Monday, January 19, 2015

A Mirrored Life: The Rumi Novel by Rabisankar Bal - A review

Book: A Mirrored Life - The Rumi Novel
Author: Rabisankar Bal
Translator: Arunava Sinha
Publisher: Random House India
ISBN: 978-8-184-00615-5
Pages: 215
Rating: 4/5

There are at least a few books every avid reader deems life-changing. Dozakhnama by Rabisankar Bal was one such book for me. For months after I’d read it, I walked around enveloped in its magical haze. It became an impossibly high yardstick that few books have been able to match up to. Naturally, when I heard about A Mirrored Life by the same author, I wanted to read it. I wanted to pit Bal against himself. Knowing it was a novel based on the life of the celebrated Sufi saint, Jalaluddin Rumi made the wait harder. I wanted to savour it, drown in it.

When the review copy finally came into my eager hands, I read it cover to cover in one
breathless sitting. Bal has this way with words… they stick to your skin and then to your soul. Tell me how one can stay unaffected with lines such as these?

'I am complete in you. This skin, blood, bones, marrow, mind, soul... all, all of it is you. This
existence is your existence.'

'You cannot count the number of creatures lurking inside a man. There's a rat, there's a bird too.
Don't be the rat. Try to be the bird.'

'Do you know why the flute weeps?
- It wants to return to the wood of reeds from which it was taken.'

Reading Bal is an immersive experience. The author becomes the subject becomes the reader and back. In his quintessential style, the author often tells a story within a story within a story. The rich oriental tradition of qissas comes alive in his work. Parables over moral discourse, metaphors over reality. Lines are artistically blurred and sometimes you’re not quite sure whose voice you’re hearing. But it doesn't matter because the beauty of these words is so sublime.

It’s no less than a mystical journey that one undertakes with Ibn Battuta, the narrator into the life and times of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi. The book is populated with several other characters, historical and otherwise, who drift in and out of the plot enriching the narrative. Prime among them are Shamsuddin Tabrizi or Shams - the mad ascetic and Sultan Walad - Rumi’s favourite son and disciple. The book explores the Sufi saint’s relationship with each of these characters and the journey that takes him from being a Maulana (a religious scholar) to a whirling dervish.

But it is when he portrays the relationship between Shams and Rumi that the author is at his most profound. Rumi calls Shams ‘The Sun of Tabriz’, an expression of the deep love and reverence he feels for his spiritual mentor, friend and lover. The nature of Shams and Rumi’s alliance is historical fact, but it is the other-worldly flavour of their relationship that the author succeeds in bringing out. Nothing is profane in their consummate love for it is no different from a seeker’s love for God. The pain of separation and the ecstasy of union are penultimate in this equation. When Rumi whirls in divine rapture, the reader is drawn right in.

Peppered with Rumi’s own poetry, the book is a rich tapestry of human emotion, divine experience and artful storytelling. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Bal outdoes himself when compared to his last book, but A Mirrored Life - The Rumi Novel is a powerful work unto itself. One must also doff their hat to translator Arunava Sinha who doesn’t miss a trick. I haven’t read the original Bengali version of the book, but I cannot imagine having missed any flavour. It occurs to me as the most faithful translation there can be. And am I walking around with a magical haze around me all over again? Ah, yes.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Why I exercise: 5 fitness motivation mantras

I never never never thought I'd write a 'motivational' blog post. I've derided the self help genre for as long as I can remember and I still catch myself scowling at people reading books like 'Who moved my Cheese?'. I used to think losers need motivation, but then I grew up. I met people and their demons. My demons made friends with their demons and I realised we're all the same. We all need love and acceptance from ourselves and others. We all need a hand when we are low. When a few women reached out to me after my last post, asking me how I do what I do, especially in the realm of fitness, I felt the need to write an elaborate answer. Hence this.

Because the rewards of fitness are intangible and come slowly, it lies at the bottom of most people's priority lists. It's the Achilles heel of the even the most focussed among us. It takes huge amounts of motivation to start walking down this path and huger amounts of discipline to keep walking. While different reasons finally set people on this course, the following five keep me going.

Turning 30: The twenties is the most amazing decade of one's life. You have youth on your side and a body that will put up with just about anything. Thanks to those high levels of energy and metabolism, you think you can take on the world. I thought so too. But turning 30 flipped a switch somewhere. Age started manifesting in the most insidious ways. A hangover that would last suspiciously longer; an innocuous crease under my eye as I woke up; and oh, let's not even discuss the holiday weight that never seemed to go away.

And then there was childbirth and the stretch marks and flabby bits that come with it. I now had a body that was irreversibly altered by pregnancy. I knew that my bone and hormone health were only going to go downhill from this point. I needed to do something. I needed to take charge of my body, I needed to fix and beautify this place I live in.

Being strong: Women are strong beyond belief, but most don't know it. We've been led to believe in the myth of the 'weaker sex' and in that trap we languish. Worse still is the 'fairer sex' stereotype, which makes us think we ought to be thin and light and waif-like. Don't you realise that the arrogance of man comes from being physically stronger? Why should you not be able to punch a guy right back in his face if you need to?

No, this isn't about self defence. This isn't about building muscle either. This is about having the confidence that comes from strength. Weight training has added strength and confidence to my curves. I am finally free of the image of that pudgy Bengali child who would never participate in sports because she knew she would never win.

The high of lifting: I started gymming the way most women do - pounding away at the treadmill for hours, or cycling or being on the elliptical occasionally. And I was B-O-R-E-D. While cardio routines work for some - and are important too - repetitive exercises just didn't work for me. Fortunately, I had a good trainer in the beginning who encouraged me to take up lifting. Actually, everyone is taken to the weigh training section and shown the ropes, but most women tend to give up because of the pain. The day after the training, when the DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) set in, you are in pain. For beginners, persisting through this phase is particularly tough. Why subject yourself to aching body parts when you can put off the alarm and sleep some more?

Whip your own ass, get up and go because this ache can be delicious. The endorphin high notwithstanding, sore muscles are a wonderful reminder of your hard work. Sure you walk with a limp for a day and can't laugh because your pecs are paining so much, but hey, you've done it! You've picked up the heavier dumbbell, you've conquered yourself!

Narcissism Inc.: It also helps to have oodles of self love. You'll invest in yourself only if you think you are worthy. So many women seem to give up on themselves after marriage and childbirth. The focus of their lives shift and they forget how to be good to be themselves. I am grateful I am surrounded by people who reiterate my self-belief. It helps me stay motivated to be beautiful inside out.

It also helps to have a good front camera on your phone and be unabashed about taking (and posting) those selfies! Ask my social media friends and they'll tell you how I post selfies to the point of irritation. But I think seeking a little validation never hurt anyone. I could clothe it in a fancy phrase and call it 'maintaining a photo diary to chart my progress', but the truth is I like to look at the mirror and care what I see in it. I love my bodycon dresses and I love the attention.

Live to eat: The last and most important reason why I work out so religiously is food. I LOVE food in all caps. You'll rarely hear me offer diet advice because that's something I can't do myself. I will work out twice a day if I have to, but I will eat that occasional burger. I will walk that extra mile, I will take those stairs but I will have my fried fish & rice and my chocolate mousse and I will have them without guilt.

I never had great metabolism to begin with and it grows only slower with age. So I exercise - exercise like a maniac so I do not have to give up on the joy of food. That said, do not undermine the importance of a healthy diet and moderate eating. Eating mindlessly while working out is, as a fitness-conscious friend once put it, "like pouring water into a glass with a hole."

In mean, consider your body type, your daily routine, your food habits and tailor a routine that works best for you. Lift weights if you like to lift weights, run if that's what makes you happy, dance or swim if that's your thing. But get up and get going. This is for you. You deserve to look and feel good but you must work towards it. Make small goals. Sleep 30 minutes less, resist one pastry, walk to the grocery store. The only one formula is that of determination and discipline. Make it happen.

Monday, January 12, 2015

This, that, AND the other

Not taking away anything from the men, but if you ask the other half of the world with breasts and uteruses, they'll tell you that being a woman is hard work. Juggling roles and hormones is tough game and I've had my share. To be fair, I've had a fairly easy life with a lot of freedom of choice. I thought I could do anything but then the baby came along. Any mother will tell you this. A child turns your world around. A child challenges every notion of the self, pushes every limit you may have created in your head. It's all about finding one's balance and sanity after the first few months of childbirth.You have to take charge of your body, your career, and your brand new role of a mother.You have to realign all your social relationships with respect to this little creature who you are now responsible for. When a woman gives birth, she has to be reborn too.

I admit I had it easy when it came to finding my feet in my career again. I had (and still have) an incredible support system in my husband and in-laws and going back to work was easy. What wasn't easy was getting back my body. I grew up with a lot of body image issues, and pregnancy was the baap of them all. I found no solace in calling - as some mothers do - my stretch marks my battle scars. I constantly thought of myself as one big cow. But I waited and bade my time. The day my son started sleeping through the night, I started hitting the gym. Though never quite fond of physical activities, I took up gymming with religious zeal. I was going to get my body and love for myself back. I started weight training and surprised myself by loving it so much. Over two years, I trained hard and was almost competing with the boys. I had the 'beauty' bit sorted. Now it was time to work that brain.

Here lay the next important challenge. I decided to take my first step towards that long dreamt-of PhD. Keeping aside my earlier masters degree in psychology, I enrolled for a masters program in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology to be able to do a doctorate in culture studies. I also decided to do two post-graduate diplomas - one in mythology and one in mysticism along with it - from the University. This entailed giving up on every known comfort - the comfort of a career, the comfort of a pay packet, the comfort of a known domain, the comfort of independence. It meant going through the rigmarole of academic discipline, examinations, assignments all over again and to top it all, endure the poverty of student life.

But I couldn't settle for one love, could I? I used my AND and became a mother and a professional and a fitness enthusiast and an academician. And I am finally me.

 “This post is a part of #UseYourAnd activity at BlogAdda in association with Gillette Venus".

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis by George Weston Briggs

I’ve always been fascinated by the Left-hand path or Vamacara (who isn’t?), and now Indic studies give me the opportunity/excuse to peer closely at that which is forbidden. The Left-hand path refers to unorthodox religious and occult practices, often misrepresented and misunderstood by society at large. In the course of my readings on Tantrism, I had often encountered the Natha cult and it is in this context that I picked up George Weston Briggs’ book Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis.
Briggs belongs to that generation of British Orientalists of a colonized India, who first studied and recorded Indian culture systematically. The White Man’s prejudice notwithstanding, these Orientalists helped the cause of Indic studies with their inscrutable scientific method and Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis is one such example.

Written way back in 1938, the book offers exhaustive insights on the legendary figure of Gorakhnath and his followers known as the Kanphata Yogis. Kanphata literally means split or torn ears, which refers to a religious rite of passage in this sect whereby the initiate’s ears are split at the concha and a thick ring inserted through it. These earrings are the hallmark of the sect of the Gorakhnathis. Briggs sheds light upon many such rites and rituals of the sect with all their variations.

The book is divided into three sections viz. The Cult, Historical and The System. The first section elaborates upon the order, their divisions, vows, sacred places, religion & superstition and their pantheon. The next section has chapters on the legend, the forerunners of Gorakhnath, Gorakhnath, their literature and the tenets of Yoga and Tantra. The last section puts down the Gorakshashataka, important physiological concepts, chief aims & methods and finally, the conclusion.

Because Briggs is so thorough with his research, the first section gets especially difficult to get through. It is full of dry facts pertaining to the divisions, where they are located, and how their organizational & hierarchical systems are. The author’s bland style of writing doesn’t help. It is meant to be an academic work, but there are readable styles and there are soldier-through styles. Briggs certainly belongs to the second category.

However, things get interesting in the second section where he talks about the legend – rather legends – of Gorakhnath. The great yogi’s historical background is rather cloudy but the author pegs his existence around the 12th century AD. Myths and legends of Gorakhnath and his guru, Matsyendranath abound in the regions of Punjab and Rajasthan but also extend as far as Bengal and Assam. Like his mixed geographical trail, Gorakhnath’s character also seems to belong to several religious factions. There are references to him in Buddhist Tantric literature, Jaina literature, Islamic Sufi texts and of course in the (Hindu) Shaiva, Tantric and Yoga traditions. This mysterious, eclectic figure forms the basis of the entire Natha cult and their multifarious divisions and traditions.

The third section serves as a valuable resource as it gives the reader the entire Gorakshashataka along with its translation. This authoritative text of the Gorakhnathis prescribes all Yogic practices for the spiritual progress of a Natha ‘aspirant’. Further, he elaborates upon the tenets of Yoga & Tantra with detailed descriptions of the chakra-nadi system, followed by important physiological concepts of the Nathas.

As information rich as the book is, Briggs’ conclusion is disappointing. One sees the restraint and neutrality of the researcher fall away to be replaced by the snub-nosed Englishman. He is derisive in his tone and cannot desist from judging the ‘heathens’. But let’s remind ourselves that this book was written in 1938 when political correctness from a gora was hardly expected. The book was and continues to be an invaluable resource for the student of Indic studies, and especially Tantra.