The Light of Ikigai

I have been reading a book titled Ikigai – the Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life – By Hector Garcia & Francesc Miralles. The concepts mentioned in the book are varied, for it takes many factors to constitute a happy, meaningful life.

I am not sure if Prof Rukmini read about Ikigai, but it is abundantly clear to those who knew her, that she practiced it whole-heartedly. Of course, if ever there was a lady who could’ve curiously read up on concepts new to her, and taken to practicing the good in them, it is Professor Rukmini. She may well have been teaching Ikigai all her life. Kunja Athai as we referred to her, was a diminutive figure physically and a stalwart intellectually.  She adored learning about new ideas, and she loved those in her life with equal fervor. These will always be things I remember about her. 

There are a few people whose life story you grow up with. Kunja Athais was one. 

She was married after 8th Grade. Her life though was a tumultuous one: she was widowed shortly thereafter with a 2 year old daughter in tow. She came back to live with her elder brother and sister. Her brothers, intellectuals themselves, wondered whether a regressive society would kill her too. So, they urged her to study again. She wrote her SSLC exams with private tutoring and then went on to study Physics at Presidency College in Madras. 

She was bright, hard-working and wanted to be economically independent. Fate delivered a particularly terrible, and a somewhat vindictive blow to the beleaguered soul again. She had written 5 out of the 6 Physics honors papers. A few days before she was to write her 6th paper, her only daughter, aged about 8 or 9 passed away. I cannot imagine how it must’ve been for her. One of her professors who knew about her plight, told her to come and sit the exam – she needn’t even write anything, he told her. (For her performance in the remaining papers would ensure she got her degree). So, poor kunja athai went to the examination hall. 

Every action is a choice. 

Once there, she decided to take her mind off the terrible events in her life just then, and write the examination anyway. 

A moment that turned out to be a momentous one in her long life.

Kunja Athai graduated with Honors from Presidency College in Madras in the 1950’s. A rare feat in India at the time. I wish I knew the statistics of the number of female vs male graduates, or the economic statuses behind their fates. But none, I am sure had her particular set of circumstances. She had lost her young husband a few years ago, her only child a few days ago. Yet, she persevered. 

She became a Physics Professor at Ethiraj College in Madras, and went on to inspire hundreds of girls as she urged them towards a degree.

The authors of the Ikigai book interviewed the elderly people  of Okinawa in Japan(the place with the highest concentration of the longest living individuals), and gleaned some key concepts that contributed to their healthy, happy lifestyles. Some of them are : Communal life, Never Stop Learning, Finding the Flow in your tasks, Humans as Ritualistic Beings, and Enjoying Nature.

Kunja Athai seemed to have practiced all of these things.

One of my early memories of the grand old lady was at twilight in a small garden patch in Tambaram. I was staying at my aunt’s place for the night. My mother’s eldest sister, her husband and his sister, kunja athai. I pottered around the garden patch with her – probably chattering, as I was known to display considerable prowess in that department.

Kunja Athai let me smell the star jasmines, feel the gourds, grind the hibiscus leaves between my fingers, and pluck a few of the hearty hibiscus blossoms for her idols inside.

I loved tracing the shapes of leaves as a child. I would collect leaves from everywhere as I played or went on walks, and trip back home to trace them out in my notebooks. I told her about this pastime of mine, and she approved with a twinkle in her eyes. When we went back into the house, she took down a book that she thought I might like, and pointed to pages in the book. The leaves from the book came alive. Her eyes shone with bright interest. That is the image I will always have of the legendary kunja athai.

Kunja Athai passed away last week. While I sat there thinking of the marvelous life of Kunja Athai, I realized there were ever so many things and angles from which one could approach her life. I could write about she was a Professor of Physics in Ethiraj College for Women inspiring thousands of girls to get themselves an education, and acquire an inquiring mind that would serve them well through life. Or I could write about her struggles in early life, and how she not just found a way of going on, but of building something marvelous out of it.

I realized that Kunja Athai seems to have learned and consciously imbibed all the tenets of a meaningful life from the philosophers who came before her. Her Ikigai was well in practice. She was determined that her life should be one in which she spreads love and fosters a love for learning.

Every soul traces their own path. Some souls we are lucky to have benefited from: they are the suns who shine, give, and illumine all those around them. Kunja Athai’s light of Ikigai shall shine on in every life she helped nurture and guide by example. 

On the Shores of Sleep

I lay awake ready to explore the cosmic oceans of the subconscious, which is to say, the eyelids were heavy with welcoming drowsiness, but blessed sleep was momentarily elusive.

The infection in my eye was throbbing, and had morphed into a dull headache. A trip to the city earlier in the day had tuckered me out more than I cared to admit, and an over-tired body can take some time falling asleep. 

The quick trip to the city had also rekindled some familiar feelings. Some things never seemed to change. The city with its trembling lights, its massive office buildings, the scores of people rushing, rushing towards something, nothing. Life felt long, unchanging, and yet, distressingly tumultuous all at once.

I stopped to take pulse – the anxious rush of traffic, the speed with which one needed to act and react on the streets, the cacophony of ambulances and traffic, and the frenzied pace were one thing. Colleagues who had moved out of the geographic location, colleagues who had moved on was quite another. The memory of a colleague who had succumbed to cancer a few weeks prior: another good human being whose companionship and solid good sense I missed.

How could time feel swift and still at the same time? 

How can our ephemerality coincide with that sense of life being long and varied?

“We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.” 

― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Every moment plucked like a strand from a whirlwind, and yet, every person’s appreciation of the whirlwind was their own. Life seemed meaningless and meaningful in spots of flashing clarity in the confusing overwhelm of the day.

I tried to sleep that night – back in the quiet of our suburban home. I couldn’t, and took to moon-watching instead. The moon had risen – the same moon that rose over the Sierra Nevada mountains – unmoving, majestic; the oceans – calm and serene; the vast plains of the desert cactii-laden amidst multi-hued rocks and sands; the coastal regions  – the sandy shores and the redwood forests reaching up to eternity; and the bustling city all at the same time. 

The Japanese have a beautiful word for moon-watching:

Tsukimi (月見) or Otsukimi (お月見), meaning, “moon-viewing”, also known as Jugoya (十五夜), are Japanese festivals honoring the autumn moon, a variant of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Time and Space in the physical realm invites us to think of Being in the meta-physical sense.  The land of dreams beckoned again, and I went to bed – grateful for the quiet solitude of the night, the calming nature of moonlit thoughts and blessed sleep.

The sun will rise bringing with it a whole new perspective.

Tweet Talk

The cheery morning had us all chirping – much like the world around us. A beautiful, bright, sunny November morning around the time of Thanksgiving is always a special time. The glorious world around us transformed into multi-colored hues, and the auditory world rich with the orchestra of birds made our human companions on the trail more friendly as well. Every single one of them cheerily greeted one another on what a lovely morning it was. The world seemed to be in harmony.

Geese lifted out of their slumbering fields and flew squawking great big messages to one another as they splashed down into the lakes and rivers nearby. The blackbird murmurations overhead trilled and flew flashing their streaks of red in marvelous patterns overhead. The californian blue jays swooped among the marshes and the trees, their brilliant azure feathers twinkling and shining in the rays of the sun. The great blue herons and egrets stood waiting in their great cloaks of grey and white, relishing their solitude and just being part of the great lovely world around them. 

I read somewhere that people who were among many birds were generally less stressed in life, and I could readily imagine why. The joyous chirps, blending together in a great, harmonious orchestra along with the swift usage of wings to fly up and above, taking one’s spirits with you is enough to reduce the stress. 

I sniffed rapturously and we walked on. The ponds in the marshes seemed perfect for reflection, and the mind wandered. I took some pictures: not too many, and certainly not of great quality for posterity. There were talented photographers  for that. I have several friends whose photographs have that essence of transcending the current space and time and tranporting you to that very moment they captured. How they manage to catch the birds in flight is beyond me. I said as much to the son, who gave me an amused look at yet another blurry picture I took of a nesting heron in the marshes. 

Seeing how enamored I am with our winged companions in this world, the daughter got me a book titled Bird Cottage – by Eva Meijer for my birthday. I look forward to reading it. I looked at the son as we walked on in companionable silence, and told him so.

“Now, I am reading a book on hummingbirds.” 

“I am sure you are!” He said with a smile on the corner of his lips.

“Less sass young man. It is a fascinating book. “

“That’s what I meant. You would like to read a whole book on hummingbirds. What’s it about?” he said indulging me as he walked on.

I was proud of the fellow. He had been promised a short, zipping bike ride with the wind blowing against his face. Instead, here he was on a long walk. On the trudge back, he said, “I think I am going to go home and replace my legs with another pair. They hurt!”, and he laughed raucously at his own joke.

“It would be nice to fly on home, wouldn’t it? Become a hummingbird so we can fly swiftly and purposefully home every few minutes if you so wish!”

I told him about this person who lives in Marin County who takes on orphaned hummingbirds and nurses them back to life. “They need to be fed every 20 minutes all day every day till they are strong enough to be released into the wild.” I said.

“Wow. Why do they eat so much? They are so tiny!”

“Well! They are tiny and almost fully lungs – so you have to give them tiny portions every few minutes, so they can survive and thrive. A hummingbird mother is a very busy one. She has to fly in and out of the nest every few minutes feeding, and looking after her little ones, till they are strong enough. Just like most babies.” I said. He looked confused and awed. I addressed that look and said, “Even human babies need to be fed every couple of hours throughout the day for the first few months. You know that?”

He had a vague idea until then that babies were work, but he had no idea they needed to be fed every 2 hours.

He was quiet for a few moments digesting this piece of info. I swooped in, and gave him what the early days of human baby care looked like. I rounded it off saying, “Yep! You do all that, and what do they do? Sass you on walks, and roll their eyes when they are teens!” He laughed raucously frightening a goose nearby, and we spoke of this and that, the great web of life, and the fantastic nature of living.

The King’s Stilts

A few years ago, the pater looked at me with an amused smile on his face, and said, “I’ve been seeing you walking around with that book for weeks. Do you plan to finish it?” 

I gave him a mock sorrowful look. It was true. That summer, life had been jolly and full. The son was a baby then, and any time I could snatch away from my highly demanding work spot was split between the visiting folks, the kitchen, housekeeping, and the children. I cannot say that I felt effective in  any of these areas, but I was stretching myself as best as I could. Without a book to help me get a perspective in, I felt even more unmoored. So, I did the next best thing and walked around with the book in hand. The intention was there, when the moment presents itself, I could glance a page here, and a page there, I told myself.

No one in the household but the pater noticed that I had the same book with me for weeks. 

“Never fear! These are phases that will come and go, and once the children are grown, you will be able to read again.” , he said. Luckily, it turned out to be true. I did get a little more time on my hands mostly snatched during public transit commute times, or when I finally wound down at night, all the demands of the day done, and a fresh set of demands not yet hankering for attention till dawn. 

As I opened my library account, I realized the same thing had just happened again. I had gone for several weeks with the intention of finishing several books, and did not get the opportunity to do so. I felt like King Birtram in The King’s Stilts. A Dr Seuss book that I did manage to finish owing to its size. 

King Birtram is the hard-working, conscientious and just king of the low lying kingdom of Binn. He starts his day attending to all his administrative duties at the crack of dawn, signing papers and making decisions while taking his bath, eating his breakfast and is finished with his paperwork just in time to start his duties as commander in general who is in charge of keeping his cat army in tip-top shape, and motivated to protect the kingdom from the Nizzard birds.

His cats, are after all, critical to the functioning of the state. They keep the pesky nizzard birds at bay. The gizzard birds weaken the dike trees, and weakening those marvelous trees means the kingdom of Binn could be flooded within days since the trees are the only ones that are able to keep the waters at bay. 

King Birtram, however, never complains. He knows what needs to be done, and he is proud to do it. His moments of relaxation comes in the evening when his boy brings his stilts out for the king to play. The evenings with the king striding  across the kingdom playfully in his stilts endears the man to his subjects and all is well. 

Written with Dr Seuss’s characteristic humor, style and illustrations, the story takes an interesting turn when a judgmental courtier hides the King’s Stilts. The climax draws nearer and the perils of the water destroying the kingdom is even closer with every page. Does the King find his stilts? Is the kingdom a happy, prosperous place again?

Where am I going with this? Yes! The lack of reading made me feel like King Birtram deprived of his stilts. Lack-lustre, if you see what I mean. So, imagine the joy when I obtained a rare afternoon and evening in which I could read uninterrupted, and with no expectations of any kind?

Wild Souls – Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World By Emma Marris will have a special place in my heart for providing me with this rare luxury last week-end. I have not galloped through a book that quickly or without guilt for a long time. 

The Art of Words

There are days when fiction exerts a strong pull on the mind. We are, after all, children of stories.

The nature of the allure is in the constantly changing nature over time. Some days demand active adventure, mysteries to be solved, and battles to be won. These flights of fancy can be just as fascinating as the timeless nature of love encapsulated in the pages of P G Wodehouse and Jane Austen – the balm for the soul. Just as special is the quiet, kind, and often humorous companionship among humans written by the likes of Miss Read, L M Montgomery or RK Narayan, especially for one who is tired after a day of dealing with people and their problems at work. Revelations that give us tiny insights into the possibilities and depths of the human spirit.

Some days, the allure of poetry is there like a soothing essence of the night. Like a lavender enhanced bath drawn up – cocooning one in the safe tendrils of the fragrance. Could you not be the imaginative child drawing up a Block City, or the crane standing quietly in the marshes waiting for the right time to strike? Or the star far away twinkling and waiting for us to absorb some of its light and magic into our very being?

Then, there are days when non-fiction calls out to one with a clear call like a foghorn in a tempest. The days when the most delicious pieces of revelation are nestled as innocuous facts in a book. A book in which the writer has graciously shared their enormous love for the universe and their learnings kindly with the rest of humanity. A giving of their very soul – a sharing of knowledge so deep, so pure, it feels almost visceral to read through the contents and absorb as best as one can.

In all these genres, there are stellar writers, writers who have their streaks of brilliance, and writers who strike it big with or without the art of craft, for popularity and merit do not always go together. Nevertheless,  most of them are united by the common thread of striving continuously in their art. 

As I read Conversations on Writing with Ursula K Le Guin compiled from a series of interviews with David Naimon, I felt a thrill of the art of words once again. 

As David Naimon points out, Ursula K Le Guin is probably one of the select few authors on which one could have a conversation on fiction, poetry and non-fiction, having written all three to great acclaim.

Starting off from this simple place of:

“Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real, “ says Ursula K Le Guin, “But they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books.”

That was my experience of reading Tales of Earthsea growing up.

Wizards walk the earth and dragons fly the skies. yet the further they took me from “reality” the closer I felt to the real.

Conversations on Writing – Ursula Le Guin with David Naimon

Her conversations on fiction and how she was unable to insert her science fiction portion of her mind to her poetry was fascinating.

As the conversation unfolds in the poetry section, David Naimon observes that her fiction stems from her imagination, but her poetry from contemplation. How true and marvelous? The quiet contemplation of the wind rustling through the leaves has quite a different rhythm in the heart from the mind imagining the wondrous life of the creatures by the riverside

The book provides many asides, many references to other writers, poets and non-fiction writers who have inspired her. Little snippets inserted on black pages while referencing another’s work provide branches into other worlds to explore into such as Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. The reference to wu-wei (the act of non-doing) getting a smile out of me.

Oh! To be cocooned in the Magical Art of Words is bliss indeed!

Pirates Vs Ninjas

I suppose I can laugh about it now. Though the crick in the neck disagrees just a teensy teensy bit.

The whole unfortunate episode reminded me yet again of how marvelous children are. Allow me to mist my eyes up a bit and remember.

“What are you doing?” I said to no one in particular though there seemed to be a herd of elephants in the room above me stampeding through the forests and jumping into the river.

Just imaginating!” Came the familiar reply, and despite the elephants-in-room feeling, I smiled. In our home, the act of pure imagination has been given a verb-form all on its own. Imaginating, we call it, and go about our business of imagination without batting an eyelid. 

A few hours later, I asked him, “Won’t you hurt yourself? Jumping and tumbling about like that – from the bed, to the table and back again through the chairs?”

He smiled and said simply, “No amma! I won’t hurt myself. Besides, it is the only way when you are trying not to put your feet on the floor.” He rolled his eyes. Must adults be this thick?!

I felt a big cloud of fog roll into the brain. “But, why must you not put your feet on the floor, my dear?”

A sheepish grin met my innocent query, and he said he was pretending to be a ninja fighting pirates, and ninjas do not walk on floors like normal people. Pirates, I was told, had no problems jumping vigorously into battle, and the elephants-thundering-sensation must have been the pirates piece of the imagination, not the ninjas.

I praised the universe for an imagination, and went on to soothe my head, while he blithely tumbled and crouched and leapt from one vantage point to another in the battle.

Let the sofa be mountains, the carpet be sea,

There I’ll establish a city for me:

A kirk and a mill and a palace beside,

And a harbour as well where my vessels may ride.

This one is sailing and that one is moored:

Hark to the song of the sailors aboard!

And see, on the steps of my palace, the kings

Coming and going with presents and things!

Robert Louis Stevenson – Child’s Garden of Verse
A Child’s Garden of Verse – Robert Louis Stevenson

The next morning, the sun peeked out from behind the autumnal clouds, wondering whether or not to shine, when it happened. I miscalculated the depth and the breadth of the bed, and tumbled out. I suppose it would have been one of those funny videos when watched in slow motion, but all I remember is a pretty tumble, and a sort of dull crick in the neck before I rolled again and came to be a pile on the floor. 

The sun is a star. We see thousands of stars at night. But do you see thousands of them by day when the sun has decided to show itself too? I wasn’t sure, but that was what I saw. Within moments, I had the loving son rushing downstairs for a glass of water and packet of frozen peas, while the husband tried to help me up, and assess the bone-situation given my propensity of breaking them

For concerned readers, I am fine. Nothing happened except that I am still sore. Three days later, I asked the son wistfully how he managed his imaginating. My neck still felt sore and my head hurt when I tilted it just so. The house needed cleaning and the food needed cooking, and the neck needed resting. What was to be done?

He looked sorry for me, and shrugged. “Maybe you can imaginate that you will win your castle in battle?”

“That sounds like a good plan. My castle only needs cleaning before the army arrives. I can dance and make merry in preparation for the royal ball?!” I said, and we smiled.

I was a royal queen who was also a fantastic dancer as I cooked and cleaned. Robert Louis Stevenson would have been proud.

My Dad is going to be a Duck!

The last day of October was a fine one, but I wasn’t yet feeling it. I took myself out to the front-yard with a book and cup of coffee to see what could be done about it. 

It was around the fifth sip that I heard a little voice pipe up, “My father is going to be a duck!”

I grinned. How marvelous to see adults transform into ducks?!

I laughed in spite of myself, and had a short, sweet conversation with the dinosaur wanna-be, born to a duck wanna-be. Life, that hitherto felt dull, suddenly seemed full of possibility. Oh Sweet Halloween!

The children had decorated the front yard and the door step sweetly enough, but I yearned to look at the passionate decorators and what all they had in store for us that evening. One house has pumpkins carved every few feet, another had cobwebs and ghosts flapping and wailing through the cold days. The evening saunter would reveal the true artists, and though I did not know it then, I was in for a real treat that evening.

Very soon, the human stomach beckoned, and I headed into the kitchen to whip up another meal. Really! Why could human beings not be camels or tardigrades?! Why must we be slaves to our stomachs, and have these enticing appetites every few hours? It is all most trying for someone who does not enjoy cooking every meal of every day very much. (Tardigrades can apparently go for 30 years without food!)

Why could we not be like pelicans? When hungry, we could start dipping and dancing for our food, and then idly pedal around in the bays, and lakes. Wouldn’t that be marvelous?

A few hours later, after the never ending jobs of cooking, eating, and cleaning were done, the husband & I set off on a bike ride. The afternoon was slightly windy, and the clouds had scattered beautifully across the skies. As we pedaled rhythmically, my high strung sensibilities started to calm somewhat, but I still felt unmoored.

We stopped to take a break and where usually, I raved about the beauty of the world around us, I sat mute. The husband glanced at me somewhat surprised. It took a few minutes for nature to work its magic. But it did. There was a man who had his dogs on a long leash with him, and they kept trying to go in for a swim in the lake. It made a lovely diversion to watch them splash into the water, and then out again, in again, and out again. The tiny sparkles in the water, with the fall colors of the flora around the lake, slowly but surely raised the spirits.

Dogs swimming in the distance

As we pedaled back, I thought idly how lucky the ducks were. They had no idea that it was Halloween, and I am sure none of them wanted to dress up as human beings, but we wanted a little bit of magic and wanted to dress as ducks. That is as it should be.

That evening, I was an artist on the streets with ducks, dinosaurs, aliens, princesses, ninjas and superheroes.

The family that dressed as a volcano, ash cloud and tornado had my respect.

The house that scared me was the one where I inadvertently stepped on something and a large Aragog-like spider sprang up from the lawns nearby. Sometimes, our imaginations do go too far, but how lovely it is to have it and exercise it on Halloween?!

“Where there is no imagination there is no horror.” Arthur Conan Doyle


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