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.

 

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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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.