THE SILVER OAK

 

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The minute I stepped out of Cochin International Airport, I intuitively knew this was a place that will speak to my soul. Mr. Sudhan, our driver and guide promptly arrived with a wide smile, his appearance as immaculate as the silver sedan he drove. Little did I know then that this man would rule our hearts for the next six days. A walking encyclopedia of not just the history and geography of Kerala, he could discuss any topic under the sun. By the time we reached Munnar five hours later, he had become my Sudhan ‘cheta’, meaning brother in Malayalam.

On the way, he pointed out Adi Shankaracharya’s Keerthi stambha, Kalady, the Periyar river and briefly let us out at the Cheeyapara waterfalls. After stretching my tired back as I got into the car, he handed me a small lime and said, “Madam, scratch the skin and inhale. Zig-zag road ahead. Good for nausea.” When it was time for lunch, we were desperate for the famous roasted beef and Malabar parotas, but cheta politely pointed out that we must stick to light, vegetarian food as our bodies were tired and the road ahead was bad. I was charmed.

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The next morning, we headed for the Devikulam tea gardens. The small village of Devikulam nestles amidst verdant green slopes, the clouds hanging low on the colorful houses and a lovely chill enveloping the entire hill station. On the way, Sudhan cheta started playing some Hindi music to which I strongly protested. “Only Malayalam and Tamil music please, cheta,” I requested. His face lit up and from there on, all the way to the Flower Garden and later the Lockhart Tea Museum, the discussion turned to our favourite music maestros, Illayaraja, Yesudas, SPB, Janaki, etc.  He knew so much about music and movies that it stumped me. At the Lockhart Museum, we learnt a lot about tea, but for me, music remained the highlight of that afternoon.

Later, walking down the Mattupetty bridge in the light drizzle, I met an old woman selling peanuts and fruits. She kept urging me to buy something. “My wallet is in the car, Amma,” I said. She smiled fondly, forced a pack of peanuts in my hand and replied in halting English, “You eat.  Money later.”

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On the first day, Sudhan cheta had told us that Kerala produces 20 varieties of bananas and that every day he would make us taste a couple of them. As he dropped us back to the hotel, he handed us a packet and grinned, “Today, special red bananas.”

The most scenic and beautiful sight was to unfold the following day. Refreshed from a good night’s sleep, we enjoyed the light drizzle on the way to the Ernavikulam National Park. Munnar is full of tea plantations, but the ride through this one, on the way to Rajamala Hills was the most dramatic. As we stepped out at the foot of the hills, the rain stopped as if on cue. The uphill ramble, with the mountain towering on one side and the valley on the other was the most beautiful walk I’ve ever been on. When we stopped mid-way, the view took my breath away. This is what paradise must look like, I thought.

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The fourth day we drove into a dream called, Thekkady. With the quaint Periyar river, the sleepy beauty of the savanna grasslands, the thick deciduous forests and the abundant wildlife, it was the perfect place for a nature lover like me. It is also a heaven for natural spices.

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After wafting for a couple of hours on the glassy river, we went on a spice trail. Our guide, Ms. Sheeba instantly won us over with her knowledge, heavily-accented Hindi and a beautiful smile. By the end of the hour-long tour, we had more information about spices and herbs than our little brains could possibly hold. As we said our goodbyes to Sheeba, she scribbled her name on the brochure and said, “I wrote my name so you’ll always remember me. I enjoyed talking to you because very few people show genuine interest like you did. Come back soon”.  At our resort, there was another spice whiz called Leeba. She took me around the huge estate, pointing at shrubs and trees, rattling off information and generally making a quick entry into my heart. Leeba means love and it is a perfect name for her.

There was more to unassuming Thekkady. That evening we found ourselves in a small, modest theatre watching Kathakali, one of the oldest theatre forms in the world. The performers were excellent with their expressions, mudras and a short mythological presentation. That was followed by Kalaripayattu, a 3000-year old martial arts form, the oldest in the world. We had been tired that day and had meant to skip these shows, but Sudhan cheta insisted on taking us there. Any other man would have enjoyed the free evening, but he was clearly different.  That night I ate little for I was too full of nature, art and love.

With much reluctance, we left Thekkady two days later, to spend the last day in Alleppy. “Cheta, I am in the land of coconuts, and you haven’t treated me to coconut water yet”, I playfully chided. He grinned and nodded. Driving past several tender coconut stalls, he stopped at one. “Only Kerala coconut for you, madam. Best coconut. You’ll know when you taste it”, he boasted. True to his word, the sweet taste of that water was an elixir to my parched throat.

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The main attraction of Alleppy is, of course, the boat ride on the backwaters. I enjoyed the ride, but the real highlight was meeting my Ayurvedic doctor, who I’d only communicated with on phone for the past four years. The graciousness and love he and his family bestowed on us was heart-warming. On the way back, we asked Sudhan cheta how he knew even the by-lanes so well without once using GPS. “GPS in my head, madam,” he giggled.

“One last gift from me pending, madam,” Cheta crooned on the way to the airport. As he made a quick left turn from the highway, the magnificence of St. George’s church left me gaping! It was by far the most beautiful church I have seen in India. Going down on my knees, I offered my gratitude for all the beauty and love that had come my way in that past week. Among all the information Sudhan cheta had shared, one thing came back to me in that moment. Driving through the tree plantations, he had pointed to the tall trees that stood out awkwardly among the neatly trimmed tea plants. “Those silver oaks are planted on purpose, madam. Their roots go deep, hold the soil together and help maintain moisture and nutrients. They also provide necessary shade for the tea plants. Basically, the tea plants flourish thanks to the silver oak.”

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Kerala is called ‘God’s Own Country’ and every place we went to was bathed in pristine beauty and a natural sanctity that made it feel more like a pilgrimage than a holiday. But what has stayed with me is the memory of some wonderful people who like silver oaks held my ground with the warmth of their love, compassion and humor.

 

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50 CANDLES IN HEAVEN

This is a special tribute to an incredible woman who graced my life for a few years and left all too soon. Sometimes, even the briefest of influences impact our whole life. This is one such relationship. Over the past six years, I’ve written her several letters. It is just my way of coping with grief. Today I’d like to share a piece of this unique love with you all. Marie would have been 50 today, and I imagine the heavens might be lit up with 50 candles.

IMG_20180913_16505207 February, 2012.

Dear Marie,

Time slowed down the minute I walked into your hospital room yesterday. The contours of your frail body looked stark against the backdrop of clinically white sheets. But what followed me home was the vacant look in your eyes. It stilled my heart and I felt betrayed. But recognition slowly returned and you whispered, “Looking good”, like you always do when you see me. I have no recollection of my own response because somewhere in the long expanse of those few seconds, time had slowed down considerably.

Later, while feeding bland grains of rice into your reluctant mouth, I thought of all the meals we had cooked and eaten together. Do you remember how I couldn’t handle your spicy food, but gradually got addicted to it? Those flavours, your laughter, our shared dreams and thoughts, they have soaked into my skin.

You were my rock; and now it is I who awkwardly babbles words of encouragement to you. What do I know about your pain? All through it, you sat motionless; then with a sigh you said, “I’m tired”. That was the moment I knew you were giving up. It felt like the setting sun was taking everything with it and we were struggling to breathe.

As I write, I look at the darkness outside and try to understand the one within. Maybe you need to rest. Maybe I should be okay with it. But I forgot to say ‘I love you’, so will you hold on a little bit longer?

R

[Marie passed away on the 9th, before I had a chance to visit her again.]

IMG_20180913_16483927 September, 2015.

Dear Marie,

It seems like another lifetime when we were kissing each other’s flaws, blowing on burning wounds, our laughter spilling the chilled cocktails that you so enjoyed. Or was it just yesterday that we were confiding over kitchen counters, our words falling over each other, flavoring pots of your spiced curries. Time blurs and I lose myself in what was and what could have been. You continue to live in soulful poems, crop up in the lines of tuneful songs, smile from behind flaming orange suns. I step on the shards of my broken memories and the sting takes me back to you. They say closure is found in stillness, but when I try, the silence becomes your voice and it follows me wherever I go.

[Written two and a half years after her passing, on her 47th birthday.]

 

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27 September, 2018.

Dearest Marie,

There is a silence around me as I write; a silence so dense that I can almost touch it. I hear a distant laugh that sounds just like yours, but it halts right outside the window. It’s been over six years and yet there’s an empty space that nothing seems to fill.

Mostly I try to focus on the good memories, but every little pain reminds me of you too.  I have my own little collection of aches and pains now; although they seem ridiculously miniscule to what you went through. I remind myself of how your myopathic heart brought forth your warrior spirit. ‘The best we can do is find spectacular ways of dealing with our tragedies’, you would say. I try to find solace in words; sometimes I curl up inside thoughts and fall into reveries. Most times though, I flow like a river, unimpeded onto my own course, following my covert goals, unconcerned with the world. You always pushed me to be the best version of myself and I think you might have started being proud of me now.

Last week, we stopped by at your resting place and arranged flowers in your memory. The greenery and peace there are so perfect. I recounted how much you had loved my surprise bouquet on one of your birthdays. Maybe I should have sent you flowers more often. Maybe I should have written you letters while you could still read them.  Maybe what they say is right, that regret is stronger than gratitude.

You would have been 50 today and the air would have been redolent with ginger tea, Davidoff, Peach Schnapps and fried chicken. As the evening folds into the night, I shall raise a glass to the sky and whisper, “Happy birthday, Marie”. Surely it’s a myth that people become stars, but darling, twinkle a little brighter if you are one.

R.

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ENDNOTE:

The purpose of sharing these personal letters is just so they serve as a reminder of how we take people and love for granted. Good people are precious. Recognize and appreciate them. Celebrate life and smile a lot. Never say no to love because not everyone will value you and the ones who do will not stick around forever. So love with the wildest abandon while you can. Tomorrow might be too late.

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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LOST TREASURES

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Finding an old friend is like finding a lost treasure

– Anthony D. Williams

Despite the smoldering heat, this summer seems the most vibrant and animated to me. After eleven years of staying abroad, when we had moved back home in 2007, a strange thing had happened. My world had descended into abject melancholy. Funny how it works, you uproot yourself from home and nestle in a foreign land. You work at building a life, make friends, foster ties. But it isn’t really home. So, eventually you decide to move back and then realize that home doesn’t feel like it used to either. It’s abysmal. The days came and went, punctuated by little flurries of some good moments and some mundane ones. Family was supportive and life wasn’t bad, but somehow the laughter didn’t ring true and the heart didn’t flip like it used to.

At some point, my daughter pointed out that like her, I was the ‘dog’ type. We connected home not with a place or structure, but with people. That’s when I realized what I was missing. It was faces I could call friends, voices that would throw swear words at me, laughter that would tire my lungs out. The thought pulled me deeper into the darkness. It wasn’t easy to find people you could connect with. Real, deep friendships can take years to develop.

Life can surprise you though. Our existence is nothing but layer upon layer of histories. And when the tectonic plates shift with built up pressure, relics from the past emerge and new realities are brought forth. Like treasure from the annals of my childhood, old friends reappeared. Amities were restored, magic happened and stardust filled my life.

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I have no interest in keeping up saccharine appearances. No inclination for polished small talk. All I care for is candid conversations and comfortable silences. Those are the kind of relationships that matter to me. So I got the kind of friends I wanted – the frayed, tough, appropriately dorky, cheerful, generous, honest and drama-free ones. They tolerate my crass laughter, endure my dark moods and understand my childlike delight for gifts and glowing birthday cakes. I recognize their idiosyncrasies. We are like derivatives of each other.

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The effervescent presence of my chronically barmy friends has infused my days with a sparkle that keeps me glowing on the darkest of days. They are like the smell of freshly baked bread on sunlit streets – soulful, uplifting and basic. This month I complete eight years of being back home and it finally feels like home. It was also my birth month. So I got my crazy parties, candlelit cakes and mad laughter. It was a grand time. There were stories clinking in sync with the frosty glasses of beer, the wandering in and out of forgotten memories; faces rapt like pilgrims on a pilgrimage. I looked around, my heart swelled up with pride. These were epic, no-gravity moments. I could see that we had put the roots into each other. If ever there was a resplendent time, this was it.

WINDS OF CHANGE

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It was a warm and classic afternoon. I met Rose after 27 years. She was, and still is, one of the most loving people I know. Rose radiates life and joy. Walking into her arms, it felt like walking into a world of warmth and the three decades just melted in our lingering hug. Incessant banter aside, what it came down to was the sparkle in her eyes and the passion in her heart. We met in a bustling food court. The air was filled voices and aromas of cheese and fresh bread. But all of that became a blur; it was just us. Four heads huddled together, laughing, talking and pouring our hearts out.

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Rose is a banker turned social worker. As I sat there hearing her animatedly talk about the school she runs for slum kids and the hurdles she faces each day, the enormity of her mission hit me. It must take a lot of courage to step down from the top of the corporate ladder and walk into a notorious slum. A lot of resilience to wake up every morning and stay true to your purpose. Heaps of goodness to maintain the purity of your heart. Rose is simple woman but to hundreds of people, she is an exquisite, treasured gift.

Life is beautifully complicated and simple at the same time. But it’s good to stick with simplicity and follow your heart. We all have a purpose; it’s only a matter of time plus a little effort, before we find out what it is. As far as life paths go, I’ve been pretty nomadic. There was never any plan, no plot or design. Although a little late, I do realize that when your passion is aligned to your work, magic happens. There are countless writers around the globe. And I’m not trained in what I do; it’s more of an organic thing. So all these years, I thought that there wasn’t much I could offer that someone else couldn’t do better. But then a subtle shift happened and my thoughts changed. It was then that I realized that everyone has a different perspective, a different skill, something specific that only they can offer. It’s a gift that is meant to be given. It is as unique as your fingerprint.

When it comes to inspiration, I always look to the younger generation for fresh ideas. My daughter, Rhea always has a unique perspective on everything and recently she spoke to me about gift-giving. Instead of buying gifts, she encourages her friends to gift her something that belongs to them; that holds a part of them. It’s a beautiful idea. To carry with you a piece of someone you hold dear. I was thinking about this when I met Rose and it struck me that it is be so precious when you gift your art, your skill, your time, your passion to the world.

This is indeed a good time to bring about reform in our daily lives and consequently in the world at large. If you pay attention, you’ll see a significant shift happening around you. It is no coincidence that people are becoming more aware; they want to eat healthy, stay fit, fight for their rights, raise their voices against injustice and work towards a positive change.

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That afternoon, as the four of us parted, I took away with me a piece of Rose and what she stands for. The change that people like her are working towards excites me. Rose is more than just a social worker; she’s a passionate soul. So it’s not her work that defines her; it’s her passion that defines what she does and who she is. Sooner or later, I hope we all find our passion and in doing so find each other and our true selves. There’s hope yet. The winds of change aren’t far away.

THE WAY WILDFLOWERS GROW

wildflowers02It seems like another lifetime when I was standing barefoot in cool spring water, marveling at exotic, virgin wildflowers. They fascinated and inspired me. The way they grew indiscriminately, in random places. The way their beauty shone. And all of a sudden, I wanted to be like that; to grow unforeseen, in ways no one expected. It gave me a vision and I brooded on it for days. As the year comes to a close, I’m revisiting that moment and sharing it with you. Because letting yourself grow is the best New Year’s gift you can give yourself.

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The last post was supposed to be my final one for 2014. But I couldn’t resist another one; a little something to end the year with. It’s just that I’m so full right now. There’s pure joy, genuine appreciation and indefinable eagerness. When you’re so filled to the brim, it’s bound to spill a bit. And, why not?

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Christmas was beautiful as usual. The home was speckled with sounds and smells. My overworked little oven emitted tantalizing buttery aromas that wafted out windows and into corridors. Flour was everywhere, over kitchen counters, under my nails, in my hair. Lights twinkled and magic flowed into every empty space. And then there were the neighbourhood kids. They thronged my living room every evening, essentially for carol practice. But honestly speaking they sang less, jabbered more, squabbled even more. I feigned annoyance and made threats but the truth is they were the balm to my tired soul.

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I love that Christmas comes at the end of the year. The exultation that this season brings just washes away all the tears and pain and disappointments of the months gone by. It’s impossible to feel anything but triumphant and joyous. That’s the kind of sentiment you need to embark upon a brand new year.

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At the end of every year, I like to separate the red, blue, green and yellow blocks, take stock and make plans. But this isn’t a perfect Lego life. And perfect it shouldn’t be. Like my little nephew, Ethan, I just want to fix the pieces together intuitively without thinking too much. Logic can take you from A to B. But intuition can take you anywhere. I read that somewhere. That’s how I want to go forward.

I shall continue to share my victories and failures with you. As I go along, gingerly testing new paths or merrily treading familiar ones, you’re welcome to join me all the way, drop out mid-way or come and go as you please. Together or alone, it doesn’t matter. What matters is this: That like those wildflowers we stay true to our identity. That we grow freely in beauty and joy. That we celebrate ourselves.

Here’s wishing you all a brilliant 2015! Believe fiercely that the best is yet to come.

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HOBO DAYS

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I have turned into a drifter, wandering in and out of sometimes upbeat and sometimes gloriously nonsensical days. The minutes weave into each other and stretch like a never-ending trance, a sort of poetry in motion. There is no structure in the sunlit hours and nothing to confine the nights. Yesterday does not count. What does is the here and now. I love these hobo days.

It’s mid-morning and I can hear nothing but the twittering birds. The decibels of my previously boisterous mind are almost muted. Sporadic thoughts float around and I translate them into prose.

As with any de-cluttering, a lot of stuff has come up while sorting the mind over the past few months; things taken for granted and insights on personal evolution. Important things that remain buried under busyness. Busy mornings, busy streets, busy lives; busyness consumes us. We fence ourselves in, evading, side-stepping, setting up boundaries that shackle our minds and crush our spirits. Boundaries that rein in life’s revelries. So it’s stimulating to become divergent and wander, every now and then, onto untrodden paths.

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In the past few days, I’ve stopped at random and realized I’m happy doing what I’m doing in that moment. I don’t know when the haziness merged with clarity, but it did. The moments that used to be weighed down with languor have now found amity. It must have a lot to do with replacing discontent with delight.  With easiness and acceptance. With being a cerebral drifter.

Last week, my friends and I were loafing around and they mercilessly ragged me about my near-amnesia. I suitably forget all the trivial things that need forgetting but I blank over the vital stuff too! They were talking about pranks played at school, penalties imposed by reprimanding teachers, crushes on classmates and I couldn’t remember a thing. It didn’t really matter; for me the bonding in that moment was more than enough. So I let their laughter wash over me. Later, we hollered through a ridiculous movie, chatted incessantly over a sumptuous meal, looked at the world through each other’s eyes, ignored our worries and watched them melt away. Those are the kind of radiant moments I live for.

I have realized that more than walking a straight line, going off on tangents works for me. There used to be a time when I stayed cooped up in an obscure world of my own. But being outdoors and letting life in has become important. Because when you step out, something wonderful always happens. You see the sunset. You hear the ocean. You chance upon strangers. You stumble onto stories. Minds connect. Hearts unite. Philosophies are shared.

There’s so much to discover. And as you go along, the outside and inside worlds collide. I love the freshness of it all. I love the novelty of my thoughts and feelings. How it all just ebbs and flows over my senses. Colour me quixotic, but gorgeous everyday moments just make living so much better. And in the melange of chaos and order, I catch glimpses of who I am.

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