FLUORESCENCE

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Thanksgiving need not be one day in a year; it’s an emotion that must be felt and expressed as a frequent, if not daily, ritual. So, as I celebrate another year of my earnest and quiet life, this constitutes a toast to all that I’m grateful for. A life, by no means perfect or even remotely recommended, but profound all the same. To me, what enables an impassioned, bona fide life is the people who grace it. People who have taught me to sift the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. If it wasn’t for these little superintended tutorials, I would have strayed and how.

Recently, my friend, Gazala, wrote about how they nurtured their bashful little orchid plant that refused to flower. It took a year and a half of coaxing and whispering sweet-nothings for a beautiful white orchid to finally bloom. That’s how people are too; you dust them with rhythmic sprinklings of love and encouragement and they’ll flourish.

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Sometimes, love can feel smothering though; but it does well to understand where it comes from. This reminds me of one of the two times I’ve talked back to my mother. Dad being away all the time made mum over-protective about me. I wasn’t allowed to stay out late and it rattled me to think of all the parties, camps and adolescent fun I was missing out on. One day I got flustered enough to blurt, “What do you suppose I might do in the dark, that isn’t possible in daylight?” She was hurt and I bitterly regretted my outburst.

Around that time, an aunt was giving me stitching lessons. One day, she taught me how to use the basting thread. A basting thread is essentially used to temporarily hold the fabric together and removed once the work is complete. Parents are quite like those basting threads, holding us together until we’re ready to face the world on our own. Like a butterfly that flies in and softly rests on an outstretched hand, the realization settled in on me. Through the years, I became mum’s confidante and she, my anchor.

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There is a beauty in leading by example and I have a list of people to thank. Doting family and vintage friends, no doubt; but the unacquainted too. The ones who came tiptoeing into my life and gifted me fresh perspectives. The ones who inspired me by being who they are, sharing their ideas and fortuitously guiding me to execute my own. The strangeness and magnificence of life is authenticated by such associations. And before you know it, these kindred souls become the flourish to your ordinary life.

A couple of years ago, when I signed up for a songwriting course, I had no idea that I was setting out on a journey to find a part of me that I didn’t know existed. It was a fun experiment that not only reinforced my belief in myself but showed me how a person you never ever meet can influence you. My mentor, Mr. Pattinson opened up a world that intrigued my passionate heart. I became a diligent student who never defaulted on assignments, even while on an overseas holiday. To the procrastinator in me, that was a growth beyond any other.

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As the days get longer and hotter, I draw strength from the Gulmohar tree outside my window which flowers abundantly in this season. Like a Japanese baby’s first hanami (cherry blossom viewing), I’ve always taken this season seriously. The Gulmohar brings back memories of a long forgotten childhood when we used to play under its fiery red canopy and wait for its long seed cases to turn brown and hard, so we could rattle them all day. But what really makes the Gulmohar precious to me is an allegory that I have dearly held on to for years: that the flowering of this bountiful tree coincides with my birthday for a reason. I see it as Nature’s gift to me; a reminder that when the summers of life get unbearable, there is always a burst of hope to cling on to. That even as life hurts me, it hands me the idea that I inherently possess the grace to find my own fluorescence.

Despite my polychromatic weaknesses, I have come a long way. I am beholden to all who walk with me and lend a hand to help me execute this sometimes dark, sometimes sparkling life with a poise that can only come from genuine love. Here’s hoping that a decade from now when I revisit this page, I’d be just as grateful.

 

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MISTY MEADOWS

 

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As we drove higher and higher into the mountains, the mist got thicker. Visibility was limited to about three meters ahead. Quite suddenly, rain started pelting down heavily, blinding us even more. The pounding of raindrops fused with Jamie Lawson crooning, “I wasn’t expecting that…” Music within and without, with a similar cadence. It was the most surreal drive of my life and I certainly wasn’t expecting that. The road was narrow and steep; and opened up to the valley on either side. All we had to lead us further was the faint blink of lights from the car ahead of us. That’s exactly how the past few months had been; hazy and blatantly exigent.

At some point though, the fog always clears. And so finally, after an interminable wait, things had started falling into place. Life makes you wait, testing your patience, your faith, your strength. It makes you doubt everything that you might have trained yourself to believe in. And then suddenly, like a burst of unexpected rain, the abundance showers right down on your startled head.

We had left the city behind and headed to the hills on an impulse. It was an impromptu plan and one that made me want to live the rest of my life in that manner – purely spontaneous and unpremeditated. We arrived at Misty Meadows just as dusk was settling in. A warm, welcoming glow radiated from idyllic houses that lined the streets. Life seemed tranquil and quiet on those moorlands. We spent that evening devoid of distractions. There was no WiFi and no telly, just words and smiles floating around. After a simple meal, we retired to the bedrooms upstairs. The river in the distance was beautiful in the twilight. We could spot cars parked on the bridge over the river and made up stories about clandestine affairs and romantic conversations, giggling our way into the silly night.

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The next morning, I woke up at dawn. It was still dark outside when I wandered onto the terrace, shivering slightly but soothingly warmed by the silence. The moon was hanging in the sky like a neatly clipped fingernail, obscured now and then by the pregnant clouds. As I lingered, the sun came up unseen and the silhouette of the meadows appeared through the brooding mist. It was the most beautiful morning I’d had in a long time.

It was after breakfast that we had embarked upon that haunting drive. Later, as we stumbled upon rocks and puddles, walked on lush meadows and gazed upon verdant hills, I realized how close we had come to God in those few hours. All my five senses seemed numbed, but there was a sixth sense that seemed sharper than the five put together. A divine presence was everywhere, in every detail.  Half-encumbered in this realization and sloshed by the weight I’d been carrying around, I plonked down on a rock. Fatigue mingled with raindrops and rolled down my back, leaving me cleansed and a little narcotized.

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This whole experience was much like what the Japanese call ‘Shinrin-yoku’ or ‘Forest Bathing’. It was first proposed in 1982 by the Forest Agency of Japan to promote a good lifestyle and is now a recognized stress management activity in Japan. My fascination for Japanese culture is now bordering on reverence, almost threatening to override my absolute fascination for the Tuscan way of life. It’s comically strange because they seem absolutely converse. Tuscans are voluble while the Japanese are more muted; but if you make a reduction, the essence that it boils down to is very similar:  Simplicity.

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Growing up, I had the good fortune to experience ‘Shinrin-yoku’ often. Hardened by city life though, we become impertinent and that’s why it is absolutely important to make an effort to get dwarfed by nature and humble ourselves from time to time. It is in such moments that we find moments of clarity and direction. It is then that we are filled with hope. And from nature, we learn the one great lesson: to trust the timing of our life.

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SIMPLE SUSTENANCE

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Thirty-two years ago, in 1984, I had my first experience of community cooking. In those days, weddings in Mangalore were a long-drawn out affair that lasted days and brought the whole neighborhood together. Food was organic, authentic and cooked in huge cauldrons on open wood fires. For a young city girl like me, it was a fascinating experience to participate in and a rich memory to retain for life. It was a twin wedding in the family, so I was doubly excited. The evening before the wedding, insane amounts of batter was ground by hand on huge grinding stones and left to ferment for the idlis to be made the next morning. I insisted on being included in the idli-makers team and woke up at the crack of dawn to assist. The aromas, the exuberance, the solidarity of it all, are lodged as a surreal kind of remembrance in my otherwise mostly defunct brain.

In retrospect, my whole life seems like a roaring compilation of food memories. In the tiny home I grew up in, there was no separate kitchen to speak of. From the single bed, which was my self-proclaimed throne, I could just reach out to the cooking counter. Mum used to wake up early and start working on the chappatis and omlettes. That’s the aroma I would wake up to. As I grew up, I started helping Mum with the cooking. We would work side by side in the miniscule space, humming along with the radio. To this day, mum and I bond best when we are cooking together. Like two comrades, we embark upon adventures with our new recipes, get delirious with the difficult ones and find quietude in the tried and tested. When we’re done feasting, we go on walks, she talking incessantly about this and that and making me laugh until suddenly we’re back to discussing our next meal.

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The neighborhood I grew up in was a different world altogether. Walking unannounced into each other’s homes for a meal was very normal. The Koltes next door was a family of six. Mrs. Kolte was a great cook. Though they didn’t have much, she managed to put together meals that could compete with a professional chef’s.  I just have to close my eyes, think of her spicy chicken gravy served with mixed lentil vadas and I’m transported back to her home. On special occasions, she would always send us food before she fed her own children. It was neighborly love on a level that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

Then there was Aunt Gertie. She was a kitchen elf who chose to spend all her free time stirring, baking and cooking. The day she made crabs, I would pointedly and shamelessly hover around until she asked me to stay for dinner. Then I would sit cross-legged in her kitchen and savor the meal in a rapturous state, unaware of the crab juice running down my arms. She would point me out to her daughter, Sheryll, who was my best friend and say, “This is how you eat. Stop picking at your food and learn something from the girl!” The generosity and honesty of a mother wasn’t limited to just her own children.

I love food, but more than that, I love the eating experience. One day I surprised our house-help, Barki with a strange request. She lived in a tiny hut just across the lane from our house. Every evening as the sun went down the horizon; she would squat in front of an open fire and make piles of jowar bhakris to feed her large family. That day I asked if I could join them for dinner.  She was aghast and didn’t know how to respond. It mortified her to think that all she had to offer was jowar bhakris, bland dal and a chilli-garlic chutney. But to me, it was enough. The smell of burning wood, the bite of the chutney, the fresh-off-the-fire bread, the cool winter breeze and the happy tears in my host’s eyes made it one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.

From the kulfi wala who fed us free kulfis after school, to the grocer who packed a few extra dates as a treat, the love far exceeded everything else. Later when I entered the cold corporate world, the only solace amidst the chaos of pounding typewriter keys and mounds of paperwork was the lunch break. I’ve always been fortunate to find people who make it their business to feed me. My first job was in this huge organization where to my utter surprise, the cooks took an instant liking to me and singled me out for attention. The food they cooked was only for the top management, but they sneaked me into the pantry and fed me meals that smelled and tasted like manna from heaven.

When I moved to Dubai, the pantry experience moved with me. Only the cuisine differed. I was working with Iranians there and found a new kind of food paradise. Regardless of whether I had carried a tiffin from home or not, the cook would send steaming trays of Cheelo Kebabs, Feta Cheese, Iranian bread and salads every afternoon. One day, I ordered Tandoori Chicken as a return gesture. My Iranian bosses ate it with gusto but the spice was too much for them. The fair Iranians had sweat dripping and tears streaming down their reddened faces!

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Dubai was all about food and friends. Every weekend was a big pot-luck party. In the winter months, we carried huge amounts of marinated meat to the parks and beaches to barbecue. We sat around the glowing embers and devoured juicy chunks of chicken and sausages with Arabic bread, hummus and pickles. The camaraderie of those cool winter evenings in a foreign land was an experience beyond words. It was like huddling together under a warm blanket.

Whether it’s the luscious fruits I’ve enjoyed in the heat of Bangkok, chilled coconut water in quiet streets of Phuket, warm shawarmas on the way to Hatta or sizzling falafels in the mountains of Oman, a very key ingredient of a good meal is the simplicity with which it is cooked, served and eaten. The best parantha I have ever eaten was at a rickety dhaba on the Delhi-Agra highway. It was served on a sultry afternoon with a dollop of white butter and a kind smile. The most sumptuous Maharashtrian meal I remember is at a small resort in Sogaon, served by a sincere, loving hand.

Modern life has altered the eating experience for most of us. But every now and then, I like to make the food and memories count. Since we choose friends that resonate with who we are, my flock was, is and always will be a bunch of foodies. We discuss food as if our life depends on it. We eat like there’s no tomorrow. It isn’t gluttony; it’s an expression of who we are. Our meetings are always, always planned around lunch or dinner. The way we see it, the sharing of a meal is as emotionally and spiritually nurturing as the food on our plates. It is what rejuvenates and bonds us. It is pure sustenance. My food experiences intertwined with my relationships, have defined the way I view life. There are lots of parallels to draw. But one that I uphold above everything else whether it is food, friendship or life is this: That simplicity trumps everything.

THE SILENT STRING

 

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In my early twenties, I was introduced to the stimulating music of the legendary Pandit Ravi Shankar. If I remember right, the album was called ‘Tana Mana – The Ravi Shankar Project’. It was an experimental work using electronic music fused with the traditional. And yet the sitar stood out. The vibrations of that beautiful instrument were like a poignant ricochet from some forgotten crevice of my soul. So much so, that I went in search of sitar classes in my neighborhood. Much to my disappointment, things did not work out and my aspirations slowly got buried under more pressing concerns. The sitar, however, still lurks somewhere in my subconscious mind.

Even though I never learnt to play the sitar, I remember doing some research on the instrument at the time. One thing that stuck with me was the complexity of it all. A sitar has 6-7 played strings and 18-21 sympathetic strings. The most used is the first string ‘baaj ka taar’. It is imperative to keep all the strings fine tuned for perfect melodies to flow out. The first string though, is the anchor. It is on this string that the creative rendering of the ragas happen. But life is all about collaboration and balance. This is where the second string – the ‘jod ka taar’ gains importance. That’s the support string without which continuity is lost. Without which there can be no pure melody. The reason I’m eulogizing the sitar 20 years later is this.

Two weeks ago, while I was merrily cleaning out the kitchen shelves perched on a chair, I tripped and fractured my ankle. Life came to an excruciating standstill. In my last post, I wrote about meditation and being still; here was an opportunity to indulge in more of that. But there’s a difference between elective and non-elective choices. Soon annoyance and ennui crept in. Advent commenced and Christmas was just around the corner. It irked me that while all of humanity was running around decorating their houses, preparing sweets and shopping, I had morphed into a kind of Hobbit, moping and shuffling around without shoes. So as I counted the similarities – no-shoes, six meals a day and an unadventurous life, I realized that Hobbits are courageous under moral pressure and capable of great feats too. It was time to slingshot the pessimism.

Fed on this last thought, I started an advent gratitude countdown on Instagram and Facebook. I thought of every little thing that warranted thankfulness. Gratitude lists work so well for the simple reason that you can’t feel sorry for yourself and thankful at the same time.  Soon enough I drew myself back into a bubble of appreciation and things fell into place. The amount of people who wrote back to me saying they drew comfort from the words was sweet premium.

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Gratitude to me is the most intense feeling and the only prayer I know of. Soon the frowns eased and I settled into a restorative state. The surest sign of blessings came soon after. Mother and hubby both arrived home simultaneously bringing with them lots of cheer and noise. It was the best dang thing. My husband kept everyone entertained, my daughter clowned around to replace him when he was at work and mum pampered me like I was a baby. There is no better feeling than freshly brewed tea brought to you in bed.

My adorable sister-in-law, Shalini accompanied me on my doctor visits and checked on me from time to time. Then there were friends, the real and honorable kinds. Some came with food and smiles and hope. The one’s who couldn’t visit, kept me occupied and positive by talking to me and texting all day long.

We are fed images of angels in flowing white gowns and halos over their heads. But good-hearted people are the real angels. They are the ones who radiate light and make our lives luminous. They are the ones who walk the talk. The words, laughter, encouragement and love of these people became the crutch that I leaned on. They became my ‘jod ka taar’, the silent support string, without which no pure melody is possible. Appreciation exuded out of my every pore and made the days look like a perpetual sun drenched morning. All that was left to do was luxuriate in it.

So here I am, sitting beneath my twinkling Christmas tree feeling loved and sanctified by life. I sense an encore coming on. The best, as I always say, is yet to come.

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All photos by: Rhea Rego

YOLO LEGACY

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We carry within us the wonders we seek without us – Thomas Browne

Once grandpa brought home a tiger cub; it was sometime in the late 1930s. He was walking home through the forest, spotted a lone cub, thought it was abandoned and decided to adopt it. Needless to say, he got a good spanking at home and was forced to return the cub where he got it from. That was how grandpa was until the day he died – impulsive, adorable and full of childlike curiosity.

Every summer, when it got too hot in the city, we packed our bags and went to live with grandpa and grandma. They lived in a modest home deep in the valleys of rural Mangalore in South India. That was our ‘vacation.’ It might not have been exotic but it was certainly enriching and well-spent. I adored grandpa and his idiosyncrasies that for me had hidden lessons like little wrapped gifts in a treasure hunt. He would wake up at dawn and lovingly sweep the front yard. That was the first thing he did and it was a metaphor for starting the day on a clean slate. As soon as I woke up, he would hand me a small brass pot and drag me to the well. We would draw water together, my small hands covered with his large, calloused ones over the rough rope. He would spend entire mornings watering the plants, admiring the flowers, tending to his vegetable and fruit patch, pointing out the ripe ones and urging me to pick them. This is how he taught me to care and work for what I loved; to appreciate the beauty around me, to have patience and enjoy the rewards when they appeared. Once he hacked open a huge jackfruit with his bare hands and we chomped through the entire thing in one sitting. In today’s lingo it’s called a YOLO day. A day when you indulge yourself because ‘You Only Live Once’. Grandpa lived and breathed the YOLO philosophy, though in a different way. It wasn’t about pigging out on a certain day; it was living life to the full every single day. He exemplified how to nurture the inner child and never let it die.

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Grandpa using headphones for the first time.

On days that he chose to stay home, grandpa would sit on the patio listening to the news on his small portable radio. His sharp brain would absorb every bit of information and it was incredible how much he knew about world affairs. But most days, he would disappear, only to appear in time for our evening prayers. He would waddle down unconcerned down the dark, twisted path that led to our house in the valley. Grandma would keep expressing her disapproval about him roaming around in the dark, but he only just laughed all the time. Sometimes, he came home really late when we were already in bed. Then he would squat on the mattress beside me, turn up the oil lamp a little, recount real life stories in his booming voice and sneak me sweets under the blankets while I hung on to his every word.

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The way life has been pausing and crawling recently has given me new perspectives. Sometimes the rain falls around like it will never stop and quite suddenly the sun comes out and everything is so different. It’s like living in two parallel universes. There are days when all I want to do is wear my escapist garb and crawl into my own skin. On days like that a memory of grandpa and his toothless grin is enough to haul me back. And quite suddenly things become symphonic and perfect. Life breaks free from shackles and appears untethered and free. There’s a beauty in how relationships, past or present, are stitched together into our lives with invisible threads. How what seems so simple can gain so much importance. Grandparents are always taken for granted but someday when they are gone, you realize that they live in parts of you that you didn’t know existed. When you realize that, you quite suddenly fall in love with reminiscences of them, as well as parts of you that they still live in.

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Grandpa didn’t accumulate wealth and heirlooms. But he loved life, indulged his curiosity and laughed nonchalantly. Those are the qualities and lessons he seems to have passed on; a kind of legacy – the YOLO legacy, as I like to call it. What could be more precious than that? When I get excited about picking sea-shells from the shore, write my name on frosty window panes, lose myself in music or laugh out loud at inane jokes, I think of grandpa. On dark days when life seems to be pulling me down and I smile back at it, I hope he’s proud of me. He never preached but set us an example of how to feel wonder at the tiniest thing, how not to live a numb life and how to open ourselves up to the wonder of ‘us’.

UNTAINTED RHYTHM

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To many people holidays are not voyages of discovery, but a ritual of reassurance

– Philip Andrew Adams

April lingered. It was a protracted month with hours that just stretched and stretched. The heat was rabid and sweat clogged my pores. Just as I was about to dissipate, a long weekend happened. We got into our cars and drove, from smooth highways onto rugged dirt roads. I am not big on road travel, especially on hot days when you can’t roll down the windows. It makes me nauseous and irritated. At the end of three hours, tired and somewhat lost, we had begun to curse under our collective breaths. Just then, as if on cue, we arrived and a slow smile spread across my face. There were mountains in the distance, rough backwoods and country soil beckoning to me like a mother’s arms. There are places where you exist. Then there are places that call out your name.

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Those two days were metamorphic on some level. Cellular, spiritual, I am not really sure. But as I wandered around the wilderness and watched the sun set, a kind of slow mutation happened. I let myself be mesmerized, the orange-purple sky lighting up my eyes, the breeze messing up my hair, the voices of loved ones coming as if from a distance, but soothing nonetheless. In the glow of a moonlit sky, we walked back, the bone-dry ground warm under our feet. Later at night, we sang and laughed until our voices were sore. We got intoxicated on food that tasted like the earth. It was surreal and ordinary at the same time.

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The next morning, I woke up revived and with a single-minded purpose – to watch the sunrise. My two partners-in-crime were waiting in the pre-dawn shadows. We ambled along the dusty path slightly out of breath, the red earth staining our shoes, making sure we carry the grains of that soil with us to reminisce later. The sloping knoll covered in a fine mist looked like a Van Gogh painting. We were early or maybe the sun was just teasing us, but we waited patiently to birdsong, as one waits for a bride. And then it came out, peeping at first and suddenly all at once. Our hearts dazzled with its beauty. And time stood still. The wonder of life could be summed up in those few suspended moments. It was untainted rhythm.

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Sometimes, it becomes important to briefly depart from reality, to step away from the blur of a city life. It’s not escapism. It’s just finding an unusual backdrop to adjust our vision. A different sun to light our minds. Rolling hills to balance our hearts. An uncommon breeze to lift the dust from our cobwebbed lives. A deliberate slowing down to regain lost strength. A reminder on how to live minimally in awareness, to enjoy meals served with love and appreciate all that is humble and unpretentious.

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That day, as we prepared to leave, I noticed something. The pieces of me that had come undone were healed again. An unsullied joy had filled up all the cracks and I looked ready with a radiance that was enough to carry me through another storm. It’s only when I find something that puts me back together that I realize I’ve been missing it. That I’ve been waiting for it. That without it my light wouldn’t be the same. Uncertainty still looms over my world, but I choose to ignore it. In this moment, I am full. For now, I am replete.

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OHANA

The house looks poured out, empty. For over a week, it was bursting at the seams. Faces radiant, rooms buzzing with words, bodies moving and colliding, bags stacked against walls, chaos everywhere. Strangely enough, in that chaos floated a kind of stillness. There were moments when people were talking all at once, raucous laughter bounced off walls and what I breathed in was serenity. Family from overseas had arrived home to celebrate the 75th birthday of the family matriarch. Some days are just hallowed and we had a week full of them.

It’s a fact that no matter how much you try, distance makes relationships come undone a little, or totally sometimes. You send messages, make calls on special occasions, and try your best to hold everything together. But sharing meals cooked together in large old pots, kitchen gossip over cups of tea, watching the kids huddled up on makeshift beds, nothing can compare to that. That’s pure sensory overload and touchingly beautiful. What started off as a birthday celebration became the glue that bonded us all back together. We manifested magic in those few days.

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As expected, the birthday party was spectacular. The day shone with epic moments and sparkling tributes. There was singing, dancing and a lot of warm hugs. Mother, whom everyone, young and old, fondly calls ‘Mai’ (which means ‘mother’ in Konkani), was beaming through glistening eyes. Seven kids, their spouses, ten grand kids, extended family, close friends; the vibrations that filled that banquet hall were incredible. These are the memories that fill your heart; these are the ones you talk to posterity about. These are the ones that crack open your existence and help you transcend.

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Everyone has long returned to their homes and I am settled into my world, but yet there are moments when I miss them. The first couple of days, I wandered around in a daze, unsure of how to go back to normalcy. My sister-in-law left behind the kids’ cereal box and bowls and I let them sit just where she left them on my kitchen counter. Little parts of them that made me feel they were still around. When people come into your world, even for a while, they leave remnants. Little smatterings that make everything look different. I don’t know when days like these will return, but there’s hope that what we sowed will bloom time and again. So, now in moments of solitude, I silently send up a prayer to good times – the ones we enjoyed and the ones foreseen. Until then, there’s a fountain of reminiscences to soak in.

There were lots of precious moments, but one memory stands out for me. My nine year old niece, Keira, all dressed to leave for the airport was stirring random chocolaty things that she picked from my larder and refrigerator in a warm bowl. I asked her what she was doing and she replied, “I’m making you a dessert before I leave. This is just for you”. It was so incredibly charming that my heart melted faster than the chocolate in that red bowl. There was so much purity and affection in that little gesture. Keira gave me an intense, beautiful memory to hold for life.

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In Hawaiian culture, ‘ohana’ means family. The term was made famous in the movie, ‘Lilo & Stitch’. There is a scene where Stitch is running away and Lilo in her soft, heartrending voice says: “Ohana means family. Family means ‘no one gets left behind’. But if you want to leave, you can. I’ll remember you though”. That’s what I want to say. To Keira, my ‘Stitch’ and the rest of the family as well. That whether we are together or separated by oceans, we must make sure that we do not forget and no one gets left behind.

Here’s to Ohana. To family.

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