“If running is the answer, then what is the question?” Ron wrote me, provocative as always, when I told him I had taken to long-distance running. To stay the course, you have to slow down your mind, turn it from outside in, use your awareness to ease your body, even while pushing it. Running became easier in 2013, and I ran 3 half-marathons, all at an even pace, and without the fatigue of my first long run, in 2011, where I melted at the finish line.
Can I find more lightness in running, more grace?
And in life?
There was grace in my birth. India reminds you of your privileged circumstances every minute - when domestic staff do your laundry and your dishes, when you see people cooking on the pavement outside the hospital in which they hope a family member will recover.
For my son Kedar, I pray the inheritance of grace doesn’t harden to a sense of entitlement. This summer, we took him to Ladakh, to volunteer at government schools in the remotest villages of the region. “This is the failure of the demographic dividend”, I told him when we left Turtuk, where the children sat cross-legged on gunny sheeting, the school’s only atlas was irretrievably locked in the Principal’s cupboard, and science experiments would be just another remote account in textbooks. “How can these children ever jump the great divide between how you learn and they do?”
From the Nubra Valley, we returned to the dusty, faintly hippie cosmopolitanism of Leh, where smudgy cakes and stodgy Italian food were on offer, alongside Ladakhi momos and roadside kebabs. On the last leg of our Ladakh trip, high above the cobalt waters of Tso Moriri, we heaved our carcasses up to the snow at 16,000 feet, and for the first time that summer, I felt reasonably fit. We were all stretched, though, and Kedar said he had never been so exhausted in his life. Yet, when we returned to Delhi, he said he would go back to Ladakh any time.
Earlier that summer, Kedar had taken two flights and a long ferry ride out to Havelock Island, in the Andamans, where he earned his Advanced Open Water Diving spurs. The shark and the mating octopi he saw on the dive are among the highlights of his year. His first major adventure without his parents. Letting go…
This was also the second year I let go of my annual autumn trek. With Pa’s condition frail, time away from the family seems an indulgence. We had planned a short circuit around the base of Stok Kangri when we were in Ladakh, but the freak June weather made us abandon our plans; instead, we stayed in Leh, and watched the horrific images on television, as the Chorobar tarn burst, washing away the Kedarnath settlement. The temple still stands, and I hope the new settlement that comes up around it will be more restrained, more aesthetic. On my first trip to Kedarnath in 1969, I was exalted by its beauty, by a sense that it connected us into a cosmos of deep velvety blue, lit by intense silver stars. Since then, I have watched with dismay as it deteriorated into an ugly, plastic-littered slum.
In 2013, I made several visits to Sangam Vihar, supposedly Delhi’s largest colony. At its northern fringes, where it borders the opulent Sainik Farms, this settlement is becoming distinctly middle-class, with 3-storeyed structures painted in crisp white paint. Three kilometres deeper in, though, land dealers carve agricultural land into hanky-sized plots which house more recent immigrants into Delhi. Joint families of 3 generations sleep in one room, and spend the day on the narrow lanes that grid Sangam Vihar. At the end of one such lane, we bought 150 square feet of land for a man who has worked part-time at our home for over twenty years, and seen two earlier home investments go sour. Three months after the papers were transacted, and four little brick columns erected to mark the plot, it became apparent Prakash would never find the money to build even the tiniest hovel; in for a penny, in for a pound – I commissioned a local contractor to build Prakash his home. The family was extremely happy, and the room, with an attached loo, is larger than the one they currently rent, but a part of me felt like I had forever condemned a family to a space that is really too small for decent living. In India, you can put every dime you earn into lifting people out of pitiable poverty. How much you do, and how you do it, is a function of what we call ‘apni apni shraddha’, your level of devotion.
Premila’s devotion is to another patch of turf, in Satoli village, where we have had our mountain home for nearly two decades. This is where we spent the first 6 years of our life together, and Kedar grew from a freshly minted baby to a school-going boy. This is where he learned to walk and talk, to swim in the tank shaded by peach trees, and to put his favourite movies into our clunky desk-top computer. Over the last 10 years, Satoli has seen a rush of second homes, and Premi’s recurrent nightmare has been a row of town-houses overlooking our little patch of heaven. Every year, we have put some money into buying pieces of the forest behind us, and into stitching together the little holdings that make up the meadow to our west. As our quilt of land grows larger, we feel more comfort in the prospect of a peaceful return to Satoli.
That is still a few years away – Kedar needs to finish school, and be guided into University and beyond. My father’s retreat from the world is at the same time organic and distressing; though my younger sister Kanika takes on the main responsibility of caring for him, my presence supports her, and Kedar and Premi are two touch points for my father, two lamps of light in his world that is increasingly clouded and timeless. By the serenity of his mien, I like to believe that his clouds are not threatening or obscuring, but vast cushions of comfort, intimations of the eternity beyond.
Have a wonderful 2014.