‘Reading is An Act of Courage’

“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

I love this passage from Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Whenever life throws tantrums, I always tell myself that it will rearrange itself. But there was an irrepressible question; it didn’t allow me to cement my conviction in the profound, beautiful quote from the book. Jude St. Francis, whose life the tome follows, seals a young student’s faith in life by making him believe that every loss is compensated. However, Jude didn’t seem to place his trust in that thought. I wanted Jude to live by it. But he didn’t. When he wanted a young boy to trust that life would rearrange itself, why did Jude not believe in it? The question taunted me and I posed it when Yanagihara was in Chennai for The Hindu’s Literary Festival, Lit For Life.

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Hanya Yanagihara at the festival. Image Courtesy: The Hindu

The moment I released the question, Yanagihara assured, “Jude believed in it.” I sighed. It’s a fascinating moment to get into Jude’s head. “But…” Yanagihara continued, “There is a difference between thinking you believe in it and truly believing in it.” I knew then why Jude was Jude; I love him more now.

A Little Life was a difficult read. It was as difficult as seeing a loved one living a life that’s refusing to be fair. I wanted to comfort Jude. But as much as I was helpless, he was impermeable to support. That made me more depressed. At one point in time, I lost the faculty to differentiate my darkness from the book’s. It was a singular darkness. A darkness that was bizarrely beautiful. A darkness that lingered on for so long that reconnecting with the reality was like walking out of the house and facing the blindingly bright sun after being in a dark room for days and days. Even that warmth couldn’t restore the equilibrium. Yanagihara was right when she observed that the book is so much like a relationship. “Intimate and claustrophobic.”

After I read the book, I didn’t know how to cope with the grief. I wanted to talk a lot about the book. I read this passage over and over again and washed my Kindle with my torrential tears.

(There are some spoilers in this passage.)

“It is also then that I wish I believed in some sort of life after life, that in another universe, maybe on a small red planet where we have not legs but tails, where we paddle through the atmosphere like seals, where the air itself is sustenance, composed of trillions of molecules of protein and sugar and all one has to do is open one’s mouth and inhale in order to remain alive and healthy, maybe you two are there together, floating through the climate. Or maybe he is closer still: maybe he is that gray cat that has begun to sit outside our neighbor’s house, purring when I reach out my hand to it; maybe he is that new puppy I see tugging at the end of my other neighbor’s leash; maybe he is that toddler I saw running through the square a few months ago, shrieking with joy, his parents huffing after him; maybe he is that flower that suddenly bloomed on the rhododendron bush I thought had died long ago; maybe he is that cloud, that wave, that rain, that mist. It isn’t only that he died, or how he died; it is what he died believing. And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.”

I asked Yanagihara to help her readers recover from the trauma. She guffawed. Her laughter proved that she empathised. She suggested that I visit A Little Life’s Instagram account where she had shared the titles of books that a devastated soul can read after A Little Life.

Yanagihara’s answers seemed honest. When she was told that a lot of readers had to abandon the book owing to the graphic depiction of violence, she said that the book belongs to the reader once it’s published. I noticed no trace of arrogance or regret in her tone. The remark was just that.

A reader is always judged. I often field remarks like, “Do not slip into a book to escape reality. Just face it.” Or a rude comment like, “Why do you waste so much time and money on books?” Although I have stopped explaining why I read so much, the remarks still make me livid. But Yanagihara made me feel special when she said, “Reading is an act of courage, an act of surrender.”

Of course, you have to be brave to walk headfirst into a book despite knowing that it will leave its hands into your heart, pull it out as blood drips all around you, and make you feel empty… yet full.

The Statue Man

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Sister and I pose in front of The Statue Man

“He doesn’t blink. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t move. He is as stationary as a statue,” observed Father, when I asked him about the ‘statue man’. We were at VGP Golden Beach, Chennai’s first amusement park. I was 7.

The Statue Man stood on a dais all day long. With his bloodshot eyes, handlebar mustache, expressionless face, and loud clothes, he looked like a warrior to me. But for a lot of mischievous boys, The Statue Man was a clown. They would be rewarded if they bring an emotion to his face. He was bullied, insulted. They called him names. However, The Statue Man stood there as though he was blind and deaf. He stood there as though only his body was there and his mind had travelled miles away from him.

Father explained more about The Statue Man and how nobody could break his determination. He threw another quick glance at him before moving to the next exhibit. But Sister and I took a minute more. We looked at the boys who basked in hurling insults at him. We looked at The Statue Man who seemed impervious to all the hatred. While we were too young to meditate on the The Statue Man’s predicament, everything about that moment seemed wrong.

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20140102_165232-1I carry myriad memories from that day. I remember riding a boat. I saw Sister riding a giant wheel and thought she was the bravest. I saw Father buying the Maharaja Dosa for us and reckoned he was the kindest. I saw Mother motivating me to go on more rides and becoming a wee bit crestfallen when I succumbed to my irrational fears. I lost my tooth while hogging the Maharaja Dosa and sulked at my inability to give a decent burial to my dear tooth. I remember bright smiles. Boisterous laughter. Terror married with excitement. And a dusk that seemed the longest.

22 years after that day, I remember The Statue Man. I wonder if his slumber was filled with nightmares. Did the boys laugh at him in his dreams? Did they throw stones at him? Did his knees wail in pain? Did he curse his employer? Or did he smile in his dreams? At least, in his dreams?

“Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

— The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Dandelion Has It

2015 stole my smile. It put me in a labyrinth with my eyes blinded. I heard voices. Scary voices. Voices of fear. Voices of nightmares. Voices of guilt. Voices of regrets. Voices of self-loathing. Voices of destruction. Voices that muted me. I wanted to turn deaf to those voices, lose myself in the maze, and let its thorny walls swallow me.

But I found myself in 2016. Unscathed.

Just like the kind, friendly ocean that always put Moana back on her tiny boat, life carried me into 2016. While I continued to lick my wounds, it threw its gentle light on all things warm and positive. It nudged me to stop chasing my own tail and pay heed to moments which would fill me with gratitude and hope.

I surrendered. The voices faded. I began collecting my smiles.

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From Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh

Quite a few dandelions began flying into my life. When they entered, I was like an ostrich with her head buried in the sand. But the dandelions surfaced way too often. It was impossible to not catch them. In time, they were everywhere.

While words can come to my rescue to show the dandelions in my life, for the first time, I am taking refuge in pictures. As you see my dandelions, don’t forget to tell me what kept your smile safe this year.

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After having been inspired by my dearest friend Kirthi, I embraced Zen Doodling. It was cathartic to wield the pen and pour my heart out.

The USA beckoned in June. I surprised myself there by doing things which I thought I would never do even if I were drugged. A blog here.

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Clicked this picture at Chicago’s beloved bookstore — Women and Children First

Almost every book that happened to me in 2016 had to happen to me. A snapshot from Goodreads.

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The unassumingly beautiful places in Tamil Nadu summoned; I travelled with my best friend for the first time. (I love you, Chunky!)

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Although I was told that I am awful at reading signs, I chose to acknowledge one significant sign that Universe placed on my path. The Orange Butterflies.

“I welcome all butterflies into my heart because that feeling is a constant reminder of how alive and full of love I truly am.”

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I travelled for the first time with whom I fondly call My Home. I am loving Tamil Nadu more these days.

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Thanjavur
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Pulicat
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Kumbakonam
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The Big Temple Buddha

If I couldn’t find peace in nature in 2015, she was everything in 2016. With some dandelions by my side, I watched sunrise, moonrise, and gazed at stars and oceans. Many a time this year.

Myriad things transpired in 2016. Friendships were made. Friendships were broken. Promises were broken. Promises were made. I was bitchy. I was considerate. But mostly, I was unapologetically myself.

My backpack travelled miles and miles. More books were read. Barrels of coffee were downed. Hundreds of deep breaths were taken. And, millions of smiles and hugs were exchanged. (Okay! I exaggerated a wee bit now.) 😉

Perhaps, it is now safe to say that 2016 has been the kindest year ever. Like EVER. And I am brimming with gratitude.

May our 2017 be filled with love, light, and peace. Sending all of it toward you! ❤

PS: This is how I envisage my 2017. 🙂

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The Butterfly Effect

13497856_10209915592183401_9119251199433427537_oI am sitting in a cab that rushes at 80 kms an hour. My gaze is fixed on the clear azure sky, but my mind is muddy; the noise in my head is deafening. The driver sings along to a retro song that is on the radio. On any other day, I would have smiled the moment the driver started crooning. I would have discussed his favourite songs and flaunted my love for Tamil songs. Today is not such a day. I feel numb. Exhausted. Soulless. Dark. I am too tired to search for my smile.

Through the window behind me, an orange butterfly glides in, flutters by my side as though politely demanding my attention. I drop my phone to say hello to the tiny, beautiful attention-seeker. The fellow-traveller lands on my shoe, continues to flap s. l. o. w. l. y.

I am desperate to take a picture of the guest who is lounging on my shoe. The car shakes violently; I swallow the urge to ask the driver to take it easy. The idea to click a picture of the cheerful visitor is dismissed.

There are other people in the cab. But the orange butterfly and I share a private moment. The little one is not perturbed. I begin to feel content for I am trusted.

My new friend keeps waving and in that rhythm, I feel my heartbeat, I find my smile again. In those orange wings, I find my… peace.

As I take a deep breath, the butterfly takes off from my shoe, exits the car through the other window. For the first time, I suspend my disbelief. I don’t cram my head with questions about the moment that brought me back to now, and the butterfly’s disappearance doesn’t make me sad.

After ages, I appreciate the beauty of transient moments. Pure presence.

“I do believe in an everyday sort of magic — the inexplicable connectedness we sometimes experience with places, people, works of art and the like; the eerie appropriateness of moments of synchronicity; the whispered voice, the hidden presence, when we think we’re alone.”

— Charles de Lint

From that day, I spot an orange butterfly every day. Sometimes, more than one. Sometimes, even virtually.

While having lunch at work, I look down at the garden only to find an orange butterfly or a group of white ones whizzing around a young tree. If I am lucky, I would spot a black beauty too.

For a long time, I wanted to keep my mysterious rendezvous with butterflies a secret; a possession that belonged only to me. Maybe, I didn’t want its essence to be diluted with cynicism. But I realised that the world has to be filled with thoughts which have the potential to make one smile. I told my friend, and on the same day, she spotted an orange butterfly. Why was I surprised at all!

“Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”

— Mary Oliver

These days, I look forward to running into one butterfly every morning. While it’s unfair to become crestfallen when I can’t spot one, I can’t help myself much. On days when I can’t find real butterflies, they come to me in unexpected forms:

A colleague shows her new ring which is an enormous golden butterfly.
A friend shares pictures clicked by her mother in their garden. A massive moth. (Forgive the antennae please.)
A special person stops me on a busy day because she can’t hold a thought — “Deepika! Do you believe in signs? I have been spotting white butterflies every day,” she says nonchalantly. But I lose my faculties when she relates her experience for she doesn’t know about my encounter with the butterflies.

I wore the Freudian hat to figure out why I see butterflies. The Internet threw my favourite phrases — transformation, a sign of things going right, and… peace.

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Of course, I had to doodle one to honour the moments. 🙂

It dawned on me that it’s just not enough to spot them but seize the moment to heal myself. (Many thanks to the Zen master Thích Nhat Hạnh!). When I see a butterfly these days, I take a deep breath and release a thought — a thought for all the times I hurt my family, a thought for a friend whom I abandoned, a thought that says I forgive myself, a thought that says I am thankful for the moment, a thought that is a vow to continue basking in the little things in life, and a thought that floats out as a wish for the world to be filled with love and peace.

I stumbled upon a post on Facebook that read, “Synchronicity is universe’s way of winking at you.” My little darlings, the universe’s messengers, wink at me, unload my baggage, and make me feel as light as themselves.

In those fleeting moments, I am free. I take flight using their wings.

“I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it-or my observation of it-is temporary?”

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

A Woof is My Word For Love

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Image Courtesy: Soul Muser

Calvin breathes gently. Despite the pain and exhaustion, despite the air of resignation that hangs around him, he seems peaceful. The morning sun is brutal, but Calvin continues to lie in the blinding brightness that escapes the curtains. Calvin. Our sunshine.

Father, Mother, and I have locked our gazes on the boy. If our thoughts could be heard, Calvin would hear us saying, “Our last day with you. Last day.” The words marshal years and years of memories. Memories that make us smile. Memories that make us feel thankful. Memories that make us cry.

And we face the inevitable question — Will the memories perish along with Calvin?

I lie beside him, with my arms around his weak body. He still tries to wag his tail. Dogs. I think of Father, who reluctantly left to work, for he’s weighed down with the knowledge that he will not see Calvin alive again. I think of Mother, who bottles up her emotions and poses questions like, “Will it be painful for him? Is that the only way?” I think of Sister, who is thousands of miles away from the boy, and who would trade all her wishes to spend one last minute with him.

For all of them, I whisper into his ears — We love you, Calvin — as my torrential tears wash his face.

Moments later, I measure his body to let a friend dig Calvin’s grave. As I measure, Calvin takes a deep breath. I run the tape on him when he is alive. Life shows how ruthless it can become. While the family suffers from the inability to face the separation, while Calvin still lies in my mother’s lap, I call the vet and inform that we are ready. A lie.

Calvin rests his head on my thigh during our last ride to the vet and his cataract-filled eyes become bigger, as the car moves faster. He grows curious, tries to look out the window and inhales deeply, as though he is taking along all the goodness in the world.

One year later…

11406958_10206960955479330_5710593604708901420_nToday, Mother peels a banana for Boo. “Calvin loved bananas, Boo. You knew that, didn’t you?” I hear Mother talk to Boo and remember all that Mother says about the boy who left us a year ago.

Calvin liked apples. Calvin loved strangers. Calvin ate birds’ droppings. Calvin was scared of firecrackers. Calvin was this. Calvin was that. Calvin was everything.

Boo runs her tongue around her lips and sprawls in the sunniest spot at home. As I wonder how the teeny-weeny, diffident dog whom we rescued a few years ago has become a spoilt girl, the answer to the ‘inevitable question’ appears.

Will the memories perish along with Calvin?

In that unassuming moment, it dawns on me that Calvin is ensconced in the memories. When he left this transient realm, Calvin became stronger and healthier in that safest of territories. Every tiny, beautiful memory of ours is a fort that protects him. Every time we talk about him, we give that fort a fresh coat of paint. Every time we utter his name, the fort’s doors open and the black boy comes running out, with his long tongue out. He wears an effervescent smile as he jumps on us, and he covers our faces with his sticky saliva.

Nothing can snatch Calvin from us. He is just here. He will always be here.

Memories don’t hurt anymore, for their purpose is different now. They keep him alive and fan the undying love we have for our first pet.

And now, we love him with no fear; he cannot be lost again.

How Wild It Is, To Let It Be

13567407_10210016971677825_3911925621270343022_nBoo is resting after her morning walk; her head is on her favourite panda and she seems to be half-asleep, as though she is reluctant to slip into slumber because she wants to include herself in my parents’ conversation. My parents are having their breakfast, listening to some devotional songs, and discussing the beautiful, mundane things in life. I observe all of them and my heart fills with gratitude, love, hope, and… peace.

Nothing seems extraordinary about this morning. But I feel like a different person, one whom I haven’t met before, one who is inspired to fan the little spark in her, one who has begun everything all over again, and one who has just started to live. And I am home after five weeks of travel; I am home, in the true sense of the word.

I didn’t wake up to the cacophony of alarm clocks this morning. At 6, my body and mind were ready to embark on a new day. Before I left my bed, I meditated about how things have transpired in the last few months and I was surprised.

When I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, I realised that demons which taunted me for a year have been exorcised, answers which were elusive have been captured, mistakes have been forgiven, and insults have been forgotten.

Where there was an abyss, a sapling has been planted now.

Will the sapling grow strong? Will it stand strong against the gusty winds? Will it offer flowers? Will its branches grow wide? Above all, will the roots be firm? For a mind, that’s so used to cynicism and anxiety, the smallest drop of peace is intimidating too. The most amusing irony of all.

I pull back the train of thoughts and dismiss the questions. For the first time, I make this choice — there is peace and let it just be. Maybe, this blinding brightness might fade. The spell might wear off. Another chasm might appear. But for now, there is peace and I must let it be. How strange it is to see the scars and not recognise that the wounds have healed! But now that the awareness has surfaced, life seems kind and beautiful.

“Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.”

“It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life — like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.”

— Cheryl Strayed

The Bluest City

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Navy Pier

I am sitting by Lake Shore Drive on my last day in Chicago. A woman is sitting by the shore, sketching the long skyline of Chicago. A gay couple kiss each other. A group of girls celebrate their friend’s birthday party. And a naughty Baltimore Oriole chases me. I sit there for hours with my gaze fixed on the lake, bobbing boats, and the majestic buildings. This is Chicago. This is me, traveling alone for the first time.

For those few hours, I didn’t have a past, a future. In Chicago, my body seemed to shed some weight; my mind seemed to erase memories — pleasant and painful. For those hours, I was there, by the lake, thousands of miles away from everything that defines me. I was just there.

It rained quite frequently during my stay in Chicago. I was cold for much of that time, even though Chicagoans might probably find the weather balmy. Chicago was not just the Windy City, but also the Walking City. I walked through the city, cursing myself for not being geared well. My ankles would feel too heavy, as though I was dragging an iron ball all day. And my feet were sore after walking for nearly 12 hours every day. On the first day, I reach my room well past 10 PM. The deserted roads, the distant sound of men’s laughter, and the lazy fall of raindrops fill me with anxiety and this question — Why am I travelling alone? I had no answer.

I thought then, perhaps, I am not seeking an answer. Perhaps, I just have to release the question and see it pass by me, like the clouds over my head, which had just started to clear up. The sky was black, and a tiny star winked at me. I smiled in return.

I spent four days in The Windy City. The first two days, I did all things touristy — sauntered around Michigan Avenue, clicked pictures of the city’s massive skyscrapers, met a Chicago Greeter (a wonderful walking historian of Chicago, Peter Orlinsky), and visited The Skydeck, Navy Pier, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and Ernest Hemingway Museum.

I was annoyingly overwhelmed for the first two days. The city was vibrant and friendly. The weather was only marginally inclement. My roommates were enthusiastic travelers. Yet, something was thwarting me from becoming excited. I was a stranger to myself on those days. I was in a new city, traveling alone for the first time, making friends from different countries, and maybe, it would take a while to become accustomed to the new me — a child who is captivated by the carnival.

And I begin to unravel more of the new me. On Day 3, I visit Adler Planetarium (where I touch a meteorite ;)), and then, I am back at Lake Shore Drive, watching the shoreline of Lake Michigan. That’s when I see it. Sitting by the great lake, I see the most beautiful blues — the greenish blue of the water, azure blue of the clear sky, and the grayish blue of the city’s tall buildings. No photograph can do justice to that surreal view. How can man-made cameras be so naive, arrogant, and presumptuous as to think of capturing the life-nourishing soul of nature?

13516592_10209901997043531_7288712721261879285_nI had other things to do that day. But my newly developed all-consuming love for the blues of Lake Shore Drive makes me understand that I had come all the way from Chennai to lose myself in them. I did the wisest thing then. I surrendered.

I sit by the lake and read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. There are distractions — the crashing sound of the waves, the chirping of birds, the guffaw of children, the sound of bicycle tires. But I can only welcome them all the same.

This was to be a pattern that would repeat itself for me the next day too. I attend an author’s book-reading session, attend a fun party, and share a few drinks with some new friends I meet at the book launch. But it is Michigan Lake that calls me again. On Day 4, I wake up with the pressing thought of visiting Lake Shore Drive again. I still had other things to do in Chicago. I am so lost in Lake Shore Drive that my friend SM says I should cancel all the other plans and just go to Lake Shore Drive. “That is where your heart is,” she says. I go back to find it.

The blues are still magnificently blue by the lake. And I am there, again. A man, who must have sat next to me for a while, stands up and dusts his trousers, pulling me out of my trance. We exchange smiles. Without looking away from the skyline, he says, “It’s pretty. Why is it so pretty?” I always trust strangers to say the most profound thing, ask the most enlightening question. He doesn’t wait for an answer but walks away. However his question creates a few ripples in my mind. I begin rolling the ‘why’ in my head. But then again, it occurs to me that the whys do not matter here, and if I try to figure it out, I would only be as naive as the camera.

After I leave Lake Shore Drive, I ask my friend, if I left a piece of myself there or brought a bit of it with me. She says I could do neither. “It is impossible to become again who we were when we were in some places.”

I might go to more places, experience all sorts of marvels. But I will remember Chicago for its blues and for freeing me from my prison of thoughts. It doesn’t matter if I was only on a parole. But that whiff of freedom can help me travel light.

But why think about that when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

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