Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Crime of Convenience

There's a lot of buzz around the big American election. Trump or Hillary, stupidity or the same-old-story. Someone quipped "It's not about who you like more, it's about who you dislike less." Hillary has no charisma, Trump consults himself on foreign policy, and it's easier to find faults in people whom we will never really know. I can ridicule them, but I can't ignore them.

When faced with the choice of education or entertainment, I often choose the latter. It's a convenient choice, one un-resisted by the restless mind. It baffles me, how an actor's views on her ex-boyfriend's film are more important than the famines striking countless districts in a country of farmers. While we exercise the luxury of numbing our brains, of stuffing our stomachs, of liking what we do not know, of validating what we do not value, we forget - no, we choose to ignore- the plight of those that we shut out of our gated communities. Suffering, like everything else in the world, can now be boxed in a space I choose to enter when empathy is in vogue, to exit when the next episode of my favorite show is on, enter to sign a petition, exit to order in, enter to share a two-minute video, exit to avoid a two-page report. My ten-year-old self, with the honest passion that fuels future dreams, wished a particular kind of world 'when I grow up'. This is not that world. We build walls instead of breaking them.

What I believe determines what I do. At a traffic signal stand vehicles of metal, plastic, rubber, smoke, air-conditioning, the sedentary cow, a sporadic bullock cart, honk, stare, breathe. Amidst the resting are the movers, sailors of the streets, pirates outcast from the respectable, plastering chapped hands on windows, drugged babies on doors. Begging is a business, one which succeeds on disgust, displaying what owning nothing - health, pride, beauty - looks like. Indian cities and the people in them have set a fine example of how to treat its most destitute. People - the crippled, the sick, the old, the dying -  pass themselves off as less than human and we, the drivers, passengers, the passers-by, believe this less than human-ness, depriving them of the acknowledgement and respect every human deserves. We look away, shut our windows, shut our minds. Sometimes, we give them something before shutting the windows of our minds; the shutting is neater, less rusty that way.

I acknowledge them with a helplessness that is suffocating. It ties me down, forcing me to accept my higher status. Entitlement awakens discomfort. My father ensured this discomfort the first time he walked my brother and I through the slums of Jangpura. When he shook me out of my dreams on a 5 am Sunday I fumed at the deprivation of sleeping in on a December morning, the nippy kind where thick, cotton-stuffed blankets are safer than a mother’s womb.  Get dressed, he gruffly declared, silent on where our whereabouts lay. Like my steps, the thick fog crawled groggily. The air grew staler by the second, until we reached a concrete enclosure. A garbage dump. A young boy wading through the refuse, picking up plastic bags from the stew of peelings, shit, used sanitary products, and other rotting, faceless items. I remember speaking to him, yet I remember nothing of what we spoke. What I do remember is the docility in his eyes, a resignation, and an intense feeling in my blood, a curdling guilt. This young boy was a hard-worker, I was lazy. He was a good person, I was not. His poverty was noble from where I stood. My wealth was criminal from where he stood. It was one of many Papa-led excursions that bore into my dreams, my nightmares, my wakefulness. 

I see now that there is nothing noble about pain and hunger and injustice, a cycle I help perpetuate through actions big and small, a cycle I try (and fail) to curb through actions, mostly small. To deny change by justifying inner inertia is my crime. What's yours?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Unsettlement

(As featured in the Huffington Post here on June 28, 2016)

Sunlight wedges through the edge of a closed curtain, drapes a slit of yellow on the corner of a white-linen bed, and tucks itself behind the adjoining table's crocheted cotton. It is a peaceful beauty, one I am unaccustomed to. Cushioning the fall of sound, cream-coloured carpet greets naked feet with a hush. It's a clean, pristine, dustless world. Welcome, to a bedroom in Washington.

This could be a room anywhere in America, the country I am visiting family in. To deny the comfort this beauty affords would be unfair. It's a place I called home for nearly half my life. If time was an indicator of belonging, that's more home than I've ever had. And yet it seems - what's the word - protected, somehow. Extra hygienic. Extra pretty. Extra extra. It sounds like I am hating on cleanliness and order, but that's no cause for unsettlement. 

My lens reeks of bias, expecting a film of dust, the more-than-occasional road rage, something that signals the presence of entropy. Instead the universe sends me hand sanitizer. There is a disconnect between the life I am living and the life I have lived; in negotiating both I can't let go of either. I miss the chaos of traffic sounds, I relish the silence these walls gift me. The anarchy of friends, the comfort of family.  The music of Maheshwari's morning song as she fries poha, the sizzle of Mammi's fresh-off-the-griddle omelet. The satisfaction of a busy work day, the freedom to shape untouched time. There is beauty everywhere, even in dichotomies. But that's no cause for unsettlement.

The changes outside mirror the conflict within, a myopic vision glasses can not un-blur. This conflict always has and always will exist. I crave what I can not have, rejecting what will soon be gone. I grow not to love, but to leave. I reach far, not to grab something, but to touch anything. A tiring exercise it is, to ask why. Why gratitude does not free the mind, but forces it to encounter privilege is a mystery. I am grateful, also guilty of this privilege I possess. It's a burden I can not shed, an opportunity I do not use. There is beauty in dichotomies. Well, that's settled then.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Knitting

(As featured on the Huffington Post here on June 26, 2016.)

Be warned.  This is not me talking about knitting. Not really. Knitting is just the process I engage in. It's not what I do. What I do - as the needles sing, clinking against each other, the matte metal zinging in a tiny bubble of yarn, as the knot slides out gently, magically, as the fuzz of the string lazes on my leg - is exist. In that moment I exist. And I am at peace.

It's not an easy task, being mindful. I left my job two months ago but there is so much else to do. Books to read, bicycles to ride, pools to swim, thoughts to write, paragraphs to rewrite, shows to watch, pictures to paint, music to play. It's a fine life. What do all of the above have in common? Take a moment, maybe two, think about it. None of those tasks require other people; they depend on the agility of my mind. It's a busy mind. The act of creating something, one knot at a time, is meditative. Each act is deliberate, building upon the previous act but not quite sure of what follows. Gently, magically a shape appears. It appears to be a rectangle, one stuffed awkwardly with mistakes, gaping holes that hold more learning than the firmer connections around them.

This is not me talking about knitting. Each tick clink tock clink tick pull tock push is time tick is life tock is being in the now tick and nowhere else but here. It's the mistakes I've made, remaining where they are, but not taking up more space than they need to. It's the tightness of the first row leading to the comfort with space in the second. It's teaching myself and slowly learning to slow down. It's not an easy task, slowing down. The senses deepen, craving the intensity dulled by shorter attention spans, longer distances, greater sensationalization. This is the world I have carved for myself, a potholed, virtual, disturbed space that Chinese-whispers mutated versions of desire. I forget what I wanted it to be in the first place, but it doesn't matter anymore. I am here now. I unravel another loop of yarn.

My mother gifted me a sweater when I was twelve, a woolen entity of orange and brown. Four stick-figured dolls filled up the front of what I thought of an embarrassment to my sense of fashion, which if rightfully carried out consisted of extra large T-shirts, baggy pants, and men's sneakers. That sweater was a product of love and patience and goodness, but I didn't see that until a few years later. 

Time, as only time can do, performed a disappearing act that still surprises me.


A few weeks ago, I asked my mother-in-law to teach me the gentle magic of knitting. And she did, with love and patience and goodness. Her initial words of praise, I assumed, were summoned from a place of special understanding that goes into the art of teaching. I assumed wrong. She was inviting me on a journey that someone had nudged her towards; It's a journey that I will nudge others towards, which may or may not involve knitting, because that is not what I do. What I do, is slow down.