Looking back, looking forward

Looking back, looking forward

There are people who go to naadi astrologers to know about their past lives and what the future holds for them. I could never do this.

Like 2019 for instance. If I had known in January last year what I know now, I simply could not have gone through. I would have been paralyzed with fear and hopelessness.

The next time I see a meme about life throwing a curveball or springing a nasty surprise, I am going to be thankful for my lack of foresight.

2019 has been a year of many milestones: good, bad, and ugly.

I finished one complete year of self-employment. It has been amazing in terms of flexibility, freedom, variety, and money. And not a week goes by when I don’t thank the impulse that made me unusually risk-averse and decide to make the switch from full-time to freelancing.

I rebuilt my relationship with my mother. Never in all my life, until now, had I realized how important she is to me. All through the year, I have been spending time listening to her, knowing more about her life, and talking every day. I have been terrible at this in the past but I am glad, glad, glad that I changed this.

I tried many things for the first time.

For the first time in forever, I let people into my life, shared my emotions and vulnerabilities with them, and I am so thankful that they rallied around for me in all the ways they could. I have never felt so included, so supported, by anyone who is not family. V, S, M: thank you for being there.

For the first time in forever, I went on a holiday by myself. I spent a week writing, walking around, listening to music, reading, and thinking, with no agenda whatsoever. It was liberating and I know I will do it again when life crowds me too much.

For the first time in forever, I learned some lessons in self-reliance. In not looking outwards for happiness or contentment or entertainment. I realized that no matter where I go, I take myself along. So I need to enjoy being by myself, figuring life out in every way from small to big, making my own decisions, taking my own risks.

It was so hard to do (in spite of my having always considered myself good company!) especially on the days when I was also struggling with depression. When you spend a lot of time introspecting, you will not like everything you find. This year, I learned to accept it and take things one hour at a time, one day at a time. I am not there yet, but I am on my way.

This year, we were there for our families on multiple occasions. Suddenly, you realize that your parents and grandparents and all other parental figures you’ve relied on over the years aren’t permanent. That they need help and support now. And that you still need them, no matter what you thought in your twenties. This is one of those saddening realizations that come to you in your thirties but thankfully by then, you have learned to accept it with grace.

Now for the good stuff.

This year, I think I was a better mother to B and S than I have been so far. Somewhere during the year, I resolved not to lose my cool with the boys, no matter how provoked I felt; no raised voices, no threatening body language, no punishments, no guilt-tripping. I tried to see myself through their eyes and suddenly realized how much at my mercy they are: for food, games, walks, even peeing and pooping. And I suddenly felt like a monster. If you bring pets into your life, you take responsibility not just for their physical wellbeing but also their mental and emotional health. I am glad I realized this early in the year.

This year, I discovered that I enjoy some forms of physical exercise (I had struggled with this for years and nearly written myself off as ‘not an active-lifestyle person’) The first is running. In 2019, I realized that I enjoy running. The scenery whipping past, the wind in my face, even my heart beating in my cheeks. The second is dancing. Not in a class, not on stage, but simply putting on some of the worst dappan kuthu or Bollywood item songs and thumping away to abandon.

This year, I learned that I love lipsticks and I may as well add here that I built up a small, cruelty-free collection of them. I used to think the shape of my lips was weird: now I have realized that I simply had the wrong colours and the wrong technique.

I often tell people I have a long history of starting things and not following through on them. But in 2019, I am glad I stuck (well enough if not perfectly) to my resolution of not ordering food that comes packed in single-use plastic. This had the unfortunate side effect of me eating too many burgers and vada pavs just because they were wrapped in paper. BUT I am still glad I didn’t accumulate those terrible plastic containers no one knows what to do with.

This year, we also made some progress on reducing our plastic consumption: carrying shopping bags everywhere, using metal straws and spoons, saying no to single-use plastic, switching to biodegradable menstrual pads, trying a cup (haven’t learned it fully yet but I hope to do so soon), and taking more public transport than ever.

In 2019, we managed a few holidays: one to Bombay where SR’s parents took us around to all the places they had lived in in the 70s; it was nostalgic and poignant and such a bonding experience for all of us. Another holiday was to the UK (the second time in three years, something I could never have imagined) and if possible, we enjoyed it even more than the first. Sometimes I suspect we may never holiday in any other country again. The third was OMO and it was bliss.

I suppose every year is full of ups and downs, events and experiences, heartache and hope. This year certainly was and it tested me more than I have ever been tested. What does 2020 hold?

I think I am old enough to not hope or to want to know. Let’s take each day as it comes.

Happy new year!

The right attitude to weather

The right attitude to weather

[This post has been lying in my drafts folder since April, when summer was at its peak. Today, as I type this foreword, I am sitting in a cafe on a green, green street, taking sips of ginger lemon tea. It’s only July but it looks like winter is here early this year. The air is deliciously cool, heavy with unshed raindrops. In my mind though, the conflicts and the questions are still the same.  I re-read this draft today and felt that the thoughts still resonate though the weather has changed. So here goes.]

One of the most frustrating things in life is to feel that you are not in control, that you have no choice over what is happening. As a freelancer, I don’t have control over the kind of potential clients who approach me or the type of project they offer. Of course, I have the choice to say no to things that do not interest me or which I feel are not worth my time. Motivational posters and pages tell you that you always have a choice. You can choose how to feel, how to respond, how to act, no matter what the situation. But when there are bills to pay, I make certain choices that make me feel I had no choice at all in the first place.

All of last week, the weather reports kept predicting a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal area and we were all expecting Bangalore to cool down. Yesterday had very English weather. The skies were a dull, brooding grey. We kept expecting rain, kept watching for it, even went on a long drive in anticipation of it. But we were cheated. And today is a very hot day. Probably 32 or 33 degrees Celsius. It is so bright outside at 9AM that I cannot stand in my balcony for longer than ten minutes without sweat running down my face and body.

Could I have predicted today’s skies to be this hot, bright white? Absolutely not. But here it is.

And funnily enough, I don’t mind.

The weather is the one thing we have no control over, but which we rarely resent.  We might whinge a little about how hot or wet or cold it is, but we just make adjustments to our day’s plans, our routine, our meals, and our clothing to suit the weather outside. Because we can’t change the weather, we have a favourite summer drink and a favourite winter drink. We have cotton dresses for the summer and woolens for the winter. We have hats and shades, but also sweaters and mufflers. We have umbrellas and rubber-soled slippers, but also sneakers and sandals.

In a nutshell, we don’t question the weather. We just prepare ourselves for it.

What if we applied the same attitude to everything else in life? In my case, the kind of projects I get offered. Sometimes, the work is creative and fun, or easy and pays well. But sometimes, it’s tough, tedious, time-consuming, or a combination of these. Whatever it is, I can just tackle it with the right equipment (attitude, approach) and move on, instead of feeling angry and frustrated.

It’s a thought.

Prufrock and coffee on a New Year morning

Prufrock and coffee on a New Year morning
As another new year is rung in, I wake up thinking of Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. An oft-quoted line from the poem says “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” and I realize that I have done just that.
 
Three hundred and sixty five times, I have lifted my coffee maker and poured out the decoction into my mug. Three hundred and sixty five times, I have added a splash of milk and shaken the mug–never stirred. Even middle-class married women must have their quirks.
 
Some mornings, the decoction is dark and strong and scented and my mood lifts instantly. Ideas roll off my tongue with haughty ease. I ace every meeting, breeze through presentations.
 
On others, it is light and golden and watery. I berate myself for measuring out too little coffee or too much water. I cradle the steaming mug like a lifeline, breathing in the coffee fumes, and will myself to look up and face the day.
 
“The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.” wrote Ella W. Wilcox.
What a fragile thing life is! Balanced on the knife-edge of sanity and fantasy, moods and madness. Sunlight patterns on my balcony can lift the edges of my mind. A mug of coffee has such power over my life.
 
I pour and lift and sip and the years roll by.
 
Wishes dwindle from many to a few. Dreams hover benignly, waiting for me to give them my full attention: there’s no more of the frantic beating of old. My senses are alert and I notice each day, its shape and colours and outline more keenly. My energies, spread over many things over many years, seem to have concentrated themselves into laser pinpoints.
 
Inexplicably, I feel younger and older at the same time.
 
There is not the old excitement for new beginnings, no eager anticipation to see what the year has in store. I simply sit back on my chair, lift my mug to my lips, and take life as it comes.
 
#happynewyear #2019musings #newbeginnings

The dog on the doormat

The dog on the doormat

I spotted this dog while having lunch at a restaurant today. He was sleeping on a red doormat right outside the main entrance of the restaurant.

Every time someone wanted to come in, they had to step over or around him. There were people who were scared of him and who would hesitate, shuffling around for a bit before hunger and common sense took over, and they scurried past him. Each time, the heavy glass door would be pulled open and it would squeak shut behind them.

All in all, it wasn’t a great spot to catch a nap.

Ten minutes later, I looked up and noticed that he had moved to the side, behind a standee. Now he was sleeping on the cold cement floor. Obviously less comfortable than the red doormat. But he was finally fast asleep. Completely at peace, oblivious to the world around him.

And it suddenly struck me how similar the two of us were.

Until four months ago, I had a full-time job with a regular paycheck and an impressive designation. I had a schedule and a holiday list and the comfort of knowing what tomorrow would bring. The doormat I was lying on was indeed soft. But there were disturbances all around: I was chasing other people’s goals. I was jogging on a treadmill that someone else controlled. My time simply wasn’t my own.

So, like this wise little chap, I decided to step aside.

I gave up the spot upfront on the red doormat and found myself a quiet corner behind a standee. The floor is indeed cold, but I am sleeping a lot better.

 

Difficult Questions

Difficult Questions

Two weeks ago, I quit my job. As I went around saying goodbye to the people I had worked with for over 3 years, most of them asked. “Where are you joining next?” It seemed natural in this age of job-hopping and I took pleasure in saying that I wasn’t joining anywhere.

“So what will you do next?” they asked. I said I didn’t know.  Somehow, nobody seemed to find this easy to believe.

Are you planning to start a family, wink-wink?

Tell me really, where are you joining? Why is it a secret?

I’m sure I will see you updating your LinkedIn status in a few weeks!

Are you being let go? Was there anything wrong at work?

Are you going to do something amazing? Like travel the world or save the whales or write a book?

All good ideas, but unfortunately, not one is mine. I quit my job with stars in my eyes and a million questions teeming in my head. What do I want to do with my life? Do I have a calling? What will it take for me to find happiness and fulfillment?

When I walked out of the office fifteen days ago, I felt liberated. Because I had done something simultaneously brave and stupid. While on an upward career trajectory, I had given it all up. My time was suddenly my own and the days seemed to be stretching out ahead of me, brimming with possibilities.

But I also felt something follow me out—the shadow of all those questions. It loomed over me in everything I did in the next few days.

I hummed to myself, chopping away red bell peppers and broccoli and tossing garlic and chilli flakes in olive oil. But just as I lifted a forkful of spaghetti to my mouth, I froze: should I have taken a picture first for Instagram?

I sat at my dining table, my fingers poised over the keyboard, about to write, and suddenly, I remembered all the people who would be reading it and thinking: G’s first piece of writing after she went on her break; would this be her best work yet?

Friends texted, asking what I was up to. Nothing, I started to type, then changed my mind. I wrote in brightly coloured words about long, lazy days with my dogs and the short holiday I had taken. Satisfied, they told me how they envied my freedom, how they wanted to get out of it all themselves and were just summoning up the courage to do it.

My mother called every night, asking me if I was feeling better, whether I had any regrets, and what I had been doing the whole day. Nothing, I told her in my head. And steered the conversation gently to my upcoming trip home and my brother’s wedding preps.

Why did I feel this sense of shame, this fear, in admitting that I was doing nothing? That I was, somehow, wasting precious hours in mindless pursuits and sometimes, none at all? Great things were expected of me. I had to prove through my pictures and my words that I was making the most of this time. That my decision was justified because I was getting equal or more value in return through my experiences.

Once upon a time, I had thought that I would use my break to sign up for belly dancing and driving. Learn to swim and speak Kannada (not necessarily at the same time). Walk around Bangalore, discovering new localities and eateries and unexplored spots. Travel solo across the country.

Instead, what have I done?

Slept and woken up when my body felt ready. Cooked when I felt like and ordered in when I didn’t. Watched entire seasons of The Middle without guilt, until I purged it out of my system. Put on face masks in the middle of the day and forgotten to take them off while caught up in a book. Watched obscure biopics on YouTube. Eaten tubs of ice cream at midnight…

As I write this, I realize for the first time, that I have not been doing nothing. I have been doing everything.  

Everything I really wanted.

There may be no glory in lounging around in one’s pajamas—but there is definitely pleasure. Nothing great about reading and re-reading, except the indescribable joy of finding new worlds. Nothing to post on social media but a stitch in my side from laughing.

Perhaps there will come a day when I feel the urge to take up water colour painting or take the metro to VV Puram’s famous food street, and I will do it.  Until then, I’m just going to enjoy the biggest freedom of them all—doing just what I want to do, without having to prove anything to the world.

Memories in a chocolate box

Memories in a chocolate box

It’s Saturday morning and we’ve all woken up uncharacteristically early.

It’s all SR’s fault. He has woken up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and wants the entire household to follow suit. He takes first S and then B for a walk. He gives them their breakfast and gets them settled down. Then he finishes some stuff for work. And then starts sorting out a drawer full of old bills.

All before I’ve even finished my morning coffee.

I want to feel useful myself. So I look around for something easy to do. Clean the fans? But we have no step ladder. Laundry? Already done. Take the clothes for ironing? It’s too hot to get out – I can do that in the evening. Prep for lunch? I don’t even have an excuse for this one.

So I drift into the bedroom and pull open my accessories drawer. I’ve been meaning to sort things out here for ages. Now is as good a time as any.

One of my prized possessions is my earring box. It’s an old plastic Ferrero Rocher tray that I have repurposed to keep my earrings sorted into pairs. But over time, they’ve gotten all mixed up. I empty everything out on the bed and start sifting through. B jumps up at once–he loves everything shiny–and S follows suit. I tell B sternly not to put anything in his mouth and then cave and give him an old cloth purse to chew on. S, the angel child he is, needs no such sop. He watches with interest for a couple of minutes, then lies down on his side and drifts off happily. No doubt dreaming of chicken legs.

I set the earrings out in pairs and and all of a sudden, it’s like sifting through a box of old memories.

There are the long, glassy green drops with gold accents that ammai bought for me from someone at the bank. Turquoise blue raindrop-loops a friend got me from Amsterdam. A pair of flat, jimikki-shaped earrings with white stones–the first of many pairs that amma has gifted me over the years. Violet twine hoops that I bought from Brigade Road to replace a similar pair I’d lost on a flight back from Singapore. Every piece seems to trigger a memory, a reminder of happy times.

There are even four mismatched presses that hold the earrings in place. I keep them aside as backups, in case I lose the originals.

I’m nearly done putting everything in place, when I come across them. A pair of pink and silver studs that I have worn perhaps thrice in my life. It’s the very first present SR bought for me, over 9 years ago. It’s not the prettiest of earrings and I remember him telling me he’d bought them from a Coimbatore street-side vendor for thirty rupees when he went to write the CAT exam. They’ve been with me all these years, but I’ve seldom worn them because I have prettier, bigger, longer pink earrings. Multiple pairs, in fact.

They’re slightly dusty and I wipe them with a soft cloth. As I hold them in my palm, I realize they look just as good as new. The stones haven’t fallen off. The silver hasn’t blackened. I’m suddenly reminded of all the good memories from our years together. The houses we’ve moved. The journeys we’ve taken. The food we’ve shared.

Like every other couple, we too have our share of ups and downs, disagreements and frustrations. But somehow, in the face of this little token from a long time ago, those seem small and unimportant.

I put them on, wondering if SR would notice or remember. I know it’s highly unlikely that he would–but I’ll still wear them through the day. As a reminder to be grateful for what we have, something precious not in value, but for what it stands for.

 

 

Stories By The Road

Stories By The Road

There was a time when I used to dread my daily commute to work. I felt it was a drain on my time, precious hours spent doing nothing. But somewhere along the way, I made my peace with it. After all, the choice to live in a metro does come with its own share of compromises.

But this morning, after over 6 years of negotiating Bangalore’s crazy traffic morning and evening, I discovered that I actually enjoy my commute.

It is time I get to spend away from distractions, alone with myself. Some days, I put down a to-do list. On others, I think up ideas for work. But most of the time, I look around me – at the people, the places I pass through. I take the same route every single day and some sights are so familiar, my eyes glaze over them. But any little change, any sight unseen as yet, makes me sit up and think – why the brown and grey dog who sleeps in front of the mall isn’t there today, a new billboard that’s come up near the flyover, a dum biryani shop that’s not open at its usual time…

Looking out of the cab window, I remember RL Stevenson’s poem From A Railway Carriage. Though the element of speed is missing (again, namma trafficku!) the similarities are not lost on me.

Here is a cart run away in the road

Lumping along with man and load;

And here is a mill and there is a river:

Each a glimpse and gone for ever!

Looking out of the cab window feels like looking through a bioscope. I see fascinating snatches of the lives of strangers and trees, but never the full picture. And as the cab moves on, I am left to imagine the story so far and what could lie ahead.

A little boy with a large, oddly-shaped piece of thermocol board, possibly from the packaging of a washing machine or TV, waiting to cross the road. He tries once, twice, falls back, hops on one foot in impatience. A man on a scooter slows down for him and he runs lithely across, and in one swift motion, hits his friend on the head with the thermocol piece. The friend spins around and I see that he has his own weapon in hand, a 2-litre soft drink PET bottle. And there by the roadside wages a war so ferocious, the earth shakes under the heroes’ feet.

On the steps in front of an appliance repair shop lie the Four Musketeers. Four brown dogs so identical, they must be from the same litter. Every day, they lie in a row, each one’s head resting against the next one’s bum. Four little curled-up balls, sticking together against the world.

A married couple in their thirties quarreling loudly. She says something to him and tuns away. I cannot make out the words, but I gather that it is a variation on “Go to hell!” As she walks away, he runs after her, swings her around and kisses her on the cheek. She is confused, embarrassed, delighted, all at the same time. As he grins at her cheekily and walks away, she shouts after him. Once again, I can make out that the words say “Go to hell!”. But this time, they mean something else.

A tenement of makeshift houses with roofs made of tin and tarpaulin. Men, women, children, goats, and dogs live together happily, tripping over each other, shouting across the walkways raucously. The women squat by the roadside, washing their clothes and chatting. An old man sleeps on a wooden plank supported on granite planks. A dog is stretched out near him. A toddler wearing no underwear stands near the dog, knocking him on the head with a plastic bottle. For a second, I wonder if it’s safe. What if the dog is hurt and he hurts the child? Before I can decide, the toddler stops. And the dog sits up and extends his paw towards him, as if to say, “Hey, why did you stop! Let’s play!” and I realize they are brothers.

A banyan tree near a temple, its branches spreading luxuriously, benevolently across the road. A makeshift bench beneath it, on which sit two old men in white shirts and mundus. One of them has a towel around his forehead. The other wears a turban. One of them has no teeth, his cheeks are sunken. The other is weatherbeaten, his cheeks reddish brown from too much sun. One’s moustaches are long and drooping, framing his lips on either side. The other chews paan constantly. They sit there next to each other in companionable silence, two of a kind from afar. I wonder when I grow old, how many banyan trees there will be left in Bangalore.

A man near a petty shop urging a black and white dog to eat the dozen biscuits he has put down in front of her. The dog is clearly not hungry – she wags her tail happily and sits there, staring up at him. In an injured tone, he complains to his companions about her lack of gratitude.

Life, so beautiful, so magical, teeming all around me. And I marvel at what I would have missed if not for my daily commute.