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.

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AND SUDDENLY, YOU ARE HOME

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I grew up in a small East-Indian village. It was the perfect place to grow up in – simple, clean and warm; all the things that define home for me. Our house was small, but beautiful. There was a tiny patch right outside the window where mum used to grow roses, petunias, bougainvillea and some herbs. Every week, she would squat down there and get her hands dirty. I did not understand all the effort she put into the activity at the time, but what mum was doing was pulling out the pesky weeds so her precious plants would have a healthy place to grow. When I was older, she explained to me that it isn’t enough to just sow and water; frequent weeding is priority if you want to see your garden thrive.

As autumn rolls into winter, a new wave of optimism surges forth from deep inside me. From the disorienting listlessness of summer to the shedding of fall, it’s an echo of how I alter and amend my own self. The seasons affect me more than I’m willing to admit. The other day, as I walked down the street through a tornado of dead leaves, it occurred to me that this is a time to discard what’s redundant. More than the physical clutter, it’s the mental mess that destroys us. Thoughts, feelings and relationships need the most cleansing. People can either drain you until your veins feel dry or nourish you enough to make your soul sing. This is where mum’s weeding theory came into play. As always, I started drawing parallels. It was time to pull out the weeds and grow.

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Last week I visited Dubai. I was excited to go. Not because of all the glitz and glamour of the place. Even when I lived there for eleven years, those things didn’t dazzle me. Plus, I was always a non-citizen who couldn’t speak more than a couple of Arabic words. What was it that bound me to this desert city then? Why was I always eager to revisit? So when I walked those pavements all over again, the warm breeze seemed to bring the answers to me. It wasn’t about being rooted in any place. It was more about the people and the affiliations. It was about who I became while I was there.

There is a well-known and powerful Maori concept called Turangawaewae. Literally, turanga means ‘standing place’ and waewae means ‘feet’. So it translates as ‘a place to stand’. Turangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our place in the world, our home. And home is always, always where your favourite people are.

My six days and seven nights in Dubai were more beautiful than I can put into words. Every meal I had was shared with people that mattered. Every moment nourished emotions that were precious. Every sunrise brought a new freshness into relationships and every sunset sealed it. Dubai is a shopping destination and although I didn’t shop much, I came back heavily loaded. The experiences and memories were certainly 24 carat solid gold.

On my flight back to Mumbai, I came across this beautiful summation of ‘home’ by K.R.R. that summed it all up: It’s fascinating how we’re taught that ‘home’ is this tangible place, the most simply defined to terms – it’s a house, a postcode, a country. And yet, sometimes home cannot be explained by a street number; sometimes it’s a face, a voice, a laugh more honest and familiar than any truth you have ever known. We’re taught that in its most literal sense, home is where we live and grow. But one day, in the silence that follows nostalgic stories and subsequent laughter, you may realize that you never did more living or growing than when you had certain people by your side. And suddenly, you are home.

So while I’m diligently weeding and picking, I realize that the pure stuff outweighs grime. There’s a sense of euphoric calm in knowing this. I feel grateful for a loving family and a few intimate friends. Maybe I’m a gypsy at heart, but the truth is, home can never be a place to me.  Home is the arms of my beloved, the tender kisses of my daughter, the deep concern in my mother’s eyes, the jibes and laughter of my crazy friends. Now I can say with certainty that I have found my tribe, my ‘standing place’. This is home. This is my Turangawaewae. I hope you find yours.

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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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LAGOM

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Choosing work that makes you show up even if it’s unpaid is what defines your true path.

Life is defined not by apocalyptic moments, but from seemingly diminutive ones that come forth like a whisper and honor who you are. One of my most defining moments came in the September of 2000 – the day I decided to quit my paying job. The choice I made then has gradually gathered significance over the years.

We were expatriates in a foreign land, but it was a good life. Quite honestly, I never felt alien there. Nor did I feel exploited at my work place, as most expatriates do. It’s just that my heart wasn’t in it. I was working for an Iranian family business. They were nice people and treated me well. No late sitting, never a harsh word and authentic Iranian food served for lunch. My love for Chelo Kebabs and Bademjan have stood the test of time. Despite all that, I felt stuck.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. For starters, I was throwing away my financial independence. It meant cutting down on a lot of things. But I was adamant. Too much money was never my goal in life. The Swedish have a word for it – Lagom. It means something like, not too much, not too little, but just right. So I went ahead and did what felt right. In the fifteen years since, I have never regretted my decision. What I gained was way more than what I lost. Among other important things, spending precious time with my daughter was and remains a rewarding revelation in itself.

By then, I was already on my way to discovering my passion – writing. I took up little projects and opportunities that came my way. It didn’t pay me much, but being true to myself and doing that which pleased me was compensation enough. Each day, I was building myself to be who I was meant to be. As opposed to a salary that earlier defined my worth, I was now discovering that my true worth came from the peace and joy that I radiated. Choosing work that makes you show up even if it’s unpaid is what defines your true path. Besides, when you do what you love abundance follows.

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This thought was amplified recently when I visited the slums of Govandi, the dumping ground of Mumbai. It’s a poverty-stricken, crime-riddled place. There is garbage piled sky high, the homes are little more than tin roofs and bare floors, there is never enough food and worst of all, the water supply comes from tankers ‘once a week’. Domestic violence, addictions, rapes and incest are rampant.

In the midst of this ramshackled world, a friend of mine runs a school for the slum kids. These kids come from the lowest strata of society, from below the so-called poverty line. Their stark stories were sordid enough to outdo the dump that bordered their world. But despite all that, there is one thing that went straight through to my heart – the sparkle in their eyes! Their eagerness to study, to move forward, to earn their rightful place in society shone in those beautiful faces. At home, they might be just another pair of hands that rummage through garbage to earn some money. But in that dilapidated building that housed their classroom, they were transformed. Life sprang forth from them like rainbows from a sun-drenched monsoon sky.

Later, as we walked around the ‘basti’, a little girl started following us around like a lamb. Along the way, Nazia slipped her hand into mine. It was a casual gesture but somehow it meant the world to me. It was more than just a holding of hands; it was trust, love and a message. A message that reverberated through my head and has settled into my soul. A message that might unravel in time.

Sometimes the Universe sends us paychecks. And sometimes a huge bonus. I recognized the day as a blessing. As if before I left this world, I was given a glimpse of the pre-requisites of heaven. In a society, where everyone is constantly trying to prove something to the world and is hankering after more and more, I was introduced to selflessness, compassion, empathy and pure love. The teachers and staff who work there come from poor families too. But they look like the richest people in the world. They do not need facials to make their skin glow. They are intrinsically beautiful. Their life is a daily struggle to educate those kids, yet they seem serene. All they seem to want is a little help and support. Not too much, not too little, but just right. Like the Swedish say, ‘Lagom’.

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DRENCHED IN INSIPIDITY

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Back in 1998, I wrote a letter to the editor of a reputed magazine in the U.A.E. It was an emotional response to an article in the previous issue. My letter got picked as the ‘best letter of the week’ and I won a gift voucher of AED 200. That was a lesser victory compared to the call that came through two days later. It was the editor himself offering me an apprenticeship at the magazine. Instead of grabbing the offer with both hands, I hesitated and turned it down. I made excuses saying the current job was more secure; besides I did not have any writing background or qualification. Looking back, it baffles me to think that a stranger had more faith in me than I did myself. He did plant a seed in me though, and true to his word, watered it too by publishing everything I wrote in my free time. But think about the opportunity I kicked just because I lacked faith in my ability as a writer.

We all have stories like this one – of missed chances, things unproven, time wasted, talents buried alive. And it all stems from one thing – lack of faith in our selves. Being a Reiki healer, I now know that our realities stem from all the emotional baggage we heave onto our fragile shoulders as children. What we believe about ourselves, how we perceive the world, our fears and insecurities go back right into the bleak alleys of our childhood.

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Tender minds are easily affected and every word, every gesture is important. As a parent myself, I can see the errors I have made. We can’t really blame ourselves though, because at any given time, we act on our knowledge and experience; we aren’t perfect and mistakes happen. In the words of Oprah Winfrey, “When you know better, you do better.” What’s important is that we grow; there’s always room to grow. Evolution is the best example we can set for our children. If I harp about faith and resilience to my daughter and waste my own talents, I am not doing the right thing.

After years of living a corporate life, my friend Roshin recently dared to swerve off into a totally new direction. She quit her job and started living her dream. It takes courage and self-love to do that. New beginnings come at a cost, but as you go forward and the journey becomes the destination, you realize that it’s totally worth the effort. Our past doesn’t have to define us. We can choose to change. We can let our story show how resilient and adaptable the human spirit can be.

Every morning, I sit at my desk by the window and urge myself to come alive. Some days I stare at blank screens and nothing comes forth. Then there are the inspired, dazzling days when words just come pouring out and jostle for space; when every alphabet dances and my soul is reflected in them. Those are the days when my faith is restored, when the fire is stoked and strengthened, when life feels intense and earnest.

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Today is one of those adequate days. It’s drizzling outside and the breeze is pleasantly cool. The outside world has become a metaphor for the inside world. Monsoon is my absolute favorite season. Everything comes alive and looks so spectacular. I love winter too, but the poetry and romance of raindrops on quivering leaves pulls at my heart like nothing else can. The dust of summertime failures is washed away and new hope glistens. This is the season that makes me want to sparkle. We live drenched in insipidity just because we are afraid to step out of it. It’s only when we relegate fear and pull up our cob-webbed bits of courage and polish them to a shine that things will ever change. Time relentlessly marches forward and seasons change. So why can’t we?

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YOLO LEGACY

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

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

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

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Grandpa using headphones for the first time.

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

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

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

UNBROKEN

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We’re not broken just bent, and we can learn to love again – Pink 

My earliest memory is of a three year old me, sitting by the window in the fading light, waiting for Dad to come home. I never went to bed without saying goodnight to him. He always brought home a little present for me – a small bag of grapes or oranges or a bar of chocolate. Maybe it was the goodies I used to wait for, but I like to believe that we had a strong bond, one that can only be had between a father and daughter. This might be the reason the memory is so vivid in my mind. It was also the best time I had with him; because around then Dad got a job in Kuwait and what we were building one brick at a time collapsed like a house of cards. At the time it was difficult for me to understand his sudden absence from our lives. Like any child, I felt betrayed and confused. At times like these, though it’s no one’s fault, lives are affected beyond repair and the ramifications leave tangible footprints that can never be erased. Time will fill up the deepest gash, yes, but there are always scars. It took me a long, long time to fill up the emptiness, erase the misery and genuinely laugh again.

All these thoughts resurfaced and floated around in my head a few days ago. My thoughts are never in sync, but even then it was strange because I was in a happy place and it was a happy time. My husband and I were celebrating 21 years of togetherness. We had woken up early that morning and like two fuzzy headed lovers, cruised along the highway humming love songs and smiling for no reason. There was a light drizzle, the verdant mountains sprawled lazily and the world seemed incredibly beautiful.

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We got to our destination and checked into a quiet, cozy little room that overlooked the lush greenery and the sea beyond. It wasn’t a swanky place, in fact, it was way too simple, but there was an old world charm to the austerity. As if life was deliberately made unadorned and effortless. We arranged our few things, freshened up and stepped out. The ocean lay just across the road. We ambled along to be met with a gloriously forsaken looking stretch of pale gold sand spread out in both directions, the water gentle and playful in its kissing of the shore. I sat there for what seemed like an interminable time.

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Later in the evening, when the tide was higher, we went back. The day had been replete with moments that deserved a place in my mental scrapbook. It was at sundown, as we sat looking out at the sea, waiting for twilight that those childhood memories came gushing back to me. It was baffling at first. But then I understood. The bricks that had collapsed all those years ago had been picked up over time. Slowly and surely, they had been placed one upon the other; and now life stood weathered but sturdy. All of those early years spent in a state of incompleteness had somehow led me to this moment years later. A moment that felt so complete that nothing could make it more perfect. This is how life comes full circle. When I look back, nothing looks like a coincidence. There is a coherent pattern to how every second moves from one to the other.

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That night we lingered over our meal and talked of random things. We got a little drunk and sang songs in our Spartan room. Without even realizing it, my gash had filled up, my scars had faded and I was unbroken and beautiful. That’s what I like about life. It takes away a lot from you, but if you’re patient and understanding, someday you are blessed with an abundance that takes your breath away.