Books, my comfort food

What’s your comfort food? I use that term loosely to mean whatever you go to for comfort.

For me, it’s books. When the outside world feels unclear and incomprehensible, I retreat to an inner world written on defined pages, within known margins, with familiar language. In those leaves, I enter a space of sense and serenity.

The stories themselves may spread far and wide, into unknown terrain, but they are never threatening. Despite the tensions, conflicts and other drama that are invoked among the characters, there is a friendliness to a story, even if it’s a murder mystery. At the end, there is resolution.

Perhaps it is that the events that transpire, the traumas that are inflicted on the protagonist, and the vicissitudes experienced between beginning and end remain at a safe distance. Yes, I get emotionally involved with the hero, but still I know it is not my life. At times of vulnerability in my own life, it is reassuring to follow someone else’s trajectory, to detach from my own for a little while.

The friendliness of a story lies in that, actually – with the distance, a story offers me perspective on my own goings-on. It cajoles me to find ground beneath my feet by walking through a secret garden, transporting myself away from my small and shrinking world into another’s expansive canvas. Inevitably, I find myself relating to one or many characters. This, too, provides solace in that it conveys to me that I am not alone in the great human experiment.

Books are my steady soldiers, always there for me whenever I need them.

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Thank you, Starbucks

“Ni hao!” The barista called out, as I stepped into a Starbucks cafe in downtown Shanghai.

“Ni hao!” He said again. I looked up and realised he was talking to me. A 20-something chap with a cherubic face and trendy eyeglasses beamed at me, waiting for me to say hello back.

“Ni hao,” I said, weakly, still finding it strange to roll these words around my mouth. I had only been in Shanghai a day and was still finding my bearings.

“What can I get you?” he asked, politely. I broke into a relieved smile: he spoke English. My immediate thought was that I would not have to point at things, mime or load up Google Translate. One of us spoke a language that worked for both of us.

As a stranger in a strange land, Starbucks has become like home: comfortable and comforting. I know my way around a Starbucks cafe so I don’t feel as untethered and lost as I do just outside the doors.

Recognizable food and drinks relieve the stress of ordering. Bar stools with tables on which to place my laptop and plush chairs to read in give me a defined place in which I can situate myself. This, even as I know I will soon explore the new cuisines in my new land, even as I know I will leave the familiar corner for new spaces and great, unknown adventures. The green mermaid on my cup smiles impishly at me, almost winking at me, I am sure. You’ve got this, she seems to say, it’s not scary out there and you’ll be fine. I feel myself relax and grin back.

At Starbucks, I feel a sense of acceptance, which has a heightened urgency and value to it at a time when the rest of the city is still checking me out and deciding if we fit. Inside Starbucks, I’m not weird for not speaking the language, for not having a digital wallet, for not having lighter skin, smaller eyes, less pronounced features.

That’s why it’s like home. At home, I have a place for me, always. I have a family that accepts me for all my warts and imperfections. I have a resting pad to gather my spirit and resolve before I launch into the big, wide world.

And that’s the other reason Starbucks is like home: I will leave it to venture out, to taste new things, make new friends, experience new adventures. And I will come back, from time to time, to reconnect, recover, and replenish. It is an umbilical cord that extends as far as I want to go and still tells me there is always a home back home.

So thank you, Starbucks, for being my home and family.

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Why don’t we share anymore?

A butterfly greedily sucks nectar from bright, pink flowers on a shrub in front of me. First one, then another, then yet another. For their part, the flowers are in full bloom and wait patiently for their turn.

Why do we have so much trouble sharing our love? We don’t behave generously like the butterfly or the flowers. Instead, we choose who is worthy of receiving our love. You, yes. You, no, go away, you’re not wanted.

Most recently, this was expressed in the most brutal way at Charlottesville, USA. Some people decided they did not want some other people around because they did not like their skin colour, sex, religion and culture. This is not just happening in Charlottesville. Across the world, we are seeing carbon copies of the same syndrome. One tribe of people wants to be the only butterflies around. And they only want one type of flower too.

Why this greed? Why this destructiveness? Why this urge to claim a monopoly? I think it’s about fear. Ironically, the ones seeking to dominate, usurp, and hoard are afraid they don’t have a place in the world, that other people don’t want them, that nobody loves them. So, they must assert a false aggression, forcing others to accept and love them.

There’s no need for this. There are enough flowers around, waiting with openness. There are many butterflies to drink the nectar and spread the pollen into a welcoming world. Life is big, with a place for everyone. The only onus on us is to recognize this, so we can go about life with sureness and joy. Like the butterfly and the flower, humming in tandem.

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How to survive chaos

The world is seething these days,
tumbling in all directions
in a hot, angry spill.

I wonder how to cope some days. I scroll over a few news nuggets and am sickened in my stomach.

And then I chance upon the equivalents of a deep, cleansing breath. A dog that wags his tail as our eyes meet. He shuffles up to me for an unabashed rub. Carnations, pink, white and red, which sit contentedly in a long bucket on the side of the road, keeping the flower-seller company. The diary of a girl called Anne Frank.

It is not all evil. There is good. I repeat this to myself as I remember Maya Angelou’s words. Still I rise.

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It’s a wonderful world

A few days ago, I wrote a little piece on Kerala and how it feels like I am walking in God’s own country (which is their state tag line, so apt). It got the most likes of any of my blogposts.

I’m not sure why.

It could be that my writing was so evocative. Or Kerala is a darling topic in the blog world. It could be many things. My hunch is that it was a reprieve from the nastiness that’s swirling and lashing about us.

The world feels unfriendly, more than ever. And it’s unrelenting. Bad news follows more bad news, it seems. New lows of human behaviour are replaced with even newer lows, which did not look to be possible. Is this what we’re doomed for?

No. Most emphatically, no.

Even in the darkness of night, stars sparkle. In the heaviest of storms, rainbows emerge. In the murkiest mud, a lotus blooms.

Amidst the bleakness of everything that is happening around us, Kerala might have felt like drops of rain on parched land. A reminder of what goodness looks like. Maybe an affirmation that life still makes sense in a small corner of the world.

For me, Kerala brought back what decency, civility and courtesy used to be. Most importantly, it reassured me that they are still around.

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Ode to Kerala

Kerala, God’s own country. That’s what the state billed as its tagline when it launched the Kerala tourism campaign many, many years ago. A better description of oneself I have yet to see.

Come to Kerala, any part of the state, and within minutes, you will sense that this just might be what God had in mind originally.

Everywhere, lush palm trees stand abreast of each other, in full numbers across the landscape. The green fronds carry erect, finely carved blades with assurance. Look up to the neck of any palm tree and you will see 20 or 30 coconuts cradled lovingly. Some are fully developed, about to drop while others are mere buds, tender and raw. Cocooned, they grow unhurriedly.

Or maybe it’s the plump yellow and red bananas, happily nestled with other fat compatriots on a banana stem, waiting patiently to be plucked and savoured for their untainted sweetness.

The clean beaches get kissed softly by playful sea waves, over and over. Birds titter, undrowned by the cacophony of crows. The crows are, in fact, strangely quiet. They feel less stressed, less competitive to the others to stake their place in this wide, generous world.

Everything and everyone has a place under the sun in Kerala. Nothing feels forced. People and Nature flow synchronously, at their own unhurried, assured pace. There is a quiet confidence that there is nowhere else to go, nothing else to be.

I feel myself relax like I haven’t been able to for months. I guess that’s what happens when you visit God’s own country.


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Rude, the new normal

Every day, I look around, astonished, at the amplitude of rudeness around me.

An auto rickshaw comes towards me, at me, on the wrong side of the road, and stares sullenly, audaciously. Voices rise at dissenting views, affronted by the simple divergence of opinions, indignant at having to explain themselves. Phones scrolled even as I talk to the now downward-looking face. Internet trolls, who don’t know me yet feel at ease to pounce and denounce with abandon.

These actions are rude, it’s important to call them out for what they are. What’s astonishing is the manner in which they have become an accepted part of the surroundings. “Ignore them,” someone tells me. The car behind me honks, urging me to skirt around the errant rickshaw and get on with life. “Don’t worry about it, that’s just how he is, that’s just how she is,” I’m counseled. “You’re better off to ignore it.”

Ignore it? Is that really the way to respond to this? I’m flabbergasted. How quickly we have loosened the strings of decency that bound us as civilized. We have lost sense of the norms that set us apart from animals in the pursuit of money, time, getting ahead, winning, whatever. It used to be that calling someone an animal was to insult him; I now hesitate to use this term as animals consistently seem to be the better lot to us.

Every day, the rude acts multiply. A thousand tiny cuts that are unnoticeable until I realize I’ve bled out my humanity. Then what?

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