THE SILENCE BETWEEN

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It was the Zen-blue sky that hit me first. As I taxied out into the city, my skin absorbing the chilled breeze like water on parched soil, Bangalore seemed to be welcoming me. For some strange reason, it felt like grandpa’s wrinkled arms and toothless grin beckoning me home. Quite enamoured by the feeling, I walked into my husband’s Marathahalli abode with zero expectations but with an uncanny certainty that the following week was about to change something in me.

The next six days were spent wandering around, exploring the city. No place is, as such, perfect to its residents. Anyone who lives in Bangalore will most certainly complain about the traffic that seems lodged on flyovers and in narrow lanes likes clinging parasites. But as an outsider, I subliminally saw something significant that alleviated the burden of it for me. By the evening of the first day itself I had discounted all the snags in favor of the one thing that stood out in the locals of this ordinary, almost pedestrian city. And that was their unruffled serenity. There was a sense of collective calm despite the bustle. People chatted amicably with strangers in buses and auto-rickshaw drivers grinned charmingly while demanding ridiculous fares. When a car hit our taxi at a signal, the cabbie got out, inspected the damage, shook his head slightly, paused for a second and then waved it off. No anger, no foul language. That is probably the key to composure – the pause. Mozart, the prolific composer of the Classical Era believed that “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between”. If all the music is in the pauses, maybe that is how our mind should function too. I found myself inspecting the connotations, reading the subtext and developing wistful images to carry home.

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On day two, sauntering through the Lalbaug Botanical Gardens, I came across a colorful statue of Nandi. Typically, Nandi being Lord Shiva’s vehicle is always found sitting at the doorway of the temple in a perpetually silent but alert waiting mode. Nandi thus has gained on a symbolism, teaching us the virtue of simply sitting, vigilant but without expectations. The image of Nandi essentially reminds us to pause and pay attention to life. Only in the pauses can the music of the Universe be heard.

The next day, my sister-friend Suzanne, invited us for lunch. After a sumptuous meal, she and I set out for a stroll by the Ulsoor Lake not far from her home. As was wont to happen, we delved into a deep conversation. “There’s a reason we feel so calm and alive being around nature,” she remarked touching the leaves that hung over our bench and gazing at the serene lake. “It’s because nature never pretends to be what it’s not. A leaf is a leaf, content and happy with its true form. That’s why we feel good around people who are like that too”.

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As I mulled over this it became apparent why I had thought of grandpa the day I arrived. Grandpa was like that, content and cheerful, demanding nothing from life and never pretending to be what he’s not. He would gallivant, stop to chat with everyone on the street, lose track of time and come home with the fading sun bringing a sack of fish. Grandma would get livid and hurl the sack in the fire, but grandpa would only laugh. “Why are you so angry, Eliza?” he would ask nudging her playfully. It was the same kind of authenticity that I now saw in the locals of Bangalore.

As my week drew to an end, I found myself feeling grateful for the pauses that presented themselves from time to time. Devoid of distractions, the poignancy and joy of such experiences steadily engages and unfills me at the same time. As I prepared to leave, the sky that I had so fallen in love with became even more luminous as if allowing me one more image to relish my reminiscences with.

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Back home in Mumbai, days eased by in one uninterrupted flow. The rain was pelting down in bursts bringing a refreshed brilliance to the days and the nights were made snug by the warmth of fluffy comforters. Everything seemed revived by the clarity I had acquired from my time away. One afternoon, quite nicely as if on cue, I came across a classic Zen story narrated by Zen master, Fukushima-roshi to acclaimed writer, Pico Iyer. One day, an old man was trying to explain to his grandchild about Jōdo Buddhism, and he said, “In the West — that’s where the Pure Land is!” And the child pointed out that if you go west and west, you go right around the world, and come back round to where you are! In short, paradise is right where we are, if we care enough to pause and look.

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MISTY MEADOWS

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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WABI SABI LIFE

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Mrs. Iyer and I met quite by chance. Her weathered face and kind eyes drew me to her right away. There was something about this woman that spoke to me; as if she was about to tide me over impending storms. It was the summer of 1999; a despondent phase which had taken me to a different kind of solitude.

People who know me are familiar with my largely erratic memory. It’s as if my cortical cells possess an innate, almost psychedelic sense of humor. So large chunks of data go missing without notice, and I can never recall things in tandem, but I do have visions from the past that can seem like they happened yesterday. That is how I recall my time with Mrs. Iyer, whom I eventually started calling ‘paati’ which means grandmother in Tamil.

A few months after our first meeting, I quit my job thus freeing up my evenings, many of which I chose to spend with paati. I had friends my age, but my time with her somehow seemed sacred. Paati had a lot to share about her animated life with her husband, their travels together and her recent loneliness after losing him. She was like a treasured book that I wished would never end. Our conversations spanned entire lifetimes, delved deep and colored our senses mirroring the purple-orange sunsets of the Middle-Eastern skies. Our silhouettes in the fading light must have looked weird and wonderful at the same time; a fusing together of the old and the new. Paati taught me about impermanence, imperfection and how to embrace bits of our life that remain unfinished. Above all, she taught me to embrace my flaws and appreciate myself.

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There’s a Japanese philosophy which preaches much the same thing. They call it Wabi-Sabi. It is the art of finding beauty in blemishes and depth in earthiness. It is about going for the natural and authentic. About celebrating the cracks and crevices that time leaves behind. Wabi Sabi makes us see beauty in the dilapidated and ugly.  Although on the surface, it seems to be about physical things, this philosophy runs way deeper than that. It is more about a state of mind, a way of being. As we move forward, the idea of abandoning ‘perfect’ and accepting the scars and the laugh lines seems increasingly prudent. Simplicity seems more appealing than forged exactness. This kind of shift can be truly liberating, and there’s more than just beauty in that. There is freedom.  If we can quieten our mind enough to appreciate the muted beauty in our lives and find the willingness to accept things as they are, we are well on our way to practicising Wabi-Sabi.

Three years ago, I blew my big Four-O candles. Right around then, I’d started noticing the deepening lines on my face and the puffiness under my eyes. A lot of grey strands were showing up in my hair. I playfully started calling them my ‘wisdom highlights’. So while women around me spent hours in salons hiding their greys and getting spa treatments, I chose that time to introspect and hone my skills. I figured that if I had something worthwhile to do as age crept up – a gratifying hobby or skill that I could share with the world, then that would hold me in better stead. As one year folds into the next, I am glad about that decision. If I fail at something, instead of berating myself, I relax and try something else. That to me is ‘looking life through the wabi-sabi lens.’

In nature, everything is transient. A week ago, when the last of the Ganesha idols were being immersed, a discussion about its significance ensued over our evening tea. There are multiple theories about it, but one that interested me was this. The idols initially were made out of the clay that formed on the river beds. After the celebrations were over, those idols were returned to the water and left to dissolve back into the river. I thought about how this relates to our lives. And it became even more apparent for me to celebrate the time I have here. To nurture relationships and build a life that I can be proud of. To embrace growing older gracefully and joyfully. As Eleanor Roosevelt put is so correctly, “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.”

As for my dearest paati, I regrettably lost touch with her over the years. But her parting gift – a vintage bell, still hangs from a single nail on my bedroom wall. It is a reminder of the kind of person she was and the kind of person I wished I’d eventually be. Earthy, ordinary and unapologetically beautiful in my own way.

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YOLO LEGACY

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

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

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

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Grandpa using headphones for the first time.

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

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

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

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.