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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UNTAINTED RHYTHM

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To many people holidays are not voyages of discovery, but a ritual of reassurance

– Philip Andrew Adams

April lingered. It was a protracted month with hours that just stretched and stretched. The heat was rabid and sweat clogged my pores. Just as I was about to dissipate, a long weekend happened. We got into our cars and drove, from smooth highways onto rugged dirt roads. I am not big on road travel, especially on hot days when you can’t roll down the windows. It makes me nauseous and irritated. At the end of three hours, tired and somewhat lost, we had begun to curse under our collective breaths. Just then, as if on cue, we arrived and a slow smile spread across my face. There were mountains in the distance, rough backwoods and country soil beckoning to me like a mother’s arms. There are places where you exist. Then there are places that call out your name.

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Those two days were metamorphic on some level. Cellular, spiritual, I am not really sure. But as I wandered around the wilderness and watched the sun set, a kind of slow mutation happened. I let myself be mesmerized, the orange-purple sky lighting up my eyes, the breeze messing up my hair, the voices of loved ones coming as if from a distance, but soothing nonetheless. In the glow of a moonlit sky, we walked back, the bone-dry ground warm under our feet. Later at night, we sang and laughed until our voices were sore. We got intoxicated on food that tasted like the earth. It was surreal and ordinary at the same time.

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The next morning, I woke up revived and with a single-minded purpose – to watch the sunrise. My two partners-in-crime were waiting in the pre-dawn shadows. We ambled along the dusty path slightly out of breath, the red earth staining our shoes, making sure we carry the grains of that soil with us to reminisce later. The sloping knoll covered in a fine mist looked like a Van Gogh painting. We were early or maybe the sun was just teasing us, but we waited patiently to birdsong, as one waits for a bride. And then it came out, peeping at first and suddenly all at once. Our hearts dazzled with its beauty. And time stood still. The wonder of life could be summed up in those few suspended moments. It was untainted rhythm.

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Sometimes, it becomes important to briefly depart from reality, to step away from the blur of a city life. It’s not escapism. It’s just finding an unusual backdrop to adjust our vision. A different sun to light our minds. Rolling hills to balance our hearts. An uncommon breeze to lift the dust from our cobwebbed lives. A deliberate slowing down to regain lost strength. A reminder on how to live minimally in awareness, to enjoy meals served with love and appreciate all that is humble and unpretentious.

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That day, as we prepared to leave, I noticed something. The pieces of me that had come undone were healed again. An unsullied joy had filled up all the cracks and I looked ready with a radiance that was enough to carry me through another storm. It’s only when I find something that puts me back together that I realize I’ve been missing it. That I’ve been waiting for it. That without it my light wouldn’t be the same. Uncertainty still looms over my world, but I choose to ignore it. In this moment, I am full. For now, I am replete.

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THE YEAR I MET ‘ME’

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 “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” – Rumi

I’ve been so busy emoting out loud and unraveling my stories that I might have missed the in-between silences. I spent so many hours dressing up my words that I’ve ended up in a state of undress. It isn’t easy to bare your soul to the world; it’s in fact, the ultimate kind of nakedness. But I’ve grown to love the novelty of it. I love the shedding of inhibitions and the unshackling of self. You put one foot in front of the other and at some point a whole journey is made. It’s a cartload of crazy, but this is my emancipation. This is how I like it.

As I take a moment to untie the knots that were formed, little lessons fall out. But there’s one message that trumps every other. That if you believe in yourself, there will come a day when others will have no choice but to believe in you. After a whole year of discovering, questioning, learning and sharing, today my baby, ‘THE MIND DECLUTTER PROJECT’ turns one. It’s a milestone worth celebrating. This space was born out of holding onto splinters when the waters were raging; when I felt like the storm would leave me ravaged. Slowly and surely, I seem to have found my way to the golden shore.

When I made my first post, I did not anticipate the cloudburst – of encouragement, of gratitude and most importantly, of love that was to come my way. The love that I have received because of this space is sacred. Nothing compares to it. A lot of people have, silently or vociferously, shared this ride with me. As much as they have learnt about me, I have discovered them too. It’s such a blessing to be invited into people’s lives, to be allowed to roam their world. I love the familiar as well as the foreign. So thank you to all of you who read my words, acknowledge my work and support this space. I wholeheartedly appreciate it.

When I meet people, a lot of them tell me that they read each one of my blog posts and like my work. But they hesitate to comment because they don’t know what to say. I want you to know that even one word is enough to make my day and to encourage me. So please comment/acknowledge. And should you enjoy what you read, I’d love it if you share it on your social media networks. But whether you do or not, I’m still grateful.

Although I started off on a quest of clarity, my work eventually gave me back a lot more. I became more than what I do. I became a reflection of the people who love me and whom I love back. I became my wavering thoughts and altered feelings. I became a mirror to other people’s feelings. And if I keep sharing all of it and think it matters, it’s because I truly believe that our unadorned lives and our modest legacies matter in the greater scheme of things.

I have no clue of where I’m headed; there’s no checklist whatsoever. I’m not a planner. I just trust that things will work as I go. As of now, the journey and the destination seem to have merged. But I know that wherever I go, will be where I’m meant to be. Meantime, the biggest gift this blog has given me is the ability to live a full life. To appreciate everything and everyone around me. To live in awe of every mystery, big and small. It has given me strength, resilience and freedom. And blissfully abundant days. There’s much to celebrate and miles to go.

Once again, I’m thankful to all who fly with me. May we be the wind beneath each other’s wings.

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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.

LIKE BIRD WINGS

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Your hand opens and closes, and opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralysed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two beautifully balanced and coordinated as bird wings. – Rumi

One evening, as I walked back home from church, I decided to take a different route. It stirred up a dormant awareness; one that I’d always tried to maintain but had somehow settled into the oblivion of a bored life. Sometimes, a simple act can give you a fresh perspective. All at once, there were new things to discover, different people to observe. It made me more watchful and focused. A week later, my new found sense of adventure still intact, I tried a third route and hit a dead end. I walked back, lost for a while, until triumphantly discovering a little by-lane that led me home. I liked this route the best. There was a row of pretty houses lining the street and friendly people sitting on patios. They smiled as I passed them by and it was like being part of their lives, if only for a moment. This is how life is too. There are so many paths, so many experiences. Sometimes, there are crossroads and sometimes the road seems to lead nowhere. But life is brilliant and there are no blind alleys, no dead ends. Only experiences and escapades that beckon and entice, if only we pay heed.

In the book, ‘Manuscript found in Accra’, Paulo Coelho writes: “And to those who believe that adventures are dangerous, I say, try routine: that kills you far more quickly”. It’s true. Moreover, adventure does not necessarily mean bungee jumping or mountain climbing. It can be anything that excites you, gives you a different take on life and helps you reinvent yourself. It can be as simple as tapping a different side of your personality, like a friend of mine who volunteers as a social worker in her spare time. It could be indulgent like learning something new. Or simple like reviving an old hobby. For a person who walked into book stores just to get drunk on the smell of books, it was mortifying that I hadn’t read a book in months. So I picked up one and in the musty vanilla scented pages, I unearthed vision, fantasy, imagination and somewhere in between, a part of myself. So welcome anything that takes you away from routine. There are new paths, so to speak, that beg to be wandered into. Once you find what floats your boat, the days don’t seem jaded anymore.

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So, as I move from structured days to the more fluid ones, I see how the hours shape me. Sometimes, I’m diligently ticking off my to-do list and at other times I’m like a languorous nomad. The former cannot be ignored, but it’s the latter I crave and thrive on. Those are the moments I like to taste and smell and soak in. When we’re caught up in the repetitiveness that defines our daily life, we tend to forget what it feels like to live in these unhurried moments.  Once you slip into insipidity, life is nothing but a series of chores that need to be attended to. You wake up and go about like an android doing what is required. And the minutes just speed by, the sun sets and you curl up in a heap of exhaustion. You lay on your bed, your mind unfeeling, the television a blur of images. That’s when it’s time to set up the equilibrium; because what might appear as indulgence is actually a compulsion to maintain sanity.

It’s good to wander in and out of known and unknown lanes. And as you do so, you feel ready to take a quantum leap from an indiscriminate life. That diminutive effort is enough to lift you out of ordinariness and make you soar. So much so, that you’d never want to go back to a lackadaisical life.

A JAR OF FRAGMENTS

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The past few days have been pretty unreal. It’s a post-holiday season break for us, if such a thing exists. Every morning, we rise and let life happen. Most days, we’ve lingered over gratifying meals, caught early morning movie shows, returned home to lazy afternoons and whiled away the evenings nattering with the kids. Considering that New Year’s Eve was spent eating Chinese takeout and watching television in bed, while others partied and grooved under disco balls, I think this little romp around town kind of makes up for it. So yeah, we haven’t let the novelty of a new year pass us by without a celebration of some sort. Not that the first day of the year wasn’t eventful. There were neighbors and family jostling around and clinking glasses. There was easy camaraderie. And later, a warm meal topped with idle banter.

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Just yesterday, we were cruising along the highway, on our way to lunch outside city limits. As I looked out the car window, riveted by the view, it struck me that this is how our lives move. Moments that seem all-important become blurry within no time. In the end, it’s just fragmented memories. But I’m a collector and like the jar of coins I keep by the door, there’s one where I hoard the memories too, fragments and all. On days when there’s nothing to do and not much to look forward to, I bring out the memory jar, fiddle around with the images and draw some hope. And with it the optimism returns, with a raw, renewed energy.

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I’d been taking off on flights of fancy every now and then the past couple of years. But somewhere, sometime, I started climbing into the reveries and living in them. A few things got done last year, but there’s quite a mountain left to scale yet. I’ve been toying around with the idea of a food blog. There are piles and piles of recipes on my bookshelf and in my kitchen drawers. It should happen soon enough. Everything takes time and for someone like me, getting warmed up to anything, be it people, places, change, ideas takes exceptionally long. But once that’s done, I embrace fully.

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Our little slob around is coming to an end. Another couple of days we shall loiter and then the monotony will return. Order will prevail on most days, but it’s the chaos I shall look forward to. In the depths of chaos, I always find harmony. Hidden in imperfections, I always find excellence. The disarray is what leads me to lucidity. For the less chaotic days, there’s always the jar to go back to.

This is how the days unravel. This is how my new year begins in earnest.

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