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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UNPLUGGED DAYS

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A few years ago, we drove deep into the desert of Hatta. The sand dunes there are luminuous and beautifully astral. We had decided to spend the night, so after a  sumptuous Arabic meal, we found ourselves languidly sprawled under the starry sky. A friend was strumming his guitar and time shimmered like a mirage – palpable and truant at the same time. Moments like these call out to me more often now than ever before.

Of late, I’ve begun to get extremely claustrophobic. There’s a constant need to be out in the open, more precisely, in the lap of nature. The rapidity and uproar of the city is almost pandemonic. It could be some sort of seasonal affective disorder and I refrain from mentioning my restlessness to people around me. Instead I try to manipulate excursions on the pretext of this and that. Even then, my neurosis reveals itself by it’s absence as I sizeably open up the minute we approach the countryside. It’s a transformation that’s hard to miss.

A few days ago, my husband and I drove down to a fishing village about 15 kms outside city limits. The lanes were winding and suitably narrow. Brightly painted houses nestled closely in a disorderly manner, women seemed friendly and men bustled around in carelessly wrapped loin cloths. There was a lack of curiosity in their glances that put me at ease, like the warm but understated embrace of family welcoming you home. That evening, as I sat gazing out at the endlessly inspiring sea, I wondered if it was at all possible to feel displaced from a place one has never known.

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When we headed back home two days later, we were met with some disturbing news. Over 3,000 trees were about to face the axe soon to make way for the Metro car shed in my favourite Aarey Milk Colony. The city planners might have their reasons but I was devastated, to say the least. The Aarey area is one of the few green spots left in the otherwise concrete city of Mumbai and a place that’s always balm to my ravaged mind.

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On the supremely wide girth of these tree trunks are stories of storms weathered and solace gathered. I felt compelled to revisit the tales and hold them close one more time. So we made a trip and loitered around. It turned out to be a beautiful and adventurous day. We chatted up a local and milked out gossip, pretended to be film-makers and explored a film location, hugged tree trunks and discovered spots that we never knew existed. I saw the vast stretches of green wilderness and the expansive blue sky in the middle of a bustling city as analogous to the litter of monotonous moments in our usually busy lives. We fail to see that those are the very gaps that allow the sunlight to stream in and that it might do us good to stop trying too hard and just be. My jaunt through those verdant lanes that day made me nostalgic for the spartan picnics of my childhood. What happened to that rudimentary life?

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Our last expedition of the fortnight, turned out to be the Pagoda that I never get tired of. Just taking the ferry across the muddled waters makes me feel like I’m crossing over to another dimension. It was a stifflingly humid day, but nothing could take away the peace that enveloped me as I stretched out on the grass with the Buddha statue looming and chants resonating in the air. We’re always looking for upgrades in life, but sometimes it serves us well to feel the ground and appreciate the poetry in all of it.

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I relish unplugged days like these that vibrate with unadorned, acoustic sounds. They set the tone for a process of remembering and recovering our real selves. The arcadian charm of such idyllic paths and stolen moments prompt me to reevaluate how I spend my time, who and what I commit to and the why of everything.  The answers turn out to be pretty simple. Our life is whatever we make of it, the only thing mandatory is participation. But one thing is abundantly clear. It takes very little for life to be resplendent.

Here’s to nature that inspires us to grow simply and live a life less ostentatious.

 

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A BOUNDLESS LIFE

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As a child, I often spent whole afternoons watching ants. Their march, regal and purposeful, fascinated me. Grandpa once explained to me how they live and work in perfect harmony, almost like they were one single organism. He was a man in sync with nature and pointed out how not just ants, but all of life moves beautifully like a synchronized orchestra. All except humans, who seem to struggle endlessly. As I grew up, the ability to simply watch life without motive was lost somewhere. All activity and all intentions became motive-driven. It is only now, after years of getting nowhere, that I realise perception is more important. Knowing where the ants were going wasn’t necessary; the experience of watching them was. The oneness that I felt with them was. It might seem trite but bringing awareness back into our lives must take precedence over all else.

There was a children’s show called, ‘The Magic School Bus’ that I enjoyed watching with my daughter many years ago. Every aspect of the human body was explored so beautifully in animated form that I used to be hooked onto it more than her. The journey of a morsel of food, for example, was brought to life as it made it’s way through the entire alimentary canal. Sadly, we are not even aware of what goes into our mouths most times. Clearly, it’s a practice worth getting into, not just while eating, but in every aspect of our lives. Awareness brings clarity, clarity leads to freedom and freedom is the only way to higher intelligence. One cannot fly when bound up in chains.

The biggest roadblock in our growth is, of course, conditioning. It’s a tough job to unmould our thinking, but not impossible. This reminds me of a pet parrot we had for a brief time. I was probably a pre-teen then. My mother used to leave guavas and chillies for the bird and clean the cage religiously every day. I saw no point in the whole activity when neither the bird did anything for us nor did we do much except feed it daily. I was sure, the smart fellow could very well manage more than a guava and chilly if left on his own. So one quiet afternoon, during siesta, I left the cage open. To my utter dismay, the bird refused to fly. That’s how our conditioning works. We choose to stay in an open cage.

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It’s time to get back on ‘The Magic School Bus’. Bringing awareness back takes practice, patience and understanding. A few months ago, I was at the St. Mary’s Basilica in Bangalore. As I sat in that beautiful, empty church with eyes closed and palms open, the intense vibrations I felt reminded me of what I had been missing. Such experiences need not be rare if one is receptive. It is not an outside phenomenon. The vibrations were comimg from within me; I just had to be open to them. This is why we need to turn inwards. Because all joy, peace, bliss and intelligence can only be found there. This is how ‘being human’ works for me.

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When people ask me what my goal as a writer is, I don’t know what to say. The only goal I have set for myself is to live a conscious life; one that is boundless. I often think of our ancestral home in Mangalore that housed a large family. It had two rooms on either ends that served as kitchen and storage and a long open porch in the middle. The family slept in a neat row in that open area without any fear. I absolutely loved lying awake in the dark, gazing at the sky and the silhouette of the distant mountains. My entire summer break every year was spent there. Later, when the house was rebuilt, walls to divide the two sections were put up that left me sorely disappointed.

I have an inherent dislike for boundaries, especially the mental and emotional ones. Freedom, and the growth it encourages, is appealing and the only kind of pursuit I find myself interested in. What I do isn’t important. How I want to live and grow is.

 

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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THE SILENCE BETWEEN

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It was the Zen-blue sky that hit me first. As I taxied out into the city, my skin absorbing the chilled breeze like water on parched soil, Bangalore seemed to be welcoming me. For some strange reason, it felt like grandpa’s wrinkled arms and toothless grin beckoning me home. Quite enamoured by the feeling, I walked into my husband’s Marathahalli abode with zero expectations but with an uncanny certainty that the following week was about to change something in me.

The next six days were spent wandering around, exploring the city. No place is, as such, perfect to its residents. Anyone who lives in Bangalore will most certainly complain about the traffic that seems lodged on flyovers and in narrow lanes likes clinging parasites. But as an outsider, I subliminally saw something significant that alleviated the burden of it for me. By the evening of the first day itself I had discounted all the snags in favor of the one thing that stood out in the locals of this ordinary, almost pedestrian city. And that was their unruffled serenity. There was a sense of collective calm despite the bustle. People chatted amicably with strangers in buses and auto-rickshaw drivers grinned charmingly while demanding ridiculous fares. When a car hit our taxi at a signal, the cabbie got out, inspected the damage, shook his head slightly, paused for a second and then waved it off. No anger, no foul language. That is probably the key to composure – the pause. Mozart, the prolific composer of the Classical Era believed that “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between”. If all the music is in the pauses, maybe that is how our mind should function too. I found myself inspecting the connotations, reading the subtext and developing wistful images to carry home.

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On day two, sauntering through the Lalbaug Botanical Gardens, I came across a colorful statue of Nandi. Typically, Nandi being Lord Shiva’s vehicle is always found sitting at the doorway of the temple in a perpetually silent but alert waiting mode. Nandi thus has gained on a symbolism, teaching us the virtue of simply sitting, vigilant but without expectations. The image of Nandi essentially reminds us to pause and pay attention to life. Only in the pauses can the music of the Universe be heard.

The next day, my sister-friend Suzanne, invited us for lunch. After a sumptuous meal, she and I set out for a stroll by the Ulsoor Lake not far from her home. As was wont to happen, we delved into a deep conversation. “There’s a reason we feel so calm and alive being around nature,” she remarked touching the leaves that hung over our bench and gazing at the serene lake. “It’s because nature never pretends to be what it’s not. A leaf is a leaf, content and happy with its true form. That’s why we feel good around people who are like that too”.

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As I mulled over this it became apparent why I had thought of grandpa the day I arrived. Grandpa was like that, content and cheerful, demanding nothing from life and never pretending to be what he’s not. He would gallivant, stop to chat with everyone on the street, lose track of time and come home with the fading sun bringing a sack of fish. Grandma would get livid and hurl the sack in the fire, but grandpa would only laugh. “Why are you so angry, Eliza?” he would ask nudging her playfully. It was the same kind of authenticity that I now saw in the locals of Bangalore.

As my week drew to an end, I found myself feeling grateful for the pauses that presented themselves from time to time. Devoid of distractions, the poignancy and joy of such experiences steadily engages and unfills me at the same time. As I prepared to leave, the sky that I had so fallen in love with became even more luminous as if allowing me one more image to relish my reminiscences with.

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Back home in Mumbai, days eased by in one uninterrupted flow. The rain was pelting down in bursts bringing a refreshed brilliance to the days and the nights were made snug by the warmth of fluffy comforters. Everything seemed revived by the clarity I had acquired from my time away. One afternoon, quite nicely as if on cue, I came across a classic Zen story narrated by Zen master, Fukushima-roshi to acclaimed writer, Pico Iyer. One day, an old man was trying to explain to his grandchild about Jōdo Buddhism, and he said, “In the West — that’s where the Pure Land is!” And the child pointed out that if you go west and west, you go right around the world, and come back round to where you are! In short, paradise is right where we are, if we care enough to pause and look.