Friday, May 27, 2011

Balancing nature with city lights

This is about places I love to live in. I must confess I feel suffocated in cities that are just concrete jungles. Strong old trees and grass always make a heart sing.
Some body of water (clean) such as the ocean or at least a great river nearby would be a must on my list of places to live, too.

Not everyone has the luxury of living in a city surrounded by snow-capped mountains or lovely beaches though if you live in the Pacific Northwest in the United States, you can literally have it all - mountains, rivers and beaches (albeit they are cold most of the year), vineyards and even the high desert. I suspect a lot of it is true for California, too, as that state has a wide range of scenery.

However, each place has its distinct charm and advantages and there are always the little places that are still unspoiled. Maybe it is a river near your house surrounded by meadows, maybe it is a small forest that you love to take hikes in, it need not be a famous tourist destination but something that gives you pleasure each time you visit. I would cherish them because in the rapid flow of urbanization, they may be changed forever or even lost. That is where national parks have an advantage - they will be preserved.

When I was a child, I visited villages with my parents and grandmother where soaking in the warm river water was such a pleasure while taking in the view of the countryside with hills and fields across the banks.

I think of Mumbai, India where I grew up. I was very fortunate to have a national park with wild animals naturally living in it close to my house. I simply loved going there for morning walks and runs (note: the wild animals are further inside the park lest you wonder whether I walked among lions:)). During monsoon and early winter, the place burst in greenery and flowers. I did not have great mountains or lots of such forests but even that one park was a great blessing. What's more, this one had tribals living in it and some ancient caves further inside so there was the historical/cultural factor, too. There are lots of cities like this in India that have natural beauty surrounding them but are developing like monsters with concrete skyscrapers, malls and what not eclipsing all the natural surroundings. Later on, the builders add in 'green space' in the form of spacious lawns, tennis courts and sometimes even golf courts. Tavleen Singh of the Indian Express had written an article long back about the lack of urban planning in India.
However, I would like to see those old banyan, ashoka and jamun trees preserved, acknowledged and cherished. The builders have done that in old housing societies but the municipal corporation has done little to maintain tree-lined streets.
When I think of Mumbai now after having visited and lived in at least a few US cities, I am somewhat dejected. While there are flats being constructed with all the modern amenities, there are very few open green spaces or walkable streets left in the suburbs. Mumbai has a lot of advantages just like many of the West Coast cities. It is not as hot as the interior of India during summers or as cold in the winters as it is warmed and cooled by the breeze from the Arabian Sea. It falls under a high rainfall region so there is lush greenery that naturally sprouts here.
Although the city's beaches are now overcrowded and efforts to clean them up probably fall short, residents can drive a couple of hours or take the ferry south to more pristine beaches on the Maharashtra coast such as Alibaug.
The Sahyadri mountains to the east offer opportunities to hike and scenic locales high up in the clouds such as Matheran. Nasik to the Northeast offers vineyards and the countryside full of fresh fruit and vegetables.
If only we recognized all this bounty better and made efforts to encourage tourism, it would help everyone immensely. I would not say that we should always expect the government to do everything in this regard. Maybe if more Indians followed their heart, we would have more vineyards like the one producing Sula Wines and more bed and breakfasts, little dhabas with clean restrooms, etc. Perhaps there could be more hiking groups formed by yuppies seeking an escape from the corporate rat race and the pollution and crowds of the city or maybe there could be an outdoors company that encourages such exploration. I do think there has been an upswing in such resorts/businesses being opened by private entrepreneurs in India.
Having lived abroad for a few years now, I do not know how much India has changed at the micro level. Young India seems vibrant and ready to explore new things in every area of life. They are also seem like a fun, 'can do' lot. There are probably more river-rafting, rock climbing, beach tanning Indians than I know but I certainly feel we still fall short in this regard. Other well known bloggers such as Rashmi Bansal would have a better idea than me.
The point is that the more there are people ready to explore nature, the more the avenues and amenities that will open up. After all, supply does rise to meet demand.

New blog discovered a few months ago

I started reading Steve Pavlina's blog a few months ago and boy, I am glad I did!

He has a fascinating array of articles and the ones that really made me sit up are the ones related to relationships, consciousness and a larger purpose in life.

Warning: You will have to suspend a lot of your preconceived ideas and be willing to challenge yourself. Of course, that does not mean you have to agree with each and everything he has to say just like with any other author.

What Hindus must understand

Note: This was a draft that I wrote in 2006 but never published it for some reason.

A dinner-table discussion that I had about a month ago suddenly veered to religion. It suddenly occurred to me that some Hindus have been having all the wrong expectations of other religions.
Some Hindus complain that while they see the same God everywhere and visit mosques, churches of every denomination and pagodas, gurudwaras, etc., their reverence is not reciprocated. We got to see the facts as they are and not get emotional and expect everyone to fall in line with an all-embracing way of thinking. People of other religions who do not bow down to Hindu deities are not bad people or do not want to take away your right to worship (except the fanatics who resort to crooked means to get their point across).
Not everybody will like you or your religion. If the holy book of some other religion prohibits idol worship, why would they ever want to be a part of your religious ceremonies even if they respect you as a human being and your right to your way of life? If their book claims that theirs is the only route to salvation, why will they ever take you as an equal?
What we need to do is delve deep into our own philosophy and pass it on to the next generation. We do not know our Vedas or Upanashids. How many have even read the Bhagavad Gita? Very few Hindus can even articulate what their faith is all about. If we are not sure about our own beliefs, how can we defend them? Hinduism today, at least the mainstream one, seems to be all about rituals, ceremonies, festivals, going to temples and maybe listening to some holy men.
But somewhere deep within, the eternal truths that have been passed down through the Puranas told to us by our grandparents, maybe even by watching Ramanand Sagar's Ramayana or Sri Krishna or B.R. Chopra's Mahabharata, have been etched into many of us. But, we really need to have a culture of theological research and discussion, like Christianity in the West.
We need not morph into an our-religion-is-always-right mode of thinking. We have made fun of our deities and even incorporated this into our sacred stories. Critical evaluation of heritage is always good for the present. At the same time, we have to learn from others to evolve into a better religion and society.

Impressions of India - I

Visiting India after living abroad for a few years always brings a fresh perspective. For me, I started noticing everything such as our family structure, how our public transport works, Indian toilets vs. Western toilets and their impact on the environment and hygiene, the little things as well as the big ones that delight or exasperate us whether it pertains to India or to our adopted lands, etc. I have started to grasp that inscrutable term, 'culture' and how it subtly affects our way of thinking about our life path, our marriages, the number of children we choose to have, our mobility between places and even whether we are city yuppies or laid-back small town types. Perhaps, in some ways, I have also started to understand why India is a spiritual land...

America, for example, is a melting pot of different national origins, ethnic groups, languages and religions. India, on the other hand, at least excluding some trendy metro areas, is largely like an assorted plate of hor d' oeuvres. Indians still prefer to marry within their linguistic group and religion even if they are not caste-conscious. Most of their interaction with people of other ethnic/linguistic groups happens at work, school or purely by an accident of fate such as living in the same neighborhood. Each Indian family thus maintains its distinctive linguistic, religious and even caste heritage.
This is of course slowly eroding in some urban areas with lots of inter-caste, inter-cmmunity and inter-religious marriages taking place. However, for the vast majority opting for arranged marriages, this still holds true.

Books in the last few years

Since childhood, I have always found companionship in books. Maybe it was my father's influence with his collection of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse and others. Whether it was the children's detective series such as the Famous Five and Secret Seven or Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, I have always found a sounding board in books. I have woven dreams about my life based on the characters in them. Even today, I prefer reading stuff online to watching You Tube videos or interviews.

There are several books that have crossed my path over the last few years. I have mentioned some of them in an earlier post. However, there are some that have truly left an imprint.

What Should I Do With My Life by Po Bronson

This is perhaps the most influential book that I have read on a personal level.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Washington Square by Henry James

I discovered this author after I read about his work in Reading Lolita in Tehran.

The Pact by Jodi Picoult

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

Helen of Troy by Margaret George

I also read quite a bit of Cleopatra by the same author.

I had read an abridged version of Jane Eyre as a child. This time, I read the unabridged one and even read the reviews of it written shortly after the novel was published that were included in the preface.

I must say that the books The Age of Innocence, Wuthering Heights and Love in the Time of Cholera together packed such a punch in terms of love and relationships that they have left me even more ready to question my assumptions. In fact, these books keep nagging me long after I put them down.

I have already written about Love in the Time of Cholera and will share my thoughts on some of the others later.