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.

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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.

 

 

City-dweller’s requiem

City-dweller’s requiem

Long corridors with pale yellow walls, down which dry leaves come hurtling by.

Desks with chalk marks, blackboards now greyish white.

The faint sounds of laughter and conversation.

Snatches of Shakespeare. Discussions on Dickinson.

Just behind walls, faces that could have mattered to me.

In another life, another time.

If I had chosen to push open these gates.

 

Instead, I have chased yellow butterflies across three states.

I have eaten creamy pasta and touched a napkin to my lips.

Past glass-fronted cafes, I have walked,

surreptitiously checking my reflection and adjusting my stole.

I have spent hours in cold storage, surrounded by others in similar boxes.

All of us being conveyed at a funereal pace to larger, colder storage boxes.

We don’t age. We don’t wrinkle. We don’t feel the wind in our hair.

We don’t speak our native tongues. The words live and die inside our throats.

 

Sometimes, on evenings such as these, I look through the glassed-up windows

(Oh, why is there so much glass? Glass, glass everywhere.

Showing you what you are missing. But offering no reprieve.)

I see, unseeing, the thousands of twinkling lights.

The dark, shadowy outlines of building tops.

(No canopies here, swaying in the breeze).

I smell the smell of rain on the earth.

I close my eyes and bite into a banana chip.

If I keep them shut, I tell myself, I can go anywhere.

 

Pretend worlds of green and brown spring forth around me.

Now I am walking down corridors paved by slanting rays of sun.

My hands drag across the wall, the peeling paint rough under my palm.

I slip into a room, where they are talking.

Five men and women on two shaky benches.

I slip in, unseen, unheard.

An engineer’s ghost in a literature class.

Soaking up greedily the words and their sounds.

Here, no bells will ring. No peon will come in, shuffling papers.

I can stay for as long as I like.

Perhaps even, forever.

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.

The Warm Fuzzy Feeling Of Compliments

The Warm Fuzzy Feeling Of Compliments

The best compliments I’ve received have been the most unexpected.

Remarks that tell me something I didn’t know about myself. Or those that I’ve got when I least expected it. Or from people whom I’d never have imagined would observe something like that.

It’s a strange and delightful experience, completely different from when you dress well and you know it and someone tells you you’re well-dressed. Or you make a particularly good speech and people clap you on the back and say “Good show!” These don’t warm the cockles of the heart in the same way. Because compliments (like so many human interactions) work on our need for external validation and acceptance.

Sometime last year, we had my husband’s nephew and niece from the US staying with us. This visit was particularly memorable because they were the right age (10 and 14) and we had many interesting conversations during their week-long stay. While making a list of married couples they knew, our niece A2 left out SR and me. When asked why, she said dismissively, “Oh, you and SR maama don’t count. You’re always chilling and having fun!”

Needless to say, SR and I were delighted.

*

“Tell me something you haven’t told me before” is a game that SR and I often play on long drives and quiet evenings at home. The response can be anything from a compliment to a confession, a long-forgotten memory or a funny story – it just has to be something as yet untold. Our theory is that as long as we don’t run out of things to tell each other, we’ll probably stay married.

The last time we played this game, SR told me, “You are a true liberal.”

Divorce, fidelity, having and raising children, vegetarianism, animal welfare, environment protection, cruelty-free living, good writing, filial duties – the list of topics on which I have strong views is fairly long. So this remark quite surprised me.  I then went and checked the definition of ‘liberal’ and found this: liberal-meaning

Quite flattering, I must admit. Ever since then, I’ve tried to live up to that description.

*

Personal hygiene has never been an obsession with me. Important, yes, but not something that dictates my everyday life. For instance, I strongly, strongly believe in washing your privates after every time you pee/poop. Similarly, my dad had taught us to always wash our feet before going to bed (because Nala’s downfall was brought about by Kali who entered his system through his unwashed heel). But I pet my dogs and frequently forget to wash my hands before I eat. Or if I find a stray hair in my food, I don’t retch and run from the table, but pick it out as a matter of course and continue eating.

I’ve never considered myself particularly neat or kempt. That’s why it surprised me when a colleague said one day that I always smell very nice. “It’s not deo or perfume,” she said, “but you just smell nice all the time.”

That’s a line I hug to myself every time I feel a little under-confident about the way I look. I firmly tell myself, “Well, at least, you smell nice.”

*

An after-effect of this rumination is that I am trying to do an Uncle Fred and spread sweetness and light with my compliments. The way I see it, you’ve already observed/thought of something nice – then why not let them know? At worst, they will be embarrassed. But at best, you could make their day.

So this weekend when I was trying out various clothes (and discarding them regretfully because I seem to have graduated from size L but my ego doesn’t allow me to pick up XL), I came across a lady who was trying on a very pretty anarkali dress. Her husband was making all the right noises of encouragement, but she seemed rather doubtful.

I thought it fit her beautifully, but instead of walking right past like I would have, I stopped and told her so. “Really? You think so?” she asked me eagerly.

“It’s perfect,” I told her and strode away grinning because the two of them looked so delighted. Shoppers Stop owes me one.

Hmm, perhaps I should be a professional complimentist (not complimenter, because it sounds so urgh).

Gowri N Kishore. Specialist in honest compliments, guaranteed to delight.

I could work for stores, helping customers make up their minds; in support groups with people recovering from addictions, self-image issues and other emotional disturbances (pro bono, of course); even with PR firms, putting valued guests in a good mood.

Not a bad prospect, actually.

Happiness is…

I was just talking to my brother on the phone. “I am feeling really happy today, da,” I told him, “Because I got so much work done. Not office stuff, but a lot of things I’d been meaning to do around the house.” I was taken aback by his response.

“You’re turning into Amma!”

“Wha-?”

“Yes. For me, a good day is a day spent doing nothing. But for her, a good day is one that is productive.” he chuckled.

That got me thinking. Am I really turning into my mother? At one time, many years ago, such a thought would have disturbed me. But today, it doesn’t. I am a little surprised, a little bemused, and a little glad. Amma is a very smart, disciplined woman, who gets a ton of things done with hardly any fuss, and if any of her prowess has rubbed off on me, I am just grateful.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was complaining to her about all the things that I needed to get done, she listened sympathetically at first. But then said, “Look,  none of these things are going to happen on their own… you need to get up and do them.” 

Today, I had a heavy brunch today and lazed around watching TV till about 4.30. While watching Sex and the City II for the twelfth time, I started thinking. “It’s already 4.30pm. We haven’t done anything much since morning. In a couple of hours, it will be dark. We will start talking about what to do for dinner, and eventually eat something. And then, the day would be over. A holiday wasted. Tomorrow, I will wake up just in time for the puja eduppu, and rush to office regretting all these wasted hours…”

This train of thought was making me feel depressed already!

That’s when I remembered what Amma had said. If I didn’t get up that instant and start doing the stuff I wanted to do, then all my gloomy predictions would come true, and I would have nobody else to blame. Without over-analyzing things, I got off my ass and started.

As of 12 midnight, I have managed to do the following, with a bit of help from SR:

  1. Vacuum the entire house
  2. Do a load of laundry, fold the dry clothes and put them back in the wardrobe
  3. Scrub and clean the kitchen counter tops and stove
  4. Clean both bathrooms, including the wash basins and toilet bowls
  5. Clean window sills, the top of my fridge and cupboards, and other nooks I tend to miss during my regular cleaning rounds
  6. Declutter our study table and TV stand, which were groaning under the weight of bills, cables, magazines, and a ton of unwanted things
  7. Sort and clear out the plastic covers we have at home
  8. hange the bed linen in the guest bedroom
  9. Take Butto for a longish walk
  10. Order groceries and veggies for the next 2 weeks

And now, I have managed to blog about everything I accomplished while listening to Kishore da.

Just reading this list makes me feel absurdly pleased. On another day, when I am feeling lethargic, I’d like to read this post again and feel motivated to get up and act.

Happiness is…

Source; Chris Piascik @ chrispiascik.com

Nobody died.

Nobody died.

I was away from the internet for 10 days. I went away leaving behind some unfinished assignments and projects. My job hunt was paused midway. The emails I had composed to various people still lay in my Drafts folder, waiting for final touches. I needed to get back to some old clients who had written to me.

But, I dropped everything and went away.

The familiar sensation of dread – the feeling of having bitten down on a piece of metal – left me after a few hours. I had not packed my laptop and I do not have internet on my phone. (Here’s why) I locked the door behind me and walked away, blocking all thoughts of ‘pending work’ – fighting my obsessive need for closure.

All through these 10 days, my phone lay somewhere in the entrails of my rucksack, silent and forgotten. Except for a couple of twinges of memory, uneasy thoughts did not haunt me.

I walked for miles up and down hills, into forests and inside caves. I traveled by plane, train, bus, car, jeep, ferry, motorbike and even an elephant. I saw the sun set over the Brahmaputra, like golden honey spread over water. I saw the full moon rise at 5.30pm over the largest river island in the world. I watched the clouds float over brilliant blue skies over a sleepy hillside town. I took a languorous afternoon bus ride through narrow roads flanked by paddy fields and tea gardens. I sat watching cows and pigs graze on yellow-green meadows and rode through a countryside where the twittering of birds could be heard over the dull roar of the bike…

It was another world. Another life.

Even as the plane landed, I found myself wondering about what was awaiting me at home. Emails, to-do lists, chores… I snapped at SR, made sarcastic remarks, lost my temper with airline attendants who were too slow and felt that the taxi driver was fleecing me of hard-earned money.

I was back.

Ready to tackle the demons waiting for me hungrily.

But the funny thing was that nobody had died.

Nothing had broken down because I was away. People had not collapsed all over the country because I had not written back to them soon enough. On the whole, it seemed that except for various banking institutions and online shopping websites, nobody else had missed me terribly.

In the larger scheme of things, the frenetic flapping of my wings did not matter. I did not have to throw myself against the windows, thrash about to get out and get things moving. I did not have to launch myself again and again into the flames.

It is a good realization.

I am going to sit back in my armchair and think about that world. That other world of magic and contentment. Having lived and breathed there once, for however short a period of time, I can perhaps go back to it again.

Or perhaps, I can re-create it – right here, in my head…