Thursday, August 26, 2010

Brahma Kamal or Flower of Bethlehem

Either name is too exquisitely perfect for the breathtaking beauty of this flower. Have you seen one? It is a profound experience. It is also a commitment. Although we have had this plant in our garden for two years I saw it in bloom for the first time only last night. I am still speechless and overwhelmed.

Its poignantly brief life is part of its charm. From the first bud to the final sleep is a matter of weeks, but the true transformation - from a tightly closed mass of thin, tapering petals to a glorious and dazzling display of full, sensuous, open-hearted beauty - takes place over a few short hours. Look the other way, get lost in a novel or facebook, and you miss the whole show.

I missed more than I care to think about over the past few weeks, but this time, I was ready. Stalking the Flower of Bethlehem, you might say. I checked on it every morning and every evening. Not knowing exactly what I was looking for meant I had to make multiple visits each night to be sure I wasn't missing anything.

At night! Yes. This is a night-blooming flower, which adds immeasurably to its mystery and allure. It begins to emerge around 7 PM  and then continues to blossom till after one in the morning.

This was right around seven and it was different enough from the day before that I began to hope it might actually, at last, be the night.

7:30. Dusk setting in and the flower seems to feel more confident, more willing to reveal itself.

Then dinner details took over and the rituals of feeding Moy Moy and putting her to bed. It was almost nine before I got out again and what I saw was so magical I went right back and woke Moy Moy up and took her out in her wheelchair into the dark, green, damp garden so she could see for herself.

Though, like Moy Moy, this was my first encounter too, somehow I knew this was only the beginning.

Reluctantly, I took Moy back to bed and continued my vigil outside. My sister-in-law was with me and we took turns taking pictures from different angles and comparing our results.

Then suddenly (OK, we had gone inside to have our soup and bread - a light dinner, too much excitement!), there was a sea-change.

Those curved-in-on-themselves lines now edged out and flared into separate rays. But there was still more to come.

The pencil-thin rays defined themselves further as separate, twiggy free-standers while the center plumped and glistened, showing off those impossibly delicate little (what do you call them, all you botanists out there?).

And then . . . a fragrance. A fragrance! As if the visual weren't glory enough. A fragrance so bewitching it made me want to cry just a little. A tang of lemon, a splash of something spicy, and all on the cool, rain-spattered night sky.

Finally (it was two AM), I had to say good night.

I plucked one of the flowers - we had three -  photographed it in the less difficult indoor light:

and went to bed.

In the morning, there was this:

A tired, spent and still beautiful blossom, one who had saved everything for a single blaze of glory.

I couldn't help but think of this as a metaphor for the people in our lives whose time of transcendence and astonishment we miss because we didn't happen to be watching at the right moment: the ones we see all tight and furled, never realizing they are just - about - to - open. Or the ones we see all drooping and exhausted, never realizing that they just - gave - it - all - they - had.

I love that we get to see this enacted in nature and then learn its lessons for our own sweet lives.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Order in the Cupboard, Order in the Mind

When we were kids, Mom always insisted that we make our beds and tidy our rooms before leaving for school in the morning. We bitterly resented it. "What difference does it make to you if our rooms aren't neat?" we would ask plaintively.

Implacable, she said she couldn't do her own work knowing there was a mess somewhere in the house.

"Don't look!" we suggested. "Just close the doors."

"It doesn't work like that," she explained. "I always know."

I guess I inherited this trait. I, too, always know. When there is a messy spot in the house, I ,too, am distracted and stymied by it. And until I break down and sort out the chaos, I can't do my best work.

My closet has been crying out for attention for over two months. I kept flinging things in and looking the other way, keeping the door closed most of the time and going in as infrequently as possible. And in spite of being extremely busy for the same two months, beavering away like mad on a very important project (RAISING 40 LAKHS), I really never hit my stride. I am convinced it's because of that closet.

The irony is that it's because I was so busy I couldn't clean it out. I knew it would take me three hours, and I just didn't have three hours to spare.

Today was a holiday. When Moy Moy went for her nap, I decided to just do it. It actually took me only an hour and a half. Using Cathleen's system of color-coding, I made neat stacks of all my clothes, lined my shoes out along the closet floor, hung my dresses and jackets in a sweet little range and threw away all the junk that had been gathering dust since the last time I did this.

When I was finished, rather than being tired, I was so pleased with myself and so full of energy I scrubbed the kitchen cupboards, made tomato soup and went for a four mile walk with Moy Moy.
And THEN wrote four long overdue letters and this little blog post.

I'm sure there is a lesson here somewhere.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Generosity and How It Happens

Are people generous by nature or does it need to be taught? And why are some places noted for philanthropy and others are not?

I've been thinking about these questions a lot as I work toward achieving our current goal of raising 40 lakh rupees by the end of September.

One of the ideas we came up with to raise money locally was borrowed from something I have seen  in Delhi - many restaurants there collaborate with voluntary organisations by placing cards on each table informing customers that to support the work of Organization XYZ, they have added 10 rupees to the bill. Customers who don't wish to contribute can ask their waiter to remove it.

In practice, almost no one does so. 10 rupees is such a miniscule amount that most people hardly even notice it, let alone care. In a busy restaurant, the income can be as much as a thousand rupees a day - nearly four lakhs a year! Painless!

So we thought we'd give it a try here in Dehradun.

Here's our card, which we thought was very clever and attractive:

Card in hand, off we trotted to meet the owner of one of the best-known restaurants in the city (which shall remain nameless), ready to make our pitch and add his restaurant's name and logo - convinced that rupees would begin pouring in in a matter of days.

We were shocked when the owner reacted with horror.

"I can't do that," he said. "I'd lose my customers. Oh they'd let it go the first time - no one wants to look cheap - but they'd never come back. They'd accuse us of hoodwinking them."

Let's assume this gentleman is correct, that he knows his clientele and has accurately assessed their response. Then why is the Delhi clientele different? In one of the restaurants where I have seen these cards, the clientele are regulars, repeat customers who come in over and over and among whom, according to the manager, there is at most one a week who objects to the idea.

So what's up in Dehradun? Because it's not just about adding a measly ten rupees to a restaurant bill.

When we sell the calendar, for example,  the rate for India is Rs 200 apiece. Here in Dehradun, it has to be Rs 100 - or it simply won't sell. I can't count the number of people here who have carefully explained to me why it isn't right to charge even 100 when clearly, the cost of printing the calendar cannot be more than 50. "IT'S TO RAISE FUNDS", I try and explain back, but it's like talking to a wall.

The per capita income in Dehradun is higher than most cities in the country. We are flooded here with think tanks, high-end schools and major institutions whose staff earn good salaries and have a wide range of perks like housing, low-interest loans, medical care and education for their children. So it's not a question of not being able to afford it.

Is it something deeper? Or is it simply that people here have never been taught about the joy of giving?

Last year we had two dynamic volunteers - Merrow and Ashleigh - who designed a brilliant plan (they called it B.U.I.L.D.E.R. ) for school fundraising for us, the core of which is turning students on to the excitement, creativity and sense of purpose such activity engenders. More than the money, the project is about commitment, teamwork and leadership development - all qualities our future leaders need if they are ever going to bring about positive change in this country.

Both our volunteers had been involved in similar endeavours in their own schools and colleges - in addition to raising significant amounts of money for the good causes they were working for, they learned enormous amounts about event management, PR, finance, budgeting, decision-making and how to work well as part of a team. They also learned a great deal about the specific cause they were working for - if you are going to convince someone to donate, you absolutely need to be well-informed enough to be persuasive. And in the process, it dawned on them how satisfying it is to put your heart and soul, your talents and your time, your passion and your energy into something meaningful, something with purpose, something that is about more than a paycheck or a career move.

Fund raising is about working for a cause. Donating is too. And believe it or not, it feels great. It's a wonderful and liberating thing to be generous, to open your heart and your wallet and share what you have.  And I feel sorry for the people of Dehradun because - perhaps - they haven't been given enough opportunities to do that.

Our other effort this week was going to school principals to ask them to allow us to introduce the B.U.I.L.D.E.R. project to their students. So far, it's been a resounding NO. We've been told we cannot "use" students this way, that parents will object, that they are busy with important things like exams, that if they say yes to us they will have to say yes to everyone and anyway, how can we even think about asking???

And yet again, all I can feel is pity for what these children are missing out on: the joy of giving.

Time and again, when we do an awareness workshop, at the end of the session, the first, second, third and last question the students always ask is: How can we help? They are eager and ready and so much more than willing. And we, as adults, as their teachers, tell them to put that impulse away, focus on the exams, study more, think less, don't reach out, don't take risks, don't care.

And then we wonder why Dehradun's citizens don't want to give.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A New Phase In Life For Mummy, Age 93

You've met Mummy before.

At 93, she is the matriarch of our family - its oldest living member and one of the most respected and admired women I have ever known. We all stand in awe of her discipline, her integrity and her astonishing energy. Even now, at this age, she teaches neighborhood children for five hours a day and is better informed about what goes on in their classrooms than they are themselves.

She is progressive in her thinking, keenly interested in politics and current affairs and an avid reader of biographies, fiction, history and poetry. She stays in touch with everyone by phone and by mail, remembers every detail about every relative's life, keeps track of our household accounts and reminds us of all our appointments and due dates.

But she IS 93. Her joints aren't as supple as they once were and some of her daily routines have now become difficult and even a burden. Her hair, for one. As modern as she is, where her hair is concerned, Mummy has always been traditional. After her ceremonial mundan at the age of two, when all her hair was shaved off, she has never had a hair cut. Never. Her beautiful white locks fell below her waist - thick and glossy and constantly in need of washing, drying, combing and braiding.

Over the last ten years, she's found it harder and harder to accomplish and for the past year, she's actually had to resort to asking for help, at least with the combing and braiding. Not her style. Mummy is the epitome of the independent woman and always has been. So an idea that first occurred to her ten years ago kept growing stronger: Why not just get it cut off?

But it's not as easy as it sounds, for a traditional Indian woman, however progressive. What would people think? What would people say? Short hair in India is associated with a certain type of woman: fast, maybe even loose; one who doesn't care two hoots what people think or what they have to say.

For a woman of Mummy's age, the idea itself was shocking: just trying to imagine herself without her hair was impossible. And yet the idea persisted. The dream of a quick shampoo, hair drying in minutes rather than hours, a casual running through of the comb  . . . tempting.

And then there were THE INSPIRATIONS:

Mummy has a niece whose hair style she has long admired - Pravar, who is 20 years younger, and who decided to get her own hair cut one day without telling anyone of her decision because, she said, she knew everyone would have an opinion and the only one she really cared about was hers. Another woman in the in the US, almost her age, had done it and then right here in Dehradun, one of our neighbors took the plunge. If they could all do it, Mummy reasoned, why can't I?

 But the real inspiration came when Nutan (God's Elder sister) arrived. Do not dare to have a dream when Nutan is around. She will make it her life's work to fulfill it. She knew that Mummy really did want to cut her hair, she knew she lacked the courage to do it on her own and she knew that she really wanted to be pushed.

So even though it was raining torrentially  that day, she forced me to go to a local beauty parlor and arrange for a guy to come to our house that evening. Then she went out and bought several kilos of mithai so that we could celebrate the way we would for a mundan.

When the great moment finally arrived, Mummy was reluctant, and less than pleased.

And the cut, when it came, was abrupt even for us - it was good Mummy couldn't see it happen:

 But everyone gathered close to reassure and cheer her on:

Except for Masiji, who thoroughly disapproved and tried to talk her out of it right till the last moment:

Nadim worked hard to give her just the right style: elegant, subtle, and easy to maintain.

And when it was finally finished, even Mummy had to admit that she liked the new sleek look.

and with turning back no longer an option, she happily had her celebratory mithai and blamed it all on her stubborn daughters.