Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tea and the Tradition of 'Beautiful Foolishness of Things'

"There is always a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea."
--Daniel Johns

The thing I like best about Tea is the lush green tea plantations. I am not fond of the beverage myself but somehow I am always surrounded by people who can kill and get killed for a sip of good tea. In Indian tradition refusing a cup of tea is an insult to your host and not offering one to your guest is even worse. So invariably I find myself sipping 4-5 cups a day in office, in meetings and in social gathering. Few days back while passing through some of the most well known tea estates of Eastern India I was wondering how this “ just a drink” has affected traditions, cultures, economy of the world. The tired swear by its near-magical effect on the nervous system; the sedate by its energizing properties; the pessimist by its ability to cheer; the optimist by its sobering effect; the prosaic by its romantic appeal; the poet by its practical convenience and the scientist by its benefits to the human body….. To the lone drinker, the tea's subtle flavor and aroma serve to focus and calm the mind. Shared by two it acts as an unobtrusive third entity bridging the two poles of conversation. A simple cup of tea could contain the elements for the social, sensual and even the spiritual.
Tea has the distinction of being the most ancient beverage (after water of course) in the world. The Chinese have been taking tea for health and for enjoyment for thousands of years. No one knows what drew them to the glossy, green leaves of tea but a popular legend says that in 2737 BC the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water. A leaf from the tree dropped into the water and the emperor decided to try the brew. The tree was a wild tea tree. The Emperor drank the resulting infusion and felt himself overwhelmed with a sense of well being. Tea was thus born.
Tea has been rediscovered a number of times since its original discovery. When tea was first discovered, it was only manufactured as a Green tea by the Chinese by steam firing the tea leaves. Pan firing it paved the way to Oolongs and Black Teas. The British discovered tea growing wild in Assam, India in the year 1823. Tea carries a carriage full of Tea Myths, tea stories, tea ceremonies, tea traditions .
And when I talk about people who can kill for a sip of tea I find evidence that they are not the first ones to feel so passionately about their cup of delight . It is said Honoré de Balzac had a small quantity of extraordinary tea that he saved for his very best friends. The tea was a fine imperial plucking offered by the Emperor of China to the Czar. A Russian minister reserved a part of the gift to offer his friend, the writer. It was also said that the caravan that carried this marvel to Russia was attacked and its members killed. The legend adds that any who dared taste this tea might become blind. Balzac's greatest friend, Laurent-Jan, never drank the tea without declaring: "Once again I risk losing an eye – but hell, it is worth it!"
I have heard various ways of brewing tea, tea ceremonies, various types of leafs, flushes and fragrances of tea but whatever be the ceremony , whatever be the leaf, the connoisseurs will vouch for the magic in every sip of tea. They will perhaps agree with Japanese scholar Okakuro Kakuzo who in 1906 wrote in his The book of Tea:

“Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things."

Don't feel sorry

I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.

--D. H. Lawrence

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Road (Not) Taken

Bend in the road is not the end of the Road, unless you fail to take the turn.....

Roads have a character of their own. I love traveling by roads... Two days back I was traveling from Coochbehar in West bengal to Siliguri and found an amazingly beautiful route. Dotted with yellow mustard flowersfields , green paddy fields , tea gardens and reserve forests(Buxa and Hasimara Animal reserves ) . In India you find all kinds of roads: National Highways, state highways, Rural roads and even Kachha( non-concrete) roads. I don't think I will ever get bored of these roads. They tell a lot about the society and culture of people living nearby. I find journey by car with music playing in background very relaxing and even rejuvenating. Perhaps that is the reason that many like me enjoy reading travelogues. Talking about roads, the poem that comes to my mind is essentially Robert Frost's The Road Not taken . Here it goes……

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler,
long I stoodAnd looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood,
And I—I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference!”

And here are some snaps someone sent me of 10 most beautiful roads in India.

Patratu Valley Jharkhand

Corbet National Park



In Gulmarg



Numaligarh in Assam


On the way to Ooty

I look at them and feel I have seen even more beautiful roads or should I say faces of the road, as the road also changes its appearance depending on the weather, season and even time of the day. The most beautiful moment I remember on a road is the serpentine road from Thekkadi to Munnar in Kerala. Passing through the tea estates and marked with a mixed aroma of tea and spices like cardamom and black pepper, it was perhaps the Greenest road I have ever seen. Then there was a lovely route from Gedu in Bhutan in which I passed through at least 15 waterfalls and saw the most beautiful sunset in the mountains. Also I don’t think I can ever forget the road to Rohatang ( and beyond towards spiti) with thick walls of snow and a lone bulldozer of Border Road Organization (BRO) fighting to clear the way . In the left you can find a snap of that road.

Talking of BRO , one cannot forget their witty one-liners on the sides of the roads. I wonder how do they manage so much of “CREATIVITY” while working in such difficult terrain. Here is my collection of BRO’s roadside messages:
The trophy goes to this one ...
and here are few more

--Hospital ceiling are boring to look at: AVOID ACCIDENTS!
--Be gentle on my curves
--Do not be rash or you will end in crash
--Don't dream , otherwise you'll screem
--BE slower on the earth than quickr to eternity
--Live for today: but drive for your tomorrow
--Darling, I want you but not so soon.

--Mind your brakes or break your mind!
--Road is hilly, Don’t be silly
--On my curves, keep your nerves
--Reach home in peace, not in pieces
--This is highway , Not a runway

And last but not the least roads remind me of the immortal voice of John Denver :“ country roads …take me home!!”

Friday, February 9, 2007


How much a book can affect your life? I have seen people coming out of depression or bad mood by reading a book, regaining their faith in God or life by some write-up …even crying at the distress or misery of a fictional character. In many autobiographies ( Mahatma Gandhi’s for instance) you will find reference of books that made a mark on his way of thinking, which made him change his point of views or helped him in building that. Well, inspiration comes from strange corners sometimes. It may be a sight just aimlessly witnessed from your window, a chance meeting with someone during a journey / vacation or may be a photograph seen in a magazine. The biggest inspiration for me to rise above the daily hullabaloo of life and to do something worthwhile came from a book.

I must write about this book. For one I am shocked to find out that there is not much information available about the book on the web. At least not in English….and more than that I must acknowledge how precious this small book is for my life. I am talking about “The Cause you serve” by soviet writer Yuri German (translated by Olga Shartse)- the sole Amazon link on net gives these details for this book Hardcover: 342 pages ,Publisher: Raduga Publisher,C.I.S. (Sep 1997) ,Language English ,ISBN-10: 5050024366, ISBN-13: 978-5050024367. But I first read this book in its Hindi translation. That was titled “ Adarsh ki Sadhna” . It came as a gift from my cousin when I was a student of 7th standard. I picked it up like any other story book and my world was changed for ever. Later I found the English version in a nondescript bookstore. I still don’t know much about the writer …never read any other book from him. All I can gather from the internet is that he was a known screenplay writer I Russia and that this book was also made in a movie.

Well, it is a simple story of a boy called Volodya (short for Vladimir Afanasyewich Ustimenko) , growing up in Moscow of the Soviet Union . Like all soviet stories the hero will be an idealist, a leader of poor and a tough person: “A light to others , I burn myself out” Yes, Volodya will grow up to be like that. The story unfolds and now Volodya decides to be a doctor. He will meet some of the great doctors and surgeons of his time and will also face some of the opportunist seniors and colleagues. Despite offers to live a comfortable life our hero will leave his country to a world of shamans and witch doctors and to serve the cause he has picked up for himself. In this process he will have to leave behind friends, comforts and even his lady love (Varya – a budding actress). The story ends when our hero is still in the foreign lands of difficulty and disease but he has won hearts of the villagers and peasants …he has survived days when no patients will turn up in his hospital and when his skills of surgery and medicine will be tested in most adverse conditions .But the end leaves you with a subtle assurance that Volodya will continue to serve the cause and that he will be contented doing that – “ …believe me the only thing that matters is knowledge of duty well done.”. There are moments in the story when our hero will be all alone, frustrated and even lost . He will be called opportunistic, fame-seeker and crazy by others. The most charming part of this young doctor was his conviction. His commitment to do things right. Later on I found some glimpses of Volodya in Ayn Rand’s description of brilliant architect Howard Roark, who dares to stand alone against the hostility of second-hand souls. But call it the bias for childhood-sweetheartor whatever; I will still rate Volodya above Roark. I would agree with another young doctor who will join Volodya later in his remote hospital that “ I take Ustimenko , with his iron will, scientific foresight, devotion of work and uprightness , as my model of perfection.”

The back cover of the book says “This story based on fact is about a doctor, who , in the author’s words, is a man of action with a clear purpose in life , who is sincere and open hearted whatever and however tragic the circumstances. He errs because he is human, but he makes his mistakes on the straight roads leading to the truth , and not in the small blind alleys in search of nothing more than personal well-being .” But it was more than that , for me- it was an eye opener- that the world out there is going to be different from what I have read so far in my comics and story books. It was a shock and a surprise at the same time. Shock because there was a lesson that things will be difficult for those who try to rise beyond the mundane and surprise because it taught me that at that level those difficulties …the snubs, the criticisms and the rest of the world and its relations… will be meaningless. Few days back I was reading my old diary , recalling my first impressions of the book….I was so moved. I wish I could live back the experience of that ‘awakening’ in me.

The opening passage of the book says “It happened to him when he was in the ninth form. All at once Volodya lost interest in everything, even in the chess circle, which instantly fell apart without him, even in his form master Smorodin, who had always considered Volodya Ustimenko his best pupil and even in Varya Stepnova, with whom till only a little while ago, during the November Holidays, in fact, he used to enjoy the slowly flowing Uncha from the edge of its high steep bank. Life so jolly and amusing , so busy and noisy , so fascinating in all things , big and small , suddenly seemed to stop , and everything around Volodya stood still , listening apprehensively, on the alert, as much as to say: let’s see what’s going to happen to you next youngster!
And yet, nothing had happened really”.

Today I know why I fell in love with the book instantly. I was also a girl of almost that age, uncertain about future and its challenges. It was so easy to relate to Volodya: to rejoice in his success, take pride in his conviction and feel sad for his loneliness. Like all teenagers, there were days when I thought I am in love with Volodya…but it didn’t take long to realize that I want to be a Volodya myself. Later in life, I referred this book so many times and got immense strength from it. It was guide, my friend, my support , my comfort on the days when I tried doing something honestly but failed- was laughed at or even ridiculed.
Let me now quote some of the favorite passages from the book that made me swim against the current. The book that taught me being different is not same as being wrong . The book that gave me courage to speak my mind , say things I feel – however bitter and politically ( or socially) incorrect they are .I have recommended this book to many .Let me recommend it to you too…and let me also hear from you about books that changed you .

1. “What does a man live for?”
“I believe it was Korolenko who said the man is born for happiness… for happiness as a bird for flight. Pretty, but vague. ……For centuries the love of man and woman has been poetically compared to that of doves: cooing doves, billing doves and all other trash elevated to poetic heights. But I refuse to think of myself as a cooing dove. If you are a real man, you want more than the physical feeling of happiness on the hot sand , you want more than dovelike bliss— you want to go ahead , to fight to penetrate fields of knowledge no one has explored before you , to feel that you are useful not just to yourself or your children , which is not enough for society , you want to feel that you are doing creating contributing to the common cause.”

2. One very hot, stuffy day, Bogoslovsky flew out at Volodya catching him sprawling in a chair in the outpatient department.
“Feeling ill?”
“It’s so hot.”
“It’s so hot, you say?” Bogoslovsky shouted, his brown face reddening with fury. “Go home, if you’re quite cocked. A doctor should not look like a piece of overdone beef, he must be a strong energetic man whom it is a pleasure to obey. You must be a pillar of strength morally a legend, a fabulous giant and not a jelly fish. A patient should try and get well for his good doctor. You must use your personality and not merely rely on your scalpel, your physiotherapy or on pills.”

3. Clasping his knees and staring up in the sky he sat there alone far into the warm summer night. His heart was beating evenly and calmly, his head was amazingly clear, his thoughts were lucid and serene. The people are really fine. It doesn’t mater that Yevgeny is a swine, and never mind Dodik and Alvtina . They don’t count. The people doesn’t consist of them…..It’s very important to be indispensable, to be needed, to be the sort of man good people can’t do without . The rest just doesn’t matter much.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Law of the jungle

"Now this is the Law of the Jungle -- as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back --
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."

From ‘The Law of the Jungle’ by Rudyard Kipling

Leadership mantra

"Successful leaders have the courage to take action while others hesitate."

"Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly"

"Be a hero .Always say I have no fear"

"Always look within not without"