What’s in your backpack?

When I cast my t-shirt aside, I had only one thing in mind—it’s one less thing to carry. Not that a single t-shirt acquires too much space or weight, but it’s the little things that accumulate faster than we can count. That’s the mentality I always assume when I pack.

How much would you carry if you’re returning from visiting your parents, and have a five-and-a-half-hour train journey ahead of you? And mind, this isn’t Amtrak—we’re talking about congested and almost always unclean train compartments that allocate 80 seats but accommodate upwards of 150 sweaty humans and even more bulging bags of what-knows-what.

It was a Sunday morning—6:50 am to be near-precise—and I was on a train back to the city, back to my routine work. I’d spent almost a week at my parents’ for what’s supposed to be quality time with family. Despite how that turned out, I was now heading back to take care of my own life. And I didn’t have a reservation on the train. I’d tried, but failed because the website wasn’t able to cope up to the traffic of the Indian population. And so I stood, almost plastered to the walls of the compartment to avoid the incoming crowd trying to find their seats.

As I watched, from my corner of the car’s wall, I saw most adults carrying a child, a piece of luggage, or a bag of breakfast—in addition to their one baggage.

Now, Indian Railways doesn’t have a limit on baggage. And for a good reason too, because it’d make no sense. The only reason people throng the trains is that they’re cheaper and accommodating to the growing needs and waists of the average Indian.

And so every person struggled to get on and navigate through to their seats. Bags overflowed in the overhead racks, they lined the aisles between the seats, and some even sat snug at people’s feet.

A grin escaped my face as George Clooney’s “what’s in your backpack?” came to mind. Every time someone wobbled past me or heaved at the weight of their bag, I couldn’t help but wonder why they’d inflict such discomfort upon themselves. I had one backpack, which I’d placed in the overhead rack, but even then it was a lengthy and uncomfortable journey. To go through that with additional bags made no sense to me.

It’s a pity that while there’s a cult doing everything in their power to reduce luggage and prioritise convenience travel, there’s another group altogether that doesn’t even try. What’s more, Indian train stations are so crowded that it’s not uncommon to see late passengers sprinting through waiting crowds, swerving by long queues, and high jumping over people sleeping on the floor. Imagine going through all that with a bag you can’t even lift.

The more I wondered, the more convinced I became that people don’t know what matters most to them. They’re so feeble and craving that they can’t bear the thought of leaving things behind. Our intense desire to cling to material things, and our inherent fear of death and denial of its permanence has led us to live in constant fear of losing what was never ours.

Pfft. Let it go.

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Tenkasi, South India

Pray, tell

Pray tell, thee, wise tree
how many lives have you seen
crushed beneath the human weight
staved off for their meat and desk
your tenants and their housing whole

Oh, dear, wise old tree
pray tell us truth with glee
who’s the vainest of us all
the one who orbits in space
taking away praise medallions
giving back footprints of carbon
or the one making firewood
felling earth from her roots
for a week’s worth of meals

Ageing, waning, wise tree,
how many times have we seen
heroes emerging on the face of the earth
biting the poor and sucking the wealth
to be rich and famous, at the cost of all

Blooming lotus in Kanyakumari, South India

Solitude

In fortress of own

monopoly among bees

a lone flower blooms

Because that’s how it’s always done

I’ve seen my share of dictionary definitions, but so far, I haven’t found a single resource that equates traditions with obsessive compulsiveness.

Let’s back up a little.

Today’s a special day where I live. It’s the first day of the Tamil new year, and this means people wake up at 4 am and make “pongal.” It’s a rice-based porridge made in two flavours: savoury and sweet.

Today’s better known as the rice farmer’s festival, because its purpose is to thank the sun god for their year-long kindness to the crops and to wish for the same goodness in the upcoming year.

Farmers and their families celebrate this day with abundant gusto, dedicating today, the first day of the new year, to the sun, and tomorrow, the second day, to the livestock that labour through the fields year round. They deep-clean and decorate their homes, and serve pongal to the gods and cattle as a sign of their appreciation. They then gather round as family, wishing each other a good year ahead, and gobble up pongal all day.

Now that’s a nice picture: Thanksgiving for farmers.

However, it evolved into a generic Tamil festival which led people to adopt the habit of porridge-making in their own homes. What happens when townsfolk and ultra-urban dwellers celebrate Pongal? Well, they wake up early and make both kinds of pongal, serve it to the gods that reside in the kennels they’d built in their houses, and then devour porridge all day.

You could say it’s not too different from what the farmers do—except the underline purpose and the divinity associated with thanking nature for a prosperous crop-yielding year has depreciated altogether.

And so now, every year on this day, we make a big deal of making pongal early in the morning. And if you’re in a village where everyone wakes up at 4 am every day, it’s rather a competition to see who serves porridge to the gods first. If the auspicious time begins at 10:30 am, they try and finish cooking well ahead so they can pray to the gods as soon the time’s right.

That’s just one aspect of the Pongal festival. Another is the custom of making pots-full of both flavours even if it’s too much for a family of three. Farmers live in extended families—they have children, nieces, nephews, and cows to feed.

In the city though, it’s just the parents and a child or two. Since everyone in the neighbourhood also prepares the same pongal, there’s often too much to give around to others.

Regardless of making this mistake every year, and feeling bloated, people repeat it again and again—just because making pongal on this day is a tradition you shouldn’t skip.

Now if that isn’t obsessive compulsiveness, I’m not sure what is.

Dead crab at the Varkala beach, Kerala, India

Fleeting

Oh, life you beauty

creepy, puny, and fleeting 

caught only by death