Accidental mindfulness

I was at a workshop recently, for which i was quite excited. I’d get to meet new peers from other companies and industries who shared a love for telling stories. I was looking forward to swapping ideas, asking questions, voicing thoughts on which I had been ruminating for some time. I imagined the nervous excitement of walking into a room of strangers and finding conversations that pulled me in. I saw the cocktails and the appetizers, the glittering intellect dispersed across the ballroom.

And then I lost my voice.

The day before the workshop, sound deserted me, refusing to release from my throat. Instead, air whooshed through, and if I forced it, a sound that was the hybrid of a donkey’s bray and a mouse’s squeak. There was no denying, laryngitis had struck.

It was disorienting. At breakfast, I couldn’t introduce myself. Then it got awkward. Folks didn’t know what to do with me, since there was no talking. One of the women who stuck around started feeling like my unofficial translator, a burden I did not want to put on her. During the sessions, I sat in silence and quelled the surge of thoughts that wanted to be converted into spoken words.

Slowly, I entered a stilled world. Talk continued around me. I noticed the voices that repeated; they had a lot to say and were drowning out other entrants. Some sat quietly, opening their mouths just once, as if to record their presence. A neighbour fidgeted quite a bit. Another watched intensely across the room, a fierceness emanating from her eyes. What is she so passionate about, I wondered? Since I could not ask, I let it be, and the searing gazes continued.

I picked up on kindnesses everywhere. The friend from the morning checked in on me to see if I had a lunch partner since I was incapacitated to make lunch dates. Cups of warm water appeared magically, at regular intervals, out of empathy for my need to soothe my throat.

Things unfolded at their will, without my nudging and hurrying and controlling. In the absence of noise cluttering the space, emptiness filled it. And then, all kinds of life entered. New bonds sprouted, friendships budded, connections became forged.

Disconcerting at first, losing my voice turned out to be the gift of accidental mindfulness. I hope to lose it again real soon.

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Want to be cool? Use a toilet, says the Government of India

Remember when you wanted to be a part of the cool kids’ group in school? Everyone wanted to be with the cool kids, and if you were one or associated with one, you were accepted. Not just accepted, you were seen with awed, admiring, approving eyes by one and all. Yeah, it was incredible to belong to that hallowed group.

Now, in a clever twist to an age-old public health problem, the Government of India is creating a cool kids’ club among adults. That is, it is distinguishing between those who use toilets versus those who don’t.

Open defecation remains a preferred way to relieve oneself in India, where almost 500 million people still use the fields, railway tracks, or any open space for excretory bodily functions. Despite millions of latrines being built over many, many years, people just won’t budge. The fresh air around, the vast sky above, and the company of others is hard to pass up for a dark, walled in, solitary structure. Countless explanations of health hazards and even monetary incentives have proven too weak to overcome this established habit.

Enter, from left field, the “In-Crowd” impulse.

There is a massive ad campaign underway to create a feeling of “coolness” associated with using toilets. The underlying premise? If you’re made to feel excluded from the cool kids, who all do it inside, you’ll change in a hurry. After all, no one wants to be an outsider, social pariah. The mantra is simple: Use a toilet, join the In-Crowd.

The campaign explains what is socially acceptable behaviour and presents it as something everyone (except you) is doing already. To nail the point, it mocks those who are still going out in the open as people who just aren’t with it, again making it clear who is “in” and who is “out”. And as if this kind of social rejection weren’t enough, it’s done by a kid, making it painfully obvious that even children know what’s cool and isn’t. The coup de grace is the person showing them the way – Amitabh Bachchan, India’s Bollywood superstar, the ultimate desi cool kid. Everyone wants to be like him and be associated with him. If toilets are the way to do it, so be it.

I like this campaign. It turns everything about enclosed toilets on its head. Using them is now the thing to do because everyone is doing it, especially the cool people. Instead of using rational arguments, it makes an emotional one, about social acceptance and belonging. It makes it really simple: don’t be on the out, get in.

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I’m easily manipulated

This weekend, I learned something about myself as a shopper. I’m quite dumb, it turns out.

It seems I am perfectly okay to pay for an overpriced lip balm when the manufacturers declare, in just one line, that they will contribute Rs.2 (a really nominal amount) to provide surgery for girls born with hare lip. No story, no details about what NGO they are tied up with, nothing. They could be making it up, who knows. It worked on me.

However, I’m not convinced when another snack manufacturer uses the whole back-of-pack to explain how their high-priced snack supports the livelihoods of farmers across the northeast of India. They really waxed eloquent about how the area is economically threatened and scores of farmers and their families are struggling. It was all faceless, though, without anything to make the picture specific and relatable. In the end, I didn’t buy the product, it felt too expensive, which is another way of saying I wasn’t convinced by their story.

What’s the difference? That concrete number, Rs.2. It’s such a tiny amount of money, it’s really hard to believe it will make much of an impact. But, it did give me a real and defined sense that something concrete was going to be done. I could also imagine how all the Rs. 2 contributions could add up to pay for a surgery. Vague claims, however significant, don’t cut ice because of their ambiguous nature. Wit the snack pack, I couldn’t really see how I fit into the picture, how my actions were going to make a difference.

So there you have it. I may have had the chance to have a bigger impact with the snack brand, but I felt more significant and empowered with the Rs.2 contribution. Only because it was specific and showed me a clear path of how much of my purchase money was going to be used for a cause.

Silly, but true.

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Getting started on those lofty resolutions

As the year draws to an end, I like to reflect on how the year went and what I want to accomplish in the upcoming new year.

Last weekend, I wrote down that I wanted to write more, with more regularity. I enjoy writing, but my track record is blotted with sporadic spurts of writing followed by long periods of lull and inactivity. All the advice from writers exhorts me to write, even when I don’t want to, even when I don’t have anything to say, and even when I feel what I have to say is not worthwhile. Just write, they urge.

I believe it. I agree with them when they say there is a need to get the junk out of the way so that the clean stuff can start flowing.

So, I pledged to myself that I would write more, with more regularity. In my enthusiasm, I thought, why wait for the new year? Start now!

That was on the weekend that just passed. Monday came and went without a word getting pencilled.

Tuesday, I thought, let it be the first day to translate my mojo into action. I planned to wake up at 530am so that I could give myself a half hour to drink my coffee and emerge from my drowsed state, and then a good hour to write before the needs of the day started clamoring noisily for my attention.

I got out of bed at 620am. That’s almost a full hour later than I had planned. I hit the snooze button on my alarm a few many times, loathing myself even as I stretched into the bed and clamped my pillow over my head to block out reality.

The whole time in Snoozeland, however, I was trying to motivate myself to break out, enter the world that I know I relish. You’ll feel better about yourself if you do this, I told myself. The day will be yours already. Set forth, Archana! In vain did I try to summon my spirit.

When I finally did throw off the blankets successfully (to my credit, there had been two previous attempts, after which I promptly pulled them back and hugged them close to my heart), it was by pleading and striking a compromise with myself: just write two lines, that’s all. If not your short story, write in your journal. Write stream of consciousness, incoherently, garbled, devoid of eloquence. Just write.

Ah, that felt doable. That felt achievable. This was a can-do.

It’s what got me out of bed. And then I did write, more than the two lines. Nothing like low expectations to get going.

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The Mindful Buddhist

Be mindful. To live happily, this is the advice given by Buddhist masters. It sounds simple enough, but what exactly does it mean?

For three days in early June, I saw it in action, right in front of me. Mindfulness presented itself in the form of a Mr. Tenzin, who is part of the security team for His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

I was among the thousand-odd crowd who had gathered to attend the teachings by HH at Dharamsala. Eager, curious and ready to learn, I was like everyone else in wanting to catch a glimpse of HH, be close to him, and seize any opportunity to seek his blessings. I arrived at the Main Temple on the first day, bright-eyed at 630 am, so as to get the front row seat. Mr. Tenzin was at the door, ready for me. He asked me for my official pass, studied it, and then politely informed me that today was not my day to sit in the main hall. He pointed me towards the section that was appropriate for me and then smoothly moved on to the next participant waiting.

I nodded, slightly deflated, and made my way to my section. I didn’t feel bad, though. I was where I was expected to be, and he had guided me, nicely, to it. I made myself comfortable on the padded mattresses that had been laid out so considerately by the organizers – there were close to three hours before the session was to start. Then, I began to watch Mr. Tenzin.

Since I was sitting on the floor, his shoes came into my line of sight almost immediately. Formal, black, laced pumps, immaculately shined. Black socks. His official uniform, a grey suit, sat comfortably on his frame, tailored, it seemed, solely for him. His hair was neatly combed, fingers clean and nails short. He held his walkie-talkie firmly, in a manner that conveyed it’s only business was to be in his hand to be used.

As time passed, person after person came to the door, to enter the main hall. Some tried to slip in nonchalantly, others gave the expected “Make an exception for me, I know so-and-so”. There were also some who pleaded to the goodness of his heart. With every single person, Mr. Tenzin respectfully asked for their official pass, looked it over carefully, and directed them to their respective sections. The same drill, again and again, indistinguishable in his attentiveness, calmness of demeanor or thoroughness. The legitimate participants were allowed in, the rest were given an explanation for their denial of entry. When some returned, with their patrons in tow, Mr. Tenzin patiently explained again, to the patron this time, why the participant had been denied. He listened to the patron, and where it was sanctioned, he allowed entry. And then he turned his attention to the next supplicant.

I marveled at this. No irritation at having to repeat himself, no anger about having rank pulled on him, no frustration at having to explain his job over and over. He simply addressed the situation and then moved on.

In between, when there wasn’t anyone to attend to, he scanned the area, his eyes alert and vigilant. He never left his post. He had a local young volunteer supporting him, and he calmly instructed him as well. I didn’t see him lose his temper once, and he made himself available if the volunteer needed help. When the monks and nuns came through to distribute the Tibetan bread and tea at break time, he helped them by making way for them in the seated crowd.

This probably sounds very ordinary, like he was just doing his job. After all, this could be described as merely a security person ensuring nothing untoward happens or no unauthorized persons are allowed in. So why did he end up fascinating me and capturing my attention over the entire time?

I realized, as my observations mounted day after day, that he was practicing mindfulness. He was doing his job, but, he was doing his job in the way it was supposed to be done. Nothing was assumed. Every little task was given full attention, like it was the most important thing in the world. While waiting for the session to start, he could have sat down on his stool, played with his mobile phone or chatted with his volunteer. He didn’t do any of that. Instead, every moment was used towards fulfilling the job he had been entrusted with.

And, I had another insight: at the end of the third day, I saw that he was expressing something profound underneath it all, humility. Mr. Tenzin, in his words and actions, manifested a deeply respectful attitude towards the scores of people around him, irrespective of class, culture and community, and the hundreds of requests, big and small, coming at him. Everyone got the same treatment, every task was handled with the same gentle care.

As I’m writing this, it is dawning on me that I started out talking about mindfulness but somehow I have gone beyond this. Yes, I think Mr. Tenzin is a mindful Buddhist. In fact, he is probably the most mindful person I have encountered. And, I now want to add, he is also a compassionate Buddhist, because I think that this is the only way he could remain calm, responsive and helpful over the three days.

Perhaps mindfulness and compassion are inextricably intertwined. Watching Mr. Tenzin certainly makes me think so.

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The brush-off

I was walking back from Carter Road, a lively promenade that embraces the Arabian Sea, when he brushed past me, this lanky dude of maybe 20 years, earphones tightly plugged into his dark ears. I was startled, and slowed down a bit. Not him. He kept striding. That’s what caught my attention.

To look at him, he didn’t have anything much to get noticed for. Scrawny body, probably because he couldn’t afford to eat enough. It was a Sunday, the weekly off, so he was decked in his “outing” gear. Red, full-sleeved cotton shirt, the sleeves lazily rolled up Bollywood-style. Skinny jeans, in line with the running trend. And hair tousled with oil to mimic a gelled look.

No, it wasn’t this, though he had clearly put in a lot of effort for that effortless image. It was the earphones. Or rather, the music pumping through those buds and what it was doing to him.

I don’t know what he was listening to, but he was moved by it. His feet moved with a purpose to their step. His shoulders were thrown back and he swung his lean arms away from his body to give off the impression of being bigger than he was. As his face looked to a side, I saw him crooning the lyrics of the song as if the tune was made for him. He reached up his arms, playfully batting the leaves reaching down to him from an overladen tree. This young man was, for the moment, master of the world.

Unabashed, unquestioning about his rightful place in it. None of the cloying deference from the weekday, when he fell into a casteist and classist hierarchy that pegged him at the low end of the totem pole, where he became tentative and insecure because others had the big cars, the shiny watches, the snazzy mobiles, and the fat wallets that have become the measure of how much space you can claim in the world.

The music pulsating through to his ears repainted the landscape. It released the locks, threw open the doors, blew in colour. He could touch anything, anyone. He could stand straight, proudly even, without fear. He could make noise, add his sound to the melody, instead of silently standing by. He was no lesser, he was an equal claimant to the world as it lay.

I smiled to myself. Thank god for music. It doesn’t discriminate to whom it will give pleasure. It’s still there for all, to remind us of the immense everything that we are even when the crazy world we live in insists on squeezing us into tiny peg holes.

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When a song made me a kid again

This morning, I was exploring Indian classical music on YouTube, and stumbled on Bhimsen Joshi’s Majhe maher pandhari. It’s one of his famous devotional songs, though I’m not personally familiar with it. As I listened to the circular rhythm of the tabla and the sweetly clanging small cymbals that are used for temple bhajans, childhood memories tumbled out, scampering across the landscape like children running out on the last day of school.

When I was a kid, a large part of my summer vacations were spent at my maushi’s little chawl flat in Parbhani. Every morning, with the dawn, she would plonk her Phillips transistor radio in the small window facing out to the chawl and Aakashwani would belt out feel-good bhajans. The auspicious sounds woke up the neighbourhood, cheerily prodding the residents to awaken to the newborn day. Soon, the bicycle bell of the milkman would swing in, ringing a call to mothers to bring out their milk vessels. From somewhere, a voice called out for little Pintya to get ready for school, but Pintya just pinched his eyes tighter and pulled the sheet over his head. Elsewhere, a grandmother circumambulated the tulsi plant that sat in the center of the shared courtyard, purifying the air with muttered shlokas.

These summers were not spent doing anything. Anything consciously planned, I mean. No, my summers were unscripted and directionless, open vessels that did not know what was to fill them up. On a blank slate, I picked up the cadence in Marathi as it is spoken in that part of Maharashtra. I watched girls and women haul water from the public tap at the appointed morning and evening hours; often, I participated, grudgingly, as my aunt pointedly reminded me that I was not a guest but family, and family shared in the daily chores.

At the same time, I also know the fun there used to be in following the day wherever it wanted to go. In Parbhani (and the other small towns and villages I went to during the long summer), 4 o’clock heralded a rebooting of the day. Faces were washed afresh, clothes changed, hair braids become untidy were unwoven and then woven back. Fresh jasmine garlands were pinned on. I never had long hair, so it was a challenge for everyone as to where I could pin my jasmines. I was stubborn, I wanted to wear them too, even if it was a waste of money. After failing to convince me my hair was too short, my aunt would, in defeat, cut a full garland into a small strip for me, and stick it on top of my head. It fell to the side quite ungracefully, but I would be very pleased. I didn’t care what I looked like, I had jasmines in my hair. After that, my cousins and I would go to the public park, play made-up games, and before realizing it, the night would have descended, gently nudging us to make our way home.

I’m amazed at the intensity of experience that has blown back from the hidden nooks of my mind. Nothing eventful, yet so impactful in shaping my bond to family and homeland. All because of an old bhajan that streamed this morning.

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