This seems a pretty picture- it is of one of my favourite flowers- Flame of the forest (Butea monosperma)- a medium-sized dry season-deciduous tree, which grows in the tropics. It is found in a forested part of Delhi, where I grew up and seeing these flowers reminded me of springtime. In my native West Bengal, the poems and songs of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, likened its bright orange flame-like flower to fire. In Santiniketan, where Tagore lived, this flower has become an indispensable part of the celebration of spring. I used to love these flowers.
However, the same forest became associated with murder in late summer of 1978 when siblings Geeta and Sanjay Chopra were kidnapped and brutally murdered. On their way to the radio station to present a youth programme, the children were kidnapped for ransom. On learning their father was a naval officer, both were killed instead and the girl, Geeta, was allegedly raped before being murdered. Both were bright young people- Geeta was a 16 year old second year college student and Sanjay, was 14-year-old school student.
I was very young but I remember the impact of the murders. Suddenly parents were cautious about where their children were going, suspicious of strangers and our world changed from being happy and carefree to fear and mistrust. The city which had never experienced such a heinous murder was traumatised and all energy was directed to finding the killers. It was my first loss of childhood innocence- the flowers which I loved, grew in a forest where children had been murdered. I came to associate these flowers with blood. Years later as an adult, coming across these flowers accidentally, I wondered if I could change my fear to joy again. So this was painted.
The ‘bark’ of the trees is made from newspaper cuttings about the murders and the stylised flowers, with their curved and spiky forms, represent my fear. However by painting this, I have made my fear disappear and understand the sadness from those murders. It may be because I am older and it may be because exactly 20 years later on the day when the culprits were caught, I had a son, who helped me to see the world in a different way. So the painting is curiously sad but optimistic by its brightness and exaggeration. Like these flowers that bloom in the spring and wither away in the heat, whose leaves fall in the winter, leaving a skeletal bareness, our lives are informed by sadness and joy, by gain and loss. This painting connects me to my childhood and my adulthood and to that of my son. The sadness of the loss remains but the fear has gone. Art has become a therapy.
This is my friend, whom I have known for 25 years. He is sitting there with his card from the Queen to congratulate him on his 100th birthday and the two cups of tea he made, one for me (he will never allow me to make the tea!). (In case you wondered, when people turn 100 in the UK, the Queen sends them a birthday card) When I met him last week, I asked him what he thought was the secret to being 100. Of course, one must allow that unfortunate accidents and illnesses cut short one’s life, so if those are to be discounted, then he said the secret is to living a long life is being ‘open’ to life. We then talked about what being open to life means.
One meaning of being open is about being grateful for what life brings. David’s wife died more than 40 years ago and he still clearly grieves for her but he is grateful to have seen his great grandchildren and his own children and grandchildren leading happy lives. He was a tiny boy when the Great War broke out and he was a young man who served in the RAF in the WWII. After that he settled into a life of domesticity and peace, working for British Council until his retirement. He is grateful for the chances that life gave him. David has been a Buddhist for more than 30 years.
The other meaning of receptive, he said, was about being kind to people. He often tells me the same story (and I pretend I have not heard it before). This is about his friend who hated ‘doctors, Jews and blacks’. Once this friend collapsed outside a pub with a heart attack and he was helped by two young men who probably saved his life. David visited his friend in hospital and found him to be a much changed man. His friend who now had a different opinion of doctors, said, ‘You know what, one of the men who saved me was black!’ To which David responded, ‘Then the other one must have been a Jew!’ Being receptive and open means being kind to all people and free from prejudice.
Over and over again, most old people who have lived a long life, say similar things to me. I can’t remember even one bitter and angry person who has lived a long life, even with the benefit of modern medical care. David’s friend unfortunately was not able to mend his ways, despite being very rich and died early, always complaining and bitter. So there you are, live a long life by being open and receptive!
Yesterday I called my younger son ‘stupid’ in front of his friends.
This morning I apologised to him profusely and told him that it was not him who was stupid but I.
Yesterday I had been helping out at my son’s school annual summer fair. I had made some organic elderflower cordial which he was selling at a stall. I had given him some spending money for food while I was running another stall. After he came back to ask for more money, I realised that he had used his money to buy my own elderflower cordial at his own stall. I don’t know what kind of logic he followed because he could have had that cordial any time at home. The cordial was supposed to be sold to visitors. Of course, now he had run out of money to buy food. In the heat of the moment, I called him ‘stupid’ for doing that.
This morning having had some rest, I thought about the repercussions of what I had called him. First I had insulted him in front of his friends. Second, thought occurred that perhaps he had been generous and honest (also rather loving of his mother’s elderflower preparation), rather than been ‘stupid’. Third, I was mindful that whatever we call our children, they become that. I remember all the phobias and fears I have inherited from my parents and it is only now, after several decades I am getting rid of them.
I thought of all the alternate ways I could have dealt with the situation. I could have taken him aside and told him that I could not understand the logic of his actions. I could have joked and told him in a pleasant way not to spend any more money buying things that we already had at home and instead, spend his money on food. I thought I would have never spoken to an adult like that and yet, felt free to call my own son stupid. Surely I was also stupid. So this morning, we had a little chat about it and he said that he had been hurt by what I had said. I said I was very sorry. I also explained why I had said what I had said, wrong as it may be. We both laughed it off.
Children pick up on little things we say rather thoughtlessly; and what they say and do later are reflections of what we are saying and doing. I would be mortified if he called someone else stupid. So I have decided not to be stupid myself again and think before I speak! I also gave myself a pat on the back for apologising to my son. Hopefully that is something he has also learnt to do now.
This week, my first ever art show opened. It may have been something vaguely I wanted to do in life but I really hadn’t thought much about it, except that it was ‘impossible’. Then I heard an inspiring talk given by a blind artist ( see my previous post on Annie Fennymore) and realised how actually I ‘understood’ her and her techniques for painting. I got talking to the person who organised this show and suddenly she turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you exhibit your work too? We have a three month vacant slot here.’ I was deeply reluctant at first. My reaction was- ‘what if people don’t like it? what if people laugh at the work? what if people don’t get it?’ etc etc.
I was full of fear. But having thought about how much I was going to regret not taking this opportunity, I said yes eventually. Then I also decided to paint new work and re-worked some of the originals. I realised I had changed- I had taken on fear and won. Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” You can always learn from mistakes, but what if you’ve actually never made a mistake (as if that is possible!)? Life is all about making mistakes, learning from them.
It was hard work but I thoroughly enjoyed painting again. I didn’t try to please anyone- just painted to please myself and thought about what I would like looking at. Having now done this, I am in a daze- people have written so many kind words about my work. One said, “I have just been to have a look and the art looks amazing. You are very talented!”
Many people helped out, working on Saturday at 8-00 am working solidly for four hours to hang the pictures- none of them got paid to do this (although I certainly will send something to them). Someone who helped out with the hanging commented,”Just to let you all know that the pictures are all hung safely and, personally, think the corridor looks great…..several people have already admired them…..”
What can I say, I am speechless with gratitude! If my art moves and inspires people, even though technically it might not be amazing- it is perfect for me and them. It is my gift to the world. By taking on fear and leaving aside regrets, we can only become more creative and live true to our hearts. It doesn’t matter if I get any more compliments or not, or even if I get some nasty comments- I have won! So if you still thinking about something that you have never done, go for it now!
PS-writing this blog for the last three years also helped me to overcome my fears!
I saw a post by Leo Babauta in which he encouraged us to create blogs about ourselves. Now, this is quite terrifying. I had got used to writing privately every day after reading Julia Cameron‘s books, but the thought of sharing it with everyone- that was fearsome. So I thought I should challenge this fear. To challenge it, I had to face it, feel it every inch of it, live with it creeping inside my skin and see its loathsome face. It was not pleasant- what I did see was my own face reflected back. That is it- my fear was me! So in a way, I had been fearing myself, my success (possible or not) and all the fears that had been ingrained in me by others right from childhood- all these fears came at me with its multi-headed ugliness. After scrapping away, only the fear that I had instilled in myself remained- that was the most powerful one. So I have decided to challenge that too. By writing and by doing what I can do best- being myself, not my fears.