In Praise of Ordinary Life

Artist: Johannes Vermeer

One purpose of Art is to allow us to see the beauty of ordinary life. This has a great value for a vast number of people. Because, that’s where most of us live: in the ordinary. Not everyone has or is going to have an extraordinary life, the riches of the world, or what the common definition of success is.

But…

We all can have Art.

We can have Art even when we have nothing else. You take everything away from a man, strip him off all his possessions, put him in prison, make him starve to death, but… he can still sing a song in his head. Art never abandons us.

It consoles us, comforts us, makes us see things beyond their ordinariness, and most importantly, gives a deep sense of meaning to our life.

Chai and Memories

As much as I love having chai by myself, I am equally fond of watching people sipping their chai. I like to guess what kind of person they would be based on how they prefer their chai and how they smell, sip or slurp it. I know, I am wrong with my guesses, but it does not stop me, and nor does it stop the memories from getting stirred.

I remember, once upon a time, I fell for a girl who fell for ilaichi (cardamom) chai and I followed the course. While adding sugar to chai, I am reminded of my parents – one likes excess sugar, other none. And while sipping, I almost always think of an old man who took forever to finish his chai; on the other hand, my three-year-old niece gulps down the cup in one go.

There is a cultural element too. In India, hardly any interaction – pleasant or otherwise – goes without a cup or two of chai playing the role of a witness. Come over for chai, is it time for chai, let’s have chai, make some chai, I will bring some chai. These are some of the expressions commonly used. And nobody ever says: do you drink chai? That would be blasphemous, for heaven’s sake.

However, it was not always ours. We got it from the British, twisted it in our way by adding milk and spices (a bizarre combination, if you think about it), and made it our own. Chai is not alone in that regard. We did the same thing with Cricket. And with English language. But, it doesn’t really matter, does it? After all, they started the loot first along with the word itself.

Chai means different things to different people. To me, it just means countless stories, and each one is as unique as the person I have shared my chai with.

Writing a Sentence

Artist: Dr Gyanaditya Mourya

A great sentence is like a beautiful moment in your life. The emotions you experience while reading it are rich and vivid and often unexplainable (nor do you care about the explanation), and yet, despite all the richness and beauty, you still know that cannot hold on to it and will have to move forward.

Writing Meditation – Day 5

It is said that depressive thoughts are a consequence of the burden from the past and anxious temper is a consequence of the fear of future. In the previous exercise, we dealt with the former. Let’s work on the anxiety part now.

The anxiety about the future comes from two activities going on in our minds:

  • We are thinking about future.
  • We are not thinking enough.

Some people might advise you to not think much. After all, that is the primary cause of anxiety. The problem is, it does not work. We cannot simply ignore the voice in our head or stop hearing it.

The other approach is more practical. It comes from the second cause of anxiety: that is, we think but we don’t do it enough. If only we can carefully explore the possibilities, we would realise that our fears, even if they come true, cannot end everything. Besides, it gives us a perspective on how to avoid getting close to our fears, and if not avoided, how to plan in order to deal with such a reality.

Thankfully, we have writing.

Daily Exercise:

Take out a piece of paper and a pen. Think of your life after one year from now. Divide the page into two segments. On one side, write down the ideal scenario: things you would love to have. On the other, write about your worst fears. Pick at least two-three points from each segment and devise a strategy to get to a point or avoid something. Be precise about both. Go back to this page from time to time, update it and track your progress.

Soap Bubbles

Artist: Jean Siméon Chardin

 

Think of a soap bubble.

It comes out of a tiny speck, and as it breathes some air, it grows and floats amid the emptiness of this vast universe. And the next moment, it vanishes, completely. Nothing really changes because of its arrival or its departure. But, while it was there, soaring up into the sky, it felt special; a little magical too. Perhaps, that was the whole point of it. To show itself and everyone and everything around, that, it’s not that magic exists but that the existence itself is magic.

Now, think about your life.

Writing Meditation – Day 4

In the previous exercise, we learnt how we can use the art of writing to deal with the horrors of past. The healing takes place over a period of time as we repeat that exercise regularly.

In today’s class, we’ll employ a similar technique to:

  • Learn about empathy.
  • Clear misunderstandings.
  • Add sensitivity to your writing.

The primary cause of most of the misunderstandings around us is our failure to understand other people’s point of view. It may sound like an easy task but it is one of the hardest ones in the world. Try asking a manager in an organisation. Or a married person.

Understanding others is a skill which can only be learnt once we are capable of generating empathy for them. And in order to do that, one must see the world using the other person’s lens. This is what a writer or a filmmaker does when they tell you a story using text or visual medium. They let you experience the journey through a character’s eyes. The result? You are often far more empathetic towards the people in those stories than those in real life.

Let’s try to bring that aspect of art into our everyday lives.

 

Daily Exercise:

Think of a particular incident described by someone to you. It could be their own personal story or someone else’s. Recall that story in your head and write it down on paper. While writing, make sure that you are understanding their perspective and are being fair to them. Now read the whole piece and try to see the world through their eyes. Repeat this exercise with a number of people and events.  It will surely add a new dimension to your personality.

Writing Meditation – Day 3

One purpose of writing is to transmit information. The other, and more important one, is based on its therapeutic value. That is to heal you.

Psychologists suggest that any memory, older than eighteen months, if it generates a strong emotional response without you being able to rationally understand or explain it, that means you have not been able to heal yourself completely from its trauma. Most of us carry this burden. The good news is, we can work on it. Which is exactly what we are going to do today.

Through today’s exercise, we are aiming to:

  • Bring out the disturbing memories from the mind and place it on paper.
  • Get a sense of clarity and consolation by revisiting the memory in written form from time to time.
  • Apply the same to the other wounds of past as well.

 

Daily Exercise:

Think of an old memory (preferably older than two years) which still troubles you. Take a deep breath and recollect all that happened back then. Now, write it down on a piece of paper. Once again, don’t use an electronic device. Simply let it come out. And as you write, try to make sense of what you are writing. Read it to yourself once you are done. You can make changes if you think you have not been able to articulate yourself well the first time. When it’s finished, keep the note to yourself. It’s a precious, little gift from you to yourself. Congratulate yourself for this valuable accomplishment.

Let’s Play with Words

Communism is an ideology, Nazism is an ideology, Hinduism is an ideology, and Islam is an ideology.

Let’s play with these words here. I am going to replace:

  • Islam with Communism
  • Hinduism with Nazism

Now, I am going to write a couple of news headlines for you:

Over 1000 Communists infected with Covid-19, account for 30% of all India cases after the virus spread in the Communist gathering. 

A Nazi chief-minister of a northern state of India attends a major celebration at a Nazi office. 

Just spend some time absorbing these headlines. Do they feel the same? Do they evoke the same emotions? Does it feel better or worse? Be honest with your answers.

Now, see people’s reactions to these two news headlines:

  • By calling them Communists, you’re spreading Communism-phobia. They were people. Human-beings.
  • What’s wrong in attending a celebration party at a Nazi office? If Communists can do that, why can’t Nazis?

See how sensible or senseless these reactions seem with our new set of words. Or do they feel the same? In either case, you decide.

In my view, words have an impact. Depending on what emotion a particular word evokes in our head, we react to a piece of information. That’s how we perceive and react. Even one substitution can change things.

However, I must say that these personal biases are neither good nor bad; they are only natural. So, instead of trying to get rid of them – which you won’t be able to – you must strive to identify and acknowledge them. And then weigh every new piece of information under the light of your own bias. Which is to accept that you are only able to see a small portion of the world with a limited view, and so is everybody else. And there is only way to move forward: by listening to each other. 

Girl from the North Country

In Frame: Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo

Photographer: Unknown

 

“What do you think of me?” she asked.

“You are like the harmonica part in a Bob Dylan song,” I said, almost laughing. “You keep appearing and disappearing and hence suprising me in the process. But, you know, you’re always there. And when you’re not, then that feeling of you is there: the feeling of beauty intertwined with awkwardness and quirkiness – that is so unique to you. How do you do that? And it is this strange (yet familiar) beauty which robs me of my rationality and tosses me somewhere high in the sky where I cannot help but fall… Fall to fall in love with you.”

PS: Actually, she never asked this and I never said that. So, she doesn’t know. Or, maybe she does, now.

Writing Meditation – Day 2

Today’s exercise is focused more on reading than writing.

Reading is like eating. In this case, we consume information (not food) and digest it. The whole process might leave us better or worse, depending upon:

  • the quality of information we consume
  • how we consume
  • how much we consume

Poor quality, poor methods of consumption and excessive intakes of information will affect our minds the same way food affects our bodies. This is particularly important for our emotional health. Most of our emotions are merely a response to the information we swallow, and if do not keep a check on that information, we may be in danger of experiencing emotional turmoils. And if it prolongs, serious mental health issues may arise.

So, what is the antidote?

The answer lies in the problem itself:

  • reading good quality writing
  • finding dedicated time for reading
  • regularly reflecting on how much information can we consume

With this in mind, I encourage you to start reading today. And read quality stuff.

Daily Exercise:

Read the below passage. Spend time with it. Read slowly. You are allowed to take your time, reflect, imagine and contemplate. And more importantly, try to immerse yourself in it. Then write a few sentences on what you think about what you just read.

Excerpts from The School of Life by Alain de Bottom:

We tend to reproach ourselves for staring out of the window. Most of the time, we are supposed to be working, or studying, or ticking things off a to-do list. It can seem almost the definition of wasted time. It appears to produce nothing, to serve no purpose. We equate it with boredom, distraction, futility. The act of cupping our chin in our hands near a pane of glass and letting our eyes drift in the middle distance does not enjoy high prestige. We don’t go around saying, ‘I had a great day today. The high point was staring out of the window.’ But maybe, in a better society, this is exactly what people would quietly say to one another.

The point of staring out of a window is, paradoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds. It is easy to imagine we know what we think, what we feel and what’s going on in our heads. But we rarely do entirely. There’s huge amount of what makes us who we are that circulates unexplored and unused. Its potential lies untapped. It is shy and doesn’t emerge under the pressure of direct questioning. If we do it right, staring out of the window offers a way for us to be alert to the quieter suggestions and perspectives of our deeper selves. Plato suggested a metaphor for the mind; our ideas are like birds fluttering around in the aviary of our brains. But in order for the birds to settle, Plato understood that we need periods of purpose-free calm. Staring out of the window offers such an opportunity.

Semicolon

Artist: Unknown

 

I like semicolons;
do you like them too?

They are the pauses,
but not mere pauses;
they mean an intimacy
for two main clauses.

Commas – they are not;
greater is their ability.
For they bring liberty
and the right to equality.

I like semicolons;
do you like them too?
You didn’t say a word;
but I think you do.

Writing Meditation – Day 1

There is something about writing that we have forgotten: It’s an art. Which means, it can help us in the time of a psychological crisis. That one can seek its refuge as and when one needs emotional healing.

Some of us see writing as an expression of knowledge instead of pursuit. We assume that a writer has ideas which she puts into words. With that assumption, writing seems no different than speech, and in fact, no different than an inherent talent. This is why, we get swayed by professional writers, authors etc.

This is only the partial picture.

Writing is a tool through which a writer tries to make sense of her thoughts. As you would notice, thoughts are mostly chaotic and random. It is a writer’s job to catch them, untangle them, shape them and make them visible to the world. For instance, a writer would write a love story not because she perfectly understands what romance is, but because she wants to.

I can assure you, it’s going to be a beautiful journey. Shall we?

Daily Exercise:

Recognise your thought. What are you thinking exactly at this moment? Once you can clearly identify it, write it down on a piece of paper. This step is important. The thought has to come out in the physical world and find a place for itself. Don’t use a phone or computer, otherwise it will go from one kind of invisible world to another. Simply write your precise thought. It can be one sentence or more. You do not have to worry about grammar or your choice of words. Only be honest and clear. Congratulations on the completion of your first assignment.

The Veils of Power

Veil is not a recent invention. Veiling women has been a tradition in many societies both in history and in present times.

For instance, in many Hindu cultures, particularly among Rajputs in the north and west, there has been a predominant purdah practice for women where they are supposed to hide their face from men. 

But, here is the crucial point.

Most people today, at least in the educated circles, identify it as a problem. Nobody claims that purdah is empowering these women. People don’t write books romanticising this practice. These women don’t march to symbolise their purdah as their identity. They don’t demand a right to cover their face when they go to work for TV, media, universities, police etc.

All because we, as a society, have more or less understood that veiling women is a silly idea even if it comes wrapped in the traditions or in misinterpretation of scriptures. That’s the simple truth. Nobody in the history of mankind has ever gained any power by veiling themselves. We know that. Don’t we?

I wish Muslim societies too could think along these lines.

Before Trilogy

Artist: Unknown

 

We seek love.

We may pretend all day that there are more important things in life, but, deep inside, we know the truth. We know, we are imperfect beings, full of insecurities, who seek acceptance in this cruel world. And when we don’t get it, we take other paths, hoping that they would take us to the same destination.

Success, money, fame, charity – what are all these, if not ways to make people love us?

Often, we convince ourselves that we are working towards our dream, which has got nothing to do with others:

• It is a higher call.
• It is my passion.
• It is what makes me happy.

We keep telling these sweet sounding lies. But the truth is, it is not just about us. All this would mean nothing if there were no one to appreciate it.

Life is, but a quest for love, and we all choose our own unique ways to do it.

Tamasha

Movie: Tamasha (Director: Imtiaz Ali)

There is something archetypal about this image: the archetype of a lover.

While a lover finds all the beauty and pleasures in the companion, it is exactly the same thing that leads to ugliness and suffering. That is the duality of love.

But then, there is a choice. Either you can treat love as a straight line where you travel from good times to bad times and end it right there, or you can go through a circular path from good to bad and bad to good repeatedly.

Such is the theatre of love. Such is Tamasha.

Punjaban

Artist: Gurdish Pannu

Heer was a Punjaban, Sohni was a Punjaban, and so was Sahiba. Wasn’t Anarkali a Punjaban too? This cannot be a coincidence.

So, why does beauty (and a lot of it) seem to reside in a Punjaban, to the point that the two become inseparable. Is it her sparkling eyes? Or is it the curviness? Or the vanity painted allover her face? She is beautiful and strong and confident – she knows it. And such is her beauty that only painters are able to do some justice to it; and they too fail, often.

It shouldn’t be difficult to tell how smitten I am with her. And it shouldn’t be difficult to tell that I was a highly elligible candidate when it came to falling for a Punjaban. Did I? The answer to that question requires far more space and time than either you or I can afford here.

A Case for God

It is natural for humans to seek certain constants in life. That’s why they build homes, have families and indulge in work. Of course, they do like change, but only around certain areas, not all.

Now, the question is: Will these constants last? And the obvious answer is, No.

So, what does one do in that case? Where does one go to seek consolation when there is no one around to give any hope?

Well, one finds God.

Someone divine and away from the possibilities of getting corrupted or dying. Someone you can always rely on, because he won’t leave you, ever. How can he? After all, he does not exist. But, that’s the whole point. The god does not exist, but he has to.

A Mallu Woman

Yes, you can make it. Yes. Go, go, go. Oh-ho. Damn, no!

The brakes shriek, the car immediately halts, and my body – surprised by the turn of events – momentarily hovers and then sways backwards and finds its comfort in the seatback. I am stuck again, at a crossroad. It has been such a year. And the day. And now, this. The traffic signal, standing shamelessly in front of my eyes, reads – sixty seconds. I wish I had the option to skip the time.

I curse the driver in my head, who could have jumped the signal at the last moment. Why didn’t he?

I shake my head and turn towards the window and see her standing all by herself. Our eyes meet, only momentarily though, before her face turns towards the shop she is standing at. It’s strange how our eyes choose to notice certain people and completely ignore others.

She is draped in a golden-white saree, which is in stark contrast to her perfectly black hair. The hair are curly and wavy, and seem to flow in all directions apart from that one point behind her neck, where they are loosely knitted with a white garland. I wonder how they smell like, and try to imagine the smell of the oil they were soaked in. I close my eyes, for a second or two, and take a deep breath. From here, I can only see the right side of her face and a glimpse of her back, so, I try to complete the picture in my head.

Forty seconds left. And now I am hoping that time could slow down.

“Excuse me,” she says to the shopkeeper, followed by a stream of words sailed in Malayalam. She is only a few feet away, but then, space is neither the only nor the right method to measure the distance between two people. Her contralto voice has found its place in my heart, her identity is still a mystery. I look closely. The brown skin is shimmering under the setting sun.

Who is she? What is she doing in a small place like this? What is her life like?

Twenty seconds to go. Can’t someone stop this timer?

She glances at me. Our eyes meet, again. Normally, a girl would look away. Normally, I would lower my gaze, out of embarrassment. This time, neither happened. We gazed at each other. A hint of smile appears, not on our lips, but in our eyes.

Five seconds…

I have a choice to make. That will decide the fate of our story.

Three… Yes.

Two…. No.

One… It would be really weird if I walk up to her and say hello, right?

 

The Narrowness of Being!

Let me tell you a story.

When Raza learnt (from his washerman) that Aisha, his wife, had been committing adultery, it seemed like the end of the world. Ammi (Mother) said that he needed to get rid of the unfaithful. Sell her off in exchange for gold coins – she commanded. Raza hesitated. Ammi kept nagging. Corvus Oculum Corvi Non Eruit! A 25 year old man should not have been married to a 40 year old woman. Now go, sell her off! Raza was traumatised. He loved Aisha; he still did; although now, he hated her too. Had she changed? Her body had changed, and so had her behaviour, or even her character for that matter. He could not understand. How did this love remain then–did he really love her or merely the idea of her? Aisha stayed silent and accepted what the family had to offer. Later that night, Raza took her to the slave market, and just when one of the Vikings was going to pay a decent price, something came to Raza’s mind and he stabbed her to death. All things decay. It had to happen. It is only a matter of time, before my sufferings begin. Karma Yoga!

Now, if you ask a child to read this story, he or she would only see a story. But, adults don’t think that way. With specific knowledge or information, they develop specific biases, and hence, they interpret much more than what a child would. In the above story, for instance, different people would observe, like or dislike different set of things.

A Muslim might notice the age of Raza (and Aisha), and relate with that of prophet, when he got married. Some might even get curious about (Shia or Sunni) names.

A Hindu might notice the Sanskrit phrase (Karma Yoga) from Bhagwad Gita. Or relate the scene with Ram and Sita, because of the washerman reference.

A Buddhist might find the final words of Buddha in the story.

A feminist could argue that the woman is being ill-treated.

A meninist could say that it was the man who actually suffered.

A lawyer could worry about the justice.

A philosopher might ponder over Raza’s questions and relate them with Ship of Theseus.

A linguist might notice the Latin and Sanskrit phrases.

A historian could wonder about the Vikings.

A literary critic might observe the inconsistencies in the language and the story.

 

Adult life is mostly built upon thoughts. Our knowledge often defines our biases, which in turn shapes our thoughts and narrows our experiences. But, isn’t life all about experiences? If we are only going to worry about certain aspects of life–which conform to our ideology and which do not–it would affect our experience as a whole and not in a good way. Since, a child does not do that, he or she is more likely to relish the experience.

A work of art is just like life. It captures the essence of life and offers us a range of experiences. Beholders take what they are capable of or what they intend to. Some spend hours and days, trying to analyse and criticise; some like; some dislike; some get offended; yet there are some who simply experience, which, as you would see, is a beautiful thing.

 

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