Spring Cleaning

A few months ago, desperate to shake off the heaviness of grief and get a new grip on that thing called life, I signed up for a daily dose of guided meditation. The first day, as I vividly remember, was wonderful. Not because I had suddenly found the key to mental equilibrium, but because the voice guiding me said everything that was working against it, in me, was normal. My mind was crowded with several questions and fleeting thoughts, pointless observations that never made it into a story or anything worthy, and a million opinions that would never be shared because the eggshells around the people who would learn of them would crack underfoot and leave a mess. And that was supposedly normal. Meditation doesn’t require a firm hold on emptiness, or tidying up the clutter in the mind, the voice said, soothingly. It only requires a primary committment so one could separate oneself from the gridlock in the mind, and become an onlooker. And allow the traffic to pass, so to speak.

I persisted, thinking someday, I’d master the art – or science – of it. And soon enough, it became almost natural – to observe the mess in the mind from a safe distance, and just be. There wasn’t an instance when the traffic cleared and made navigation easy, at all. Where would I go, anyway, even if it did? There was something so intensely fascinating about the exercise that I didn’t ever want to give it up. I’ve since moved on and revived a more wholesome practice, but the core idea remains intact: don’t try too hard to focus on anything, just focus on whatever is going on, and don’t react. This will lead to calmer demeanor, and an overall sense of control over things that seemed to otherwise slip away.

But of course there’s the all clutter in the physical realm – the woolly shreds of ginger that won’t part from some holes in the grater; lint gathered on those satiny pillow shams; the towering stack of papers that beg to be sorted and yet when they are, the one important document that you need, evades; the bathmat with an awkwardly upturned corner where the threads are hanging loose; the daughter’s room – better known as Frankenstein’s lab, and so many other things that are beyond the grip of lists and their ostensibly OCD-ridden listmaker too, by now.

Somehow, it feels like the clutter that needs clearing and I, are inhabitants of the world of Escher’s Relativity – falling headlong into our disparate wells of gravity at times, and at others, going here, there or nowhere, while pretending to be in charge of our steps. Sometimes, all it takes is a conversation with a friend to help get rid of all kinds of clutter, and sometimes, it’s just as well to take stock of the volcanic proportions of clutter, within and outside, and let it clear of its own accord.

Channeling my inner Erma Bombeck here, but Spring cleaning, if done just right, will kill you. To mounds of clutter then and to all of us, watching them explode into countless forms of otherness. And to words with which to de-clutter the burdens of inertia, self-deprecation and other absurdities that plague the writerly mind.

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A Day In The Life Of..

As the morning wears on, and chores are being slowly dealt with, things come to sight when my vision is fixated on no point in particular in their general direction. While the tea is brewing, I open the cups and bowls cabinet and stare blankly. Which one to pick today, the one in the pebble-buff hues, or the one with the lime green paisleys? Above it, another one, all bottle green and white speckles, stands tall. It reads, “Tucson, Arizona.” I don’t seem to remember its origins, but I recall an instance when we beat eggs in it when we were unpacking and settling into one of the many homes we’ve been in, and didn’t have a bowl handy. I also remember, curiously, dousing it in lemon juice and then airing it out in the sun, so the eggy odor wouldn’t cling.

Rain-washed and marginally cooler, the air quickly becomes dense with smoke from the tails of monstrous trucks, rising up in tufts everywhere. The plants, a brown and green mass in my eyes, wear their dreary, dust-covered faces and some seem to have grown a bit – especially the unyielding chili plants – when I squint and strain to notice. From a seemingly cryogenic corner, safe in the shade of the drawn blinds, a grimy red rose holds its own. A little spritz of water and it should be made shiny again, I think to myself.

On the stack of newspapers that beg to be cleared off the coffee table, a few bits of paper lie scattered, with little notes scribbled on them. Must be bits of dialogues from the play, I imagine. I pick them up to put them in the recycle bag and as I struggle to align them, I see one that reads, all slick and glittery blue – keep calm and do the boogie woogie. Then another – …and be you. Oh, for the earnestness of childhood. I change my mind and sneak them between pages of a book on the shelf whose title doesn’t register.

Another day progresses, tinted with the onuses of domesticity and the taunt of the unchecked boxes on the to-do list. The will to accomplish ascends and abates, as usual, and the synchronicity of thoughts isn’t a top priority. The mind merely seeks admittance to a bigger gallery of things unnoticed, so they can be dissected and thought of one way or another.

Goodbye, 2015

As this year closes in on me (it is and how) I find that I could choose to feel stifled in its parting grip, or I could choose to look beyond that. I see myself standing at the same place as every other year, wondering if it’s possible to condense a whole year into a few words. 2015 has been so heartwarming, so enriching and so heartbreaking.

 

As I sit down to write this tonight, with the family retreating to their favorite corners in the house, digging into their warm dinners, a memory, like a feather, whirls around. (A friend just sent me a beautiful note, which is the primary trigger, actually). I can feel a snap, almost as if the so-called me from deep within is taking a few strides backwards, as a new observer in the scene. As a child, I used to sing to my Mom at the most untimely strikes, just to irk her. “Jesus, you are my salvation,” would ring its way in just when a bhajan was being rendered (not that it was ever met with disapproval on its own), “Clementine” would be sung to death when she was trying to get some rest. Someone would ask her to sing a devara nama in her favorite raga, and I would try to overpower her mellifluous opening notes with my gun-throaty ones, just so I would be noticed. She would nudge me to practice my swaras and I would repeat them until she had lost her voice in trying to get me to stop. As I think of her today, very ill and several thousands of miles away, I am empowered by the thought that I want to make my time with her, and hers with us more worthwhile, more purposeful, and filled with the music that she gave to so many, as well as those untimely bursts of singing that used to once drive her crazy. Is there anything better than a dose of silliness to get past the sternness that life presses on us? Is there anything above love and grace? Is there anything more liberating than acceptance?

 

I wish for all of you a year of love, grace, moments filled with silliness and laughter, and above all, acceptance. Acceptance of what is, so you can be an island unto yourself. And when you do step outside, I wish that you can become a song of yourself, to fall lightly into life’s sharp rhythm.

Letter from Delhi 2015

There’s something to be said of making memories out of moments lived fully, consciously, and intently. Time is then reduced to a mere onlooker, the clock ticks away somewhere in the background and the controls are in your own hands. Some of these moments are spent in the company of people we love, doing things that matter, in places we’ll always remember. The Delhi trip stands out for all these reasons, and so much more.
Going to Delhi had been on the agenda for about a year now, and when it came down to finalizing it, things were worked out in a matter of minutes. Gracious offers from friends to put me up in their homes made it that much more easier, and with a few tweaks and last minute changes, I was all set to roll.
The Delhi that existed in my mind was a mix of Doordarshan glimpses from the eighties, highlighted paragraphs from history books, and snapshots from a visit in the late nineties – not to mention glossed-over slides from movies that registered, like Delhi 6. Of course, there were ghastly impositions from recent newsy vignettes, but as one is wont to with such things, I had conveniently let those slip by.
When I set foot outside the airport, I was transported to a whole new world, unlike any of those visuals. The smog was ominous, very HongKong-ian from what I could remember, and rather unsavory. As I traversed streets I had once heard of, some of which had been re-named, and marveled at the overly manicured gardens and re-touched buildings that couldn’t adequately hide the ravages of time, I wondered what a native’s lens view of the same things would look like. Two experiences converged at that point in my mind – when I moved back to my own hometown, Bangalore, two years ago, after over a decade in the USA, all the intimacy I once shared with the city had dissipated. The places I had once known like the back of my hand had either been wiped off or resurrected. There were newfangled ring roads and cramped, winding service roads, there were several re-named, re-structured buildings and markets. The other experience was that this shock value – despite some cautioning by well-intentioned friends – had never factored into my dreamy American sojourns, where I would be driving around my neighborhood, listening to Indian music, and gazing at the towering oaks and maples, reminiscing the gulmohars and cassias of my childhood. Never had I imagined feeling the twinge of being a stranger in my own home, until it actually hit me.
I finally shook off this strain of discomfiture when I reach my destination. My mind was instantly filled with images of a well-lived family life, replete with heartaches and successes, as I was given a tour of the lovely home of my hosts. They were very kind and generous, never once making me feel lonely. I had made myself quite at home with them, before Pragya arrived later that evening. And thereafter, everything, from shared inside stories to meals, morning teas and uninterrupted banter, fits of laughter and strings of songs..seemed to stem from the core of our beings, without inhibition, and seemed always to find common ground. It is little wonder, really, that we have always referred to each other as soul sisters.
We did everything we had planned to do – a day of sightseeing, thanks to her nephew – as we marveled at the architectural grandeur of the Qutub Minar, traipsed around Khan Market and tucked into a leisurely, delicious Italian lunch even as the clock of Nowhereistan ticked away at a distance – underscoring my opening words, soaked in the charm of Lodi gardens, shopped at Janpat and Dilli Haat, dined at a popular Chinese restaurant..and above all, found resonance in our conversations about this, that and the other.
The Great Shakes get together was planned for the following day and we had been looking forward to it for months. It was everything I had imagined it to be – only a hundred times grander, a thousand times richer, a million times warmer. I could write reams about what it meant to be in the heart of this grandness, richness and warmth, but brevity seems to be a winner in these times and so I shall endeavor to condense the experience into a sentence: it was overwhelming. It was so wonderful to be in a circle of people who spoke the same language as one, bared their souls with an ease that is known to come from bonding that spans lifetimes, laughed like no one was looking (quite literally), and who shared so much more than just words that night. Words wouldn’t do justice to the warmth and generosity of our hosts – Rupa and family – so I will just say that I am grateful and bowled over. I am so glad to have met all of them and so thankful to have them in my life. As we inch towards another new year, hoping to fill it with meaningful words rather than inertia-ridden moments, I am so relieved to know that we have each other’s backs and that we’ve all discernibly submitted to the fact that there comes a point in life when only doing what enriches the soul counts.
The Beatles, who still have the power to make us believe in a sense of reality that is purely based on a refined sense of perception, are owed a lot more than thanks. In “In my life..” they described love as wrapped up in our memories of people, things and places. If there’s a refrain to accentuate my visit to Delhi, it is this.

Cuddapah

“Careful now, this way, there, there!” they said, their footsteps quivering just a little and strides rather firm, together kicking up a formless cloud of dust. They were hauling in the Cuddapah. The construction was still underway. The kitchen was taking shape, one tile and Cuddapah shelf at a time. It was way before the concept of modular kitchens had been heard of.

“What’s that, Cuddapah?” I remember asking.
“It’s a kind of stone, very sturdy, good for the kitchen shelves,” she had said.

She knew exactly where they would be laid, and how she would organize her prized paraphernalia on them. To me, it looked like a murky canvas at best, with a block or two unfolding at a time, as if the artist was holding something back for a reason.

It’s these little snippets, hinged on words that have lodged themselves in the remotest crannies of the mind, that can be summoned at a moment’s notice, for some strange reason. Those Cuddapah shelves were wiped clean every so often, removing traces of a forgotten coffee cup that had leaked a little, or a biscuit broken against the grain that had fallen like sawdust. No curved neem leaf fragment found its place there, having been displaced from a jar of legumes where it was supposed to ward off the bugs; nor was there room for woolly bits of cotton that flew off her deft fingers making wicks in close quarters. A neighbor’s bowl, which had come in bearing borrowed flour, was as heavy as the task of borrowing itself, and had to be filled and returned quickly. A little square of jaggery sitting pretty on a flaccid betel leaf hours after a Puja, would have to be dismissed at the first sighting of a raised brow. A trail of jeera that had spilled from the pack while settling into the masala dabba, would have to be cleared before she said the word go. A stray piece of hay from the mango stack taking refuge under a jar, had to peek out just enough to be tugged and tweaked until it disappeared.

Those Cuddapah shelves aren’t the same today – they’re ridden with dust and traces of the things she wouldn’t allow, come rain or shine. But they bear witness to so many warm memories, of shared food and laughs, a silly argument and a silent prayer, something broken or spilled, the radio breaking out into fine-tuned rhythm at the crack of dawn, coffees and conversations, ants making a beeline for something sweet, festivals that produced too much food and days of illness or mourning, too little.

I don’t know why I thought of the Cuddapah today. Perhaps it has something to do with thinking about Mom in the same breath: she, like that black solid stone, was and continues to be taken for granite.

On Just Being

On a rare day when the spirit has ebbed a little, inspiration, or a tingling at best, teases from close quarters. It’s the kind of thing that you’d laugh off on a regular day when you aren’t feeling terribly bogged down or gnawed at by things that add little value to your life, even if you’re the energizer bunny 90% of the time, like yours truly.

Things in the feed throw up an interesting array of amusements and challenges. Some ask the then-what question after some eternal conundrum or another, some jiggle a sheaf of feathers..of accomplishments towards which one inevitably feels a sense of excitement, some talk about pitfalls and failures, some copy someone else’s words and exclaim just how much they liked them, some share pictures and snippets from faraway lands, some share jokes and quotes and videos that are hot off the press, some display talents of all order and ilk, and so forth.

But no, the tingling stems from elsewhere, much as one would love to analyze these things like one would a long-drawn Japanese film that tells stories of what liberates and what binds and where the twain meet. Was it while shaking up the ingredients in the wok for the noodles that it struck? One wonders, in retrospect. Or maybe it was when one turned to the refrigerator and observed a man through the large living room windows, sitting on the edge of an open walled room that is under construction, with his feet dangling, surveying the world below, and staying put as if budging would disturb the flow of energy and life around and below him. Of course it was hard to discern if indeed he caught one staring at him, but it’s not very unlikely.

This man on the ledge, or edge, threw open a window for contemplation, that there is only so much one can get up and do, do, do, or even just observe, mull, brood. Sometimes, on evenings when the spirit is dimmed for no rhyme or reason, it’s okay to drown in nothingness and just sit, stare and take the world that is otherwise too much with one in. Yes, these evenings may well be rain-beaten or yellowed (as in washed with the pale streaks of sunset just after the gray clouds have drifted, a term coined by the innovative third grader), but they’re there in one’s face and they can be wasted, if the mind is drawn to them thus, without having to worry about what will be. Even if dinner’s only half done at quarter past seven and the peak of the laundry pile is unfathomable from a distance, and the blankness or bleakness, depending on how low the spirit is, is cumbersome unto its own merit.

These are the Days of the (School) Week

School week has opened like a scroll of fog, thick like June clouds. Starting with hot breakfasts of choice on the table at the crack of dawn, and mangoes and pomegranates that are apportioned for the fruit break, right down to when the artist’s palette and books are spread out and pored over just before turning in, only the crackling highlights seem to register well. The morning goodbye that seems a little too prompt, the deep-seated ache that ascending umpteen steps brings in the still-firm legs, and the quick-turning of newsy pages, they all seem to take a back seat in light of the joys of planning a special snack or meal and culling out homegrown herbs to garnish it with, people-watching while sipping on a steaming cuppa on the balcony, catching up with a loved one over a long phone conversation, or say, getting some words on an empty page even at the risk of sounding repetitive (but so is life).

Some odd chores are executed listlessly, strands of hair picked off the floor and the blood of beets washed off the scabrous surface of the cutting board, things straightened and sorted, the stove fired up, some semblance of lunch put together, clothes hung on the clothesline, swaying as if they have somewhere to go, and sometimes, strangely as it were, providing cues for forgotten tunes to come and linger on.

The howling winds are capable of making time stand still, or perhaps extending it, even if it is just so the mini peach pies remain unburned and safe in the hot oven while the school goer is welcomed back home. The moment is all spindly arms locked around my neck and hurried kisses, as she runs away leaving behind a trail of words and as I follow her voice, a pool of clothes tried on for good measure against the weather, or the mood.

These days that seem uneventful for the most part seem to bring a curious balance on the inside, enough to weigh thoughts, choose words, read a dust-jacketed, prized Murakami catch only a few pages at a time, slow down as a general rule..and simply take what they give: the freedom to watch the magic of childhood unfold in front of me, between that all too familiar, yet surprising, song and dance routine of my girl, at least before the enormousness of the old work routine consumes me as a whole again.