The Potent Combination

2022 started off with a sprig of the fantastical. The first book of the year was The Ickabog by J K Rowling. Regular readers know that I am a fan of her work for children (Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts, The Ickabog etc, but not as much of her works for adults such as the Robert Galbraith ones or other adult books) .

The Ickabog by [J.K. Rowling]
The Ickabog – By J K Rowling

In any case, I was grateful for the first book of the year being one so classically told, and imagined. Her story is relevant to every dictatorship, and every place where power holds sway. One can see the influences of her work at the Amnesty International in the story. She shares some of these experiences in her graduation day speech at Harvard (Benefits of Failure & Importance of Imagination).

As the car made its ways past the hills wearing their green robes after the recent rains, I asked the occupants if they would be interested in a spot of Cornucopian story-telling. One nodded enthusiastically, the other reluctantly, and the third did not deign to indulge me with an answer. No special points for guessing the nod intensities with the personalities. But it is was nice to be able to read aloud to the folks in the car – enough to get them hooked anyway. Like I wrote in an earlier post, the best way to read out your favorite literature is in a locked vehicle.

The Ickabog is a fearful beast that Cornucopian children are frightened with. (The equivalent of the South Indian Poochandi). However, after an unfortunate accident – the cunning lords of King Fred convince him that the Ickabog is indeed real. They see it as a way of fear-mongering, and stifling transparency. As the improbable tale of the Ickabog was spread by the conniving Lords Spittleworth & Flapoon, the population was led astray into believing lies upon lies, and soon, very few had the capacity to unravel the web of lies, or had the motivation to do so. Their King Fred was a mild sort – cowardly, but also thoroughly lacking in critical thinking & administrative prowess. 

As we made our way around the Getty Museum, we trundled around the French Art and there, on display, were the artifacts probably obtained after the French Revolution, when a number of these things made it to the wider world markets. Reading up a little on King Louis XVI there, the daughter described the king. ‘Wasn’t much of a King – he wasn’t particularly harmful or anything…’ and went on to narrate what she had read about him and the times. To my mind, he sounded remarkably like King Fred in The Ickabog (If you’d like to read the first chapter). 

The old father & I have been watching the news for the past few days ( a bad habit that I need to snap out of), and it is disheartening to watch the same struggles for power continue in different settings. Tanks piling up in fits over Ukraine, power battles raging on in Afghanistan, Syria and the Middle East region. How many people involved on all sides to call the shots, plan the power grabs, use guile and flattery to achieve their aims?

Power, fame and flattery are a potent combination that can poison the best of minds. Mankind’s history should be good enough teachers, even if our stories and fables are not, but it isn’t. Every dictator in the history of the Earth was impaled upon swords dipped in this mixture, and yet, time marches on claiming its victims. 

What was it that Einstein said of a peaceful, purposeful life? 

A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”

Albert Einstein


Traveling with the Moon

I traveled with the moon on my trip to India. The full moon rose along side my flight taking off.  There was something poetic about traveling with the moon halfway around the Earth. 

The golden moon elegantly shone and sailed through the inky skies. Slowly, the golden orb turned silver, while the skies around it turned pitch black. Far above the Earth, the hues of the night sky seem richer somehow. Finally, during the last leg of my flight, it was a pale white against the rosy pinks of the early morning clouds and azure skies.

Amuse me while I chant like an enchanted kindergartener:

The Earth rotates on its axis every 24 hours.

The Earth revolves around the sun every year.

The Moon rotates on its axis every 27.322 days.

It also takes that amount of time for it to revolve around the Earth.

So, we only see the same face of the moon, yet the trick of light and its reflection gives us a different show every night.

I see you shaking your head and wondering whether all is well. It is. But, I felt the beauty of it all wash over me anew every time I peeked out at the moon from the aircraft window.

Moon high above the clouds

The only difference between the moon and self was that while my sights may have soared skyward at take-off, it was a pretty poor dance companion to the smooth gliding of the moon. The flight shuddered and blinked its way through the long night, while the moon gracefully accompanied – serene, shining, and sans fuss: Gravitational forces holding it in bay. Thousands of feet below, the ocean waves rose and fell, also dancing to the gravitational tugs and pulls of the beautiful mistress of the skies. Man made designs are cumbersome at best compared to those polished and tuned by eons of nature. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the marvel of flight – we took off in the darkness, and flew always across the world where it was dark when we reached it. I felt like the penguins in winter – huddling and peeping to the skies over a long, dark night. 

At my transit airport, I asked for a cup of coffee to keep awake through the night for my connection flight. The moon needed nothing. The cosmos, is, was, will be.  

Humankind’s movements seem jerky and and oddly designed in comparison. Interspersed with the human sounds and interruptions for food, restroom breaks, flights landing and taking off, the human trip around the earth, was lacking the moon’s elan. 

While thousands undertake journeys like this all the time, I felt a vastness and a soaring that felt un-earthly. In sharp contrast to just 24 hours later, when the world felt constricted, restricted and very much moored to Earth. With instructions to ‘Self Quarantine’, I stepped inside the home, and was not to see the moon make its journey around the planet for the next few days.

Human doings do not affect moons. At least not yet.

The Little Red Fox

I have written about the little red fox in the riverbed before. This little creature never ceases to fascinate me. Living amidst the geese, herons, grebes , ducks, deer and numerous cats, I am unable to determine where this creature came from. I have never seen another fox in the vicinity. His fox parents are missing, fox kin seem absent too. This fox is a mystery alright. Yet he is full of verve and sprightly leaps across the stream-like river, or takes a fast run without missing a step along its grassy banks. 

One day, when the rains had lashed down particularly hard, I stood there scouring the river to see where the little fox may have gone. I do not see him or her regularly, but when I do, it is always worth it. That day, as I walked up the levee to the raised river bank, I saw the little red fox sunning itself on a rock. Anthropomorphizing humans that we are, I craved to catch its mood as it lay there – was it satisfied, scheming, satiated? 

As if in answer, the fox raised its head, looked towards me and then nonchalantly curled up to sun bathe again. I am doing none of the things you think I am doing, I am thinking none of the thinks you think I am thinking. I am simply being.

Watching the fox

The little red fox is a crafty muse:

The little red fox is a crafty muse

She doesn’t appear when you need her

She grants a glimpse 

When she does, you better be prepared for poetry never announces its arrival:

It simply Is.

One day I saw the fox sprinting

Running faster than I had seen any living creature in recent times run

Not in fear, not in pursuit, 

For exercise maybe – it turned its head mid stride, and said with its eyes,

Just simply running.

Another day, I saw him lying on a rock

Sunning himself.

Was he brooding, contemplating or scheming?

As if in answer he raised his head and said

I am just being.

Foxes have fascinated mankind for ages. Fantastic Mr Fox – By Roald Dahl, 🦊 Fox and Eight – by George Saunders, so many animal tales on their ingenuity and resourcefulness, and yet they continue to enchant. The latest I read was a poem on a goodbye to a fox by Mary Oliver, that made me attempt this feeble one.

Solarium Magic

The son came and tugged me to the newly opened section in our local library. His eyes were shining as he said, “Come on! I found something that you’re going to love!” I cannot deny that I love it when something like this happens, and smiled. Off we went, climbing two stairs at a time. Christened ‘The Solarium’, it nestles in a sunlit section of the building – like a mini glass house, it basks there in the warmth of the Californian sun, and doing the good quiet work that is hardest of them all- converting sunlight to food. The area is dedicated to making gardeners of us all – there are seedling packets with instructions on how to sow and grow the seeds given to us. There are books on gardening nearby.  Feeble attempts to capture the glory and wonder of the real work.

I admit it, it has since become one of my favorite places in the library. I am in awe of gardeners – true magicians of the Earth I call them. My own feeble attempts at coaxing life to take root and thrive, only reiterate the power of the simple garden. I was talking to the son as to how we must all learn to grow our own food, make our own food, learn to sew and stitch out clothes etc. More and more, we live in a world where these simple things are becoming separated by layers of machinations and supply chain mechanics. 

When we were in Epcot (Disney World, Florida) a few years ago, I remember the children seeing the plants from which their beloved tomatoes and eggplants grew with awe. City children typically do not see these marvels of nature slowly doing their work, conscientiously and relentlessly.

Epcot green house

It was probably propitious that I should have found the book, The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros, just then in the new fiction shelf. The book is set in a time after a nuclear war, and how very very few people have survived the disaster. The mother-son duo manage to grow food for themselves in a glass house, and learn to thrive on their own. It is a fascinating read. It is by no means unique, but the narrative style is appealing and slowly draws you in. It is also something that I am sure everyone thinks of occasionally – the sad aftermath of an apocalypse. What would we do? Who would survive and how will they live? So many of our solutions depend on power. 

Mulling over these things early one morning, is when I heard about the ProtoVillage from one of my friends.

  • Grow your own food, 
  • Make your own food
  • Weave your own clothes
  • Build your own home 

Inspired, I emptied the seeds from the Solarium, into a moist patch of mud in the backyard and watched as slowly, a few weeks later, little shoots and leaves sprouted from the Earth. I may have danced a jig.

“Nature never hurries, yet accomplishes everything.”

Lao Tzu

The Art of Judging Art

The husband showed me an episode on White Collar – a drama series based on an FBI agent who takes the help of a conman he arrested to solve art crimes. A fascinating series, it soon caught the fancy of the household primarily because it is one of the few shows that we can watch with the young son in tow.  Of course, modern television has taken gripping drama to an art, and we found ourselves enjoying the show together. 

In one episode, the protagonist goes to great depths to explain how he found a particular piece of art was counterfeited. The light of the shadows in the painting, he says, were at an angle that could only have been possible if the museum lighting were shining at that angle, not something that Rembrandt or Van Gogh or Picasso (I forget which artist) would have had to contend with in his work of art. 

I remember being awestruck at this. Of course, art aficionados would not find it marvel-worthy, but I did. My simple mind appreciates the beauty of a good work of art, and it stops there. The critical eye, the keen observations, they all seem a work of wonder to me. 

It was, after we had watched this episode that we bundled up and drove through the lush hills shining in the sun-dappled valleys and plains of California for a short trip to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Getty Museum turned out to be a wonderful outing for Covid times. It was not crowded, and the artwork was good without being overwhelming.

As I stood in the Van Gogh section, I could not help wondering how that many works of Van Gogh were in Getty’s Museum when we had seen numerous others in galleries across Italy. Apparently, in his last year of life, confined to an asylum for mental illness, Van Gogh created around 600 masterpieces.

I snapped a picture of the Irises, and made my way down to the gift shop afterwards. It was there that the awe of what we have done dawned on me, There were mass produced pieces of merchandise with the exact nuance of the irises on purses, scarves, tote bags, books and magnets.

What is the true worth of a masterpiece? I am sure there are hundreds of paintings, true masterpieces, that do not go on to have this enduring sense of appeal and capture the imagination of generations. 

I tried fumbling some of these sentiments to the children, and the children piped up in style, “If Neal Caffrey tries to steal it, it is worth it. If not, forget it!”

Regardless, the urge to paint is encouraged by Van Gogh himself (according to the Internet)

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

– Vincent Van Gogh

When Musings Are Amusing

It haș only been about a hundred years since humankind gained the knowledge that the atom is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. In the intervening century, what all we have done with this knowledge – slowly building upon the cumulative knowledge of mankind? It is astounding, and I shivered a little – partly due to the cold, and partly due to awe.

It took humankind 200,000 years, or at least about six millennia of civilization to discover subatomic particles, and somehow in the intervening century since, the pace of technology and the possibilities of the future seem to have raced forward. Every generation has had to live with phenomenal changes. Barring huge setbacks, where would humanity be in another 100-200 years? 

The stars spun around in its merry dance around the universe ,while I had the same sensation in my head trying to make sense of the world we have built for ourselves. The simple observation on the atom’s makeup led us on a merry dance of our own – that of financial markets, world economies and much more.

The husband was explaining the concept of NFTs, VR worlds that is already beginning to manifest in the world.  Our great grandfathers would not have understood. We are not going to understand things of perceived importance in our grandchildren’s lives, forget great grandchildren’s. The mind boggled. 

It all started with my fretting about the Economics of the world getting increasingly complex – how did stock market indices, per capita incomes came to be built one upon the other? Currency fluctuations, led to the discussions on crypto currencies, and we went on to how people claimed ownership to stars. Apparently, one could pick a star and name it after yourself for a fee. ( Star registry )You essentially ‘owned’ the star from then on. The only problem was that there were multiple star registries, and so multiple people could pick the same star to ‘own’. Also, there is the real problem of the star not knowing it is ‘owned’ by a human on a faraway planet.

I looked up and laughed out loud – the stars seemed to understand and winked back.

I could not help thinking of the parody of The Little Prince by Antoine Saint de Exupery. In The Little Prince, the Prince visits different ‘planets’ each hosting one human being – a geographer, a banker, a king, a drunkard and so on. The banker never seems to spend any time enjoying the stars around him, but spends his time counting them all, as he claims that the moment he counts a star, he owns it. (Carl Sagan’s Quote on Astronomy being a humbling profession is completely lost on the poor, rich banker!)

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience

Carl Sagan, Physicist and Astronomer

Really, human beings are the most remarkable beings if you stop to think about it. We want to own the first digital signatures, the most coveted things on earth (Napoleon prided himself on his Aluminum vessels, and it was considered a luxury till someone found how to produce it enmasse:, the best paintings that cost millions, and so on. We want our egos fed and nourished all the time by a universe that largely does not seem to care whether we exist or not. 

But, simple things that mattered before the composition of the atom was discovered still remains important. We still value our loved ones, yearn for contentment and peace, and want to live on a bountiful planet that allows us to thrive.

There is no doubt about it: The musings of our importance on a cold, starlit night is highly amusing.

This Beautiful Earth

2022 started off with a marvelous opportunity to read poetry at the Coimbatore Festival of the Arts. The theme was to choose a poem that immortalizes a place you love just as T S Elliot immortalized London in his writings. I wracked my brain, and tried to find one place – but found myself dithering. I had a book of 150 poems open on my lap as we made our way to one of my favorite places on Earth – a peek under the ocean waters (Monterey Bay Aquarium).  But there was no poem on the oceans in the book. 

“How about this one? “, I asked and read out one sparkling piece after another.

The trick with poetry reading is to get the whole family shut inside a car, snag the front seat so the car’s audio controls are with you, and then to start reading poetry out aloud. It is a good strategy as long as one knows to gauge moods and cheese it at the right time. I had a thoughtful audience, an audience that gave me suggestions, and even recited some of their favorite ones for consideration. What more could one ask for?

The more I thought about it, the less I was able to zone in one place. Many places seem to hold something special – places we’d lived in, places we’d made memories in, and places we’d visited and fallen in love with. 

The more I tried to narrow down, the more I found myself drawn to the planet Earth. After all, I love almost every river I see, wish upon every stream and fountain – man-made or natural, love every tree, admire every flower as is wafts its scents through my senses, and adore the play of the evening light amidst the clouds. How could one place be selected? I did wonder about Mary Oliver’s poem on the unknown pond. The one in which she just refers to a nameless pond, since it could work for any pond, and I agreed with the sentiment. How many ponds have I since pondered over with that beautiful poem in mind. In fact, I have my own version of Walden’s pond, which is nothing close to Walden’s Pond that so inspired Thoreau in size or stature. But it is reachable from my home, and every time I glance upon its water, a new delight unfolds. Whether it is the pelicans, geese or ducks swimming there, or the play of the reeds movements upon its surface, every glimpse offers something lovely for the soul.

So finally, I settled on Planet Earth as my favorite. We Belong on Earth, is after all, a popular theme on the blog. Therefore, the poem chosen was A Grain of Sand – By Robert W Service


If starry space no limit knows 

And sun succeeds to sun, 

There is no reason to suppose 

Our earth the only one. 

by Robert W. Service

Followed by Carl Sagan’s ode to the Pale Blue Dot (written almost 45 years after A Grain of Sand – this ode is one for the ages) and then finally with by my own humble ode to our beautiful Earth.

As we walk upon this Earth, there is much to be grateful for, and much work to be done to fix our footprints on the sand.

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