The quest for the soul

Despite it all, there is an emptiness within. Something I am unable to define. What is it that my mind seeks? What is it that I miss?

Something that was omnipresent in the 80s and 90s, and that quietly faded away as we stepped into the next century. Technology and economic prowess bought us over. We live inside glasshouses now, alienated from the world outside. Alienated from experiences. Alienated from the true potential of human interactions. Alienated from those colourful streets and alleys in which one encounters life. Life, in its myriad shades. Like a colourful bazaar that never ceases to intrigue and fascinate. A rich platter of human experience.

I moved from the dark, gloomy life in Kerala to a more vibrant life in Bangalore. But apart from making my life easier, more comfortable, and more positive, it hasn’t really provided me the home that I keep seeking. And that makes me wonder- What is home? 

As I explore this thought, I am reminded of this passage on Johanna Spyri’s book Heidi. Somehow, it seems relevant here.

    What makes Heidi so fascinating? The glorification of the ideal Alpine world, the retention of one’s own childishness are the most commonly named arguments- but they are also the most superficial ones. Analyses often talk of the basic experience the character embodies. The tension between of nature and culture, country and city, freedom and etiquette, a place of security and crippling homesickness can be found in the books. The story of the loss caused by industrialisation and modernisation captures the hearts of people all over the world and makes Heidi, the unspoiled girl from the Alps, an icon of modernity. And it has lost none of its relevance to this day.

    I think this tension/conflict is what we are all experiencing. We are all trying to find ourselves in this transition from the natural world to the artificial world.Where is our soul? We catch fleeting glimpses of it, but somehow we don’t seem to capture it for long. 

    There is no return to the Alpine life. To the natural world we left behind. How then can we find ourselves? Is it possible to retain our raw human nature in this artificial world? To the degree that we don’t lose the connect with our souls?

    I think my next few posts would dwell on this question that is most important to me at this point in time.

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    On the mantelpiece of the universe

    I looked up from the monitor. Through the long windows at the end of the cabin, I could see the branches of the trees swaying chaotically. It was stormy and windy. I tightened the stole around my shoulders; I could now feel the cold. 

    I gazed across the cabin. A canvas of people- talking, working, laughing, contemplating. I suddenly felt distant from the scene. Alienated from it in a strange way. Temporally, what did this scene amount to? Nothing. Just nothing on the temporal map of this universe. That passing smile, that passing conversation, that passing anxiety- they were just blobs that faded away in the temporal account of the universe.

    That I was hurt. That I was sad. That I was in love. Nothing of these emotions eventually remained. They didn’t move the world. They didn’t change the story of the universe. They just got buried. 

    I. He. She. We all just got buried. Without a trace.

    I thought back to the article I was reading. About Stanzin Dorjai. About the documentaries he made. About how they shook the world. About how an ordinary shepherd grew up to be a film maker. As I read about him, I could see the mountains- listen to the wind echoing through the mountains. Somehow, as I thought of this man, I felt time had stopped briefly. There was just him, and his life. A life that seemed to stretch out eternally.

    What a fortunate man. Blessed with a life like that! A life for which time stood still. A life that shook the world. A life that would eventually be showcased in the story of the universe. 

    Sangita Iyer. Jane Goodall. Steve Jobs. Michael Jackson. Johanna Spyri. Vincent van Gogh.

    The list goes on….

    The bubble called life

    I can see the bubble…

    That little bubble we call life. 

    I see the youthful radiance on my face; the eagerness in my strides… 

    I see the light-heartedness in my spirit…

     I see the dreams, the desires…

    I see the excitement in my eyes as I sample the material world- it’s little pleasures…

    Vibrant clothes. Moving cars. 

    The gaiety and the laughter. 

    The unspoken words that hang heavily in the air. 

    The affection…the love…the pampering…the attention. 

    But through it all, I can still see the bubble- waiting to burst any minute…

    That little bubble we call life.

    Fear of Failure

    There was Pradeep Ettan. Sweet, modest and easy to befriend. He loved to talk. He lived for discussions and conversations; he was high on them. It used to be very interesting listening to him. He had solutions to every problem. Just that they were rarely practical or possible in real life. It took me many months to realize that Pradeep Ettan’s solutions had never come from life; they had all come from books. In many ways, he was an escapist. He had quit college despite the fact that he was a brilliant student. He had given up his job because he never had the patience to sit through a job. He was an excellent teacher and wonderful with children, but he refused to make use of these skills. People advised him to take tuitions, but he refused. He spent most of his time talking to people, getting into discussions and debates on diverse issues. At the time I had met him, he was in a financial crisis, and his wife was struggling to run the show, especially the education of the kids. To avoid confronting the negativity at home, Pradeep Ettan would leave home early in the morning, wile away his time in what he liked to label as ‘spreading social consciousness’, and return only at night. As I got to know him closely, I could see the enormous gap in the theory he preached and the life he practised. In real life, he was an escapist. He shielded himself from negativity by avoiding confrontation with the problem. But in theory, he liked to sound like a saint who had learned to overcome conflict. He had lost his basic sensitivity and empathy; it was possible for him to be oblivious to the struggle his wife endured in order to deal with the crisis. His escapism reminded me very much of Sreenivasan’s character in ‘Chinthavishthayaya Shyamala’. Or of the two characters in ‘Sandesham’ who use politics as a cover for their escapism from life. 

    There are many such souls in Kerala. Some fearful of failure. Some lazy. Some unwilling to step out of their comfort zones. The outcome is that deep within, they suffer from a lack of self esteem. So many seek alternate success outlets- a virtual platform for success. Many ‘intellectual discussions’ in day to day life are of this nature. A theoretical debate to prove a point. Not so much to learn and grow, as much as to win. And therefore to feel good and compensate for the inability to succeed in real world situations.

    I have subsequently met many versions of Pradeep Ettan. But the underlying driving force is the same- to win in theory, despite the failure in real life. To deny the failure through such victory.

    Failure is not acceptable in a judgemental society like Kerala. Failure draws sarcasm, humiliation and ridicule. This accounts for a high fear of failure. People are driven towards a denial of failure. Many learn to deny the unpleasantness and mask it with responses such as numbness, hostility and sarcasm towards people who succeed. People find it hard to cheer others and to celebrate their success. Competition is very high in this society. And when one takes a closer look, one realizes that each of these souls is so lonely within. The competition has destroyed the innocence that is necessary for being able to give or feel love, for forming bonds and relationships with people. One really feels sorry. 

    The very behavioral standards are different. Deviant behaviour is the norm. Being insensitive, rude, ill-mannered, brash and hostile are signs of strength. Innocence and vulnerability are seen as weaknesses that are unacceptable. 

    Looking back, I am reminded of how many students I had to counsel because of such issues. In every instance, I had to teach them to embrace their fragility. The only good thing was that children were more accepting of the truth. And eager to embrace change. Perhaps they are the only hope.  

    A reconciliation

    “Child, I am not all that tech savvy. Could you get this information for me?”, she asked me.

    “Of course, aunty”, I replied.

    “Your mother is fortunate to have you, child”, she said.

    Before I could reply, she added,”You may ask me- Are your children not good enough? They are good. Good enough. Because I have learned that people can give you only what they are capable of giving. So take that, and be happy. Don’t ask for more than what they can give you. There are limitations to every person. One slowly learns to reconcile with everything. With not being understood. With the unfairness of life. With its jerks and jolts.”

    I could hear the silent sighs of her mind. I could feel her exhaustion- from having endured. I could feel the deep ache beneath her high pitched laughter. I could discern the sorrow that hid beneath her zealous banter. It was as if she had held back her tears for too long, and they were on the verge of exploding.

    It was a moment of realization for me. We are so vulnerable, aren’t we? How much we ache beneath the stone walls we put up! How much we long for a hand on our shoulder. Somebody to hold us tight and tell us it is alright. Even at 60 or 70, we are children who need to be comforted and reassured. We need our fantasies and beliefs to hold on to. To just get by. 

    My best friend’s dad died of cancer. He was so hale and hearty, so disciplined in the way he took care of himself. Besides, he was such a wonderful person. He had gifted everybody a moment to remember. And yet, he died at an age that ought to have given him a comfortable twenty years more, if not longer. 

    The war in Syria. Children too young to have indulged in any kind of sin. Dead before their first birthday. Infants who have lost their parents before they could make a memory of them. For what fault of theirs? 

    The herbivores in the forest, preyed upon by the carnivores. 

    There are no answers. Things happen. To anybody and everybody. Without a reason. And that is the truth. We need to accept it for a fact. And that should be reason enough to humble us. That we have no control over what could happen to us. 

    Once we realize this, we can never really advertise ourselves. How can we, when we know we are naked? We can only hold each other tight, knowing that we are all bound by our vulnerability. We are all caught up in a flow. We can only flow along.
     

    The second innings

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    It has been over two weeks since I moved in to this city. I was initially anxious about how my mind would perceive my second innings in this city, but as the days go by, I can see my mind growing happier…

    New leaves sprouting off a plant that had almost withered away. I can finally sense new life sprouting within me.

    I started out with simple things to keep me going. Getting into a routine. Cooking and cleaning. I am surprised by the motivation I derive from these simple things. My apartment is small, comfortable, sunny and airy. I don’t have much furniture. So it is easy to maintain. I only have to cross the street to get my daily supply of grocery and vegetables. I buy small quantities and use them up. And thanks to the dry and cold climate, things stay fresh here for a longer time. So I have not really felt the need for a refrigerator. Cooking my own food has been fun, especially since I never feel lazy or tired here. I am surprised that I haven’t eaten out at all, except for the day I had moved in. That is quite something!

    Though I have many friends here and I do want to visit all of them, I don’t want to do it at this stage. I want to give myself time to get used to being on my own. My main network at this point is the bunch of friends I have in class. I am glad I took up this course because it gives me a platform to engage with the city and integrate into its scheme. I can’t help celebrating the women I meet here, because most of them are true to their nature. It comes from being comfortable with their own selves. And that in turn, comes from being raised in a society where there is no gender bias. Here, I often forget I am a woman. I feel like a human being, without being gender conscious. In Kerala, it used to be very difficult to interact with women because their personalities were largely shaped by their insecurities- the outcome of having been raised in a society with gender bias. I celebrate my interactions with people here, much like I celebrate the climate- the two greatest highs in Bangalore.

     

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    Stories of livelihood. While the lady was deeply absorbed in her work, the child found ample sources of entertainment. On the streets, are the real stories. Of rugged hands and tanned faces. But something still throbs within. Sometimes, appearing as a gleam in the eyes. Sometimes, breaking out as a smile. 

    The other achievement is that I am slowly learning the bus routes and locations. Bangalore is a maze for someone like me because it is full of Mains and Crosses, flyovers and underpasses. And I find all the cross roads similar! Google has been of great help.

    I take the bus to my institute. I like losing myself into a sea of people- that is where one feels the pulse of the city. Today, as I boarded the bus, I couldn’t help feeling the joy of this anonymity- this feeling of going about my life quietly, with the simplest dreams. This dream of being able to manage a house without the luxury of my mother’s care and attention, this dream of being able to find my way about the city, this dream of travelling with the ordinary dwellers of this city, without the luxury of my own car or Uber, this dream of making a livelihood. This whole dream of finding my niche in this city. I enjoy this kind of struggle- struggle that is not damaging, but rewarding. In Kerala, my struggle was characterized by physical limitations and health issues imposed by the climate, and of course, the chronic oppression that was taking its toll on my ability to endure. Here, I walk a lot. I take every opportunity to walk. It feels good because the weather is cold. Besides, it is when I walk that I see the beauty of the city- the beautiful houses, gardens, pavements, trees, vendors, and all the street stories that catch my eye. The optimism and its mellow beauty just seeps into me. This always keeps me in high spirits. In Bangalore, a walk is my solution to gloom.

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    Old, magnanimous trees stand by the road and quietly watch the city pass by. The pedestrians, the motorists, the vendors. The changing scenes through the passage of time. Their overpowering presence makes me pause in my footsteps, marvel at their magnanimity, and wonder what has caused them to survive the odds in a fast paced city.

     

    You see, anonymity is beautiful. It is bliss. When I watch a Lohithadas movie or read a short story by O. Henry, it is not Lohithadas or O. Henry that I aspire to be. I aspire to be those soulful characters that these great artists portrayed in their art. I don’t wish to be the Creator; I would rather be the creation. A little firefly that finds bliss in its tiny halo of light. Life quietly throbbing within me as I allow myself to be enchanted by the aura, mystery and deep darkness of a melancholic night.

     

    The graph of my life

    People think they know me but they don’t. Not really. Actually, I am one of the loneliest people on this earth. I cry sometimes, because it hurts. It does. To be honest, I guess you could say that it hurts to be me.

    -Michael Jackson

    It is sometimes interesting to see yourself through another’s perspective. For many who have known me since my childhood, the graph of my life would appear to have taken a downhill course. From being an unfaltering rank student, from being a stage figure and a public speaker, from a pedestal of popularity and fame, from being a role-model and reference, how is it that I am a ‘nobody’ today? This is a question that lingers in the minds of many of my school friends.

    “It was you we aspired to be. But today, everybody who was a nobody then, is somebody. The graph of their life is on an uphill course, while yours is going in the opposite direction. It is a paradox. This is certainly not where you should have been!”, they say.

    I suppress a smile. I can relate to what they mean. They painted my future in their minds a long time ago. A future, bright and promising. Like my friend pointed out to me, I never had to work hard. Where my friends put in their hundred percent, I only had to put in half that effort to succeed. For the rest of the time, I could afford to be mischievous and light-hearted, because success came so easily to me. How is it then that today, I am so far away from success? This intrigues them.

    It wouldn’t be wrong to say that I too had dreamt of such a future for myself. In those years, we were so young and naive that we were ignorant of the currents of life or of the hunger of the soul. Our definitions of success were based on conventional moulds. Like my friends, I too believed that I would become a doctor or engineer, travel the world, collect achievements, live a comfortable life, and earn the status of ‘elite’. Though disguised under degrees and lifestyles, these aspirations translated into money and power. But back then, I did not know that money and power could not buy happiness by themselves.

    However, unlike my friends who only saw my external embellishments, I was aware of my limitations and failures. I was aware of those aspects of my personality that would interfere with success. I was aware of my emotional intensity, my inability to commit to paths that could not capture my interest or imagination, and my inclination towards fantasy. I was always lost in the magic of the world, and that interfered with my ability to focus. Perhaps this awareness helped me accept failures and enabled me to expect less from myself.

    All through my medical college, I was an average student. My primary motivation came not from my scores, but from the magic that some of my textbooks and teachers fed into my mind. I could sense the extraordinary element in the ordinary, and this thrilled me. I am grateful to those teachers who made me feel that there was something extraordinary about my perceptions and thoughts. If not for that, my self-esteem might have suffered terribly. Likewise, when I worked abroad, I was lost to the stimulation and novelty of my world. I failed to travel along defined paths, and collected very little in terms of external embellishment. But internally, I could feel the transformation. My consciousness had finally awakened enough to connect to the hunger of my soul.

    It had been difficult for me to leave London, but when I found myself in Kerala, it may have been this element of instinct and consciousness that steered me towards the true purpose of my life.

    “Why do you build small towers in infinite places? Why can’t you build one tower, and then build upon that?”

    It is a question of significance. Any day, it is easier to build one tower. Imagine if I were to do so now. It would be so easy. I would only have to continue with whatever I do now. Live in Kerala forever. Continue with the current job. Get promoted. Some day, I would be Professor and HOD. I might enhance my CV through ‘research’, publications and presentations. On paper, I might narrate the story of my ‘professional growth’ with pride. Internally, my soul might just die. A little every day.

    You see, my heart is not in this image of perfection we create for the world to see, acknowledge and approve. I like the kind of research I do every day. I am addicted to the joy of toying with perceptions and thoughts. They come to me at the most unexpected moments, like when I am walking on the street. I like experimenting with them on a serious note, and finding the real answers. That is how my first book was conceived. It was a book that arose from the questions I had asked myself when I had found myself drawn to diversity of personality. There is more truth in that exploration than the research papers we publish in most institutions in India. I don’t want a high from a prize for a paper or poster; I want a high from the paths of discovery I take.

    I watch the Bee Gees sing. I watch Michael Jackson perform. I read Sylvia Plath’s letters to her mother, Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother. I watch the humming bird drinking nectar from the flower. What I see in all of them is their ability to lose themselves to the moment. To the joy of perception.

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    I don’t care for long years; I care for richness of experience. How much of life penetrated us while we lived? That is the question that matters to me. I have to be in love. Every day, every moment. With the world. With myself. And I would do anything that it takes to be in love. This principle has been the driving force in my life. If I built one big tower, I would have fallen out of love with myself a long time ago.

    I have captured enough magic from this world within me. Enough to touch others with its spell. Every soul who crosses my path, carries a little bit of this magic in his heart when he leaves. That has been my highest high. I can make anybody fall in love with themselves. With the world. And for this reason, I am loved the most.

    Beautiful moments with my mother, savouring the uniqueness of the relationship we share. Beautiful moments with all the people in my life, strangers included, breathing life into those moments. Beautiful moments in the lap of nature, cherishing this joy of being alive. Beautiful moments of endless conversations with myself, through which I discover the world and fall in love with it. Beautiful moments of exploring myself through work, reveling in what I discover of myself. This perpetual romance has been my greatest achievement.

    Invisible to the world, but very much palpable…