SAVED BY A SONG

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It was one of those rare occasions when I had wandered into a church. As my knees hit the floor, the strains of ‘Old Rugged Cross’ filled the air; hundreds of voices rose in crescendo and the tears came rolling down. After two years of Marie’s passing, the floodgates had finally opened and cleansed me. That celestial moment became my testament to the undeniable healing power of music.

Being a loner all through my teen years, the only true connection I had was with music and words. On long afternoons, I was almost always found huddled in a corner with a book and in the evenings with my tiny cassette player in a darkened room. Although I never stopped listening to music, the bedtime tradition that had waned over time, is now revived and made sacred. Once the telly is off and I’m alone in my room, the windows are thrown open and the music comes on. Embellished by moonlight and kissed by the gentle breeze, the sounds seem ethereal. It is, without a doubt, the most magical part of my day.

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Years ago, when I had signed up for piano classes, my music teacher had encouraged me to look for life lessons in music. If you let it all the way in, music can bring about a real catharsis, she had said. It’s true. Music can foster unity with another mind, another culture, and life itself, like nothing else can. And all of that comes right back as an insight into your own mind. That’s how the purgation takes place. Some days it’s jazz that moves me, on other days it could be rock or forgotten Bollywood oldies. The music we choose is never random, it reflects our emotional/mental state at the time. That’s exactly why we get obsessed with certain songs; it’s because they speak to our deeper selves.

I have an inherent need to understand a song (and everything else) in all its entirety. So recently when a friend sent me a Bangla song, it upset me that I couldn’t find a proper translation of the lyrics. “You would have enjoyed it more”, he said wryly, “if you just listened to it.” That, right there, was another analogy for life.

The struggle to find our worth can be an ongoing battle. A broken relationship, an unfulfilling career or a lost dream can leave us feeling shoddy. Until one day someone holds a mirror to our soul and we remember love. Just like the beauty of a person is revealed by how they make you feel, so it is with music. A song that you find mediocre could be someone’s favourite just because it spoke to them when they needed it the most. It’s an idea that made me accepting of other people’s choices, in music and in life.

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Whether it’s just a car ride I want to enjoy or a dark patch I’m trying to work through, what has, and always will help me, is a piece of music. Above all else, it teaches us that love is more than just a word. It’s our connection with the world around us. It’s what helps us make sense of the chaos that surrounds us. It shows us that no matter where we live on this planet, we are essentially the same. Sometimes when I find myself withering, I sit back and let a song wash over me, other times I write my own. Either way, it can be safely said, that I’m always saved by a song. A single lyric or melody at the right time can change everything. It can give your life direction, beauty, meaning. And the courage to live with a little more heart.

There’s a quote from One Tree Hill that I love. “Every song has a coda, a final movement. Whether it fades out or crashes away, every song ends. Is that any reason not to enjoy the music?” We’re all perpetually trying to figure out things, working our way through the rough terrain of life, wondering where it leads us. Well, with the right soundtrack, our journey can be a transcendent one.

 

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INTO THE FOREST

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Last week, we drove down to Atvan for a much needed getaway. The morning was beautifully cleansed by a steady drizzle and soulful music filled the air. As we drew near, the slow upward climb was made surreal by the dense fog that hung over the valley like a thick, fluffy blanket. Atvan means ‘into the forest’ and it was exactly where I craved to be. After a small, rickety ride off the main road, we came upon the iron gates of the property where we were to spend the next couple of days. It was like stepping into another world, where all one could do was just ‘be’. The foliage was thick and glowing, the skies weeping in bursts every now and then. A subtle peace hung in the air and clung to us as we walked down the suspended wooden bridge that led to our tree house. It felt like ambling through a paradise that promised to hold me in its arms and heal me.

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The tree house itself was splendid, beckoning to me as if it was a home I’d never known I had. The lines between the indoors and outdoors were so artfully blurred that I could reach out over the railing and touch the branches from where I stood. For a nature junkie like me, there was nothing more to desire, nothing more to ask for. The best gift, however, was the birdsong. For the first time, I discovered the salacious warbling of the ‘Malabar Whistling Thrush’, aptly nicknamed ‘Whistling Schoolboy’. I’m known to fall in love more heavily with sounds than sights and I was properly charmed by this one.  The whistling of this bird has an uncannily human quality about it and the constant trill kept me amused throughout my stay there.

While there was still light, we explored the forest, walking along winding pathways and climbing slippery slopes. There were very few people around and it was just as well. The quietude was welcome and calmed my troubled heart like nothing else could. It was very reminiscent of my summers in pre-electric Mangalore, when the only illumination after dusk came from small lamps scattered around the house. Oftentimes, I long for those inky nights that were spent gazing at radiantly starry skies.

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Mostly, I am a happy person, but I suffer from intermittent existential malaise. There is a melancholy that runs through my veins, and most times that very darkness inspires me to be creative. Of late though, there had been constant spells of anxiety that rattled and numbed me in cycles. It wasn’t a good feeling. But right then, in the lap of nature, it seemed possible to wipe away the grime, lay down for a bit and stand up again. I felt ready to refocus and recalibrate. That said, the learning curve was yet to present itself.

As the day folded into night, a swarm of moths came out. The night was punctuated with their calls, but other than that it was a world that demanded nothing but the slow unwinding of a ragged soul. As I snuggled under the covers, peering out into the night through the wide glass wall, a stellar spectacle built up before me. My eyes lit up and widened to the effervescent dance of hundreds of glowing fireflies. It was like a secret rendezvous that was planned just for me. I was so dazzled by the wonder of it, that sleep just vanished and I stayed awake for hours watching as they twinkled and dimmed until I could no longer tell them apart from the stars above.

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It brought to mind a song by Owl City called ‘Fireflies’. A whimsical song that on the surface seems to speak about insomnia and childhood dreams, but is said to be more deeply about lucid dreaming or even astral projection.

The bioluminescence of a firefly is an enchanting process that involves conversion of chemical energy into light. Could these little beacons of hope then be passing on a message to us? That no matter how much darkness we’re drenched in, we could possibly make our own light? Lost in the embrace of that soft, mesmeric night, I surrendered to the dazzling flashes of life that these little critters brought me. For as they say, every blink of a firefly’s light says ‘Believe’.

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.

 

TABLE FOR ONE

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If I remember right, it was in class 8, that we were asked to analyze William Wordsworth’s lyrical poem, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (more popularly known as ‘Daffodils’). Being a loner at heart, and often indulging in such wanderings myself, I found it easy to relate to this simple yet profound piece of work. My English teacher had applauded it as ‘a sincere and well comprehended analysis’. Having recently lost his brother, Wordsworth was actually melancholic at the time he wrote the poem, but I understood that my own wanderings were not really dismal. ‘Being alone’ did not have to mean ‘being lonely’.

Years later, life nudged me to revisit the cognizance of the 12-year old me. Every decade of life brings new learning, but the forties have been really profound so far. After over two decades of constantly hovering around each other, my husband was suddenly and unexpectedly posted to Bangalore. It brought back solitude in heaps, the minutes piling up like an untidy collection of objects placed haphazardly on top of each other. At first, it was overwhelming, but in due course, the aesthete in me started coherently stacking up the hours in neat, codified piles. It was an opportunity to feed the ‘slow life’ fanatic in me and before I knew it, I was addicted to the unceremoniously strewn moments.

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Being raised in patriarchal societies, we women are conditioned to calibrate from a young age and that kind of cumberance eventually becomes a roadblock that we  subconciously set up for ourselves. We grow up believing that it is somehow wrong to enjoy a movie on our own or go out with friends if the husband and kids are at home. So one fine day, when solitude comes knocking, we don’t know what to do.

Many years ago, while I was still in junior college, I had to appear for an exam. Having reached the examination centre too early, I decided to grab a sandwich at a nearby restaurant to kill time. It did not occur to me that sitting by myself in a restaurant was such a big deal, but clearly it was. I was catcalled at and stared down with derision. It was mortifying and the incident made me guarded and even more diffident than I already was.

Things are thankfully different now. I recently read that ‘Good at being alone’ is seen as a skill important enough to be put on a resume in countries like Japan. The late Japanese journalist Iwashita Kumiko in 1999 coined an interesting term called O-hitori Sama Kojo Iinkai (the Committee for Advancing the Interests of People Who Do Things Alone). ‘O-hitori sama’, more than anything else, has become a newly coined expression to describe women soloing out, and I am heartened to see that the trend is catching up in Indian cities too. After solo shopping sprees when I now enter a restaurant, it seems unremarkable to say, “Table for one”. As far as ‘3 little words’ go, these are sweeter than any other, putting a spring in my step and a smile on my face on lackluster days. On a deeper level, it is quantum leaps such as these that transform society from the ground up. As individuals, it sets us free.

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I’ve never considered myself a ‘spa person’, but after a particularly disorienting day walking the bylanes of Pratunam district in Thailand, I once allowed myself to be coaxed into a foot massage. As the masseuse worked deftly to unknot my muscles, I eased into a trance and an hour later, emerged out of there thoroughly rejuvenated. Solitude is much like that massage, it helps in the unfettering of the fortifications that we entangle ourselves in. There’s something profound about being alone and I am beginning to relish the beauty of it.

Humans are social animals and company is always welcome. So, in essence, I am by no means promoting soloism (if there is such a term), but just upholding the merits of such a state if you ever find yourself in it. These are the fringe benefits of a situation that most people consider somber. The “bliss of solitude” as Wordsworth puts it is worth exploring. Life is so interesting and vast, that time falls short. So it’s prudent to not waste time waiting for company when there is none, but rather go after what ignites us and sets our hearts aflutter. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that there are lessons to be learned and thoughts to be shared. If while ‘wandering lonely as a cloud’ we can unleash our creativity, share and inspire someone with our experiences, then we can leave knowing we honored the magnanimous gift of life.

 

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THRIVING IS POSSIBLE

 

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January hadn’t exactly gone to plan; which is fine, because it never does. Then February disappeared into March and the hours had begun to blend into each other without distinction. Creativity had flat-lined and effervescence bubbled down. Before I knew it, Lent season was upon us. On Ash Wednesday, I made it to the early morning service. The sunlight bounced off the church steeple and enveloped everyone in its warmth. I am not a deeply religious person, but in moments like these a sudden surge of spirituality grips me. While I deliberated on the thrashings of my bewildered soul, the priest spoke about changing our perspective on abstinence. Ambling home through the back streets, I absently toyed around with the idea. I wanted this season to be about a deeper kind of emancipation, about trepidation being relegated to forgotten cartons in dingy lofts, about songs escaping from uninhibited lips. And so I decided to abstain from ‘fear’. With that one decision, hope came streaming back into my soul. On days that I waver, I remind myself that life is a mirror. It will only reflect who I choose to be.

Growing up, my friends and I on most nights, would play hide-and-go-seek after dinner. In the semi-darkness of the street lamps, it was easy to lurk in the shadows. I was known to trip even on level ground, but one night I took an epic fall. Scurrying around for a place to hide, I ran towards the dumpster and very promptly descended on some broken glass. Blood gushed out while I kicked up a storm and felt faint all at once. The neighbors rushed around looking for clean rags and jars of turmeric. Someone cleaned me up and someone else dabbed on the yellow paste, while all the time I kept writhing like a person possessed. The scars from that fall adorn my knees to this day. Two nights later, having gotten over the throbbing in my knee, I was back crouching behind the same dumpster. It makes me believe that resilience is innate. That fear is not something we are born with. Much before this, at age three, I was diagnosed with a condition that compelled me to take 90 injections, one each day. So when did the valiance ebb? I’ve often thought about why and how fear creeps into our minds. It’s a beast we fight all our lives. Slay it and it morphs and returns in another form.

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Once we mend though, our brokenness takes on a beauty of its own. The scars lend character. There’s a reason why we revere sunrises and sunsets. There’s nothing more mesmerizing than the blending of darkness and light. And so it is with our own selves. Like the acne blemishes on my skin that bear testimony to the struggle and trauma of adolescence. I see that kind of brokenness as redemptive, because deep down it made me humble and compassionate. It made me shift my focus from what’s on the outside and look within myself and others. So as I surface from the comorbidity that sucks me down, the need to share seems almost obligatory. My creativity compels me to bare my soul and I like to think that such disclosures breed empathy.

My muse is my own mind. From being perturbed to finding some sort of clarity, these exertions leave me with a beautiful wabi-sabi kind of feeling in the end. As always my daughter brought in some eloquence to the already assembling awareness. Depression originates from thinking about the past and anxiety from living in the future, she affirmed. The answer was to live in the moment. My unpretentious husband has a simple antidote for every fatality: break out into a song. As I follow his example, the days seem to be progressing with a sanguinity that surpasses all understanding. This is growth in its purest form. This is how the light-heartedness creeps back in.

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I love this quote by Marianne Williamson: “Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor…” We all struggle and we all fail. But there is a grace, strength and divinity in the depths of our souls which surfaces the moment we surrender to a higher power. As we celebrate Easter a month from now, I hope to commemorate my own little resurrection from the disquiet that ails my spirit. Thriving, as I increasingly realize, is possible.

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NO RESOLUTION YEAR

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A dear friend gifted me a set of six tea cups about a year ago. The beautiful array, cradled in soft white silk had taken my breath away. So much so, that I never used those cups lest I stain or break them. It’s a different kind of procrastination, one that I’m done with now. December with its brazen mix of fairy lights, bustling kitchens, incessant merriment and warm hugs encourages indulgence. So amidst all the blatant festivity, I found a quiet afternoon to sunbathe on my couch and pour myself some ginger infused tea. Life felt as exquisite as the dainty cup I held in my hands. It was the perfect moment to transition from one year into the next.

2016 was like an errant child. Most days I quailed and stumbled. I also broke my rule of learning one new thing, but somewhere along the way it struck me that learning is arbitrary. When I was invited to judge an inter-school elocution competition at the beginning of December, and was expected to speak to the participants and the audience at large, my stage-shy self ended up crossing an impediment that had held me captive for years. That opportunity gave me a fresh perspective. It also sent me into a kind of flashback to cold days when as a child, I used to cycle on the playground of that very school. When riding with wind in my hair did nothing to liberate me from the chains that bound my soul. When the starry expanse of sky only reminded me of how confined my world was. It felt like scenes from a movie that I’d watched long ago. Walking those tree-lined streets made me think of all the people I’d known and never saw again. But most importantly, it made me realize of how I’d found myself. Of how free I felt now. You fight and you fight and someday the shackles break loose. The sweetest liberation comes from the hardest struggle.

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This is a time of new resolutions, but I’m not making any. After the endless overwhelm I’ve whipped up for myself the past few years, it’s time to take life with an ease that can only come with awareness and repletion. The first time I made bread, I asked my mother how to determine the consistency of the dough. All she said was, “You will know.” That’s how I feel about life now. There is a sizeable project brewing in my head, but there is no stress. I have ideas but there is no unrelenting hurry. Beau Taplin puts it succinctly, “Don’t stress so much about settling on a path for 2017. The division of time into years is a human invention, and fact is every moment of every day is another opportunity for resolution and growth. So when the fireworks fly, relax and enjoy the moment. The rest will come to you.”  That’s the recipe I’m settling with.

One little pointer in the bread making process is this. The pliability of the dough is directly proportionate to the passion you put into kneading it. You know, the Greeks didn’t write obituaries. They only asked one question after a man died. “Did he have passion?” That, to me, is the only resolution worth making.

Here’s wishing all of you a genuine and passionate life. Cheers to the days ahead!

 

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LOSING FINGERPRINTS

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I was probably a third grader, when my first letter arrived in the mail. It was a point in time when I was learning the enchantment of words and the stringing of them together into sentences. The fact that an envelope bore my name was a big deal to me and the idea of someone writing to me was beyond magical. That was the first of a series of letters that soon became my prime hope of knowing a father who was physically absent from my young life. Dad had left for foreign shores when I was barely three. The only connection that we could now have, apart from his annual visits, was through the monthly letters that he wrote mum and me. The letters were always beautifully scripted in Dad’s bold, cursive hand and ran into multiple pages. He had been a published writer and at one point, had written some very imaginative and funny stories in his native language. His creativity was now unleashed in the letters he wrote. There was a charm to those sultry afternoons, the dreariness of which could only be made luminescent by the simple arrival of a letter.

A couple of years later, leafing through a magazine in the library, I came across the concept of ‘pen friends’. It was a fascinating thought and I lost no time signing up to the ‘Pen Friend’s Club.’ We passionately wrote to each other across countries and continents, sharing our humdrum life which the other found suitably exotic. To our innocent minds, it was a delightful experience, as thrilling as physically discovering a new city.

 It might seem strange that in an age of speedy digital communication, I’m longing for an era gone by. The virtual world is great; it’s like a manifestation of Neverland and there’s no end to how far one can go here. But like everything else, we need to rein ourselves in and know where to draw the line. We’ve initiated new and rekindled old relationships by the dozen. But how many of them have any depth? And where is the honesty in our altered, pseudo lives? While getting in touch with a lot of people, we seem to be drifting away from our own selves. By endlessly typing out thoughts and feelings, we are gradually losing our fingerprints. The deluge of information is so much, we have no time to sift through it.

Emily Dickinson wrote: “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church, I keep it staying at Home.” It’s worth contemplating on how we can expand the meaning of Sabbath beyond just the religious connotations. As they say in Kyoto, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” Pico Iyer writes in his book ‘The Art of Stillness’: “The very people (..), who have worked to speed up the world are the same ones most sensitive to the virtue of slowing down.” He goes on to describe his visit to the Google headquarters where he found “the workers at the time enjoying a fifth of their working hours free, letting their minds wander off leash to where inspiration might be hiding.”

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So while I stay attuned to the times, I’d like to sporadically veer off towards old-fashioned ways. The white noise of thoughtless forwards, countless jokes and pointless chats is jarring to the soul and I long for hushed voices and meaningful conversations over steaming cups of coffee in real cafes. It would be nice to look into people’s eyes and hear their laugh instead of deciphering emoticons. It would be refreshing to hear people say words that they really, truly mean. Why can’t we give and receive real flowers instead of virtual ones and occasionally go through the trouble of mailing a handwritten letter? At the risk of sounding passé, I crave the allure of things gone by.

Three days ago, it was M’s birthday. The last time I saw her face was four a half years ago. It’s strange how a person fills up your life and then suddenly vanishes without warning. What do you do with a love that can never be replaced? I remember our last meal together in the Indian restaurant right below her building. When I told her that we were moving back to India, she had recoiled as if something had hit her. Saying a tearful goodbye, we had promised to write to each other, but sadly never did. Five years later, she was flown home and I was feeding her little morsels of bland rice in a dismal hospital room. The next day, she was gone. The memory of her doesn’t leave me. If only I had those letters we never wrote to each other.

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As I lay half-awake in the shadows of dawn this morning, memories came to me like snippets of a strange dream. Later I found myself on a park bench, pen poised over a notepad, starting a letter that I had promised a friend two months ago. I refuse to live with another broken promise. As if on cue, the pigeons settled around me like a clique. Sunshine filtered through the leaves. I recalled that the Japanese have a term for it: ‘Komorebi’, this interplay of light and leaves on the ground. It is the light curtain which is more visible after the rain. There’s a science behind it, but I couldn’t be bothered right then. Just that it seemed beautifully premeditated and made for an aesthetically perfect setting.

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