26 Nov 2016 15:50 IST

The gift of a present

It manifests with the counting of every grain of sand, the ticking of each moment that’s here and gone

It’s the little things. The small, which often go unseen, unnoticed, unremembered.

As we drove on fine roads, through lush greenery, sometimes along the sea, we got, when we noticed, glimpses into inner-side Odisha and, by extension, interior India. A sanguine herd of cows, ambling slowly up the highway. Girls on bicycles, smiling, riding erect. Small boys playing carrom on a veranda as the noonday sun rose up in the sky. And the welcome sight of a dab-seller, serving sweet, sweet tender coconut water to passers-by.

Living amidst the hustle and bustle of densely populated cities, engaged in what we believe are game-changing vocations with every minute carrying a price, it’s all too easy to forget to breathe.

But no, that’s not entirely true. We are reminded every now and then, in unexpected ways, except perhaps, we — I — don’t always notice. My friend Lakshmi is a flower-seller. I have never bought flowers from her. But she comes regularly to deliver oru mozham — a string — of jasmine upstairs. Still, whenever we meet, she smiles at me and asks how my mother is. A couple of years ago, her son met with an accident at work, and has been lying in a coma ever since.

Every journey I undertake, every person I meet, reminds me that I know far less than I think I do, and less as the years go by. Who doesn’t know of the sun temple at Konarak? Upon visiting Konarak, I realised, that was all I knew — that there was a sun temple at Konarak, and that there was another at Modhera, in Gujarat.

I didn’t know, for instance, that the 13th century construction at Konarak was based on highly mathematical, scientific, logical principles. Each block of carved stone is held together with iron strips. And all of it was intended to be held up by a massive magnet in the dome and another at the base, with the deity suspended in between due to the effect of magnetic forces.

Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, this ingenious plan was never realised, and Surya was never worshipped at the shrine. However, the wheels of time carved upon the exterior walls would put the watch-makers at Rolex to shame. And the 12,000 craftspersons, who carved intricate scenes onto the walls for over 12 years, have depicted worldviews that are far more progressive than we can ever imagine.

Today, eight centuries later, they come in other shapes and circumstances, but still carry the wit and wisdom of open minds. For instance, during the thick of demonetisation, our fruit-seller, Shakti, came by with delicious golden apples. As always, he decided how many I should buy, and then gave me another, an extra, gratis — “Deepavali kaaga” — for Deepavali, he said.

The apples were sweet, he was sweeter. On the train back from Puri to Howrah, a man selling churan also spontaneously offered to change a ₹2,000 note. “Why carry 20 notes when one will do?” he reasoned.

Demonetisation was certainly on our minds as we counted every ₹100 note and looked bemused at whatever ₹2,000 currency we had left. At Merlin Park in Ballygunge, mid-morning office-goers had gathered for luchi and tea.

In true Kolkata-fashion, they had a little adda, a chat session, over steaming kullads of chai. Of course the topic of conversation was demonetisation, arguments going back and forth peppered with several interjections of saala… The discussion was heated but good-natured.

As time wore on and their respective workplaces called, the party reluctantly split. One of them, the most vociferous of them all, paid up. “Thirty rupees for five cups of tea!” he said as he peeled three ₹10 notes out of his wallet. But before the tea-seller could remonstrate, the customer himself added, “Of course, the price has to go up. It’s okay. You also have to live. Besides, the tea is great.”

That it was, as were the sinfully fried luchis made with no-good maida. It pleased the stomach and pacified the heart. I guess the lesson for me in all this, apart from breathing, is to live in the present. To participate mindfully in the moment.

This begs the question: Are Indians submissive to circumstances or are they basically happy souls?