Saturday, August 20, 2016

Just A Stranger On The Bus

"Thank God that's over," I thought to myself as the familiar scenes flowed past my window. Work was done for the day and I was on the bus back home.

There had been a big creamy cake brought with a flourish to my desk - had to be big of course, to feed the assortment of my dozen teammates. There had been singing, a creamy slice of cake ground into my hapless face, hearty wishes, bonhomous back-slapping, birthday bumps, general merriment. Well, happy birthday to me. Is it really such a big deal? Ever since I can remember, birthdays I have always looked askance at. The synthetic duty-bound wishes, the obligatory gifts, the fuss and bother, the excess emphasis on body and age...whoever invented this diabolical social trifle? Well yeah, they did go to all that trouble to procure the cake but I doubt it was from any altruistic motive as much as an excuse to have themselves a good time. One silent wish filled with blessing and love from someone who truly cared would be worth a hundred fold more than all this hue and cry.

"Hey Arjun!" enthusiastically hailed Biju, one of my flat-mates, as I let myself into the place I exist when I'm not at work. "You won't believe which movie I managed to get hold of today! The action is supposed to be kickass, macha!!"

"Sorry Biju, I'm going to be holed up in my room all evening. Conference in Bangalore tomorrow. I've a short topic to present and a heck of a lot to prepare for."

"Oh come ON!!" he protested, "If it's not a conference, it's a deadline, or a book or something equally nerdy. It's your birthday da. Lighten up! Have some fun!"

"Sorry man, not today," I said shortly, as I walked into the kitchen to make myself a quick cuppa. "Just knock on my door when the dinner carrier comes in, ok?"

"Not today, not ever," he grumbled. "No movies, no pubs, no girls, no nothing. You need to break out of your shell. Live a little. Tell you what - watch a bit of the movie with me at least while you have your tea?"

"Told you Biju, not a minute to lose. Aneesh will be in any moment now and I'm sure he'll watch it with you," I called back as I escaped to my room. Aneesh is our other flat-mate and a video-game buff. He and Biju are as thick as thieves, their worlds coinciding harmoniously. I, on the other hand, constantly feel like a stranger in a strange land.

I dawdled over tea in my room. Maybe I'm a misanthrope, plain and simple. An introverted misanthrope, at that. Perhaps I could have humoured Biju and watched some of that damn movie with him, but after dealing with exactly that kind of people at work, I have little slack left to cut for the ones at home. Endless crude jokes, dumb pointless hilarity, arguments over sports, superficial movie talk, speculation over girls, and weekend pubbing plans for more of the same. When up close and personal with such company for an extended time, it feels like a magnetic field perpendicular to my own has been super-imposed over me. I feel unreal, like a puppet going through the motions. I don't know myself anymore, I am a spent force. Do I seek solitude like a miser seeks gold because my world is filled with such people? Or is there something basically wrong with me? Life seems a game played out by misguided characters, all striving in the most useless pursuits, subject to every imaginable pressure from every external source, until the real person in them is utterly drowned in the cacophony.

"God!" I exclaimed aloud, "Is this all there is to living?" This gravitating toward, this running away from. The grasping for this, the rejecting of that. Are we doomed to this futile exercise all the way to the gate of death?

Yet, there are moments when I sense a foreshadowing of light at the periphery of the soul. Almost present, but not quite. Glimmers of immortality, a whisper of the eternal. I claw out desperately for something higher, to see, to understand once and for all...only to close in on empty space. It remains beyond grasp, beyond definition, intangible, elusive - until the mind falls helplessly in upon itself after spinning round in the same torturous circles. That's when the stifling burden of life closes in, threatening to suffocate, make me submit to its blind norms, snuff out the thread of connection with the light. Everything, everyone seems to pull me down, seduce me with wrong purposes, futile goals. And I am inevitably drawn back once again into the inconsequential details of life.

I shook my head and opened my laptop. Time to prepare my topic for the conference.

***

Bangalore was fresh and cool, raindrops glistening on the trees, the air crisp and full of promise. I paused on my way to the bus, closed my eyes and inhaled deeply the air rinsed clean, infused with fragrance from blossom and tree and earth. Ah, the cool, green, familiar feel of home! The bus had seating in train fashion, seats facing each other in little cubicles, and I made for an empty one so I could take in the sights of my hometown in peace.

My parents and grandmother lived in the heart of the city in one of those fast-disappearing old ancestral homes with large grounds dotted with mango, guava and jackfruit trees, a profusion of creepers growing in an arch over the gate, and intricate wooden ornamentation on the front door.

I hadn't told them I'd be in town, wanting to walk in at the back-door that evening and give them a surprise. I grinned picturing my grandma's reaction - in her old robust days she'd have given me an affectionate box on the ears and a chiding for not letting on, but having mellowed considerably in her old age, she would probably cover her delight by immediately and matter-of-factly offering to make me something to eat. My father in his perennial banian and dhoti would want to know all the details of the conference, what topic I presented and how many people were present. My sweet little mother swathed in her soft comforting cotton sari would cluster around and beam her joy at having her only son back in the nest.

There was something in the air that day that recalled scenes from my childhood in intimate detail. Maybe it was the red gulmohar flowers glowing through the early morning drizzle. Maybe it was the weather - soft and luminous, just this side of chilly. I vividly recalled, on mornings like these, the smoke pouring out of the bathroom window where water was heated in a big built-in copper pot over a crackling orange fire. An electric geyser had long since improved the copper pot out of existence, but looking out into that wonderful morning, I could almost smell the wood smoke.

I could see myself prancing around on the old grey slatestones in the courtyard while grandma sat on the tulsi katte with my lunch, deftly popping balls of food in my mouth as she regaled me with thrilling stories from the Mahabharata. There was a huge round stone, with a hole in its center, abandoned under the jackfruit tree by the side of the house - probably one part of some ancient grindstone. I had been convinced, for some reason, that it was a chariot wheel - and to boot, the same infamous chariot wheel that was instrumental in bringing about Karna's death in the battle of Kurukshetra. Such was grandma's storytelling prowess that everything she described seemed to come to life around me in that intimate and immediate manner. Strange that I should have remembered that detail two decades later. I always had more of a sneaking sympathy for Karna than for my honourable namesake Arjuna - such a tragic, wronged, yet noble figure dragged by the quicksands of misplaced obligation to his ultimate downfall -

"Yes, Karna was a great hero because of his spirit of sacrifice."

I looked up, startled out of my reverie, to see a young man about my own age on the seat opposite mine. I didn't think I was so lost in my thoughts as to not notice anyone come in, but there he was sitting in front of me, seemingly sprung to life that very minute - in a formal white shirt and grey trousers, a black attache case by his side. He seemed no different from any of the young professionals who populated the bus that day. Dark-complexioned, close cropped hair, clear eyes intent on mine.

"Did you know," he went on calmly, as if continuing some long-initiated conversation. "When the Pandavas came to know after they had killed Karna that he was their very own brother, born from the same womb, they were devastated. Had they only known the truth earlier, all that suffering might have been avoided, don't you think?"

"I guess so," I stammered. "How did you....I mean, I didn't see you sit down there...I..er..", I floundered badly.

He leaned back in his seat, smiled reassuringly, and simply waited while I composed myself. There was something incredibly familiar about his smile, his presence. Faint recognition stirred in some far-off corner of my heart. I found myself inexplicably warming to him and feeling strangely at ease, as one does with one's dearest friend, or with one's mother.

"You're wondering why I'm here?" he asked gently. "I came because you called, and because you were ready."

"Oh, you probably mistook me for someone else," I said, glad to get a rational handle on the conversation. "My name is..."

"Your name is Arjun, you’re in your first job fresh out of college and you’re here to attend a conference in Electronic City," he recited glibly, his eyes twinkling. "Your father is Ramachandra Rao, a retired IAS officer. Your mother..."

"Alright," I interrupted a trifle sharply, feeling somewhat rattled. "Ok, so you know all about me. I, on the other hand, have no idea who you are."

"Find out first who you really are, then you will know me. Until then, call me anything – all names are mine." He looked quizzically at me. "Each wave imagines it is different, but that is only because it doesn’t know it comes from the same sea."

I looked at him, silent, because I hadn't anything to say. I wasn't quite sure I understood. Truth to tell, I was completely baffled. I looked at him more closely. He had seemed dark-complexioned at first, but I noticed his skin had an almost golden hue. His face was remarkably luminous and fresh, like the pearly morning outside. Indeed, his whole figure seemed lit by an inner radiance. His presence was so riveting and larger-than-life that the rest of the surroundings seemed to fade into sepia.

I became aware that a river of peace was gradually trickling into the spaces of my being. It threw a part of my mind off-balance, this unaccustomed stillness that was enveloping me. I tried to brace myself against being taken over like this, pressed down with effort on the mental accelerator to muster some logical explanation for this strange encounter.

He watched me for a time with intensity, then leaned forward and lightly rested his hand for a moment on my chest. "Don't resist. Let it be."

In that instant, the last of my thoughts was extinguished and I was adrift on a sea of infinite peace, peace that pervaded every fibre of my being. Every vestige of fear, worry and control left me. There was a feeling of absolute rightness within me - a feeling that everything was as it should be - and always would be, no matter what passed or what came. I was no longer a feverish fragment of life, but subsumed by it in an utterly comforting way.

A question asked itself out of the stillness, "Why did you tell me that story about Karna?"

"As a caution. You see Arjun, every person life puts in front of you is a brother. Everyone you encounter is your own self experiencing life in another form." He paused and looked at me piercingly. "When you judge and shun the people about you, you are forgetting this. But when you realize it, you will be as remorseful as the Pandavas were when they realized Karna was their own brother."

I sat there, stunned. Yes, that had been my torment and this was exactly the medicine I needed.

His face softened. "Can you see yourself reflected in the pupil of my eye, like I can see myself in yours? Right this instant, I am in you and you are in me. So is anyone who stands before you; have you observed this, Arjun?"

"But some people are a bundle of everything I dislike - superficial, cheap and boring. Or worse, they think nothing of lying and cheating just to gain a petty advantage. Full of false bottoms, no integrity - everything in me wants to run away from them. And you're telling me to try being their best friend?" I asked, eager to thresh this out once and for all.

"Stay away by all means - but not with revulsion in your heart. Syrup is sweet whether you taste it in a black jamun or white rasgulla. The human essence is the same in both friend and foe. Love that - revere that - serve that!"

The words dropped like jewels into the pool of my consciousness, settled deep within me. An incredible rightness was coursing through my being. I only knew that whatever of love I had experienced so far was only a dim footnote in front of this boundless upsurging of pure bliss. We sat for a while in silence.

"What do you want, Arjun?," he demanded suddenly.

I found myself replying unhesitatingly, "I want to touch the eternal, the real. I want God." And immediately felt rather pleased with that noble and fine-sounding answer. He would see I wasn't that shallow after all.

"Who is God? What is God? Those are just words. You must experience." He looked at me sternly. "Looking down on your fellow-beings and looking up at God is hypocrisy. God cannot be realized that way."

"What is the way then?" I asked humbly, utterly crushed.

"Love is the way. Live in love. Offer the warmth of your smile, the kindness of your heart, to everyone who passes your way. When you help, encourage and serve, you are loving God, for God is in every heart. Extend your hand as I extend mine to you."

I looked mutely at him, deeply stirred, resonant with understanding. His smile was a diamond burst of radiance. He reached forward and patted my hand affectionately. "Your stop will arrive in two minutes."

I was galvanized into sudden urgency. "Oh wait, please tell me how I can contact you. Please...I hope I can meet you again."

He laughed. "You don't have to find me. You are already there." Then, seeing the entreaty in my eyes, he added, "Whomever you contact, I am in that person - and from each, I will respond."

The bus turned into the road leading to the portals of the campus I was headed for. I watched the stop draw near as the moments ticked mercilessly away. He looked at me tenderly, "I am in you, Arjun, and you are in me, remember?"

A crowd of young professionals made their way down into the aisle. He motioned for me to join them. I took a couple of steps down the aisle, looked back. With his glorious smile, he raised his palm. "Be happy."

I nodded, smiled back at him, my heart light and free as a child's; and soon I was outside in the brilliant sunshine.

***

The day was drawing to a close as I fit the key into my apartment door. I paused for a moment before opening it – for that would irrevocably mark the end of that magical weekend. I had taken an extra day off in Bangalore to spend at home with my family. Everyday realities had already started intruding into my weekend of grace. I had got an urgent email that morning from my manager exhorting me to show up on Tuesday with a certain module all worked out. That meant the grind started that very evening for me. I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath and let myself in.

"Heyyy buddy, welcome home man!!" shouted Biju happily. "Managed to bum off on a Monday, huh, lucky you!"

"Hey Biju," I smiled. "So what's on for today's entertainment?"

"You have awesome timing or what! A colleague lent me his Nintendo today and I can't wait to try it out. I need to get a few practice runs in before Aneesh takes me on. Gonna beat the bugger at his own game! He won't know what hit him!!" he chortled gleefully.

"And you're hoping to try it out on me," I said resignedly, as I walked into the kitchen. "Chai, Biju?"

"Yeah thanks da, I could do with a cup." He followed me into the kitchen and hoisted himself onto the counter watching me go through the drill with practiced ease. "So? What say?? One hour of gaming and my kingdom in return!"

I looked at his eager face as he pushed back the specs on his nose in his familiar way, eyes lively with anticipation. I thought of the module that would no doubt take me into the wee hours of the a.m. to finish.

"Tell you what," I said, straining the tea into two mugs. "One hour it is. Lead the way!"



The End
_____________________________________________________________________________



Many years ago, a motley group of us from all walks of life - two new moms reeling under the joys of raising toddlers in their terrible twos, a graduate student from California, an aunt from England, and a young dramatic theatre artist - got together and formed a writing group that went by the ambitious name of "Invoking the Muse". And we each churned out a few stories ranging from the inevitable love story to experimenting with different genres. We even did a relay story marathon that ended up in a gruesome vampire situation. [If any of that charmed fellowship are reading this, a hearty shout-out to you - what comradeship, creativity, fun and magic we produced, and what a blessed experience of sheer kindred spirit it all was! Love you girls.]
 
I was hunting for something on my hard drive the other night, tired at the end of a prosy day, and stumbled upon the first story I ever wrote for this writing club. I'd forgotten all about it, so I started to read it to see what it was - and it whisked me straight into its world and left me feeling alive, awake and inspired. If a story could open my heart like that, I thought, it should be out there for what it's worth, for other world weary folks to stumble across. Thus it came about that this old story written seven years ago has finally seen the light of day.

Thanks for reading, and a golden star for memory if you got the connotation of the title!
 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Navigating the holy river of life

Enter flow - don't waste time on denial, resistance and anger because life isn't what you thought it to be.
~ Dr. Shefali


An ice-cold emerald green river in the sweltering heat of an Indian summer day. Pristine white sands laced with sparkling silver (minerals?) at the water's edge. Ancient river stones worn smooth through the ages in pastel colours of mauve, pink, marble in addition to the black and grey. Majestic hills rising on either side of the winding river.

Into this picturesque scene we took our bright little raft, and got our safety training. We are a relatively small group of 3 adults (including the instructor) and 2 older children. My 8 year old was allowed to accompany us for the first 4 km including a level one rapid. The training includes matter of fact tips on what to do if the raft capsizes. We are given to understand that maintaining a certain speed in rowing through certain parts of a rapid will allow the raft to "skate" over the tumultuous water and not capsize. We pile in holding our paddles with a death grip and perch on our respective edges of the raft. We are embarking on a 20 km stretch of white water rafting with 14 rapids en route, from the gentle grade I to the churning chaos of grade IV - including Marine Drive (Grade II), Sweet Sixteen (Grade I), Cross Fire (Grade III), Roller Coaster (Grade IV), Three Blind Mice (Grade III), Golf Course (Grade IV) etc. The instructor invites us to jump in the river before we approach the rapids and most of us do so - me mainly because I preferred to get in on my own than be tossed in happenstance; besides, who in their right minds would miss out on a dip in the Ganga?

The gentler rapids are fun, and we are given commands to row forward and stop as we practice pulling with our upper body and not just the arms. Then the higher grade rapids happen, and we row for dear life, simply doing what we need to do in complete present moment awareness as we spin and tilt amidst the whirling waters. I notice how there is a burst of thought while heading towards a big rapid ("this is a play of form, just a play of form"...then lapsing into repeating the names of God over and over!) and immediately after finishing the rapid, laughter and exhilaration, "That was amazing!" And we ply the guide with questions on the name and grade of the next rapid. The irrepressible young British boy in the raft seems to find pleasure in declaring with relish, "The next one is where we all die!"

The guide invites everyone to jump into the river for a rippling part of the stretch known as "Body Surfing", where you hold onto to the lifeline of the raft and get pulled along through the river for half a mile. It's bliss when you allow yourself to relax, lean back into the water and watch the sky as you glide through the smooth coolness of the sacred green river.

During the grade IV rapids, the spray stings and blinds my eyes as I row amidst the plunging mountain-valley-whirlpool of roaring white water all around, and I learn to not let fear widen my eyes on the next rapid. I notice how navigating a rapid almost feels like riding a bicycle - all I need to do is balance my body lightly on my little perch at the edge of the raft as it dips and spins crazily through the thundering river.

It feels well to enter flow, face the unknown and accept uncertainty. It feels right to be rowing for dear life or simply balancing through a rapid so at one with the moment that being and doing coalesce in a period of no-mind. It feels like this heightened experience offers a taste of being what we were born to be. Fearless, unattached, non-grasping, open, flowing, free. One with life.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Goddess

there's a Durga in me
who startles by
unleashing herself unexpectedly
a shining sword
a tongue of flame
slayer of foes
feisty bold intransigent
suffering no fools
sufficient unto herself
walking by her wild lone
and waving her wild tail
where so it pleases her
running with the wolves
strong whole and holy
but undeniably badass
and I love her for it

then there's the turtledove
soft sweet and kind
putting herself out for all
caring nurturing sacrificing
effortlessly as only a mother can
this fragrant beautiful lotus
friend of every moment
that's the Lakshmi in me
auspicious delicious butter arising
from the churned cream of virtue

draped in the white
of serene solitude
the Saraswati in me
she's like a star
and dwells apart
in marble halls of mystery
unveiling subtle esoteric truths
in ivory towers of learning
moving amidst the celestial
music of the spheres
with the swan like grace
of her own deep knowing

this triune goddess
is me
is you
is every sister
on the face of the earth
is every woman
phenomenal woman
watch her rise

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The love that unites everything

All seems beautiful to me;
I can repeat over to men and women,
You have done such good to me, I would do the same to you, 


I will recruit for myself and you as I go; 
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go; 
I will toss the new gladness and roughness among them; 
Whoever denies me, it shall not trouble me;
Whoever accepts me, he or she shall be blessed, and shall bless me.

~From the ‘Song of the Open Road’ by Walt Whitman

This time was different. It wasn't just the pale pink bell-shaped starry flowers that adorned the highways in profusion, the grassy mist-kissed mountain-tops, or the thick verdant woods on either side of the looping hilly roads. It was the simple open-heartedness that we encountered everywhere - at the charming steep roadside coffee-shops, in random villagers who gave us directions to our destination, the petty tea stall owners, the priests serving us the last bits of free meals at a temple leaving nothing for themselves, and the friendly hospitality of our homestay hosts.

In the serving of an exquisite home-cooked meal and in the offering of a perfectly brewed cup of roadside tea was an immensity of so much more - a generous sharing of life energies, conversation, heart. A giving of their very selves. So much more than can be matched with the doling out of those little paper pieces we call money. The momentary energetic coming together can only be honoured with connection and grateful partaking and an awareness of the love that binds us all - before we go our separate ways.

Sequestered in impersonal mechanical city lives, it is a clear and periodic necessity, as John Muir said, to "keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." To revel not just in the keen mountain air and crisp open spaces of the wood and the river, but also in the personal touch, the sharing of stories, and in discovering anew our common humanity.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Seascapes: open wide being free

The sea is fascinating in all its moods - brooding and remote, clear and playful, inviting aquamarine or forbidding indigo. With its golden white sands stretching endlessly, the eternity of sky above and the bottomless depths below clothed in the vastness of blue, it evokes infinitude in every aspect of its being. The ebb and flow of the tide and the ceaseless wash of waves on the shore echo the rhythm of the universe. The sunset that envelopes the eastern shore in pearl pink turns the western shore into pure gold. The waves can sweep you off your feet and crash you onto the shore or lap over you like a lullaby. The jewels and wealth of creatures it possesses in its mysterious depths. How it works its magic of healing and rejuvenation on everyone who enters its embrace. How it imparts its ageless wisdom to the attentive heart.

In the incomprehensibility and mystery of the sea lies its allure. It's almost as if the ocean is a great big metaphor. A metaphor for life itself with its essential uncertainty and unknowing. In its play of short-lived forms on the bosom of the formless depths. In its wildness that is akin to the untameability of the soul. In its invitation to frolic and play as much as to solitude and stillness. The soothing quietitude it induces in the beholder as the essence of each intersect in oneness.

Here's a collection of seascapes taken over the years dedicated to everyone who loves the freedom and miracle of the ocean.




 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Training with two little masters

Home all day the kids
Getting up to what kids get up to
Wanting what the other has
Whines fights tantrums
Continuous chaos

Within me
Overwhelm triggering the
Whirring of habitual mind patterns
The jaggedness of frustration
The hard edge of impatience
The surging of anger
The separation from source

The whirlpool starts to turn
Beneath my feet
And more often than not
Unkind words out of my mouth
Unskilful urgency out of my hands
To deflect the discomfort
To banish the situation
As if it was out there
Instead of in me

And then the downer
Oops I blew it again

But sometimes on clear soft days
The gathering storm is sighted
Three conscious breaths
An allowing of all that is
An acceptance of each one's need
No matter how badly displayed
A softening instead of a tensing
A flowing of effortless response
A descending of peace

And so this goes on
Up and down and side to side
This roller coaster journey
This game this war this initiation
This most precious training

And we live to fight another day

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Reclaiming Birth Shakthi

Nora Kropp of BBN (Bangalore Birth network) contacted me to write an article on woman empowerment highlighting the story of Roopa Jude, one of the very few women in Bangalore to have had a homebirth. So I did, and here it is.
*******************
Google "cesarean rate in Bangalore" and you'll find a slew of articles bemoaning the disproportionate rise of c-section births in urban India. There are a host of reasons given such as doctors being too busy and unwilling to dedicate the time and availability for a normal birth, lack of staff and infrastructure (even in the poshest hospitals) to attend to simultaneous normal births given their uncertain lengths, the financial angle, and the ubiquitous fear factor that lead both the doctor and expecting mother to settle for a controlled surgical birth. There are even some blame-the-victim reasons given by defensive doctors that women these days are too unfit, too unhealthy, too fat, too superstitious, too old, too posh to push.
It's a minefield out there for a woman looking to give birth naturally in a setting that is designed for the convenience of the staff and the hospital. Even in a "normal delivery", women are subject to clinical medical procedure, stripped of all joyful and transformative aspects of birth for both mother and baby. In contrast with how interior the entire process of conception and gestation is, modern industrial birth takes place amid glaring florescent lights, impersonal stranger hands and gleaming sharp instruments - reducing to a pitiless emotionless ordeal what should have been the highest manifestation of strength and glory in a woman's life. Instead of feeling empowered and ecstatic with a new realization of her own capability, a woman comes out of birth feeling diminished and dehumanized, with a vague sense of having lost an irreplaceable rite of passage that was her biological birthright. Like the petals of a rosebud peeled back by gloved hands in a laboratory instead of blossoming naturally where it has grown in the light of the sun, the miracle of life is routinely reduced to a standard business-like hospital procedure.

In her brilliant deconstruction of societal attitudes regarding birth and parenting, Naomi Aldort, author of 'Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves', cuts right to the heart of the matter:
"Girls are shaped to grow up with no self-trust. They learn to believe that a doctor should “deliver” their babies. They are taught not to trust themselves and look for guidance from authority. They lost the ability to see themselves as the authority on their own bodies and birth giving.

Our modern mother is well trained to look for cues outside of herself. She does not trust her own body, does not know to feel it and in a way is disconnected from herself. She assumes that the doctor knows and that she does not know how to give birth. She therefore believes she must be in a hospital and follow instructions (as she was trained to do at home and in school). She believes blindly the story that birth is scary, unsafe and not possible without a doctor in a hospital.
In the hospital the mother who has been trained out of her self-awareness, is further stripped of any sense of being in charge and having power of herself. She follows instructions as she has been taught all along and is unable to recognize her own body wisdom. She signs her right off upon entering the hospital and she lays on her back (no power), often connected to machines, intimidated and with no privacy.

Stripped of body connection and inner power the mother becomes helpless depending on external instructions and hopelessly believing the “experts” and “professionals.” She misses the real expert: herself."
The season of pregnancy and birth is often the most liminal period for a woman, fraught with the one deep burning question of her existence: will she choose to internalize all the fears and cautions and rules that the world in the form of her family, friends and doctor imposes on her and thus be circumscribed by limits she has passively accepted; or will she choose to have faith in her own authentic inner guidance against all odds even in the face of the world's naysaying? Will she gravitate towards the choice that will not get her blamed in case of a bad outcome, or will she accept the primary responsibility for her child's and her own well-being with the spiritual maturity capable of living with uncertainty and unknowing without giving up? This will determine whether she will birth in a self-directed manner, listening within, fully engaged in the process physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually; or default to being "delivered" by someone else according to their agenda.

The choices and experiences a woman goes through during this period of her life often changes her whole ground of existence, because she is indeed giving birth to herself as a new being, a mother. The nature of this new identity she forges will have far-reaching effects on how she perceives herself, how she nurtures and parents, how she lives and moves in the world.
This places the responsibility of the manner in which the child is born into this world squarely at the woman's door. In a deeper sense, our experience is going to be our own state of consciousness objectified. Truly, we birth as we live.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of 'Eat Pray Love', was asked in an interview, "What do you think the world needs from women right now?"
She replied, "I think the world needs women who stop asking for permission from the principal. Permission to live their lives as they deeply know they often should. I think we still look to authority figures for validation, recognition, permission.

I see women who have this struggle between what they know is right, what they know is necessary, what they know is healthy, what they know is good for them, what they know is good for the work that they need to do, what they know is good for their bodies, what they know is good for their families - all too often ending that statement with the upturned question mark: “If it’s okay with everyone?” Still asking, still requesting, still filing petitions for somebody to say that it’s all right. I think that, myself included, that has to be dropped before we can take our place in the way that we need to and the world needs us to."
Swami Vivekanada stated more than a 100 years ago, "The idea of perfect womanhood is perfect independence", and went on to say, "The highest manifestation of strength is to keep ourselves calm and on our own feet." Nowhere is this more relevant than in the domain of pregnancy and birth - womankind's exclusive privilege. And indeed, this warrior's journey from the "collective they" to the "authentic I" and onward towards the "compassionate we" is the consummation that all life tends towards.

Steve Taylor, PhD, professor of psychology at Leeds University, puts it this way, "I would argue that one of the most important tasks of our lives is to develop more freedom and autonomy. One of the primary ways in which we can develop positively and begin to live more meaningfully is to transcend the influence of our environment, and become more oriented towards who we authentically are. There is always a part of us with innate potentials and characteristics which is independent of external factors - even if that part of us may be so obscured that we can barely see it. But our task should be to allow that part of us to express itself more fully, which often means overriding environmental and social influences." This is very relevant to the fact that reclaiming autonomy in birth is not selfish or irresponsible or foolhardy as it is sometimes made out to be - it is an evolutionary imperative. It is the natural outcome of a rise in consciousness.
Talking of overriding environmental and social influences, Roopa Jude, founder and manager of the Bangalore Chiropractic & Wellness Clinic, is one of the few women in Bangalore to choose a homebirth for her second child. Her first birth was a regular hospital one that involved standard obstetric practices like prostaglandin gel, pitocin to speed up labour, and finally a forceps delivery when she was too exhausted from lack of food and rest to push. "The overpowering non-mother-friendly atmosphere in the hospital shuts down the body's auto mechanisms as far as birthing and labour are concerned. You are no longer listening to your body and along with the hospital staff become victims of the system, doing all the things that prolong labour and make birthing more difficult. You are denied food when your body craves fuel to gear up for the marathon effort of its life, you are confined to bed without the relief of movement even as the pitocin-induced contractions are pounding your body without let up, and you are subjected to frequent painful cervical checks by different doctors on shift. I was worn down by hours of this, and when the doctor finally produced the forceps, I was taken aback at how big and complicated the contraption looked. I was so exhausted from the delivery that I fainted several times during recovery. My only blessing was that I was not subject to a c-section at the end of it all which apparently would have been the norm, I was told, if not for the team involved in my case."    

Roopa connected with the BBN (Bangalore Birth Network), and met several natural-minded folks like chiropractors, midwives and a community of supportive like-minded women. Within her, a conviction started to grow that homebirth was the only way to birth with autonomy and bodily integrity. At about the same time, she discovered she was pregnant, and the hunt for a homebirth midwife was on. She found a nurse-midwife from Australia who happened to be in India for a year and got her on-board as her care-provider. Through the BBN, she found a doula and also support for her midwife who had never done a birth in India, let alone a homebirth.
Her path to a homebirth, however, was far from smooth. Her midwife was out of the country for a period of 3 months, and slated to only return on the day after her due date. At 34 weeks, urged by family as well as her midwife, she visited the family doctor who had delivered her first child. The doctor checked her and found that the baby was breech. Roopa was firmly told to come in and get admitted for an immediate cesarean if her baby had not turned head down by 36 weeks gestation, just 2 weeks away. Such was Roopa's unrelenting resolve not give up her dream of a homebirth that she never went back to the doctor, in spite of pressure by family and friends. Instead she researched natural breech births and was intent on birthing at home, regardless of the position of the baby.

"My husband and I had absolute faith that God, the Creator that had grown this child from a single cell to a full-fledged baby, would also take care of the way and manner in which it came out of my body", she states with serene confidence.
Roanna Rosewood, author of 'Cut, Stapled and Mended', echoes this sentiment, "The people and institutions managing birth have nothing to do with impregnating us. Our babies are a gift from something bigger, stronger, and more important than they are. The way that we choose to give birth is between us and the powers that entrusted us with this child."

Roopa and her husband at this point were simply taking it one day at a time.
At 39 weeks, a scan revealed that the baby had turned head down. But her happy ending was still not at hand. By week 42 she had still not gone into labour! Finally at 42 weeks and 3 days, labour began. She thinks it significant that just prior to the beginning of labour, she had an urge to sit down and polish off a heaping plateful of delicious pulav her mother had cooked, as well as a big bowlful of peanut pakodas. "I'd never eaten that much in my life before, and I generally don't like peanuts. My body was fuelling up for the effort ahead. All I did was follow its cues", she smiles.

A smooth 5 hour labour later, she pushed out her baby on all fours in her own bed. "When the head came out, everything stopped for 30 seconds to a minute. The baby actually coughed and blinked while he was still inside of me. After this mini-rest which seemed like a lifetime to me, in one last powerful contraction, his body slid out into the midwife's hands. He was so clean, hardly covered in vernix, and very alert, already looking around and taking it all in. The midwife said she was compelled to award him a 10/10 Apgar score because she had never seen a baby so perfect in skin tone, muscle tone and alertness immediately upon birth", recalls an elated Roopa. She did not even require stitches post-birth, and her recovery was stress-free and peaceful as the family bonded happily with the new arrival. She remarks, “Finally, the whole process gave me insight on how women in ages past could give birth to so many children. It is a very empowering experience that leaves no distaste for a repeat.”
This is the choice that lies before women at this critical juncture of time - will we continue to look outside for cues on how to lead our lives, or will we manifest shakthi, the innate power of womanhood, in every movement of our lives, including the profound responsibility of how we bring our children into this world? It is time women took that responsibility back. It is time women owned birth again. It is time women manifested "soul-force" as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, something that emanates from a deep truth inside of us and empowers us to act. 

The most gracious and courageous gift we can offer the world is our authenticity, our uniqueness, the expression of our true selves. Go ahead. Unleash the goddess within!