dog I met. The same was true for Febi.Read More »

The Power of Words

The past week, I have been asking some of my friends this question- “What excites you?” and insisted that they stick to the little things and the simple joys rather than winning-the-Olympic-gold or grabbing-an-Oscar kind of excitement. Most of the answers hit close to home and it was exciting to get a view of how different things affect different people.

I have my own list too, which is clearly topped by tea. Yes. Tea is more than just a beverage for me. Too many emotions attached to it. Few others in my list were— riding pillion in a long stretch of empty road (used to love long bike rides with my dad as a kid. It seems so long ago now), a train ride in a window seat and wind blasting my face, the clouds and the skies, the sun and the moon, the sea breeze. There is another important thing that excites me. A quote or a line from a book, a movie, or a song that just touches me or moves me or makes me go awww. Words are powerful. Words evoke feelings. Words excite. Words heal. Words hurt. Words build. Words break. Words are magic. This is why I started writing in the first place.

I look back to my childhood summer vacations when I would search for books through the loft in my grandparents’ place, like a poor man would dig for treasure. I would pull out a book and carefully turn the brown pages that have become brittle with time. I would read those archaic Shakespearean words and wonder what that was all about. In spite of my inability to comprehend them, I would fall in love with the mystery and beauty of it. And I have stayed in love ever since.

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