Monday, August 26, 2013

Nagarjuna Sagar tales – Eight

Meditation and lessons

The first two days of meditation was a torture. Even 10 minutes felt like sitting on a cactus heavy on thorns. At home I manage an hour with just one change; a strong right knee gives me 45 minutes to an hour and the weak one gives the rest. I felt inept; memories of my first ten dayer in March 2008 were not so embarrassing. The knees felt unusually stiff, like a rock tied around.

            I could only infer the changed climate for my plight. The air here was nippy, gale winds throughout the day, the atmosphere felt a lot light on the nostrils.   
This place vibrates splendidly. There were 14 meditators on the male side and everyone seemed to have better control. Ashutosh at 60 sat like a sage lost in his meditation as did the 26 year banker from Himachal Pradesh. Even the ebullient lawyer next to me sat still, I felt completely out of place and guilty too. I spoke about my issues to the teacher and she wasted no time in giving me a corner place. At least my discomfiture would not disturb others.

I loved the Dhamma Hall. It is the first time I found myself in a circular shaped hall and dome shaped roof and red brick walls. The circumference of the hall makes for two concentric circles – the outer to store pillows and cushions, or chairs while the inner one accommodates 30 meditators. As a meditator you get a semi-circle view of the sylvan settings where birds, rains, gale winds run their acts.

The walk to the pagoda from the Dhamma Hall is a climb up an uneven slope on wild grass and patches of hard red soil that feels a lot of gravel on the feet. There is a twin path running almost parallel to one another. Men and women are strictly segregated. The Buddhists were smart, they knew a mere glance can at times torpedo the peace built over a lifetime. The pagoda faces the Krishna River as it flow in to the Nagarjuna Sagar dam. The Dhamma Centre is on top of a hill that looks down as you see the waters flow gently into the reservoir.

I used the meditation cell well (number 12); experimenting on postures and even theory. We are trying to improve “prajnya” – so avoid sanya and sankara in meditations. Feeling the body sensations (vedana) is to dissolve the sankara. Which means the focus of meditation is to “improve observation faculty”; reduce the “evaluating part” and the “reaction point”.

I loved walking with that plastic cover (Dhamma Nagarjuna cared for meditators at every level) on a drizzle. The food was exceptional; they even served payasam for one day, chapattis rolled in ghee, I went heavy on ragi jawa at breakfast. One can safely remove coffee and tea from the breakfast with healthier substitutes. They also had hot ginger water; that painstaking care was visible. They respected meditators and got me feeling a lot warm on the place.

My mind felt keen on bird calls; there is a world of small birds here. The walk from the quarters to the dining hall is over 400 metres is on a small mud path across a thicket of shrubs, boulders, and trees. Just walking to the dining hall four times a day got the body more than its share of exercise: breakfast at 6:30; lunch at 11:00, lemon juice for dinner at 5:00 and for those who opted for English as a language for evening discourse. There is a mini dhamma hall with a giant television screen for the purpose.

On the eighth day the noble silence ended, there is a real bonhomie. These faces you run into at the clay drinking pots or at the dining hall or the dhamma hall or the common toilets and you feel a vague connection. But once the silence vow is lifted, we feel like comrade-in-arms. There is a congratulatory air on completion. Each meditator goes through a gamut of emotions; from depths of despair to flights of happiness. You persevere and that makes us appreciative of ourselves and others. Neelakanthum a retired banker said,” Fear is ingrained deep in the mind.”

Damodara Rao came of the metha with rapture in his eyes. He made a good companion till Guntur. Said he,” I worked so hard to provide for my daughters. Now married both of them use my wife as a servant maid to look after their tiny tots. You can earn millions of dollars and yet be inconsiderate. They don't realize I need a wife to manage the house here.” He spends most of the time on spiritual activities. I told him about my issues. I relished his compliment,” Sathya, you are a very decent man.”  

Mr. Rao speaks Telugu with a fluency of a native that he is. The humour and sarcasm is barely on the surface. I loved the way he spoke to the lady conductor who looked stern as a school teacher before a stationary bus: will you go now to have tea and coffee or are going to start right away? She relaxed with a smile, each time she caught my eyes there was this suppressed twitch of a smile. We were in the bus for four hours and I realized: everyone suffers from a crippling problem. The courageous ones are those we don’t lose their charm or zest. They reserve enough peace and kindness to others INSPITE of their daily pinpricks or storms. Living is never a perfect dream, it is a serpentine road with more snakes than ladders. Like 11 hours of meditation in a day, we persevere.

Every Vipassana retreat reveals a dimension about oneself. Our level of understanding the world more or less equals our understanding of oneself. The more you have a grip on yourself the more adept you are in facing to the issues of the world. If UNDERSTANDING was my take from Chengannur in 2011; SELF-PITY is my lesson of Nagarjuna Sagar.

I am diffident in nature and self-pity runs so deep and pervasive that I did not realize its mischief till this week’s meditation showed me up. I am apologetic about a lot: heart surgery, poor health and erratic job nature; none more severe than the loneliness that consumes me. When a woman walked out on me, all these failings flared up. I realized in Nagarjuna Sagar: One is permitted to be sad or depressed or grieved but self-pity and shame drowns every positive attribute. Self-pity is such poison; a trace and it turns the milk container to curds.  

I felt born afresh; I have taken my entire lifetime to learn this simple lesson. That’s the beauty of Vipassana: you realize on your own. Nature essentially is an ally and it is therapeutic. We are all trying to be better than yesterday, or at least aspire to. Each one of us is given a separate exam paper; each must build his own subways and arteries on the road. There is no template or precedence to take any solace from. Living is about trying.  

The Volvo ride from Guntur to Chennai was fantastic, the next door chap a real nuisance as I kept shoo-ing him away. At last found some sleep and reached Central at 7:15. For all the travel I did not feel the exhaustion, that itself made me feel exuberant to face the issues of the day. The date showed 29th July on the watch and so it was.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Nagarjuna Sagar tales – Seven

An encounter with a cultured family
The first view of Dhamma Nagarjuna made an immediate appeal on the mind. I felt in my bones that the train journey exertions were worth.    
I saw others trickle in. For such a huge centre it accommodates only 30 meditators – attractive features were adding up. Within half an hour my Telugu that was frozen for decades started to flow again. Verbal skills are never lost in space or time; it needs an environment and you’ll surprise yourself. 
There was mid 30s electrician, an advocate couple, retired banker, and a young man even from Himachal Pradesh. But, by and large, it was a Hyderabad crowd. Since we are all senior students and daily meditators, it did not take long to slip into an easy banter.
Two tables were kept outside the office on either side of the main corridor for registration – segregation of genders is followed scrupulously. The registering process does not take more than 15 minutes for an applicant. It consists of entering your name and address in a monstrous register after filling up one-page application form.    
There was a dormitory where we dumped our luggage and a line of beds. I wasted no time lying down on a cot and covering myself with a blanket. The train and bus journey of the last 16 hours was something to compensate on.
I saw a young, tall man, bristles for mustache, neatly dressed who oversaw the lay of the room and storing a smile as new registrants came in. By now my Telugu sounded right even to my ears as I enquired. The teenager said,” I am a volunteer here. I have finished my twelfth standard and next month I’ll be allotted an engineering seat in the university.” This got me interested for I went the same road except did not have enough marks to get into the hallowed door. He said,” I’m in line for Mechanical at Osmania and maybe Civil in JNTU.” That impressed the hell out of me.
He introduced himself as “Abhiram” and next time I saw him was at the registering table. A quiet lad with a stuck nervous smile, his enthusiasm was perceptible. The sun was bright for 11:00 morning. I felt an improvement from my habitual diffidence. When a river like Krishna flows into the reservoir in front of your view you don’t ruminate on your troubles in life. The nippy winds, green vegetation, red soil of tarmac got me in a mood of quietude. 
At the registering table as we waited for our turns, I got to talk to others. Said a 60 year old Damodara Rao; Sir, talk with me for we’ll not get to open our mouths for a week. This got a few laughs and bonhomie.  
Abhiram at the registering table was either distributing laundry tags or putting the valuables that we deposited in a small cotton bag and putting a sellotape. He is a quiet lad with a gentle shy smile. His parents were there too – the entire family practiced Vipassana meditations and it showed in their relaxed manner and friendly cheer. Pause to reflect: when the mind is calm it makes for a lot of charm.
His father got talking to me. When he learnt I was from Chennai he exclaimed,” God, you have made a long trip to reach here. Usually it is the Hyderabad crowd that comes here.”
My Telugu was flowing by now. I speak very slowly pausing for each word; if the word is not from Tamil it’ll be found in Sanskrit but you must use a few distinctive words and idioms to approximate to Telugu. Language is much like car driving or playing guitar; those skills are never lost. I said,” I had a terrible time coming from Chennai. The waiting list did not get confirmed, bribed the TTE. Thanks to a stranger’s generosity I reached here.” I recounted Someshwara’s gesture. Mind you, all this in Telugu.
Abhiram’s father looked my age, maybe couple of years more. He is a prosperous cloth merchant and that showed in his languid grace. He said,” This programme gets over on 28th evening. Do you have the return ticket?”
I shook my head. I said in a moaning tone,”  I tried the trains, they had closed the bookings by then. Weekends are packed two months in advance.”
The cloth merchant said with a smile,” You can take deluxe buses from Guntur.”
I asked,” Is there any internet centre nearby?”
He called his son and said,” Take this uncle to Hill colony market. Assist him in booking a ticket.” And turning to me he said,” Chennai is a long way and you need reservation. It is only now you have time; once the course starts you can't do a thing.”
Abhiram beamed at me and led me to a tree where his motorcycle was parked. Hill Colony market is over 4 kms and it made for a wonderful ride with the winds hitting the face and the skies turning cloudy.  There were a lot of trees, wild grasses on either side of the road and abundant vegetation. The slope of the road is steep, the roads were smooth. There is a Gautama Buddha park developed by AP tourism adjacent to Dhamma Nagarjuna. There were a few workers who were offloading granite slabs from a heavy truck. The Nagarjuna Sagar dam attracts a regular stream of party revelers - the family kinds - from Hyderabad given the beauty of the landscape. But today we saw a clear road and not much of human movement. Damodara Rao, the friendly meditator, opined,” I wouldn’t mind staying here; so peaceful for a 60 year old man.” I concurred,” Should find out whether they need a cook or gardener. The place looks tempting enough.”
Abhiram raced on the bike carrying a bulky fellow on the pillion. Hill Colony Market looks just like another place in the city – crowded and movement of people and a row of shops abutting one another. You see pavement vendors selling vegetables, throw in an odd dog and cattle and it would be any part in India. Abiram resides nearby and he just about knows everyone. At an internet cafĂ© the owner said,” All my machines are full. But for you, I’ll lend you my laptop. How are your parents? What is your brother doing?”
I did not have my spectacles and so Abhiram took charge as we checked APSTRC site before settling on His father had advised as we left,” Try to take the last bus around midnight. The course gets over at 4:00 in the evening on Sunday and Guntur is at least five hours away.” We zeroed on an 11:30 bus to Chennai on the night of 28th July. Abhiram opened my gmail for confirmatory link after registering in; entered my credit card details and so useful that I felt an affinity. I remember him saying,” Uncle, Keshivini Travels is good. They run Volvo AC buses. There are seats available. Do you prefer aisle or window?”
We made the booking and got the printout. I went to a grocery store and got two premium 5 star bar chocolates. We went back to the centre and I handed those over to his mother saying,” What a wonderful son you have. He was such a huge help”
His father joined us enquiring about the ticket. He said,” I don’t want you to have any anxiety on your return ticket when you sit in meditation.”
One look at the family and I realized,” When a woman is cultured it shows on the entire male folk.” Abhiram’s mother was a volunteer helping in women’s registration. It was a face full of smiles and instantly friendly. You find so few families that are cultured; without exception it needs a virtuous woman and that tribe either went into hibernation or ran out of supply after liberalization was let loose in 1991.
Not all good looking women are beautiful but cultured ones are always beautiful. I got carried away by the outward beauty of a woman once; this family showed a mirror of what good marriages and good families are about. A cultured family has shared values, understanding is almost intuitive, and brings a lot of comfort even to a stranger. Abhiram and his parents made a deep impact on my mind. Cultured families are so few and still a count of fingers of a single hand in my experience.

(These observations pertain to 20th July, 2013. That night we entered into a week of noble silence. The next post would account for what transpired on 28th July after the vow of silence was relaxed. Come of think of it, tales only accrue when the mouth yaps! This link vipassana-sati-pathana-nagarjuna-saga is a short abstract that I wrote almost immediately on return. I feel there is room for Nagarjuna Sagar- eight and hopefully I file in by Sunday).

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Nagarjuna Sagar tales – Six

Dhamma Nagarjuna first impressions
I was a tired man getting off the Hyderabad Superfast Express at 4:00 am. There was a large digital clock at the middle of the platform as the train halted. The time tallied with my wrist watch, so 4:00 on the dot. Nalgonda station seems to have been spruced up recently; even the earlier Miryalguda station looked similar - must be template stations that South Central Railway (SCR) coughed up along this route.  
I sat on a black steel chair; these are triplets with a stiff back. I downed my duffel bag in one of them and after parking my butt and stretched my legs. Except for a lone Railway Policeman the station was desolate and thank god, well-lit. Again SCR does not cringe on electricity bills! I informed the cop for courtesy,” I’ll rest here till the break of dawn.”
Waiting in an empty station for an hour got the mind to smoothen its ruffled creases. Couple of trains halted – Nalgonda is a two-minute stop station – and I made a count of the carriages; a childhood fancy not fully rid. I watched my breath for a while for a meditation exercise, went down the platform to a tap to brush the teeth and rinse the face. In between I stretched a few limbs. When the clock showed 5:15, I walked out to an auto stand. He offered a ride to the city bus terminus, Rs.50 for a two kilometer distance. Used to Chennai usury of autos, I jumped in. It was still dark outside, the roads were empty save a few stray dogs. At the Nalgonda bus terminus the sun was breaking through and life slowly waking up. Sweepers were having their first cup of coffee from a lone shop, I saw many a lady bus conductors. I sat on the black steel chair triplet; these are common and maybe the same supplier to the railways!
I felt a wave of sentiment building in the mind. It’s been decades since I was in Telugu land. My mind soaked in the people around; attire, language of the street, movie posters, hawkers, other passengers awaiting their bus. I feel for this fine people, they enriched my growing years. I saw quite a few buses being loaded with cargo – gunny bags in which couriers are sent to the hinterland. Even to a cursory observer it becomes apparent the world of drivers, conductors, and cleaners is a muscular and vocal tribe. After a browse of the day’s newspaper, steaming tea, hurried smoke and they take the wheel and bus engines begin to purr. Another day on the dusty roads and cracked tarmac of the Nalgonda terminus.
A man at the enquiry counter informed me that for Nagarjuna Sagar I need to board a bus heading to Macherla. I have a rudimentary knowledge of Telugu alphabets, signboards in English and Telugu version side-by-side make for a quick revision. There are so many things the mind takes in when there's a respect for the land and its people.
Nagarjuna Sagar is 70 kms and a two hour ride from Nalgonda. The weather was thick with monsoon in the air, cloudy skies and a lot nippy winds immediately contrasting from humid Chennai seashore driven weather. These are state highway roads and the ride had its share of rumbles. My mind was a lot turbulent and angst ridden. My mind lingers on these twin worries: money and loneliness. My travails are man-made; my obvious intellect is smothered by a blind callous society. Being out of my cocoon in Besant nagar I take in the cattle and cows of the rural countryside; greens, and watch others in their daily run.  
I ask the conductor,” Can you please tell me where to get off? Any idea where Dhamma Nagarjuna Sagar centre is?” in halting Telugu but clear in pronunciation.
He is friendly and a ready smile,” I have seen the place but I am not sure except it comes before Siddharth hotel stop. That's before Hill colony.” He confers with a daily commuter. That man looked a government official decked in ties and shoes. He turns back and chuckles,” What are you going there for?” and starting a conversation. There is something about living in a rural; smiling friendly faces greeted you.
The scenery which was barren lands with a few greens from a speeding bus window now changes to boulders; we are now on an incline of a mountain. The air outside is still cloudy for a 8:00 am time. The conductor wants to know about Vipassana from me. He asks with diffidence,” Will they allow people like us too?” I explained he was welcome; they would roll out the red carpet for him considering they even put up with wastrels like me. Since the start of the train journey my spoken Telugu was getting better with each interaction. My accent sets me apart; a Tamil accent and I am not embarrassed at all. I had no difficulty asking locals for directions or address any query to meet a situation. Everyone appreciates the effort – they know I am a stranger and by talking even haltingly in their language, their respect shoots up.
I reported at Dhamma Nagarjuna at 8:30. The breakfast was ready and I loved the picturesque place. This centre is an absolute beauty for a nature lover – looked like 30 acres and one end you see the Krishna River flowing into the Nagarjuna Sagar reservoir. The land is a moor and lot of flora and fauna. There are a lot of humming birds, and I could identify many plants and trees there. Such vastness and you realize how boxed in our city life has reduced us to.  Here you can stretch your arms, the air at once feels pure, and chirping birds aloft trees, greens of the trees and such tranquility works on the mind.
After the upma for a tiffin I felt a lot more cured and appreciative of the Dhamma centre. The rooms were extraordinary – dome shaped ceiling to a depth of 6 feet as a fan hangs from a long steel pole. The toilets were neat and looked a star hotel comfort. Every meditator was given this separate cottage. One look at it and you'll realize the planning and efforts into it. My cottage was number 8. Everything about the centre had this aesthetic feel, their commitment and passion shines through in any building and structure; on the pathway, Dhamma Halls, segregated men's and womens' quarters, the dining, registering office etc. The Dhamma hall looks a picture from Thailand or Indonesia. Let me elaborate about my quarter: there are 12 such dome-shaped cottages facing each other across a cement pathway. Imagine this transplanted in the middle of a jungle of trees, plants, shrubs, those forever noisy birds and in the middle of no-where. Space does something to me; even my insecure mind feels a respite from its pettiness. 30 acres for 30 people's habitation wrings its own wonders. Others came to register and I got talking in my new found Telugu and doing a world of good to my confidence.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Nagarjuna Sagar tales – Five

S-8 companions
It was around 8:30 pm that I found myself in the new carriage – my pluck and gift of the gab fetching me a berth. There are many who achieve greater things in life than getting lucky with a reservation on a weekend train in Hyderabad Express and not crow. But then I am a writer! Besides whether you climb the Everest or Deep Ocean diving every tale is about what happens to a mind. It is not spectacular events that determine the quality of experience rather how the mind gained newer insights and strengths. What happens to one mind is often the story of mankind. BTW, I have raked in five tales on this simple outing. All the “Nagarjuna Sagar tales” are descriptions of what happened between 2:00 in the afternoon and travelling on a train 6 hours later.
For the first time since boarding the train I felt at ease. No more uncertainty of how I would spend the night. The possibility of lying over newspapers near the wash basin was a real one. Look at it this way: if I had a confirmed ticket at the start of the journey I would have been deprived of these adventures and mental fluctuations.
I took in my new companions in S-8. It resembled more a stag conference with four men in animated conversation. The talk was desultory but they kept pegging away with a verve I found misplaced. There were two mid-twenties men who kept yakking on printers – how European machines are better, about speed, binding etc. They run a printing unit and box office returns. Despite being entrepreneurs that rakes in big moolah they seemed immature and impressionable. Both of them couldn’t wait for the other to finish, jumping over another. Let me hasten to add a perspective here. These guys must be earning at least ten times mine. Then there were two men who joined in intermittently. One was a bald plate and he was a typical Hyderabadi so full of good humour and ready smile. When one of the publishing chap got a metro station wrong from one end of a route in the city, the bald plate took ten minutes in explanation as to why Safilguda does not come in that part of town. There is a certain macho quality to such men. He wasn’t sounding a wee bit nagging school teacher; instead he brought a lot of amiability and humour. You see so many people from Andhra with that ready tongue and even more ready cheer.
The fourth one seemed more a retired government employee. I did tell the publishing bloke,” I have to get down at Nalgonda. Wish there’s a TTE to alert?” The man immediately set an alarm in his mobile. The Telugu have a natural hospitality that frankly I have not chanced across even among the Arabs in the gulf. There is a gene in their DNA that makes for instant connection. In fact I take more pride in my childhood years of growing in Hyderabad than belonging to a conservative (that brings in the Upanishads and Carnatic Music and Bhakti movement literature to my upstairs!) Tamil-Brahmin and orthodox family (my grandfather was the village’s ministering priest!).
But my attention was riveted to what was happening on the upper berth. There was a young couple who were locked in each other hands and eyes. I sat on the middle of the bench, which meant I had intruded myself right into their space of these four men. I was in no mood to converse having exhausted all my wits on the TTE and the army man at S-4. At 9’o clock I got bold enough to say,” I wish to lie down. Hope it will not inconvenience if I pull up the middle berth?”  There were gracious and allowed the berth to be set up. Ten minutes later I said,” Can you please switch off this side of the lights?” I mention these trivial things to show how much my mind had gained confidence after settling the berth issue.You likewise wish for your problems in life to reach definitive solutions!
The lights OFF and I lay on my back with a blanket. The day still would not finish. The sight of this young couple was straight in my eye-view. So far the mind did not register anything but now it was cued as though looking through a microscope. The young ones can steal a kiss or run their hands over one another even in a public place – those are easily condoned. But this was an unending lingering spectacle to a morbid excess.
The man must be in his twenties and the woman looked more a girlfriend than a wife. But how do those tidbits matter? This was getting scandalous. He was whispering in her ears; she took his hands and was directing them over her bosom even as the drape of a saree was bellowing from the fan on the roof. Again that’s fine, who am I to take note? Here I was trying to close my eyes and with an anxiety to be up before 2:30 for my station. So at best I had 4-5 hours for my body to get rest.
I tried very hard to sleep but my eyes kept going towards the couple - it was straight into my view. My head was at the window end and my tall frame meant that I had to curl a little so that others on the passageway do not knock against. The couple was seated on the far end of the upper berth and right in my view. I drifted into sleep and each time the train stopped I peered into my watch for the time. And each time my eyes would dart to this romance heating up. They were biting off one another. The man’s berth was above mine and he only occupied it after midnight – the girl was a young slender thing with mehndi and a plastic bangle too flashy and clasped a large part of her wrist. She also had a smashing ear ring. She was an attractive little thing and man was handsome too. I saw the man with the girl on his lap and caressing every cell of the face.
It did not affect me then. I was too anxious counting stations and waiting for Nalgonda to appear in one of the stops. But this throbbing passion and working fingers did sully the mind. I thought: she is the kind of a woman you would have made a pass and maybe forced yourself. Love-making is a private indoor sport and anything else is simply courting trouble and revulsion; distasteful.
I got down at Nalgonda at 4:00 in the morning. The train was running an hour behind and good as well as I got more time to rest my tired bones. I felt relieved finally landing in Nalgonda overcoming a few odd stubborn walls along the way!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Nagarjuna Sagar tales – Four

The easily corruptible TTE
I observed a TTE (Train Ticket Examiner) is assigned to 3 or 4 compartments. So even if he starts his chore at 5:00 pm (remember the Hyderabad Superfast express left Chennai Central at 4:45) he would take at least two hours to tick off the names from the chart and reach my passenger car; he chose S-4 as the tail-end of this supervision duties. That earned me two more hours of respite and still be on the seat!
The first sight of the TTE and I ran behind him. A tall lanky man wearing a black coat over white trouser and a schoolboy red tie, he seemed to be in mid-thirties and very quick on his feet. I caught up with him at the far end of the compartment.
It is far better that I get my side of the story than be shamed into paying the penalty. Some of the guys are tough: they serve a needless lecture too! Someshwara had a natural good sense to accompany me to the official. I told the TTE,” Sir, this is my e-ticket with WL 9. It’s not confirmed and can you help me?”
He said,” You can’t travel with this ticket.”
I agreed readily,” Yes sir; I am aware of the rules. I have this general ticket,” and proceeded to show him that.
He said to a stern look,” You cannot travel in a reserved compartment.”
I indicated to Someswara and said,” He is my friend and so we are traveling together.”
The TTE had enough of me and dismissed me saying,” Go back to your seat, I’ll come there in my rounds.” I breathed a sigh of relief; at least I have taken any pretext for any official to pile on the guilt later.
In the meanwhile two hours sped and there was no sight of the TTE. By this time, I had a rollicking time with Raghuram. This middle-aged army man did not take kindly to my presence in his midst, an extra person constrains space. But slowly he warmed up as our conversation got interesting. But I can’t live with this uncertainty. Outside Gudur station came and went, it was closer to 8’0 clock and I must decide on the berth issue one way or the other. The other passengers may acquiesce to accommodating you over a seat, but with night and sleep time you’ll have no space. The bench would make for a lower berth, the back support would become middle berth and so on and so forth. So I went searching for the lanky TTE again.
I said,” Sir, I am not asking you for a berth. Even a seat would do.”
He shook his head,” Go to S-8 and try your luck there. Today being a weekend, all my seats are filled.”
That meant a dash towards the front end of the train, the vestibule in between after the toilets and a wash basin where there is a ready crowd of locals. They too board the reserved compartment but they don’t hang around and disembark at stations in between; while I am a full time pest. In India you can bend a rule here and there; otherwise I would never have been allowed inside a reserved compartment. In a fast running train and pacing past four compartments while looking for a TTE, my eyes take in different men and women, kids, different economic strata, garments, hair styles, and much of God's creativity. There is always a card playing crowd, fussing mothers, playful kids, morose men engrossed over a Filmfare or Stardust. Then there is a catering crowd from the pantry as obstacles in the passageway, throw in a crippled beggar insisting on sweeping the floor with a towel! Some things in this country never change.
I saw the TTE in S-8. He was a short man and bristles for a mustache and a dark spectacles over a dark skin complexion. I explained,” I am seating in S-4 now. My friend is accommodating but I do need a seat at least and I travel up to Nalgonda.” You need to get your story quick and persuasive. It is here that decent spoken English confers that gravitas.
He said,” You have no right to travel in a reserved compartment. There is a penalty.”
I readily agreed to his surprise,” Sir, I am a law-abiding citizen. Sure I’ll pay the penalty.”
The TTE was crossing out the names from the list at the fag end of the compartment. In the presence of authority we as a race are anxious to complete formalities as the TTE crossed a ticket for authentication. The TTE tugged me on the shirt sleeve and led me to the wash basin. His need for privacy seemed to override my urgency!
He said,” Do you know the penalty?”
I said,” Around Rs.350.”
The TTE simply said,” Instead of paying the railways, pay it to me.”
I said,” By all means. What is my seat number?”
He said,” Pay me Rs.400.”
I wanted to haggle. But I thought better off it. He said,” This is a berth meant for RAC; so don’t talk to others about your waiting list.”
I assured him,” Certainly,” and thrust four crisp hundred notes - only that day I withdrew new currency notes from a HDFC ATM near my house - to his palm. No receipt, I made sure he scribbled S-8 and berth number on my e-ticket (remember that got invalidated as it halted at the waiting list stage).
I went back to S-4 to take by duffel bag and thanked all of them. They gave me four hours of comfortable travel and agreeable company. I thanked Someshwara for that wonderful gesture; he put me in  a place from where I could bribe and play my cards.
I went to S-8 and found new companions. Four men arguing with purpose, a young couple immersed in their own world on one of the upper berths; I found my seat.  It is the middle one and so you actually request others to make space. Asked one of them,” Is this your berth?”
I nodded. He said,” I have a RAC and not yet confirmed. Where did you board the train?”
I thought quick on my feet. I said,” I boarded the train at Chennai. I have a confirmed berth in S-4 but there was a family wanting to travel together. They requested me to use this seat.” They made way more graciously and for the first time from the train’s departure I felt a home. This was my confirmed seat and berth. Of course I paid a bribe of Rs.400 but that’s nothing for the peace of mind and a good night’s sleep.
            I don’t venture out much. All this smartness left a glow on the mind. When it comes to the crux, my mind is no less worldly than the next man!I loved this gem that flowed from my tongue with the TTE: Of course, I'll pay you. I am a law-abiding citizen. On such absurdities India marches on; thankfully I got a good night sleep.

Nagarjuna Sagar tales – Three

Military man’s crib at S-4
Someshwara was in seat number 64, those two side seats in a sleeper class. He straightway climbed to the side upper berth and got engrossed in a magazine. I parked my butt on seat number 62 which is the last place on the bench furthest from the window (there is passageway between this and the side-berths). 

            The mind is never at ease. You are squatting on a seat you have no right – it feels an interloper (dictionary gives meanings like intruder, trespasser, and unwelcome person). That guilt ensures you don’t greet other passengers except be glum and taciturn. There was a military man opposite me. He was in a mid-forties man who had served in Punjab and Rajasthan borders; thankfully he was a Telugu in ethnicity (all of this I learnt later). He wasted no time in saying,” Sir, what is your berth number?” That an extra person sits on the bench gets too conspicuous.

I replied,” I am travelling with my friend,” and turned my eyes towards Someshwara lying peacefully on the upper side berth.

The man was stern,” We book our tickets two months in advance and yet we get no respite from drifters.”

It did not sting. That man was bang on; in his place I would have felt similarly inconvenienced. Imagine a bench meant for three people and you have an extra mass of flesh for a fourth member.

I went stubbornly silent. The man continued,” I will not allow you to sit here.”

My wits did not deserve me. I was quick on the reply in feigned outrage,” Even I did book the ticket except it did not get confirmed. Please bear with me till the TTE. It is not my intention to be a nuisance any further.” My nerves held and I spoke in a calm manner. Thanks to the years of meditation.

I added,” This journey was forced on me. But sure enough I’ll disembark at the night time and be no nuisance.” It is here speaking in English in a soft tone helps. It at once carries the conviction of a cultured person in distress. 

He sighed,” Okay. I’ll be patient with you till the TTE comes.” 

My mind did not go overdrive over this just rebuke. The train gathered speed and mentally ran a countdown: for a 11 hours journey, I’ve a seat for the first hour. Let me increase the “seat” quotient however shameless my mind was raked through.

Now the clock showed 6:30 in the evening. Still no sign of the TTE. My mind even got bold. I thought: here’s an opportunity to turn an antagonistic man into a friendly one. Let me see if I have sufficient skills in the mouth.

So I asked him,” Sir, I am going to Nagarjuna Sagar. Is it better to get down at Miraylguda or Nalgonda?” That loosened his tongue though my mind had already weighed the options and reached a decision. This was just an opening gambit. I can be the devil at times!

Slowly he warmed up to the conversation. I said,” I spent the first twenty years of my life in Hyderabad. I am a Nizam college alumnus.” Then the conversation veered to Azharudin, the cricketer. You see he was my senior in Nizam and I don't lose any opportunity to milk that socially. 

That got the man excited,” So you are a pucca Hyderabadi.”

When he learnt I was in St. Patrick’s, he asked,” Which year?

I replied,” I passed my tenth in 1985.”

He patted my back,” I was in Seventh day Adventist. I passed out in 1987. Both St. Patrick’s and Seventh Day Adventists are neighbours on Sebastian road.

He introduced himself,” I am Raghuram Reddy.”

He talked about his army experiences while I engaged him on NTR and how my father was well-known to the late Chief Minister. I even got bold enough to say,” Raghu, you must listen to Adele. I find her extraordinary.” Of late, I am a confirmed fan of the British singer. 

We got so friendly that he said of his own accord,” I’ll speak to the TTE and see you get a berth.”  

Someshwara who was watching my friendly act from his upper side berth was so impressed that he asked for my mobile number. 

As for me, this was an exercise in communication. If the mind is calm then you can even turn your adversary into a well-wisher. I felt proud of myself that day. Pray there are similar occasions in the future. Pause to reflect here: a tranquil mind has so many more options than getting easily bruised and inflict hurt on itself and others. You take charge!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Nagarjuna Sagar tales – Two

Miracle on Platform 9 - Someshwara’s gesture
There is something about Central station – the red colour Gothic structure is the face of Chennai in weather bulletins and at once synonymous to the Tamil capital. It is pleasing structure, extending latitude and a white conical apex that holds a clock. It sure gives the city a personality. I have been taking trains from Central since 1989 when this city became my home. Those days the Central station felt large and imposing but now too much crowd, noise, and perennial stench no longer feels special. But reaching Chennai Central from a long journey always lifts the spirit for Besant nagar is just an hour from here.
            I got off the Chennai Park MRTS station and after all those elevated station, this is the first station on the line that’s on the terra firma. So you climb up a lot of stairs and reach the middle of a flyover; and come face-to-face with the Gothic design of the Central station. It can be seen from a mile away. The buses, autos, and swarm of people converge at the station like bees. Traffic and people create their din, there is always this rush and maniacal energy to the place.
            I entered the station by 3:30 for a 4:45 train. It was a rainy day and that makes for puddles and adds a dash of colour with opened umbrellas, grey skies, and greeneries of trees. The tarmac is wet from slush. The reservation charts is the first thing a visitor would come across as he climbs up the two steps into the Central's tarmac from the asphalt road. I was reasonably confident: my waiting list status was 9 at 2:00 pm and that was before the charts were finalized. I was smug, so certain of a RAC that would fetch me a seat in the least. Nalgonda is over 500 km and 10 hours of rail travel and under night skies, a berth is an absolute must
            My nerves were bit jumpy, remember my last post on almost going ticket-less in the suburban train. I asked couple of people for the reservation chart. One man took me to the wrong direction before another person set me right. It was a cloudy afternoon and the rains had stopped for the moment. This is the time when the greens of the trees become conspicuous to the eyes as though they have been cleaned of all the grime. I had brought the printout of my ticket and I just couldn’t read a thing – the printout was so light and in the poor fading light not a syllable rang in the mind. It was criminally foolish on my part to leave the spectacles back home - my reason was those were not needed for a meditation retreat. I saw my train, Hyderabad Express on the chart, it ran to just three pages laid out one after the other vertically. I tried spotting my name but with increasing panic nothing remotely bore a match. I asked a youngster for assistance,” My eyes are not able to read a thing. Can you please see if this number is anywhere in those charts?” He ran a very quick eye and shaking his head walked away.
            I walked to the platform. I saw my train on platform 9. It brought back memories of my almost every fortnight travel in 1989 when my father was dying in Madras and I had my final year at college. I would mostly take this train and so it has been years of drought! The unreserved compartments are at both ends of the train. I took in one look at a general compartment and my face fell: the floors were slush and it was jam packed. Any train on weekends is booked two months in advance; working crowd eager to go back to their parents or wives and make the most of a two day break. I saw even the berth bursting at the seams in the unreserved compartment. I immediately decided: this is no way to travel for 11 hours.
            I walked towards the middle of the train (you see, I don't give up so easily!); this is a huge train with around 22 carriages. The platform was sparsely populated for there were more than 40 minutes for the train to depart. I parked my ass on a bench on the platform somewhere in the middle of the train. I called Kesavan from my mobile,” Do me a quick favour?  This is my PNR number and can you run a check on the internet?” He came back almost immediate,” Sathya, your ticket is not confirmed. This is the final reservation charts and your ticket still shows WL 9.” There was young man who was witness of my distress. He was short, looked mid twenties, with a thin mustache, dark rimmed spectacles over jeans and a stripped T-shirt. It is a typical Telugu face – you notice in the languid manner they speak. I asked him,” Can you help me? I did not bring my specs and couldn’t make much of the reservation charts. Here is my cellphone, will you SMS my PNR for the last update?” My eyes were so bad that even keying in a SMS message on my mobile would have been a hard toil. He agreed immediately and confirmed what Kesavan said,” No.”
            Now I had a double confirmation. I got up and thought of going by bus. I told the young man,” In that case I’ll go home.”
            The stranger said,” Weekends are always packed.”
            I told him about a meditation at Nagarjuna Sagar and he said,” Sir, you cannot travel with this ticket printout. Go and get a general ticket. I have a berth in S4 and we can share.”
            I could not believe my luck. I said,” Thanks. I’ll rush and buy a new ticket.”
I raced in the slush concrete floor towards the exit. The current booking counters are in the adjacent Moore Market building where the suburbans are parked. In a station people go in random direction – some rush towards platforms while there are those in a hurry to get out. Then the hawkers and porters. I walked at a fast clip and negotiate the water logged roads and the office crowd hurrying to catch their suburban.Railway stations at the best of times resemble ants colony, everyone racing and in every direction.
            I found the counter; these buildings are huge and the roof is like 15 meters over the head. I stood in a queue behind a dozen people. I still had 30 minutes in which to get the new ticket and go scurrying back to platform number 9 where this train stood. Put all the elements and they consume time; I’ll cut in barely.I got a fresh ticket almost hollering at the counter to issue the ticket as quick! The booking clerk did not take offense for he tuned in to my sense of urgency. Then back to slushy roads, past the hotels, cloak rooms, and lots of baskets strewn around on an consignment. Trust Chennai's main station to be a beehive of activity round the clock, and this was close to peak time.
            I saw the train’s TTE on platform 9. He was peering into his reservation chart. I accosted him,” Sir, my waitlisted ticket did not make it. Now I have a general ticket and I am going a share a berth in the reserved compartment. Is that ok?” This is sheer playing it ultra cautious of an inexperienced traveler. True to told, my last train journey was over two years back. The man in the black coat said,” Be prepared to pay the penalty. It will come to around Rs.350.”
            I said,” Thanks,” and moved away for it showed less than five minutes to departure. Armed with this knowledge, I felt the pinch would not hurt me. It is always better to know the punishment beforehand than any surprises later on. I found the S-4 coach and my benefactor. But for this kindness, I would have been on the way back home.
            He was surprised to see me. I showed him my new ticket and parked by duffel bag beneath the long bench. My sister called. I walked towards the toilet so that I could not be heard by others. I said,” Thanks to a stranger’s magnanimity I get to travel. The ticket was not confirmed.” The train started to move and I was growing in confidence. The trip is ON.
            I asked the stranger’s name by introducing myself. He said,” I am Someshwara Rao and I travel frequently by this train. You see, I work in Madurai and almost every month I make a trip to Hyderabad to be with my parents.”
            I asked,” Why were you so kind to me?”
He said,” Maybe someone will be kind to me when I am in need.” The train gathered speed and I realized that this gesture could be the biggest one I received from a rank stranger. The omens never looked more bright.” I instinctively knew that this was a minor miracle; thanked my stars and maybe my personality had something to do with it. I was just plain lucky to find a person to accommodate me in a reserved compartment on a Friday evening train. BTW it pays to speak in decent English in a public place probably!

Nagarjuna Sagar tales – One

At Kasturibai nagar station:
It really showed. What? My retiring and recluse lifestyle
I lead a very sedentary life. Not for me the habit of venturing out of my apartment. I prefer the PC or the guitar or sit quietly cross-legged for an hour of meditation. I am no different from a chicken in a coop, except a contented chicken and no fear of the butcher’s axe.
            There is a small tale here. I left home at 2:00 pm on a cloudy rainy day to the Central station on 19th July. You see, Nagarjuna Sagar bound.  The train departs at 4:45 and I was weighed down by uncertainty of a waitlisted ticket. A part of the mind said: if there is no seat I’ll come back home.
            I slung a black duffel bag on the shoulder, and switched off the power lines inside. Otherwise some jerk would ring the calling bell and burn it. This house gets more than its share of salesman meddlesome and importunate peddlers.
            I was waiting in the bus stop and it began to rain. I was concerned about the dry clothes in the bag getting rinsed. I hailed an auto and off we set off. He said,” Rs.70.” for a 3 km distance that costs Rs. 4 in a bus. I thought sixty would be right and Rs.70 is rain inflated. It looked fair to me.
            The auto stopped me at Kasturibai nagar station. I told the driver,” Can you go further into the front end of the station?” That boy of a driver proved morose and stubborn. He stopped and demanded the money. The drizzle outside was getting stronger and I was in no mind to argue. So got out and ran to the safety of those huge roofs.
            I looked around for the ticket counter. MRTS stations are elevated ones, they are hardly patronized and at any point in time it looks deserted as a cemetery. Many a stray dog have made the station their den and today’s rains meant puddles too. These stations look all sturdy and metallic and escalators. I searched for the ticket counter in frantic, I heard a train halt overhead. The next train would be 20 minutes later and so another wait.
            Outside the gale winds and rains were gathering in ferocity. I spotted two college boys and asked,” Where’s the ticket counter?” One boy answered,” It is on the other side.”
            I clarified,” Which means there is no access from here?”      
            The teenager smiled,” You have to go step outside in the rain. Go outside and reach the front end of the station.”
            It looked an impossibility with the bag on the shoulder. I certainly was in no mood for the clothes to catch the rain and go wet. The thought of carrying a bag of wet clothes is sickening, they start to stink too. So I thought,” Let me take the train without a ticket. Worst come worst, there’ll be a fine of Rs.500.”
            My mind debated the fairness of it all. Going to Vipassana meditation and travelling ticketless suddenly felt guilt.
            I climbed the stairs and reached the platform on the first floor. My mind was in a flutter: there is an a thousand-to- one odd of ticket checking. On any other occasion I would have seen the entire thing as an adventure but not today. I was taking a long distance train and being caught would ruin the balance of the mind for a while
            I went to the platform and found myself at the rear end of the platform. The dolt of an auto fellow and his treachery made sense to me now. I walked to the front end of the platform; these stations have a cylindrically long and curved roof and so one is not exposed to the elements especially on a rainy day like now. Now the entire thing looked familiar as I saw a staircase going down. And I knew the ticket counter could be accessed by going down. I rushed towards the elevator and went down to the ground floor – I ran to buy the tickets and hastened back to it. I had a ticket in hand and all the confusions in the mind were doused.
            As for me I thought: how even a trivial thing can derail the mind and get it racing to a panic. Another part of the mind said: this is the cost of a life-in-a-coop I briefly skirted in the beginning. Now with a mind a lot relieved I got my breath. I even thought my waitlisted ticket would fare better! 

Post Script: I forgot to mention an important fact. This ticket is for travel from Kasturibai Nagar to Chennai Park station. The ticket cost Rs.5!