Lessons from the past ?

February 17, 2010

A visit to one of the many heritage houses that dot South Goa is mandatory for tourists & travellers. They reflect the pomp, glory and grandeur of a bygone era. In these days of instant gratification, it is useful to be remined that these structures, conceived and completed more than 250-300 years ago, have stood the test of time and the elements and are, by and large, none the worse for it. The wealth on display in these houses in the form of floors from Italy, glass from Belgium, china from Macau and paintings from Spain and Portugal transiently time-port visitors to a period when feudal families monopolised the riches of the land and epitomised the capitalistic excessses of their times. However, scratch a little beneath the surface and it gets difficult to escape the sadness and melancholy that envelop these structures and also the foreboding of how quickly a particular situation can unravel. And a lurking suspicion that the priceless artefacts and treasures hide more than they reveal.

The houses themselves are in varying states of disrepair. The present economic status of the owner families is reflected in their upkeep. The motive behind welcoming visitors is all too apparent. It is monetary. The donations that the families seek at the end of the guided tour are a means of sustenance. A sad predicamen to be in and worse still, it reinforces the vicious loop that they have got themselves into. As an individual visitor, the decay that these houses mirror is so relatable. You almost believe, however improbably, that with a little more prudence and restraint, this downward spiral could have been avoided. Unlike for instance a Hampi where an entire kingdom collapsed bringing down in its wake, towns, families and individuals, the crumbling heritage houses of Goa resonate with untold stories of familial descent from glory. It is particularly ironical at a time when the rest of the country (or parts of the state for that matter) is basking in the riches of a neo liberliased economy.

These houses also fall into the familiar, unwitting and expedient trap of glorifying the past for gratuitious benefits. With some active and well meaning support from the state, the current absence of which is made exceedingly apparent to the visitor, things could still be a lot different and impactful. The ability of these private museums to illuminate and educate can be harnessed. A peek into the past which fails to educate is a huge opportunity loss for society. And a society which consistently fails in this endeavor is condemned to repeat its mistakes over and over again. This is not to suggest that an objective assessment of history is the panacea for all ils plaguing humanity, but creating an environment for doing so would be a step in the right direction. Studying history, of which culture and heritage are an integral part, which does not educate is an exercise in futility.
The other aspect which needs to be explored and strengthened is the ability of these heritage houses to create a sense of collective ownership. Pride and a sense of ownership in one’s heritage is critical for heritage to thrive and grow. A lot of heritage is intangible and embedded. These mansions are the last bastions and custodians of whatever little of our heritage that can be seen and touched. Rather than be seen as islands which have lost touch with the environment that they find themselves in, it is vital they engender feelings of pride and collective ownership among citizens. Again, this is an aspect which will need the sustained support of the state. A success story in this regard which the state government would do well to emulate is that of theWest Bengal government in making every Bengali feel that he/ she “owns” the Calcutta Metro.

A visit to any Heritage house, beyond appealing to the visual senses, should be informative, illuminating and uplifting. If not, they would have failed in their reason for being. Applying this yardstick to our backyard, I guess we have a fair distance to go.

Uncluttered

January 28, 2010

Is urban life cluttered. Going by what people have to say after spending time in Arco, it would seem so. What is it that clutters life in the cities. And what is missing here that makes it appear uncluttered.

People come to Arco Iris for a holiday. Naturally, they tend to leave the workplace behind. Given the number of hours that people are spending at their workplace, it follows that time tends to hang, initially lightly when there is no workplace to go to. It can be argued credibly that people do the same over weekends. Yet, there is no sense of this “unclutter”. Could it possibly be that leaving the workplace is one thing and leaving work is quite another. These days, it is impossible to meet a working professional without a blackberry and/ or an ordinary mobile phone and/ or a internet enabled laptop. With these leashes firmly in place, is it not logical to continue to get the feeling of being tethered to the workplace. Thankfully, in and around Arco, the wireless signals fight a losing battle and most of them wireless devices are rendered impotent. The extent to which “connectivity” has inveigled itself into our lives is impossible to realise till we experience otherwise. It has been my personal experience that the “now and here” of mobile communication is so pervasive so as to make us blind sighted to the longer term. I used to be paranoid about responding to mails and unanswered calls. The feeling of self importance is heady and more relevantly, delusional. The world, as it has for so long, will continue spinning. As for telephone calls, the world would be a better place in the absence of these stark inanities which pass off for conversations between friends, spouses and well-wishers.

Then there is thing about “doing nothing”. A few times we have had guests checking in with noble intentions of checking out all the places around Arco and ticking off the list of must-dos and must-sees, only to surrender to the simple pleasure of “doing nothing”. The number of times that this has happened is revealing in itself. The pressure to be doing, or in the least, be seen as doing something is so intense that, guilt quickly dispels any thought of doing nothing. Even a holiday becomes a plank for outdoing the Joneses. Yet, given half a chance people are extremely comfortable taking up the option of simply lazing around or lounging with a book and a some beers. The prospect of doing nothing is liberating and actually experiencing it is thrilling. Less is more is truer than ever in today’s times.

Could it also be being closer to nature brings with it a sense of tranquility. For all the speeding that we do the fact remains that Mother Earth continues to spin at more or less the same speed. Is it that a little effort at aligning our lives to the natural rhythms makes our lives appear “less off-key”. The feeling of oneness in being woken up by the birds is refreshing, if not uplifting, and is less stressful than being rudely awakened by a shrill alarm.

All this is not to suggest that all is wrong with the fast pace of urban lives. As long as we are able to balance it with quiet, introspective periods doing things that we like and want to do, including “doing nothing”, life will be “uncluttered”.

In a few more days, we complete our first festive season in Arco Iris. It has been a lovely ride so far. In this period, we have had the pleasure of meeting wonderful people who have given us the privilege of hosting them during their stay in Goa. What has been particularly revealing is the relative brief amount of time that it takes to make friends with people who we met for the first time. Without exception, all have arrived as guests and departed as friends. At the same time, dormant friendships have been rekindled. Facebook stands testimony to this.

I guess, Beni and I have truly found our niche as “hosts”. Although the learning curve has been steep, in a sense, it has been an extension of what we were doing in Bangalore and in Chennai before that. We have always prided ourselves in hosting friends in our home. It is a little different when people who you have not known before express a desire to stay with us in Arco Iris. Any apprehension that we have soon disappears after a few hours. This also affords us an opportunity of seeing things constantly through others’ eyes. So many things that all of us take for granted in our daily lives, be it the chirping of local birds or the sight of the mist rolling in from the lake or the simple joy in enjoying a hot cup of coffee by the lakeside becomes memorable when you get to see others enjoying it so obviously.

This period has also reiterated that all of us have so much more in common than we would like to believe. It has been strangely reassuring to be reminded that all of us have our personal battles which, come to think of it, are not very different from the next person’s. It is simultaneously humbling and elevating to be reminded of this. Life is all about facing up to these and hopefully overcoming them.

What started as a lab scale experiment has now become a way of life. Without falling into the trap of looking too far ahead, we would like to believe that the results have been very encouraging which gives us the conviction of continuing along this path. It has been a while since I made that assertion.

The Circle of Life

January 8, 2010

1990

Final year of college. Decisions to be made. Narrowed down to an MBA or a CA. CA was the cheaper option. Clincher was the fact that you could actually get paid Rs. 150 as monthly stipend for the ordeal. However, thanks to friends who opted for the MBA route, met people who were also embarking on a career in “management”. SB was one such acquaintance. Drinking oiled the friendship. Both of us went our separate ways and kept in touch on and off. Remember those were the antediluvean era before email, cell phones and social networking.

1996 or 1997 (memory is not what it used to be)

Joined an international consulting firm in Bangalore. AK is my boss. More friend than boss. Suffered each other for a fairly long time. Life moved on, more by accident than design. Though we never stopped taking credit for all the good things happening to us and around us. Naturally, the job started to bore. Start checking out other options. SB’s second coming into my life. Mentions his sister is now married to a gent who happens to be from the same confounded consulting business and is looking for people (do they ever stop). Fixes up a meeting for me with him. Meet him in his office. AK is kind enough to let me go for the meeting. Never landed the job. Cannot remember why. Cannot be lack of merit (fresh from reading Bonfire of the Vanities). Distinctly remember discussing the meeting with AK. Life moves on, as it always has and always will. AK and I go our own separate ways and I presume, so did SB’s brother in law (hereinafter referred to as “SU”). But not before, AK introduced me to the rest of his family including his sister DK.

New Year’s Eve 2010

First season for Arco Iris, our (Beni and I) newest baby. Touch base with old friends for selfish reasons. Hoping against hope they will refer guests, the paying ones that is. SB obliges. Calls up and says SU and SU’s wife (SB’s sister for those who still have not got the hang of it and hereinafter referred to as “VU”) are looking at options for bringing in 2010 and presto, they are coming to Arco Iris. Cheers all around. Me, am happy that I will be meeting SU after more than a decade. Forgot to mention that besides his professional competence, what impressed me the most about SU during the one meeting in 1997 was his heavy smoking. Doesn’t take much to impress me, then and now. A breath of fresh air in these rabid anti-tobacco days.

28th December 2009. SU and VU arrive. Pleasantries exchanged. Me shocked to be told that SU has quit smoking. Respect slides down a couple of notches. Literally fell off the chair when SU started espousing the causes of meditation and yoga. Me wondering if this is the same SU or an impersonator. Things do change in 12 years time. VU sweetly hands over the gifts that she has for us. 3 paintings. By VU’s ex-colleague’s sister. Picked up in her first exhibition.

The chat veers to our professional careers. During the course of the conversation realise that AK and SU were colleagues at some point. And that the paintings are by AK’s sister DK. After VU came to know that she would be spending New Year’s with her brother’s good friend, she decided to pick up gifts and almost celestially she decided on paintings by AK’s sister, DK, without the slightest idea of how all this was connected. More to come. SU and Vu’s yesteryears’ neighbour in Mumbai, PK happens to be a colleague of ours (yes, both Beni’s and mine). And quite miraculously, one of my seniors during my CA internship days had interned under him in New Delhi a few hundred years back. Agreed, it is a small world, but this small ?. Given the way things were unraveling, I was quietly confident that if we have dug deep enough, we would have realised that our fathers were separated at birth. Thankfully, by then my Old Monk had run out and that was that.

So, by some divine quirk, 3 paintings by DK adorn our home, Arco Iris, in Goa. Happy Tidings and a Sign that wonderful things are on their way.

Wishing all of us a wonderful 2010.

Snake encounters

November 21, 2009

9 Pythons intertwinedI have never been much of a wildlife person. Preferred “being wild” to “in the wild”. Over the years, there have been the odd trips here and there with friends who have a deeper appreciation for the wild and her denizens. Without exception all these trips have been memorable and yet I remain unconverted. I have never bothered figuring out why this was the case and I am not going to do so now. So please continue reading the post without fear of being subjected to psycho babbling.

The last few months, since my move to Goa, I have had practical, real world, on the ground reasons for taking more than a cursory look at the world around me. To begin with, the place around Arco Iris is beautiful and the visual beauty will not escape even a blind man. More relevantly, Curtorim is a fairly heavily wooded area. It is natural that it has a far degree of wildlife presence in the form of birds, reptiles and a handful of mammals (not the big cat variety though, more like jackals and mongoose). The mammals, by and large, keep to themselves. You can spot the neighbourhood mongoose, friendly guy that he is, on a lucky day and the jackals make it a point to come as a pack almost every other night to Arco, do the ceremonial symphony and slink away. The birds, in and around the property are beautiful. Again, not much of a birder myself, but fortunately, been in the company of friends who are interested in avifauna. Thanks to them, I know that you can sight babblers, robin magpies, common kingfishers, whistling ducks, egrets, cormorants, the white heron, Indian owls and so on within a 500 metre radius of Arco. Since the property abuts the Corjim lake, I am told by local birders that one can spot upto 40 bird species within a 1 km radius. I guess, I have digressed. The point is the birds are beautiful and with the exception of the odd bat that manages to find its way inside the house, they largely go unnoticed by me.

The reptiles are a different kettle of fish altogether (nice turn of phrase, even though I am saying it myself) . I am pretty much petrified of them, snakes in particular. Unfortunately for me, over the last few months, we have had a couple of visits from them. Fortunately for us, we had picked up a list of snake rescuers with their mobile numbers (a lot of them volunteers) available in Goa and it was post a frantic call triggered by a snake deciding to drop by that we had a very friendly Forest Department official coming to rescue the bugger. He had a cup of tea with us and in true Goan fashion managed to find a link in his family tree to Beni’s. Brief though the interaction was, I realised that he sincerely enjoyed what he was doing for a living. He called us this morning to find out if we would be interested in accompanying him to Karmel ghat and witnessing the release of a few pythons, vipers and a cobra that he had rescued the last week. Yes, he had rescued about 8 pythons in the last week alone in just South Goa!!. I found the numbers unbelievable, but he reassured me that these numbers were par for an average week. This was too good an opportunity even for an agnost like me and I promptly rushed to join him.

In the Forest Department Office’s parking lot in Margao, I was mightily impressed with the grace, strength, sensitivity and dexterity of the officer as he transferred these giant snakes from their cages to the sacks which would be their transit homes till their release a few minutes later. He ensured that the cobra and the vipers would have sufficient moisture around their sacks to survive the trip back home. Being aware of the contents in the sack, I drove a respectful distance behind his Forest Department truck to Karmel ghat where he was releasing the snakes. Karmel ghat is about 25 kms from Arco (not far enough for me considering that they are used regularly by the FD for releasing rescued snakes) and it took us about 40 minutes to reach the place. FreedomOnce there we parked our respective vehicles by the side of NH 17 and he unloaded the 5 sacks and proceeded to take them one by one to the insides of the forest. Again, I followed in awe struck silence. He started by releasing the pythons one by one. In the wild, they looked even more magnificent. Silent so far, they started hissing ( I took it as their excitement to be back in their rightful places) and proceeded to find their way here and there. Their on ground speed took me by surprise. This coupled with their massive size made for an amazing sight. A couple of them snaked their way up trees and decided to have an afternoon siesta. It also, to an extent, explaines why wildlife enthusiasts go to extreme lengths to spot animals in the wild as opposed to seeing them inside zoos. At the same time, it was sad to see a couple of empty plastic bottle containers even this deep into the forest. I am no angel myself when it comes to such issues, but the line has to be drawn somewhere.

The officer left the vipers and the cobra for last. For my benefit, the officer added that the viper was a Russell Viper. I am not sure if I have the spelling right. He (ie Mr. Viper) made very impressive noises and slithered away and quickly made himself invisible (at least to my untrained eyes). I guess the officer saved the best for last when he released the cobra. Looks ordinary enough except when he spreads (is that the word for it) his hood. Manages to look elegant, graceful and fierce at the same time. Much like a Lara cover drive. In the middle of all this, I did manage to take a couple of photographs. Again, given my indifference to photography (at least in this case I have some philosophical underpinnings for the indifference), I am not sure they will do justice to the spectacle that unfolded this morning in front of me.

Before deciding to join the Forest Department official on the trip I had checked with him if it was within the rules of the department to let citizens witness these weekly episodes and he replied saying that it was one of the better ways of creating awareness amongst people about the need to be sympathetic to the requirements of these creatures. I cannot agree more. During the course of this trip, I realised that there are by and large only four venomous snakes in and around Goa and most of the chappies that we see slithering here and there are by and large harmless. Not that it converted me to a snake lover, but at least it helped me start the process of understanding them to a certain extent. A final word on the commitment of these officers and volunteers. Based on the couple of experiences that I have had with them, they are a wonderfully committed and passionate bunch of guys. They are rendering yeoman service to society without so much as even an acknowledgement. The least I could do was offer them the use of Arco Iris for conducting an awareness programme on snakes for the interested residents of Curtorim.