Monday, December 23, 2013

Body Language

To me, being a teacher is about sharing my love for words, and so much more. It's how we share life. We charge words and release them and that gives us so much power. But the physical world plays a big part in how we communicate, no where more so than the Chinese language which takes the word 'literal' to a whole different arena. I used to wonder why a people would choose to take the hardest path and create a language that's more art than structure. But you know, there is an immense beauty in their choice... The Chinese word for wisdom has two symbols. The one above is a broom. Below it lies the heart. When the broom sweeps the heart clean, it makes it free of anger and negativity, then there is space for wisdom to enter. Isn't that so very special?

Animals have a language that can be very vocal. But there are times that they rely on their drool to do the talking for them. Then again, you can't say they aren't creative. Like when I returned home this time after a two month absence. I opened the door, saw a blur, a tongue, two eyes, and then suddenly it started raining inside the house. I thought it was a miracle. It wasn't. You've seen those rotating sprinklers in gardens? Pivot an upside down puppy on one of them, one that's apparently lost bladder control and you'll understand what chaos the next few minutes were. Afterwards, once we'd disinfected the house, and me, I looked around and noticed things like the new paint job on the walls, the flower arrangements and my family. This canine re-defined 'body language' for me.

Speaking of which, isn't it funny how we've brought physical distances into our vocabulary to describe relationships? It's like we use distances to measure what we feel-  some people you wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, you'd rather hit them with it. Or you want to keep someone at arm's length. For some, you'd go the extra mile or there are some you feel close to. And then there's the parable about a sage who explains that the reason we shout at someone when we're angry with them is because at that moment, our hearts are so distant that we shout to be heard across it.

It reminds me of a word I like- communion. It's what I was trying to express once when I said "friends, soulmates, kindred spirits- we all find each other in a place beyond words...." because to me, one of the best times of my life were moments of such connection. I was in the first year of college, sharing a house with my cousins- a brother and sister. He was an intern at a hospital nearby and he'd mostly come home in the middle of the night- 1 or 2 A.M. A few times a week, he's shake me awake and gesture silently. We'd slip out and take off for a ride on his bike. Most often, we'd take the roads that led out of the city to remote villages, changing from tar to dirt to tar again. On roads that he knew like the back of his hand, he'd switch off the headlights and there'd be nothing but the stars, and the fields, the night and us. And silence. We almost never talked. Just two bodies hurtling towards nowhere in particular. To this day, I can close my eyes and go back there easily and I always feel peace.

Of course, we had our share of stories from it. Like the time we got hopelessly lost and there wasn't a soul to be seen. We were driving along this narrow dirt trail in a deserted field and finally, we saw a man in the distance. An old man, squatting as he brushed his teeth with a neem stick. This was the savior who'd lead us back home. So my cousin stopped about 2 feet away from him and as he started to ask for directions, we realized that the old farmer was doing more than brushing his teeth. He was taking care of ALL his morning ablutions, if you know what I mean. Undeterred, as is the way of my people, he enthusiastically pointed this way and that and we thanked him, choking on our words, just waiting to go a respectable distance so that we could cry laughing. Another instance of 'body language' I'll never forget ;)

It's something we pick up even as children, maybe especially then; looking for clues and cues into the mysterious ways of adults. My father was never mysterious though. Any time he found anything funny, Boom! A large hand would descend to whack the back of my head. When I resurfaced, I'd crawl away, disoriented but determined to save myself.

When I moved to Chennai, there were roads that I named solely on their effect on my body. It started when an acquaintance called a bridge 'The Bridge of Love'. I didn't understand, until the day I drove on it. Small speed-bumps at regular 10 feet intervals.  Drive any vehicle on it and your mind and body start sending confused signals to each other. 'Wait a minute- what's happening? Should I start making noises now?' My advice- desist. You'll respect yourself more in the morning. Another excuse for a road that I had the privilege of naming- 'The Anti-Boob-Job road'. Gaping pits leading to hell followed by mountains that made you giddy- all within centimeters of each other. Driving on that road, I used to wish for reinforced steel bras as well as shock absorbers for the rest of my body.

There's a lot we learn by just looking at each other and the world around us. I like looking.... Ahem :P

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Listen...Can You?!

People talk a lot. I prefer listening. You'd think it was a perfect set-up but it's not. Listening is often under-rated when it comes to its level of difficulty. It's all coming back to me now as I prepare to leave for home. Sitting in the car, right in the middle seat, all alone, I'm looking around me bewildered. My family, you see, is standing around the vehicle, and each one of them is declaring where they will sit and where each of the others should sit...They're postulating and reasoning and gesticulating, and the voices are getting louder. As what started as consideration quickly escalates towards violence, I am reminded of other instances where people have pushed the boundaries.

My colleague in a previous job was a pleasant, efficient lady. We had similiar duties and she loved to talk to me about them and anything else that came up during work. There was only one problem. A few wires in her brain had short-circuited at some point in her life, and she had lost most of her sense of personal space. She'd get so close to you when she was talking that you could see the pores on her face. Magnification, a process that used to interest me, lost all lustre after these encounters. It would take a superhuman effort to focus on her eyes because they'd be so close to yours. As I tried each time to uncross my eyes, I'd wonder if she went through life thinking that most people are sadly cross-eyed. So complete was this woman's need to get up-close that her subconsious had been programmed to compensate for and match any shift in the other person's spatial trajectory. My need to step away and breathe always led us in this totally unromantic dance down the corridor. I'd lead, she'd follow. We did the two-step, the fox trot, the jig. At desperate times, we've even moved through the samba, and touched on a bit of salsa. But nothing worked. My biggest comfort was that she never articulated her 'p's or 't's with any amount of force, so I was saved from the pain of spittle at least. Not that the errant projectile never found its mark.

I found a different type of person waiting for me at my next job, a different sort of challenge. She was a passionate, inspiring woman. Except when she slept through our conversations. Always polite, I never knew if I should stop talking or become a more interesting person. Sometimes she'd wake up and nod and it planted huge seeds of doubt in me. Was she bluffing? Could a sleeping face be a poker face? I never found out. I'd just continue talking, gradually tilting my head and body down and sideways, trying to point my words at her ears as her head slid steadily. When she awoke, we'd both jerk up.

I moved on to a job where my acting prowess was tested sorely. A boss with one foot in the world of movies is not such a great thing. Especially when he got me in the seat opposite him and dropped names and places as easily as the peanuts he was paying me, followed by a look of expectation. 'How awesome am I?', his eyes asked me every other day. How many expressions of admiration or being impressed can I make? Hah! I know the answer to that one. Zillions. One combination is right eyebrow up + lips pressed together + head tilt left 30 degrees. Another is both eyebrows up + mouth half open + 2 nods. The simplest is three rapid blinks + leaning backward. I got so good at it that after I quit, he couldn't live with the void I left behind. I considered his proposal of marriage with awe- a lifetime of that? I refused mainly because I feared my eyebrows would never descend again.

So yeah, all these gurus who talk and talk about the art of talking? I can teach those fellas a thing or two about listening. It's my turn to talk now. Just as soon as my family figure out that any butt can fit in any seat and we finally make it home.