When The Heart Is Heavy, Look To The Rain

The Arabian sea tossed and turned, growling under the watchful sky. Waves formed and then crashed against the rocks with the fervor of a death wish. Froth sprayed.

We all need to throw a tantrum sometimes.

The sky observed it all, absorbed it all. And then, when its last shred of patience was gone, it opened.

Rain streamed out, like children being let out on the last day of school. Eagerly, the wet sheet fell, creating a din that drowned out all other noise. The roar filled my ears. Fat drops blurred everything around, and, as they hit the ground. flung out debris in every direction.

The rain shower lasted barely a few minutes. Quickly, the din dimmed to a patter and then it was gone. The curtain lifted and showed a new world. Everything was cleansed. Palm fronds sparkled without their cover of dust. Roads gleamed with the wet sheen. Even the few passers-by who had taken shelter during the storm stepped out with a calmer demeanor.

As for the sea, it looked soothed. Waves bounced quietly, playfully. It flowed as if at peace.

Rain is like Mother Nature sending a therapist to us. A downpour can feel like the release of heavy feelings held back for too long, now allowed to be let go. It’s like a good, loud crying session, where everything spills out with abandon. And then, eventually, the sobs simmer down to heaves, and these in turn become sniffles until tearful eyes dry out and can be lifted up again. When the clouds clear and the face lifts upward, it looks out upon the world in profound silence. The heart, having been emptied, has no complaint. It is ready to embrace the world again.

 

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The Banyan Tree

Just outside my native home in Ambajogai, there is an old banyan tree. It is as old as time, it feels, because everyone simply refers to it as “vadacha zhaad”, or “the banyan tree”. There is no need to describe it any further; everyone knows who you’re talking about when you refer to the banyan tree.

In our family timeline, I’m pretty sure it was there when my grandparents first moved into the neighbourhood, as young as they were, hopeful for the future. It stood stoically as the patriarch of our family, my grandfather, passed on, and then my grandmother. My father played under it as a child, and now, in his 70s, he has sat under it, enjoying its shade. It is still steady, standing patiently and spreading its full branches for the folk taking cover from the beating sun. On my visits back, I walked by it hundreds of times. I, too, found cool respite under its canopy.

The banyan tree has witnessed all kinds of things and remained steadfast. It has heard the wails of babies, soothing them with lullabies created as the wind moves through its foliage. It has absorbed the weeps of families as loved ones pass on, holding still in tribute. It has welcomed brides as they enter their new homes, shimmering its leaves in celebration. If there is one firm friend I can point to, it is the banyan tree.

So it was with utter distress that I saw a post from my family back in Ambajogai, narrating how the banyan tree was being cut up. Its branches, so old and wise, were blindly pulled down. The reason, I was told, was because it was interfering with some recently installed wires and being a danger to people walking beneath it.

I was distraught. Who was being a danger to whom? Was there no alternative? Does one hurt the very companion that has witnessed our trials and tribulations, seen us fumble through life, always supportive, never judging?

I cried that day. I cried for the banyan tree, who must have experienced tremendous pain. I am sure it felt it, the convulsions of physical dismemberment and also the anguish of betrayal by the very people it had nurtured and loved.

And I cried for us humans, who simply can’t seem to rise out of our arrogance that Nature is there to be bent as per our whims. I am ashamed at our current generations. Maybe, a few generations down, our kids’ kids will read about our times and wonder at how narrow-sighted we were about our relationship with Nature. Maybe they will read this story and be amazed at our ingratitude.

And, just maybe, they will reach out and stroke the trunk of a banyan tree under which they are sitting, letting it know that times have changed.

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Take Off The Mask

All kinds of masks are coming off in this pandemic season. Even as we put on one kind of superficial mask, others are dropping off.

Make-up has become make-do. Eyes, at most, get a kohl treatment. The rest of the face is settling into its natural state.

Fashionable clothes are sitting idle in the closet. The ones that make us feel comfortable in our skin are claiming centerfold.

Perhaps most curious, though, is the way in which the mask of superficiality has dropped from relationships. Real conversations are happening.

Maybe it’s because we’ve run out of things to talk about with each other. The lockdowns have run for so long now that families secluded with only each other have depleted safe topics. The usual ground has gotten covered so many times that, out of sheer need for novelty, hitherto dangerous subjects are feeling acceptable to bring up.

But I suspect it is more than this. I think the coronavirus has forced us to face our mortality and how truly uncertain is our time on Earth. It is contagious from the most dispersed source, the air we share with other human beings, so there is no getting away from it. It is everywhere. There is no cure for it. And, it is taking a lot of lives, often in painful ways.

And so, we are finding ourselves in an extraordinary level of insecurity about our very existence. I might die tomorrow is not so far-fetched a thought. Things feel more uncertain than ever. Anything can happen, I think, I can catch it from practically anyone and anywhere.

In this climate of heightened unsureness, it therefore feels very natural to bare one’s true self. Let me clean up open wounds. Let me tell my loved ones how much I truly love them. Or, sometimes, let me drop the pretense and accept a relationship for how little it is. Let me be reconciled to things as they are. Let me be honest before I must go.

I don’t think much has changed from pre-Covid19 to now. In the world before, the same uncertainty was there, the same possibility that a random brick would fall on your head and your time would be up. It’s just that the nature of this virus has made us confront our mortality with more immediacy and a greater sense of awareness of how little control we truly have over our lives.

I reflected on this at the very beginning, as the crisis was unfolding, about how it has brought the whole world to a standstill and is compelling us to reconsider what we’ve been chasing so desperately. It’s something we should be doing anyway, to keep checking if we’re living the lives we want, if we’re being our whole selves, if we’re bringing our individual light to the world.

As such, the virus, really Mother Nature, seems to have a sense of humour as it goes about its way. In making us put on one type of useful mask, she’s stripping us of the other useless ones.

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When Things Give You Comfort

They say things don’t make good gifts. If you want to make someone happy, give them an experience.

During the current Covid-19 quarantine, where I have been isolated from friends and family for more than 2 months now, I have discovered that this is, in fact, not true. In the midst of my aloneness, it is the things that were given to me by others that have staved off loneliness and given me companionable solace.

A small oil painting hangs from my living room wall, given to me by my friends Sam and Alex. It depicts an African man and woman walking over a bridge, a full river flowing beneath them. The vibrant blues, greens and oranges immediately transport me to Abidjan and Assinie, where I spent many sunny days, cheer and laughter sounding out from all corners. Like the bubbling river, my old friendship with Sam and Alex rippled out into new ones; I close my eyes and I see myself among a crowd of rambunctious uncles, aunties, nephews, and nieces. I see people that became my own and, as I think of them now, become my own.

In the kitchen, I pull out the pressure cooker to cook rice and lentils. It is a steel container with a black handle. It sits atop my counter, motionless, and yet, as I look at it, I see a shop in a small neighbourhood take form, and there is my mother arguing with the shopkeeper. She berates him because he isn’t showing us all options. This one is too big, doesn’t he have something smaller? He must have, can he please go and check at the back of the store. Hah, see, she says, triumphantly, when he returns, I knew you had more varieties. This will do, she declares, eyeing one that is small enough but not too small for my needs. She turns to me for affirmation, I shrug indifferently. Now, however, as the whistle blows for the fourth time and I turn off the stove, I gaze upon it fondly. I feel my mother next to me.

Things are not just things. They are vessels of our memories. Within the physical limits of their shapes, they carry unbounded remembrances – the smells and sounds in the air when they came into my possession, the hug that accompanied their transfer from one to the other, the instructions given with equal measure of love and sternness, on how to use them correctly. A thing can make boundaries of space and time melt away. I have found that it can fill empty rooms and infuse melodious voices that make the silence less oppressive.

This is a strange time we are living in. I have never been separated from my loved ones for so long or in this way. I miss my family and my friends, and am waiting eagerly for the day I can see them in person and sit next to them, arm in arm, share the same food, and feel their loving embrace. Till then, it is the things they gifted me that will comfort me. For this, I am grateful.

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The View from Upside Down

The other day, someone remarked, “The air is the cleanest it has ever been, and here we are, forced to wear masks when we go out.”

It made me pause. This was irony at its best. I wondered, what else is turning upside down?

Well, for starters, a tiny, invisible virus has brought the entire world to its knees. Whatever the arsenal of weapons and nuclear power, however filled the treasury coffers, none of it matters in the slightest. Might is not right. Brute force is not winning. Money is not buying its way to anything. The virus does not care about the moral superiority of any group, it is oblivious to borders and the wars being fought for territorial lines, it couldn’t care less who is privileged and who is not. If there ever was an illustration of how a small, non-descript force can create the most tempestuous storm and change the course of history, this is it.

And I could see more.

The ignored are being saluted. Garbage collectors that are stepping out to keep the city clean, sanitation workers who are mopping up to minimise the virus’ spill, truck drivers that are ferrying food and essentials to restock grocery shops and pharmacies to keep us fed and healthy. These were the very people we didn’t think twice about until recently. Today, we are finally pulling our gaze away from ourselves to see them, really see them, for the service they do for us. Their labour, which has been derided and accordingly devalued as lowly and unskilled, is the very thing that is protecting humanity.

The tough job that teachers do is hitting home, literally, as parents struggle to keep their kids engaged and try to impart learning in the absence of a classroom. I have always wondered why we pay teachers as little as we do, and moreover, why we give them so little respect, preferring to look up to fancy financial whizzes who move virtual money around on computer terminals but can’t show anything tangible they’ve created. The profound contributions of a teacher are getting a new wind of appreciation.

Will this change things once the virus has exerted its wrath and gone away? I hope so. I hope we reconsider what we reward and who we admire. I hope we are able to continue showing gratitude for every person doing their job as honestly as they can, no matter what their station in life. I hope we continue looking people in the eye, to acknowledge their existence, to show a sense of camaraderie and community.

Perhaps the most upside down thing this virus has revealed is that we are all, indeed, one.

After the storm has passed, I sincerely hope we don’t go back to putting the furniture back straight. It was crooked all this time. The view from upside down is looking like the better one.

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Making Sense of Life

Dawn crept over me, shyly.

I had not pulled my curtains properly the night before and so, through the cracks of fabric, soft pink rays began to peter in. I squeezed my eyes, pretending to shut them out. I turned. The warm sunshine started touching my hair. I turned back.

This light play between nature and me is happening even as another part of nature ravages the world, wrathfully.

The novel COVID-19 virus has shown up like an uncouth guest in homes across the world, unbidden, unwelcome. It goes wherever it pleases, lingering for as long as suits it, taking what it wants. It interrupts weddings planned months earlier, keeping apart old and young who wanted to give their blessings and joy to a couple about to come together. It destroys smaller reunions, of friends at a Friday night bar, of kids visiting parents living far away, of neighbours greeting each other as they walk their dogs. It takes people away from us, sooner than we had expected. It is turning the world upside down.

And yet, in this ransacked existence, where rubble is still forming and falling, there are already offshoots of resurgence.

Small birds have come out of hiding as the assault of mechanical beasts has disappeared overnight. There is no traffic. No noise, no smog, no power. Tentatively at first, all sorts of creatures seem to be coming back. I hear coos, tweets, and whistles that I have not heard before.

The tree outside my window has many more budding mangoes than ever. Every branch seems to be carrying half a dozen sweet fruit on its own. The whole tree is more mango than leaf.

At night, I see the stars. They wink at me. They have always been there, now I can see them. As if to applaud, I hear the croaks of frogs rise in tandem.

What sense will we make out of this when it is all over? I don’t know. There are so many conflicting signals. Even as some people selfishly hoard medical masks, other essentials, and groceries, there are others sharing generously from their own pantry, forgiving rents, and checking in on the elderly so they don’t feel alone and stranded. As more people get sick and worry about social stigma, others recover and are embraced back by their neighbourhood. As some defiantly defy the pleas for social distancing, hand washing and mask-wearing by going to the beach and mingling openly, others diligently follow it, serenading new friends from one’s balcony, making masks at home for those who need them, and staying home despite the gnawing boredom.

It is a strange time. It does not make sense.

But then, I remind myself, life isn’t really to be made sense of.

I pick up my broom and start sweeping the house.

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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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