The Lone One

alone
Image courtesy  http://www.goodmorningimagesdownload.com/

Arms open wide

Soaring high towards the sky

Far from the beauteous

Verdant and bountiful

Bereft of colour

Barren of sweetness

Yet full of life

Watchful and carefree

Sanguine till the very end

 

Abandoned by all

No bird to nestle

No kite to cuddle

No sun to hide

No moon to kiss

No care to cherish

No love to mourn

Ever the odd one

You had, but none

 

Waiting, forever waiting

For the sun to bestow

One beaming ray to play with

For the moon to plant

One fleeting kiss to remember by

For one lost bird

To nest it’s young

For one adrift kite

To teach you flight

 

Alone and apart

Windswept and weary

Withered and forlorn

Stripped of all

Nothing to receive

No one to bequeath

Solitary and friendless

We were one in our hopes

Prayer and solitude

 

Know this, my comrade

I tasted your tears

And wore your smiles

Your bosom, my refuge

Your boughs, my flight

Your barrenness, my light

Your height, my might

In life I cared

In death I mourned

 

In my musings, you live

In my pictures, you shine

In my paintings, you glow

In my dreams, you breathe

Eternally pregnant

With wispy memories

Of a shared transitory life

Rare sacred kinship

Unspoken fearless love

 

In my thus far, turbulent and drifting life if there is one thing that’s been constant and stable; it’s my attraction and affinity with trees. Green, Brown, tall, short, old, young. I love them all. But the old, dry, withering ones tug my heart-strings in a singular way that is unrivaled. I connect with the cold blood running through their veins. I caress their barks and listen to their myriad stories. They are the surrogates for the children I will never have. The men I lack the courage to fall in love with. The dogs I will never pet and that lovely grey cat that abandoned me in my childhood.

I share a bond with trees that I am incapable of creating with humans and other living breathing beings. Every place I travel to, I discover new species of them, new patterns of leaves, new designs on their barks, new silhouettes of their shadows, new colours in their flowers, new tastes in their fruits and new aroma in their wood which renews my faith in Nature and its all-encompassing Creator.

I find it unbelievable that I did not wake up to this reality of mine earlier. My eyes well up at the lost chances. I could have become a botanist if I had only known earlier that I would come to love and form a kinship with these lovely creations of God so passionately. Alas! Some regrets in life are lasting!

No trip of mine is ever complete without a visit to the nearest botanical garden or a tree park and any place that comes recommended with the brightest spots of green to feast my eyes upon!

I rarely ever wear green or brown but strangely these are my most favoured colours when I sit to paint. Every painting of mine has trees. In some form. Of every conceivable size and shape. Of every imaginary hue.

Why do I favour the withering ones? I might never know. But they appeal to that part of me that’s fearless and pure and ever hopeful.

Some people say that our words, choice of colours and the things we love and connect with is a direct reflection of who we are at our core. Our essence. And I like dead trees. Dying trees. Their odd-shaped boughs. Bereft of life. Barren of green. In different shades of Brown and tints of Grey. The colours of the earth. Of Ash. What does it say about me? Do I like the mystery of death more than life itself? Do I favor the melancholy? Perhaps yes.

The poem that I began the blog post with is an ode to a nameless tree of unknown origin in the busy Minister road in Begumpet, Hyderabad.

It was my closest friend since the year 1999. All through my college years and my work as an intern to a popular designer and  later as a store owner, I commuted by public transport and this tree was a constant companion on the long monotonous hours spent on the road. I passed by it every single day from my gawky teenage years till the last few days of its life. It was a long happy fun-filled journey filled with our musings, conversations, smiles, tears, fears, triumphs and failures.

The few stolen moments from my typically tired and busy days, I shared with this comrade of mine was the time I looked forward to with earnestness. Be it cloud filled, rain pouring, sun lit hot days or cold wintry nights,it was ever-present and always listening to my banter with the same inquisitive eyes for more than 17 long years.

In the meantime; covertly,away from my peripheral vision my city grew up. The landscape of my city changed from an ebullient child to an incorrigible teenager.

Unrecognizable. Tantrum throwing. And beyond any sense of understanding and responsibility. With increasing power in its hands, it rewrote the fates of all that rested on its soil. In ways that pummeled the lives of mute beings that were the reason for its fame and identity.

The Hyderabad that I landed in from Castle Rock in 1990, known for its culture and heritage and for having a big and open heart filled with unhurried,  good-natured people got lost in this haphazard surge for development. The city known for being green come rain or shine is now a maze with flyovers and metro tracks everywhere. In some places all you see in the line of vision is concrete. Layers of it. A concrete metro rail track over a concrete flyover over a pothole riddled concrete road. With no sense of planning. Like a child’s careless drawing.

Those little nameless beauteous plants and flowers and the mature avenue of trees that shaded the city from toxicity were crushed and bulldozed into oblivion. And replaced with potted plants, placed in areas filled with most noxious of fumes from the ever-growing pile of vehicles. None lived to see the sun or the rain.

My comrade in green was never blessed with either beauty or bounty. It was a strange shaped creation. Incomplete. Imperfect. Which is what attracted my attention to it in the first place. I fell in love with its odd-shaped fruits which resembled dried leaves and wide open branches like playful arms calling out for a hug. I never saw a bird’s nest on it or a kite trapped on its branches. Always swaying with mirth. With sweet joy and gay abandon. It was the only one in the entire stretch of a busy road bustling with traffic throughout the day. And night.

For 17 years we were friends. And when its last leaf fell, with a growing uneasy sense of doom I waited for that unfortunate but inevitable day. It took the city a while to cast its glance on the lone warrior. But it did happen. On a week that I was travelling, the city sounded the death knell and then it was gone. Wiped of its existence. Without any trace. What are left now are the stories written in my heart. Of its life. Of our love. Of its untimely death.

I never got the chance to say goodbye. Even if I had been given a chance I would not have had the courage to say goodbye.

How do you say goodbye to one who was always with you, for you?

How do you ever come to terms with a friend’s gnawing absence?

How do you reconcile with the fact that your gross misconception of a beloved’s immortality was nothing but childish at best?

With growing impatience, I am slowly losing my love for my city. I am unable to adore the city that took away everything I loved and shared my life and blood with. Those sacred threads of bonds formed over the years partaking its culture and respecting its heritage remain forever broken.

All I ever see today is the mounting conceit. In the people who govern. And the people governed. When someone I meet during my travels ask me about my city, I find myself suddenly cornered in an unlikely dark place. It makes me uncomfortable to ply lies. ‘Cause what I loved and prided the most in the city is no more.

The little café in Madina junction which served the best Irani chai in the city. Gone!

The little hotel in Paradise junction known for those amazing tiny cabbage filled samosas which even the legendary M.F.Hussain frequented. Gone!

The little restaurant in Sainikpuri aptly named Little India which served delicious buffet meals on Sundays for a measly 99 rupees. Gone!

Those hooded trees near St.Francis College behind who couples stole a kiss from their beloved. Gone!

The little book store in Tarnaka which sold the 6B Apsara pencils I needed for sketching class. Gone!

The shop tucked behind Ganesh temple in Secunderabad where I used to restock my paints and canvasses. Gone!

That fruit seller under a flyover near Aradhana theatre who sold plums in summer. Gone!

The little cinema theatre in Sangeet crossroads which catered to a small community of English film lovers. Gone!

The pigeon sized restaurant that was famous for authentic Chinese food in Patny Circle. Gone!

Those lovely rock formations in Jubilee Hills. Gone!

Those cool lakes in Gandipet. Gone!

The man from Bengal who sold the most beautiful tie-dye stoles in a footpath in Habsiguda. Gone!

The kid from Bihar who sold ice lollies outside college. Gone!

Evidence of a merry childhood and merrier teenage life gone without a trace.

All signs of comrades like mine axed.

All traces of a life lived well destroyed.

The slate wiped clean.

All that is left behind is toxic fumes and arid air.

All that falls in my line of vision is new. Built by zombies with cold precision. Bereft of emotion. Barren of kinship. In hues of grey.

On an otherwise beautiful and crisp morning, suddenly on waking up, caught unawares I find myself alone and lonely, old and dying, withering away in a landscape written in glass and concrete. All the way to the horizon and beyond.

 

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Dreams entombed in Burnt Sienna and Ivory

Eons ago, on a hot afternoon, a few days before I graduated, I was asked where I would find all of the world’s treasures by a young man who was about to take the vow of celibacy and become a priest.

I remember saying, at the bottom of the ocean, perhaps?

No, it’s at the graves, he said.

I gasped and looked at him with horror writ all over my face.

He looked quizzically at me for a moment.

Then replied unassumingly, it’s where the dreams of the dead lie buried. Don’t they?

The profound reply crashed on me like a mighty wave and remained in deep freeze in my heart ever since.

On my first visit to Delhi, years later, his words finally melted and sprouted wings leaving me with an understanding of immeasurable depth.

The raison d’être?

Humayun’s tomb in Old Delhi.

 

Clad in burnt sienna and ivory

Jaded with the decadence of irreverent populace

Fading eyes behind a tranquil arabesque façade

Open arms and warm embraces

Spilling secrets and divulging stories

Of times bygone and lives lost

To land, lust and glory

Memories etched and scars engraved

Dreams stencilled to willful perfection

Veiled behind the eternal silence of rosy whispers

Buried and trampled to dust

Under the ceaseless footprints

Of cavalier men and vagrant time

 

Neither the man buried underneath it nor the tomb is waxed eloquent about in glorious words, anywhere in Indian History.

Between a legendary father and an illustrious son, who changed the course of Indian History, Humayun lies sandwiched and buried in the history books unsure of himself and his legacy.

The glaring lack of poetic words of glory in his honour adds to the mystery as to why he lies forgotten to this day.

I’m no history buff. So I have never been inclined to find out more about the emperor myself. But his tomb definitely piqued the artist in me all those years ago and still does every time Delhi intrigues me. The first place I go to, on every visit to Delhi is Humayun’s tomb. Every jaunt brings forth a hitherto unseen facet to life.

The blazing sun overhead casting long shadows of its arches and beams

The fading colours of the red sandstone

The cold ivory marble

The baked earth edged with an avenue of Ashoka trees

The intricate lattice-work window

The broken blue tiled Chhatris/Canopies.

The haunting ornamental Jharokha/Oriel window

The solitary cenotaph under the white dome

The balmy winds caressing the monument

The smells of the old city wafting through the calm breeze

The River Yamuna drifting away to its final swan song

The silent beauty against the striking squalor surrounding it

Everything glows with a new perspective, crumbling yet renewed itself afresh.

 

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Innumerable arches in the fading sun

 

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Avenue of Ashoka trees lined along the pathway leading to the tomb

 

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Burnt Sienna and Ivory Arches

 

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The poetic Jharoka with the painted blue broken tiles
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Inner chamber under which lies the forgotten emperor

 

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Inlay work under the main dome

 

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The hauntingly beautiful lattice work window catching light differently with each movement of the sun

 

The unheralded emperor and his dreams seem to always seek me out to murmur softly the tyranny of neglected sunrises and inescapable sunsets.

Maybe his treasure of buried dreams resonates with some of my own.

Maybe the dreams of the man behind the facade of an emperor were similar to the dreams of a commoner like me.

Dreams that line the crust of our souls, gnawing and throbbing, forever itching.

Dreams that are dancing around us, hiding in plain sight seeking our constant approval.

Dreams lying deep in the recesses of our hearts, never shared for fear of mockery.

Or for the simple yet scary fact that they might forever remain unfulfilled.

Dreams of being recognized and acknowledged.

Dreams of being loved unconditionally.

Dreams of fame, success and riches.

Dreams of conquering the highest mountains and diving deep in the oceans.

Dreams of becoming somebody. Anybody.

Dreams of dying alone, a nobody.

Dreams of remaining just a framed photograph, sepia toned, dusty and lying forgotten among a sea of similar photographs, lined one after another in a great hall of nothingness.

Dreams of being lost to the world, leaving no footprints in the sands of Father Time.

 

Over the years the artist in me has sought out various other tombs in my various travels to many nooks and crannies of India.

Many of them, memorable and inviting. Some eerie and cold. Others downright scary.

The Paigah Tombs in the Old City of Hyderabad are a vision in white, desolate and trapped amid encroached land.

Quli Qutub Shahi tombs, again in the Old City of Hyderabad is humongous but fear inducing.

Bibi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad looks eerily similar to the Taj but heartrending to look at.

Tipu Sultan’s tomb in Srirangapatnam has a whiff of splendor like the mighty warrior in whose honour it is built.

The Taj Mahal in Agra, a testimony to enduring love.

I even came across the numerous graves of many men and women found scattered all over India, lucky enough to have a decorated tomb built for them by their loved ones.

All of them lying neglected in absolutely filthy environs yet breathtakingly beautiful. But they all came up empty when it came to the promise of the bittersweet haunting melancholy that I always return with, after a visit to Humayun’s tomb.

Located very close to Hazrat Nizammudin Railway Station and Nizammudin Auliya’s Dargah, it belongs to that unpretentious part of the capital city which still pulsates with rich culture and warm spirituality. Amidst the mounting destitution all around its edges, the magnificent tomb manages to leave behind an impression that’s ambiguous and often difficult to come to terms with.

In a city fast losing its grip both on sanity and reality, this ancient crumbling monument offers a peek into the last remnants of a famed era now slowly being pushed towards oblivion by the power-hungry.

Despite Delhi being condescending, cold-hearted and exceptionally rude to me, this tomb in the Old City is like that favorite spot of bright sunshine on a cold wintry morning that we all seek to contemplate about the fickleness of life over a cup of coffee.

The after effects are quite the same.

Lingering sweetness.

Bitter and invigorating.

Melancholic and addictive.

Yet leaving us deeply satiated.

 

I never got a chance to meet that young man after I graduated. Time has flown but I still wonder if he indeed went on to take the vows and get ordained as a priest. But his words stayed on with me like glowing embers of coal. Ever persuasive in making me run after my dreams lest it becomes too late. But as many fell through on the wayside in my maddening rush to fulfill them one after the other, his words took on a new colour.

And now, as yet another milestone of life is fast approaching me, I sense and feel his words with a fresher perspective. Maybe this is what he meant to convey on that fateful March afternoon.

Emperor or commoner, we are all equal in death.

Ornate tombstone or a simple pyre of wood, death turns us all to star-dust.

But nonetheless, a legacy of dreams, we all get to leave behind.

Death gives us the honour to add to the ever-growing treasure of unfulfilled dreams.

A few of yours over a layer of a few of mine.

‘Coz even death cannot take away from us what life could never promise to fulfill.

We will for all eternity be entombed in dreams of burnt sienna and ivory.

 

 

Do You Remember…?

pooh piglet

 

July 22, 2018, Hyderabad @ 10 PM

Dearest mine,

Do you remember?

The night I opened my eyes to this beautiful world for the very first time in that tiny little clinic in Naughar road.

You welcomed me with twinkling eyes and the widest of smiles when some of my own looked down at me with disdain.

It did not matter to you that this frail dark lump of bones was yet another unwelcomed girl in the already poor budding family.

You opened your heart and let your shining light envelop me like warm milk.

I gurgled and crawled all over you and you shielded me like an over protective father.

You helped me take my first steps holding me and guiding me, each time I fell.

The lullabies you sang to lull me to sleep long after my mom had drifted off to sleep all tired and worn out from my nonstop cries.

All those nights spent in the tiny balcony of that little house in Mulund East, stretched out counting stars and trying to scoop the moon into our palms.

Those kids from the opposite building who we couldn’t wait to go and play ‘Laghori’ and ‘Running catching’ with ?

And all the other kids from the nearby colony I would shoo away to have you all for ourselves.

All those summers sucking mango rinds and licking the pulp off ourselves.

Us, hiding and yelling our lungs out and scaring that peeping tom from the 4th floor.

Hiding in the balcony and listening to the maids of the other houses and learning to converse in our own concoction of a mishmash of languages

Do you remember our first visit to the park on the other end of Mulund?

The day I realized you had a park full of friends and glowing red with jealousy I retreated to a corner and did not play with you the entire evening.

And my unbridled joy when you chose to come back home with me and let me sleep beside you as you always did.

That tyrannical aunt of mine who made me do all those chores and how I would come running to you weepy eyed?

Not a day went by without her hurting me and not a night went by without you comforting me to sleep.

Bidding bittersweet goodbyes every summer with promises to meet the next summer.

Earnestly meeting each summer, me taller and prettier and you wider and handsomer than the previous summer and spending hours chattering away about all the sweet nothings of the past year.

That movie in 1989?

When we fell in love at first sight with the young man running towards the sunset?

So many nights spent gushing and dreaming about him together.

Gluing ourselves to the Dynora television set hoping to catch a glimpse of his glorious face.

Singing the entire soundtrack of the movie back to back.

Do you remember that pav bhaji thela(cart) near the station road beside the Shiva temple?

That Bihari bhaiyya with long weird hair parted bang at the centre like Salman Khan?

The one with that funny accent whose incessant cringe worthy rendition of Tere Naam could never stop us from tucking into his piping hot butterlicious pav bhaji?

Is he still around?

And that tiny shop at M.G Road ,which sold those creamy Softies for 5 bucks?

Did you know that the old man who swirled those delicious softies for us passed away?

Whatever happened to that dreamboat of ours? The guy who manned the Xerox machine next door to the Softy shop?

The one with those long dreamy eyelashes? He must have a shop full of little dreamboats of his own by now, right?

All those hours gorging on Sev puris and staring away at him and not one glance did he deem to send our way!

Our very first taste of Amul Cheese and Vada Pav.

April evenings spent on the ferris wheel at Juhu Beach trying not to think of a fatal fall into the sea.

May visits to Tikuji ni wadi in Thane with that beautiful cousin of mine.

And what was it that she ordered every time?

Schezwan fried rice served with a huge red chilli right at the centre!

Do you know that kid sister of mine has this amazing Chinese looking kid of her own?That cutie pie is already 4 now!

That dizzy trip to Essel World the summer after college, that left us reeling from those insatiable topsy-turvy rides.

All those sepia toned photographs of us together not digitized but in film of yore.

Those heady rides in the local trains traveling from Mulund to Victoria Terminus and collecting tickets that served as memoirs.

Listening to all the people crammed in the tiniest of spaces, chirping away their day’s worth of words and the little singing wonders with the begging bowls.

All that colour and glitter in the nukkads (street corners) and gallis( by lanes) of Fashion street that popped our eyes out.

Hours spent combing through the Stories of the world found in multitude of scattered books in the streets of Churchgate.

That tiring hike up to Mumbra devi temple in the searing heat of a May afternoon.

That October morning, you saw me in that cobalt blue silk saree for the first time and your heart almost skipped a beat.

Your melting eyes made me stumble into your arms and I always wondered if it was intentional…

Do you remember the hours spent staring at the horizon sensing new passions within us and spinning newer dreams together?

Pining away until we met again and again and again.

Remember all those visits to designer stores hunting for an internship?

You believing in me when I myself didn’t after every single rejection.

Those visits to that maze of a market in Kalbadevi, all the while you egging me to keep the faith and giving me wings to fly.

You promising me of my dreams taking flight someday, outside the hallowed gates of J.J.School of Art.

Remember that fateful May-day?

The day I met that friend of yours who was clad in a strange pink tee and a pony tail?

What can I say? I fell in love…

My frequent travels to his place always landing at an unearthly hour of 3.30 am at Dadar station and you always keeping me company until he arrived to pick me up.

Remember my enduring obsession of him?

Telling you fascinating stories of our conversations.

Of our unrestrained walks in the endless lanes of Andheri and Versova.

Of our uninhibited kisses in the pouring rain in the streets of Dadar and Bandra and that one special kiss at the crowded CSM Terminus.

Of that long pious walk to Haji Ali , praying for wishes to be fulfilled.

Of the innumerable hand written letters I wrote to him every week for those 4 years.

Of all those books gifted to him that were left unread.

Of the money he loaned me that I never bothered to return.

Of that trip to Globus and Levi’s for his makeover where he spent a month’s salary on clothes!

And pawned his gold chain the very next day to pay his bills!

Of the Titan Chrono, my birthday gift to him that he lost in the train to Goa.

Do you remember the night he was busy tucking into his pani puri and that monstrous yellow superbike fell on me?

I only remember me falling onto you with the bike on my chest.

Whatever happened that night?

And that late night movie jaunt to a cinema theatre in Bandra and walking the entire night discussing Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat , to reach home at 2 am!

Wasn’t that the night?

The night it happened for the first time?

You remember me gushing about it to you the morning after?

And blushing pink about it for days to come?

And the day I finally met his folks?

That sultry January afternoon with butterflies in my whole body.

The day I confessed to you of my decision to marry him.

The day you clearly conveyed it was not a wise move at all .

I dismissed you and went ahead and told my folks about him.

And then that decisive day I found those letters in that closet of his…

All from her…

Letters that spoke about all those works trips spent with her.

All those texts and messages speaking undying love for her.

You know if it weren’t for you I would never have had the courage to confront him and leave him.

Not once did you say I told you so.

Not once did you say that it was just waiting to happen.

Instead holding me in your arms like you always did and just let the river of tears flow.

But you got caught in the unfortunate crossfire that followed later and despite me knowing you were close to both of us, I was not mature enough to accept that he needed you as much as I did.

I wanted you all to myself, which was a bit much to ask of you.

I turned my back on you that day.

I regret that I foolishly sacrificed a relationship that lasted 30 years just because I could never set foot in the same city he lived.

I never looked back ,not just because of my ego but also due to the massive guilt I felt for hurting you.

And by then I had lost the nerve to meet your eyes and I admit,I shamelessly out of spite ignored all your calls that beckoned me to revive the amity between us.

My impaled heart had shut and padlocked the door to the room where you and I and our shared togetherness lived.

That part of my heart has neither seen light nor felt love and in darkness has it lived ever since.

I think of you often.

But thoughts of him would come and foul the air and I would end up thinking of you too with the same bitterness.

Have you ever heard of the book, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts?

It is very close to me and I remember weeping my heart out when I flipped the last page of that book.

Because it smelled of you, your inherent goodness and your indomitable spirit.

And that night I let a ray of light into the dark cobweb ridden recesses of our room in my heart.

It has been years since then and try as I might I still have not found enough courage to face you despite digging deep within me.

I have had various opportunities of coming face to face with you and I let them all go to waste.

Why this letter?

Why now, you might ask?

Well, here’s why…

Do you remember my birthday?

Of course you do…you were there. How could I forget you were the first one I laid my eyes on when I was born?

I woke up on my birthday to feel the blues had hit me again. I felt lost and hopeless and totally worthless. Again.

With absolutely no will to live.

All I kept sensing while meditating was this deep desire to die.

Feeling sick to my bones, I opened my eyes only to see a file folder which had some of my work from my previous blog.

I chanced upon a poem of mine titled, “The Road to Her”

It isnt about you.

It was written for him.

But I read it and you flashed past me.

Just you. In all your entirety.

The same melting eyes, the same careless freedom, the same spirit.

I saw everything we had, everything we shared, at one fell swoop.

All our laughter, all the fun, all our chatter, all our whispers, all our carefree affections, all our hugs, all my tears, all your love and all the pain I put you through.

Do you know that people apparently see their whole life flash past before they die?

My whole life with you flashed past me and by the end of it, a tiny speck of hope stirred inside me.

Now, I do not want to leave behind this world without seeing you.

Without feeling and touching the love of the entire world you hold in your heart for me.

I want to catch a glimpse of the sheer ecstasy burning in your eyes when you set them on me.

To hold you tight and never let the folds of your arms loosen their grip on me.

You were my mother, father, brother, sister, first friend, first crush, first love all rolled into one until the day I decided selfishly that I would have nothing to do with you forever.

You will always be my one true friend and my soul mate.

Because you understand me like no one else ever will and love me without asking for anything in return.

Above all you gave me the time and space to heal, all the time standing at the sidelines knowing I would turn around some day and find my way back to you.

And when I really needed someone the most to show me the light, you zoomed to me in a jiffy and lifted me off the ground and stirred me to give life another chance.

Have I ever said Sorry?

Have I ever said Thank you?

Will thank you’s and sorry’s ever suffice?

Will they encompass every song my heart wants to sing to you?

Will they be enough to forgive and forget?

Will the abyss between us ever come anywhere near closure?

I dont have the answers to any the questions.

Do you?

Maybe someday we will.

Have answers.

When we see each other again.

So, until I see you, the hope of my dreams and joy of my life.

Stay as you always were. Full of wonder. Alive with gay abandon!

Ever yours,

Lalitha

This post is dedicated to the one and only Bombay.

The City of my birth, my childhood summers, my teenage Crushes, my heart breaks, my love, my budding entrepreneurship and my unfulfilled dreams.

P.S. You will always remain Bombay to me despite your name change.

 

 

 

Dhammagiri,Igatpuri: The long journey home

You can’t live your life for other people. You have got to do what’s right for you, even if it hurts some people you love.

—- Nicholas Sparks

Decisions are often cataclysmic in nature. They at once change the direction of your life and free you from bondage. At the same time, the inevitable ones’ end up bringing inexplicable pain to loved ones around us. They may lay a carpet of newer dreams before us but time and again shatter the dreams of loved ones too.

How does one deal with the repercussions of such far-reaching choices?

How far would one have to go to make peace with their decisions impacting one and all?

2013.

The year I was not too proud of until recently. As the famous saying goes, ‘You are only one decision away from a totally different life.” I took one in 2013 and in hindsight I am immensely proud of them both now. The decision and the year.

After experiencing triple blows to my psyche; an ill-fated relationship, mine; a disastrous marriage and long drawn divorce, my sister’s and a never-ending quest for ‘The One’, my best friend’s; many a cloud of skepticism cleared and it became apparent that I had had enough.

Enough of parental pressure.

Enough of trying to blend in.

Enough of the unnerving questions from relatives, friends and society at large.

I willed myself to be stronger than I already was and decided to come out and let the parents know.

I wrote a short crisp letter to them saying I see myself SETTLED in the mountains, living it up in a cozy hut with smoke coming out of the chimney, writing and painting, with a dog and cat for company, and yoga lessons to the kids as the probable source of income.

I did not need a marriage, a man and a child to feel COMPLETE.

I was absolutely fine with me being perfectly incomplete.

To say they were utterly shattered is to put it very mildly. And they did what almost every other parent of a girl child in India does. They gave me the silent treatment. Both the parents went about their life ignoring me and pretending they never read the letter. Calls and emails still came from prospective grooms. I was disappointed and deeply saddened but never disheartened. I was a 100% sure about not needing a marriage. A decade ago sure, I wanted all that jazz. But life happened and a few things flew off the list now. Maybe forever.

To add to the misery, an entirely unexpected thing happened. My brother returned from the USA after 7 years and in the ensuing weeks, as a bolt from the blue I realized I could not get along with him. At all! This was the kid I was closest too until we were in college. The boy who had my back when I broke window panes and took apart refrigerator doors. The man who held me when I was left heartbroken by another.  Living 8000 miles away for 7 long years seemed to have wrenched us apart and here we were unable to speak to each other without yelling our lungs out. So much for a better career and even better life!

The only person I could still talk to was my sister who came back to live with us. And there was always my work. Which I obsessed about. Where I could bury myself so deep, the dreaded hollow silence outside could not be reach my ears.

But the gnawing of the soul never ebbed. I could never convince myself that I was doing the right thing because despite me feeling right about my decision it did not seem fitting seeing my parents so shattered and lifeless. Especially my mother. She really had high hopes riding on me of gifting her a much craved for grandchild and here I was in her opinion showing unmistakable signs of become a monk! My entitled brother had come to hate us sisters for the misery we were causing our parents ( A divorcee and a spinster = a questionnaire of gargantuan proportions posed by the society) The angst filled atmosphere at home rendered many a night, sleepless and worrisome. I found myself sinking into a bottomless pit of hopelessness without a speck of light anywhere near.

One sweltering afternoon an email popped in my inbox. An assurance from the universe that I was indeed doing the right thing. The email confirmed me for a 10 day Vipassana course at Dhammagiri, Igatpuri. I had applied to it months earlier and was not sure I would even be admitted. Excited, I let my sister in onto my secret. And now that I had the confirmation letter, casually informed about it to my parents. They had no clue what it was all that. I made the arrangements to travel to and fro on my own. Even the ticket issuer at the counter looked at me strangely and checked the name of the destination twice just to be sure.

Igatpuri is a small town and a hill station at the Western Ghat Mountains of Maharashtra, India. Dhammagiri is one of the world’s largest meditation centres and the main centre of the global Vipassana Organisation dedicated to the teaching of Vipassana meditation. Since boarding and food was arranged by the centre at no cost to me, I only had to get myself there. Time passed and my relationship with the folks was as scratchy as ever, the day I boarded the train to Igatpuri. My sister’s only piece of advice was to forget about everything for the duration of 10 days and meditate. She assumed I would come out and see the light differently on the other side. I was just happy I had been given the opportunity to get into the hallowed gates of Dhammagiri.

Vipassana is an insight based meditation and simply means to see things as they really are. It has been around since centuries and I came across it while reading literature about Buddha. I followed his teachings since they resonated with me more than some of my own Hindu scriptures. And an owner of a store where my label retailed back then had taken a 10 day course and one look at her enlightened self and I was stoked with curiosity to find more for myself.

Wide eyed, I reached Igatpuri at 4 am and armed with “Wings of fire’ by A.P.J.Kalam and 2 cups of masala chai I waited at the station for the sun to rise over the mountains. An autorickshaw dropped me off at Dhammagiri at 6 am. I was among the first few people to arrive. After another cup of tea and breakfast at 6.30 am I got myself registered and upon request got a room for myself at the far end of the campus. Depositing all of my possessions at the office except my clothes, a torch and an alarm clock , I searched for my room. I was rid of my books, phone, pen, notepad and ipod. After helping a sweet old monk find her room, I went to mine and there it was, overlooking fields and mountains. People walked in all day and got themselves registered. And then the skies opened and with a big thunderstorm as back drop the course began.

After the orientation, I took the oath of Noble Silence. I was not allowed to speak to anyone. Not even make eye contact. No writing, no reading, no singing, no exercising for the entire duration of the course. I was shown my meditation seat for the next 10 days in the huge meditation hall by a volunteer. Seated in a dark room amongst 400 women was a bit intimidating to be honest. But I did not have to make small talk and make acquaintances. Heck! I did not even have to look at them and that worked out blissfully for me.

A taped version of the method of basic breath meditation called Anapana was played. This breath meditation was to be continued for the following 3 days. The entire day was to be divided into various sessions of meditation beginning at 4.30 am and ending at 9.30pm. Of which 3 sessions were compulsory and to be done in the hall with the teachers and volunteers. The other sessions were Q & A’s with the teachers followed by an hour of meditation which could be done either in the hall or our rooms. Breakfast at 6.30 am and lunch at 11.30 am. Tea at 5.30pm. No dinner. I heard many people wondering how they would manage to live without dinner. I had no such problem. All we had to do was sit and meditate for 11 hours a day. Why would one need large quantities of food? It made sense that food would be restricted. Old people, people under medication and pregnant women were allowed dinner.

The ensuing days began with the gong going off at 4 am. By 4.20 am I would be in the hall. Every single day. Even before the bell went off at 4.30 I would have already begun my session. I am one of those who rarely broke rules and I have been known to be disciplined since a child. And believe it or not I like meditation. I was looking to intensify my existing practice and that’s when I came across Vipassana. So the long sessions did not bog me down. Not for a single day did I want to run away. By Day 3, I realized some people were already missing in their seats. They apparently could not bear the boredom and silence any longer and went back home. This only strengthened my resolve to stay the entire course.

Days passed by. Each one came with its own teachings. The first and foremost was the profound understanding of what a deluge of superfluous thoughts my mind was filled with. With the absolute silence the room was filled with, one could even hear the fine breath of people sitting around you. But by the 4rth day I could hear nothing since my own breath had become finer and my meditation was deeper than ever before.

And just like that days would end as they began. Some ended with me exhausted and going to my room and just crashing. Some with the knowledge of just how much my mind was capable of thinking. Some with such profound insights of the self that tears would not stop flowing until I went off to sleep.

Some days were boring. Some days it was a herculean task to even quieten my mind. Only when I sat for meditation did I realize the why our mind is so often compared to a monkey. Scampering from one thought to another I noticed the messy and chaotic fabric my mind was trying to spin out of thousands of yarns of thoughts weaving themselves away in all directions. One particular day I felt very confident and left the hall to try to continue the session in my room only to fall asleep instantly. Never committed that mistake until the end of the course. Some days ended very painfully. Sitting for extending hours left my knees, back and shoulders very stiff.

Intense yoga prior to the course left me in good stead and helped me stay put and rearing to go by the next morning.

The morning air usually smelled of petrichor and new learning’s. The nights were abuzz with thousands of glow worms outside my room. The room began to feel like home and the huge mountains and the fields in front of it being ploughed for the next crop by the hardworking farmers only signified the intensification of the course.

The evening of the 4rth day,I was introduced to Vipassana. Anapana was only the precursor to the intense Vipassana that was to follow now. I was taught to scan my bodily sensations from the top of the head to the tip of the toe and reverse the procedure and continue repeating the same. It was extremely difficult at first but by the next evening I had gotten the hang of it. This was the day Adhittana meaning resolute determination began. The 3 compulsory sessions had to be done sitting totally immobile which at first left me in indescribable pain but only strengthened my resolve and hence my practice. And that’s when the shocking revelations and lucid dreams ensued. My deepest flaws, untold fears, well hidden scars, locked up pain and some mysterious fantasies all came bubbling to the fore and at the end of the day I would be left grappling with this stranger in my mirror who looked a lot like me.

I remember Day 7 vividly even today despite it being 5 years now since that day. The thought for the day mentioned something about love and affection. A few hours after lunch I was sent to cell number 110 to meditate under the Pagoda. The dark, tiny space with a tinier window made me feel very claustrophobic and sent shivers down my spine. But I could not turn my back now so I logged in my hour and went out for some much-needed air and light.

Sitting under the shade of tree, I finally let go and let the dam burst. The game face put on to fool the world had had enough. The dormant ‘me’ had to come up for air someday. Day 7 was the day I finally came to terms with all the locked up emotions confined to the dark recesses of my mind (soul?). The gravity of losing the man I had loved with my entire being to another woman hit me like a ton of bricks and left me bruised and exposed in the glare of strangers. Copious amounts of tears came tumbling out and I let them flow. They could no longer be caged or contained. It finally dawned on me that I was equally at fault too. Despite knowing that it would never work I tried too hard by putting my everything into it to make it work. Which it ultimately did not any which way.

The walls I built within me and around me since childhood and more so as an introverted adult slowly crumbled and I was at my vulnerable worst the last 3 days. But I was at the best place possibly around to be so. Nobody bothered or questioned or consoled me because of the strict rules laid down to make no contact and also because everybody was fighting their own battles with their minds.

Long forgotten memories of being hurt, of being at fault, of committing wrongs and of hurting others and being nonchalant to others pain all flashed by like the show-reel of a movie. The movie of my life. Karma had been kicking my ass and how! It was the first time I saw myself in the mirror and the reflection was not the person I assumed myself to be. I was not the victim I liked to call myself. The hardest moment of one’s life is to see oneself shorn of all embellishments that the mind adorns the self with. The naked truth of seeing the person behind the one I pretended myself to be is the one shining moment I will always have imprinted with me until I am burnt to dust someday.

Empathy as I learnt, works both ways. If I had been able to look past me at people around and shown them empathy while they most needed it, it would have taken the time to kindly circle back to come to me when I needed it. It is how life is and I had to accept it and move on. Before I could react and begin by hating myself, another lesson was sent my way. I was only living with myself and not loving myself. It took me a while to understand the truth behind this.

This trip to Dhammagiri, Igatpuri turned out to be the blessing I had been waiting for since a very long time. It was the most difficult of all because it was the longest journey I had undertaken. The journey to the core of my being. In the clamouring melee called life,trying to please the self and others, loving and honoring my own dreams and trying to accommodate my loved ones dreams too, I had stopped loving and being kind and honest to my own self. Unless I laid the road to understand and love myself for being me and walked on it per se how could anybody else begin to understand me and empathize with me?

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” is the painting Paul Gauguin, the French artist is most famous for. I came across him in fashion school during a discussion on how art influences fashion. The echo of the title of the painting struck with me and has been reverberating since then. Like all good mysteries the answer to the life altering questions never revealed themselves. But by the 10 day of the retreat, a few shards of light shone on some of the darkest nooks of my mind and some answers did reveal themselves.

This badly broken and damaged soul is what I was and I had to come to terms with it and learn to live with it.I had to find the will to persevere. I had to accept this truth that I was a deeply hurt, flawed human being, loving and kind at one moment and evil as the devil the next. There is absolutely no place to run to or hide.

Once the course got over I went to collect the stuff I had deposited. I was urged to go around and talk to people. I personally felt no inclination to do so. The only person I wanted to speak to was my mom and on hearing her say my name after what felt like years broke the remnants of the most hardened walls that still remained standing. Hearing my own voice after 10 days seemed odd. I could not muster the courage to speak. I only remember a lot of tears running into my tea-cup amidst the silence between us. Sometimes the best way to make one self heard is to be silent.

Walking around the campus I bid goodbye to the other students, who didn’t feel so strange anymore. After all, we were all warriors who remained standing in the face of our fiercest enemies, our own minds. Winning the fight would have meant enlightenment. Us, mere mortals were the last ones standing regardless of the most brutal fight we endured for the past 10 days. We did not fall. We did not run or hide. But we rose up to face the challenge and in return found pure love, kindness and honesty to see our true selves and accept it unconditionally.

I came home and promptly fell ill. But we were warned this might happen. The fight of the mind with the self leaves behind some very deep scars and it shows us as illness and pain on the body. My doc did not know the cause but still gave me medicines for the fever to break. This man knew me as a child so I could trust his treatment. After a run for a fortnight, the fever subsided. The fortnight was enough time to get closer to my folks. They finally accepted my decision and let go of their anger. They don’t hold it against me now of choosing a different path for myself that did not comply with their dreams for me. They too have come to recognize that each one’s destiny lies in their own hands and as parents even they don’t hold the baton of my destiny. They saw the bigger picture and try to find comfort in my laughter and happiness. It is an ongoing process for life.

5 years later questions about the purpose of my life still remains. But the person who walked out of Dhammagiri was a better version of me than the one who walked into it. The impetuous and tempestuous me exchanges places with a calm and collected version. I now live in the moment and take on each day as it comes. Because each one comes with its own promises and challenges. Each moment gives a chance to breathe deeper and love fully and unconditionally. Be it a thing, a person or a place, each one offers a choice to love differently and passionately. With equanimity. Without walls or borders. Without yearning for anything in return. Without attachment. At the end of the day all that matters is the power to be detached. To let go with equanimity.

 

 

 

 

Coonoor, the love of my life

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. There are in each other all along.

-Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Rumi

2001, the year I first heard about this mystical place, high up in the Blue Mountains. A friend in college had visited and on coming back filled me in with stories of its myriad tea gardens, coffee and pepper plantations. I neither liked Coffee nor Pepper back then. But Tea gardens could make me stand and stare and lose myself in daydreams galore. So the place struck a chord deep within my soul and thus began my love affair with all things Coonoor, the word and the place.

Time and friends moved on; Love and jobs scuttled by ;Life and its journeys’ walked past me. Coonoor rolled off my tongue and hit my ears in a deep basal tone now like the third string of my violin. I had come to love Coffee and Pepper too. Unaware of its existence among the famed Nilgiris, I had painted a picture of sun-kissed everlasting tea gardens and coffee plantations in my heart and walked the trails in my dreams over and over, a million times over, ever since that day in 2001.

Cut to May 2018.

As destiny was to have it, Palakkad to Coonoor happened to be just a 5 hour drive! And Lateef (meet him in my previous post Palakkad, my ancestral village) offered to drive us up the Blue Mountains in his SUV, for which I already had developed a crush by now.

On a rain-soaked morning, wearing a dress to match the color of the deep blue skies, my road trip to meet my love of 2 decades, Coonoor , began with the tunes of my favorite love songs permeating within the car and the world outside. The Palakkad Gap winked at me with mirth and bade me goodbye promising more such meet-cute. One after the other, as the melodies changed, the landscape changed colours and hues of green and blue got deeper and brighter as the trees grew taller and winds became crisper.

Reams have been written about the Nilgiris which literate mean the Blue Mountains and nothing I add is going to make any difference to the resilient beauty of the hills. Those reams of words mean nothing until you actually set your eyes on them. Then everything seems to make sense. Despite millions of people descending on the hills every summer to escape the tropical mind numbing heat of the plains, Nature here seemed to have its own workings to keep itself one up against humans destroying everything awe-inspiring they see.

Mile markers raced past and my heartbeats reached a crescendo when it was almost time to meet Coonoor. A traffic jam en route held me up and with impatience bordering on insanity I had a cup of coffee to pacify myself. Oh, the anticipation and the butterflies in my stomach almost killed me!

Coonoor, dressed like a Monet painting,at long last met me on a dewy mist laden day after a 17 year-long wait filled with hopeful imaginings and dreamy pining. And I embraced it with all the love and longing held deep inside me for as long as I have lived.

 

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The holiday got over as soon as it began and upon my return home I had the worst withdrawal symptoms of my life. Nothing felt good. Nothing felt right. After experiencing weeks of love pangs, I look back now and as clichéd as it might sound, notice how much the meeting with Coonoor has changed me.

I close my eyes and feel the presence of the misty Coonoor all around me.

The crisp air of the hills stroking my wild wavy hair.

The peaks of the mountain showering me with the spread of the entire world around it.

The silence of the million nameless tall trees speaking to me of all the stories that they had heard.

The filmy mist enveloping me in the warmest of embraces.

The pouring rain drenching me with passionate love.

The soaring pines touching the skies.

The meandering meadows racing their way to the horizon.

The piping hot tea warming up the bone chilling cold nights.

The tea gardens greeting me like a long-lost beau.

The tea leaves leaving behind tears of pure joy.

The silver oaks making me believe in power of love again.

The balmy sunshine glistening on fresh dew.

The old long winding roads leading me to fresh new pastures.

The childlike waterfalls bounding about rocks in gay abandon.

The quiet nights promising me dreams of a better world.

The long, long walks holding gifts of rare shrubs and rarer buds.

The ripples of the lake taking me on a whirlwind trip to bygone trips and older memories.

The blue hued skies reminding me of a previous life.

The wet earth reminiscing previous encounters with me.

Years ago, I had a friend, a junior in fashion school, who is the weirdest guy I have ever met till date. This oddball used to come up to me every alternate day and ask me the same question. Every other day for almost a year with clockwork precision! The question being if anyone had ever said the three magical yet clichéd words“ I love you” to me and if yes, how does it feel? And I had nothing to say to him since love had not opened its doors for me back then. But if I were to meet him now I think I might have an answer for him.

As Rumi says, lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They are in each other all along.

As childish as it sounds I seem to have always been in love with Coonoor. Despite never visiting until now I knew its silhouette like my own, smelled its tea and embraced its rain. It took me decades to comprehend the depth of love I had for this small mountainous village.

People say love inspires them and motivates them to do the unthinkable. I agree with them now. I took up the challenge I had given up in childhood. The saddest part was that my parents had given up on me too. I finally attempted not with trepidation but with a calm assurance that I won’t quit this time, that comes only from the feeling of being loved unconditionally and deeply.

And the challenge being?

Learning to write in my mother tongue, Tamil. It was a mountain I never could climb in all of my 37 years. But now I can. Read and write in Tamil. Learnt in 3 weeks. On my own. With a basic ‘ learn to write tamil in 30 days’ book.

‘Learn to write Malayalam in 30 days’ waits. In all likelihood I will nail that too.

Another peculiar thing happened after my return from Coonoor. I have been known to have a rigid spine. So my asanas in Yoga have been tweaked to suit my body and its limitations. I don’t remember touching my toes. Ever. But now, I bend better. My yoga asanas are deeper and more symmetrical and the mother of all surprises! I do touch my toes. Almost every single day.

And it also got me in touch with my writing. Travelling has always been therapeutic to my mental health. But I was not aware that it could help you face such deep-seated fears and alter the state of your physical make up too.

Castle Rock it certainly is not. ( Meet Castle Rock @ Castle Rock, my lifeline…) But Coonoor is Love. Pure. Old. Passionate. Love.

Love that makes me want to fall in love. Over and over. Again and again.

Love that inspires me to learn the intricacies of two complex languages.

Love that makes me more courageous to awaken long forgotten dreams.

Love, that persuades and assures me, as thorny as it might seem, life is still a garden of roses and a cupful of flavourful tea…that if I ever need hope, all I need is a whiff of Coonoor.

 

 

 

 

Palakkad, my ancestral village

The Universe does not like secrets. It conspires to reveal the truth, to lead you to it.

– Lisa Unger

After years of combat with my destiny, one fine night I yielded and let it lead me to its wonderful secrets. Ever since, I have been having days filled with awe and beauty and the peace that comes with it. The last couple of years since I shut shop and put an end to my endless struggles to make money, I have had all the time that life sweetly offered me to work on myself. I filled it with gorgeous words, soulful music, vivid colour, consistent yoga, soothing walks, mindful meditation, earnest prayers and some much-needed travel. And the universe began revealing, in all its zealous finery, secrets that had been withheld from me all this while. In return, I learnt to accept its generosity with grace, no questions asked.

Few months ago, after the turn of the year, my folks began planning our annual travel calendar. I am never one to take part in the planning or the research that follows. A couple of reasons behind it is, firstly when my parents travel with us( me , an older sis and a younger bro) it’s usually to temple towns. We are Hindu Brahmins and my parents are over 60…so temple hopping comes with the territory. Secondly, I hate the overly researched travel planning that my dad and brother indulge in. I am happy to tag along because I know I will find something to my liking in any place I visit. There is always something that surprises me and I am all for wonderful surprises! Who isn’t?

So, of all the places in the whole of India, my brother planned a visit to Palakkad which as the title of the post suggests is our ancestral village.

Palakkad is one of the 14 districts in the state of Kerala which is in the south-western part of India. It is one of the main granaries of Kerala, the land of Palmyra’s and also famous for a geographical peculiarity called the Palakkad Gap. The Gap is a mountain pass in the Western Ghats between Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu and Palakkad in Kerala. The Gap formed eons ago due to a landslide , helped in human migration and trade exchange from both sides and this led to the creation of a unique subculture : Palakkad’s Tamil flavoured Malayalam, its food, a confluence of tangy Tamil Brahmin recipes blended with a liberal dose of coconut oil and local root veggies and trade merchants called Chettiars from Tamil Nadu, being the most prominent.

As it happens I trace my lineage to this place from both maternal and paternal sides. Both my great grandmothers’ and my maternal great-grandfather were born and brought up here.

My maternal grandmother and grandfather were neighbours and childhood friends before they became husband and wife. They then migrated to the City of dreams, Bombay(now Mumbai) to set up a small shop which sold indigenous items from Kerala, as is common among the Palakkad Tamil Brahmin Community. They tasted success after initial back-breaking work and soon became popular with the migrant population from down South. That shop is still being successfully run by my uncle.

My paternal grandmother migrated to the Holy city of Benaras( now Varanasi) with her parents who were silk merchants while still a child and later got married to my grandfather, an employee in the Southern zone of Indian Railways and moved to Madras(now Chennai).

So, my mum comes from Mumbai and Dad from Chennai, two culturally diverse cities, despite tracing their roots to the same place. Us, kids were born in Mumbai and educated in various towns of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Andhra Pradesh and now Telangana, since my Dad also worked for the Southern zone of Indian Railways. After a life lived like a nomad for most parts, we finally settled in Hyderabad which is again famous for its own potpourri of Deccani culture. Thus the three of us siblings have imbibed an assortment of subcultures within us. This panned well for us since in the world we lived in, being cosmopolitan took us places. On the contrary we have also been far removed from belonging to a particular culture, which acted as a wall, the ‘others’ found difficult to break. We have always been outsiders, ‘the Madrasis’ to them, despite having absorbed almost half the cultures of India.

As my parents got older, they became increasingly nostalgic of their hometown and the call of their ancestors kept getting louder. Louder, in their case, as they had never ever visited Palakkad since they were kids. My brother being the youngest is close to both parents and realized this hidden desire of theirs, sooner than us, sisters. The trip was planned for the last week of summer just before the southwest monsoon hit the coast of Kerala. I was not too enthusiastic about the trip since Kerala to me has always meant illiterate-wife-beating-alcoholic men smelling of fish lounging about in ‘lungis’ at hole in the wall tea stalls spouting gibberish about Communism and creating a ruckus all day! It’s the kind of talk I grew up hearing from my parents, mostly from my wee-bit cultural racist Dad. So I never could wrap my head around the fact that I’m part Keralite. In my youth, every single time people assumed me to be a Mallu (short for Malayali, a resident of Malayalam speaking Kerala) I vehemently denied the fact and insisted that Palakad falls well within Tamil Nadu despite the Indian map screaming otherwise! Knowing my temper, people didn’t bother arguing. Another reason for my prejudice, a personal one, is that my ex, a man who has been the cause for my heartache and lingering depression, also hails from Kerala. Travel to “God’s Own Country’ was off-limits and not in the horizon for a long time to come. At least to me. So one could well imagine the shock I was in when I heard that we were about to spend 3 full days in the ‘infamous’ village in ‘infamous’ Kerala!!!

Maybe to put on a façade that all was well with me or maybe I needed whatever little control I could lay my hands on, I still can’t put a finger as to how it came to be, but I took care of the research this time and made the list of places to visit in Palakkad which included the usual temple hopping for the oldies, nature walks, lake visits and a visit to the nearest hill station Nelliampathy. Since I was in control I slyly added places that were to my taste too. The research itself presented Palakkad as a gorgeous paradise which only spiked my already rising blood pressure. I took it as a challenge to prove it wrong.

Finally, after a 22 hour-long journey, we hopped off our express train at Coimbatore and huffed and puffed our way to the passenger train which was to leave in 5 minutes. Having made it, when the train finally began to finally crawl toward my destination on May 18,2018 , coconut trees gave way to palm trees, dry flat ground raised into oddly shaped mountains, the earth grew greener, the air blew colder and the dry baked ground swelled into myriad streams, that were home to thousands of yellow butterflies!

A faint voice arose in the pit of my stomach that I am to be proved wrong.

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View from the train passing through the Palakkad Gap
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View from the train passing through the Palakkad Gap

After a hilarious exchange of Malayalam between Dad and an auto driver, we finally managed to get to the hotel. It was noon and we were famished. Upon asking the whereabouts for the nearest vegetarian restaurants, the hotel staff stared at us like we were aliens. Another auto ride later we managed to find a decent place to eat which we frequented until the end of our trip. Vegetarians are hard to come by in Kerala. So, restaurants’ serving only vegetarian food, are a rarity apparently. Lesson learnt!

Communicating with people did not prove to be cumbersome despite my Dad’s rusted Malayalam. They went out of their way to speak in our language, Tamil.  I found their bumbling efforts sweet. We were able to book an SUV for the entire 3 days itinerary in about half hour worth of this hotchpotch infusion of two of the most difficult Dravidian languages, while sipping copious amounts of strong Kerala tea! We were to start our sightseeing early next morning at 7.00 AM with Satish, our guide as well as driver for the next 3 days.

A strapping young main in a crisp white shirt and a pair of blue jeans met us at the door, the next morning and introduced himself as Lateef, our guide/ driver in Tamil! So much for my Dad’s understanding of Malayali accent! (Prejudice alert! Who, in their right minds would send a Muslim guide on a Hindu temples-only trip?) One look at our list and he was perplexed. The handsome man with deer in headlights eyes, called somebody on his mobile, who in turn called somebody else and after a 20 minute conference call banter, was all set and good to go with a list of directions written in English. The man turned out to be trilingual to my astonishment! Yet,I was not too convinced about him. Nonetheless the journey began and I was clueless to the eye-opening revelations I was to encounter on this journey.

Kerala, as most people know is a matriarchal state. Thus, the principal deity of a temple is usually Goddess Bhagavathy. Temples of this land have a strict dress code policy for both genders, which if not followed denies entry into the sanctum. So ill at ease, clad in Sarees( the women) and Mundus (the men), we first made our way to the village, Peruvamba. This is exactly where my mom traces her roots to. It was a sight to behold, my mum, in child-like wonder, recognized her grand parents’ old house, the well around which she played hide and seek and the temples they prayed at. She even met a really old relative of hers. To walk the same corridors of the family temple, tread upon by my ancestors, whose Goddess is supposedly the one, safe guarding all our destinies and fortunes seemed too surreal. I loved everything about the temple. The pagoda like red-tiled roof, wooden walls of the inner shrine, the entire stretch of the outer walls with built-in terracotta lamps and the exquisitely charming Goddess in Silver, seated at the centre of a huge tree, around which the temple is built. The village itself, painted by nature in all shades of green seemed pure and pristine right out of a picture taken in the last century except for the odd cars and SUV’s tethered at the courtyard instead of cows!

One after the other, temples from our list of ancient temples in Palakkad presented themselves before us. And each one was more mystifying than the previous one. Two of special mention, are the Ramapuram Vishnu temple and the Karimpuzha Ramaswamy temple. Both the idols , one of Lord Vishnu and one of Lord Rama looked stunning! One was dressed in silk while the other was dressed in white cotton and adorned with sandal paste! Few sights in the world compare to a Vishnu idol in beauty and divinity, whatever avatar the idol may represent. And I am a huge fan of all things pertaining Vishnu! I say fan and not devotee coz I am a new age Hindu Brahmin who’s more spiritual than religious. I fall madly in love with his idols and call Vishnu my friend/brother/guide. He is on my speed dial and knows all my secrets, dreams and nightmares. There is nothing in the world I would do without consulting him. And I really love myself for maintaining this kind of relationship with my God. Not everybody understands this childish madness though.

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Pagoda like roof!
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Terracota lamps built into the walls

By noon, we reached Kalpathi Village, which my Dad traces his roots to. It was his turn to behave like a child. Instead, he was almost in tears looking at the faintly familiar façade of the bookshop which was a publishing house belonging to the family 150 years ago! The house opposite to it was where my favorite grandma grew up before moving away to Benaras (now Varanasi). This village is declared a heritage village and hence retains the same charm of any little village of India that is dominated with priests. The rest of the day passed by hopping in and out of temples, all of which retained the pagoda like roof, the terracotta lamps, mural art,wooden walls and the Gods and Goddesses,resplendent in Silver, benevolent in the shadows of the twinkling brass diyas( oil lamps).

By the time we reached our hotel it began raining. And how! Like Castle Rock, it poured cats and dogs that night. And out of the blue I felt like a newlywed bride. I didn’t really know much about the place and prejudice had clouded my judgement until then but despite my false pretences, I was totally falling for Palakkad. And oddly, I was actually enjoying the way I felt!

Drifting off to sleep to the pitter-patter of rain on the glass panes of the window, I woke up all shiny and bright to a gorgeously wet day. We had a day trip planned to a Peafowl sanctuary, a dam site and a visit to Nelliampathy Hills for the later part of the day. The drizzle accompanied us all the way until dusk. The Chulanur Peafowl Sanctuary is away from the din of the city in a thick forest which again reminded me of Castle Rock. Dressed in comfortable clothes and sneakers we thoroughly enjoyed a 6km nature walk deep in the forest. It was wet and muggy but that did not dampen our excitement one bit. Armed with binoculars and cameras we walked around in the direction of the bird calls and hooted with joy when we saw some. Although I came across a lot more millipedes and blue butterflies than Pea fowls, I loved the visit because I am crazy about long walks. It calms my anxious mind like else does.

Poothundi dam was more a reservoir than a dam. An idyllic natural lake formed in between high rising hills, this one looked right out of a picture postcard of the 70’s, that my grandma might have collected in her hey days! The quiet beauty of the hills and the calm stillness of the water made me think of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1- Prelude. I would have spent the rest of my life there playing cello in my head if my sister had not dragged me to the car. Nelliampathy awaited me with the sweetest surprise of the day.

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The Cello Suite No.1 moment

The ride up any hill station is the most fascinating of it all to me. Everything changes colour and texture. The trees, flowers, and the very many cascading waterfalls singing their way down the hills. It reminded me of my journey taken years ago up the hills of Uttarkashi, a place famed for its remote beauty, up North of India. I rolled down the window panes and blinked only when necessary since it seemed like a sin to blink and miss such striking foliage! Take me anywhere close to a mountain and I become this person I myself don’t recognize. Anything and everything about mountains can bring out the boisterous child and meditating sage within me, all together, all gung-ho. Their vastness in size coupled with their silent fortitude and nonchalance towards everything else bring out the tears to surface held deep inside me. It is the one place I can cry without shame or embarrassment.

Half way up, and then I saw them…Rows and rows of them! Endless rows neatly pruned ready to be plucked. My favorite thing in the world! Tea gardens! After a disastrous trip to Darjeeling in 1988, the desire to go back and visit Tea gardens had been all-consuming for a really long time. I cannot express in words, the feelings my heart went through when I got off the car and ran in to the tea gardens. I was literally numb with joy.  The light showers, the cloudy sky and the sun playing hide and seek while I zig-zagged my way into the tea gardens is a memory locked in my heart forever. Various jaw dropping viewpoints, a rare sighting of a herd of elephants plodding along a steep valley and a very obliging Sambar deer preening for photographs added to the already pregnant jar of memories in my head.

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My favorite…the tea gardens
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The endless tea gardens
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Kesavan Para Viewpoint
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Seetharkandu Viewpoint

I wish I were not so socially awkward because I couldn’t muster enough courage to thank Lateef for bringing me to this mystifying place and showing me such delightful wonders of nature. He was the one who knew the place like the back of his hand and showed us sites we were not even aware of.  This trip to Nelliampathy opened my eyes to my wrongly held perception of Malayali men in general. It made me see that here was a Keralite man, kind and soft-spoken and trilingual,despite being far less educated than me, who drove like a dream for extended hours without grumbling, regardless of being in a 16 hour long Ramzan fast, who listened to K.J.Yesudas’ Hindu devotional songs while driving and went out of his way in driving us to far-flung temples, whose whereabouts he himself was not even aware of. He took us to restaurants that served only vegetarian food even if they were far and between and out-of-the-way. His silence spoke volumes of his elegance and character, words could never express.

I don’t know about my Dad, but I am really pleased to recognize how wrong my biases and perceptions of people of Kerala were. Prejudice builds walls that restrict human bonding. And I could not be happier to break and mend my walls of prejudice against Malayali men altogether. I’m sure there are many more latent biases that exist within me which might show their true face in vulnerable moments but I have learnt to rise above them now and it’s a lesson I plan to remember for life.

Lateef could well be a freak of nature and maybe as one travels deeper into the state, my dad’s beliefs might just come true…But it is gratifying to know that there is at least one man who is not like them. Sometimes one against a million is good enough to break many myths. Even if I were to never come across another man like Lateef in my forthcoming travels to Kerala, I can still rest easy in the thought that I did meet one of the finest men ever to come out of Kerala soil.

In an increasingly disconnected world, where almost every person is a wandering migrant, it is indeed a rare pleasure to meet someone like Lateef, who has always lived in his hometown in his ancestral house. He drives around weary tourists like us to magical places of his hometown and though bemused with our travels around the country for a while, he goes back home at the end of the day contented in the embrace of his roots and his people. It is something I have always aspired for, after leading the life of a nomad. For better education, better job opportunities and a better life my ancestors left Palakkad and diverged to various parts of India. Leaving behind, in the wake, the roots that should have bound us all together as a family. The next generation crossed the seven seas in lieu of an even fancier life, moving further away from the core that defined them.

This trip to Palakkad was the answer by the Universe to the nostalgia of my parents and the fervent prayers from a displaced soul to fill a void within me. I finally have answers to a horde of questions, some trivial and some serious faced by me and my family all these years.

Why the language we speak is an infusion of Tamil and Malayalam?

Why we don’t look like typical Tamilians?

Why the food we prepare at home is different from a typical Tamil Brahmin household?

Why we prefer tea to coffee?

Why the women in the family had such beautiful hair?

Why we were multilingual?

And so on and so forth…

The answer lies in Palakkad. This was where Tamil Brahmins found asylum, when the war thirsty Islamic rulers of yore, came calling baying for blood from up North. Fearing conversion to Islam and persecution they fled via the Palakkad Gap to Palakkad and learnt to coexist peacefully with the locals. They imbibed the local culture in the clothes they wore and the food they ate and the language they communicated in. A story of a forced migration led to the creation of one of the most interesting subcultures found in the South of India.

I can now breathe easy and proudly proclaim with conviction that I am a Palakkad Tamil Brahmin Iyer! That I am part Keralite and irrevocably embrace the land my ancestors lived in, the sky and the stars they slept underneath, the water they drank and the air they breathed. They tell me the stories of a tumultuous life, well lived filled with unconditional love for people and nature and the million memories borne out of exchanges with weary migrants and wide-eyed travelers alike.

To think that it all started with a landslide caused by rivers flowing in opposite directions!

Flabbergasting, isn’t it?

 

Disclaimer: Views expressed here about Palakkad, Kerala and especially Kerala men are mine alone. They come from deep seated prejudices within my family which are proof of ignorance and human frailty. I am very sorry if it hurts the sentiments of a certain community. The post is proof of our changing mindset towards the incredibly kind and simple people of Palakkad and embracing Kerala as our own.

Castle Rock, my lifeline…

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Castle Rock Station

 

TALAB…

I love this word because of the way it rolls off my tongue conveying what it means. The word Talab is an Urdu word which means a quest or a hunger for something. Here is an excerpt from a poem which elucidates its meaning pretty well.

“Talab ke raah mein paane se pehle khona padtha hai,

Bade saude nazar mein ho, toh chota hona padtha hai”

Waseem Barelwi

Roughly translated, it means when on a quest, one needs to lose something in order to gain something; if your dreams are big ,you need to lower yourself to achieve them.

I connect to it very deeply on a personal level since I have been on a very personal and emotional quest since I was a child. I have always felt a sense of disconnect from everyone and uprooted from everything. So I always have had this hunger for a sense of belonging. I am a Tamilian born to parents who trace their lineage to TamilNadu and Kerala. My dad worked for the Indian Railways all his life. Hence we lived a life like nomads for the longest time moving from one place to another. So I have a bit of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, Andhra Pradesh and a lot of Telangana( current residence) in me.

I spent a part of my childhood in a very tiny hamlet of a village that housed the railway men who worked there. The place is known as Castle Rock and it lies bang on the border between the States of Karnataka and Goa. Amidst a dense forest area, Castle Rock is surrounded by hills and brooks and old houses. It falls within a biodiversity cum tiger reserve now. Apart from the villagers, it was home to railway men posted there from all over the country. My dad was the Station Superintendent(SS), the highest ranking official of the village. So everybody knew me and vice versa. I might not remember their faces but I remember most of my friends, teachers, neighbours’, the grocer, the very secular Church priest who conducted the annual Ganesh Chaturthi puja(a Hindu festival),the tailor and the rail employees who worked with dad.

I lived there until I was 9, so I grew up with people who spoke Kannada, Marathi, Konkani, Malayali and Bengali and belonging to varied religions. I went to the only English medium school there but that didn’t stop me from mixing with the other kids who belonged to either the Kannada or Marathi medium school. There wasn’t a game I didn’t play. Bounding about the hills flying kites, basking in the sunlight playing marbles and climbing the guava tree up the hill near the tailor’s house were things I enjoyed the most. But running along on the one concrete road the village had, with wind flowing through my hair was what made my heart go wild with pride.

Growing up surrounded by the bounties of nature, here is where I first realized I thrived in Solitude. Sunshine peeping through the foliage of the tall trees, music in the form of birdsong, the whistle of the trains whizzing past, the thunderous rain of the monsoons, sounds of the brooks making their way to the river Mandovi , the call of the wild animals at midnight , the sky filled with colour,  the night abuzz with fireflies, the old Portuguese styled tile-roofed house I lived in and the silence of the mist enveloping the entire village on most days of the year are sights and memories embedded deep within my heart and soul.

It is the only place where I feel I truly belong. The haven I felt safe and free. Where I wasn’t abused for having dark skin or laughed at for my stammer or bullied for being a reed thin geek. Where those simple people saw me for the real me and cherished me for who I was. My dad’s transfer to Hyderabad came through in the year 1990. Too young to grapple with what I was leaving behind I came to Hyderabad starry eyed. Being an outsider in a new city with people who spoke a strange tongue and a place with no mist, no hills, no birdsong, no calls of the wild and no fireflies was the harshest shock of my very young life until then. People were nonchalant as most city dwellers are and school was one mighty bridge that asked for a very difficult crossover. From the wide eyed yappy kid I became the silent one. Bullied for being the intelligent one, laughed at for the stammer and teased for being dark outsider continued all the way till I left school. The only friends I made ( who still are friends), a girl named Jessica and a boy named Niven, were facing their own troubles, one for her handicap and the other for being too fair and speaking in English! Who knew kids as young as 9 could be so scathingly racist and narrow minded?

By the age of 14, I had also been molested by a teacher in school and a family member at home .I abhorred everything about the city and its people but I grew up being the silent ,brooding one with anxiety and temper issues to boot now. Abuse pushes one to the brink and when isn’t capable of handling it any more it shows up in myriad forms like anger, anxiety disorders and claustrophobia, in my case. College was no different. Never one to initiate contact, I carried on making no friends here too. Years of being shy and introverted had taught me to go on with my business with a thick skin and a calm face despite a storm raging inside. The stammer had gone by now but I was mocked for being too thin and flat-chested at college. By girls in an all girls college! Abuse makes one a very strong person from the inside but I had never gotten around to being immune to it all. It always hurt. Still does. Castle Rock and its memories, which I carried in my head, heart and soul, untarnished and virginal was the only balm that soothed my battered self all those years.

I moved on to become a Fashion Designer and an entrepreneur. Socially awkward that I was, it was difficult to build rapport with the customers. But I was good at the work I did. So work did come to me. Through word of mouth only. Not as much as I would have liked but given my being a reclusive I could not really do much about it. Social media is another thing that I never really got around to using to my advantage. I needed an enormous amount of luck to spin the tide around but that didn’t happen either. The feeling that maybe I don’t belong in the profession, returned. Despite my best efforts for a decade, I still was only scrapping by. So I let the employees go and shut shop 2 years ago.

While at it, I met this man online through my blog in Rediffiland circa 2006 ,who I found I could connect with. For once, the ground under me felt solid. We became really good friends and I realized for the first time I could share the real me with someone. Not through spoken words but by writing them. Not a week went by without me writing written letters to him. I fell in love. And when I got the chance, I travelled with him to Castle Rock. It was our first trip together. I wanted to share the one place on the face of earth that had given me the strength to live and hold on to laughter and happiness, with him. Between being delirious and anxious, I made all the plans, booked train tickets, booked hotel rooms and took care of all the stuff that one does when one goes on a trip. This was in 2008. So there was no TripAdvisor, no OYO rooms, no travel apps to help me around. It was all done the old fashioned way. Through research. I spent weeks researching on the trains and the nearest hotels since Castle Rock is in a remote place and there were only that many trains passing through that place in 2008. I had to finally book rooms at a hotel in Madgaon, a town 2 hours away from Castle Rock.

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The last tunnel before one enters Castle Rock

 

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Castle Rock bound train

June 10, 2008. On a misty morning, 18 years after I had moved to Hyderabad, I set foot on my personal sacred ground. Castle Rock was as whimsical and angelic as it had been the day I left it on June 9, 1990. The hills, the brooks, the river, the concrete road looked idyllic as they had managed to stay alive within me all through the years .The school and most of its teachers were all the same. And everyone remembered me. By name! Words cannot describe how welcoming it felt to return to a home that was the reason for my resilience and tenacity and above all, sanity. The thunderous rain that poured while I went searching for the old house with a tiled roof, the mist that followed, the trees, the birdsong also felt the same, only a wee bit older like me. The kind man who now lived in the house offered me some okra fries. A young man, a guard in a south bound train offered me a free ride to Madgaon in the evening. The school teachers shared their lunch with me. One teacher cooked for me the same sweetmeat that she used to make to us kids every Friday when I was a child. They all proved that not much had changed. Neither the simple village nor its humble people.

Like a good mother, Castle Rock made me see my beau for who he really was. This is where I noticed that the man I wanted to grow old with had sides to him I wasn’t even aware of. He hated the place, the rain , the dampness, the cold , the house ..pretty much everything about it. Its times like these it hits you that no two pair of eyes or hearts sees and feels a place the same way as the other. Nobody could revere Castle Rock like I did.

A trek to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in India, Dudhsagar falls proved it further. Like the name, it is a sea of milk when visited in the monsoons which exactly coincided with my trip. It is a 20km to and fro trek from Kulem, a village an hour away from Madgaon. I met this guide, Sameer  in Kulem who offered to guide us to the falls and gave us a ride in his old but reliable Kawasaki Bajaj motorcycle. The perilious bike ride through the thick jungle, bought us to the local Anjaneya temple and after a quick darshan we began walking. 10km. In the rain. Without a soul around, it was one blissful walk. I had carried no rain gear except an umbrella. It was sheer luck that leeches didn’t bite us since it is a leech infested area.

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Train passing through the bridge beside the 4 -tiered Dudhsagar falls

Dudhsagar falls holds a very dear place in my heart. It is where the annual feast of the local church is held every year and my dad was always invited when he was the SS. It is where the whole village congregated that day of the year ,every year and it was a fun filled care free day spent amidst one of the most dangerous places in the state. Dudhsagar is known to kill adventure seekers who were too wild to its taste. You respect its boundaries and you have the most mesmerizing sights you will ever see, all to yourself. You cross the limits, you die a horrible death. That’s Dudhsagar for you.

My man grumbled all through the trek while I couldn’t stop gushing. I am the kind of person who has no time for tantrums on a trek. I am always looking at the magic that nature is and contemplating the finer wonders of life, so I couldn’t be bothered with little things like a man grumbling incessantly about nothing of importance. The trek showed me this side of myself I came to love and the side of my beau I began to hate. Chinks in the relationship began that day and after a very painful year and half of trying to make it work, I broke up with him and let him go.

Depression followed. Suicidal thoughts would often visit. After a couple of half hearted attempts to kill myself, it finally dawned on me that I was never at fault for being myself. People in general rarely have understood me. They are either too caustic, or too pitying or they couldn’t care less. They are never empathetic. It is easier to deride somebody who looks and speaks differently and make fun of them than to sympathize. I get that. From my understanding of  life, the most difficult thing for people to do is to empathize. ‘Get over it’, is not what a person undergoing bullying understands. ‘Snap out of it’, is not something a person in depression wants to hear. Not even my family understands what I went through and what I still do go through, on and off. Not a day passes by without me wondering if I ever belonged to this family ?  If yes, why am I so very different from the rest of them? Will I ever truly belong?

When I say belong, do I mean fitting in? No, maybe not. It’s the feeling you get when all is well, when are understood. The feeling that all is right with oneself and the world. The feeling one gets when the jigsaw puzzle inside you gets complete. Can a person ever feel it with another one?  I am not the right person to answer that since I have never felt it with another person. Maybe we can only truly belong to ourselves.

How about a place? Can a place ever understand you? Sure! It can. It has always been Castle Rock all along for me. After innumerable travels around India, Coonoor and Uttarkashi came very close. I could feel the same presence of the divine grace of Castle Rock in both these places.

A wise man once said ; Failure is an event, not a person. People can mock me all they want, but my shortcomings are mine alone and it is what makes me unique. Just as Castle Rock was mocked at,  by my ex for being a village with nothing going for it. But seen through my eyes,it is that very same quality that made it the best place for me to grow up and be the person I was born to be. Its’ very air, water , sky and the wood- smoke- filled mist runs through my veins, making it my lifeline. I might have failed at making myself understood to the world but Castle Rock knows me, understands me and lets me be. And that is enough reason to feel belonged.