UNPLUGGED DAYS

IMG_0420

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.

IMG_0421

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.

IMG_0425

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?

IMG_0427

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.

IMG_0394

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.

 

Image result for green leaf clip art

 

Advertisements

NO RESOLUTION YEAR

dec1602

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.

judge

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!

 

dec1601

 

 

 

 

 

 

MISTY MEADOWS

 

IMG_20160708_093640384_HDR

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.

IMG-20160708-WA0006

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.

IMG-20160708-WA0014

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.

IMG-20160708-WA0017

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.

Image result for GREEN LEAF FLOURISH

WANDER MORE OFTEN

_20160506_151712When we first arrived at my aunt’s place on B.C. Road, it was a clear, sunlit morning. As we wandered around the grounds surrounding the house, I marveled at how verdant it all looked. Rows of swaying coconut palms, mangoes dangling from overburdened trees, the nonchalant munching of the cows, the raucous cackling of the chickens; it was all very nice. But the real fascination for me came after night fell. Life stilled to a whisper, except for the chirping of the nocturnal crickets and the warm glow of fireflies. I perched myself on the low wall that marked the boundary, just sitting there in the twilight, my whole being alive and one with the magnetic silence of the balmy darkness. It’s only when a panicked search party came looking for me that I realized I’d been sitting there for over an hour. It was an allegorical night and later in bed, I remember jotting down three words in my journal: Wander more often. Pretty insightful for a 14-year-old, I daresay.

Recently, a Facebook post on spin tops triggered the above memory. I’ve always been fascinated by this humble toy but never been good at actually making one spin. But now I started thinking about the mechanics of it. The way it spins and the motion of which causes it to remain perfectly balanced on its tip because of inertia. The balanced languor of that inert night in an otherwise rapidly spinning world was quite akin to the spin top theory.

When my yoga teacher taught me meditation a few years ago, this is what he had said: “Relax and breathe. Watch your thoughts as they come and let them go. Be the passive outsider. Eventually you will reach a point of total clarity. That’s when you will feel awake”. In the words of Jigar Gor, “Yoga is not about touching your toes, it is what you learn on the way down”. This is exactly what my guru was trying to teach me. Clearly, ‘awakening’ is not limited to ten minutes in a lotus position. You come to your yoga mat to feel, not to accomplish. His words resound in my mind now with a fortified meaning. Meaning that extends to all of life. Now as I lie wide awake at nights, I realize that somewhere along the way I seem to have relinquished all that I’d learnt. Balance begs to be restored. Lost ideas float around like confetti in the brain. These aren’t the delusions of an insomniac mind but colossal blunders that needed to be dealt with.

_20160506_151730

Like any child, growing up I’ve had my moments of open-mouthed wonder. One such event was a magic show I attended. Gaping at the magician’s every trick, I was drawn into a kind of parallel universe. It was like moving in and out of real and magical worlds all at once. The experience was beyond anything I’d experienced thus far. The witnessing of such a feat was to me, nothing short of a gift. But the actual gift was hidden, lost in translation and too nebulous for an infantile mind to comprehend. I’ve tried a lot of stuff since but it’s only now, well into my fourth decade, that I grasped the full meaning of an idea that seemed simple enough to be radical.

All the yoga and meditation had so far come to naught just because I had missed one little point – Unmitigated letting go. I had assumed that my guru wanted me to let go of the negative thoughts, but now I realized that he hadn’t really specified that. How radical! Our minds (and thus our lives) are like that magic show. It’s all about perception. What we believe becomes real.

Quite suddenly, ‘being in the moment’ took on a new meaning. It takes a bit of effort and courage to peel away the layers that have gathered over time. And unless you’re Archimedes, it’s certainly never a mind-blowing eureka moment in a bathtub when you finally discover what really works. It’s an uphill climb with constant landslides that hurl you back where you began.

FB_IMG_1456339794327

As is slowly becoming evident, I’m certainly not as utopian as my poetic temperament indicates. When there is an inherent need to put every idea into practice and make it work, the flotsam of idealism ploddingly gives way to sparkling reality. The mental back and forth, the search for experiences, the spiritual connections, the craving to taste life turns one into a nomad without ever traveling much. You grow adept at ruminating with your eyes wide open. Not unlike the cow in my aunt’s barn who chewed on its cud all day long, the crunch of impassioned musings can keep you going most times.

As I step into my 45th year, the physical journey moves in tandem with the spiritual one. Regardless of the maturity that comes in spurts, life doesn’t cease to be ambivalent. Even then, with each passing year, I come closer to my inner nomad. And for that I am eternally grateful. The lack of ostentation in a nomadic life appeals to me. For a nomad, even a stationary one, the truth is not really in the wandering, it is in the ‘unmitigated letting go’.

THE SWEETNESS OF DOING NOTHING

_20160323_104534_20160323105009235 (1)
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.

IMG_20160322_183814325_20160323073020353

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.

 

flowers

 

THE GIFT OF A SUNRISE

 IMG-20141119-WA0010

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.

IMG-20160313-WA0027

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.

IMG-20160313-WA0009

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

IMG-20160224-WA0014

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.

IMG-20160224-WA0020

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!

dubai park

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.