Monday, February 07, 2011


i stared at the bowl the teva monk had just handed to me. time seemed to have stopped. and the maroon robes swishing around me made me feel as though i had been caught in the middle of a flutter of giant storks flapping their wings at the same time. the bowl was the size of a singing bowl the monks used at prayer. but this was made of wood.

had it been the singing bowl, i would have seen the quzzical smile on his face. it is not fair, i thought. for someone who has given up everything to be so damned good looking, and happy and so amused at having read my mind. i was sure he could.

'join us in the morning.'

at that time i did not think too much of it, but nobody ever said 'good night' and when i mentioned this to the teva monk, his face dazzled with the smile.

'you aren't awake, how should anyone wish you good night?'

i had come here to hide. not to be lectured at. and yes, he answered, 'you asked.'

morning was so silent, even the dust raised by the sweeping of the courtyard did not swirl up to the sun in joy. it simply sank. i joined the line of monks who would be stepping out of the gates of the monastery to experience humility.

in principle, this is a fantastic concept. eat what is offered into your bowl. no more. there were stories of how someone offered meat, dried twigs and even husk... but none mattered.

i followed. head bowed. bowl in hand and the silence in my heart. no palpitations of fear, no heartbeat that said run away and hide. there was nothing. not even the imagined 'bhavati bhikshan dehi' from theprevious night's dreams.

there was just silence. maybe one day there will not be the need to fill that bowl. the bowl would be full of that something everyone was seeking.

when i came to, i found myself in the room. Cruela sitting near my mat, writing something in her book.

'you fainted.' she stated, 'had he not stuck a leg out and saved you from crashing on the ground, i would have been sitting here bandaging your head.'


'you were halfway to the village when you chose to disturb the butterflies by panicking. and fainting.'

Sunday, June 22, 2008


i knew i was different. i knew i didn't belong. this was just a hideout. for a little while. so i resisted the idea that my body and my mind were responding to the surroundings. i hated the idea that i was like everyone else after all, a creature of habit. and spending time with the people in maroon robes was going to outwardly at least make me become like them.

like how i gravitated to the dining hall just like everyone else, turned to the meditation hall when it was time to sit down and empty the mind, walked into the daily tasks hut just like all the newcomers who were provided with 'things to do' to keep them occupied, sat down under the trees when the sun got too hot and fanned myself with the robes just like everyone else.

a part of me pretended that i was acting, just to fit in. a part of me knew that i was slowly fitting in. i had many questions the first few weeks that i was there. i found the questions slowly fading away when we sat down for the evening prayers. i did not even fight to sit down in front, hoping to catch the master's eye. a couple of times i even noticed the teva monk look questioningly at me when i chose to sit away from the front. but i knew asking questions was a novice's way to receive answers.

the answers were within. maybe i knew deep down. i did not ask to be hounded. and running away was an instinct even animals give in to when they know that they cannot stand up and confront, stay right where they are, in a corner, and fight, so once and for all the bullying is over and done with, once and for all no one lifts a finger, ever, at you for being the one responsible for people losing lives.

i stopped asking, 'why me?' because i saw how trivial the nature of the question was. and that evening the teva monk gave me the begging bowl.

apparently, i was ready to go out and beg for my food.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


I showered. The water stung in places where Cruela’s razor had nicked me. She had covered the cuts with a dark potion from a bottle you would find at an apothecary’s medicine shop or a flea market. Must be some sort of potassium permanganate solution, because the water was turning purple. Great! All I needed was purple streaks running down my face and neck, and I would look like some Star Wars character. There was no point looking at the tiny mirror hung outside the shower areas. I knew the streaks that were on my hand were on my head and ran all the way down my neck and face. I could imagine the twinkling in the eye of the Teva monk..!

My head felt so raw, I knew I had to give it time before I could even think about scrubbing it again. Skipping lunch did not seem to be an option as dinner was so far away, and there was nothing to munch on between meals. I had come to like the gruel that would be served at lunch. And they served greens that tasted out of the world.

I took a deep breath and mentally crossed my fingers as I entered the dining hall. After the prayers, everyone bowed down to the food, and lifted their bowls. I did not see the Teva monk anywhere. My sigh must have been audible because I felt a sharp nudge on my left which meant Cruela was sitting next to me. The nudge was to deter me from saying anything.

Food time was quiet time at the Sanctuary. (Actually it was mostly quiet time). But it was odd because at home food was always accompanied by chatter and laughter. Here there was nothing. Not even a how-was-your-day conversation. Everyone at the dinner table was concentrating as if this was their last meal. What was with that? There must be more than fifty people in there, but each one was eating head bowed, eyes closed s if in prayer. But it saved me from this huge embarrassment of being seen in public in a very bad Halloween costume.

The gruel was so amazing I forgot everything and simply ate I wish they served seconds.

Maybe the taste was what stopped everyone from making small talk.

I raised my head from the bowl and saw monks were slowly filing out of the dining room after having washed their bowls. I put the bowl to my mouth and resisted the urge to smack my lips like the burger eating character in Popeye as I drained it. I had been here not too many days, and I was already washing it just as everyone does. What creatures of habit we are...

I stepped out into the dappled sunlight wondering if I should lay a small bet with myself. A part of me knew I would not last in this place for too long. There were way too many rules, and there was no possibility at all of anyone being allowed to question those rules. A part of me was still terrified by the life I had been forced to lead and was so thankful for the refuge this place offered, it told me to stick with the rules as it was the only safe place left in the whole world.

Suddenly I felt as though I was being watched. Instinctively I froze. And forced myself to look up.

Someone behind me was smothering a giggle. A giggle? Here? I braced myself for the realization that I was going completely mad, and turned around.

The entire bunch who had eaten with me in the dining hall; the entire bunch who had their eyes closed as they ate their gruel and vegetables; the entire bunch of bald headed monks was assembled in a haphazard maroon group under the trees. They were all looking at me. As I said before, the eyes tend to look rather large when your head is tonsured. Here too, large eyes on hairless faces looked back at me. And those saucer eyes held something that looked like… naah, could not be! But what were the usually stoic faces suppressing? I looked at them. Puzzled. And as soon as I made eye-contact, one by one, the faces crumpled up into hysterical laughter. Every one of the maroon robes was doubling up. They had all noticed my purple streaked face!

And one of them, in an even more un-monk like manner, spoke up with a robotic voice, “Hail, Lord Sidious!”

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


It was just like getting a haircut, I told myself. A cooler haircut. My hair had been green, blonde, and even blue. Had streaks of orange, ash blonde, and green for Independence Day. But something told me this was going to feel a little different from all those expressions of rebellion.

This was different. Cruela smiled, and her eyebrow wobbled weirdly. I did not know why I was crying.

It hurt. Somebody should’ve told me the razor would be more cutting than any harsh words hurled at one. Somebody should’ve told me that looking in the mirror afterwards would be a big mistake.

I had imagined it would feel as if it were the aftermath of a bad haircut. Trust me, I know. I have had many.

But there’s only one that was done in a frenzy of self loathing and a desire to run away. It came back to me in a flashback as the chanting around me helped drown the pain of the closest haircut I have ever had.

They say nails and hair have no feeling. But I can still feel the hand that had twisted my hair ever so gently in a fist. I still feel the heartbeat increasing rapidly against my back as the fistful of my hair was pulled ever so gently to his nose. I can still feel the warm breath inhaling the scent of the shampoo I had used just that morning. I still feel that warm breath exhaling slowly against the back of my neck. I can still hear that rough voice gently murmur, “Halo shampoo!”

And I know for sure I wasn’t there because I wanted to be there.

I knew I had to run. Nothing more was important any more. I could hear his surprised yelp as I pushed him. I could hear him yell, ”Silk!” as he saw me bolt through the French windows.

I vowed never again to ever get into a situation where I would have to run like that again.

The razor had nicked me in several places. Cruela looked satisfied with her performance. As she held the mirror in front of her smirk so I could look at her handiwork, instead of touching my bald head I touched my eyebrows. They looked immensely hairy on my hairless head.

I wiggled them. I raised one. Then another. My face had become a stage for the dancing eyebrows. My eyes looked darker on my face. And the shadows under them, deeper. I looked weird, not at all like a version of Persis Khambatta in the Star Trek movie. Not that I looked like her with the hair, but still, I was thankful that my head was not wobbly or odd shaped. I touched my head.

It was a big mistake. A shudder passed through my entire body. I had hoped the touch would have disappeared with the hair. I had cut my hair before with the same hope. But I could still feel it. I could still feel the breath. And before I heard the voice that had haunted me for years, I threw up.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


The sun that came into the room from between slatted windows was too curious. I could feel a burning sensation on my back. That’s when I realized it was from the half truths I was scratching on the form.

Well not exactly a form, but I had to sign away my former life. I wish one could do that with memories. I wish there were indeed a Lacuna Clinic that could wipe memories away…sheesh! Not another Jim Carey reference.

Yes, I had informed my family about my decision. Not.
Yes, I was fully aware of what life I was leaving behind. Not.
Yes, I knew what I was getting into. Not.
Yes, I knew that the life I was opting for was tough. Not.

I handed the form to the teva monk. His bland look betrayed nothing. He was just playing the part of the inscrutable monk to the hilt. I felt a mutiny rising within me.

“It took me two years to fill that form.”

Bastard. Couldn’t he have said something before he watched me fill it in? I shrugged, and before my mouth pursed up in rebellion, I reminded myself that this was my last refuge. So I quell it, and silently follow him.

Across the courtyard there is a small wicket gate. It leads to the most beautiful garden I have ever seen.

“Straight out of a painting, isn’t it?”

That was the kindest voice I had heard for a long, long, time. And it belonged to the teva monk. I looked at him but was surprised at the tears that obscured my vision.

He said,” Don’t even think of stepping on the grass. And let’s hurry, Cruela is waiting for you.”

My tears vanished as soon as I heard him say Cruela. Cruela?! Was he serious?

He was grinning that evil, un-monk like grin.

“Yes, you heard me right. Come.”

When your head is tonsured, the eyebrows sort of get highlighted. But nothing prepared me for the most amazing eyebrows (correction, eyebrow) that I had ever seen. It was a hairy marvel on a smooth moon face. The eyes were closed, but when they opened, they seared everything in sight (at least it felt that way).

Maybe she couldn’t singe her eyebrow off. What a pity! But she was speaking, and I suppressed my giggle. She sounded exactly like Cruela De Vil…

The teva monk had resumed his inscrutable monk face.

“So, you are here. You stay in this part of the monastery.”

She had dismissed the teva monk so quickly. I should have been happy to get away from the sarcastic monk, but I wasn’t. I turned around to say thank you, but he was gone.

“The right day to be here...” She was muttering, “And you are sure that this is to be your refuge?”

I nodded my head. She swept me away and soon, I was me no longer.

When I saw my reflection in the lotus pool that evening, I did not recognize myself.

My hair was no longer ragged. I had no longer any hair on my head. It was not the smoothest of heads, but it wasn’t the bumpy head I had thought I had either.

I stared hard at the pool and tried to get a closer look by kneeling down. No, I would not get a role in the new Star Trek film. And no, I did not look like myself either. My ears seemed to stick out. And my nose seemed to be a lot bigger than I thought.

No one would recognize me if they saw me. But that was whole point, wasn’t it?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


‘You’ve been watching too many kung fu flicks.”

The old man with the shining beady eyes made that dismissive pronouncement.

“If you think this is a place to hide from the real world, you are wrong. Running away has never helped anyone, you know.”

I must have rolled my eyes, because I saw a ghost of a smile twinkle in his eyes.

“Okay, then I won’t bullshit you.”

(My jaw dropped at hearing the real world word from an away-from-the-world monk.)

I waited for some profound lines about hard work and realization and seeking god. Nothing. He simply stared at me, a mona lisa smile on his face. Saying nothing. So this is how lab specimen felt…

Maybe he had fallen asleep. Just like grandpa used to. Mid sentence. I sort of craned my neck as a detective wood towards a closed door, in order to hear conversations behind the wall, not hiding the question mark on my face…

His eyes were closed. That was a definite. Maybe he had fallen asleep.

Or maybe he had died. And as soon as that thought popped into my head, the radio in the same over active head changed stations to hard-core right wing fm station that was playing ‘abide with me’.

I remember how another person had died exactly like that, mid sentence, listening to me sing that very hymn…

Jai Prakash Narayan was one of the good guys in politics. But he was also very old. (I was just a school kid then, and anyone over thirty was old. But this man was so old, he was wrinkled all over.) I remember I had inwardly shuddered with the callousness of the very young as his wrinkled, gnarled and bony hand grasped mine and his quivery, wrinkled voice said, ”You sing beautifully, will you sing a bhajan for me?”

I remember saying, “Bhajan?!” with so much distaste, I can still picture the grin that spread all over his wrinkled face.

I had extricated my hand and looked around the room.

Apparently he was very ill, and apparently I was the only one in the room that afternoon who was completely oblivious of his historical importance. For me, he was just a very old person who was making an irrational demand. I sang ghazals, I sang in the school choir because I liked harmonies. But bhajans? They were meant for the Hare Krishnas. But now there were a whole bunch of people in the room who had gathered around the ailing politician, who were all staring at me for a miracle. I had no time to think, because the feeble voice had reminded me, anything, any bhajan. Someone helpfully stage-whispered, “He too likes 'Vaishnava jan to'…”

And inspiration hit me when the radio in my head (yes, I think I’ve had it running in my head forever) pushed me into singing ‘Abide with me’.

And before I had finished the hymn (and in my defense, it was a kind of bhajan), the man had died.

Needless to say that the news never mentioned my lethal weapon, and the family has never allowed me to sing in public again, but nobody and no event has been able to switch that damned radio in my head off. And right now it was playing ‘Abide with me’. Again. And the man in front of me was old and wrinkled and had gone very very silent.

Maybe I should look harder at him. So I half crouch up from where I was sitting and start to sort of do a tiger crawl towards him. I have unkind thoughts of rigor mortis and of having to try and untangle his mortal remains from the lotus position…


Fuck! The teva monk! I had forgotten all about him! He must have materialized behind me without making a single sound.

I think hard. I think fast.

And execute a clumsy the Indian style prostrate-yourself-in-front-of-holy-men namaskaar.

I open my eyes to see the old man grinning. (He’s alive! Thank goodness!) The teva monk is behind me so I don’t get to see his reaction. But I am sure he rolled his eyes. Whew! That was close.

I look at the old man. He knows I am waiting for words of wisdom from him. So he obliges.

“Now that you are here, work hard. I hope you will unlearn the fear you have lived with for all these years.”

Man! I am hopelessly impressed with the mind reading thing. But the whole setting does not allow a Jim Carey jaw-drop act. So I nod my head meekly and follow the teva monk once again.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Kung Fu Flick

If you were seeing what I was seeing, you’d have thought you had landed on the sets of a Kung Fu flick.

If you’ve seen as many Kung Fu flicks as I have, you would be hearing it too. The background music. There was none, but the radio station in my head suddenly went ancient Chinese.

Any moment now the montage would begin, I thought. A line of monks would materialize out of one of the buildings, chanting ‘aum mani padme hum’, and file past me just as serenely disappearing into another building. Their prayers would not falter even if they noticed me standing there with the Teva monk.

If only life imitated movies…I would be taken straight to the head honcho of the monastery who would sit me down for a cup of tea (serene, somber Buddha in the background), give me instant gyan and hand me over to the Jet Li lookalike monk who would then quickly teach me all kung fu moves. I would with the corner of my eye, stumble upon the secret self-defense techniques monks practiced at the break of dawn (I would be humbly sweeping the backlit dusty courtyard, the rising sun shining orange on my face), then I would be able to leave the monastery armed and dangerous, ready to defend myself against my monsters…


The Teva monk was patiently waiting by my side, watching me stare at the buildings straight out of a Kung Fu Flick.

Stop it Manisha! You must not go on that track again!

“You’re wearing Tevas?!”

As soon as I had uttered them, I knew I was better suited to be in charge of Imelda’s shoe museum instead of the main role in a Golden Harvest Kung Fu Flick.

He looked at me as if I were hardly material that would test his patience.

“Who says the path to Nirvana has to be traversed with bleeding feet?”

A hundred out of hundred I marked him for dialog. At once profound, and at the same time ridiculous. I pretended to understand even as I nodded my head.

He made that smooth ‘proceed this way’ gesture, which I thought was so smooth, it would need to be patented.

He walked beside me. We walked across a courtyard and climbed three steps into a dimly lit hallway of some sort.

I was still adjusting to the light inside when he pointed out to the table.

Still in the Kung Fu Flick mode, I expected to see a bowl of steaming rice and chopsticks.

Under the covered dish there were about six slices of bread and some cheese.

I had no smart comment to offer. I suddenly realized that I was hungry. He pointed to a stack of dishes. I gratefully took one, and placed the bread and cheese on it. He pushed a bottle of jam at me and pointed to the cutlery. He even chose an apple from a bowl of fruit, and placed it in front of me.

Then he sat across the table and watched me eat.

It is the most difficult thing to do. Eat when you’re being watched. Eat when the jam is too sweet and the cheese too crumbly. But I was too hungry to care.

My mouth was stuffed before I realised I had not said grace. I felt ashamed. For the first time in hundred years I had forgotten to say thank you for the food I was about to receive.

I stopped wolfing down the food.

He looked kindly at me, “It’s all right. You can say thank you after.”

And he said he did not read minds.

My plate was clean. I had eaten so quickly that there were no crumbs left to lick. I had even eaten the apple clean.

I closed my eyes. Said a silent thank you prayer, and pushed my plate away.

He was looking at me. Pointing to a shiny sink, he said, “Please, wash your plate.”

I stared at him. What did he think I was some sort of a city brat, who had never washed a plate?

But his face was as kind as before. He simply added, “Only when a plate is clean, can you put another meal on it, isn’t it?”

This was my zen moment.

And I was staring at him with my mouth offering to say an ‘oh’ but producing nothing. The tap in the sink had really cool water. How right he was. I was going to learn nothing new unless I had a clean slate. It seemed like a promise. It seemed like I was going to learn something huge here after all. The towel by the sink asked to be used. So I happily dried the dish.

When I returned to the table, where the dishes were stacked, he was gone.


If nothing else, I am going to learn to move as silently. I promised myself.

And picked up the hastily dumped backpack by the chair, and stepped out into the sunlight.