When my sister-in-law Sandrine sent me this beautiful photograph last year, it captivated me instantly. The bird of paradise is my favorite flower and this particular picture tugged at the strings of my heart… the young flower seemed to be saying something, seemed to be yearning, seemed to be ready… FOR WHAT?Pic courtersy: Sandrine Denier
After I wrote the first version of the poem, my thoughts stayed with the flower for a long time… its youthful energy and enthusiasm giving way to a sombre moment wherein it contemplates the course of its life…
When my sister-in-law Sandrine sent me this beautiful photograph last year, it captivated me instantly. The bird of paradise is my favorite flower and this particular picture tugged at the strings of my heart… the flower seemed to be saying something, seemed to be yearning, seemed to be ready…
When my dad Arvind shortlisted my mom Kusum from matrimonial ads in Hindustan Times, his primary consideration was her BA-LT degree. Which could get her a job as a teacher. Arvind being the sole breadwinner in a family of six, one more earning member would make all the difference.
And it did. The family’s circumstances improved considerably after my mom took up a teaching job in a government secondary school. A loan taken to buy land and build a house in Model Town was soon paid off, and my grandmother would go around proclaiming: I have one more son now!
And this is how it all began. My mom and my dad. At that time, Arvind could not even imagine the monumental and memorable role Kusum would go on to play in his life!
The biggest quality in my mom is her ability to view life with a “सब ठीक होगा” (everything will work out just fine) attitude. When I am worried, when I am in turmoil, a feeling of calm practicality pervades me because, thanks to my mom, I truly believe that things will be fine in the end.
Her immense sense of contentment is unheard of. Whatever be the circumstances, I have never heard her lamenting on ‘what could have been,’ never seen her demanding anything, never found her dissatisfied with life.
She is content within herself… never afraid to take on work, putting in her best, for whatever it takes, till whenever it takes.
Of her various roles, I think my mom Kusum’s role as a wife has been the most commendable. Walking with my dad, side by side, matching step by step. With unconditional support. And utmost commitment.
By the 1970s, Madhuri, the Hindi film magazine my dad Arvind launched for the Times’ group, had become a household name. Yet, he was haunted by a gnawing restlessness to do something more meaningful in life… And in a moment of epiphany one night in December 1973, he clearly saw his goal: To create a thesaurus in Hindi. A feat not attempted by anyone else in the world!
The next morning, during their walk in the Hanging Gardens, Arvind shared the thought of making a Hindi thesaurus with Kusum. For which he would have to give up his job and they would need to move back to the family home in Delhi, living on meager savings till the thesaurus could be published.
And Kusum agreed. Immediately. How many women would do this? How many women would agree to leaving behind a comfortable lifestyle in South Bombay and renounce a social life hobnobbing with film industry people? And trade it all for an existence of uncertainty, obscurity, and adjustment in a large joint family?
From that very morning, Kusum cut down on household expenses saving every penny for the future; Arvind began work on the thesaurus along with his Madhuri job. And Kusum worked by his side. Over the next twenty years, Kusum would help Arvind build up the mammoth Samantar Kosh data, and then, single-handedly supervise its computerization over several months ~ every day, she would organize rows of cards scrawled with handwritten words to be fed into the computer, proof-read the computerized data, pick out errors, and then check the corrected data. Arvind’s perfect partner.
In a journey fraught with difficulties. Kusum faced every challenge, bore every calamity, rode every crisis, with unheard-of resoluteness.
When an unexpected devastating flood in Model Town swept away all their material belongings, Kusum did not grieve for all that was lost; both she and Arvind celebrated the fact that their future – their thesaurus cards – had been saved from the flood waters because they were safe on the mezzanine floor!
Fearing future floods, Arvind’s father sold off their house – the very house on the basis of which Arvind and Kusum had moved to Delhi! Refusing to let this major setback deter them, they used all their savings to purchase land in Chandra Nagar on Delhi-Ghaziabad border. Perforce, Arvind returned to journalism ~ to launch the Hindi edition of Reader’s Digest, Sarvottam. With hardly any money left, the new house was built using unorganized labor on a daily wage basis with Kusum supervising single-handedly, procuring materials, seeking permissions, making innumerable trips to Ghaziabad to procure the meager quota of 25 bags of cement and riding back in the truck alone… uncomplainingly. With zest and zeal. Arvind’s valiant warrior.
And my mom did all this while managing the house and bringing us up. Resources were limited but she never let us feel deprived. She took special care of my dad’s health after he suffered a massive heart attack in 1988. After his bypass surgery, keeping Arvind in good health became her mission. Arvind’s perennial protector.
And this is how it was. For 62 long years till the second wave of corona swept Arvind away from this world. Always. With him. Beside him.
A woman who made her husband’s dream her own, and became his endless source of energy, enthusiasm, and encouragement. His wife. His companion. His collaborator. His champion. Undoubtedly, a togetherness ordained by nature.
Very often accused of not letting the other person complete his talk and of reacting hastily and dramatically, I am always trying to inculcate that rare quality of being a good, nay a great, listener.
And I came across this interesting article in Harvard Business Review, What Great Listeners Actually Do, by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman that throws new light on the topic. Contrary to what is believed, great listening is not being a sponge and absorbing what the other says; this research-based study suggests that an effective listener is like a trampoline, against whom you can bounce your ideas and who actively helps you look at things clearly and effectively. https://hbr.org/2016/07/what-great-listeners-actually-do
So, I penned down a note to myself on all I learned from this HBR article. The style of writing is inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’.
If I be silent while you talk If I sit nodding now and then, making an occasional ‘mmm…hmmm’ If I can repeat what you say Then you will know I hear what you say.
If I be active in the You-Me interaction If I question you, gently, in a constructive way If I do so without judgment, trying to comprehend Then you will know I am interested in what you say.
If I be attentive to what you say and also, what you don’t say If I listen to you with my ears AND eyes If I hear you out without offense or defense Then you will know I am trying to help in what you say.
If I be supportive and keep the conversation flowing If I make suggestions which challenge your assumptions If I help you sort your thoughts and see things in new light Then you will know I am truly listening to what you say.
If I can remember to do all of this in every interaction I haveThen, only Then, will I be a great listener too!
“I know less about films; so does my reader. So, I should tell them all that I would like to know about films,” reasoned my dad, Arvind Kumar, as he set out to launch Madhuri, a new film magazine in Hindi for the Times of India group way back in 1963.
Films are much more than stories enacted by actors. Yet, anything published about films, in those times as is the case today, focuses on the gloss and the glitter and the glamour of films and their stars. And of course, the gossip around stars. The vision, the intellect, the expertise, the dedication, the collaboration that goes into making a film – the quintessential art form – goes unnoticed, unappreciated, unrewarded.
Madhuri brought all this to the fore. Right from its very first issue that came out on 26 January 1964. Madhurisought to educate its readers about each and every aspect of film making, about the people involved in its making – onscreen and off it. It taught its readers how to watch a film; what to look out for, what to appreciate…
I began reading Madhuri when i was about 10 years old. And my favorite part of the magazine was Shilalekh, a unique feature that Arvind serialized for the magazine.
Shilalekh was a remarkable, never-before-tried format of film narration ~ an experiential description of the film, shot-by-shot, word-by-word, in graphic detail, with extensive commentary on the notable use of expressions, camera, music, songs, scene, setting, lighting, costumes as well as distinct style and techniques of direction. It made the reader understand the specific elements and techniques that contribute to the impact of a scene. Arvind ‘shilalekh’ed’ many great films ~ Mahal, Pyaasa, Aadmi, Baazi, Devdas, Dhool ka Phool and so many others.
Shilalekh made Madhuri one of the largest selling Hindi film magazines of its times, a record unmatched till date! Expectedly, the circulation fell when Arvind, by design, discontinued the feature in 1977; much before his planned departure from Madhuri in May 1978 ~ because he did not want the dip in circulation to reflect on his successor’s performance.
I hold Shilalekh especially close to my heart because I was witness to the entire process… I remember going with my dad Arvind to Pune to see these films at the Film Institute of India Archives; the yellow pads on which he would take copious notes; the Philips tape recorder he used to record the entire audio of the film; the bringing together of the recordings with his notes; the sessions at home where over a stretch of 2-3 days he would dictate the Shilalekh content to his typist; and my pride when at times, he would call me to check the finer details of a scene!
To give an idea, here is an excerpt from the Shilalekh of P C Barua’s Devdas (1935) in which K L Saigal played the lead role.
THE OPENING SCENE
–फ़्रेम मेँ बंगाल की शस्य श्यामल धरती का एक टुकड़ा दिखाई देता है. पार्श्व संगीत की धुन बदल गई है. इसी फ़्रेम मेँ नीचे बीचोँबीच किसी युवती का सिर है. केश की लट पीठ पर लटक रही है. उस के दाहिने कंधे पर थाली मेँ फूल रखे हैँ. वह फ़्रेम मेँ पूरी तरह दिखने लगती है, लगता है मंदिर जा रही है. वह हम से दूर जा रही है. वातावरण मेँ सहगल की आवाज़ मेँ गीत गूँजने लगता है:
बालम आय बसो मोरे मन मेँ
बालम आय बसो मोरे मन मेँ
बालम आय बसो मोरे मन मेँ
आवाज़ सुनते ही युवती ठिठकती है. पलट कर इधर उधर देखती है. इस तरह हम भी पहली बार उस का मुँह देखते हैँ. यह अभिनेत्री जमना है. वातावरण मेँ वही पंक्ति बार बार गूँज रही है. यह न समझ पा कर कि आवाज़ किधर से आ रही है, वह फिर हमारी तरफ़ पीठ किए आगे चलने लगती है. फिर रुकती है, चलती है. आवाज़ शिकायत कर रही है:
सावन आया तुम ना आए
युवती फिर रुकती है. अचानक गाना बंद हो जाता है. युवती ने फूलोँ की थाली घास पर रख दी है और पलट कर देखती है.
–पेड़ की झुकी शाख से टिका, दूसरी तरफ़ मुँह किए, आधा छिपा एक युवक खड़ा गा रहा है:
बालम आय बसो मोरे मन मेँ
बालम आय बसो मोरे मन मेँ
गायक को खोज पाने की सफलता से प्रसन्न हो कर, उस की शरारत को पहचान कर, स्वयं शरारत के इरादोँ से भरपूर, मन ही मन मुस्कराती युवती दबे पाँव उस की तरफ़ बढ़ती है. हम भी धीरे धीरे युवक के पास आते जा रहे हैँ.
युवती ने पेड़ से पतली टहनी तोड़ ली है. वह फिर युवक के नज़दीक आ गई है. उसे निहारती है. शरारत से मुस्कराती है. नौजवान गाए जा रहा है. युवती टहनी से नौजवान के कान को छेड़ना शुरू कर दिया है. एक पल नौजवान ऐसा अभिनय करता है जैसे उस पर कोई असर ही न पड़ा हो. वह गाता रहता है…
I could hardly wait for my last exam of class VI to get over… I was so excited. Tomorrow, we – my mom, my dad and my brother Sumeet – would leave for Nasik for two whole months! What fun! Papa would be starting a book, a thesaurus, whatever, I didn’t understand much. We children would have a lovely time living in the Times of India’s bungalow there – cycling, playing badminton, eating, and sleeping in huge four poster beds!
Early one morning in Nasik, the four of us made our way to the Godavari river. I slipped my hand into my mom’s as we waded in… For a long moment, the four of us stood there, looking out at the river stretching before us till it seemed to meet the rising sun in the distance…
Later, we bought a copper urn (lota) and had the date engraved on its rim – 19 April 1976. Returning to the bungalow, papa wrote the first card of the thesaurus (then titled Shabdeshwari) and all four of us signed on it, date and all.
As papa would remark many many years later, “On that day, we became a team!”
Though I would appreciate the true significance of that day only twenty years later on 13 December 1996 when my parents – Arvind and Kusum – presented the first copy of the first-ever thesaurus in Hindi or for that matter, ANY modern Indian language, now renamed Samantar Kosh, to the erstwhile President of India, Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma at the Rashtrapati Bhawan!
Who would have thought that day on the banks of the Godavari that papa would dedicate his entire life to Hindi, overcoming hurdles, physical, financial and personal, in his unabashed pursuit of a dream?
That my mom would prove to be the ultimate partner in life and support my dad unconditionally through thick and thin.
That my brother Sumeet would be instrumental in realizing papa’s dream? That he would organize funds for a computer, and despite being a surgeon, learn programming himself to create software for the database, and then teach papa how to work on it.
That from a little girl who only understood that her father was working on a ‘book,’ I would take it upon myself to take his work to the people.
YES. We did become a team on that fateful day in Nasik. It is now 25 years since the release of Samantar Kosh in 1996. And the glow in my heart remains as warm as ever.
How do I describe the dark beauty (of Lord Ram)? The tongue does not have eyes - the eyes cannot speak.
To most of us, language comes naturally; yet we all have, at some time or the other, been in the same predicament as Tulsidasji. We know what we want to say but just as we reach for the word, it’s not there. And it continues to stay just out of reach, eluding us, tantalizing us.
It is then that we need a THESAURUS. Which literally means a TREASURY. A treasury of words and expressions that help us express our abstract thoughts, ideas and feelings ~ clearly, correctly, completely. Even an extensive dictionary cannot help us here. But a thesaurus can ~ because the thesaurus lists words thematically, as per their theme or concept.
Suppose you are, “Uhhhhh… what’s it called… that tiny Japanese tree, like a dwarf?” Simply looking up the cue words ‘tree’ or ‘dwarf’ or even ‘plant’ will lead you to your target: BONSAI!
If you know the word but it does not express your thought precisely, then a thesaurus gives dozens of synonyms as well as related concepts AND opposite contexts. For instance, the other day when I could not express the concept of ‘no worry,’ I looked up ‘worry’ and came up with ‘worrylessness,’ ‘carefreeness,’ ‘insouciance’ and many others!
THE IDEA IS IN OUR MIND. THE THESAURUS PROVIDES THE WORD.
Language makes us human. When our ancestors invented language more than fifty thousand years ago, they forever sealed our fate on earth. They set mankind on a path of constant growth and development making us the most powerful species on earth.
Indeed. The power of words is extraordinary.
Words can inspire, words can demoralize.
Words can strengthen, words can damage.
Words can nurture, words can destroy.
Words can cheere, words can condemn.
Words can win peace, words can make wars.
As screenwriter-lyricist Divy Nidhi Sharma aptly writes:
शब्द हैं… अतरंगी, कुछ सतरंगी से…
शब्द हैं... गुनगुनाते गीत गाते
कुछ मस्त हैं, कुछ त्रस्त हैं, होठों पे करते गश्त हैं...
कुछ झूठ हैं, कुछ सत्य हैं, जादू भरे ये शब्द हैं!
Words are... many colored, some with the seven hues of the rainbow
Words are... humming, singing
Some merry, some distressed... swaying on the lips
Some false, some true... Words are full of MAGIC!
She then goes on to say…
जन्म से लेकर मरण तलक
सब खेल-तमाशा शब्द हैं!
From birth until death
Life is a theater of WORDS!
What will be the first word you say, I wonder? Your mom’s first word was ‘Dadda’ and your nanu’s happiness shot through the roof that day!
But there’s still some time for all that. For now, you love to listen your mom’s voice as she feeds you, soothes you, cares for you. I remember how attentively you, just four days old, listened to the story of the very hungry caterpillar as he chomped his way through pears and plums and pies. Of course, you didn’t understand a bit but the sounds were getting engraved in your mind.
You will be fascinated by other tales your mom tells you. You will love the three little pigs and their escapades; you will be enthralled by Jack and his magic beanstalk; you will listen wide-eyed when the big brown bear becomes a prince in golden armor!
For the moment, your own imitation games are on! You try to imitate everyone you see and everything you hear. And soon you will begin to use the same expressions and gestures when you play with your toys and cars and blocks, and as you grow older, invent characters and events and tales!
But you know what?It is not just you little ones who make up stories! We adults spin stories too and these stories help us make sense of the world around us. Two people live together within the bond of marriage, hundreds of men and women work in a company, thousands of people commit themselves to a country, millions believe in a common God… all these bonds and relationships are figments of our imagination; myths that keep us rooted in life.
And language has helped us pass these commonly believed stories from one generation to the next for tens of thousands of years. Indeed, it is storytelling that has kept us human and made us the most powerful race on earth.
Arham, this incredible journey of life – and yours has just begun – is nothing but a story.
You are far away in America and we yearn to take you in our arms! We eagerly wait for your video calls and I am sure you think your nani and nanu live in the mobile!
You love it when I call out Arhammmmmmmmmmmm… though it will be another couple of months before you realize it refers to you. You perk up immediately when we begin speaking to you – slowly in a singsong manner… I read somewhere such talk is helping you work out the sounds of language. This is why you love the rhyme and rhythm of your nanu’s silly songs!
You watch us closely as we speak… you pucker your lips and flex your tongue almost as if trying to form a reply! Your ooooooo and aaaaaaa and eeeeeee leave us enthralled! The other day when you came out with something like hiiiiiiiiiiiiiieee in response to your mom’s HI, we hopped around in happiness!
Within a couple of weeks you will begin to babble… you will begin to use back-of-tongue consonants and say baaaa, daaaaa, gaaaaa, paaaaa, kaaaaa… soon you will learn to combine these sounds and your babble will begin to sound like words. By one year, you will know about 50 words! And you will string them together to say sentences! Isn’t that amazing?
Come to think of it… A few sounds build hundreds of words that combine in thousands of ways to create millions of sentences that can express a zillion feelings, thoughts and ideas! And this amazing way of communicating is unique to us humans! We begin to absorb our mom’s voice much before we are born, and as we grow older, keep learning new words every day till we become pros ourselves!
And all this complex language learning just from hearing it! We all – me and your nanu, your maamu, your mom and dad – learned it from hearing others use it!
Isn’t it fantastic? Isn’t it fascinating? Isn’t it simply wonderful?!
Finally, after nine months of eager anticipation, you are here. Our daughter Tanvi’s baby. Our first grandchild.
Everyone had told me: The feeling will be indescribable. All my friends who are grandmamas. And incomparable to any other feeling in the world. And I would wonder: Really?! As the days of your arrival came closer, I became more and more curious about the indefinable emotion I would feel on becoming a grandparent.
And now you are here. With us at home. How tiny you are, how light.
When I look at you, I feel joy, wonderful joy. When I hold you, I have an intense desire to protect you from all that could hurt you, harm you, trouble you. When you curl your fingers around mine, i am filled with hope, hope for the grand adventure you are embarking upon.
And as I sit back and watch you with your mom, i feel inordinately fulfilled. My daughter has her own now. Life has come full circle.
Covid has disrupted the way we live. And just when we seem to be adapting to the change, the virus mutates and a new normal is defined… once again.
Yes. Corona has, for years to come, definitely rung out our existence of worrylessness. It has taken away our sereneness, carefreeness, sureness. It has shaken us out of our insouciance, and tomorrow now is uncertain, unpredictable, ungranted.
Yet. As we ring in the New Year, I realise that Covid has not been able to throw out our hope for the future. Our belief that we will overcome. Our ability to live life to the fullest.
Dawn heralds the beginning of a new day, a new opportunity, a new hope. For my family – my mom, dad and brother and me – the rising sun will always hold special significance.
I remember the morning almost 48 years ago when my brother a lanky teen and I an eight year old, had tagged along with our parents on their usual walk in the Hanging Gardens. A quiet solitude bathed the garden, the animal figures carved from hedges barely discernible in the morning haze. As mummy and papa took their customary five rounds, bhaiya and I hung around, examining spider webs, hunting snails and caterpillars, playing hide and seek, and then tired, sitting at the far end of the park, enjoying the view from our vantage point atop the Malabar Hills ~ the steep slope of the rocky hillside, the high rise buildings in the distance, the Arabian sea down below.
Little did we know that at that very moment, our parents were making decisions that would change the course of our life. That my dad would decide to work on his dream of making a thesaurus in Hindi, a vital resource for the language not yet conceived and created by anyone. That my mom would begin saving in earnest so that my dad could give up his job as editor of the film magazine Madhuri and devote himself full-time to the thesaurus. That we would move to our family home in Delhi to escape the high cost of living in Bombay.
The sun was coming up as mummy-papa joined us. Together, we watched the rising sun bathe the sky a purple-pink, turning the gulmohar trees on the hillside a golden tangerine and the sea a mass of twinkling blue in the distance.
Mesmerized, the four of us stood there, hands resting on the garden railing, silently taking in the vast expanse of openness around us… Looking back, I realize, the rising sun had been a harbinger of hope and hard work in the times to come… forging the paths of our lives.
Two years later. 19 April 1976. The day my dad wrote the first card of the thesaurus.
Since their decision in the Hanging Gardens, my parents had actively begun to give shape to their dream. Preparations were afoot ~ reference books purchased, cards for writing the words printed, trays for housing the cards customized… Papa decided he would launch the work in Nasik, a city in Maharashtra on the banks of the holy river Godavari, where his company, the Times of India, had a guesthouse. We could stay at the guesthouse, a comfortable bungalow with huge gardens and compounds, for the entire summer while papa began work on the thesaurus.
Rising early that day, the four of us made our way to the Godavari for a dip. Everything seemed special that day. The glow from the rising sun, the near-empty banks, the pigeons on the banks, the ring of temple bells, the whoosh of wind in the trees, the sound of our feet as we went down the steps to the river…
The water rippled as the four of us waded in. I slipped my hand into my mom’s… For a long moment, the four of us stood there, looking out at the river stretching before us till it seemed to meet the sun in the sky, and in that moment, the river became a molten gold, blinding us to tears. It was magical. A perfect morning to launch a dream.
Later, we bought a copper urn and had the date engraved on its rim. Returning to the bungalow, papa wrote the first card of the thesaurus (then titled Shabdeshwari) and all four of us signed on it, date and all.
Though I would fully appreciate the true significance of that day only twenty years later, when mummy and papa presented the first copy of Samantar Kosh, the first ever thesaurus in Hindi or any other modern Indian language, to the erstwhile President of India, Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma.
Today, forty five years later, I wonder: Was it fate? Or destiny? Or the will of a higher power that my dad’s dream became a family enterprise over the years? And that Samantar Kosh came to epitomize togetherness in its truest sense and became the binding link of our family?
Who would have thought that day on the banks of Godavari that papa would dedicate his entire life to Hindi, overcoming hurdles, physical, financial and personal, in his unabashed, undefeated and undeterred pursuit of a dream?
That my brother Sumeet would be instrumental in making papa’s dream come true. That he would organize funds for a computer, and despite being a surgeon, learn programming himself to create software for the database, and then teach papa how to work on it… and that he would become an integral part of all papa’s works for always.
That papa would not rest on his laurels even after the stupendous success of Samantar Kosh but continue to improve and update his database, and most importantly, link it to the English language making Arvind Lexicon the only bilingual database of its kind in the world.
That my mom would prove to be the ultimate partner in life and support my dad unconditionally through thick and thin. That she would be there alongside him ~ building the database, looking after his health, taking care of us.
That from a little girl who only comprehended that her father was working on a ‘book,’ I would take it upon myself to take papa’s work to the people. And that my husband Atul would encourage and support me completely in my efforts.
Last week, Samantar Kosh brought our family together once again. As part of our venture to document papa’s contribution to the Hindi language in a film, we came together at Rock Beach, Puducherry, a town where my parents and Sumeet spent many years working on the database. And the four of us, decades later, witnessed yet another glorious sunrise.
A cool breeze blew in from the sea as we made our way to the black rocky path jutting into the sea, the blue water stretching endlessly before us. And the orange disc of the sun becoming visible through the clouds above the water, tinting the sky a bright orange, outlining the clouds with a vivid pink. And brilliant rays of light fanning into the sky!
It was simply divine.
Wordlessly, we watched as the magnificence of the moment filled us with wondrous joy, transporting us to another realm, drawing us still closer. It took us back in time to the sunrise at Hanging Gardens when the four of us had begun our journey almost five decades ago. We stood there now, each one of us silently acknowledging the vital forces of nature that had been inspiring us, guiding us, urging us, all along. Each one of us happily aware that togetherness along with devotion and dedication are key to realizing dreams, however unattainable they may seem!
We turned back, revived and revitalized, with another dream in our eyes, the vision of linking the Arvind Lexicon database with global languages to create a World Bank of Words… the rising sun our witness once again.
With every passing year, our circumstances change, our aspirations change, our priorities change… and life? Life adjusts accordingly.
At 20, I was a student looking to complete my education, begin a career, get married. At 25, I was married with a baby girl and working with an international NGO. At 30, I had crossed over from the field of health & nutrition to hard core consumer research. At 35, I was a mother of two and had given up my full time job to work from home. At 40, I took up my passion for writing, wrote on health for newspapers and magazines and authored a book on nutrition. At 45, I set up a firm for publishing our in-house dictionaries and thesauruses.
At 50, my children had flown the nest, and it was just me and my husband at home… We spent more time with our parents and friends, travelled, ate out, attended plays & exhibitions, binge-watched TV shows… a refreshing change from the time-bound commitments of earlier years.
It also gave us a lot of time to think. To think about ourselves. What did we want as individuals? As a couple? As a family? What direction did we now want our life to take? More importantly, how could we prevent ourselves from sliding into a comfortable existence with only memories and remembrances to bring joy? How could we ensure that we had something to look forward to every single day?
This thinking-through process was especially important for me. I had spent the last 20 years working from home in the mornings and then being with the children when they were back from school. Now I had the entire day to myself. How could I make my days more meaningful, more purposeful?
It was now time. Time to review, renew, refresh. Time to reboot.
Something the American talk show host Oprah Winfrey frequently talks about finds complete resonance within me.
Your life journey is about learning to become more of who you are, and fulfilling the highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being. That’s why you’re here.
Inspired, I dug deep within me. I asked myself: What do I really want to do for the next 10, 20, and 30 years of my life? What gives me true happiness? What aspects of my life do I need to change? What flaws do I see in myself? How can I align myself more with the world around me? And the answers set me off on a path of self-actualization wherein I have done the following:
1 I have reignited my spark for learning.
I have become passionately curious. I am all eyes and ears for news on politics, economics, technology, business, health, fashion… I realize that being up-to-date helps me understand the world we live in, it empowers me to participate in conversations freely and knowledgeably.
To stay intellectually alive, I try to expand my knowledge every which way I can ~ meeting new people; reading newspapers, magazines, and books; listening to podcasts and talks; watching YouTube videos, films, documentaries and TV shows; participating in workshops and master classes… I now seek to learn from each person I meet, every interaction I have, anything I come across. So that I never ever become outdated.
2 I have become more social.
Nothing de-stresses more than the company of people we like and vibe with. I have reconnected with long-lost friends from childhood, teachers from school, colleagues of yesteryears. I now mingle with them regularly ~ heart-warming interactions over coffee or a meal or on whatsapp. I do more ‘together’ things with them ~ zumba, dance, mah-jong, movies, short holidays and such.
I have also begun volunteering within our community, something unimaginable five years ago!
3 I have taken charge of my health.
I have – with considerable success – shaken myself out of my comfort zone and begun to focus on improving my eating habits, exercising seriously, resting adequately, getting health checks regularly and whatnot. And believe me, the sense of satisfaction is beyond description.
4 I have tried to become a better version of myself.
I have finally begun applying the self-help gyaan I have been reading over the last so many years. (Richard Carlson remains my favorite author till date… his Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff series suggests simple daily changes for leading a more fulfilled and peaceful life.)
For instance, I am – slowly but surely – making peace with imperfection and becoming more tolerant; letting go and accepting others as they are; talking less, listening more; becoming more compassionate, more kind, more helpful… Most importantly, I have become less rigid in my likes and dislikes and more open to change.
My self-improvement list is endless… but a beginning HAS been made. I now get along with the world more easily, more amicably.
5 I try to make every day count.
Every day is important and I try to include all that I consider essential in my day – work, fun, rest, exercise, socializing… so that when I go to bed, I can happily (and honestly) tell myself that the day had been meaningful and that tomorrow will be even better.
Given the improved quality of life and advanced health care in our times, I genuinely believe that the 50-70 year category is the new middle age. And this definitely merits a major re-think of our life as we turn 50.
Each one of us is unique. And the path we choose for ourselves will also be unique. But choose we must. So that the next few decades can be as full of energy as the decades gone by. With no regrets for the ‘roads not taken’.
The very fact that I have been able to identify my path fills me with great joy. The knowledge that I am moving along my chosen path fills me with an intense sense of fulfilment.
We don’t know each other though I have seen you on the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking. Something you said on the show has been bothering me for months. Hence this letter. Don’t dump it… read through please.
Your single-minded conviction to excel is impressive. You moved to the US with your mum and sis when you were a kid. Today, you are a young successful lawyer in Houston. Bravo! In search of a ‘perfect’ mate, you have networked with friends, tried dating apps, and now, hope to find one through the services of a matchmaker. And I sincerely wish you find your match soon!
And perhaps my ‘two-penny worth’ could help you in your quest? And who am I, you may ask, to advise you? Consider me a well-wisher who is happily married with two grown-up children and who would like to share her learnings from a life spent living with the same man for the last 30 years.
An interfering antiquated auntie? That I am not. DEFINITELY NOT!
You are right: we don’t pick our parents, we don’t pick our siblings, the only family member we CAN choose is our spouse. True. It’s a choice with lifelong repercussions. You seem to be a person with sound judgment; indeed, as you say, every choice you have made since the age of three has been great. Good for you. This will surely help you find the right man soon!
True. One can’t settle with just about anybody. And you have every right to reject men ‘because they haven’t fit with what I want in my life partner.’ But what really unsettles me is your single-minded steadfastness when you say that the person you pick has to fit into your life perfectly.
How does this happen Aparna? Is a perfect fit possible when two people come together?
You rejected one guy because he loved football and you hate it. You declared that you would never watch football with him, not live, not on TV. You didn’t think much either of the guy who had not heard of the salt plains of Bolivia or of the man who said he would like to visit Dubai and South Africa, both places you don’t think much of. You found it weird when someone expressed the wish to spend ten days on a beach, doing nothing. You were horrified by the prospect of going mountain climbing with another. Anyone with a sense of humor, according to you, does not take life seriously.
Aparna, each partner brings his or her own likes, dislikes, interests, obsessions, strengths, weaknesses into the relationship. Every individual is unique. Even congenital twins. So how can a spouse be exactly like you? Does one marry a clone?
My husband Atul and I are poles apart. He loves anything and everything to do with business, economics, politics, crime, war ~ be it news, books, movies, shows, documentaries. I am into nature, history, travel, space, art, literature, sci-fi and romcoms. I love shopping, he does not. I am crazy about movies, he is not. I love meeting people, he is unusually shy. He loves to eat out, I am a cook-and-eat-at-home person. He is committed to golf, I am not. I can go on and on about how different we are as individuals… Yet, our relationship resonates with happy togetherness.
Each one of us has learned from the other, experienced new things, widened our perspective and I seriously believe, grown into better individuals with time. And isn’t this how it should be when two people share a life? And this togetherness has taken days, months, years to nurture.
I request you Aparna to approach the matter differently…
Don’t be categorical about what you like and what you don’t. Instead, next time you meet a prospective match, ask yourself: Do I connect with this man? Because if you do, you can carve out a shared vision for your life together.
Communication is key. In all relationships. To talk, discuss, argue. To share your thoughts, to express your viewpoint. To sort out differences, to bridge the divide, to be able to reach an agreement. Especially since each partner brings his or her unique ideals, experiences and expectations into the marriage.
And once you do settle on a match, commit yourself wholeheartedly. Marriage then can be a wonderful journey where both of you grow without growing apart, without changing the other, without resenting the other.
Another thing on the show bothers me. The matchmaker Seema Taparia reiterates, time and again, that marriage is a compromise. I disagree.
Compromise implies giving in, relenting, resigning, succumbing, suffering, doing something against your will. Marriage is not a game of one-upmanship. You and your spouse are a team. If changing one’s ways helps the team, it is NOT compromise. It is charting a path with mutual agreement, even when at times, it may not be entirely suitable or convenient to one of them.
A married couple creates (or rather, needs to create) a life where strengths and weaknesses of one complement the other. Somewhat like Atul and me. Where his ethically motivated choices complement my aesthetically motivated ones such that, I am the action to his vision. He is the clarity to my clutter. I am the how to his why. He is the thinking to my feeling. I am the anchor to his industry. He is the contemplative to my reactive.
And it is this complementariness that secures and strengthens our relationship. That keeps us warm and secure in happy times, in trying times.
This letter has begun to sound like a sermon… forgive me Aparna. But I HAD to write it in the hope that it sets you thinking anew. And when you do find your special someone, remember: No decision can be de-risked completely, however much you think, deliberate, analyse. And once you do decide on your mate, will you be happy?
As the lockdown kept getting extended, we as a family went completely online. Finally. I began to make all payments online – water, electricity, phones, house tax, staff salaries. The list of daily essentials would be Whatsapped to the grocer and payment transferred. Amazon and Flipkart sent us all the stuff we needed ~ sanitizer, face masks, vitamins and zinc, writing pads, shampoo, house slippers, walker for my dad-in-law, bindis for my mom, dog food, plant manure… even raakhees.
A simple swipe. For anything we needed. Any time of the day. From any device in the hand. At discounted rates. Guaranteed delivery. No driving, no parking hassles. No haggling, no physical contact.
Buying stuff had never been so convenient, so easy. And online shopping never so addictive.
Even as the city unlocks, my first instinct now is to check availability of things online before I venture out to the market. The wonders of online shopping have not been lost on Makku, the young girl who helps me around the house. She sits me down to buy things I am too lazy to shop for ~ microwave cover, shoe polish brushes, buckets and mugs, toilet caddy, ice cube trays, oil funnel… It is another matter that in the process, I have also bought an artisanal tea pot, milk frother, meat tenderizer, non-stick pans, makeup… other splendid stuff.
Late one night, I found amazing satin tulip pants on Instagram; one click, and they were home the next afternoon! It is an Aladdin’s cave out there… and I am bewitched by its treasures!
And then I saw the documentary film, The Social Dilemma, on Netflix (see note at end of post) that warns me: The wonders come at a price.
Big Tech experts in The Social Dilemma confirm allegations that have been around for some years: Corporations track our behavior on social networks. Every time we share feelings, ideas, thoughts and experiences on social media, each time we like a post or upload a pic or watch a video or tweet or do anything online, it is tracked. Every single thing. Our likes and dislikes. Our opinions. Our quirks. Our preferences. Our leanings. All are monitored and recorded. What gets our attention, how long we look at it, how we react to it, all is tracked. Anything and everything about us that helps social platforms learn what makes us tick.
But why would anyone want to understand us?
Because we are consumers. Potential buyers. Selling is the most difficult thing on earth and if the seller can understand and predict what we are likely to buy, they can position their stuff with sure-shot success.
Understandably, profit is the key motive of any commercial enterprise. The internet today is one big giant mall, a market place that did not exist until a few years ago. What makes the current system damaging is that the business model is disguised in the garb of social media.
We may think of social networking as the best way to connect and share our life with family and friends; the reality is quite menacing. All our data on social networks is fed into giant computers and analysed using algorithms. As technology advances, these algorithms are becoming better and smarter in selecting and showing us posts that will attract us, interest us, captivate us. It is their job to find out how they can catch our attention as much as possible. And it is this attention, this mindfulness of ours that social platforms sell to advertisers. This is how these corporations make money and are the richest in the world today. This is why we get FB and Insta and Twitter free because… someone else (the seller of goods) is paying for us.
We are unwittingly laying our lives bare on social platforms and this information is being mined to produce marketable predictions about what we will do/read/buy/believe next. It is a surveillance system that is, in the words of some experts, “extracting and exploiting what’s inside our heads” and controlling what we see. We remain unawares as our behavior changes, ever so little, ever so gradually. It is this imperceptible change in our behaviour that the social media platform seeks. And we happily let them do it.
Innocuously, we are being manipulated. And it is a part of a well-thought out conspiracy.
Their strategy is simple.
They first attract my attention.
My phone chimes. The notification bar blinks, and I, almost always, leave whatever I am doing to scroll down photos, invites, current events, messages, FB posts… I can’t seem to help myself. Precious minutes go by as I check new posts, respond to comments, send birthday wishes… until my attention is caught by something I like. I explore the entire category, marking things, checking out sizes… I scroll down and see fascinating stuff like the innovative toilet brush that scours out germs from the farthest reaches, the DYMO label maker that syncs with a smartphone…The onslaught continues. By design. This is how social media hooks my attention and keeps me engaged.
Then they begin to coax me. When I show interest in a product – be it dresses or ice cream or reflex balls, the same brand appears on top of my Facebook feed, my Insta feed the very next day… I must have watched the 30 second video for the expensive toilet brush at least 15 times! If this is not enticing me, what is?
Then social media tempts. With discounts. With emails from Amazon that urge me to place the order right away. Uff! Transparent, double-sided tape at 40% discount! Shoes at 20% off! Cash back rewards!
It’s human nature. When I see the same stuff again and again, day after day, I am likely to give in to the temptation. I finally bought the toilet brush when I saw a large discount on it the following week. Without me realizing when the seduction became coercion and the relentless pursuit led to my capitulation!
Which the social media platform knew and intended all along. This is persuasive technology at its best. These companies have spent billions of dollars in understanding our psychology; they know how to tempt us, how to persuade us, how to get us to do something they want us to do, and have built it into their technology. These companies are behaviour change geniuses. And we thought insurance agents are best at it!
My screen time on social networking sites over the last week was almost three hours per day! For a person who professes to be busy and always short on time, this is a horrifying revelation! And nothing short of hara-kiri!
Enough to shake me out of my stupor and ask myself:
Why am I checking out new posts on social media ever so often?
Am I a puppet in the hands of these corporations? A lab rat? A zombie?
Why am I becoming so materialistic? When did I lose my sense of objectivity?
Which leads me to the more worrying questions:
How good will my willpower be in resisting the lure of social media?
How can I hope to retain my sanity against supercomputers and their exponentially advancing artificial intelligence?
I suppose realization is always the first step.
PS: Would you like to share your experiences with social media?
About the new Netflix release The Social Dilemma
This docudrama explores the rise, over the past twenty years, of social platforms such asFacebook, Messenger, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn, WeChat and other services like YouTube, Quora, Snapchat, Pinterest, WhatsApp and many more. The film discusses, simply and succinctly, the impact of these social media from the viewpoints of technology experts, researchers and analysts from Silicon Valley, universities and think tanks.
The film also explains how, with its far reach and complete understanding of human psyche, social media has been able to bring like-minded people together and program them to behave in the nefarious interests of certain individuals; how it has affected real world emotions, moulded views, and triggered desired behaviour without ever triggering the users’ awareness; how easy it has been to radicalize society on the lines of race and religion, pursuits and preferences.
Imagine reading a story 5000 years old. And then to realize that despite the millennia gone by, we face the same dilemma today and the solution remains as elusive as ever!
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one such story. The earliest surviving work of literature, the epic fictionalizes the reign of brave Sumerian king Gilgamesh who ruled Uruk in modern day Iraq around 2600 BCE.
In the story, King Gilgamesh is two-thirds divine and one-third mortal. He is young and handsome, energetic and athletic. Also cruel and arrogant. When the oppressed people of his kingdom appeal to the gods, they create Enkidu, an equal in brute strength, to humble Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu engage in fierce battle. Gilgamesh wins; the two acknowledging each other’s might, become friends. On one of their adventures, they incur the wrath of gods who decree Enkidu’s death.
When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is inconsolable. He calls upon the mountains, forests, rivers, animals, and all of Uruk to mourn for his friend. He clings to his dead friend for days until he sees a maggot drop from the corpse’s nostril. Disgusted and appalled, he realizes that one day, he too will die. And he resolves to overcome death.
He sets out to find Utnapishtim, the only man granted the gift of immortality by the gods. He travels for days under the mountains, over the oceans, until he finds Utnapishtim.
Utnapishtim asks Gilgamesh to first conquer the ‘little death’ of sleep for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh is unable to pass the test. Utnapishtim then instructs him to fetch a magical thorny plant from the ocean’s center which rejuvenates and ‘makes an old man young’. Gilgamesh fails again.
A dejected, depressed Gilgamesh returns home, as mortal as ever but wiser with the revelation that “death is the inevitable destiny of man and man must learn to live with it.”
Like Gilgamesh, we accept death as inevitable. We live our lives knowing that in the end, we will leave everything – our bodies, our relationships, our material possessions – behind and become one with the elements. Yet, our innate instinct to survive keeps us searching for the key to youth and immortality.
The quest continues to this day.
Till the early 1900s, people could reach, at the most, middle age. People died from poor health due to insanitary living conditions, inadequate nutrition and lack of medicines, surgical treatments and vaccines. Today, we can hope to live about 70-80 years which may increase by a few more years as healthcare improves. But even under the most ideal circumstances, the shelf life of our species cannot exceed 120 or 130 years. And living up to a fantastic age of 200 years or longer remains the substance of fiction, legends and myths.
Recent scientific advancements have given a modern fillip to our pursuit of eternal life. The fields of biology, genetics and medicine have come together with engineering, nanotechnology, computing and artificial intelligence to make the war against death more relentless than ever. AND we may be successful sooner than we think.
Interestingly, modern scientists have an entirely different take on death. They view the human body as a system run by tens of thousands of biological processes. The body is at peak performance in the early 20s; thereafter, it keeps becoming slower, weaker, and more prone to infection and disease. What if we could maintain optimal biological performance indefinitely? What if we could strengthen the body’s ability to resist infection and ward off disease? What if we could regenerate or replace damaged tissues and organs in the body? What if we could remove all glitches in the system? What then could prevent us from leading a healthy productive life forever?
Sounds improbable? But then, so did treating injuries and infections two hundred years ago!
Government institutions, private organizations and academic institutes all over the world are exploring different routes to slow down aging.
Genetic engineering – wherein genes are edited or removed/ added/ activated/ inactivated – shows the most promising potential to extend life. While 15 genes have been manipulated to extend the life of worms, flies and mice by almost 50 per cent, similar bioengineering in humans will be many times harder. But not impossible.
Antioxidant therapy to remove free radicals – toxic elements that accumulate in the cells with age – has been able to extend the life of fruit flies and worms, and made rats more physically and mentally agile. Will consuming antioxidant-rich supplements then delay aging for us humans too?
Particularly promising is the development of a class of drugs called senolytics which destroy cells that stop dividing and secrete compounds that damage surrounding tissues in old age. Or will deft manipulation of declining levels of hormones and antibodies do the trick?
Another approach reduces caloric intake in diet to slow down aging. Since humans are unlikely to starve themselves to prolong life, efforts are on to develop drugs that trick the body into thinking that it is on a drastically-reduced diet… could these mimetics do the magic for us?
Latest research at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine claims to have identified synergistic cellular pathways that amplify lifespan in tiny nematode worms called C. elegans by 500%! In terms of humans, this would be equivalent to a life of 400 or 500 years!
Also it may soon become possible to generate tissues from the patient’s own cells to replace defunct parts. Or to insert inorganic implants to replace damaged organs. Or to insert nano-robots into our cells to repair them or to open blocked blood vessels or to fight viruses and bacteria or to eliminate cancerous cells… Or perhaps to link our bodies inseparably with inorganic parts to modify our abilities, desires, personalities and identities?
Scientists sincerely believe that a combination of therapies will be required to remove all glitches in our functioning to give us an indefinite lifespan with good health. How soon? They cannot tell.
Anti-aging research is serious business today. The latest to enter the race for eternity are ultra-rich Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and technology innovators who are investing billions of dollars in anti-aging research be it Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, X Prize foundation founder Peter Diamandis and many others. Most of the companies and foundations set up by them are working in stealth mode and have not yet revealed concrete achievements.
How long will the quest for immortality take? 100 years? 500 years? 1000 years? Who knows… Perhaps we will be proven to be wrong all along. Only the future will tell.
This is an introduction to a new category on my blog ‘Living in the FUTURE’ which explores latest innovations and developments happening in our world today.
We humans are an inquisitive lot; and it is this trait that compelled our ancestors to venture out of Africa and overrun the entire world. We are also an acquisitive race, which is why we continually seek and strive to better ourselves and everything around us.
Over the last 70,000 years, we have driven all other strains of the Homo genus into extinction to become the sole surviving human species on earth. New ways of thinking and communicating and cooperating heralded the agricultural revolution, and led to the building of kingdoms, empires. We invented writing, created religion, introduced money to take our story forward; and in the last 500 years, have gained unprecedented power through scientific discoveries, industrialization and global trade. In more recent times, we have forayed into the realms of nuclear power, information technology, robotics and artificial intelligence. No longer limited by the boundaries of our planet, today we seek newer worlds in the infinite universe.
We sure have come a long way. What new frontiers will we conquer in the next 50 years? 500 years? 5000 years?
Science fiction writers and movie makers have been telling us fantastic stories about superhumans, intelligent machines, time travel, space missions, extraterrestrial civilizations, alien invasions, invisibility, and all that can be possibly – and impossibly – imagined! Perhaps the future will have some semblance to these far-fetched wonderful tales?
Undoubtedly, the future will be shaped by technological breakthroughs happening today. While it is difficult to look further than we can see, one thing is for sure: the future will be very different from what we can anticipate today. And my foremost thought, laced with quite some anxiety, is: How will I adapt to this new future?
When I look back at the last 10, 20, 30 years, in fact all my adult years, my life has changed phenomenally. Computers, smartphones, flash drives, search engines, Google maps, YouTube, social media, cloud computing, Bluetooth, electric cars, 3D printing, e-readers, online shopping… are an integral part of my life today… and I, like others in my generation, often catch myself thinking, “How on earth did I manage without them?!”
And the breakneck speed at which science and technology are advancing in our 21st century is mindboggling! Disruption is a tsunami taking down the old order furiously… The future is already happening ~ every day, everywhere. AND we need to ride the furious waves of change. Otherwise we will be left behind ~ outdated, outmoded, outpaced.
I shudder to think of a time when I wake up to an alien world, disoriented, disabled, defeated. Overcome and overwhelmed by the changes around me. Changes that leave me feeling irrelevant and inconsequential. What meaning will my life have for me then?
To survive such a fate, I need to become a part of the change. I need to keep my fears under control. I need to become less rigid and more willing to accept new ideas. I need to update my knowledge. I need to sharpen my ability to learn new things and hone new skills. Only then will I become a natural resident of the new world. Most crucially, I should never allow my AGE to become a barrier in my endeavors.
The future is here. And we need to live in it. Now.
I am tense. I am racing to meet my report deadline before I can get dinner started… the doorbell rings. Vexed at the interruption, I get up hurriedly. The tea spills. I rescue my papers and start mopping the spill… The bell goes off again. And I… lose it. I shout at the delivery guy, the bag breaks as I grab it, potatoes and tomatoes tumble out. Kicking them aside, I slam the door. Hot and bothered, raging and fuming, I get back to work. I send the report finally. As I get dinner going and lay the table, I am not too happy with myself. I am troubled by the realization that I did not handle the situation well. Why did I get so angry? Why did I shout at the man? Why did I create such a ruckus?
Because I let myself get hijacked by my amygdala.
Amygdala is the lower part of the brain that kicks into action when something evokes intense emotions within us. When I heard the doorbell ring, a wave of emotions coursed through me ~ irritation, annoyance, anxiety, anger, frustration, panic… My amygdala, conditioned since times immemorial to evoke the fight-or-flight response in the face of threat, made me react impulsively and intuitively, without giving me time to weigh all possible options and their consequences. A response which I much regretted later.
Quite a few of us get easily bothered. When anything goes any other way than we expect, we fly off the handle. We lash out. Sometimes, we sulk and withdraw. Why? Why do we hop on to the emotional rollercoaster at the smallest of things?
When all we need to do is: PAUSE. Take a deep breath. Count to 10.
When we press the pause button, we get precious milliseconds to take in what is happening and track our feelings and thoughts. Slowing down awakens the pragmatic centers of our brain so that we can thinkingly respond to the provocation rather than unconsciously react to it. As celebrated psychotherapist Victor Frankl says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
When the bell rang, I could have paused and accepted the fact that I had no other option but to attend to it. I could have gotten up quietly, taken the groceries calmly, and gone back to work mindfully without letting the interruption play havoc with my mind. And I would have felt great about completing my work on schedule.
I have to admit, I easily tend to ‘lose it’. And every time, it leaves me distressed. And also horrified by the kind of example I am setting for my children. What will they learn from a trigger-happy mom?
Fortunately, my children understand me and my weaknesses and point out when I go overboard in my reactions… Mom, there was no need to shriek at the maid when she came in late or holler at us when we didn’t clear the table or thunder at the telemarketer or burst out when that man jumped the queue…
And I realize that it is entirely up to me. The ball is in my court. I have to change my emotional irrational self into a sensitive thoughtful one. For me, this has become top priority.
So I have defined a protocol for myself. Admitting my weakness to myself has been the first step… But instead of filling my mind with negativity and indulging in self-defeating inner talk, I have made a commitment to myself: that I will be less easily bothered, especially by small things. I have taught myself to recognize the triggers that make me go at the world with a dagger. The moment I begin to make a go for the kill, I pull myself back sharply with a “There I go again!” And once I am able to delay my outburst and give myself time to think, I automatically react sanely. Needless to say, my sense of achievement is huge.
And though I still ‘lose it’ once in a while, I am sure my family has noticed (and appreciate) my progress in the right direction. As for me, I am calm, collected, in control. AND Happier.
Corona times. Lockdown. Social distancing. Limited outings. No going out for golgappas. And my craving for them intensifies day by day.
In my mind’s eye, I picture the guy behind the counter handing me a donaa (leaf bowl) and stirring the huge pot of cool tangy mint water with a long ladle. He then takes a roundly puffed crisp golgappa, crushes a small hollow in it, stuffs it with the spicy potato mixture, dips it into the pot of freshly stirred mint water, and then, as I extend my hand in happy anticipation, places the delicious dripping golgappa in my donaa!
And I feel the crunchiness of the golgappa combine with the saltiness of the potatoes, sweetness of the tamarind chutney, sourness of the mint water, and sharpness of the spices to explode into a bomb of flavor in my mouth!
We Indians love golgappas! Golgappa or paani ke batashe as we call them in the North or phuchka or phuska as they are known in the East or paani puri in the West, they are the most popular street food and fast food and fun food all rolled into one! There is a golgappa stall at every corner, every nook of the country, and we can eat golgappas any time of the day!
For me, golgappas are precious moments of joy stolen from routine. Six golgappas leave me refreshed, energized, ready to take on the world! And the best part is that our children acquire the taste very young. Four year old Tanvi, her tiny mouth stuffed with a golgappa and tears running down her cheeks is a memory I hug close to my heart. Even today, a quick round of golgappas is almost always the unspoken agenda when we are out!
Though I have my favorite golgappa guy in the local market, I am willing to try them out just about anywhere, any street corner, any market, any mall! I can eat them on a shopping trip, when running an errand, waiting for a friend or simply on spotting a golgappa stall! However hurried I may be, I manage to find 10 minutes for golgappas!
Google India reports that the search for golgappa recipe went up by 107% during the corona lockdown. No wonder I have seen so many videos of people flaunting their golgappa genius at home!
Making golgappas, though time consuming, is possible. One can fry the shells golden and blend the coriander-mint-ginger-green chilli-lemon-spices perfectly , but assembling them yourself and eating them at home is no fun. No fun at all.
Because the golgappa experience is much more…
Putting golgappas together is an art. And no one can do this better than the golgappa guy. The taste is not only in the constituents, it is in the mix! It is in the style in which the golgappa guy serves the golgappas. It is in the way he makes it a point to serve the golgappas just as each one of us likes it. It is in the manner in which he goes round the semi-circle of people around him serving golgappas at the right speed, giving us just enough time to relish them before becoming impatient for the next one!
And I realize, it is not just the golgappas that I miss. It is the entire golgappa experience.
And my goal this year, once we start eating out again, is to finally have a no-limit golgappa-eating contest with my friends, something I have been dying to do for so many years!
It was evening by the time we were done with the ceremonies and celebrations of our daughter Tanvi’s wedding. The day had begun early when Garvit (the groom) arrived with his family and friends; breakfast, the formal welcome, jaimala, pheras, and lunch took up most part of the day; and now it was time for the bride and groom to leave for their family home in Jaipur, 200 miles away. Tanvi hurried off to change into her going-away dress, accompanied by her aunt Malini.
I followed a while later to check on them… and found Malini frantically trying to unclasp Tanvi’s silver anklets… Hurriedly, I joined in… the task becoming a Herculean one for two overweight ladies in heavy silk sarees and high heels, our contact lenses making it impossible to focus on the tiny clasps…
Thankfully, Akshay, my son, walked in just then. Akshay got into action immediately. Placing Tanvi’s foot on a large stool, he bent to examine the anklets, resting his knee on the stool while I and Malini, precariously balanced, held up the folds of Tanvi’s lehenga for him to see better… when the stool broke knocking the three of us down to the floor!
In stunned disbelief, we looked at each other, and then! Burst out laughing! We laughed and laughed and laughed giving vent to the hectic busy-ness and excitement of the day! We rolled on the floor laughing our heads off, forgetting, for those few wonderful moments, that everyone was waiting in the hallway to send the bride away! And creating a precious memory to remember and laugh at again. And again.
The sound of laughter is the happiest sound for me. And I love to laugh… loudly with all my heart, and often, hysterically till tears roll down my face (much to the embarrassment of my family)!
Scientists say we learned to laugh in groups much before we acquired the ability to speak… no wonder laughing is so natural, so instinctive for us. Infants begin to smile and laugh within months of being born, children find humor in the simplest and smallest of things. Adults, though, in their struggle to cope with daily concerns and hardships, somehow lose this spontaneity… Come to think of it, can you remember the last time you laughed? Really laughed? Whereas it is precisely after a tough day that the need for a good laugh is most urgent…
Because something special happens when we laugh together, doesn’t it? We feel good when we laugh. Sadness, anxiety, anger disappear. Laughter fosters closeness, diffuses conflict, eases frustrations and tensions. Humor helps us cope and deal with disappointments and difficult situations.
Victor Borge, famous comedian-musician, says, “Laughter is the closest distance between two people.” Laughter signals that we are in it together ~ in good times and difficult times and that we accept each other as we are, faults, weaknesses, shortcomings and all. And the happy feeling remains long after the laughter subsides.
When I laugh, I feel myself coming alive with joy and energy and everything around me feels just great. They say laughter is a great work out for every system in the body, and that it lowers sugar levels, improves blood circulation, releases feel-good hormones, boosts immunity, and helps us sleep… what better medicine than laughter? And what better stuff than laughter to bring home?
No wonder healthy homes are filled with sounds of laughter. After all, what would life be without laughter?
There is no reason why we should not laugh many times a day. Laughter runs riot in homes where moms, dads and kids jest and jive and joke together; when they rib each other or play pranks; when they revisit funny incidents from the past; when they tease or trick, when they pass witty remarks and ripostes; when they have boisterous pillow fights or roughhouse it; when they act out comic dramas and spoofs; when they share funny videos and memes or when they are simply idiotic!
One person who almost always brings happy laughter into our home is our son Akshay. A keen observer, Akshay has the amazing knack of relating small everyday things in a manner which has us in splits instantly. Even Atul, my husband, who usually takes time to see humor in a situation, can never resist a hearty guffaw at Akshay’s amusing portrayal of life.
I myself don’t mind being silly or poking fun at myself or giving a crazy response as long as it makes my family laugh… and I am inordinately pleased when exaggerated tales of my foolishness bring unrestrained laughter at the dinner table!
Here’s to bringing joy and delight into our homes!
PS: And in case you are wondering what happened to Tanvi’s anklets, well, we just left them on her feet, and Tanvi went jingling and jangling all the way to Jaipur!
No person should ever have this regret at any point in life, especially in the later years. Not one of us should feel pangs of remorse for time lost, things not done, opportunities foregone, chances not taken. While we still could. But didn’t.
I am not a philosopher. Or an enlightened soul. I do not understand why I have come into this world; I do not know what will happen to me after I die. The only thing I know for certain is that I am alive. And that I want to make the most of my time on earth, that I want to lead a life that is meaningful. So that later when I look back, I can truthfully say to myself, “I made the most of my life.”
Life is a collection of days. And every single day is important. What we do each day, little by little, shapes our life. And we need to do as Robin Williams famously says as the English teacher in the 1989 American film Dead Poets Society: Carpe diem! Seize the day, boys! Make your lives extraordinary!
Yes. Every day matters. Every moment counts. Because it is only right here, right now, that things get done. The past is long gone, the future is yet to come… Only the present exists. The present is in our hands, the present is all that matters, and soon… the present too shall pass.
So then why do we spend so much time of the day lost in our thoughts? When our body works on autopilot? When life passes by in a haze?
For instance, did you note, as you made your way to work today, the freshness in the air after last night’s rain ? The lilies bordering the sidewalk? The trees dappling orange gold in the evening sun? The happy laughter of the kid next door?
This autopilot mode when we go about the day’s work unaware of the present is what Psychology Professor Dr Ellen Langer of Harvard University calls ‘mindless moments,’ moments when one is so trapped in thoughts that we forget to experience, let alone enjoy, what is happening right now. When we become a victim of time and our mind is everywhere but ‘here.’ When our thoughts are on what has been/could have been or what can be/will be. And we become so mindless, Dr Langer explains, we stop paying attention to things around us.
Can one enjoy the weekend if our mind is already thinking about Monday? Or laugh gaily with a friend if we keep remembering how she let us down last year?
Whereas we need to do the opposite. Because only when we are engaged with the external world and its sights, sounds and smells, and pay attention, at the same time, to our innermost thoughts, feelings and sensations, can we enjoy what is happening NOW. Only then can we hope to find happiness in life.
A profound concept. But difficult to follow as our monkey mind vaults from thought to thought constantly. And we have to wrench it to remain focussed in the present. So that we can enjoy every moment, relish it, savor it, luxuriate in it, delight in it.
Only when we let go and lose ourselves in the moment, can we enjoy it. See how it relaxes us, how woes and worries melt away, how uncertainties and insecurities disappear, how self-esteem and confidence return, and we can interact with others positively and productively.
Life in the moment moves quickly — and I try not to miss it. I try to pay attention to the ordinary things around me. I try to stay focussed on the task at hand. Consciously. With total involvement.
When I wake up, I peep out and take in the dewiness of the morning; as I walk in the park, I direct my attention to the loosening of my back and stretch in my muscles; as I hold my tea, I note the warmth seeping in from the cup; as I cook, I keep my thoughts trained on the cutting, chopping, stirring and serving; when I bite into my sandwich, I feel its texture and savor its flavor; when I write, I block off all external sounds and focus on translating my thoughts into words… When I notice my mind wandering, I repeat to myself, “Now. Now. Now.” And pull myself back.
And I try to carry this mindfulness through the day while watching my daily sitcom or listening to music or discussing plans with others or playing with our golden retriever or shopping or simply relaxing. I go along with the experiences ~ pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad ~ simply because that is what is present, that is all there is, nothing else.
And when I lie down at night, I let go completely. I feel my body sinking into the mattress and appreciate how good it feels. I breathe deeply. And realize that all the happiness is right here, right now, in the present moment. I tell myself: Today was a day well-spent. Tomorrow will be a new day, a day when I can do as much, when I can do MORE.
Very few films touch a deep chord within us… Into the Wild is one such film. I watched it last weekend and it has been on my mind since. The film has affected me profoundly and I need to share my thoughts…
Into the Wild tells the real life story of a bright young man Chris McCandless from a well-heeled family in Virginia. The film, adapted from Jon Krakauer’s book by the same name and brilliantly directed by Sean Penn, is narrated by Chris’s younger sister Carine aided by notes from his journal.
After graduating from Emory University in 1990 with good grades, Chris severs ties, in one swift move, with the life he has known until then. He donates his savings, destroys all traces of his existence, rechristens himself Alexander Supertramp, and goes hitchhiking across North America.
Inspired by the wilderness tales of Jack London, and the reflections of Henry David Thoreau on living simply in natural surroundings, Chris sets off to find ultimate freedom as a child of Earth. With a firm belief that money and power are an illusion, his eventual aim is to travel to the wilds of Alaska, far from the trappings of modern civilization, where he can kill ‘the false being within’ and become ‘lost in the wild.’
Chris finally makes his way to the rough Alaskan bush in April 1992 and sets up camp in an abandoned bus which he calls ‘The Magic Bus.’
He lives simply. He hunts and forages for food, reads books, maintains a journal of all that he sees and thinks and feels and does. He finds joy in the isolation and beauty of his surroundings, each new experience assuaging his spirit beyond words. At long last, it seems, Chris’s quest for peace and happiness is complete.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Chris and his sister Carine have had a troubled childhood marked by their parents’ sordid and abusive relationship. His father’s volcanic, hair-trigger rage frequently erupted into vitriolic verbal outbursts and physical assaults on their mother; Chris too being the recipient of his dad’s derision and disparaging remarks. His parents’ unhappy marriage and the hypocritical life they epitomize, their deceit and lies, their unhappiness and discord with each other leave Chris heartbroken.
Things come to a head when Chris visits distant relatives in California and learns that his father has a son from a previous marriage and that he had still been married to his first wife when he and his sis were born. His father’s infidelity and the inference that both he and his sis are ‘bastard children’ affects him deeply. He feels his family is founded on a web of lies… Soulfully, he paraphrases his idol Henry Thoreau, “Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness… give me truth.”
My heart weeps for young Chris when he says, “Some people feel like they don’t deserve love. They walk away quietly into empty spaces, trying to close the gaps of the past.” And this is what he does… he removes himself from the toxic situation at home and disappears into the wilderness… never to return.
Isn’t home that one place on earth where we are (or rather, should be) the happiest? Where one is the most loved, the most cared for, the most comfortable, the most secure?
The shelter that remains constant in life and free from all negativity? The space where we feel the best about ourselves? The umbrella under which children thrive and grow into happy, balanced and confident adults?
Isn’t it the parents’ responsibility to create such a haven for their children? To invest time and energy into their marriage, interact with mutual affection, appreciation and admiration, and resolve their conflicts prudently so that their children see their togetherness and grow up to raise happy families of their own?
The volatile relationship of Chris’s parents could hardly have created a loving and caring atmosphere for the McCandless children. Throughout the film, we see snippets of his dad ridiculing Chris over small things, discouraging him from trying new things, and criticizing him for the smallest mistakes. And we can only imagine its harsh impact on Chris’s self-image and self-esteem.
Any wonder that once Chris graduates, he escapes the harm within his home and sets out to seek happiness in the empty spaces of Alaska? He sees himself not as homeless, but as a man freed from home.
Chris spends almost four months ~ 113 days to be exact ~ in his ‘magic bus.’ Soon after his arrival, spring arrives. However, finding game or edible roots and berries becomes increasingly difficult… Chris grows leaner and weaker day by day…
He realizes that nature can be harsh and uncaring too, and after a couple of months, tries to go back to civilization only to find his route blocked by the swollen, raging river…
Back in the bus, Chris resigns to his fate… As his strength ebbs, he records: Happiness is only real when shared… a realization which runs contrary to his earlier conviction that joy of life does not necessarily come from human relationships. Finally he realizes that life has meaning only when we can share it with someone… something he finds out far too late.
As death looms near, Chris finally acknowledges his true identity ‘Christopher Jonathan McCandless’ in his farewell note. Lying in the bus such that he can look up at the open sky, he sees himself home again, happy and smiling, running up to his parents and embracing them.
At long last, he ceases to hate them, forgives them, and in doing so, finds peace… and as he breathes his last, the sun breaks through the clouds and shines on him.
Long after seeing this spell-binding film, I am filled with deep regret. Grief at the futility of it all. Anguish for all that could have been.
As a mother, my heart bleeds for young Chris aching for truth and love and understanding. If only he could have had a home which was truly ‘sweet.’
Early morning every day, Richard, our golden retriever, and I set off on a mission. To reach the park before anyone else does. Even if that means leaving at 5 am! So that Richard can run… unchained, uncurbed, unchecked.
Richard loves every minute of it. The moment the leash is off, he takes off at breakneck speed, tearing down the track while I walk at a more sedate pace… chasing squirrels at lightning speed, hounding mynahs looking for insects in the grass, tracking cats that sometimes stray into the park. And when tired, simply rolling in the grass or lapping water from the birdie’s basin or nibbling a jamun from the huge tree in the centre, all the while watching me from the corner of his eye!
This ‘letting loose’ is the most joyful part of Richard’s morning walk. The only time of the day when he is a free spirit. And this makes me think: Don’t we all yearn for our own letting loose moments in life?
When there is not a care in the world? No schedule to adhere, no rings to attend, no emails to revert, no reports to file, no work to do, no timeline to meet, no meals to cook, no stuff to clean? When we can eat, sleep, drink and do whatever we want? No role to fit in, no rules to follow, no compulsion to be nice, no comments to tolerate, no judgments to suffer. No worries, no reminders, no restraints?
When we are away from the mundaneness of routine. When we can stop taking life so seriously. When we can pardon our self for not doing anything.
When we are answerable to no one. When we don’t expect anything of our own self. When we can just be our self. When we can think about our self.
When we can simply live in the moment. When we can be our true Self. When we can stop looking for happiness and just be happy.
Each one of us deserves such precious moments of freedom, of free will, of free choice. On a regular basis.
A husband needs this time away from his wife, the wife from her husband. Children from their parents, parents from their children. Staff from their bosses, bosses from their staff. We all need some time, some place, away… far away from everyone and everything. We all need to simply let go!
We need to set ourselves free. We need to set our loved ones free. For an hour, a day, a week, a month… for as long as it takes. Alone or with family or friends. At home or far away.
So that when we come back, reassembled, repaired and renewed, we are ready to meet life as it comes.