On a quiet afternoon

One reason I have not posted here in a long time is because I did not want to talk about the ever increasing death toll, or infection spread, or the lockdown, or the impending economic crisis. We all are getting enough dosage of that negativity from newspapers or TV channels. I did not want to discuss those same things in this space. But I am also not able to put my mind to anything else. If I try to write about something completely different, I feel like I am avoiding the elephant in the room. This is the biggest thing that is happening in the whole world right now, which is directly affecting our daily lives. What sense does it make to post something unrelated at this point of time? Anything else seems frivolous now.

I realize it is important to break out of this vicious cycle. I keep checking the numbers, keep reading about desperation faced by many, countries where health care system is overwhelmed and people are dying without treatment, people are suffering because of lack of work, lack of food…and I get anxious. I read about how a cured person can get this disease again and I think will there ever be an end to this. I know these things are not in my control and the only thing I can do is to stay at home and stay safe and healthy. But I am not able to put these thoughts out of my head. I try to remind myself how lucky I am. I have food to eat, a roof over my head. I have a stable job and don’t have to worry about losing my job or salary cut….that is so much more than what so many people can say right now. But the worry does not leave me alone. It is always present at the back of my mind. I believe it comes from a feeling of helplessness. The rising toll makes me worried but there is not a single thing I can do about it. I am closely following the news of scientific research about vaccine. But even here I am pinning my hope on something which is completely beyond my control. There is no way I can do anything to influence the speed or success of that scientific experiment. Are they doing it right? Have they taken into account all possible things that might go wrong? How long will it take to standardize the vaccine? Will it work on all populations? Some scientists are saying different mutant strains are found in different parts of the world…will a single vaccine be cure for all?

I try to keep myself busy. I am working from home….but it is much slower than normal office days. My team members are also working from home and our overall efficiency is much lower that usual. I watch netflix….but at the end of a movie I quickly take a look at the news and there it is again. I have downloaded few books for my kindle…reading is one of my most favorite things. I am reading Howard Jacobson’s “Live a Little” now. Just started it so can’t tell you yet how it is but I expect it will be good. I read his “Finkler Question” few years back….it was brilliant. So this one should also be good. I take my kindle to bed and when I feel sleepy, I turn it off but instead of closing my eyes I turn on my mobile to check that day’s numbers and my thought returns to the same topic again.

It is a strange time we are going through now. Suddenly our lives changed completely and became quite similar. On a normal day my life can be very different from yours. You do different sets of things, depending on your country, your culture, your society. But when we are not leaving our house except to buy essential items, listening to the same news, often thinking the same thoughts……there is little difference between our lives. This thought that we are all connected, does not even comfort me. My anxiety-prone mind is twisting it and telling me “we are all trapped” instead!

I am trying to break out of this spiraling thought pattern. I am trying to engage my mind to more positive thoughts. But this gnawing anxiety is persistent. It keeps me from even regularly checking your blog pages….there are many of you whose blogs I enjoy reading, love commenting and it makes me happy like a child when I receive a reply from you. But I have not been able to do this in a while.

Nature around me is suddenly more beautiful now. Birds have become ‘vocal’, their chirping you can hear all through the day. Complete absence of traffic noise has made them braver and they come out more in numbers. The air is clean, the mornings and evenings are crisp. Almost everyday there is a glorious sunset I can see from my living room window. I am consciously trying to put myself in a more calm and assured frame of mind. I am telling myself that it is going to be okay….we will come out of this, perhaps with some permanent changes in our collective mindset, but the end of this tortuous path is coming nearer.

Is it that boring?

I was reading a travelogue. A nicely written account of a road trip. The post included some very good snapshots too. The author made a concluding remark that the trip was a much-needed break from the monotony of daily life.

I met my colleague who was back to office after a vacation. She told me how it went….the fun things she did. Then she said “now it is back to the daily grind”.

The TV channel was showing some festival….many people were celebrating and the anchor interviewed some people at random. Everyone said they were super happy to be there. They were also a bit sad that after today they have to go back to their monotonous lives.

26th January is India’s Republic Day. In my housing complex, there was some small-scale celebration. People gathered, there was flag hoisting, followed by some sports events for the kids. I did not join them. I wanted a quiet sunday at home. My mom called me and asked if I had participated in the celebration. When I said no, her reaction was “why? It would have been a nice change from the boring daily routine.”

Except I do not find life boring. I don’t feel I need new excitement every now and then in order to be happy. I am perfectly content to follow my daily routine. In these restless, uncertain times we live in, it is a privilege to be able to do what we planned to do with our day. Sure, I enjoy traveling. But it never feels like “grind” when I am back from a trip. I do take part in festivals too. May be not as much as some others…..I pick some, and let go of some other fests. But after it ends, I don’t feel that my life is dull.

Why do so many people say things like that? Is it just a way of speaking? Is it fashionable to declare boredom in everyday things that all of us have to do? Like going to work, buying groceries, cooking, cleaning, taking care of family? Or is it actually true that the vast majority around us are indeed bored and fed up with the mundane activities of their daily lives? That sounds very grim and depressing, no? I don’t believe that can be true. So it must be something that people say without really meaning it. But why? What is the point of saying something so negative so frequently when it is not even true? Does it make them look cool? I seriously doubt that.

By no means my life is an exciting one…my life is very ordinary, typical. But I never think it is boring….honestly I don’t even understand what that means. Take today for example…it was an uneventful day. But that does not mean it was dull. There were moments of simple pleasure. In the light-hearted banter exchanged with colleagues, in the simple satisfaction of sticking to my diet and exercise routine for the day, I find fulfillment. To make my point, I will give more details about these ‘mundane’ events.

Last week I had hosted a conference at my work place and was extremely busy with that. So today morning when I was sipping a cup of coffee at my office cafeteria, one colleague waved at me and said “so your daughter’s wedding is finally over?” It was not spectacularly funny but it was good-natured humor. He noticed I was running around whole of last week and I felt grateful and happy for this acknowledgment.

After over-eating in the weekend, I was happy when my calorie counter app (newly installed as part of New Year’s resolution) showed a green bar for fat and carb intake. In the weekend it had become red! After lazing around in the weekend, when my fitbit recorded more than 12000 steps today, it felt good.

As I was driving out of my housing complex in the morning, kids were getting into the school bus. One child of about six, was fighting hard with his mom because he did not want to board the bus. He wanted to pet the stray dog instead, which was waiting patiently with its tail wagging, for the mother-son tussle to get over. I watched this episode as I was slowly rolling out of our main gate and my smile lingered on my face for several more minutes.

I know these are very ordinary things and people who declare life is boring, will definitely find this blog super boring. But is it too difficult to appreciate these small pleasures? Is it too difficult to realize that many years from now, if I remember this period of my life, then it is the ordinary things that I will miss most? I want to make the most of it while I can. I don’t need excitement or novel, outlandish experience to take a break from my boring existence. I wish people would just stop saying ‘boring life’ all the time. It makes me restless and puzzled.

Where do we go from here?

You were talented, and you worked hard. From a young age, you were motivated. Everyone expected you to be successful in life and indeed you have had your success. But at some point, you realize that all your hard work, talent and luck has brought you to this point and this is as far as it goes. You can’t go much further from here. People who are getting ahead of you now, are indeed way better than you are. The difference is so obvious, that you can’t even deny it.

I think almost every person has to come to terms with it at some stage of their lives. Does not matter how good you are at what you do, at some point you have to make way for others who are superior to you. You have already reached your potential and you honestly don’t have what it takes to go to the next level. While this situation is not uncommon, different people process it in different ways. I am not talking about those who have given up early and wasted their potential. I am talking about those who have followed through, who have done everything they could to reach where they are now. And their level of achievement is pretty impressive, by all standards. What happens when such people come to realize that they have reached their end of the climb?

One class of people refuse to accept the simple truth. The fight the inevitable by crying foul…..they blame the system for being biased against them, or for being biased towards other people who got ahead. They often turn bitter, negative and one finds them cribbing all the time. My colleague who sits in the next office, pops into my office at least once every day, and unloads all injustice happening with her….how she got overlooked for a certain award, and how a completely unworthy person was the recipient, how she is not being invited to a prestigious meeting, and how some mediocre person got the invitation, etc. etc. If it is a man who is being chosen over her, then she is an isolated woman in this male-dominated field. If it is a woman instead, then she claims this woman uses her feminine charm to get ahead. Every time it does not go her way, it is unfair.

Few people want to counter the truth by putting some distance between themselves and their smarter rivals. They voluntarily climb down one or two ranks such that they can again surround themselves with people who worship them. They attempt to bring back some of their lost self-esteem in this way. Where I work, the ex-director was like this. He used to work at a very big place, and wanted the top job there. When he did not get it, and a much better candidate was chosen over him, he resigned from there and came to our place instead. Here, he easily became the director and never failed to remind everyone at every opportunity what a great place he comes from.

Another class of people accept the simple truth more gracefully. It will be unrealistic to say that it does not affect their pride at all. But they remain collected. They never bad-mouth those who are doing better. They try to satisfy themselves with what they have, they try to avoid comparing themselves with others, they try to find values in what they are doing, even though they have to admit it is not the very best. It is not an easy thing to do. In a professional world, where competitions are tough, where bragging about your own achievements in a subtle way is often considered normal, it is not easy to keep your spirit high and not let negativity accumulate inside you. I have few colleagues, and friends like this. They struggle but they keep it together. With time some of them become quieter and maintain a low profile.

Few others use yet another coping strategy. They trivialize the accomplishment of people who are doing better than them. They refuse to admit that anyone else is smarter than they are. If they themselves are not able to get to the next level, they promptly declare the next level does not matter. They never cared for it anyway. The fact that few people are already sitting there, proves nothing about their abilities. These people are often loudest, and create most noise. It won’t be wrong to say that they also often provide a comic relief. It is fun to watch how they try to bend the reality according to their liking. It is a story they tell themselves, and by being loud, emphatic, they hope others will also buy into their version of reality.

My workplace has people from all the above categories.

From dusk to a new dawn

2019 flew past me. For a large part of the year I had remained much more busy than I would like to be. In my work front, 2019 has been quite productive and successful. But there were far too many travels, far too much pressure, far too high stress levels….although I love my work, I don’t really enjoy this style of working when I am too rushed to even enjoy my own achievements, however small they may be. So I am hoping 2020 brings a more quiet and peaceful time for me, when I can focus on spending some quality time with those aspects of my work that I enjoy. (As I write this, I take a look at my calendar. Next year January second half already seems full and so far I have committed to two business trips on February and March.)

Outside work, my personal life has also been hectic. In our society you are supposed to look after elders. Apart from my parents, I also feel responsible for some of my uncles and aunts, who are old and do not have anyone else looking after them. I am not complaining exactly, I am aware that I am really lucky to have these people in my life whom I love. Still for a large part of this year I have felt that too many people need too many things from me and I am getting caught up in an exhausting attempt to not disappoint any of them. I realize this has not done me any good. This has raised a feeling of resentment inside me, a feeling of being trapped. Not only I was not able to do everything expected of me, I resented myself for my failure and I resented others for their dependence, for their demand on my time. Often I snapped and ended up hurting those I love. In the coming year I want to take things easy. Instead of thinking about what needs to be done and getting engaged in micro-management (it sounds stupid, but this is exactly what I end up doing), I want to focus on how much I can do and let go after that.

I can almost physically feel the urge of slowing down now, a craving for a downtime. For the last couple of months this urge has grown stronger and stronger. And I don’t mean taking a trip where I eat, drink and try to relax. I have taken enough trips this year and they also come with their share of stress because lot of planning is involved. My downtime is staying at home, doing nothing, waking up when I feel like, cooking if I want, eating whatever I want, sleeping whenever I want, reading a book or going for a jog depending on the mood of the day. That is spontaneity….unplanned, unstructured time that makes way for unbridled joy. In 2020 I want to gift myself a healthy dose of downtime.

This post reads like all I had done in 2019 is rush-rush-rush. Of course that is not true. I have many good memories too. I will end this post with some heart-warming moments I had this year. They are private, small moments and brought me profound joy.

1. Few months back, I was taking my evening walk. One child (about 7 or 8 years old) was riding a bike. He stopped, dismounted, carefully leaned the bike against a tree, stepped back, made sure the bike is quite stable and is not going to fall over. He even gave the bike few small pushes and ensured it goes back to its equilibrium position. I was watching him and my first thought was “Now that is a careful child”. After he was satisfied with the stability of the bike, he started climbing the boundary wall of our complex…a quite high wall and any fall would break his bones. My second thought was “so much for carefulness”. I reached over and told him to come down. He reluctantly climbed down, rode off in his bike….I am sure planning to come back to complete his mission (8 years old boys always have a mission) when this nosy lady is gone.

2. This year I visited an old friend after many years and met her 5 years old son for the first time. The boy was initially shy and was not talking to me. His parents were encouraging him to talk to me, to play with me. Finally when he felt comfortable around me, his first sentence to me was “all my teeth came very late”. For some reason, he thought that is the first thing I need to know about him if we are planning to become friends.

3. Sometimes I have recurring nightmares. Many people do. These are scary dreams which I have been having for many years. Recently I woke up after such a dream and was feeling scared. It was early morning, I knew my husband would now go out for jogging. I asked him if he can go after sometime, not immediately. I did not want to be alone. He assured me and I fell back asleep. After I woke up again, couple of hours later, I found him lying by my side. He chose not to go for his jogging at all! This is a big deal because he is very regular about his morning walk. He has a long commute and can only manage time for jogging in the weekends, and never misses it. That day was a weekend and he still did not go because he wanted to protect me from whatever irrational fear I was having in my mind. This gesture of love kept me warm throughout the day.

I wish all of you a very happy new year. Exactly one year from now, may you look back at 2020 as a year full of amazing memories. Live a rich life, and I look forward to read about your beautiful journey in your blog. Many of you offer a glimpse of your life through your gifted writing and I find that immensely enriching, engaging. Keep sharing. As always, I will post my comment on your blog, if I have some worth-while comment to make. Let’s all stay in touch and step towards a brand new year.

Interrupted

She was regular companion of my daily walk. A neighbor and a friend. We walked and talked and one hour just flew by. She moved here with her husband few years back and we became fast friends. We had very different backgrounds, very different life trajectories. She was a housewife, she married young and already became a mother in her early twenties, while I was always focused on my career, in my early twenties I never even thought of marriage. She was deeply religious and I am an atheist. She strongly believed in destiny and actually our friendship started because of that. She had noticed me, observed me and sensed that we are meant to be good friends! One day she approached me, introduced herself and told me she would like to join me for walk, if it is okay. I remember her telling me in a matter-of-fact way “I stay at home, anytime is good for me, whenever you want to walk, I can join.” This is how we got started. After a while, whenever either of us was walking alone, “what happened to your friend?” would be a common question we would face.

Last week she went to visit her hometown along with her husband to celebrate Diwali, which is a very big festival here. Before leaving she told me it is going to be a longish break and there will be lot of eating and no walking and she will surely put on few extra pounds. I remember teasing her “Don’t worry. To make you feel better, as soon as you are back, I promise to tell you that you look thinner, no matter what”. This week I got the shocking news that her husband got killed in a road accident in their hometown. It felt unreal, it made no sense, I could not process what I was hearing. I felt so restless I could not stay at home. I went out and started walking down the street. I don’t know why, but whenever I am in shock, I always start noticing small details around me. May be it is my mind’s way of keeping itself occupied, not having to deal with the momentous thing that just happened? I am not sure but I have seen this happening to me many times before. I remember vividly all small details about my surroundings when sitting inside a Doctor’s chamber, I heard for the first time that my very dear uncle who was just 58, has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I remember how the room was furnished, how the doctor’s desk was arranged, how that desk-top felt against the skin of my hand, how the chair felt against my back, how the temperature inside that room was slightly chilly, what noises were coming from the hospital corridor and from the street….everything. For me these memories do not go away and every time I find myself in a similar place, I think of that day.

This time it happened again. It was evening, the same time I used to walk with my friend. There were lot of people on the street. Some walking slowly, in a relaxed pace. Some walking fast in a hurried way. Some are coming back from work, a tired gait. Some are going out, all decked up. Two teenaged girls passed me by, busy in their excited chatters. One lady was walking her dog, a fierce looking german shepherd, who almost ran off with the leash and the lady struggled to gain control. These people had no clue how the world of my friend has fallen apart. Her husband was her whole world. Her son was already grown-up and lived in a different city. Her daily life revolved around her husband. I could not imagine what she was going through. I felt not ready to call her, to talk to her. I myself needed to be steady first. Also, I heard she was not taking calls from anyone. I simply could not imagine what she was going through. I knew that she had many friends and family in her hometown….she told me about them. I knew that these people were taking good care of her. She was not alone. But I missed her terribly and I felt so helpless. When we walked together, we used to talk about many small things…..I would tell her about my day at work, she would tell me about something that happened in her Yoga class. And now something so big has happened to her and we are not even talking about it. Every time I think of her smiling face, her positive, sincere nature, it breaks my heart to think how much pain she is in now. I know she will eventually be okay. She has a deeply spiritual nature and she will find her strength from it.

Will I ever see her again? I don’t know. She has no reason to live in this city anymore. They moved here for her husband’s job. She may not even come here again. May be her son, or somebody else will come here to vacate the rented apartment they were staying in, and that’s it. I know for sure I will never walk with her again. We will still keep in touch with each other, but the day-to-day exchanges will not be there anymore.

Many people are posting condolence messages in social media but I could not do that. I was getting distracted in a sea of RIPs and did not know what to write. Finally I managed to write to her after two days and told her I know she is strong enough to face this. She wrote back that she will call me, and there are many things she wanted to say to me and wanted to cry with me. I will wait for that call.

Action Reaction

Year 2007. I was in my late twenties. Flying from Zurich to Dusseldorf. In my next seat was a Swiss lady in her middle age. A kind face and a warm nature. She told me she lives in Zurich and is a doctor. She asked me what is the purpose of my journey, what do I do, where do I live. I remember her eyeing my dress. I was wearing a salwar-kameez, a traditional Indian dress. I didn’t mind her curiosity at all…I was happy to chat with her. At some point she asked me if I was married. I was not. She then apologetically asked me how old I am. And then came the surprise: “Are you allowed to remain unmarried till this age, in India?”. The surprise in her voice was genuine, and my surprise was also equally real. I have traveled to many countries and I understand what cultural shock means. But I still can’t imagine one educated person can have such sweeping notion about a whole country. When I told her there are many women in India who are highly educated, hold good jobs, and some of them may have family, while some may choose to remain single, not all women in India marry at a young age and have children….she stared at my face and I sensed she was trying to see if I was offended by her question. I was not. But I admit she made me self-conscious.

Year 2016. Just landed in Frankfurt international airport. In the queue for passport control an Indian family was before me. Father, mother, and three kids one of whom was a special child. I noticed everyone in the family was being playful with him. They were cheering him, joking with him, keeping him happy. He was a happy child indeed and it was heart-warming to see him surrounded by such warm affection and love. Without me knowing, my lips had curled into a smile as I looked on. When their turn came at the counter, they handed over their passports. While the person at the counter was examining the passports, this particular child was looking at his face with interest. The father noticed it and after they got back their passports, before leaving the counter, the father asked the child if he would like to shake hands with the man at the counter. The child happily extended his hands and the man took it, shook it, the family left. It was my turn now. As I stepped to the counter, I found this guy is applying hand-sanitizer in his hands, with a disgust on his face. I remembered the glowing face of the child as he left the counter and the disgusted face of this germ-maniac made me sad. He checked my passport, put his stamp, and slided it back to me over the counter. I suddenly decided to act differently than I normally do. I held the passport pouch in my left hand, and using my right index and right thumb pinched one corner of the passport and put it back in the pouch….as if I would rather not touch the object he had just touched. I made eye contact with him, and left the counter. Did he think I was crazy? Most likely yes. Did he realise I did it on purpose and got mad afterwards? May be, may be not. Did any of this drama have any effect on the happy child and his loving family? Absolutely not.

Through the rear-view mirror

I never feel brave enough to drive in that part of the city. The traffic is too dense, other drivers are too aggressive, streets are too congested. Whenever I need to go there, I take an uber. On this day also, I booked an uber and after waiting for few minutes the cab arrived, along with a cranky driver. When he found out about my destination, he immediately started complaining: “I had opted for a home-bound trip, my home is towards the eastern part of the city, but uber assigned me this trip which is towards far north. These apps are getting more and more useless with every passing day.” Now I am not very well aware of the interface experienced by the uber drivers, I only know how it works for an user. May be this guy had reasons to get upset because the app messed up. But certainly it is not my fault  that the app paired me up with him. Throughout the trip he vented, and this made me upset. I chose to remain silent and ignore his rant. But he simply would not let go…he made the point again and again that he wanted to go east and because of me he is having to go north, how unfair all that is! It also turned out he is a lousy driver and this raised my irritation more. I mean, I myself chose not to drive and hire a cab, but the cab driver seemed to be a worse driver than I am, only difference is he did not care about it. It was a bad trip and I reached my destination in a bad mood.

While coming back I booked another uber. The driver arrived, a cheerful person. As soon as I climbed in, he started chatting. He told me he wanted to have a cup of tea and stopped near a street side shop sometime back, but while getting down from the car, his shoe strap came off. It is difficult to drive with a torn shoe. He has to find somebody to mend it, but these days cobblers are not easy to find, that is one trade which is disappearing fast with time. These days people simply throw away their damaged shoes and buy new ones and he finds it very strange. He did not forget to mention that he is lucky that he is not having to walk in those shoes, driving is a bit difficult but still lot easier than walking. He urged me to imagine that some person is walking down a street, no cobbler in sight and suddenly the shoe strap comes off…he thinks he is far better off than THAT. He also told me he earlier used to work in the sales department of a shoe shop and he knows all about shoes. It was perfectly delightful to talk to this man….in a very engaging and animated way he was holding the conversation. He had so much to say and there was a simple sincerity about him in everything he said. I reached home in a happy mood. My husband noticed it as soon as I stepped in: “Had a good day?”