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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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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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.

 

SAVED BY A SONG

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It was one of those rare occasions when I had wandered into a church. As my knees hit the floor, the strains of ‘Old Rugged Cross’ filled the air; hundreds of voices rose in crescendo and the tears came rolling down. After two years of Marie’s passing, the floodgates had finally opened and cleansed me. That celestial moment became my testament to the undeniable healing power of music.

Being a loner all through my teen years, the only true connection I had was with music and words. On long afternoons, I was almost always found huddled in a corner with a book and in the evenings with my tiny cassette player in a darkened room. Although I never stopped listening to music, the bedtime tradition that had waned over time, is now revived and made sacred. Once the telly is off and I’m alone in my room, the windows are thrown open and the music comes on. Embellished by moonlight and kissed by the gentle breeze, the sounds seem ethereal. It is, without a doubt, the most magical part of my day.

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Years ago, when I had signed up for piano classes, my music teacher had encouraged me to look for life lessons in music. If you let it all the way in, music can bring about a real catharsis, she had said. It’s true. Music can foster unity with another mind, another culture, and life itself, like nothing else can. And all of that comes right back as an insight into your own mind. That’s how the purgation takes place. Some days it’s jazz that moves me, on other days it could be rock or forgotten Bollywood oldies. The music we choose is never random, it reflects our emotional/mental state at the time. That’s exactly why we get obsessed with certain songs; it’s because they speak to our deeper selves.

I have an inherent need to understand a song (and everything else) in all its entirety. So recently when a friend sent me a Bangla song, it upset me that I couldn’t find a proper translation of the lyrics. “You would have enjoyed it more”, he said wryly, “if you just listened to it.” That, right there, was another analogy for life.

The struggle to find our worth can be an ongoing battle. A broken relationship, an unfulfilling career or a lost dream can leave us feeling shoddy. Until one day someone holds a mirror to our soul and we remember love. Just like the beauty of a person is revealed by how they make you feel, so it is with music. A song that you find mediocre could be someone’s favourite just because it spoke to them when they needed it the most. It’s an idea that made me accepting of other people’s choices, in music and in life.

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Whether it’s just a car ride I want to enjoy or a dark patch I’m trying to work through, what has, and always will help me, is a piece of music. Above all else, it teaches us that love is more than just a word. It’s our connection with the world around us. It’s what helps us make sense of the chaos that surrounds us. It shows us that no matter where we live on this planet, we are essentially the same. Sometimes when I find myself withering, I sit back and let a song wash over me, other times I write my own. Either way, it can be safely said, that I’m always saved by a song. A single lyric or melody at the right time can change everything. It can give your life direction, beauty, meaning. And the courage to live with a little more heart.

There’s a quote from One Tree Hill that I love. “Every song has a coda, a final movement. Whether it fades out or crashes away, every song ends. Is that any reason not to enjoy the music?” We’re all perpetually trying to figure out things, working our way through the rough terrain of life, wondering where it leads us. Well, with the right soundtrack, our journey can be a transcendent one.

 

INTO THE FOREST

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Last week, we drove down to Atvan for a much needed getaway. The morning was beautifully cleansed by a steady drizzle and soulful music filled the air. As we drew near, the slow upward climb was made surreal by the dense fog that hung over the valley like a thick, fluffy blanket. Atvan means ‘into the forest’ and it was exactly where I craved to be. After a small, rickety ride off the main road, we came upon the iron gates of the property where we were to spend the next couple of days. It was like stepping into another world, where all one could do was just ‘be’. The foliage was thick and glowing, the skies weeping in bursts every now and then. A subtle peace hung in the air and clung to us as we walked down the suspended wooden bridge that led to our tree house. It felt like ambling through a paradise that promised to hold me in its arms and heal me.

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The tree house itself was splendid, beckoning to me as if it was a home I’d never known I had. The lines between the indoors and outdoors were so artfully blurred that I could reach out over the railing and touch the branches from where I stood. For a nature junkie like me, there was nothing more to desire, nothing more to ask for. The best gift, however, was the birdsong. For the first time, I discovered the salacious warbling of the ‘Malabar Whistling Thrush’, aptly nicknamed ‘Whistling Schoolboy’. I’m known to fall in love more heavily with sounds than sights and I was properly charmed by this one.  The whistling of this bird has an uncannily human quality about it and the constant trill kept me amused throughout my stay there.

While there was still light, we explored the forest, walking along winding pathways and climbing slippery slopes. There were very few people around and it was just as well. The quietude was welcome and calmed my troubled heart like nothing else could. It was very reminiscent of my summers in pre-electric Mangalore, when the only illumination after dusk came from small lamps scattered around the house. Oftentimes, I long for those inky nights that were spent gazing at radiantly starry skies.

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Mostly, I am a happy person, but I suffer from intermittent existential malaise. There is a melancholy that runs through my veins, and most times that very darkness inspires me to be creative. Of late though, there had been constant spells of anxiety that rattled and numbed me in cycles. It wasn’t a good feeling. But right then, in the lap of nature, it seemed possible to wipe away the grime, lay down for a bit and stand up again. I felt ready to refocus and recalibrate. That said, the learning curve was yet to present itself.

As the day folded into night, a swarm of moths came out. The night was punctuated with their calls, but other than that it was a world that demanded nothing but the slow unwinding of a ragged soul. As I snuggled under the covers, peering out into the night through the wide glass wall, a stellar spectacle built up before me. My eyes lit up and widened to the effervescent dance of hundreds of glowing fireflies. It was like a secret rendezvous that was planned just for me. I was so dazzled by the wonder of it, that sleep just vanished and I stayed awake for hours watching as they twinkled and dimmed until I could no longer tell them apart from the stars above.

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It brought to mind a song by Owl City called ‘Fireflies’. A whimsical song that on the surface seems to speak about insomnia and childhood dreams, but is said to be more deeply about lucid dreaming or even astral projection.

The bioluminescence of a firefly is an enchanting process that involves conversion of chemical energy into light. Could these little beacons of hope then be passing on a message to us? That no matter how much darkness we’re drenched in, we could possibly make our own light? Lost in the embrace of that soft, mesmeric night, I surrendered to the dazzling flashes of life that these little critters brought me. For as they say, every blink of a firefly’s light says ‘Believe’.

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.

 

TABLE FOR ONE

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If I remember right, it was in class 8, that we were asked to analyze William Wordsworth’s lyrical poem, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (more popularly known as ‘Daffodils’). Being a loner at heart, and often indulging in such wanderings myself, I found it easy to relate to this simple yet profound piece of work. My English teacher had applauded it as ‘a sincere and well comprehended analysis’. Having recently lost his brother, Wordsworth was actually melancholic at the time he wrote the poem, but I understood that my own wanderings were not really dismal. ‘Being alone’ did not have to mean ‘being lonely’.

Years later, life nudged me to revisit the cognizance of the 12-year old me. Every decade of life brings new learning, but the forties have been really profound so far. After over two decades of constantly hovering around each other, my husband was suddenly and unexpectedly posted to Bangalore. It brought back solitude in heaps, the minutes piling up like an untidy collection of objects placed haphazardly on top of each other. At first, it was overwhelming, but in due course, the aesthete in me started coherently stacking up the hours in neat, codified piles. It was an opportunity to feed the ‘slow life’ fanatic in me and before I knew it, I was addicted to the unceremoniously strewn moments.

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Being raised in patriarchal societies, we women are conditioned to calibrate from a young age and that kind of cumberance eventually becomes a roadblock that we  subconciously set up for ourselves. We grow up believing that it is somehow wrong to enjoy a movie on our own or go out with friends if the husband and kids are at home. So one fine day, when solitude comes knocking, we don’t know what to do.

Many years ago, while I was still in junior college, I had to appear for an exam. Having reached the examination centre too early, I decided to grab a sandwich at a nearby restaurant to kill time. It did not occur to me that sitting by myself in a restaurant was such a big deal, but clearly it was. I was catcalled at and stared down with derision. It was mortifying and the incident made me guarded and even more diffident than I already was.

Things are thankfully different now. I recently read that ‘Good at being alone’ is seen as a skill important enough to be put on a resume in countries like Japan. The late Japanese journalist Iwashita Kumiko in 1999 coined an interesting term called O-hitori Sama Kojo Iinkai (the Committee for Advancing the Interests of People Who Do Things Alone). ‘O-hitori sama’, more than anything else, has become a newly coined expression to describe women soloing out, and I am heartened to see that the trend is catching up in Indian cities too. After solo shopping sprees when I now enter a restaurant, it seems unremarkable to say, “Table for one”. As far as ‘3 little words’ go, these are sweeter than any other, putting a spring in my step and a smile on my face on lackluster days. On a deeper level, it is quantum leaps such as these that transform society from the ground up. As individuals, it sets us free.

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I’ve never considered myself a ‘spa person’, but after a particularly disorienting day walking the bylanes of Pratunam district in Thailand, I once allowed myself to be coaxed into a foot massage. As the masseuse worked deftly to unknot my muscles, I eased into a trance and an hour later, emerged out of there thoroughly rejuvenated. Solitude is much like that massage, it helps in the unfettering of the fortifications that we entangle ourselves in. There’s something profound about being alone and I am beginning to relish the beauty of it.

Humans are social animals and company is always welcome. So, in essence, I am by no means promoting soloism (if there is such a term), but just upholding the merits of such a state if you ever find yourself in it. These are the fringe benefits of a situation that most people consider somber. The “bliss of solitude” as Wordsworth puts it is worth exploring. Life is so interesting and vast, that time falls short. So it’s prudent to not waste time waiting for company when there is none, but rather go after what ignites us and sets our hearts aflutter. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that there are lessons to be learned and thoughts to be shared. If while ‘wandering lonely as a cloud’ we can unleash our creativity, share and inspire someone with our experiences, then we can leave knowing we honored the magnanimous gift of life.

 

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