Thursday, February 6, 2014

Apples and lemons

My phone has not been well lately. Suffers from fever, lack of energy and impaired cognition. I plug it in every chance I get, but it gets exhausted very quickly. I took it in for a diagnosis, which led to its being admitted for further observation. Ultimately it was discharged, not cured. "Motherboard problem" they said.

If it was any other phone, I might have made my peace with the outcome, bought another phone. Moved on.
But I am in denial. I still hold on to this sick device that is just about 7 months old, too young to be abandoned, even in these times of rapid upgrades. I cannot accept the immutable fact. Because the phone is an iPhone!

Sometime ago, during my "Apple-less" days, I read this article in The Hindu titled "Think different?".
No point for guessing what the subject of the article was. I was so impressed by the author's logic and writing style that I took the trouble to send him an email. He graciously replied. Then I made the grievous error of sending the link to a friend who at that time owned an iPad, iPhone and a Macbook. She assumed I had joined the rotten apple bridge for bashing the company that not just made her favorite gadgets but bestowed upon her, the status of "cool". I had never owned an Apple product, neanderthal that I was. Uninitiated into the joys of owning a user-friendly gadget that would make my life easier and more meaningful. While I wasn't an Apple fan, I wasn't against the company or those that owned their devices, swearing eternal loyalty to the brand. I was an amused bystander who thought Apple product owners were no different from followers of religious or other cults who sought to convert the "others". While other manufacturers made and sold similar products they were unable to clone the rabid following that Apple had. Not having a business degree, I just found the whole business "silly".

About a year ago, I needed a new laptop that was light on my shoulder and easy on my eyes. While it wasn't easy on my wallet, I have been happy with MacBook Air that I bought. And then I succumbed to the pressure to buy an iPad to mark my daughter's 16th birthday. And before I could say Blackberry, I was gifted an iPhone by my husband. So we had a houseful of Apple gadgets,a fact that never ceased to thrill my friend who finally saw me as the ultimate turncoat. And it gave her great joy to remind me of the Hindu article and its aftermath in my life.

Perhaps I did switch over to the masses that believe Apple products are by far the only gadgets worth owning. Perhaps I did get used to the easy user interface. Perhaps the sensible side of me believed it was worth the premium pricing it commands, for its reliability. And a part of me felt a wee bit sheepish. Not for handing my life and loyalty to Apple but for being a late adopter, if not a total skeptic. Until last week.

I was totally shocked at the poor performance of my phone - a unit that I have used sparingly for about 6 months, it hasn't fallen, cracked or been dunked in water. It hasn't been exhausted by constant use of high speed data. In fact, the one thing my phone hardly does since I moved to Singapore, is ring. And for such gentle use, I get rewarded with a basic hardware problem which the service center is unable to fix. I have been asked to pay $350 dollars to get a new instrument. This seems a particularly harsh ending to the budding love story of me and my Apple gadgets. Do I feel disappointed? Yes. I am saddened by the lack of ruggedness of my phone but even more by my reaction. Expecting a mere device to last long, even though newer models have already made an appearance, expecting my phone to be my guide, my savior, my connection to life itself. Like Elizabeth Gilbert says about marriage in her book "Committed", I piled on all my expectations onto a puny device. And I blame it for my unhappiness, for my disconnect from the wired world.

I haven't been on the phone lately, I fear the burn mark on my ear if I hold the fiery hot instrument to my head. I do things the old fashioned way. I wait for a bus until it arrives - without relying on the bus App for accurate timings. I look out the window as I enjoy the bus ride, instead of plugging in the earphones. I have used a pay phone to make a call. I have knocked on a neighbors door to communicate a message. I am in retrograde.

While I would like Apple to send me an apology for the poor performance of one of its millions of pieces, I owe Apple a thank you. For releasing me from a dependence on devices, for opening my eyes to the world around me, for challenging my brain to live my life. For bringing me back to a saner life. For giving me a lemon, not an Apple.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A love for libraries

A cold breeze instantly chills me as I walk inside from the harsh afternoon humidity. My eyes take a few second to adjust to the dim interior though it is only a response to the sun's glare. I feel soothed, as if I am sipping a refreshing cool drink although there is no food or drink allowed inside the library. Its the sight of books that calms me, rejuvenates me and recreates in my mind the endless days of my childhood where I read everything I could lay my hands on.

There were no public libraries in Mumbai where I grew up. But I always had access to books. I read everything in the modest school library, borrowed shamelessly from friends whose homes were virtual treasure troves of books, secretly read Harold Robbins that lay around my grandparents home, probably being read by an aunt. While there were no official-looking libraries, there was the local store which traded old newspapers and magazines and lent paperbacks for next to nothing. The store had entire collections of Nancy Drew, Famous Fives and all the staple English books, many of them authored by Enid Blyton in the era preceding Harry Potter. My brothers and I fought over who got to read the Tintin or Asterix comics first. We narrated the funny bits to each other and to our mother as she cooked dinner for us. We then traded up to Sidney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer. As I gravitated towards Mills and Boon and Danielle Steel, I veered away from the reading tastes that I had until then shared with my brothers. Reading habits marked my age, ability and personality. It tracked not just my tastes, but my maturity. It held my hand and illuminated the coming of age wonder years. Books were my friend, my guiding light and solace. And continue to be today.

No wonder then that one of the greatest source of joy for me in Singapore has been the ability to access the wonderful public libraries here. The one closest to home is located in the mall at the metro station and has a limited selection. The better one is the regional library which is 4 floors of book heaven. One level has audiovisual materials available while another focuses only on children. The rows of books are neatly arranged, precisely labeled and accurately identified in the online catalog. Magazines can also be rented. Along the long glass windows lining the walls, there are desks and chairs with outlets to plug in your laptop. A separately enclosed "quiet reading area" is furnished with comfortable sofas where you can safely browse or drowse.

I spent a productive afternoon there last week. Most of my fellow-library users were youngsters, school or college kids with their gadgets and devices. With a laptop open, I saw them fiddling with iPads or phones, texting or listening with earphones. I wonder if they got any homework done! I finished reading the last few pages of a book and then opened my laptop to write in that strange quiet of shared solitude in a public place. It felt wonderful. The words flowed as though I was afloat in a stream of imagination with words as my oars to navigate the streams of thought. I had been feeling adrift in this new country with no friends to hang out with, to vent or to venture. But the library felt like home, the books like old classmates that I had missed while we had both been busy doing other things. Now I have them within reach. Like the ones closest to you, these books will support me, watch out for me and be there to provide their infinite wisdom when I reach out to them.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Yellow watermelon

I tried something new today. I ate a yellow watermelon. Once I overcame my distrust for a familiar fruit that seemed to be in disguise, I found it to be delicious. It had the same texture, sweetness and soothing juicy bite. The black seeds looked particularly attractive against the bright yellow flesh. The outside was the same familiar green stripes that all watermelons sport. But it was a shock to see the yellow interior upon cutting through. I recoiled at first sight. Slowly I got over my resistance and cut through the wedges to cut bite-sized pieces. And finally put one piece in my mouth. The teeth crunched against the slice and erupted in a burst of sweetness in my mouth. Yummmmmy!!!

Like so many things in life, the older we get, the more judgmental we become. Whether it is an inevitable outcome of aging or a reluctance to try anything new or a desire to be proved right, over time we tend to get overly suspicious of novelty. At a recent get together, I observed a toddler taking a bite from the items on her mother's plate. It was amazing to see her reaction to all the new foods she tried that evening. A veritable culinary adventure for her taste buds with no knowledge of whether the next bite would be sweet or salty or downright spicy. She was game to try every single thing laid out in front of her. None of the previous reactions stopped her from trying out the next one. She was truly open to all the tastes and textures that touched her tongue. And she did it so joyously and effortlessly. While I loved watching from the sidelines, I knew that this bold kid might soon turn into a picky eater with limited preferences and those would be defined by the memories of previous experiences and a wish to assert her right to choose, to define her likes and dislikes and therefore define her personality.

Moving to a new country tests you. It is as different from a short holiday to an exotic destination as is watching a 30 second video clip of a person and then meeting them live. As travelers, we go for the novelty, for the exciting architecture, the interesting geography, the different weather. We rejoice, for a while, in the newness of things that stimulates our jaded minds. But living in another country challenges you. It changes your way of not just looking around but the way you respond to your surroundings. So you compare. And complain. And curiously venture deeper. And for all your apprehensions, sometimes you are truly surprised, pleasantly.
"It tastes yellow", exclaimed Aparna. Does yellow have a taste? Really? But I know what she meant. Its the same, but different. Is it the watermelon that is different? But the yellow watermelon doesn't know it is different. Our surroundings in a new country were always what they were, we are the new additions to the landscape.

As R.L. Stevenson aptly said, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”


There was cantaloupe on the table today for breakfast. Along with guavas, apple and jackfruit. But the sight of the ripe pieces of melon that was introduced to me so many decades ago in another country brought back memories. And I smiled.

Poonam and I shared an apartment that summer in Delaware. We were at a summer job, a requirement of the Ph.D. program in which we worked side by side in the lab. We needed a place close to the company location and finalized a quaint house near the university. The old couple that lived there went fishing to Maine (or was it New Hampshire?) each summer, renting out their home for a few weeks. It rooms were cluttered with antique furniture, knick-knacks, books, clocks and curios. The common theme underlying their possessions was - birds. While they seemed to own bird-shaped, or bird-like items in every room (even the kitchen towels has bird prints), they seemed to have a preference for owls. And so we found ourselves being followed around the house by large eyes, whether it was the bird feeder in the yard or the mounted owl in the dining room. The rooms were dark and dusty. So we limited ourselves to the bedrooms and the kitchen area when we returned each evening from a long day "at the office".

It was a time of great adventure for me. I was being paid a decent salary for the first time in my life at what looked like a regular job (not counting the student stipend that the university paid). I reported to a great boss who mentored me and built my confidence. It was the first time I stayed with a room-mate. Poonam and I would drive from Baltimore to Delaware on Monday mornings and return on Friday evenings. We ate cereal or toasted English muffins and fresh fruit for breakfast - juicy summer berries, watermelon, bananas and one day Poonam picked up cantaloupe. I loved the soft texture and sweetness of each bite of this exotic fruit. And so we consumed large quantities of cantaloupe and had a great time that summer. We went to Atlantic City one weekend, to the famous Jersey shore on another. We shopped at the malls and visited some of the famous Dupont family museums.

I learnt other things from Poonam and about Poonam. We tried cooking with new ingredients and came up with recipes for mushroom curry and broccoli masala. I heard stories of Poonam's pen pals and her pet dog. All this came to me in a rush, propelled by the sight of a fruit. Something so simple has the capacity to evoke tastes, experiences and a stream of memories, like a magician looking into his hat for a coin and pulling out a long colorful ribbon. Friendship is a not just a special feeling of affection but an experience that forever brands you, with its own mark.

In Singapore, I find so many new things to compare to my days in the US and to my more recent years in India. But each place carries memories of people I met, friendships made and cemented with shared experiences. I am new here. No one yet to label as "friend". But I know that soon I will have another stash of experiences to recount at a later point and then the events won't simply be a narration but a story, one that includes friends.

Friday, January 17, 2014

When did I get so lazy?

It’s a rainy Monday morning. The children have left for the day, so has my husband. The clouds hang low across the trees on the hill in the distance, caressing the uninterrupted greenery on the horizon. I sit with the newspaper on my lap. My maid hands me a hot cup of tea to start my day. Bird calls surround me while a cool breeze blows in through the kitchen window. I look out the balcony and see the clouds caressing the treetops, moving aimlessly together, and then apart, unsure of the plan for the day ahead. Like me.

“It’s mid-January oready” – as the locals say. Three months since I moved to Singapore – this multicultural oasis that is now home. It has been a time of transition for the family and not just in the “we just moved here from India” sense. My husband and I, through our decision to marry, are in the process of building our blended family. We each had a daughter through our previous marriage and now we are four in a new place, a new job for him, new schools for the girls and of course, a new family of our own.

It feels a little strange, not being a single parent any more. There is once again, a spouse, another adult under the same roof to share the days’ details – like the leaking sink or plans for the weekend. It is reassuring to not have to worry about paying the rent or running out to a full-time job to keep the home fires burning. It feels wonderful to have full-time help at home to take care of the mundane chores that form the bane of every housewife. For the first time in a long time, I am free to pursue my dreams, with time on my hands and no impending worries about the future. I have the support that I have craved – physical, material and emotional. I have in front of me days of unstructured time when the girls are in school, with no other distractions, time in which I can do exactly as I please. In short, this is the life I have always dreamt of. An environment that is totally conducive to writing. But I find myself stumped.

I go to the library every week. Sometimes I borrow books. Other times I just browse. I came across a book last week titled “When did I get so busy?” – a typical self-help book for those whose lives and chores have taken over their days. The book was meant to help such people carve out time for meaningful tasks in order to make the most of their life. There was a time I would have picked up this book and surely have used at least a few tips to simplify my life. Those were the days when I held a full-time job and every day was filled with to-do lists. I hastily put the book back. That life seems so remote from the one I lead now.

Why am I not writing regularly any more? Is it writer’s block? I don’t think so. I have plenty of ideas about topics to write about and hardly anything else to do. But each day comes in marching hopefully and goes out limping and I have nothing to show for it. And this has repeated for 100 days now. What message from the universe am I waiting for to begin my writing project?

“Procrastiparna!” – that is what Aparna’s status on Whatsapp says today. I love this newly coined term that aptly describes her, the typical narcissistic teenager that she is, this older daughter of mine. I smiled when I saw that. And then stopped short.

I think the message I had been waiting for was not to be found on a banner flown in the sky but has been channeled through a closer source, not just closer to home, but from within the home. Thanks, Aparna – for the wake up call. Let me not waste another perfectly beautiful day of freedom. I am back doing what I love, reading and writing. This one is for you.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A new year - a new experience (Part 1)

"Health is wealth. Peace of mind is happiness. Yoga shows the way." - These words welcomed me into the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala a month ago, a sultry March evening. The reception building was well-lit but all was quiet as I was quickly ushered to the temple for the initiation ceremony where a smiling gentleman applied ash, chandan and kumkum on my forehead before handing me a bag that contained a book and some clothes. I was escorted to my dorm where I selected a bed and parked my suitcase. I was told to put the pillow and sheets on a bed and head for satsang. I obeyed. And walked over to a large hall where almost 150 people seemed to be engrossed in chanting "Om namah Shivaya" and other such names of Hindu Gods. There were pictures of various deities on the walls and the first one I set my eyes on was Goddess Saraswati. I looked around and saw a few Indian faces amidst a sea of faces of people who had obviously traveled a long distance to be here. Many seemed to be wearing a yellow t-shirt and white pants which I realized was the uniform that was given to me in the bag a few minutes ago. The announcement at the end of the satsang reminded us to be present at the 6 a.m. satsang the next morning. I was tired from my travel, hungry, sweating profusely and vaguely registered the words as I dropped into a disturbed sleep on an unfamiliar bed in a strange room.

Thus began my 4 weeks at the Sivananda Teacher's Training Course at the ashram. The days were hectic, starting well before dawn and ending in a dreamy stupor each night until the bell rang again the next morning. We had what seemed to me like unending hours of asana classes where my body endured a lifetime worth of yoga postures. We sat on the floor for chanting sessions, daily Bhagavad Gita discussions and lectures on Vedanta philosophy. This was in addition to morning and evening satsang with silent meditation and chanting and homework as well. A brutal routine with two meals where "sattvic" food was served and of course, no TV, internet or newspapers. Not that we had time to enjoy any of these distractions - there was just enough time to bathe, sometimes wash your underwear and occasionally talk to loved ones on the phone.

The days were a blur of activity, buzzing around from one session to the next with barely a moment to spare in admiring the sheer beauty of the ashram, located on a hill, right beside a beautiful lake fringed by mountains in God's own country. On Fridays, we got a break from the routine to admire the barrel-sized jackfruit that hung from trees like grotesque appendages, fruits trees with tropical fruits like chikkoos and papaya which dotted the campus. A green lawn invited us to spend a few moments each evening for some fresh air while the dorms radiated the days heat. A lovely temple with a gorgeously bedecked goddess watched us scurry around like the naughty squirrels who zoomed past. A lion growled in the distance in the Lion Safari Park across the lake.

Most days were hard for me. Most days I grumbled. The asana classes wiped me out. Every pore in my body seemed to produce nothing but sweat. Every muscle wanted to just curl up and rest. My scalp was not dry for a single moment during that month. I longed for the familiar solitude of my comfortable home. I was constantly surrounded by 120 classmates. Each day I wondered what I was doing here and most importantly - why?
Sometimes it seemed like everyone else was having a good time - every foreigner who struggled to sit on the floor and eat food served in stainless steel plates with their hands, every person who struggled to pronounce the Sanskrit shlokas, every student who grappled with the esoteric concepts of karma and koshas. I admired them all. And was still full of self-pity.

There was a final exam before we could graduate and we had exactly one day to study. And we did. Sitting in a secluded spot beside the lake. A gentle breeze caressed the waters like the birds that flew silently above the surface before dipping down to grab a fish. THe humidity kept rising until the thunder rumbled in the distance. And the rain crashed around us. The leaves rustled in the high wind and fell on the ground. Raindrops dripped from branches and through the gaps in the tiles that covered our shelter. Our books got wet. Our notes flew around aimlessly. And then all was quiet.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Poem - Glow

It was an evening like any other. I was in Bangalore, on a business trip, stuck in rush hour traffic atop a flyover. Twilight was deepening, cars were honking, people everywhere moving at great speed. I had the luxury of sitting in the back seat of a taxi, leisurely observing the chaos. As I turned to my left, that is when I saw something that took my breath away. A moon in all its glory. In the hazy sky, full of magic and the words came unbidden to me.

The moon is beautiful tonight.
Large and low.
Almost within reach.
Like some elusive happiness
that had always seemed too far to be mine.

The moon seems to have wandered.
Far from its moorings.
In unfamiliar territory.
A little lost, like me.

Is it possible?
To glow with promises still to be fulfilled?
To rejoice while still in transit?
For a journey with an undefined destination.

The light within shows,
to those who care to look
Shines clearly even in the haze
of everyday life.