Marathwada Diaries: Where Everyone Knows Your Name

You know that feeling when you walk down the street and people call you by your name?

As a city-dweller, I’m not used to it. I consider myself lucky that my neighbourhood grocer and cornershop proprietor recognize me enough to smile at me. In the anonymous space of a city teeming with the steady in-flow and out-flow of strangers, familiarity dribbles in a thin trickle. With averted eyes, we urbanites draw boundaries around us so that even though we share physical space with our neighbours, we are distinct, separate units socially.

Not so in Ambajogai, a tiny town in the heart of Marathwada. It’s my hometown, where my roots lie. It’s a place where, even though I have not spent a lot of time there, the enduring legacy of prior generations marks me as one of their own. There, I am not a stranger.

I experienced this over the last several days, when I had returned to Ambajogai after a few years’ gap. As I wandered through the side streets with my aunt and cousins, I saw people looking intently at me, breaking into a smile and calling out.

“Is she Vasantrao’s daughter? I thought so.”

“Ramabai, when did you come back? And did you bring your daughter in tow this time? Very good!”

“Do you recognize me? It’s been many years, you may have forgotten. I’m XYZ’s son.”

Some spoke to my mother, exchanging warm pleasantries while casting friendly, curious glances at me. Others approached me directly, like old friends expecting to be embraced. When I failed to place one of them, they felt wounded. I felt ashamed, as if I had broken a deep bond.

As I made my way deeper into the old bylanes, I experienced a growing sense of belonging. In the dusk hour, people were drawing rangoli outside their homes. From their crouched positions, they turned and greeted me like they had known me for years. Every home’s door was open, revealing an endearing innocence; the world was not big, bad and scary to these folks. Conversations carried in the air, the words floating in a carefree way towards anyone that was ready to receive them. Old men and women sat on the long stone benches along their homes, contentedly watching the world go by, including me. I felt like I could walk into any home I wanted, and I would be greeted with warmth and openness. I felt accepted, without having asked for it.

It is a nice feeling, to be accepted. So much of modern living seems to be a struggle to find our place. It is understandable and even rightful – the modern struggle is aimed at ensuring we carve a spot that fits our unique contours. And still, it was a welcome reprieve to go to my native place and realize there was a place already waiting for me. I slipped into it easily and with relief.

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Bright, red nail polish

Sometimes, a girl just needs bright, red nail polish.

I am finding the world quite taxing these days. It’s hotter than it should be in November, thanks to global warming. I take a deep breath and it feels like I’ve sucked from an ash tray.   On top of it, my social media feed keeps belching out manufactured crises every few hours.  There’s just too much bad news and my cup runneth over.

So, I am resorting to bright, red nail polish. When I look at my freshly coated toes, I see ten cheerful little blobs grinning back at me. They brim with unfettered confidence, and they say to me, “Come on, which marvellous place are we going today?” Pure, infectious optimism.

For a brief instant, I forget about the angst bubbling around me. I leave behind the heaviness. I let my spirit soar on the back of lusty, playful red wings. I wiggle my toes. They dance. Come on, they urge me, let’s play.

I wiggle them again. I can’t help smiling. I don’t know if we over-complicate things and worry about all the wrong things. For a few moments, though, I wonder if it isn’t just as simple as this.


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On Unpleasant Things And What They Teach Us

The yellowed, dying leaf drifted slowly towards the ground. Its green brothers, luminous and firm, watched silently. In the next instant, the wind moved playfully through them, as if the yellow leaf had never existed.

I took a sip of my morning coffee and pondered, Is this life? In a matter of moments, I had witnessed a decayed leaf fall from its perch, its peer leaves standing by, unmoved, and then things moved right along. Everything flowed, even as it included life, death, and everything in between.

How differently we humans react to such events. If we see a tragedy fall upon a beloved friend or family member or even ourselves, we respond with strong emotions. We feel angry on their behalf, saddened, and distressed, and frantically try to do something to avert the tragedy. We rarely accept an event quietly as it unfolds.

And yet, so often, I have found that what seemed like a catastrophe at first turned out to be a great blessing in fact. Some of my most rewarding moments in life have been the very ones I railed against, and only when I found the humility to see them for what they were (usually after I was spent in fighting it) was I able to embrace the gift they bore.

We are so quick to judge. It’s a primal instinct, I think – fight or flight – to maximize our survival. Even after millenia of evolution, we still seem to be hardwired to instantly colour an experience as desirable or undesirable and then react as instantly to increase its pleasantness or decrease its unpleasantness.

Buddhism has taught me to break this instinctive habit. I am learning to pause, to wait in the space between a stimulus and a response. I am increasing my powers to observe, or rather, my patience to observe. As I adopt a more mindful approach, I am slowing down and making allowances for events to transpire that I don’t find desirable. In the course of becoming aware and studying them, they lose the simplistic picture they initially gave. Instead, as I watch them with a neutral gaze, they reveal themselves to be more nuanced, more wholesome. Even the unpleasant ones. Removing the sheen of judgment that I so hastily and indignantly slapped on an event liberates it to become a non-threatening friend.

Ultimately, the goal is to be like the green leaves, stoic and wise, to be able to stand by as a brother falls, because it is the right action to assist the flow of life.

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The Human-ness of a Real Conversation

There is nothing more soul-fulfilling than a friend.

I met a dear friend for an evening out recently. He and I have been in touch over digital airwaves, yet the inadequacy of social media technology was fully exposed within the first few minutes of seeing each other in person.

I felt a rush of human-ness flood over me. Unlike social media chats, the conversation had a heartfelt rhythm to it, possible only with intentional listening and empathy. We ebbed and flowed, hitting the high notes of a witty joke to the rich depths of emotional angst. Nodding in encouragement at some points, holding still at others to absorb, I felt a partnership in the thoughts I was expressing even as I tried to articulate them. I was literally seen, being physically in his line of sight, and I also felt metaphorically seen.

There is something irreplaceable about sharing physical space with another human being. At the most primal level, I feel acknowledged, like my existence is registered and that I matter. Non-verbal signals fill the air, enriching it and affecting me in all kinds of ways.

Hi-tech solutions are nice, they have a place in the world. But, they do not replace old-fashioned real interactions. In fact, they cannot, because two humans engaging with each other will always be so much more than time-lagged smiley emojis, inert postings of photos, and vacuous “good morning” memes.

I know it’s a busy world and nobody has time anymore. It’s why we are more connected and more lonely than ever before. But, it is the making of time and the allowing of space for wholesome, holistic conversations that feeds the soul.

I feel rejuvenated from an evening spent with a friend. I feel like a human again.

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Toilets in India: Now A Seat of Respect

“Hey, what’s that?” I asked, rubber necking as our taxi sped down the road. I had seen a row of portable toilets with a big, bold sign on each door.

“Did that say Izzat Ghar?” My companion shrugged blankly.

“Izzat Ghar means House of Honour. For a toilet? Huh!” I was puzzled.

The toilet in India is the last place to be associated with high concepts like honour and respect. Culturally, it’s dirty, a necessary evil to be tolerated, not indulged. So it is that toilets in Indian homes tend to be solely functional, frugal in space. Unlike the West, where the toilet can be a refuge or a sanctuary, it is purely an in-and-out affair in India. Do your business and get out.

And then it dawned on me. This is the Government of India’s new take on its public health campaign to end open defecation.

At the turn of the 21st century, a good 55% of Indians were still doing their business in the open: in the fields, by the roadside, at any public spot, really. By 2016, that has come down to 39%. It’s an improvement, but it’s still a big problem if 4 out of 10 Indians are relieving themselves in public.

Traditionally, the approach has been to build toilets. Build them and they will come has been the idea. Well, millions of latrines built by the UN, WHO, and many other well-meaning public bodies go unused; often, the newly enclosed space gets used for storage of valuable possessions.

This time seems different. In the framing of toilets as honourable places, there’s a deep understanding of Indian culture, what Indians care about, and how to tie this to increased toilet use. As a marketer, and behaviour science follower I like that the campaign is using a real human insight to drive behaviour change. Only by understanding what motivates people as people can you expect to change their behaviour.

First the insight. Honour runs strong as a social identity. It’s why Indians will go to great lengths to demonstrate their deep wells of respectability. Family lineage is emphasized when arranging marriages. High academic marks reflect not only on the child’s intellect but on the whole family. How one conducts oneself in the world is always linked back to how respectable one is and one’s family heritage. In more recent times, material goods and ostentatious spending have become new sources of social standing.

Calling the toilets as places of honour and respectability is clever. Going to the physical toilet structure means I am going to an honourable, and hence, desirable place. To be seen using the toilet is to be associated with good values, where my social status can be enhanced.

Till now, toilets were seen as undesirable places – dark, enclosed, stale – and could never compare to the freedom of wide, open spaces. With this new campaign, the government has reframed toilets to be a place that adds social value. It’s no longer about the functional benefits of a toilet – the privacy it provides (nobody cared about this to start with), hygiene (not seen as a problem), and health (nobody believed toilets have anything to do with it). Instead, toilets are now sources of good, respectability-enhancing social identity.

I think this approach to making toilets desirable will work. I had written about the government’s campaign to end open defecation before as well – in that case, I talked about the concept of public shaming and desire to identify with the right “in-group”. They’re serious about a behavioural science-based approach to tackling tough public health problems.

I’m rooting for this campaign to work; I think it will. At minimum, it’s refreshing to see such an innovative approach to social change.

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Pitru Paksha: A New Take On An Old Custom

These days, it’s the season to remember our family elders who have passed on. Among Hindus, it’s called “Pitru Paksha”. Over 16 days, we pay homage to our ancestors by offering food to them.

I read a story where a son takes his elderly parents out for a lavish meal, doting on them with love, attention and, of course, a stream of delicious dishes that delight the parents. When asked what’s the occasion, he simply says, “I don’t want to wait for you to die in order to let you know how much you mean to me. I’d like to feed you to your heart’s content while we’re together.”

A soft smile escaped my lips. This is wonderful.

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Stillness in Kyoto

The ultimate zen aspiration is stillness. This appeals to me. When I am still, I see things as they are. When I am churned, everything is confused. In such a state, how is it possible to take the right action?

When I visited Kyoto a year or so ago, I fell in love with the place, not least because it exudes everything zen. I took a picture at one of the zen temples that I look at many times a day. It is, to me, what my mind should be: so still that reality is reflected just as it is. Only from this stillness can rightful action emerge.


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