Discovering Friendship in a Bhel Vendor

Every evening, as the sun begins to descend from its high perch, a bhel vendor quietly rolls his rickety food cart down my road. It is a daily, late afternoon ritual, when the sun’s rays take on softer tones, and people emerge from mid-day slumbers, ready to revive spirits in a once-again hospitable milieu. For many, the starting point for the evening festivities is the local bhel food cart.

This bhel vendor has an endearing look about him. A squat fellow, he wears white pajamas and a white, full-sleeved shirt buttoned at the cuffs, in traditional Maharashtrian style. His hair is spiky white, cut in the typical style known to village barbers. He seems to be in his 50s.

Belying his age, however, is the youthful feel created by his unusual ears. They stick out, perpendicular to his face, as if eager to hear every sound that dances in the air. This is matched by the expression on his face, which seems to always have a laugh bubbling underneath.

The first time I saw him, I snuck a glance at the pile of puffed rice sitting atop his cart’s platform, surrounded by tantalizing tomatoes, juicy lemons and spicy red onions. I met his inviting gaze, and politely indicated a decline. He inclined his head slightly and bowed his head in acknowledgement.

Since then, I have seen him many times, and we seem to have struck up a friendship. He gives me a toothy grin every time I pass by, recognizing me. I wave to him and he bobs his head, happily, in acknowledgement. I still haven’t bought any snack from him yet, nor has he invited me. The friendship is untarnished by commercial exchange. It is, quite simply, an awareness of each other and a recognition of a familiar soul.

I imagine it is lonely for him for much of the time that he is standing out there. Arriving early to greet folks as they step out, he is by himself on the desolate road. A random pedestrian walks by without a second look at this cart. A dog rests under a tree shade nearby, also uninterested in him. Alone, he waits. In this solitary state, it must be a welcome diversion to see an open, interested face. Not all bhel vendors are like him, though. Most have a surly look, casting a cultivated disdain for those that ignore them as they pass by. This gentleman, by contrast, looks at the world around him good-naturedly.

I can’t explain how good it feels to see him or to have the slight exchange. Neither of us gets anything out of it and yet, we both get so much at the same time. Perhaps it’s just me, pining for the old world when people knew each other and greeted each other, reaffirming one’s existence in the world. It feels important, this affirmation. Instead of looking down at a mobile screen, we choose to look at the real person standing in front of us, making them feel seen, allowing for a human connection to forge.

 

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Life Experiments: Vipassana Update

In a couple of months, it will be one year since I went on my first Vipassana meditation course. An anniversary brings a pause to things. There is an innate curiosity to step out of oneself and see how one has changed, if at all. Vipassana was an experiment for me, rooted in curiosity.

Since those 10 misty days in Igatpuri last June, something seems to have shifted in me. The ground beneath my feet, in some fundamental way, feels like it has moved. I am still acquainting myself with this. There are some indications of this new orientation.

Things don’t bother me as much anymore. Rather, to be more accurate, I notice them but I don’t seem to be reacting to them like I used to. Instead, when something happens, often, I find myself spending more time considering it. Whether it’s a banal thing like spilled coffee or a greater health issue, I seem to be dwelling just a bit longer on the sensation it creates instead of busying myself with swinging at it blindly. Huh, I say to myself, this is a pretty sharp feeling. My nerves are tingling furiously. I get so busy observing the shape and form of my feelings that, before I know it, their strength is dissipated. When I return my attention to what happened, I am no longer in the clutches of the trigger. A lot of times, I don’t feel the need anymore to respond to it and I just turn my attention to other things.

So often, at the end of the day, I feel happier about how much I did not hurt someone through misplaced heated words uttered in a moment of sharp reaction. The practice of meditating regularly has expanded the space that exists after a stimulus is received and this is allowing me to respond in a more thoughtful, considered manner instead of reacting blindly. Response, not reaction.

In case I’m giving an exaggerated sense of detachment, let me be clear that I still get irritated, anxious, even angry. I still react, wrongly. On a few occasions, however, I don’t. Then, the difference is that instead of getting swept away, I remain on firm ground, watching the dark waves come at me. Because of this simple act of watching, instead of hard brick blows, they fall softly on me and float away. These experiences are gratifying. I can also start understanding how some Buddhist monks move through the world with calmness. I used to envy them, now I can relate in a small measure.

One definite, undeniable transformation is the disappearance of my migraines. This was a key attraction to me to try Vipassana: S N Goenka, who brought it to India from Myanmar (then Burma) used to get even worse migraines and through this meditation technique, he was able to eradicate them. His experience prompted my curiosity and so I went to the course.

After I returned from Igatpuri, I kept meditating. To my disappointment, migraines flared in me several times over the following three or so months. I felt deflated and went back to the pharmacy to replenish my strong migraine medications. I still kept up my practice, however. Eventually, I’m not sure when, my migraines downgraded to regular headaches.

The first time this happened, I popped in my migraine pills, anticipating the throbbing sensation to bloom into a full-scale migraine. It didn’t. It stayed at its low grade and then melted away over the next day. The next time it happened, I took a regular Crocin. Magically, the headache went away. Any sufferer of migraine will relate to my sense of wonderment at this. At the hint of a migraine, I used to resign myself to a dark, cool room for the rest of the day, cancelling dinner plans with friends. Now, a mild medication and a short nap was liberating me to return to my friends and family. The frequency at which I get headaches has gone down dramatically as well. I’m popping fewer pills on fewer occasions.

Learning Vipassana has been a good thing for me. I notice the number of times I have averted a misguided interaction by responding differently. I am still new to this way of conducting myself – it’s so fresh that I am very aware of the old way of reacting. For this reason, it feels even more gratifying to observe myself responding in a fresh, better way.

Although I feel like I have moved 0.0001% forward in the journey towards enlightenment and liberation from suffering, it still feels like a step forward. I feel more relaxed with life, more okay with myself, and more open to others. Close to one year later, I can already say that learning Vipassana has been one of the most important things in my life. I think everyone should give themselves this gift.

 

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It’s A Too-Hot Summer Already

It’s too hot, all of a sudden.

Blasts from a furnace hit my face. I look up, scowling at the overheated sun. Why the wrath, I ask it? As if in response, a wave of steaming rays hits me. I run for cover in the cool of the shade.

This is just the start of summer. Is the mercury going to rise still further, as if giving vent to its irritation with humankind?

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The White Topi

The bicycle rode by, a middle-aged man astride. Or maybe he was slightly older than middle-aged. I couldn’t tell you because I was more focused on the white topi (cap) atop his head.

Everything about him was as ordinary as could be – gray pants, a full-sleeved buttoned-down, cream coloured shirt, and leather chappals.  He looked like the Average Indian. Until I reached his head and saw the topi.

It infused him with an unexpected gravity, so much so that it thoroughly revamped the impression he gave off. From a non-descript nobody, he now looked like someone with a story, a back story with a lineage of sturdy ancestors  traceable to a nearby village, where somnolent buffaloes mingled with nervous black goats. He was the descendant of a quietly resilient people, cajoling the grudging soil to yield a harvest. The topi’s whiteness sat brightly against his weathered, brown face, a jolting contrast and yet, natural at the same time.

The topi is typical of Maharashtra, the state that cradles Mumbai. The crisp, white, cotton cap is shaped like an upside down boat and is meant to sit lightly on the crown of the head. In the midst of a hyper-cosmopolitan frenzied metropolis, where people from every corner of India descend like eager house guests, a man wearing a topi brings forth the aura of a gracious local host.

I grew up with the topi on the heads of grandfathers and uncles. They were rarely without it, and in fact, did not leave home without perching it on top. On special occasions, especially weddings, a fresh topi was gifted as a sign of respect to the men in the family. Whenever we assembled for family photos, my grandfather ensured his topi was properly set, just so, because it represented so much about him and his achievements. It was like an act of self-respect, a subtle acknowledgement of one’s place in the world.

In the increasingly anonymous world, where identities are getting blurred, it is still gratifying to see such expressions of one’s cultural roots. Even though covering the head has gone out of fashion for the most part, the topi remains for many men, if not for daily use, certainly to mark special occasions. On this man, it gave him an identity, amidst the bustle of a big city.

For the few moments that my eyes rested on him, I felt a sense of kinship. I was taken back to my native place, to the summers of my childhood, when I ran between the tall legs of adults and was hoisted up playfully. I saw the elders, in their dhotis and caps, congregated, discussing serious worldly stuff, while I got pampered by aunts in the kitchen. Memories flashed by and I followed them, dreamily. Central to these past remembrances was the topi.

I pulled myself out of the reverie just as the cars started honking. As I drove past the man on the bicycle, I mouthed a silent thank you to him.

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Mind The (Friendly) Gap

A few months ago, I found myself in the middle of a busy gathering. People from all walks of life were congregated into one spot and there was a frenzied buzz in the air. Conversations jostled for space, topics spilled over each other, and voices fought to be heard in ever-ascending decibels. I swiveled this way and that, feeling anxiety rise as I tried to latch on to discussions as they passed me by. Unsuccessful, I only grasped empty space.

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. The air flowed in and then flowed out. This was more predictable. In a steady, calming rhythm, it traveled deep towards the tiniest nerve and back out. Fresh air plunged deep inside again and then let itself be expelled into the outer world.

In the act of observing my breath, I felt a space grow. Clashing chattering fell away. The din subsided. The air softened. I opened my eyes.

And that’s when I saw the friendliest smile directed at me. Warm eyes looked at me and tinkled. I smiled back, openly. I went up to him and soon, we were in an easy, effortless conversation. That night, I made a friend.

So much of our world today is about cramming stuff in, whether it’s calls, tweets, or posts. Do more, we are told, and then do some more because it’s not enough. Don’t stop, you’ll miss out, you’ll be left behind. With maniacal insistence, we are prodded into jammed spaces with no breathing room, and expected to dance with as many partners as possible.

No, I say. I will not cram. I will not fill the gap. There is a reason why we pause between an inhalation and an exhalation and then an inhalation again. It is the same reason that, within each blink of the eye, there is a blankness.

We shut both eyes to see the world anew after each blink. Within and between breaths, we get a momentary reprieve from our preconceptions. In this infinitesimally small but real space, we get to receive.

In my experience, it is well worth it to let the gap be. It carries many untold gifts. I found a friend. Who knows what’s in store for you.

Post-script: the title of this blogpost is inspired by the London Underground’s daily instructions at every station, “Mind the gap.” While it refers to the gap between the train and the station platform, I think it is a wonderful reminder to pay attention to the little spaces that allow us to breathe and stay open to receive everything life has to give us.

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Unexpected Civility

It was the evening rush hour, and the roads were choked. Tiny cars squeezed between larger sedans, creating new lanes where none existed. Motorbikes waited hungrily for the traffic signal to turn, ready to pounce on the first opening to whiz past. Where a little space could be found, pedestrians filled it, waiting in the crevices to slip over and cross the road. Horns blared, drowning out the raucous cries of dusk’s crows.

I, too, stood in pregnant anticipation to move forward. I revved the engine, signalling to no one in particular that I was ready to dart ahead at the first opportunity.  Just then, an auto rickshaw began to veer into my path. I gritted my teeth. My face began to form into a scowl. Rogue nuisances, I cursed, they never follow the traffic rules. They insist on getting their way by inserting themselves anywhere they can. @#@&^%!@

As I glared at the black and yellow three-wheeling contraption, the driver looked at me. His face caught me by surprise. Instead of the usual sullen, defiant expression, his face was soft. I saw a respectful plea in his eyes. Allow me to pass, sister? they seemed to say. He waited, another unexpected gesture. By now, the scowl had dissipated and was being replaced by wonder. I nodded, assenting to his plea. He lurched forward, crossing me to swerve into a U-turn. As he passed me on the other side, he turned towards me and raised his hand in gratitude. Thanks for the courtesy, it said. I raised my hand, dazed, in acknowledgement.

I fell into my seat, shoulders slumping back. The feeling of being assaulted melted away – the horns went mute, the road cleared up. I felt giddy with happiness.  A small civil exchange between two strangers. Who knew that this could reset my energy and revive my faith in humanity?

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I Have Fat Thighs

I have fat thighs.

If you could see my thighs, you’d see they are round like coconuts when they should be straight like cucumbers. I press them down but they bounce right back. Stupid, stubborn thighs.

Everyone looks at my thighs. I know it. When I am passing someone, they look straight at my thighs, not at me. Their eyes go down there, not up at my face. They don’t see me. I want to hide.

When I’m not obsessing with my thighs, which is usually all the time, I like to run around. I like running because I can leave everyone and everything behind. When my feet take off from the ground, I feel like I am flying. I join the wind blowing above me and reach out to kiss the butterflies. I let my face graze against the drooping big leaves of old, friendly trees. I feel light and free and normal. 

And then, when I stop, I see other people staring at me. Not at me, at my thighs. They giggle with each other as they look in my direction. I can tell they’re talking about me. I pull my shirt down to cover my thighs. I pinch them. I run behind a building so no one will see me. I’m not going to wear shorts anymore. Then, maybe, they won’t laugh at me. Then, maybe, they’ll want to be friends with me.

But when I’m alone in my room, I look at my thighs and I feel sad. They stick out of my body like overfilled balloons. I wish I could take a pin and puncture them. Then, everything would be perfect.   

My name is Maya and I’m 11 years old.

 

I wrote this after a friend told me about the conversation she had with her young daughter. I was shocked. When I was 11, I was not worrying about my body. I was busy reading comics, playing hopscotch, and cycling down the road as fast as I could. I hadn’t yet started dissecting my body into parts and scathingly evaluating their worth.

And yet, today’s girls are experiencing childhood differently. They’re struggling at tender ages with issues that even the most seasoned adults can’t overcome. They’re feeling bad about themselves when there is nothing wrong with them. They are missing out on the inner confidence that sits like a still, deep well to be drawn upon when the knocks come later in life. What will they rely upon to steady themselves?

This account is my take on a contemporary young girl’s insecurities. It’s based on what I have heard more often than I would like. I wrote it to crystallize how damaging can be our careless comments and gestures. I hope it creates more empathy and mindful behaviour when it comes to our young girls. We have a responsibility to nurture them into strong, confident individuals, secure in their own, uniquely shaped bodies. I don’t mean to be preachy; I am aware that I am a contributor to the story that gets created in the still-forming mind of a young girl. I have an obligation to help her shape a strong, healthy, freeing story about herself.

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