Back in the city with its sultry heat and airhorn trucks, with only street-side nungus (the palmyra palm / ice apple) and a bottle of nannari (forever shocked by how obscure this godly drink is!) to cool me down. Every time I leave the mountains behind is a sad time, this time exceptionally so. A visit cut so short that it didn’t even count. I return to find solace in the familiar: music and words.
Looking through my notes from this past year (I, for the first time, actually went out of my way to find a teacher), I have a million quotes scribbled from lessons with F. Many of the below ideas are nothing new, some even familiar posts in older revisions of this blog. Here they are again, in the spirit of emphasis.
In no particular order, a sample list of pithy quotes useful for just about anyone, as they pertain to learning in general:
Develop taste: most important.
Be sensitive to people around the world who are playing really well, refine your taste to such a degree that you are able to understand them and ask them a question.
You shouldn’t come across as someone who doesn’t know how to frame his question. Get hip with being able to ask a logical and intelligent question.
Be in a position to receive information at any level.
Look at the genealogy of people who played this before you, study it/them.
Listen to the great musicians pushing the envelope. Listen, expand your taste.
Learn a progression with respect, understand the writer.
Approach from the cellular level.
What does your ear take in from a sound?
Most people who do not have control, just focused on proving speed, crash.
Very easy to get swayed, slow your mind down.
Labels come later (syntax for communication). For now, open your ears.
Realize there is an envelope of possibility, there is a high bar for anything you do.
Learn to play without an ensemble. Be able to play effectively nice shit on your own, to play freely.
In bare brush land, fresh snow and rain clouds make for bad weather for anything that does not involve lounging around indoors around the boiler. Even worse so for the minimalist hiker and the air traffic controller.
Just over twelve months ago was my last snowfall – in the streets of New England, during a two week visit that extended to six months, learning patience even as the world understood a different way of living.
Today’s snow marks a rushed return, a fitting farewell from these high mountains. What was to be a two month sojourn lasted all of one week. The pandemic is far from over, it’s been hitting closer home these past few weeks.
Between these two days, one of my biggest learnings has been that of prioritization. A reexamination of what/who is important to me.
Late winter snow where I leave, early summer rains where I arrive. A lot has happened in three months alone, what will the rest of this year bring?
The farther out of town you go, the more the alleyways of stone and sand. Jump from rock to bigger rock, play around a stream that weaves its way downhill. It’s the extended end of a winter – you hike with the army men in high windchill: for them, a routine walk that makes for a break from operations, for you, a reality check.
These pathways make for shortcuts, cutting across most of the outer town and nearby villages. If you make the right turns in this maze, you might just avoid vehicular traffic completely. Leaving you to wander about the entire place in peace with only the feral dogs to fear. Hike up the wayward trail that leads to nowhere on a nearby hill, and you escape all but the wind.
The only wheels you pass by on such days are the prayer wheels, sprinkled across this valley.
Thoughts surface on these roads with endless hairpin turns (went through atleast 80 in a day!). The climb is very steep, unlike the more well traversed routes where roads cut into longer slopes.
Much like the valley and mountains that alternate outside the window, the last few years flash by. Staring down into the cusp of a major decision, questions arise: Could I have done anything differently? What paths in life have I foregone by now?
A few weeks into setting up the terrace garden, I am already looking into ways of learning to take it further. Thinking back to the many passing fancies over recent times, I wonder if this too is one such: what if I’d pursued that diploma in horticulture way back when? Or actually followed through with pottery and working with my hands in the mountains? Remember that desire to work at the Wildlife Institute?
I look on with nothing but admiration for those who went beyond this, set up their own space far away, slowly laboring away towards it. Admiration and a deep-rooted desire to have the same for myself. A world of mud, greens and all the life that comes with it.
All this, amidst conversations about people failing to “make this work”, for whatever reasons. Naysayers are always a plenty, as are the critical analysts. I should know, I make a living as one! I recognize the survivorship bias in my own circles, and yet, the dream persists.
Tim posted a reminder for this recently that I think about, as I look down toward my own niece playing in the water. How much she has to look forward to, how many more green paths exist ahead. Where will her hairpin bends take her?
She has much time, there is no hurry. For now, we are content splashing rocks, and observing lizards bask in the sun.
To listen to the hoot of a Nilgiri langur echo across a silent forest – few other sounds are as ethereal, in the dappled sun of the Sholas.
Spent the day tracking factions of these arboreal primates in the wild. Sometimes, the nameless places are the best kept secrets. The lack of documentation barring word-of-mouth in the local language, somehow a boon against the tourist hordes. The local guards and anti-poaching watchers almost seem to prefer this, and I understand why. As do the locals, defiantly proud: sizing you up from the number plate on your ride, relaxing only when you respond in their language. Chance encounters at the only tea stop open up roads you didn’t know existed, trails no map will show for a few more years, when policy weaves its way into yet another infrastructure project.
Long empty stretches devoid of visitors so close to a jam-packed hill station is an increasing rarity. Minutes stretch into hours in the company of the birds and monkeys, silently watching from a distance, binoculars acting as a makeshift camera lens.
While a massive gaur watches from a distance, you think you are safe, he’s too busy chewing to bother crushing your automobile.
The tigress (with her newborn cubs) and the elephants can wait. They remain undisturbed, for we share only the watering hole: us, by day and they, by night.
The end of each month this year brought respite and a sense of urgency. We were anxious for much of the year, seated on the edge. The pandemic brought with it a renewed acceptance for the passage of time, and the myriad ways in which we spend it. I had expected to be at yet another pivotal transition in life, and somehow, the pandemic ensured I dragged that on through most of the year.
Quite recently, I sat reading the Time Use Survey from the Ministry of Statistics conducted last year, a report delving largely into the dynamics of paid and unpaid labour in the country: the average urban male spends ~25% of his day in employment related activities, while the largest time sink is “self care/maintenance”, including sleep and food at upwards of 45%. Dedicated “learning” is a mere 7%, while the rest is split into various forms of unpaid household work and community/ social activities.
My own days have swung wildly in terms of activities: writing suffered much, but reading did relatively better. I barely managed to finish a handful of good reads: a lot of this had to do with science writing, or writing on writing. Oliver Sacks, Robert Sapolsky and Vaclav Smil were a constant backdrop through the year, either via their writing or interviews and lectures. Shailja Patel was a revelation. Kabir’s translated poetry was another. John McPhee was extremely useful, as were the various screenwriting tutors who came along the way. Like many other things in my life, I struggle to read for its own sake these days, and instead, pick and choose my consumption based on utility. If the year has taught me one thing, it was this. Thus, books and reports on energy, sustainability and agriculture in the country were aimed towards this vague goal I have for owning a piece of agrarian land in the future. Readings on livestock markets and soft commodities were mainly in support of research for a story writing project. Much of my exploratory readings into history, policy and economics were relegated to podcasts and audiobooks, unfortunately a secondary activity so far as learning and retention is concerned. I expect these to take center stage this year. These suffered primarily because I have reconciled no immediate use for them. I am working on changing this too.
It was a year of exploring language and culture through books too, albeit in translation: Homen Borgohain, Gurdial Singh, Manoranjan Das and Kamala Das, alongside a laboriously slow reading of Premchand (in Hindi) and a little bit of Poornachandra Tejaswi and Shivarama Karanth (both in Kannada). I haven’t yet broken into the one language I want to read the most, Tamil. Indian writing in English took some precedence, as I went seeking inspiration from the earliest writings of Kolatkar, Upamanyu Chatterjee and Ramanujan. This year, I also hope to read more women.
This habit of reading for the sake of an end goal, fortunately, doesn’t extend into my consumption of music, which tends to remain far more wide ranging. I experimented with synths and live coded sounds, although barely at all, and I’m hoping this DIY ethos continues well into 2021 and into much more than music.
I learnt a few full songs on the strings after years of hitting a plateau in my playing, and promptly gave up on it soon as I realized I could do this whenever I wanted to, with no lasting impact on my skill. I instead took lessons and went back to the fundamentals during the early days of the pandemic, pacing myself extremely slowly through what my teacher says will be a life long process of really understanding sound. Far greater gains are to be had from learning from scratch and understanding how the sausage is made as opposed to mimicking the art of another. I’m drinking this kool-aid this year, while at the same time, figuring out Sonic Pi and my own creative workflows. 2021 will be a year of practice and continued building on these same foundations from the last year.
My writing logs were brief and regular, never daily. I finished writing one short play, and began co-writing a slice of life piece of writing set in the pastoral lands of arid Karnataka. The latter will be a novella, and has given me immense satisfaction through the last quarter of the year. Outside of these, writing was largely nonexistent except for the stray notes.
I learnt to paraglide early in the year, and the flying bug persists. By all accounts, this is perhaps my only real indulgence, an addictive love for being in free flight high up in the air and waving my legs bare. I intend to continue learning this year as and when the opportunity arises. Nothing else I have experienced in life has provided such unfiltered peace and joy as a long silent flight out in the open has. Outside of music, this is where I have experienced free flow. Running barely existed, and I picked up on it only in late December after early January and February. I struggle to keep at 4 km daily, so I have now reviewed my goals to walk atleast 15km daily, and ease into the running. Running is easy after a few laps of walking, and walking, I did much of through the year! Climbing took a toss, the pandemic lockdowns ensured I had little access to indoor climbing gyms, and most outdoor spots were too far out to venture towards without a car. The shoes continue to lie idly, waiting for that opportune day when I finally get to chalk up and climb some walls and rocks.
Briefly in September and October, I made progress toward my fitness goals, but I wasn’t able to sustain it as work took its toll on me. While nutrition was generally healthy for approximately half the year, the rest of it was primarily indulgence in home cooked meals, experimentation with multiple cuisines, and a certain self sustenance came about. I rarely ate out except for the last two weeks of December, in addition to Dada’s cooking throughout February around the farmlands of Maharashtra. I still have a long way to go toward true self sustenance, a gardener’s path lies ahead wherein I want to be able to grow my own food from scratch, to at least know I can do so when required.
The past months have given me much clarity in terms of what I want to do over the next few years. Where there was a haphazard existence, there is now a will to pursue with intent. The year also taught me to be more empathetic, beating into me the realization that over the years, the transformations I experience might not necessarily be the same for most others I have known from the earlier decades.
At the start of the last year, I wrote to myself on a piece of paper: “January’s crisis is one of time and purpose, and my place in all this.” I am far from having arrived at an answer to the above, but I do believe I have come closer. A year of clarity, a mind wide and clear as a cloudless sky.
Life continue with a sword hanging over our heads: many personal and professional uncertainties persist into the next year, and we are far from leaving the pandemic behind us. My ability to live with this uncertainty has improved, and I suspect this is the same for our collective selves too. Within a zeitgeist of anxiety, stress and sadness, learning to live with loss and an acceptance of change and uncertainty gracefully were the two most important lessons this year has taught.
On a whim, I tried to salvage accounts from my earliest days on the internet earlier this month: ancient WordPress and Blogspot blogs, online forums and email accounts.
Failed miserably (for now), as the furthest back I could go was only circa 2007. I remember I came online for the first time at the turn of the millenium: whether through the innumerable beep-boops at the “computer training institute” I crashed with my elder cousin, or at sketchy internet cafés that popped up everywhere at the time.
What is clear though, is how much time online I spent even back then on two main concerns: writing and music.
Nearly a decade after I stopped using one such account, managed to log in to be greeted by a string of “account anniversary” and birthday greetings, as below:
A longer post to follow, when I find more time to parse through it all for…reasons.
I lugged the guitar through security at four airports during a pandemic and it lies here at home, demanding a craftsman’s touch. A crack in the wood, crying out at me: benign today, dangerous tomorrow.
SPB’s music has been playing all afternoon and evening at home every other day this week. My parents are going down memory lane and parts of their journey retrofit into my own childhood, somehow coalescing into memories of my own. Here was a man whose voice seeped into many households for years, here was an artiste who understood what it meant to be one. Watching him praise this seedling of a boy vocalizing surreal melodies on a TV show, I am left digging through memories of my own: on teachers, musicians and loss.
Each loss is different; be it a grandparent familiar from your earliest years, or a celebrity admired from afar. And each such loss can be profound, personal and affecting. The first time I experienced this was when, after about a year or two of devouring M’s music over the interwebs through my early teens, I learnt he had passed years ago in the late 90’s in a motorbike accident. That one piece of information had escaped me through all those months of woodshedding, and devastation set in. One obscure and unknown musician all the way from California had managed to entrance a kid in Bangalore posthumously. And now, my only commiseration was to be found in others on internet forums and comment sections. The music itself took on a new meaning, and every subsequent interview of his (rare as they were!) that I could find took on an ethereal aura. I went seeking more and more vignettes, hungry for glimpses of someone I genuinely believed was my teacher a world away.
The art that you are exposed to during your formative years sometimes tend to have a gripping hold over your persona, and his music was one such for me. So much so that I know when I eventually make it to Lake Tahoe someday, it will be a pilgrimage and homecoming of sorts. Anyway, I digress. There is much I can write exploring the impact that this weird and revolutionary hippie-biker musician had on me, and I shall leave that for another day.
This here is simply an homage to A, who was a teacher, educator and craftsman par excellence.
A, whom few knew about, and whom even fewer were probably lucky to call a friend. For a very brief time, I experienced fleeting glimpses of him, glimpses that remain stuck in memory. He passed away last year just before the monsoons, about two months after my last meeting with him and nearly three years after he wrote the first and only email to me, ever:
The next day upon receiving this, I called him from my dorm room up in Norrbotten, at a time when night never arrived. We had a hurried conversation, I was young and had grand plans of being an apprentice luthier (Plot spoiler: I never got to it) and had zeroed in on him as a prospective mentor. He had agreed to meet. Months passed slowly under the midnight sun, and I was growing impatient, but at least I had something to look forward to. It was my last ditch effort at making use of my holidays, already pissed off at the professor who accepted my internship application too late, and disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to work underground in the iron mine I had visited just weeks before.
And so, once back and settled into old ways in the city, I made my down an alleyway in North Bangalore. Crowded sky with chaotic electric lines, the endless noise of traffic and rikshaw air horns. Hot bajjis and masala chai lingered in the air, stoked my hunger. A quick stop, and I was on my way to the address.
A was someone who tried to march to his own beat, perhaps toiled at it for years, and tried to show the rest of us that we could too. In that, he was brave. His was a singular dream, and here it is, in his own words:
All my meetings with him, few as they were, were in this same converted office/workshop space. It was an unassuming sheet of A4 paper haphazardly stuck with tape to a metal gate on an otherwise bleak and commonplace building that guided one’s way.
“Arul Guitars —>”, it pointed up the concrete stairs, and up I went each time. The name was in memory of a painful past.
The large frame of an aging luthier welcomed me each time, sawdust in the air, motioning me into an otherwise cramped workshop/office space. The smell of varnish, oils and various woods, both indigenous and imported, hit your nose. A drilling machine here, a few machine vice grips and clamps scattered around on dusty wooden tables. This was no fancy garage with a million expensive tools. Most of his tools were handmade, many were completely improvised, and yet, somehow, it all just worked to produce excellent custom instruments.
In the back was an even smaller room, where he had managed to transport a cot and a mattress, for the many nights he slept in. The image I will always remember him by is his large, friendly laugh on that creaky metal bed, laughing a little too much and catching his ailing back, all the while over a hot cup of chai carried in a flask from the bakery in the corner. Me, seated on a makeshift Cajon drum made of wasted plywood sheets, and perhaps another visitor or two nearby, all of us talking music, woods, or marveling at someone’s latest instrument. Some days, we would sit in silence, munch on hot bondas and masala vadas (with chutney of course, we were no savages), drink our chai and listen to someone’s latest muse of an album. A would show off his latest handiwork, a harp guitar he had fashioned, or a Charango he was thinking about. At other times, he would wave proudly at the wooden shelves he was setting up, for all the instruments and tools, a significant attempt at orderliness in an otherwise messy room.
We had very few conversations over the phone over the years, and that was it. He seemed to be someone most active in the present, in the living world, happiest working with his hands.
We were happy to be in the presence of each other during those brief few meetings, and I’m sure they were similar even in my absence. I never stayed in touch with the others whose paths I crossed back then, I had my own journey taking me elsewhere at the time. Little did I know our paths were never to cross again.
I wish I’d known him for longer, I wish I’d pursued this more seriously. At our last parting, I’d promised to connect again a few months down the line after my travels. He had grand visions for the future of lutherie in the country, but needed help with the details. My own reasons were more selfish: I was to join him full-time in the workshop later in the year, and learn the craft. Like in many other things, life took its own course and before I knew it, it was too late.
Time will tell if we are able to step up to the vision that Arul showed was possible, perhaps just a tad bit too ahead of his time. Until then, here is a wonderful documentary that captures the man, his life, and his mission:
In reminiscing today, I came across a tribute to another wonderful luthier, far away in Kuala Lumpur. To know there are such people out there is inspiring in itself! How often do we hear of luthiers that use non-traditional, local wood from cut down trees on the streets that would’ve otherwise just been wasted, and make world class instruments out of them?
October begins quietly with a calm early morning, twilight slant in the face. Today marks the end of my 29th beat around the sun, and unlike much of this past decade, I am now home. I wake in the bed I grew up in, and make my way past old haunts and old habits.
An uncle wishes me on the phone, jokes that he can’t believe the age, he thought I was much younger. And I wonder if there isn’t some truth to that. Time proves to be relative, and my memories are not a calendar of events. Life stretches out behind me thematically, and it takes me longer to register the chronology of it all.
In many ways, this year has been a homecoming, despite being away for half the time. I am reminded of lives lived and older dreams. Following a tumultuous few years focused solely on the experiential, whether by distractions in the form of an education abroad, the excitement of constant travel or the need to feel strong connections and roots, I am now way more centered emotionally than I have ever been. The few relationships I hold dear run deep, but I recognize there is much left to grow. The nature of these friendships continue to evolve, and I am only beginning to make sense of this. From the otherwise random strangers I meet sparingly in a year to the regular phone calls made with those on another continent, a (re)kindling is underway.
In terms of learning, after a brief few years exploring the business and markets side of the table, I am once again looking forward to a more grounded, scientific way of thought. As Josh Waitzkin might say, I am slowly drawing my smaller circles. Granted, I thought a lot of my work was vacuous, but somehow along that journey, I have become a better communicator, a better conversationalist and am more confident in defending my opinions. If nothing else, I gained this, and it was nice to see the same being recognized. It doesn’t hurt to know that opportunities come knocking at the door now, and not, as it once was, the other way around. That said, I am ready to move on to the next phase of my life, whether that happens immediately upon the start of 2021, or a little while later, as the world grapples to keep its flame in this unknowing dance.
Driving along the Southern coast of Iceland last year, I had promised myself that these final years before my impending 30s would be spent in making changes of many kinds. Little did I know then, that the year to come would have other plans for me and the rest of the world. Despite everything, I accepted an offer to pursue a PhD, I learnt to fly (albeit very briefly), I traveled around Tamil Nadu with my parents and I read more than I have in the last five years. I learnt I would spare no expense when it came to pursuing the things I really want, I cooked delicious food, reveled in company, I built up a fitness habit and regained a body performance I had long lost. With wonderful support, I co-authored a play, and began work on a writing project that genuinely interests me.
Something really changed this year, and I find myself brimming with ideas of unformed stories and potential businesses. I seem to have more purpose now than anytime over the last 36 months. Perhaps it is the urgency of it all. The need to figure things out before I enter my next decade. For better or worse, the mind is a slave to the decimal system.
On the flip side, I failed on multiple fronts too: I failed to obtain a student visa on time, I failed to bag a fellowship that would have been a dream, I failed to spend much time with my parents through the monsoon months, I failed to achieve personal milestones, I saw myself in the worst physical shape of my life, I failed to go out and run consistently. I succumbed to lazy habits in multiple ways: I failed to practice music despite having a teacher, I failed to continue my pursuit of paragliding, I failed to relearn to drive, I failed to think clearly about the future in terms of where I wanted to be. I failed to bag a few jobs and internships, I failed to go beyond the “ideas” multiple times, I struggled to read and write, I failed to negotiate better for myself. I failed to maintain friendships, I failed to sketch and paint in color, I failed to pursue those pastoral dreams…one gets the idea. This was a year of numerous failures and the occasional success.
All said, I find solace in accepting that each such pursuit will take its own time. Each germ of an idea, a thought, once it leaves my own mind, will take on a form I might not have expected, and with that, affect whatever futures I might have hold over. I am learning of the strength in sequencing these pursuits, as opposed to attacking them with full vigor all at once. I am learning the harsh truths of consistency and perseverance, things I had taken for granted or never considered seriously before. I learnt that I should manifest opportunities, as opposed to passively waiting for them.
The night ends under a full moon, bright light on the roof. Here where we live, the tail end of the monsoon is upon us again. Bright blue skies by day, immense dark clouds by noon and vestigial thundershowers by the evening. Challenges have been many, and the future remains manifold. Yet again, this first of October brings with it love, reflection and hope. In this uncertain clime, I seek deep presence and a return to the center.