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Tuck!

That was what we called the edible items we got from home to boarding school. I do not know how that word came about. What I do know is that it was a word that made my mouth water as a child.

There were all kinds of tuck.

The Sardars from Punjab got basan ke ladoo, panjiri and dodha. All Indian sweets from the North of India. Made in desi ghee, clarified butter, a symbol of good health in rural (and urban) India. The city dwellers got diary milk chocolates, bourbon biscuits and sometimes cans of rasgullas. However the most treasured tuck was that of the students who came from Thailand. Their tuck was exotic. Perhaps it was not exotic, it was foreign. At a time when India functioned under the License Raj and globalization was unheard of, anything “imported” had an exotic look and smell to it.

The Thai students were mostly Sardars, even though most had Thai names. Monto, Narin,Suvit. They all spoke fluent Thai and I never heard them speak in Punjabi.  It never occurred to me to check how they were both Thai and Sardars. Perhaps their parents had settled in Thailand for business. Or maybe there was another story to their Thai-Sardar ethnicity. Anyway for me, as a nine a year old, it did not matter. I was more interested in the contents of their tuck bags.

In the evenings we used to have tuck time, where in students could open their bags and tuck into their tucks. The most premium tuck belonged to a plump student called Akash Gujral. He was from Kuwait. The quantity of tuck he got could easily fill a small general store for a few months. Huge brown leather suitcases filled with Kraft cheese, orange marmelade, chocolate powder, strawberry candy, Kit Kat bars, Coca Cola cans, choco sticks, nestle ketchup, peanut butter… You name it he had it! It was a treasure trove. Every child dreamed of being of Akash Gujaral when he opened his bag in the evening. If not Akash, atleast his friend. Sometimes Akash was kind enough to share some of his treasure with a few of us and I once saw him pass on a Kraft cheese can to Sister Vimla, one of the nuns in charge of our dormitory. I can still see her beaming smile, stretching from one end of her face to the other. I remember wondering if it was within school (or religious) regulations to gift a can of Kraft cheese to a nun!

But there was something I valued more than cheese. More than all the chocolates and colas put together.

It was Mama!

Mama was a Thai brand of noodles. Very much like Maggi noodles. But it had a different taste and came with two small packets inside the larger packet that contained the hardened block of noodles stuck together. One small packet contained the masala, the taste maker and the other small packet contained the pungent smelling shrimp oil, in which it was to be cooked. More often than not we ate it uncooked. By we I mean my Thai friends who got loads of Mama packets as a part of their tuck. They used to crush the packet without even opening it, so that the long hardened noodles would break into tiny pieces. Once that was accomplished, the packet was opened and the masala sprinkled and the mixture shaken so that the masala would flavour the broken noodles with its spicy, tangy, somewhat sweet and definitely addictive taste.

Sometime I was lucky and got to taste Mama, when a Thai friend happened to extend his open packet towards me. I would dip my small fingers and retrieve a small portion of the mixture. As I put it into my mouth and crunched it with great relish, I was always left wanting for more. Like indulging in foreplay, and not being allowed to proceed further.

I had a childhood fantasy.

It was to have our football field filled with Mama, loads and loads of it and I could eat it to my heart’s content. I have heard, that our unfulfilled desires find manifestation in our dreams. Unfortunately, this fantasy did not find fulfillment even in my dreams.

The closest I came to having Mama was when we used have “party” at night. A few us, boys sleeping in the same dormitory, would get up, some minutes, after light were switched off by the matron. In our night-suits, we would stealthily walk in the darkness to the common washing area that had a number of wash basins lined in a row. Each of us would carry something to eat, ranging from biscuits, chocolates or even a fruit that may have been served to us at dinner time. On few occasions someone would get a few packets of Mama. At such times, we would pour some hot water from the boiler into a plastic mug, dip the Mama into it, sprinkle the masala and stir the mixture. It would take less than 2 minutes for the noodles to cook and be ready to eat. We then greedily scooped the noodles with our fingers and stuffed the steaming curly Mama into our tiny mouths. That was my first experience at cooking. Unfortunately I never proceeded further than that in my culinary skills as an adult, even though I do make it a point to avoid using plastic mugs.

I was wondering though, why would a bunch of nine-year old boys, staying in a boarding school who have just had dinner, want to “party” after everyone has gone to sleep?

It occurred to me boarding life is pretty regimented. There is a time for everything.

A time to wake up, a time to get ready, a time to have breakfast, a time to study, a time to have lunch, a time to resume study, a time to play, a time to stop play, a time to get ready for dinner, a time to have dinner, a time to do your homework and a time to sleep. A life where we had no say over how we would want to spend our time. The establishment decided every aspect of our life. Not that it was cruel. It just robbed me of the faculty of making my own choices and being responsible for them. Years later when I had quit the corporate world and started working on my own, I used to feel lost at times how to manage my time, if I did not have someone telling me what to do or checking on what I have done.

I now realize eating Mama after lights were switched off, was my first small step of rebellion against the establishment that ruled my life.

Those tiny fingers holding steaming noodles were trying hard to wrench back the control that adults had established over my life. It was an effort to reclaim what rightfully belonged to me. In the best manner I could. By boiling Mama in a plastic mug and eating it, when I was clearly not supposed to be doing it. In those moments, Mama symbolized my first struggle for freedom.

I do not know what the other boys, who “partied” after lights out are doing in their lives at the moment. I only hope that we have not entirely lost some of the fighting spirit we demonstrated as children. That our taste for freedom has not been totally extinguished by our struggles to find ourselves as adults.

Recently a school friend who was visiting Mumbai from Thailand, happened to ask me what could he get for me. Without a moment’s hesitation I said “Mama!”. So he got me a carton of Mama with fifty packets in the carton. I have had more than half of them, by crushing the packets and adding the taste maker. Even though I still have more than a few packets of Mama left, my craving for it has dissipated considerably. I guess fantasies have a greater power when they remain unfulfilled.

Or perhaps Mama had already fulfilled its role in my life, the first time I boiled it in a plastic mug after lights out.

My first…tentative…tiny…taste of freedom!

***

What do you recollect of your first taste of freedom?

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I was excited when I first went through the brochure of the Learning Societies Unconference. For two reasons. One, it was a gathering of people, in a manner I had never experienced before. Two, they seemed my kind of people. They were expecting more than three hundred people from across the world, with a variety of backgrounds to explore new ways of learning and living. Moreover, there was no structure to the conference; hence, it was called the un-conference. It would emerge as we went along. It worked for me. Anything that questioned mainstream education and economics and believed in going with the flow definitely had my vote. It seemed as though I had found my community at last.

As I reached Hideout, the rural venue, three hours from Mumbai, it took me a while to settle into the variety of people I suddenly came across. People who had attended earlier conferences greeted each other with shouts and hugs, like long lost family members. I smiled politely and shook hands. I was new to this family. Yet the distinctive character of the community was felt. These were people who had walked out of mainstream institutions, schools and corporations, and were searching for new ways of educating their children and living more authentic lives. Some had covered ground in that journey, while others were just beginning. Most importantly, it gave me a sense of community. I felt mainstream here!

The next five days were to be devoted to learning, sharing, listening and bonding. Each day began with an open space and members offered to hold workshops on a variety of topics. The workshops offered were mind-boggling! Ranging from the power of spaces, making of caps, sharing unschooling experiences, effective listening, radical honesty, creative letter writing, tarot cards, non-violent communication, belly dancing and the much anticipated unconventional relationships – to name a few. I offered one on finding inner authority. Then there were mela-shops of different organizations doing a variety of work in the developmental sector ranging from education to ecology. This seemed like a learners paradise.

I floated mostly. Without any agenda.  Allowing the day to unfold. Here is what I learnt.

On Learning

My primary learning was that learning and unlearning is a myth. There is nothing to learn or unlearn. Every learning or unlearning results in a new answer. Another concept. And each concept comes in the way of experiencing life. We keep replacing old concepts with new ones and perpetuate the illusion of learning. Giving precedence to learning over living.

Each time I think I have found a new way to live, to relate, to educate I feel fortified with answers. Until the answers crumble when dashed against the incomprehensible mystery of life. Then the mind searches for new answers, new masters, new books, new theories. Once it finds the new answer, it rests for a while. Until the cycle is repeated. Little realizing that the problems of living stem from the mind, the questions come from the mind and the mind finds the answers too. The mind labels this activity learning or unlearning. A poor substitute to living.

On Relating

Just as the nature of the mind is to create constructs, we look for the ideal construct to relate. Marriage, the traditional construct having failed, the mind now looks for new answers through unconventional relationships. Each construct – open marriages, polyamory, fidelity, commitment – is picked and examined closely. A hidden hope that the exploration would give the magical key into this mysterious terrain of relating between a man and a woman. Some of us have questions, some have answers, while others have stories to share.

In the search for a new construct, I realize that I am missing a crucial moment of relating. To myself, in this very moment.  And if I am not relating to myself, how will I ever relate to another.  Thus theories, concepts and constructs relate to one another other, leaving feelings unfelt and needs unarticulated.

On Authority    

Every time I seek an answer from another, I create authority. Every time I give an answer to another, I become an authority. From some I seek answers. To others I give answers. What is common is my need for answers. Where does this need stem from? What is it like to live without answers? Is it possible?

Yet I speak. I speak of how to be free, when I am bound. I speak of becoming independent, when I cultivate dependence. I speak of relating, when I myself do not relate. I speak to humans, when my own humanness awaits expression. Have I become a commentator on living, at the cost of living?

On Freedom

Does freedom mean being unbounded? What if my unbounded expression creates inconvenience to another? How does one then live as a free individual within an interdependent community? Is being free flowing, allowing for chaos to create, letting it evolve organically, indicative of my ignorance or my reactiveness to the system that confined me for so long? Can individual freedom truly exist without agreed norms and boundaries?

In the absence of basic norms, who decides? In absence of clear time boundaries, who waits? In the absence of clear roles, what remains undone? If my primary purpose is to learn, when will I learn that freedom and boundaries go hand in hand?

On Sensitivity

I talk of being sensitive to the environment, to nature, to the value of hard work and honest labour. But what of my sensitivity in communication to fellow human beings. Does not sensitivity have more than one flavour?  How swayed am I by my commitment to a singular value, that I am blinded to my own verbal violence? Am I so lost in my own story of sensitivity that I do not see my insensitivity to others?

How different am I from the terrorist or the rioter who kills for his value? Have I lost my sensitivity and rationality in my story of self-righteousness?

On Facilitation

I wish to facilitate inclusiveness. Facilitate listening. Restore peace and harmony. What is my need to do so? In the process am I giving up my authenticity to play a role, live up to an image of what I aspire to be? Am I listening to myself? Am I at peace and harmony? Have I explored myself deeply enough or am I seeking solutions from the outside?

What would happen if I gave up the security of a technique to communicate? Or the crutch of an approach to facilitate?  What if I got up one day to see all that I had learnt had been erased? Would I then get in touch with what I felt in the moment? Would I then risk becoming vulnerable to express my need to another? Or would I become immobilized if there was no one to facilitate me? And I run to find another mask that would make me socially loved and accepted?

On Feelings

Why is it so hard for me to be in touch with my feelings? The most fundamental aspect of my being. What draws my energy constantly towards the concepts and theories of the mind? Seeking answers, giving answers in a symbolic language that by its very nature is untrue, fragmented and static. Inadequate to meet the needs of a life that is dynamic, animated and whole. How do I perceive this whole without fragmentation?

Am I myself fragmented? Seeking completion, belonging and acceptance from family, friends and community? Will my search ever end?

On Creating A New World

In my pursuit to create a new world, a better world, for my children and the generations to come, am I missing out on another world? The world inside of me. Have I ever looked inside. Not introspecting, analyzing or interpreting, but simply looked and noted without words. Or am I so busy setting the world right that I have no time to stop and note the world I carry within.

Can I ever bring integration outside, if I am divided inside? Can I bring peace and harmony to the world, without bringing it first into my heart and mind? Is the world a reflection of my own mind? Am I the world?

 ***

During the conference I stayed in a dormitory in the home for the aged run by Christian nuns. It was reminiscent of my growing years in a convent boarding school. There was fixed time for everything. The gates of the home shut at 10.00 pm sharp. Often we had to wait outside in the hope that the Sister would be kind enough to open it. She mostly did and we would scamper inside muttering “Sorry” under our breath.

What I loved most about the place was the lake adjoining it. There was a dam and the water flowed into a small pond with rocks and pebbles. I went there for a bath every morning. It became my morning ritual. Often as I used to go for my bath, I would come across a few participants gazing at the sun. Drawing energy from it. Everything about the place was so energising. The cool air, the green cover, the gushing waters, the still rocks.

As I stepped into the waters and took the first dip. I entered another world. A fluid world of swirling gushing current. The world above me lost for a moment. Till I emerged for a breath of air. The sun continued to shine radiantly. The morning breeze played harmoniously with the trees, caressing the leaves with playful curiosity. For moment everything seemed perfect. Everything in nature seemed as it was meant to be.

Was I not an integral part of nature? Why then why did I seek perfection? Change? Evolution? Growth? Standing right in the middle of The Garden of Eden I sought it everywhere, other than where it seemed to be. Inside of me.

As I arrived in Mumbai I needed a day to ground myself. Even though I had traveled a mere three hours, I experienced a mental-emotional jet lag of many eons. I felt as though I had journeyed into the cosmos of each person present there, a catharsis leading to a realignment of my own cosmos.

Bringing me closer to myself.

***

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