And talk…is cheap…

I’m right now in a working class town called Kalimpong in the eastern Indian State of West Bengal. Life was difficult here even before the pandemic. Daily water shortages are an inescapable fact of life. The roads suck. The transportation options aren’t great and locals make do with what’s available – they have to. The locals of Kalimpong work relentlessly just to keep one foot in front of the other. People take actions just to survive. It’s a hard life here. And surprisingly, most people don’t seem bitter about it. This is life, they appear to be taking it on the chin.

I, too, have had to adjust my level of comfort to what’s available. It’s been a learning experience, a refreshing experience in which anything extraneous was fast disposed of and I’m grateful for it. On the whole, the people are warm and friendly and I feel safe in any part of the extended city of Kalimpong.

Last month, the second wave of the pandemic struck and most everyone began wearing masks in public. Social distancing continues to be a challenge. There are a couple of local campaigns providing support and resources to local residents. People are doing the best they can to continue putting one foot in front of the other.

In the middle of the second wave, I’ve started to receive social media invites for “listening circles” from all over India. Invites from well-to-do, upper middle class Indians in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkatta and other Indian metros, invites from people who, from the safe comfort of zoom meetings, talk about their feelings of fear, helplessness and frustration with the government. They talk about how much the poor are struggling because of the pandemic and the lockdown. One particularly “evolved” “intellectual” draws a straight line between all the problems India is facing today and how one man (yes, one man) is responsible for everything that’s been going wrong for the past seven years. The same evolved individual says to echo chamber approval that India will have Nuremberg Style trials to bring to justice the Prime Minister and his cohorts. No one can be allowed to escape, he says. Yes, really. Should I laugh? Should I cry? I am firmly in an alternate reality in these listening circles.

And thus, the “listening” circles go on – there’s not much listening but a whole heck of a lot of venting and finger-pointing because their delicate middle class lives have been disrupted. It appears to me that India’s well fed middle class needs more mental health support through this pandemic than the poor who don’t know what the next hour brings. I’ve had to tell more than a couple of people who’ve invited me that I’m not interested in these events anymore. I neglect to tell them that if they really wanted to effect change in India, instead of listening circles, they’d be working in the trenches in difficult places like Kalimpong and places worse off, where locals don’t have the time or energy to indulge in talking about their precious feelings.

I don’t have the energy to point out to my “progressive”, “evolved” Indian friends on social media that India needs less of their self-indulgent, intellectual masturbation and more of effin action. There’s no point in my saying anything to these people – they’ll continue with their feel good listening and blaming sessions and when the pandemic is over, they’ll write award-winning books and make award-winning documentaries about the suffering of the average Indian.

In India, talk is cheap and life is cheaper.
Of course, if you’re the kind of Indian who’s lucky enough to be in a zoom or WhatsApp listening circle, everyone can surely feel your pain about all of this.

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

After lunch

Nap times after lunch are horrible
The pain, the longing, the memories
all when I’m half asleep
Like a dream but not quite…
Remembering that time you said you’d come over
but you didn’t
because you were preparing a big meal for the next day
I didn’t believe you, of course
and took you back again and again
until someone else took you away for good
Their good and mine.

I don’t miss you much
except when I’m trying to fall asleep
after lunch

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

Ode to imperfection

I sit down every morning here in Kalimpong and look at this tree through the cracked window pane. I call it my tree.

Its leaves are gone, there’s a sickness on its bark, all over, yet it continues to stand there, welcoming birds looking for a place to sit and chat and ponder on life for a while.

Ode to imperfection

It must be old, this tree, I don’t know how many years, but it’s probably been through a lot, seen a lot. Some might see imperfection when they look at this old, sick and still stubbornly standing tree. I see beauty, life as it is.

Some might hear the music I’ve composed, inspired by this tree, and find my musical skills wanting. Imperfect. Amateurish even. But that’s okay. There’s no need to seek approval, and no need to reject disdain. 

Because, like this tree, like my music, my life is imperfect. Sometimes two steps forward and three steps back. Sometimes only forward, sometimes only backward. Sometimes in circles and sometimes, stationary. That’s life, right? Who said there has to be a schedule and a checklist for how life should evolve. 

My friend the tree stands there every morning, every day. Rain or shine, it’s there to welcome me. Whether I wake up early or whether I wake up late, I sit by the cracked window pane with a cup of warm water in my hand. Neither of us feels the need to say much out loud. This, too is life, no? Some days we bloom, some days we are quiet, some days we remain in relative stillness, standing on a hill, overlooking the ground below, looking up to the sky above.

I’ll be leaving Kalimpong soon, continuing on the journey of life. I’m sure there’ll be other trees, other creatures, other beings I’ll meet. I’ll take my friend’s energy with me…an ode to imperfection…what more could I ask of life, what more could I ask of life.

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

Making friends using words in new languages …

I saw them behind Dubdi Monastery in West Sikkim. I’d just visited the monastery, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Sikkim, built in the early 1700s. Dubdi is located around 7,000 feet, about 1,000 feet above the quiet Sikkimese village of Yuksom.

The Tibetan Bhutia laborers near Yaksum

They were doing some road work, digging a ditch or something. The first time I passed them, I was walking to a quiet, mountain spot further down the path and I didn’t want to disturb them.

Inside Dubdi Monastery
Another deity inside Dubdi monastery

On the way back, I was curious as to what they were working on.

“We’re building a rest area for the monks”, they tell me. These Tibetan laborers belong to the Bhutia tribe and live in the Tibetan colony down in Yaksum, a couple of miles below Dubdi monastery.

I ask if I can photograph them and they say, sure. And that’s how we get talking. One of them is more talkative than the others. You’ll have to guess who that is.

We all stand together and say our names – I think it’ll be more fun this way than a plain ol’ 2D photo. Of course, I give myself a Tibetan last name just so I can be part of their gang for just a moment.

The talkative one offers me a white fermented liquid – homegrown alcohol. I’ve been recovering from food poisoning (don’t eat funky-tasting eggs and daal at a roadside stop!) so I told him I’d pass. He tells me in Hindi, “This special drink will take away all the food poisoning, try it.”

Against my better judgment, I take a sip, a tiny sip. It’s STRONG! And bitter. And sharp. I can see why he says it’ll cure my food poisoning. But I decide to pass on swigging another sip – you know, I’d like to get back to my homestay in one piece.

As I leave, they teach me to say Thank You in Tibetan. The teachers are quite good but the student…

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

watch, listen, feel …

This is my mask for today. What about you?

यो आजको लागि मेरो मास्क हो। तिम्रो के छ?

এটি আজকের জন্য আমার মুখোশ। তোমার কী আছে?

To je moje maska ​​pro dnešek. Co o tobě?

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

My parents are as old as you, he says, tongue firmly in cheek…

He has a shy smile. Sushil Kumar, he repeats his name. He can’t be more than 20-22 years old.

It’s Shangarh, a quiet, mountainous and rapidly developing village in the Sainj Valley in Himachal Pradesh, north India, not far from the foothills of the Himalayas.

Sushil Kumar from Bihar

I’m stopped by his warm smile, his bright blazer, the matching vibrant tones of his t-shirt and his skin, and that he’s willing to engage with me – two strangers in a land far away from home. Bihar state in eastern India is where his home is. For me, home is…it isn’t, actually. Depends on the landscape, and the company. Quiet mountains are home. Friendly, meaningful conversations. The smile of a stranger.

The rapid commercial development of Shangarh is depressing for someone like me – I prefer peace and quiet and the absence of noisy tourists with their selfie sticks. For someone like him, rapid development is survival. It means employment for him and food for his family in far away Bihar, among the poorest states in India.

He’s shy but he opens up slowly. His parents live in Bihar, he says and are as old as me, tongue firmly in cheek. All his sisters are happy, he adds. I wonder if that means he’s an only son and must work in order to raise money for his sisters’ marriages? Or whether they are married and therefore happy?

He’s been working in Shangarh for a year now. Will be there for a couple more months before going back to Bihar. The weather here is very enjoyable, he says. It is – Himachal Pradesh is at a higher altitude and enjoys much cooler weather relative to the plains.

Sushil Kumar references how tourists roam around here. He, too, likes to explore the hills of Sainj valley. A little bit. I’d like to talk more, get to know him better but we have to be on our respective ways…two strangers far from home, meeting on somewhat common ground.

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

Three amigos, somewhere on the side of the road

One has the greatest belly, one has the largest nose and one sells oranges picked from the hills of nearby Darjeeling, West Bengal.

It’s a drive from Bagdogra in West Bengal to Kalimpong, further north, to lead writing workshops. Vijay Chettri, who picked me up from Bagdogra, is on the left. He used to serve in the Indian army for 26 years. Now he has his own car rental business with 4 cars. He shares great stories on the drive up.

Three amigos , each with their own greatness

On the way, we meet Diwas Thapa, a seller of handpicked oranges Rs 200 for 12. He drives a hard bargain. The oranges are a bit pricey but mostly sweet.

Both Vijay Chettri and Diwas Thapa are from the Gorkha tribe of Nepal but they were born in India. Each a character in his own right.

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

Pema … always smiling

Pema, always smiling and ever graceful while she gives me a patient lesson in how her name is pronounced.

Pema runs a fruit and vegetable store in Tibetan Colony, Bir, Himachal Pradesh, near the Dhauladhar mountain range at the foothills of the Himalayas. Bir is home to paragliding as well as a thriving Tibetan community and local handicrafts. Always pleasant, the warmth of Pema’s smile adds a touch of brightness to every interaction – it’s not just a sale and I’m grateful for it. In addition to fruit and veggies, she makes and sells handmade noodles in her shop. 

When I asked her if she ever took vacations, this mother of four laughed out loud. She said that as a member of the working class, it was hard to do but she tries to take a week off once a year, just to rest and to be with her family.

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

between earth and sky

Life is often a game of
how, who, when and why
…this is the truth
and that is not a lie.
Why do we have to
always choose between
earth and sky?
Why can we not
fly when we fly
cry when we cry
love when we love
and die when we die?
There’s no reason why
we need to choose
between earth and sky
between earth and sky
between earth and sky

© 2021 Marlon de Souza
for me, for you

A musical exchange…

There are stories everywhere. This one is from the Union Square subway stop in New York City. The life of a working musician is a tough one. Most of the time, it’s an unequal exchange between the value they offer society and what they receive in return.

Music, like art, dance and literature has become a pop commodity – while the stars make a very good living, the working creatives have a hard time making ends meet.

When you next hear a musician play or see a dancer perform, or see a painting or sculpture being created, donate generously, would you? Or sponsor an artist or musician. Or if you like a book, please donate to your local library. It probably may not cost you even as much as a cup of coffee but your support will make a big difference to a struggling artist, musician, dancer or writer.

© 2021 Marlon de Souza