THE PLACE TO BE

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When I was about five, mum wanted to sign me up for dance lessons. Too inhibited by the suggestion, I said I’d go only if my friend, Sheryll went with me. The matter ended right there. For a good many years after that, the pleasure of grooving to music remained alien to me. During my final year of college, my friends coerced me to participate in a group dance and it occurred to me that dancing was indeed fun. Even then, it was only after I married an amazing dancer that I actually discovered my own rhythm. Living abroad as a young couple, we hosted and attended a lot of dance parties. It was a carefree, fun phase and we made the most of it.

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Over a decade later, we moved back home and our social life plummeted. The focus was more on family and readjusting to life in Mumbai. We settled into an unremarkable routine of Sunday lunches and the occasional dinner and movie outing. I sorely missed the night life we had previously enjoyed; the thrill of live music, the unrestrained boogieing and the light-hearted friendships forged across bar counters and dance floors. Suburban Mumbai did not have that kind of zing for me.

One night, about a year ago, we walked into a new bar in the neighborhood. It looked fine, the food was decent and the DJ was playing some good tunes. At least, there is music to my liking, I thought. A few weeks later, they introduced weekend live shows and boy was it music to my ears! Wish they had a dance floor, I whined. Around 10.30 PM, we could hold ourselves no longer and stood up to dance in the gaps between tables. Like a miracle, the staff pushed around some furniture and a dance floor appeared! Soon the other diners joined in and we had a blast! That night B-103 climbed to the top of my weekend list. Their tag line: ‘The place to be’ seemed perfect to me.

I’ve been to a lot of bars and restaurants, but nothing beats B-103 for me. It’s not just the music and dancing; that might be available elsewhere too. I believe it’s always the warmth and mood of a place that touches hearts, be it a home or a restaurant. The owners with due support from their staff have weaved a magical web that draws people in. The affability with which we are greeted by everyone (not just the owners and managers, but even the servers who are assigned to other tables), the sincere passion with which we are served, the fact that the musical tastes of patrons are mindfully catered to, the generosity of spirit and the family-like ambiance cannot be contained in words. The only way is to reciprocate.

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It is imperative to mention here that this was a time when I was hitting rock bottom. Personal challenges had left me feeling vertiginous. But each time I stepped into B-103, I forgot everything and life flowed through me, leaving me energized. Soon we made friends, some of whom are now like family. Just being with them, banging tables to the beat and dancing with abandon has become my therapy. Dancing, without being self-conscious, is the best moving meditation for anyone who finds it difficult to sit still. It is a natural and universal way to express our joy. Just watch a child dance and you’ll agree.

There is a term in Sanskrit ‘Rasasvada’, which loosely translated means ‘the taste of bliss in the absence of all thoughts.’ Most of us are living life in a blur, chasing things that don’t really matter in the bigger scheme of things. At some point, we must stop and find our own ‘Rasasvada’.  As I go from one day to the next, I realize the importance of a hearty social life and wholesome relationships that allow me to be myself. I discover the irreplaceability of laughter and joy. Like Sadhguru says, “If you are at all concerned about the world, the first thing you need to do is transform yourself into a joyful being.”

 

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A CASE FOR LOVE

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February arrived like a co-conspirator of romance. It’s a refreshing month that softens the soreness of splintered January resolutions. This year, the Mumbai winter with its constant flirtatiousness has added to the mushiness. Interestingly, when it comes to romance, I’ve been intrigued by my own paradoxical behavior. I write dreamy poetry drenched in adulation, but ask me to define love and I’m suddenly lost for words. With so many dimensions to it, it’s an emotion that’s hard to capture in a mere sentence.

Let’s begin with the wider picture. Just last week, Pope Francis became the first pontiff to visit the Arabian peninsula. The visit was in conjunction to UAE’s celebration of the Year of Tolerance, as declared by H. H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE.  Members of my family were fortunate enough to attend the ceremony and receive his blessing in person. What stood out for me though, was the deference and liberalism displayed by the hosts. Having lived in the UAE for over a decade, I can vouch for the open-mindedness of the rulers of this beautiful country. While religious strife continues to tear apart humanity, such gestures of acceptance underline the basis of love as taught by every religion known to mankind. This is a facet of love that needs urgent resurrection in these troubled times.

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There is a beautiful motto: ‘Love for All Hatred for None’ coined by the third spiritual leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Nasir Ahmad (ra). Like Pope Francis, he upholds humility as the key quality that can ensure mutual love. He explains how Islam means ‘peace’ and it is only with mutual love and understanding that its principles can be upheld. I do not know much about them, but from what I’ve gathered the Ahmadis strive to be a living example of their motto.

We all hanker for peace and harmony, but are we adding to the mayhem without even realizing it? Stop for a minute and think of all data you’ve shared and received on social media. Add to that the drawing room debates and chat room arguments. Think about how your direct or indirect participation can cause ripples that have far-reaching consequences. ‘Thoughts become things’, it’s true. Why not stop re-hashing the same stories of dirty politics or religious disparities and focus on how we, as individuals can make a difference? Why not direct our energy to the people around us? Do we even know what is going on in our own homes? Do we have the inclination to have real and personal conversations with our spouses, our children, our parents, our neighbors, our friends? Personal love extends into universal love; that’s the connection I’m trying to make.

My daughter often laments that her generation has become so commitment-phobic that it’s difficult to find someone you can trust. Why have people developed a fear for a simple and beautiful emotion like love? It’s true that real love needs courage; it needs us to go past our egos and open our hearts. It involves caring, consideration, passion and investment. Is that so difficult? Does the need for detachment and impersonal love come from fear and resistance?  Where does this fear come from? We, as humans, are meant to love; it is a natural response of the heart. And love only gets bigger as we spread it around.

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It’s the eve of Valentine’s Day, and as I look out at the fiery resplendence of the evening sky, I realize how love sets us on fire, filling us with a rare radiance. How when love is allowed to respond to life freely, it becomes miraculous.  As we celebrate love tonight, let’s pledge to honor and value what we have. World peace might sound ambitious, but once we learn to radiate the feeling to all, the celebration of love need not remain confined to a designated day.

Happy love days ahead to all.

 

FLUORESCENCE

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Thanksgiving need not be one day in a year; it’s an emotion that must be felt and expressed as a frequent, if not daily, ritual. So, as I celebrate another year of my earnest and quiet life, this constitutes a toast to all that I’m grateful for. A life, by no means perfect or even remotely recommended, but profound all the same. To me, what enables an impassioned, bona fide life is the people who grace it. People who have taught me to sift the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. If it wasn’t for these little superintended tutorials, I would have strayed and how.

Recently, my friend, Gazala, wrote about how they nurtured their bashful little orchid plant that refused to flower. It took a year and a half of coaxing and whispering sweet-nothings for a beautiful white orchid to finally bloom. That’s how people are too; you dust them with rhythmic sprinklings of love and encouragement and they’ll flourish.

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Sometimes, love can feel smothering though; but it does well to understand where it comes from. This reminds me of one of the two times I’ve talked back to my mother. Dad being away all the time made mum over-protective about me. I wasn’t allowed to stay out late and it rattled me to think of all the parties, camps and adolescent fun I was missing out on. One day I got flustered enough to blurt, “What do you suppose I might do in the dark, that isn’t possible in daylight?” She was hurt and I bitterly regretted my outburst.

Around that time, an aunt was giving me stitching lessons. One day, she taught me how to use the basting thread. A basting thread is essentially used to temporarily hold the fabric together and removed once the work is complete. Parents are quite like those basting threads, holding us together until we’re ready to face the world on our own. Like a butterfly that flies in and softly rests on an outstretched hand, the realization settled in on me. Through the years, I became mum’s confidante and she, my anchor.

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There is a beauty in leading by example and I have a list of people to thank. Doting family and vintage friends, no doubt; but the unacquainted too. The ones who came tiptoeing into my life and gifted me fresh perspectives. The ones who inspired me by being who they are, sharing their ideas and fortuitously guiding me to execute my own. The strangeness and magnificence of life is authenticated by such associations. And before you know it, these kindred souls become the flourish to your ordinary life.

A couple of years ago, when I signed up for a songwriting course, I had no idea that I was setting out on a journey to find a part of me that I didn’t know existed. It was a fun experiment that not only reinforced my belief in myself but showed me how a person you never ever meet can influence you. My mentor, Mr. Pattinson opened up a world that intrigued my passionate heart. I became a diligent student who never defaulted on assignments, even while on an overseas holiday. To the procrastinator in me, that was a growth beyond any other.

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As the days get longer and hotter, I draw strength from the Gulmohar tree outside my window which flowers abundantly in this season. Like a Japanese baby’s first hanami (cherry blossom viewing), I’ve always taken this season seriously. The Gulmohar brings back memories of a long forgotten childhood when we used to play under its fiery red canopy and wait for its long seed cases to turn brown and hard, so we could rattle them all day. But what really makes the Gulmohar precious to me is an allegory that I have dearly held on to for years: that the flowering of this bountiful tree coincides with my birthday for a reason. I see it as Nature’s gift to me; a reminder that when the summers of life get unbearable, there is always a burst of hope to cling on to. That even as life hurts me, it hands me the idea that I inherently possess the grace to find my own fluorescence.

Despite my polychromatic weaknesses, I have come a long way. I am beholden to all who walk with me and lend a hand to help me execute this sometimes dark, sometimes sparkling life with a poise that can only come from genuine love. Here’s hoping that a decade from now when I revisit this page, I’d be just as grateful.

 

UNPLUGGED DAYS

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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

 

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SIMPLE SUSTENANCE

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Thirty-two years ago, in 1984, I had my first experience of community cooking. In those days, weddings in Mangalore were a long-drawn out affair that lasted days and brought the whole neighborhood together. Food was organic, authentic and cooked in huge cauldrons on open wood fires. For a young city girl like me, it was a fascinating experience to participate in and a rich memory to retain for life. It was a twin wedding in the family, so I was doubly excited. The evening before the wedding, insane amounts of batter was ground by hand on huge grinding stones and left to ferment for the idlis to be made the next morning. I insisted on being included in the idli-makers team and woke up at the crack of dawn to assist. The aromas, the exuberance, the solidarity of it all, are lodged as a surreal kind of remembrance in my otherwise mostly defunct brain.

In retrospect, my whole life seems like a roaring compilation of food memories. In the tiny home I grew up in, there was no separate kitchen to speak of. From the single bed, which was my self-proclaimed throne, I could just reach out to the cooking counter. Mum used to wake up early and start working on the chappatis and omlettes. That’s the aroma I would wake up to. As I grew up, I started helping Mum with the cooking. We would work side by side in the miniscule space, humming along with the radio. To this day, mum and I bond best when we are cooking together. Like two comrades, we embark upon adventures with our new recipes, get delirious with the difficult ones and find quietude in the tried and tested. When we’re done feasting, we go on walks, she talking incessantly about this and that and making me laugh until suddenly we’re back to discussing our next meal.

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The neighborhood I grew up in was a different world altogether. Walking unannounced into each other’s homes for a meal was very normal. The Koltes next door was a family of six. Mrs. Kolte was a great cook. Though they didn’t have much, she managed to put together meals that could compete with a professional chef’s.  I just have to close my eyes, think of her spicy chicken gravy served with mixed lentil vadas and I’m transported back to her home. On special occasions, she would always send us food before she fed her own children. It was neighborly love on a level that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

Then there was Aunt Gertie. She was a kitchen elf who chose to spend all her free time stirring, baking and cooking. The day she made crabs, I would pointedly and shamelessly hover around until she asked me to stay for dinner. Then I would sit cross-legged in her kitchen and savor the meal in a rapturous state, unaware of the crab juice running down my arms. She would point me out to her daughter, Sheryll, who was my best friend and say, “This is how you eat. Stop picking at your food and learn something from the girl!” The generosity and honesty of a mother wasn’t limited to just her own children.

I love food, but more than that, I love the eating experience. One day I surprised our house-help, Barki with a strange request. She lived in a tiny hut just across the lane from our house. Every evening as the sun went down the horizon; she would squat in front of an open fire and make piles of jowar bhakris to feed her large family. That day I asked if I could join them for dinner.  She was aghast and didn’t know how to respond. It mortified her to think that all she had to offer was jowar bhakris, bland dal and a chilli-garlic chutney. But to me, it was enough. The smell of burning wood, the bite of the chutney, the fresh-off-the-fire bread, the cool winter breeze and the happy tears in my host’s eyes made it one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.

From the kulfi wala who fed us free kulfis after school, to the grocer who packed a few extra dates as a treat, the love far exceeded everything else. Later when I entered the cold corporate world, the only solace amidst the chaos of pounding typewriter keys and mounds of paperwork was the lunch break. I’ve always been fortunate to find people who make it their business to feed me. My first job was in this huge organization where to my utter surprise, the cooks took an instant liking to me and singled me out for attention. The food they cooked was only for the top management, but they sneaked me into the pantry and fed me meals that smelled and tasted like manna from heaven.

When I moved to Dubai, the pantry experience moved with me. Only the cuisine differed. I was working with Iranians there and found a new kind of food paradise. Regardless of whether I had carried a tiffin from home or not, the cook would send steaming trays of Cheelo Kebabs, Feta Cheese, Iranian bread and salads every afternoon. One day, I ordered Tandoori Chicken as a return gesture. My Iranian bosses ate it with gusto but the spice was too much for them. The fair Iranians had sweat dripping and tears streaming down their reddened faces!

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.