A River Within and Without

What I experienced on the river was of course soothing and exhilarating at the same time, but what I experienced on the ride back in the van – that was utterly sublime. That in-the-van experience makes that trip so memorable, so precious.

Write about the white-water rafting experience in Charlotte.

It is hard work – one-sided writing where only I am relating. How about you ask me questions (even though you know everything)?

Sure, I’ll like that.

I heard that you went white-water rafting in Charlotte. How did you manage that? You know, with MS and all.

I’d had enough. I’d had enough of being low-stamina. I wanted to live. I had been feeling better than a year back anyways. So I just decided to go for it and I am really glad I went. What I experienced on the river was of course soothing and exhilarating at the same time, but what I experienced on the ride back in the van – that was utterly sublime. That in-the-van experience makes that trip so memorable, so precious. Then the next day it was Sunday. Of course, I was tired. It had been physically strenuous, so I simply rested. There was zero mental agony or emotional frustration. The body needed rest, I gave it rest. Simple.

तुमने तो पूरा trip cover कर लिया – घर भी लौट गई, आराम भी कर लिया. I did not get to know anything about the on-the-river or in-the-van experiences. So now which one will you tell me first?

Let’s start with a bit of context.

Charlotte is a city in North Carolina USA. I was living there as a student at the university. After spending three years in frigid Iowa, it was pleasant being somewhat closer to the equator where the summer evenings are quite similar to Calcutta evenings. The East coast and Myrtle beach on the right is 4 hours drive from Charlotte, and the Appalachian Mountain Range on the left is just 2 hours drive from Charlotte.

A church at Charlotte had organized a white-water rafting trip for university students. Various churches in USA help international students and scholars to settle into the country. They help in crucial practical ways such as giving furniture for free. Also, they organize events in and near town because in coming to a new land many students and scholars do not have much of a friends group and social life.

I am so grateful to the church for having organized this and to Dave Weekly who took us on the trip. There were probably two others too, managing the group and driving other vans (there couldn’t have been only one van), but I only remember Dave as the organizer because I was in the van he was driving, and on the boat that he was navigating.

What was it like on the river?

It was beautiful – the greenery, the crystal clear water, all of nature so alive and pure. Yes, the water was rapid. In one place it was really strong. But despite such rapid waters, there was one man going down the river standing alone on his raft, navigating with a pole. That is the picture I cherish the most from on-the-river. It is so beautiful to be so one with nature as that man on the raft was.

I fell off from the boat once. That was fun. It was fun because it didn’t get serious. I was rescued pretty soon. My friends (fellow university students, boatmates rather, for I didn’t really know anyone much) hauled me back in, pulling me by my life jacket. Whew! That was something! For the few moments that I was in the water, it was quite an experience. The water was so strong. I was totally helpless. The rapids were shoving me under the boat itself and the weight of the boat was further pushing me inside the water. Exhilarating!


Like I said, because I was rescued soon enough. Else, there would have been nothing exhilarating about it. Further down the river, from another boat in our group, a few other students had also fallen into the river. That was a bit more serious and was quite a scare for those students and others in that boat – especially for the trip organizers. Fortunately though, those students were also rescued after that initial scare and tension. It is quite a skill managing the boat in the rapids. At times just remaining seated in the boat becomes a challenge.

The whole thing was physically very strenuous. When we were all done changing and had boarded the vans to head back to the city, everyone was tired. Each muscle in my body was aching. We stopped at a highway deli to parcel food to-go before the long drive back. I went and bought myself a sandwich and came back to the van. Holding the sandwich I tried to haul myself up into the van but fell down – the body was so fatigued.

Now don’t you go about thinking that I keep falling here, there, everywhere. Fell out of the boat, fell down in getting into the van. The former was because the rapids were so strong, the latter because the body was exhausted.

I get it. Both a result of the laws of physics. You never fall down. You never can fall down – for you are forever in my arms.

Thank you. That is very sweet of you. Now let’s get back to the story at hand –

मुझे लगता है तुम्हे कुछ झिझक हो रही है, वह in-the-van अनुभव सुनाने में।

वो तो है। मुझे लगता है कि शब्दों में वह शब्दातीत अनुभव कैसे ढलेगा? उस अनुभव का महत्व और असर पाठक तक कैसे पहुँचेगा?

तुम कहो तो। मैं सब ग्रहण कर लूँगा।

I was worried. How will I drive my car back home, that I had parked in the university campus? Will I have the energy to focus as needed on the driving, will I reach back home in one piece? It seemed quite likely that I might end up crashing the car somewhere. These concerns were simmering on low volume in my mind as I sat on the back-seat of the van. I did not even have the energy to be actively worried.

Everyone in the van, in their tiredness, had dozed off — all the necks drooped in a variety of directions. Dave was driving. He was the only one who had not dozed off. He had been on the river too. He must’ve been dead-tired too – yet he was focused on the road, focused on getting the van and all its trusting passengers safe back to the city. Where did he get the requisite energy? It was all because it was his offering to God. He was doing this because it was the church’s initiative. It was the church’s initiative because it wished to welcome the international students and scholars into the beauty of this land, share a fun activity with them that they might otherwise not be able to organize on their own.

As I sat with my depleted body and the concern about what lay ahead, it occurred to me to meditate on my chakras. Those days I used to meditate on my chakras at home regularly using an audio course called “The Anti-Career Guide – The Inner Path to Finding Your Work in the World, by Rick Jarow”. As I used to meditate on the chakras at home, as the attention rose from the base upwards, that self-alignment did bring faint glimmers of self-empowerment at times. In the van You suggested I do just that, meditate on the chakras, sans Rick’s audio. So I did.

Often during meditation, the mind is fidgety and eager to be free of restriction, eager to be free to gallivant. This time, attention and focus occurred easily. Once I was done moving my attention from the base chakra to the crown chakra, I naturally moved into an immersed state. I do not know how long I was in “that zone”, a few seconds or several minutes. Only when I came out of that state did I realize I was in some kind of an immersed state. It was not the normal sleep, I know – for my neck and head had not drooped into slumber. When I came out of that state, the gnawing tiredness and body ache had gone. I was alert and fresh and enjoyed the peaceful remaining ride back to the city, for everyone else was fast asleep. Only Dave was at the steering wheel in the front of the van — steadfast. On reaching Charlotte I was able to drive back home with no problem at all.

It was amazing, the transformation that had occurred. This experience remains in me as a direct evidence of the immense power that exists within us. I am not able to tune into myself in this manner often, but it is good to know that it is always at hand. Yes, for me personally, at times a moderate amount of physical pain aids meditation. It gives me a physical sensation to focus on that is not as subtle as focusing on the breath. That evening I was so tired that the mind did not have any energy to gallivant. It seems that aided in the tuning-in too. The next day I rested the whole day, peacefully, without any suffering.

This is what happens when

भूल कर कशमकश ज़माने की
मेरी बाहों में आके रह जाती हो

Image credit: Protik Maitra

How Tagore Bought Me Free Lunch In The Nilgiris

Just like Allahabad is the point of confluence of three rivers, (Ganga, Yamuna, and the chronically shy Saraswati), a small town in the Nilgiri mountain range is a confluence of three South Indian languages: Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada. This town, though officially in Tamil Nadu, is right at the border of both Kerala and Karnataka. I was told that all the three languages are understood here. I did not find anyone who seemed to understand Kannada however. Maybe Kannada is like the invisible Saraswati of this confluence — or maybe the Kannada I spoke was Kannada only to my ears.

I was holidaying at my friend Amla’s home who lives and works in this tiny town, Gudalur, right outside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. Amla works for Wildlife Conservation Society that is involved with several projects and initiatives with the Forest Department. That day her boss called in the morning, asking for photographs of the “relocation project” she is handling, along with her standing in those photographs at the relocation site. He wanted the photographs that day itself. So we set out at the task.

This relocation project is meant to relocate not-so-wild humans (depending on perspective), the Wayanadan Chettis, from areas designated for our wild brethren — elephants, tigers, leopards and their prey galore. The elephants’ prey is just plants, so that is easy and peaceful (again, depending on perspective). The tigers and leopards are carnivores. So when a forest is a comfortable home for tigers and leopards, the umbrella species, it naturally becomes home for their grub too — a plethora of creatures — deer, sambhar, muscular gaurs, Malabar squirrels, peacocks and their laboring wives, (for I saw tons of peahens busy at the task of collecting food, but no peacocks), and many others.

The Wayanad Chettis do not particularly relish being eaten by tigers — so it is prudent that they vacate tiger land. In fact they asked the High Court to help them vacate, and Amla stepped in to do just that. These people have been living in these tiger reserves for the past thousand years or so, before the region was officially designated for tigers. However they don’t quite peacefully co-exist with the wild as the tribals of the region do. Sometimes they tend to aid poachers too. Also, when they need to get to the hospital, it proves to be distant and tricky for them.

One person’s work is another person’s holiday. Amla went to complete the assignment, I went with her holidaying. We drove, rather a kind gentleman Rajamani drove us, from Gudalur, past Ayyankolli, to the relocation site — the place where some of our not-so-wild brothers had been picked up and gently put down. If Gudalur is tiny, Ayyankolli is tinier. So then why am I mentioning it, you ask? Well my friend, Ayyankolli is the point of our story.

“I thought Tagore was the point of the story, and you haven’t even mentioned Tagore as yet, except in the title!”

Aah my friend, you observe and remember well. We shall get to Tagore too. In the hills the roads curve and bend. The tales of the hills must curve and bend too. As long as we don’t get car-sick, that is.

I did get car-sick though. The car stopped (I told you Rajamani is kind), and I threw up. We considered turning back. Maybe I was feeling a bit too relocated? But with the lunch out of my system, my baggage was lighter. I chose to continue on this free ride in the lap or greenery.

We reached the site. In a land I am told is mine (I did feel at home there), Amla spoke pleasantries and matters of import to those people getting used to their new homes, in tongues foreign to me. Amidst so much of natural greenery, this site had been thrashed bare of trees and modest lodgings of cement had taken sprout. It was not at all impressive to my cement weary city eyes. What this project is doing in tiger land is impressive however. After the project languished at the intent stage for 40 years, it is now in the process of giving about 700 acres to the tigers, and is making them a tad-bit safer from poaching.

I did the honors — I took a few photographs of the inwardly reluctant Amla at various points at the site, making sure the logo of Wildlife Conservation Society was visible on her official t-shirt. Then we were in the car again, heading back to Gudalur. It was 3 or 4 p.m. by then. My baggage that had been emptied by car-sickness, was no longer content being empty. Would we get some decent lunch to eat by the time we reached Gudalur? We were not sure. Was I willing to wait for another hour and a half? No.

So we stopped enroute, at a small canteen at Ayyankolli, for a basic South Indian saapad meal (except that they don’t call it saapad there).Tourists do not know about Ayyankolli I guess. Ayyankolli is not on any highway. Gudalur is bang on the Mysore-Ooty highway. However, both Ayyankolli and Gudalur are covered with coffee, tea, pepper plantations — and stealthy elephants who consider it their right to poke their curious trunks into the windows of sturdy homes built by humble humans, and consequently bring night into the room even on a bright day, by blocking the window with their enormous girth.

At the canteen, after we partook of rice, saambhar, sabzi (palyaa in the Kannada that was under hiding), buttermilk, omlette and sundry goodies on a pseudo banana leaf. Amla was conversing freely in Tamil with the canteen owner and it was clear that I was not understanding anything. Obviously I was not from near abouts. Upon his enquiring, Amla told him I am from Kolkata, Bengal. Soon, with the meal devoured, it was time to thank, pay and leave. It seemed like the owner was not taking the full payment for my meal. I thought it was because I had eaten such a wee bit of rice.

We sat in the car, and then Amla told me, “Your lunch was on the house. The owner said you are from the land of Tagore, so he wouldn’t take any payment for your meal. He loves the writings of Tagore and has read many works by him. He even named his daughters Urmila and Sharmila, from Tagore’s story Dui Bon (Two Sisters).”

He must have read Tagore via Tamil, Malyalam or English translations I conjectured. In a small town in the Nilgiris, there is a man on whom Tagore had left such an impact! As we drove back, to the peaceful night descending on Gudalur, I was filled with fresh admiration and respect, both for kobiguru and for literature in general.

Words travel far, in space and time. When birthed by a gentle yet strong heart, words nourish vast swaths of human hearts ― invisibly, as Saraswati is wont to do.

A Morning In The Nilgiris

Here I am right at the edge of Mudumalai forest in the Gudalur Cosmopolitan Club infused with new energy and hope, recharged by the utterly pristine cool air, tweets of real birds, and abundant greenery. My hand is moving so smoothly and easily on paper, like it had never become sluggish and weak.

My phone sits limp beside the notebook, depleted. I do not have a spoon to feed it. I left the charger with my friend. But I have been fed well — not just by the fresh air and quiet, but by the the sun itself, that came to me as the jostling yolk of two poached eggs.

“You are not a body,” they say.

That may be so, but let me tell you, a hand which moves freely while writing, feels good. It feels good to not struggle, and to be at ease, and still be able to do something with my time.

“You need do nothing,” they say, and it is reassuring to hear, but it feels good to be able to do something.

Thank you, God, for this moment. Yes, the memory of screaming voices is there, the thought is there that I have to learn to hear the screaming voices like the tweet of birds, but thank you God, for this moment. This suspended long moment of silence.

Thank you.

Tennis court at Gudalur Cosmopolitan Club with the forest and the higher hills behind.
Tennis court at Gudalur Cosmopolitan Club with the forest and the higher hills behind.

Dear Forest, I know it is not peaceful, hunky dory and easy in your bosom. Each animal, insect, and human living in your lap has as many struggles as those living in the heart of the city. Even then, thank you for receiving me.

Dear Trees, and each leaf that emerges, lives, and falls down dry — is it a struggle for you too? You seem at ease. What about your friends in the city? Are you in touch with them? Do you all ever exchange letters — via the same mighty sky where we have planted satellites? Do your friends and relatives feel trapped in the city? There is a lot that humans get in the city. We get food, shelter, companionship — and internet connection — much more easily than we would in the forest (except that the wifi here at the Gudalur Cosmopolitan Club is good). That is why we live in the city, even while we complain. But dear trees, what about your few daring friends and relatives, the City Trees? Does city life give them anything?

Aaah… bloom where you are planted, huh?

Give. Giving and receiving are one huh?

You trees are the real yogis. You trees are my guru.

I love it that you have no scriptures. I love it that you teach nothing about what is wise, what is not — and yet, I feel as though I am learning from you.

In your presence, I simply am.

The road right outside Gudalur Cosmopolitan Club, the Ooty-Mysore highway leading me back to where I have been planted.
The road right outside Gudalur Cosmopolitan Club, the Ooty-Mysore highway leading me back to where I have been planted.

Top picture: A river dividing a plantation in Gudalur from the elephant camp at the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve

Circles Of Harmony

Products Of Calm

From August to December last year, almost every morning, I went for a different kind of a walk, engaged in a different kind of meditation.

Corals In The Deep
Corals In The Deep. 9.7in x 9.7in. ₹2,500. Click to buy.
Ocean Song
Ocean Song. 9.7in x 9.7in. ₹2,500. Click to buy.

When we sit down to meditate, eyes closed, bang! all the cacophony of our mind becomes apparent and most of the time is spent being buffeted around by all those innumerable thoughts and pointless inner dialogue. Walking is an age-old way of calming the mind. Scientists, writers and all kinds of creators through generations have turned to walking everyday as a means to keep their mind clean and efficient. It is easier than sitting meditation since untamed energy has some place to be used – in the physical movement. In fact walking meditation is officially a part of some meditation programs.

Yin Yang
Yin Yang. 9.7in x 9.7in. ₹2,500. Click to buy.
Forest Joy
Forest Joy. 9.7in x 9.7in. ₹2,500. Click to buy.

Coloring and writing is another kind walking meditation. The wrist and I go for a walk on the paper. Coloring being wordless, brings on a quiet of its own. My brother gifted me a coloring book last Rakhi and I took it up wholeheartedly as the designs by the artist Cynthia Emeryle were exquisite.

Peacock Group Dance
Peacock Group Dance. 9.7in x 9.7in. ₹2,250. Click to buy
Emerald Ocean
Emerald Ocean. 9.7in x 9.7in. ₹2,250. Click to buy.

It was a rewarding experience as I got to experiment with making different color shades and combinations. Each time it was somewhat of a discovery for myself, what colors I will choose. While I kept coloring, I used to try and keep awareness on my breath. Of course the Brownian Motion of the mind would take over at times. However, doing this each day for so many days had a tangible positive impact on how I processed challenges, specially challenges of relationships. Often if I was having a hassle with someone, if I sat down and did some coloring for some time, it calmed me and I responded to the challenge differently than my first instinct.

Carrot Patch
Carrot Patch. 9.7in x 9.7in. ₹2,250. Click to buy.
Cocky! 9.7in x 9.7in. ₹2,250. Click to buy.

These are 9.7 inch X 9.7 inch watercolor and brush ink artworks. Most took 5 or more mornings to complete. Price includes framing and shipping costs. If you are in Kolkata you will receive the painting framed and ready to hang. If you are elsewhere the painting will be mounted and shipped secure within boards. You will have to get the glass and frame added.

Partridge Party
Partridge Party. 9.7in x 9.7in. ₹2,250. Click to buy.
Russian Ludo. 9.7in x 9.7in. ₹2,250. Click to buy.
Russian Ludo. 9.7in x 9.7in. ₹2,250. Click to buy.

You can see bigger clearer pictures on Facebook. There are 24 in all! Here is the link to the store. This is a perfect way to bring joy and color to your space this festive season.

Three Blind Mice
Three Blind Mice
They Love Blue
They Love Blue
Dalmatian Clock
Dalmatian Clock
Secret Cats
Secret Cats

That’s All “It” Asks

how will you
garland the wind,
touch the feet of sunshine?
is there any need to?

turn your face
to the wind
the sunshine and the moonlight
immerse in the dark night
listen to its gurgling flow
wet your fingers
in the water…

i hug god with my heart

that’s all “It” asks
if anything

which will you choose?
the wise or the joyous
the smart or the joyous
the right or the joyous

success or joy
say, fear or joy
which do you choose?

who is your god?

~ vani murarka

Desert Dusk (artwork)

Digital Art. Made first in MS Paint and then re-implemented in Inkscape.

My ancestors came from Rajasthan. Maybe they came from Sub-Saharan Africa. I have never seen the hot desert sand sinking into darkness, but they had. So I guess it is in my genes and that is how this image came about to be!

Desert Dusk by Vani Murarka
Desert Dusk by Vani Murarka

Made first in MS Paint and then re-implemented in Inkscape for resolution independence and a tad bit more sophistication.

trees, me and everyone

not trees, raised arms
of the earth are these
seeking blessings every day
for you and me
~ translation from original in Hindi by Marudhar Mridul

not trees, raised arms
of the earth are these
seeking blessings every day
for you and me

not trees, open eyes
of the earth are these
clearing the path for
you and me

not trees, but the efforts
of the earth are these
scattered gems of happiness
for you and me

not trees, pictures painted
by the earth are these
friends gathered round
for you and me

not trees, gentle fans
of the earth are these
shades spread to soothe
our soul, you me

not trees, but the penance
of the earth are these
partners in our search
both you and me

not trees, but the seeds
of our being are these
believing in life
for you and me

~ by Marudhar Mridul
(original in Hindi: “ped, main aur sab”)
~ translated by Vani Murarka

coconut tree in the dark

i live under the umbrella
of a coconut tree
in the dark night
above i see …

i live under the umbrella
of a coconut tree
in the dark night
above i see

a shot i tried
to take for you
but the camera
did not see
what my eyes
and my heart
did see –
oh that unknown

so my love
come you too see
this spectacle
in udupi

but you must
in the dark
stand still
and also quiet be
late in the night
when everything
indeed does quiet be

then you touch
that which is
dark, rich and

the night and its
coconut tree

~ vani murarka

The Vocal Tribe Of Trees

When I paint or draw I mostly just let my hand move any which way it wishes to go. It is a discovery for me to see what is emerging. That is what happened with this painting too.

Once this painting was done, it seemed to me as if the tree, as a representative of the World-Wide Tribe of Trees is calling out and saying, “Hear me too! Hear me too!”

Trees are very very vocal. Only, their language is the language of silence.

Sitting quietly beside trees, one can’t miss their banter. Listening to them intently and softly with your eyes, is so so … There. There is no word for it. 🙂

I love listening to trees. It nourishes my soul.

Listening to the language of trees takes me to a different world. A world that is also very real and exists everywhere; outside me and inside me. A world which in its silence, holds profound comfort and wisdom.

Listen, listen, O World. Listen to The Trees!

~ vani murarka

to be me

i wish to be a butterfly.

i wish to ride the bare back horse
on vast and open greens –
wind blowing in my hair.

i wish the crackling fire beside,
below night sky –
a distant drum in the air.

i wish to be a butterfly.

i wish to ride the bare back horse
on vast and open greens –
wind blowing in my hair.

i wish the crackling fire beside,
below night sky –
a distant drum in the air.

the shimmering water of the stream
the silent singing night
the shadows of the trees alive
now that the trees sleep tight

i wish to touch.
yes the true touch.
hesitant, but
not very much.

the mud, the earth,
the bark, the skin,
the ripples, and the glow.
Her surface varied such!

the touch that tells
of inside spells –
a song hidden
under the skin.

i wish to smell
Her inside smell –
where i do find
that i do dwell.

to tribal be
to animal be
in earth rejoice –
to simply be.

i wish …

~ vani murarka