I savor glimmers of transcendence

"If there be a heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!"

The words are inscribed over the entrance to the Hall of Special Audience, in the royal gardens of the Red Fort of Delhi, built by the Emperor Shah Jehan in the 17th century. It is a beautiful pavilion, the walls inlaid with jade and other semiprecious stones; and from the latticed windows one sees the waters of the river Jumna winding placidly across the plain.

In Shah Jehan's time, the river ran much closer to the fort, and I like to think that the emperor, when he found time, strolled along the ramparts of his palace while it was being built. And one evening, as the emperor gazed at the river, something happened to make him feel at peace with the world. He was so moved by the moment that he decided to build his private pavilion on that spot, inscribing on it those imperishable lines.

Such moments come to most of us - moments when we feel deeply moved or inspired, and when time seems to stand still so that we may savor and preserve in our minds a glimpse of eternity. They come but rarely, these glimmers - raindrops on a sunflower, or the fragrance of the first summer rain on parched earth, the song of the whistling thrush emerging like a sweet secret from a dark forest. Or the joy after hearing a child's laughter: moments when heaven is here, compensating for the irritations and petty disasters humans create around themselves. When all the wars are done, a butterfly will still be beautiful.

When I was only 17, I wanted desperately to be a writer. My early efforts did not meet with much success. No one encouraged me or raised my flagging spirits. At the time I was living with relatives in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands off England, and earning £3 a week as a clerk in a grocery store. Late one evening, when I was feeling particularly discouraged, I went for a walk along the seacoast. The tide was in, the sea was rough; and the wind, which was almost a gale, came pouring out of the darkness like a mad genie just released from his bottle. Great waves crashed against the sea wall, and the wind whipped the salt spray across my face. I felt like a small bird caught in a tempest.

And then something touched me, something from the elements took hold of my heart, and the depression left me. I felt as free and powerful as the wind - quite capable of building my own fort, my own private pavilion of words. And I spoke to the genie in the swirling darkness and called out: "Yes, I will be a writer, and no one's going to stop me!"

Well, more than 40 years later, the writing is still happening, though at times it's still a struggle. But whenever I feel like giving up, I try to recapture that moment when earth and sea and sky were one; and then the writing begins again.

Time, place, and emotion must coalesce, hence the rarity of such occasions. Delight cannot be planned for - it makes no appointments! Almost always, it's the unexpected that brings us joy. It may only be a shaft of sunlight, slanting through the pillars of a banyan tree; or dewdrops caught in a spider's web; or the sudden chatter of a mountain stream as you round the bend of a hill. Or an emperor's first glimpse of a winding river and the world beyond.

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