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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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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THE SWEETNESS OF DOING NOTHING

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As summer uncertainly loiters around spring, I’m already angst-ridden with the severity of it. Even in its nascent stage, summertide  is intense. It unsettles me and my ‘pitta’ constitution goes into aggravated mode. So most often than not, this is the time I experience problems. And the paradox is: this is when I judiciously grow. There’s a futility to knowledge made redundant by unremembered experiences. It’s mortifying the way I recover from a folly, bounce around for a while and gloriously falter again. I veer dangerously off course, little realizing how arduous it can get. And then the restoration begins. Like primeval Italian frescos, the crumbling and the restoring becomes a process year in and year out. Therein lay the beauty of esoteric discoveries that I crave.
One recent evening as I brooded by the window, a sweet and distant memory came back to me. It was a clear night. We were sitting on a log after dinner and a moon-drenched Sheryll was pointing out constellations to me. She chattered on and on, while I leaned onto her bony shoulders just staring in awe. At some point, we zoned out. Everything then receded in the background and all that remained was the magnificent stillness of the heavens. That was the kind of consuming stillness imminent now. I could sense a significant revelation lurking around the corner.
As is wont to happen with me, the reminders started pouring in through memories, books, conversations and movies. I’ve watched ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ at least twice before and read the book as well, but this time around it seemed different. It is strange how every time you watch a movie again (or re-read a book), it throws things at you that weren’t there before. The movie or book hasn’t changed, it’s you and your perspective that has. There is a scene in the movie, where the adorable Balinese healer, Ketut Liyer sums up happiness and balance for Liz: “People in Bali understand: in order to be happy you must always know where you are. Every moment. Right here is perfect balance; right at meeting of Heaven and Earth. Not too much God, not too much selfish; otherwise, life too crazy. You lose balance, you lose power. In morning you do meditation from India, serious, very serious. In day, you enjoy Bali. Then, in afternoon, come see me. An off day you do new meditation, very simple: sit in silence and smile. (….) Smile with face, smile with mind, even smile in liver.” I loved the part about meditating with a smile. Smiling with your liver, no less!  As I eased myself into calming my mind, the heat dissipated and the equilibrium gradually seemed to return.
IMG-20150625-WA0050I covet a slow, disentangled life. Savoring moments so when the journey draws to a close, I have no regrets. Growing up, even in a miniscule two-room house, I managed to cut myself off from the rest of the family on evenings that demanded quietude. Dad had gifted me a cassette player with small red speakers and a Jim Reeves 36 Love Songs collection. I would dim the lights and lose myself in the music. Those were the evenings that sustained me. If not for them, I probably would never have known myself. It’s what the Italians call Il dolce far niente. The sweetness of doing nothing. Or rather as I see it, the sweetness of wallowing in exquisite, quiet moments. Life might not be so simple all the time. It’s hard to participate peripherally, looking in from the fringes like an outsider. Life demands participation.  It keeps throwing up surprises and challenges. It unsettles us. But if we practice Il dolce far niente from time to time, the days can get wonderfully ambrosial.
Busyness is good, until the point it turns into an ailment. “Beware the barrenness of a busy life”, said Socrates. That’s how I see it too. Life feels full and gratifying when there are unconstrained moments scattered about like fallen flowers on a spring day. After four long months of being confined because of my ankle fracture, when I finally felt well enough to resume my walks, I had made up my mind about one thing. That I will never ‘hurry’ anymore. Now as I walk the trail at a leisurely pace, I observe nature. How nothing seems hurried. Nothing has a hyped up goal. Where busyness doesn’t equal status. No lists to tick off while feeling important. Yet everything evolves the way it’s meant to. Quintessentially, it’s all about just ‘being’.  In his book, ‘Busy: How to thrive in a world of too much’, Tony Crabbe puts it thus: “Unless we regain the ability to notice, to savor, we will be sucked ever more into unrewarding and unsustainable busyness.” The question is: Do we want a simple, coherent life or an opulent, frenetic one?
I love another quote from the aforementioned movie: ‘There’s a wonderful, old Italian joke about a poor man who goes to church every day and prays before the statue of a great saint, begging, “Dear saint-please, please, please…give me the grace to win the lottery.” This lament goes on for months. Finally the exasperated statue comes to life, looks down at the begging man and says in weary disgust, “My son-please, please, please…buy a ticket.” The lottery here could be interpreted differently. Like if a genie grants you three wishes, what will you ask for? The materialistic ones will ask for, well, material things; while the sagacious will go for peace, joy and health or something to that effect. Because in the end, aren’t those the things that everything we do boil down to?
I like to tread on life from the outside in. As a kid, I was a good student. Studies were fairly important, but there were other parts, the frills that adorned life, that couldn’t be compromised on. I always had some covert mission going on. In middle school, I kept a diary with detailed descriptions of my most inane thoughts. In high school, the fascination turned to writing derelict poems that no one ever read. In college, the creative expression spilt forth through slapdash paintings. And so on and so forth. All these things never led anywhere, but they defined me in those moments. In my 40s, I’m still that girl, and the edges are what make up my whole. When I first read ‘The Secret’, I understood how things work. What I wanted in my life is what I needed to surround myself with. It was as simple as that.

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As I write these lines perched on my favorite bench in the park, the sun is slowly dipping into the horizon and the ground around me is littered with little yellow flowers. In the subtle outlines of the evening, I find peace, quiet and healing. This is what my heart aches for. This is the gist of my aesthetic journey. This is what ‘Il dolce far niente’ means to me.

 

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THE GIFT OF A SUNRISE

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The first thing I do when I wake up each day is open my heart to the most extravagant show on earth – the sunrise. The progression of darkness into light is the most hopeful thing we can ever witness. It’s like a whole new chance to let go of yesterday and start afresh. “I love that this morning’s sunrise does not define itself by last night’s sunset,” said Steve Maraboli. How amazing if we could just wake up and be a brand new person each day, completely untainted by the past.

March is a season of reflection, of slowing down and pondering over faults and alterations. Every year during this time, I have a tendency to rehash my life; sometimes to good effect, sometimes not. During one of my early morning ponderings recently, I remembered a little episode from school. We were being trained for our high school board exams. During a mock paper, my teacher caught me using the correction pen a little too often. I always had partial OCD, so my paper had to be neat, minus scribbling and errors. It would upset me if it wasn’t so. However, the teacher pointed out that it was okay to just strike out the mistakes and move on. That way I would save time. A complete paper was more important than a neat, but unfinished one. Almost 28 years later, when I thought about that bit of advice, it resounded with a different connotation altogether.

I am not much of a church enthusiast, but sometimes I go and abstractedly sit; just feeling the vibrations and wondering how so much pain, guilt, confusion, gratitude and peace coalesces and fuses into a whole in that place. Decades and decades of emotions forming a tangible web that clings to the walls and ceilings of that one structure. I always wonder what people take away from such an experience. Do they step out, forget everything and stumble all over again? Do they learn from their mistakes and evolve? Do they make amends? My curiosity makes me question everything. But these questions are not so much about others as they are about me. They sprout from my own journey, my personal evolution. The questions keep popping and the answers probably lie in the attempt of uncovering them. We all want to build beautiful, legendary lives. And it serves well to remember that life doesn’t come with a correction pen.

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Quite coincidently, as I was toying around with these thoughts lately, I came across an article on the Native America Navajo tribe and their much celebrated rugs. The unadorned, hand-woven minimalism of the Navajo rugs is art in itself. But the legend that surrounds them is deep. If you look closely, you will find an imperfection in many of the rugs. There are two theories to this. One, that these mistakes are deliberately woven into the rug as a reminder that man isn’t perfect. Then there’s the other theory, the one that resonated with me. It says that although the mistakes might not be intentional, what does seem intentional is the desire not to go back and fix them. Once the mistake is already woven into the fabric, they prefer to leave them there as reminders. When I came across this, the idea set me up for days of thinking and rethinking. Like joining the dots, I connected it to my questions and the episode of the correction pen.

Then a few days later, I happened to be watching the movie, ‘Before Sunrise’. It’s about two young people meeting on a journey and spending the night just walking around town and talking about life and love. The whole movie is a playful but intense conversation between Jesse and Celine. At one point, Jesse says, “…just once, I’d love to see some little old lady save up all her money to go to the fortune teller, and she’d get there all excited about hearing her future, and the woman would say, ‘Um-hmm. Tomorrow, and all your remaining days will be exactly like today. A tedious collection of hours. And you will have no new passions, and no new thoughts and no new travels, and when you die, you’ll be completely forgotten.’ It rattled me a little to think that while we are fretting over what’s passed and toiling over what’s unimportant, our whole life could just turn into a tedious collection of hours. Mistakes be damned! What I needed to do was make the hours count.

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Like every year, this March seems to be a time of transition too. Everything appears to be unpredictable. Each day demands another quantum leap – of faith, of strength, of integrity. What good was a sunrise if I couldn’t pick the one lesson it taught me? Now as the first rays light up the dark sky, I feel more and more inspired to source treasures hidden in unpretentious moments. Bereft of bias, the day seems expansive and uncluttered. In all probability, this must be how we are supposed to show our acknowledgement of the gift. This is most likely how we can honor the ‘Giver’.

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 IMPORTANCE OF BEING BEAUTIFUL

 

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I spent about 15 years of my life thinking I’m seriously flawed. I was the ‘in full acne bloom’ kind of teenager who grows layers and layers of shell to withdraw into. My spotted skin wasn’t really a problem; the way people defined beauty was. But I was too young to realize that. The way they ranted about it appalled me. It was pure sadism the way it was uncaringly pointed out that my beauty was ruined, that my chances of landing a good husband were as marred as my face, that the scars would remain for life. Little did they realize that their lack of empathy would disfigure me more than a skin bump ever could.  For a long time, my self-esteem remained fluid at best. In my late 20s though, it became apparent that there were far more important things than worrying about a mere reflection in the mirror. I often liken this kind of realization to a shifting of the tectonic plates that cause the earth to move. And move I did – from hackneyed beliefs, from narcissism, from who I was expected to be.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to be blessed with people who never let me forget my worth.  My daughter, Rhea is one such person. She doesn’t use words to express her love, but when she hugs, it’s like the ardor of the love gods descending on you! She is without a doubt, one of the most loving people I know. Recently, I received a book in the mail; a surprise New Year’s gift from her. It was an adult coloring book, the kind used for meditative purposes. In choosing that gift she had expressed so much. It was her way of sustaining my creativity, encouraging my growth and in the process simply saying that I matter. To me, that kind of expression is beauty in its most dazzling form.

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In his book, ‘Who Will Cry When You Die?’ Robin Sharma writes about creating a love account. He talks about how our random acts of kindness and selfless acts of beauty can make someone’s day better. He urges us to practice being more loving by making a few deposits in this very special reserve by doing something small to add joy to the life of someone around us. A simple text message asking how someone’s day was, sharing a favorite song, recounting an anecdote or episode, a warm hug, a small little surprise in the mail are little things that say ‘you are loved and appreciated.’ Making at least one person feel worthy should be rated as our best achievement on any given day.

There’s an interesting story about an African tribe that’s been doing the rounds on the internet lately. The identity of the tribe is debatable, but that’s not what I want to talk about. What fascinated me was the story itself. In this tribe, whenever a person misbehaves, he is summoned to the centre of the village. Everyone gathers around him in a circle. Then one by one, each person present speaks to him about all the good he has done in the past. They talk about his strengths, kindnesses and virtues. This ceremony stems from the belief that we are all inherently good, but sometimes we make mistakes. The tribe sees those mistakes as a cry for help. By reminding him of all his goodness, they reconnect him to his true, pure self. In my last post, I recounted how my teacher, Mr. George proved that faults are best corrected by love. This story corroborates that belief. How beautiful it is that someone reminds you of your wholeness when you’re broken; your beauty when you feel ugly.

One particularly enlightening lesson came to me from a friend recently when he referred to me as a ‘kasturi-mriga’ or musk deer. When this particular deer catches wind of the alluring aroma of musk, he rambles on in pursuit of its source. The poor soul doesn’t realize that the sweet fragrance resides nowhere but in its own navel. At a forlorn moment that little reminder lifted me out of my despondency. We are quite often like the kasturi-mriga, searching without for what is all along lying within.

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As I open myself up to life, the meanings and lessons become more discernible. Every morning I wake up in anticipation of what lies ahead and as the day draws to a close, I deliberate over the significance of what ensued. My favorite realization is that there is so much yet to learn, but some things I am certain of. I am clear about my vision of beauty and uphold the importance of being beautiful. I am convinced that beauty is not about how you look. It is about courage and smiling through your tears. It is being there for someone who needs you, listening to a friend who is pouring their heart out even if you yourself are broken, making people feel like they are not alone. Kindness is beautiful. Love and empathy is beautiful. Being authentic is beautiful. Unfolding and evolving is beautiful.

THAT THING YOU DO

 

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Mr. George, my English teacher in junior college, once caught me reading a novel discreetly placed under the desk during one of his lectures. Instead of reprimanding me, he casually asked to see what I was hiding. “That’s a great book you’re reading,” came the soft remark, “but I’d appreciate if you continue with it after class.” I was thrown by his tact and kindness; needless to say I never read during class again. He proved that faults are best corrected by love. Once a week, Mr. George would conduct ‘rapid reading’ sessions in class and he invariably picked me as the female lead each time. That was his way of acknowledging and encouraging my love of books. At the time, I did not really understand how deeply words affected me and had no clue I could write. I just reveled in them because they made me happy.

I first fell in love with words at age five when Dad got me a copy of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. It was a beautifully illustrated book and took me to places I had never dreamed of before. I realized that there was a whole wide world beyond the one room house I lived in. It opened up infinite and offbeat possibilities. Sometime during middle school, I discovered a small library. It was a 15 minute walk from my home. Getting a membership card there was a big deal and I treasured it like it was a ticket to paradise. Sure enough, the tiny store did turn out to be my wonderland where I lingered among the piles of vanilla scented books every once a week.

Years later, when I discovered my flair for writing, it all went back to those sun-drenched words on interminable summer afternoons. It’s weirdly aberrant that one should take that long to discover what is innate to their soul, but better late than never. “People are strange. They are constantly angered by trivial things, but on a major matter like totally wasting their lives, they hardly seem to notice,” wrote Charles Bukowski, a very influential German-born American writer. A jarring thought, isn’t it?  Now when people ask me what I do, and I say ‘I’m a writer’, they seem suitably impressed. They want to know how I found my passion. “I didn’t really find it, it found me,” I say. It’s true. I never planned on being a writer. It’s just an extension of my love for words.

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Discovering what you like isn’t all that hard. Like kids being led by nothing but curiosity, you just go about doing whatever interests you.  If you like it you pander to it, if not you stop.  In my late 20s and all through my 30s, I dabbled in a lot of things. I signed up for drawing classes, took music lessons, enrolled for dance class, took precisely six swimming sessions, learnt yoga, reiki, tarot, finished a creative writing course and later a songwriting course. Believe me, your heart sings when you do something you like. So no one can say they don’t know what their passion is. All you have to do is pay attention. And then prioritize.

“So, do you earn from your writing?” comes the next question. But really, when it comes to passion, it doesn’t have to be your source of income. You can still continue with whatever you are doing and use your free time to do what you love. If you’re lucky you might hit gold and start earning from it; if not, you still have the satisfaction of not having given up on the one thing that you adore.

I first signed up for a creative writing course when I was working a 9 to 5 job. My daughter was about five years old. On my way back from work, I would pick her up from day care, stop at the grocery, go home, tackle the housework and end up exhausted at the end of it all. The only time I found in my chaotic day was my lunch break. So I would shut myself in one of the conference rooms for an hour and work on my assignments. Or I would read. The point is, when you truly enjoy something, you find time no matter how crazy your schedule.

During a conversation with a talented painter friend recently, I asked why he doesn’t paint anymore. He said he has no time. What I heard was this: That he is denying himself the one thing that defines him. The one thing that can restore him from anarchic days.

Jes Allen summed it up beautifully when she said, “That thing that you do, after your day job, in your free time, too early in the morning, too late at night. That thing you read about, write about, think about, in fact, fantasize about. That thing you do when you’re all alone and there’s no one to impress, nothing to prove, no money to be made, simply a passion to pursue. That’s it. That’s your thing. That’s your heart, your guide. That’s the thing you must, must do.

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As for me, I love a lot of things. But the one activity I plan my day around is reading. It’s my absolute favorite thing to do. As I write this, I’m eyeing the pile of books that have arrived in the mail this week. I can’t wait to pull up a chair by the window, bask in the muted warmth of the winter sun and let my next read inordinately color my world.

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

MICHELANGELIC

When I was in school, someone gifted me a kaleidoscope. I remember being quite enamored by the uniqueness of the toy.  The science behind it escaped me at the time, but the fascination lasted for quite a while. If you think about it, all a kaleidoscope contains is angled mirrors and little bits of colored objects. But the patterns alter depending on movement, and light that infiltrates through the other end. That’s how life is too – little things coming together to form patterns. But what’s important is to ‘let the light in.’

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Of late, my words are slow to come. I go from staring uncomprehendingly into voids to thinking too much, thoughts either stagnant or interlacing and threatening to gush out in torrents. I’ve been aching for serenity, for unflustered reflections and deliberate actions. For a culmination of the bipolarity of my two selves – one that finds the exotic in the ordinary and the other that looks for familiarity in the unknown. I long to step out of the dark and find my own radiance.

As November moved forward, I started yearning more and more for a throwback to calm days. Days when I could sit still and luxuriate in nothing but my own skin. My yoga days which were history now, beckoned to me. So I pulled out my blue tattered mat and tried to meditate. Meditation is unbeatable in its simplicity, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s easy. Thoughts cascade and hurtle across like an avalanche over you. A few days into it and things start getting better; until you reach a point where everything stands absolutely still.

Life is always a work-in-progress. You build some and crumble some. And sometimes, you have to assemble yourself from scratch.  There’s much to learn from every experience and every person you encounter, even toddlers. Recently, I teamed up with my three year old nephew, Ethan in a bid to encourage his new passion – coloring. It was surreal, the way we bonded over rhythmically moving crayons, not just with each other, but with our own selves. And just like that I discovered a new way to meditate.

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I don’t believe in coincidences, so a couple of days later, when my daughter introduced me to Mandala coloring pages for adults, I knew there was a connection. This was a new bridge to cross. An opportunity to deconstruct and interpret pre-determined notions. As I poured color into the intricate designs, it was like creating a self-portriat, understated and pure. Mandala which means ‘circle’ in Sanskrit is a spiritual symbol representing the universe. A simple geometric shape that has no beginning or end, much like space or our own abiding souls. I loved the purity of the experience. Whatever the endeavor, our triumphs depend on our openness to receive and grow from it.

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Life is fickle; proof of it was the November rain that poured out of unrelenting skies onto bewildered heads two nights ago. It’s amazing if you’re prepared for such impulsiveness, like some people who actually walked under umbrellas. If not, it does well to go with the flow and enjoy the pandemonium. That’s how the kaleidoscope of life works. That is how the light gets in. So we, my daughter and I, got home drenched and made quite an evening of it with hot baths, a couple of drinks, steaming food, an animated exchange of stories and an old classic on the television. Evenings like that are ephemeral and not to be wasted. They’re like visiting old childhood haunts that leave one replete.

So at the end of all the meditation, whether it was by sitting still or decanting color into monochromatic patterns, valuable realizations emerged. That there is a season for everything. For rushing around and for slowing down. That self-discovery can come from the most inconspicuous of experiences. That once we let the light in, life can be beautiful from every angle. All we need to do is relentlessly work at discovering our real selves.  When Michelangelo was applauded for the magnificence of David’s statue, all he said was this: “David was always there in the marble. I just took away everything that was not David.” This is what Shifrah Combiths describes as ‘Michelangelic’ – the beauty that’s left when everything that doesn’t belong is chipped away.

WABI SABI LIFE

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Mrs. Iyer and I met quite by chance. Her weathered face and kind eyes drew me to her right away. There was something about this woman that spoke to me; as if she was about to tide me over impending storms. It was the summer of 1999; a despondent phase which had taken me to a different kind of solitude.

People who know me are familiar with my largely erratic memory. It’s as if my cortical cells possess an innate, almost psychedelic sense of humor. So large chunks of data go missing without notice, and I can never recall things in tandem, but I do have visions from the past that can seem like they happened yesterday. That is how I recall my time with Mrs. Iyer, whom I eventually started calling ‘paati’ which means grandmother in Tamil.

A few months after our first meeting, I quit my job thus freeing up my evenings, many of which I chose to spend with paati. I had friends my age, but my time with her somehow seemed sacred. Paati had a lot to share about her animated life with her husband, their travels together and her recent loneliness after losing him. She was like a treasured book that I wished would never end. Our conversations spanned entire lifetimes, delved deep and colored our senses mirroring the purple-orange sunsets of the Middle-Eastern skies. Our silhouettes in the fading light must have looked weird and wonderful at the same time; a fusing together of the old and the new. Paati taught me about impermanence, imperfection and how to embrace bits of our life that remain unfinished. Above all, she taught me to embrace my flaws and appreciate myself.

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There’s a Japanese philosophy which preaches much the same thing. They call it Wabi-Sabi. It is the art of finding beauty in blemishes and depth in earthiness. It is about going for the natural and authentic. About celebrating the cracks and crevices that time leaves behind. Wabi Sabi makes us see beauty in the dilapidated and ugly.  Although on the surface, it seems to be about physical things, this philosophy runs way deeper than that. It is more about a state of mind, a way of being. As we move forward, the idea of abandoning ‘perfect’ and accepting the scars and the laugh lines seems increasingly prudent. Simplicity seems more appealing than forged exactness. This kind of shift can be truly liberating, and there’s more than just beauty in that. There is freedom.  If we can quieten our mind enough to appreciate the muted beauty in our lives and find the willingness to accept things as they are, we are well on our way to practicising Wabi-Sabi.

Three years ago, I blew my big Four-O candles. Right around then, I’d started noticing the deepening lines on my face and the puffiness under my eyes. A lot of grey strands were showing up in my hair. I playfully started calling them my ‘wisdom highlights’. So while women around me spent hours in salons hiding their greys and getting spa treatments, I chose that time to introspect and hone my skills. I figured that if I had something worthwhile to do as age crept up – a gratifying hobby or skill that I could share with the world, then that would hold me in better stead. As one year folds into the next, I am glad about that decision. If I fail at something, instead of berating myself, I relax and try something else. That to me is ‘looking life through the wabi-sabi lens.’

In nature, everything is transient. A week ago, when the last of the Ganesha idols were being immersed, a discussion about its significance ensued over our evening tea. There are multiple theories about it, but one that interested me was this. The idols initially were made out of the clay that formed on the river beds. After the celebrations were over, those idols were returned to the water and left to dissolve back into the river. I thought about how this relates to our lives. And it became even more apparent for me to celebrate the time I have here. To nurture relationships and build a life that I can be proud of. To embrace growing older gracefully and joyfully. As Eleanor Roosevelt put is so correctly, “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.”

As for my dearest paati, I regrettably lost touch with her over the years. But her parting gift – a vintage bell, still hangs from a single nail on my bedroom wall. It is a reminder of the kind of person she was and the kind of person I wished I’d eventually be. Earthy, ordinary and unapologetically beautiful in my own way.

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