The Space Between

What do you do when you are between things?

When you are waiting for the elevator, do you fiddle with your phone? When sitting in traffic, do you keep changing radio stations until the traffic signal turns green? Or, when chatting with a friend, do you jump in to fill in her words while she’s figuring out what she wants to say?

We don’t seem to like gaps too much, not these days. Any kind of break is seen as an unwelcome intruder. We’re disoriented when we aren’t engaged. We don’t know what to do with ourselves, as if we’re supposed to be doing something every second and every minute.

And yet, in the most essential experience, breathing, there is a pause. Between an inhalation and an exhalation, there is a nanosecond when nothing happens. And yet, that micro-instant is what fuels life.

The space between things is magical, if only we allow ourselves to feel it. It’s when unknown things unfold and reveal themselves to us. We may know with a fair amount of certainty the before and after; what happens in between?

You might catch the janitor’s eye in the lobby as you wait, a shy smile might be offered and reciprocated, and your morning might just take a different, brighter trajectory.

You might catch a kiss exchanged in the car in front of you, a tender moment that softens you up as you enter home and greet your kids, forgetting the stresses of the day.

You might allow your friend to reveal a deep secret, which is why she was struggling to respond to you. Maybe she wanted to change the subject because she really needs your help.

Letting the space between unveil itself requires a willingness to be vulnerable, to not know what’s going to happen in the next instant, to not be in control. It asks you to be curious, without judgment. To be generous to allow anything to happen, including something that you could not have ever anticipated.

The space between is where magic happens.

 

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Cote D’Ivoire, A Tiny Country With a Big Heart

In Cote D’Ivoire, a tiny country in West Africa, there is a lot of love to go around.

I experienced it firsthand, when I traveled to Abidjan, the biggest city, and Assinie, a sleepy beach resort, to be with my friend, Sam, and his large extended family.

The day I landed, I was whisked from the airport to the family home by Abraham, the family chauffeur with the kindest face I have seen. When we finally reached (Abidjan traffic is reaching Mumbai standards of choking), I was met with three kisses by every member of the family, from a 3-year old child to the elderly matriarch and everyone in between.  Americans like to do one, the French do two, but these are not enough for the Ivoirians. Three kisses, it seems, are needed in order to make a person feel seen, acknowledged, and loved.  Or, perhaps, this is how much they need to express their feelings to full satisfaction.

I was delighted. Coming from the Indian culture that is quite conservative and generally low on physicality, this was indeed very agreeable. One of the relatives was so good at it, he made me feel like I was the most special thing on earth every time we greeted each other. As with me, it was with others: an exuberant grin lit up his face each time and spread the same cheer on those around.

And then there is the attention that is bestowed to one and all, young and old alike. Every so often, I heard individuals being called out, tenderly, with no other intent except to check in on how they were doing. It was like a roll call to make sure one of the clan hadn’t wandered off somewhere to no one’s notice. Except, this shout out was loaded with gentleness and care. It was like, how ARE you doing?, a genuine interest in you.

This was the case even with regular Ivoirians who walked past me, they called out “Bonjour”, waiting for the reciprocal greeting to be rendered. Civilised exchange still took place here, I noted.

As the week progressed, I found myself on the laguna at Maison D’Akoula in Assinie. Assinie is barely 2 hours outside of Abidjan, and yet, feels like it is in a different, idyllic realm. Things move more slowly here, the air is freer, the night sky more speckled with bright stars.

Sitting on my villa’s terrace at Maison D’Akoula, my gaze fell upon a two-person canoe that was approaching. The young men were engaged in deep conversation. As they neared, they looked towards me and called out.

“Bonjour, madame.” Bonjour, I said back.

One of them was munching on a sandwich, which he offered. “Vous voulez manger du pain?” he asked. Would you like some? I politely declined, and they went back to discussing whatever they had been discussing. A little camaraderie exchanged, friendliness released into the air.

They floated by. I got up from my chair and walked towards the ocean.

Palm trees lined the beach front, tall and short, all standing like silent witnesses from time immemorial. The fronds were fuller and more delicate than what we see in Asia, each leaf just a bit more sharply defined and stronger. As much as this landscape reminded me of Kerala, Goa and Sri Lanka, it had a distinct African feel to it. Like the men and women that walked below them, the palms stood a little more erect, a bit more stolid.

“So, what do you think about the Ivory Coast?” one of the family asked, sidling up beside me.

I reflected, watching a gaggle of children as they played around us, running, tumbling, laughing, as children do. One looked like an Ashanti princess, regal in her forehead, charcoal lined glistening eyes, and pert nose. Her brother stood in cultured quietness, speaking with full properness as royalty must. The youngest, a toddler, gave doleful looks as if to say it was not her fault she had come last to the family. There they were, with their cousins, each of them strong little souls proudly exuding an ancient majesty.

“Beautiful,” I responded, thinking of the children as much as the country. Everywhere I looked, there was a raw, timeless purity. As if the echoes from thousands of millenia were still pulsing through, unvarnished. This is, after all, where life began.

The waves crashed noisily. The Atlantic Ocean threw them forward, sending them to eagerly stretch inland, only to see them disintegrate and flow back. Full of vim as the ocean was, I could not help but think back to the darker times when humans were deeply hurt on these very waters. The ocean has seen many things. Shaking my head to dislodge the sadness that was falling over me, I saw in the distance a small fisherman’s boat, setting out onto these same waters. Deftly, the three fishermen rode the surf, bobbing up and down until they had cleared it and entered the calmer, wider watery plains. How differently the ocean served its masters today.

I sat down, digging my toes into the soft white sand. It felt cool, a welcome distraction from the morning sun that was starting to beat down.

“You came all they way from India? This is true friendship between you and Sam,” one of the family marvelled.

Friends like Sam are exceptional strokes of luck. These friendships feel like when two stars explode out of the same larger star and then, against all odds, find each other across the infinite universe. Even though we don’t see each other often and we live on separate continents, the bond is oblivious to the frailties of time and geography.  He calls me his sister, he is my brother. And this being Africa, his whole family embraced me as their own.

Perhaps it’s Sam. Perhaps its Africa. There were many other friends that joined us in Abidjan and Assinie, friends who were also reuniting with members of the family after a long time. Bonds of the heart don’t get erased so easily.

The sun shone its afternoon brilliance, fighting against the inevitable impending descent.

“Hey, Archana,” Sam, called out, walking towards me from across the beach. “You doing okay?”

I smiled. Squinting up at him, I nodded. This was the happiest place on earth for me right then, right there.

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Finding happiness in bread

“How’re you liking your new home?” I asked my cousin. He had recently moved to a new city, his first time out of our home state of Maharashtra.

“It’s all right, I guess,” he said, in a somewhat non-committal fashion. He looked away. The noisy bustle of the cafe rose between us.

He looked back at me. “Yeah, it’s just all right,” he repeated, softly.

I stirred my coffee. What had that reflective pause been about? Is he feeling disoriented? It would be natural, I thought, sympathetically. In India, moving from one’s own state to another was akin to moving countries, involving a new language, new customs, new spaces and mores to navigate. Culture shifted every 200 kms, so he had moved a distance the equivalent of a continent.

Was he missing his family? Was he questioning himself? I waited. Maybe the silence would encourage him to open up and share his innermost feelings.

“They don’t know how to make good poli here,” he said, in Marathi. They don’t know how to make bread.

I burst out laughing. He looked surprised, and then broke into a shy grin. I shook my head at myself. What a knack I had for over-complicating things. There was no existential angst at work here, no identity crisis, no emotional turmoil. It was a straight and simple complaint about a basic daily need. Basic, yet with the potential to make the whole day feel unsatisfying.

The poli, or chapati, sits in the center of a Maharashtrian’s food plate, anchoring the rest of the meal like a queen holding court. Curries, lentils and chutneys arrange themselves around the matriarch, awaiting their turns to be scooped up and not minding if they have to intermingle if only they are chosen. If the bread isn’t the right softness, thickness, or saltiness, if it hasn’t been made in the folded manner, or it hasn’t been puffed on an open flame, the meal flops. No matter how hard the complementing dishes try to boost up their tastiness oomph, the experience is doomed. Without a center, it all falls apart.

Every Maharashtrian has their individual expectation of how a poli should taste. It stems from what one grew up eating, based on how one’s mother chose to make them. Within my own extended family, the variations of how each aunt makes poli, in her own style, can cause some of us to grit our teeth and endure in silence until one’s own mum is the appointed one to make poli  for the next meal.

As I’ve grown up and become an adult, I’ve had to adjust my palate often and a lot. When I lived in the US, there were times when I became so nostalgic for this cultural bread that I pretended to eat it in the form of tortillas. Now that I’m back in India, I have a cook that makes them for me. I sometimes make it myself. None of these make-do arrangements compares to the real deal, when my mum visits and cooks for me. There is nothing comparable to the first whiff of toasty, fluffy poli emanating from the kitchen, and then it comes out, slathered with home-made ghee, and tossed on my plate, steaming hot. It is impossibly soft, tasty enough to eat on its own. It is as close to bliss as I can imagine. And my mum’s poli is so unique, I can recognize it among thousands and even if you blindfolded me.

I clucked my tongue in sympathy for my cousin. I understood his complaint. While it wasn’t an existential dilemma, it did make a difference to one’s happiness.

“Good luck finding it,” I said, sincerely. He nodded.

 

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A bird makes me thoughtful

It is the dusk hour, and a bird twitters outside my window. I can’t tell what kind of a bird it is. Its voice is big and confident and yet, the high pitch conjures up the image of a sparrow or similar small-sized creature. Soft, nurturing bosom, shy to humans, and still, fully possessed of its uniqueness in the great canvas.

To hear birds freely warbling throughout the day has become a blessing I explicitly count now. As the Amazon fires burn Earth’s lungs, water tables dry up and species go extinct, I am not sure if the Nature I grew up with will be there when I die.

This little bird outside my window has put me into a despondent mood. Even as it sings its heart out, it makes me painfully conscious of the possibility that its friendliness to me may be shortlived.

To be sure, revivals are happening as well. The tiger population in India is rebounding. Rhinos were bred successfully in Africa recently. The Maharashtra government, like many other state governments and other countries, is on a mission to plant trees. I recently saw a post on Instagram of a tribal man in Northeast India who has been planting trees for the last 40-odd years, and he has created a living forest, with animals and birds inhabiting, today.

Like all things in life, every yin has its yang. The flip side of despair is hope. Every villain has his hero. The only choice to be made, it seems, is which side I want to be on.

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Aloneness

A person out on her own must be lonely and is, therefore, to be pitied.

“Table for one? This way, ma’am.” The poor thing has no one to eat lunch with.

“One ticket? Oh, ok.” So sad, doesn’t she have a boyfriend to take her out to a movie?

As someone who is often out and about by myself, I find this reaction more so in India than in individualistic societies like the US, where the changing demographics and geographic mobility have long since made it normal to be single, not know anyone and be doing things on one’s own.

In India, however, society is still more stable and so, you are expected to be ensconced within a dense social circle that weaves tightly around you. School and college friends mill around, ready to gang up to do things together. Joint families are still common, so the options (responsibilities?) to go out with family members are many. People still believe in marriage and get married in their 20s with the expectation that all things henceforth are to be done together as a couple.

In all of this, there is, it seems, very little space left to express one’s aloneness. By aloneness, I mean the healthy state of being by oneself to do the things that nurture one’s own self, soul, spirit. Like taking solitary walks by the beach to pause and gain perspective on where your life is heading. Or, slow sipping a cappuccino while you momentarily step out of your own life and engage in lazy people watching from out the cafe’s window. Or, meandering through ancient ruins, without someone else’s chatter to interfere with what history wants to whisper to only you.

Setting aside some time alone regularly is a good thing. it reconnects you to yourself in a way that nothing else can. It lets you catch a breath from the existential treadmill. In today’s over-packed world, a momentary pause is a gift. More than a gift, it is an urgent respite that allows you to check in with yourself. It’s a way to remind you of who you truly are and ask if you’re making the choices that stand up for that person.

There is a growing trend among young Indians to set out on their own and wander off the beaten path in solo mode. It’s leading to all kinds of changes. Like restaurant seating, where tables for one or two are becoming more common where earlier, they were filled with tables for four or more. Eyebrows don’t get raised as much nowadays when a solo traveller checks into a hotel; in fact, online sites allow you to filter searches for single-friendly facilities. Relatives don’t comment as much anymore if you say you’re going out by yourself for a while.

Maybe there’s a realization that letting people be has become a need of the times. We are so overwhelmed with our lives – thanks to the hyperconnectedness of social media, a growing economic prosperity that is feeding a frenzied consumerism, and an intense universal competitiveness that is stoking insecurity and dissatisfaction – that the need to take a break from everything and everyone has become but obvious.

In a changing India, there is a growing acceptance that, sometimes, alone does not mean lonely. The younger generation seems to get it. As someone who takes “alone time” regularly, I recommend it.

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Munnar’s Magical River

Across from my hotel, a small river flows by. It is a river, insists the hotel manager, although it looks more like a stream to me. I believe him and feel saddened by the visibly depleting ravages of climate change.

The river is beautiful, nestled amidst rolling waves of lush green tea plantations. Clear water gurgles happily, undaunted by the big brown boulders that squat in its way. These ancient rocks are misshapen, awkwardly elongated here, abruptly cracked there. No matter. They stand firm, formidable in their form and with no signs of relenting.

It is the river that adjusts. With each encounter, it changes from a clear, calm surface to a spirited white froth, energetically tumbling through as if its life depended on it. It dances around the block as it lands, much in the same way as puppies play around an unmoved mother. It doesn’t linger; it moves forward and settles into a calmer flow until it meets another rock, this time a smaller one. It washes over it, giving it a makeshift pair of floppy ears. Water sprays everywhere.

This is the way of the river. It keeps changing direction, shifting form, slowing down or racing forward, one barrier after another. It never stops . From this, the combination of the water, the boulders, everything, emerges an unexpected beauty. The unity, in all its imperfections, is what becomes the magnificent river.

It’s no surprise that the river has been a source of inspiration for many across the ages. Herman Hesse’s Sidhartha relied on it to convey the ultimate truth about life and happiness. I can see why. There are many profound lessons hidden in the river if only one stops to experience them.

This particular river, flowing through Munnar, made me think, how often do we look at obstacles as supportive rather than hindering to our performance? The typical reaction is to groan and complain about how much harder it now is to achieve our goal. Rarely do we consider that the new development can allow a hidden facet to emerge, and that these new facets add a lustre that was not possible before.

What’s more, the river takes many forms. At times, it is quiet, slow, flat. At others, it is a raging bull, surging forward with a forceful, passionate energy. Is one better than the other? They both have a reason.

In Nature, as in life, things are messy. People don’t behave the way we expect them to, events don’t occur according to the timeline we have designed, and accidents take place at an ironic regularity. Instead of chafing against the messiness, it seems the idea is to flow with it.

 

 

 

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The New Vacation: Exile

Lately, I’ve been thinking about vacations. It’s about that time of the year when I need a respite from the usual grind, when my batteries go into the amber zone and send out a plaintive signal to be recharged.

As I’ve mulled over where to go for a holiday, I’ve found myself craving something that will give me solitude. I’m not just talking about leaving behind the cacophany of the city with its blaring horns and foggy skies that blot out the stars. That’s certainly in order. No, I’m talking about solitude to the point of exile, where I find myself banished to an unfamiliar experience, without the comforts of connectivity or connections. I’m seeking a space where I am not swapping one set of distractions for another – from the tedious daily grind to an exciting set of new activities that, nevertheless, still act to seduce my senses. I think my senses need a break too.

New York recently experienced a blackout, which is highly unusual for the place. Folks, I’ve heard, thoroughly enjoyed the silencing of technology for those precious few hours. Exactly a year ago, I went on a meditation retreat that gave me the same opportunity for 10 days. Tough as it was, I find myself reminiscing fondly for the way I was isolated from everyone and everything. This included myself, or the self that I defaulted to, the one that liked to read before falling asleep, that wrote her thoughts when overwhelmed by the world, that talked at length about upsets and excitements with friends until the topic was exhausted.

At that retreat, I shed all of that and was forced to look squarely at what was in front of me, unvarnished, with no crutches. There was something deeply rejuvenating about this, to become, in a way, reacquainted with what is.

A year later, I find myself wanting this in the vacation I’m planning. I’m looking for spots that don’t have a lot to do. Instead, they’re just there, being. I can join their fold, quietly, inobtrusively. I’d like to be where the only expectation is to take a deep breath, followed by a few more, and that’s it. Where I can look around me, not seeing anything spectacular, which will force me to remain gazing at the ordinary view. Where I can sit down and write, because there is nothing else to do.

This kind of vacation has only one word to describe it, self-imposed exile. More and more, I think it is the kind of break we all need. Where, once upon a time, vacation was to break the humming doldrums of everyday existence, now, it has come to represent the relief of low-key ordinariness in lives that are increasingly overstimulated.

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