I meant to post on the weekend, because so much happened that I want to mark and remember but I’ve been rather preoccupied, mentally. Too much happening, too many places to go to, some engagements, some recreation, a lot of busy-bodying around and barely any time spent at home at all. I’ve been very not inclined to sitting down to compose my thoughts and put them in coherent form here. I only realised last night that the corollary to this is that what I’ve been is inclined to distract myself.
I’ve been a little emotionally overwhelmed and scattered since getting back from Benaras. And this invariably makes me feel a bit disoriented/disconnected from myself, what I’m really feeling. It’s a bit of a catch-22. When I’m feeling disconnected and overwhelmed, the logical thing for me to do would be to slow down and sit still. But sitting still also means facing some of the emotions that have been bubbling up — the overwhelm of the trip that moved me, swinging straight into regular life and getting used to being minus VC all over again, settling back to the Bangalore groove again (which always takes time), constant preoccupation about the Bangalore-Goa conundrum, and the impending trip back there in about a month and all that I want to do here in the meantime — cumulatively this has occupied a lot of my mental bandwidth silently. Sitting still would mean facing it really, and fully. And that is what I have been running away from.
This past week instead of giving myself, and reconnecting with myself some time and space, I’ve felt drawn to frittering my time away outside the home. This should have been my first indicator of what was going on, but I guess I am that disconnected right now, that I didn’t pick up on it.
And that’s okay.
I’m currently straddling two worlds and trying to find a meaningful balance, between knowing and understanding my feelings, but also not going overboard and obsessing over every little up and down.
My outer world always mirrors my inner world. There was a lot of outward movement in my life, high activity, travelling long distances, long hours spent outdoors — to the coffee shop, ostensibly to work, but I’m getting done only a mere fraction of what I am otherwise capable of, catching what I thought would be a 1-2 hour lunch with a friend and having it turn into a 6-hour massive catch-up, I’ve watched two movies since I’ve come back, and my mum has had guests and rather uncharacteristically I offered to drive them around town and catch the few Bangalore meals they’ve had on their bucket list. I should have realised this is me moving away form myself.
It wasn’t until last evening (Sunday) that I realised I am unconsciously voiding being home. Avoiding being still. Because when I am still, invariably emotions become clear, seen.
I’m not sure what I am avoiding seeing right now. But I hope to regain some balance and connection this week and tune in some.
I watched Daniel Fernandes perform Shadows tonight. I’ve been thinking I haven’t really explored comedy, despite having access to so many live shows here in Bangalore so last week it was past midnight and I was having trouble so I was browsing a booking app (yeah, this is what happens when you have no social media) when I saw he was performing in town. I didn’t bother to check where, just went ahead and bought myself a ticket.
This morning, when figuring out how to get to this venue I’d never heard of, I realised it was a club all the way across town — I’m talking 50 minute drive even early on a Sunday evening. Not an auditorium like I’d imagined, or like the place I watched Abhishek Upmanyu. Suddenly, momentarily, I was a little apprehensive, wondering what it might be like going to a club alone. Would it be worth the long drive, going alone? Where would I sit, who would I sit with, what would I do, what would it look like? But I went anyway, I wanted to watch him live.
To my surprise and absolute delight, I was seated at a table with five other girls who had come alone too. Initial awkwardness and some stolen glances trying to figure out if any of them were going to be joined by friends later, when the last girl to arrive filled the only remaining seat at the table, we all let out a collective guffaw of relief simultaneously realising we were all on our own.
This was the highpoint of the evening for me. It was liberating to be alone (and I hope I do more of this), and yet I felt a sense of communion to be seated at the table with these girls who were all there because they wanted to watch Daniel live, and couldn’t wait to find company. I checked, I asked each of them.
I’m someone who spent the entire duration of my 20s partnered, and nursing a such a strong yearning for a tribe that I often settled for whatever form that it came my way. I’ve been in a motley assortment of groups and cliques, and when I look back on these experiences I do feel I missed out a lot on the essence of me. Maybe I’d have done a lot more things differently, a lot of things on my own if I had half the sense of self worth I have today.
That evening I felt like I lived a little bit of an experience I knew I had missed, but that I didn’t know I could have now.
Solitary comedy shows. Solitary beers. Solitary long drives back home. And it’s own kind of contentment.
The special itself? Shadows — it was quite good. I went without expectations, to be honest. I’ve really liked some of Daniel’s work in the past, but I’ve also sometimes squirmed at some of the things he has said and done. I had no context about what he’s been up to in recent time. Because, no social media. So I literally went in blind.
Shadows wasn’t a ribticklingly funny stand up special. It was the brand of comedy that’s real, honest, a bit dark and intense in parts. Heavily autobiographical, it draws on experiences he’s had over the last 7 years of his life since turning to comedy as a career. From quitting a safe job, being broke, dabbling in comedy, navigating the scene, fighting the expectations and norms of family and society, realising he’s a square peg in a world of round pegs, and learning to be okay with it — the show had a lot of bits that resonated with me as it would with everyone who watches it I’m pretty sure. It was the kind of show that had more awkward silences, emotional pauses and squeamish stifled laughs, rather than loud raucous laughter because it was just that real.
I think what I enjoyed the most was the overarching theme of journeying towards an authentic self, even when realising what you’re discovering it isn’t as pretty a picture as you imagine. And being okay with that.
To embark on this journey needs courage, to talk about it even more so, but to turn it to art and perform it, knowing it may or may not be received the way one expects — the reactions may range from extreme validation to hate — and to do it anyway requires a whole different level of vulnerability. And that’s the bit that touched me the most.
Last week, I caught up with V after what felt like 10+ years even though we briefly hung-out over a very hurried meal in Goa some 5 years ago. In the years between then and now he’s gotten married and is now a father to a 2.5 year old baby boy. In the years between, we have also completely lost touch. Not even exchanging the occasional message. So when we decided to meet, I went armed with a book, fully anticipating our lunch would be a quick affair, and I’d make use of the journey into town, hanging out and reading some place quiet.
BUT, we ended up catching up in such intense detail. Discussing everything from politics to marriage, children and pets, future careers and whatnot. And we didn’t leave. For. SIX. HOURS. Over way more beer than I have consumed in a single sitting in about as many years as it has been since I used to know him.
It was fun, yes. But it was also heartwarming that it was possible. It was heartwarming to be surprised. I don’t know if this will happen again, or it even means anything significant for our friendship, but I will cherish that day and that meeting for a while.
There was also a stunning lunch at SodaBottleOpenerWala and a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon with D that will be unforgettable for entirely different reasons that I cannot disclose here, and cannot even recollect without laughing so hard, I tear up. But I’m putting it down here so I will never forget.
I took a lot of pictures in Benaras and I’ve rambled on for a week about this city and the short time we spent there. It was just 3.5 days, and I even while we were there and I was so clearly taken by the place, I didn’t expect it to have had such an impact on me. But this is the last of the pictures. At least the ones I want to share. So this post will sum it up, before I move on to regular programming.
As it might be clear by now, I couldn’t get enough of the boats.
VC usually has his research down pat: where we’ll stay, how close it is to his select few spots that he’s always aware of before hand, where to eat, how to get there, etc. This time, there was a free-flowing unplanned method to getting around. I had presumed VC had done his thing, but when we got there and I saw he was as much at sea as I was and was surprisingly open to figuring it out on the go, nor desperate for optimum productivity in terms of photography opportunities and to top it all, he was chill about not getting a single good picture from the trip, I really felt something major has changed for him.
As a result we had my kind of holiday, where things aren’t planned to the T, with lots of wandering, knowing not where we were going, taking chances — a turn here a turn there — winding through Benaras and having all the opportunity for surprises — good and bad.
VC takes upwards of an hour, sometimes nearly 2, taking pictures at sunrise and sunset. Sometimes, most times, all of it amounts to just one picture. It probably sounds tedious and painful, and it did to me too when I first realised this was his process. Now, either I’m very used to it, or I have figured out a method for myself too, but it has become the best part of travelling with VC. I get to do the favourite thing I like to do on holiday: plonk myself in one spot and just watch, watch, watch and watch some more as the world goes by.
In a time where travel takes on a very glossy, fetishised quality about it, thanks to all the incessant sharing (mine included), my own thoughts about travel as an activity have undergone change yet again. I’ve gone from calling it my purpose in life, my raison d’être, to rolling my eyes at that same admission a few years on, to wondering if travel was an escape and if so what am I escaping from, to wanting to cultivate a life I don’t have to take off from, to today wanting and craving travel all the time just for the pure experience of it. The non-fanciness of this trip to Benaras only solidified my belief that travel to me isn’t about the fancy getaways or the swanky stays in gorgeous locales alone. While I love that, I love this kind of holiday too.
The unpredictable nature of our time in Benaras was refreshing. The zero-expectations that were over-delivered was the cherry on the top. This is the kind of holiday that unknowingly moves something in me, and this is the kind of experience I want more of from my travel.
For now, that’s it from this edition of despatches from Benaras.
It is impossible not to feel the sense of reverence and deep, deep faith that people carry when they visit Benaras. It was palpable from the very first time we ventured out on day 1. While faith may be a singular word to describe what I saw, I saw it in many shapes and forms.
It was overwhelming to see how the city attracts all kinds of people, in an array of sizes and colours, from across the world, expressing their reverence in a host of different ways. Whether it was the solitary white man doing his early morning yoga, or the group of Naga babas offering their hawan at sundown hidden in a haze of what was clearly a chillum of hash, or just the blind way in which hoards of people thought nothing of throwing themselves into a veritably, visibly filthy river, or the literal gazillion people-strong crowd that was ballooning over the hour-long evening Ganga-aarti, clapping in unison with the bells and bellowing conches.
It was quite a rousing experience. To witness all of this in the matter-of-fact landscape of a religious place that somehow is the leveller that we expect it to be was humbling.
I witnessed the celebration of birth, or marriage taking place alongside the mourning of death. I saw white people filled with a genuine curiosity and reverence for soaking up the exotic edge they make of our culture, alongside boat-loads of Chinese tourists who didn’t bat an eyelid before collectively pointing all their cameras at the massive funeral pyres along Manikarnika ghat. There was a fancy cruise-liner like fancy boat that floated by the scores of humble hand-rowed small boats and the both co-exist in peace. There was as much a sense of spectacular outpouring of faith that gave me goosebumps as there was a little bit of the inevitable gross display of commercialism that preys off of religion. There was immense offering of gratitude, love and joy in the backdrop of such a filthy city.
The paradoxes were confusing, but also awe-inspiring, because they were just so reminiscent of how the nebulous idea of faith and whatever we make of it is beyond anything we can touch or tame.
I feel really grateful for the opportunity to witness something so far out from the limited purview of my world and beliefs I hold. Faith and belief are very different things for me, as a strictly non-religious believer. It can get very comfortable and dangerously limiting to have a unidimensional view like mine, in the absence of exposure to other opinions and realities. My time in Benaras really shook the ground beneath the foundation of my current thoughts about faith, especially in the context of a country that’s growingly religiously fundamental. I’m glad for the wake-up call to re-assess where I stand. I’m grateful for the opportunity to view what faith looks like for people in worlds so different from my own. To witness what it must be like to surrender faith and suspend belief to this extent, to give in blindly to something beyond oneself.
Looking at Benaras through the lens of faith really brought home the immense polarity and duality in our world. This rock that floats in the expanse of nothingness is a simultaneously harsh and gentle place. It is equal parts enraging and inspiring. It holds its fair share of maddening, infuriating truths, as it does moments of tenderness and beauty. All of that sat front and centre, quickly in just a few days. Seeing up close and personal, the deeply emotional cycle of birth, life, celebration and degradation, and eventually death, held up against a vividly unemotional canvas, I felt a resonance and a renewed definition of being in agreement with life and all that comes with it.
The last thing I expected this trip away to do was send me down an inconclusive, meandering path, thinking. This was a trio unlike many others we have taken, for various reasons but I think VC described it the best yesterday: this was a trip that demanded some soul searching out of us.
It was so refreshing. So unexpected. And for that, it will be unforgettable.
This trip was all about the food, for me. I had a pre-planned list of things I wanted to taste, and I am happy to have knocked it all off except for the bhaang which although I was keen to try, just looked so dodge when I saw how it was made that I suddenly had cold feet and didn’t feel ready to experiment with.
Right off the bat I have to say we didn’t have a single non vegetarian meal through out this trip. Now, this is very easy for me to do. While I enjoy eating meat, it’s not a crucial component of a good meal for me. I can go days, and in fact I prefer this, with simple, hearty, vegetarian food. But VC is the kind of person who needs meat. So for him to admit he didn’t miss eating meat at all said a lot.
Our very first meal was breakfast on day 1. We dumped our luggage in the hotel and started weaving our way through the narrow lanes looking for a “breakfast place”, realising very soon that there are no “places”, just beautifully characteristic hole-in-the-wall type establishments with giant kadhais set over hot coals, right at the foot of the store, inviting you with an array of smells.
Kachori-aloo-jalebi is the staple Benarasi breakfast and I wanted to try nothing else. We ducked into the first joint we found because a) it smelt so good and b) a cow was blocking the road ahead.
Turns out they call them kachoris, but they’re actually puris mildly stuffed with something (I couldn’t figure out what, exactly.). For a mere Rs 25, we got a stack of kachoris, a dona of aloo curry — this place had a curry mix with aloo, black channas and kabuli channa faacckkkk — and a couple of hot jalebis. Uncleji handed it to us and watched us for a minute as we tried to juggle all the hot stuff in our hands, side stepping piles of you-know-what, looking for a place to settle and eat. Kindly, he invited us in. Behind the stove that was right at the entrance to the store, he had two small tables squashed into a room blackened with years of soot from cooking over charcoals. Warm, smiling and just so hospitable, it was a sharp contrast to what people had psyched us about “watching out for” people before trusting them.
Rubbish, I tell you. Across the board, the people of Benaras were nothing short of lovely, warm and helpful. We didn’t have a single bad experience, and I was happy to have my faith in my innate tendency to trust first, until proven wrong, reaffirmed. Of late I’ve been told I’m too quick to trust, and I find that I had begun to sometimes second guess my instincts. I was happy to be proven wrong.
Breakfast was so sumptuous and filling, and was followed by adrak chai and a morning of roaming around the ghats white VC scouted for spots to shoot over the next few days. I just took in the sights, smells and sounds. Benaras had already begun to gob-smack me, taking me in fully from the get go with its bizarre mix of heavy character and just so much life, along with the inherent paradoxes that are so hard to miss. It’s a city that you sense heavily, feeling it under your skin.
We managed to sneak a boat ride in too, and returned to the hotel in time for check-in. We had landed into a 15 degree post-winter morning, but by noon the sun had come out full force, the heat was searing and dry and we realised it was going to be the kind of trip where we spend a bulk of the day indoors. So we lugged back a couple of beers each into our room, fully expecting to skip lunch thanks to the heavy breakfast and settled in to Netflix and chill.
But that was not to be. In a couple of hours we got hungry, but I suspect it was more a curiosity about what we could taste next. We scoped out the closest chaatbhandaar, one of the highest rated ones in Benaras was 400 mt away from us, so we walked there.
We sampled the gol gappas (good), the papdi chaat (excellent), palak chaat ( beyond excellent!), a samosa chaat (it didn’t do much for me — the masalas in the samosa and the gravy they pour over it was an overkill), aloo tikki chaat (much nicer because the tikki itself was mildly spiced, lending just that required starchy potato-goodness that allows the flavours of the chaat to shine through) and the local specialty: tamaatar chaat, which I thought was no big deal. It was essentially a cooked curry of tomatoes, tangy and spicy, covered in a medley of chaat-y toppings like imli ki chutney, green chutney, spice powders and dahi, showered in crunchy sev-like thing (which in Benaras is chunky and shaped like pellets).
Dinner on day 1 was late, and because we didn’t feel up to venturing out a third time in the day to look for food, we slipped into one of the many local “shuddh shakahaari bhojanalays” and packed rotis cooked over hot coals, with sabzi and dal. So satiating and hearty, consumed in bed while binge watching Made In Heaven.
The next morning we set off to catch the sunrise over the ghats, which was a good two hour affair, of which one hour was spent on another boat ride along the entire length of about 25 ghats. This had us occupied and quite frankly just so engrossed, I didn’t realise it was breakfast time. On our way out, we discovered a stall that served what is easily the best tapri chai I’ve ever had in my life. Non-boiled, but just so kadak and good. It was so good that VC, the desi-style chai lover of the two of us, admitted to it being the best tea he’d had and came home and tried to replicate what he’d seen of the chaiwalas method.
But the star of that stop was the bun-maska. OMG. 100 gms of Amul butter spread over 4 buns that were toasted over a smoky charcoal fire, that we dipped in hot tea and gobbled before it fell into soggy blobs into the glass. JUST SO EFFING GOOD.
We made two pitstops at this tapri over the next two days and the bun-maska-wallah had figured I was a fan. I don’t know, maybe the incessant picture taking gave it away?
That bun-maska was just a appetiser, and the real breakfast that followed was this kachori-puri-jalebi, which at another joint was a medley of vegetables — potatoes, carrots, peas and cauliflower. Equally delicious, but so heavy we’d started to share a single portion between the two of us.
I saved the best for last. This right here is the crowning glory of the food we ate in Benaras and since it is only made and enjoyed in the winter, Im so glad we managed to catch it.
This here, is malaiyo, a fluffy airy, cloud-like form of cream and full-fat milk. I’m told it is traditionally churned a day in advance and left out in the open over a cold winter’s night so the dew that settles on it, over the course of the night, helps hold up its airiness.
It looks like rabri, but has the texture and mouth feel of something that beats the best tiramisu pants down. It is quite literally like eating a cloud of rich, saffron and pista rich rabri. There’s no biting it, because it just disappears in a pool of air in your mouth. It is only available before 11-o clock because the heat causes it to collapse so even if you step out as early as 6 am, you’ll find street vendors with giant vats of malaiyo along the way to the ghats.
Our breakfast was fixed, 90% meals comprised entirely chaat, and the remaining 10% was a roti-sabzi affair. VC sampled the famed Benarasi paan on three occasions, but claims none of them really appealed. I am not a paan-eater. I have in fact never tasted the thing and I refuse to even try it, so I could not vet his opinion.
And here’s some pictures of the people who made the food, people who fascinated me as much as the food did.
So, Benaras had been on my wish-list for so long, oh so many, many years, that I actually forgot/lost track of it somewhere along the way. I remember having a conversation with VC about 5-6 years ago after my parents and sister had visited, saying we should go too, and I remember him being most disinterested — “What’s to do there?”
We’ve always had very different motivations to travel. I’m more about the sights and sounds and different kinds of experiences, I find forests as exciting as cities, and I enjoy history and heritage as much as I do the nothingness of a beach. VC is and always has been all about the photography and for a bit in between, the videography (as his Instagram will reveal).
A place was worthy of visiting only if there was something to do there, ie: photo-worthy locations to scout. Even in this, cityscapes, historic/heritage places have never been his thing. As a result, our inclinations to travel and the destinations we’d pick often do not converge. This has meant that I’ve done a fair share of travel by myself, or with my family, my friends, without him. Lately though, I’ve noticed a change in him, in this respect. Where there was once absolutely no curiosity about places that didn’t fall into his very narrow category of an inviting destination, there is now a willingness to at least experience it, and a readiness to go even if no great pictures come out of it.
I was aghast when he announced to me in January that we were going to Benaras. He had decided it singlehanded, on my behalf. He was right to assume I’d want to go. I had absolutely no complains, no inputs even. I just go on board from the word go, and only gave him the nudge by doing my share of research about which area to Benaras to base ourselves in and where to stay.
As it turns out no amount of research can actually ever really, fully prepare you for what a place is really like. We chose to base ourselves about a 400 mt walk away from Dashashwamedh Ghat, which VC picked because he’d figured it’s one of the most widely frequented places in Benaras by photographers of the world. But we didn’t realise the interiors of the older parts of the city along the ghats and banks of the river are mostly not motorable. Old Benaras is mostly a labyrinth-like maze of narrow alleyways, haphazardly cobbled, with homes packed close and high on either side and doors opening almost by surprise right on to the door. Everything happens in these alleys — shops open, little eateries with their coal-fueled stoves right on the road, old women gather around for a chat, school kids run amok, cows and buffaloes amble about very, very slowly, and sometimes two wheelers zip through recklessly.
It can be dizzying and quite confusing to navigate, even with Google maps on hand. It’s also mindbogglingly filthy with open drains, sewerage flowing through in parts, plenty of trash just thrown all around, and lots and lots and lots of shit. Real and proper shit. Open defecation is real in this country. And then there’s cow dung, to top it all. So yeah, it was fascinating to navigate this every time we had to get from the hotel to a spot to shoot, or catch lunch or even just venture out for a meal in the evening.
On the up-side the location was perfect for what we were there to do — explore these parts on foot and get pictures. We didn’t take a single cab or rickshaw the entire time that we were there, until we had to head back to the airport.
The thing that hit me the hardest all through the trip was the extreme levels of filth. I was forewarned but nothing, nothing, could have prepared me for the levels of filth I witnessed. More than the actual filth itself I was severely disturbed by how easily life seemed to go on around it. Sidestepping piles of shit, people stepping out of their homes to casually take a leak or a dump right in the street outside their homes — I couldn’t get over the numbness towards it. It also made me feel very aware of my privilege as well as how out of touch I am with these realities in the far reaches of this country that seem to exist our of sheer lack of choice. I can’t imagine anyone being okay with these living conditions out of choice.
All of this was doubly baffling and disturbing to witness in the landscape of one of the most religious and “pure” places of interest in the country. And this is exactly the sort of paradox that Varanasi is full of.
I haven’t digested so much of what I saw and observed and all that I felt — a rousing sense of rage, confusion, disbelief and helplessness at how terrible things really are in our country. And how much we are falling prey to an excellent PR campaign. The conversations I had with some of the locals really brought to the fore a deep dissonance between what they believe and what the reality right before their eyes is. How did things get this bad?
And yet, I believe this was a good trip. Eye-opening in more ways than one. We experienced a kind of raw and unpolished kind of holiday very very unlike anything we’d usually pick for ourselves. The pictures and the food — essentially what we went for — didn’t disappoint. I put that down to the advantages of getting down and dirty instead of slick and fancy.
There’s something still very exciting about getting in a capsule of metal and hurtling through the skies at gravity defying speeds to be in places much, much faster than you could I’d you chose to go by road.
I’m feeling very grateful for the capacity to do this as often as I do, and for the possibilities it affords. But I’m even more grateful that VC is on board with the idea, after many years of dismissing it as “too much kheti“.
Today began at 5 am again. But only to catch our flight back to Bangalore. We touched base only for enough time to catch lunch and do a batch of laundry before jetting off to watch Captain Marvel. And OMFFGGGGG it was so meta. And so damn good. So posts about the food and the rest of Benaras will have to wait while I pick my brains off the floor and recompose.
After years of cribbing about VCs enthusiastic need to wake up early on holiday, it looks like Im finally on board with the idea. This kind of holiday agenda, where we venture out early and catch the sunrise only to return after breakfast wandering, spend the hottest part of the day indoors, and step out to catch the sunset, only to return after dinner, has slowly but surely become my favourite way to do holidays.
VC does this to catch the golden hour windows everyday. I’m most only interested in what we’ll eat. In the past, very rarely, I have opted to sleep in while he wanders around himself and we meet for breakfast. But mostly, I tag along and catch the sights I can. This trip I was the one kicking him out of bed at 5 am everyday.
There is quite nothing like discovering a place as life is kicking in at the break of dawn.
Benaras is a bizarrely fascinating place. I’m overwhelmed in more ways than one and maybe I’ll process all that it has made me feel slowly over the next few days. For now, here’s some morning snapshots from roaming around pre-sunrise.
There’s a mini 6 am aarti offered to the Ganga everyday. It’s not as grand or heavily attended as the evening one so I got to go really up close.
Walking along the ghats just as morning was beginning to crack, the boats are empty, the river calm, the sky placid, almost in waiting for the day’s craziness to unfold.
Then the sun begins to creep up. First a light glimmer and then a glow cast across the whole sky, before a gden orb begins to peek up from behind the horizon across the river on the banks facing us. Within minutes it’s all up and blazing powerfully.
Boatfulls of people begin to venture out to catch the action along the ghats. What a strange, strange place this is, where so many opposites coexist in blissful harmony.
We’ve walked a hell of a lot everyday since we’ve been here. Lots of getting lost, lots of dodging massive amounts of poop, lots of getting across roadblocks by cows and bulls, lots of climbing up and down stairs.
Chai from a tapri, with bun maska toasted over hot coals, followed by a big breakfast of puri-aloo and jalebis, and more chai has been my final destination for the past three days. the food we’ve loved deserves a post of its own.
This was an unlikely choice of destination VC picked. I’ve been wanting to come for absolute years, and somehow things have never aligned. I came with no expectations, but somehow this quick getaway has exceeded anything I could have expected from it.
Kedar manjhi dropped a truth bomb within five minutes of us stepping on to his boat.
Watching his seemingly frail 80-year old frame deftly rowing us across the Ganga, I was curious to know how come the whole lot of them haven’t just turned to using motors on their boats. So I asked, and pat came the answer:
Arrey, motor se jaldi ghumne mein kaunsa anand hai! Ab yeh dekho, dheere dheere jaaney mein maza jo hai, thoda idhar dekho thoda udhar dekho, thoda humse batiyao bhi, is ka anand hi alag hai.
Reminding me, inadvertently, that sometimes the joy is in taking the slow route.
Hi from Benaras: where the weather is great and the breakfasts are rich. Where Modiji and stray cows are roadblocks in equal measure. (The former is visiting so we’ve had to make detour after detour to circumvent multiple road closures, and in the process have had a couple of stand offs with cows as large and as wide as the alleyway itself that clearly has space for only one of us.) Here is where the vibes are holy and pure but the streets are nothing like it. I have seen more shit (all kinds) here than I have in a long, long time (Swacch Bharat, what?!)
It’s only been about two hours since we landed and this is already such a bizarre and fascinating place. I’m super exciiiiite!
Another advantage of being away, physically, from regular programming is this opportunity to pull back and view otherwise emotionally-charged occurrences in life from a distance. And a little dispassionately.
Since coming here, I’ve realised with resounding reaffirmation that I’m possibly most alone right now, as I’ve been in a very, very long time. This is As far as people goes. The palpable difference is a visibly significant decrease in discomfort as I acknowledge and say this out loud. The ease with which the realisation struck really shocked me.
Even with all the coming and going of people over the years, at every point I’ve always had a handful of people to lean on. That base number is currently at the absolute lowest it’s been. And if I discount VC from it, it goes even lower. I mean this entirely dispassionately, and to be able to say it as it is is all kinds of freeing. By alone, I mean for the first time in a long time, I feel an significant absence of people. And it feels okay.
For years now the aspect of people coming and going has been a constant, but this is a first: there have been very few new entries in the recent past. There’s been the deliberate culling in some part, a natural withdrawal from some others, there is a morphing of certain relationships. This is the first time I haven’t rushed to fill the empty space that has been created as a result.
I’ve always looked at people who have that quiet confidence about themselves that makes them the kind of people who can spend entire days, day after day, peacefully by themselves, doing the things they want to do anyway even if they’re alone, with a sense of awe and admiration. As I’m thinking about the kind of person I’m talking about, S comes to mind. He’s probably the epitome of self-assured for me, in this aspect. Cooking for himself with as much gusto and enthusiasm as he would if he were with someone else. Cooking, plating it, garnish and all, and instagramming the shit out of his meals-for-one. Traveling alone. Getting high alone. It isn’t so much the activities, but the solidity of having fun even alone. This has been a new realisation and craving for me.
Suddenly, when I’m feeling this absence of people, I’ve done more of those things alone than I would do waiting for company.
Going to the beach.
Dancing in my living room.
Getting a drink because I felt like it.
I felt like it has rarely been a good enough reason without the Let’s see who else does addendum.
And you know what? For the first time in my life, it actually feels natural and like it needs almost no effort at all.
Through it all, S has been there for me like a rock. I have leaned on her like crazy, crazy. Exchanging long, long messages and voice notes as I process this in my head. Bombarding her with my thoughts as they come, even on days when she is unable to respond. I really appreciate the space we have, mostly free of obligatory, cursory responses, but wide openness to bring anything to it.
It’s helped immensely with not stewing in my own head about much of it. It’s helped stop my unnecessarily negative narratives. It’s brought much clarity.
I’ve been wondering what happens when friendships are well and truly over. What is that exact moment when we actually progress from lingering, to moving on. Is it a point, or a spectrum?
Does it happen when the hurt finally ends (also: wtf is that??)? Or is it when you go a certain number of days without reliving the anger and extreme annoyance you do whenever they come to your mind? Or does it happen when you’re able to finally accept it isn’t your story at all? Or does it happen when you do something as mundane as deleting said person from your phone book and do the thing you never imagined possible — block them?
D had a super apt post about releasing such attachment from our beings and I felt a deep resonance with it. Many of those movements have naturally occurred for me in multiple relationships of my life over the last couple of weeks. I fully understand now why some endings are harder than others, even when the ending feels right — there is the matter of reclaiming power. I sometimes feel robbed of that opportunity, and of late I’ve been feeling that weight of wanting to say things I couldn’t say, explain and clarify misunderstandings lifting off of me.
Not just that, I also feel a cutting away and releasing of an older way of being — with people, in relationships, within myself — also falling to the side. There’s something very fulfilling about this, even though it is an emptying out, so to speak.
I feel tantalisingly close to a milestone, like I’m on to something. And it comes with that breathtaking excitement about a new development, a surprise possibility of an altered way to be as a human, a promise of some peace. I’m not quite where I want to be, but the wheels keep turning, I keep moving, I’ll get there sooner than later.
So I binge watched This Is Us, after all. Catching up on seven weeks of tear-jerking developments in the lives of the Pearsons over two days. I think after that slight dip in the story arc last season, things have picked up again. On the up side, I did not cry. But as always, as always, there were some insights that cut closer to the bone than I imagine this show can.
Fresh off the workshop I did here in Goa, one thing that hit me the hardest was the episode where Randall and Kate recollect a particular day in their lives, and it turns out they both have wildly opposing memories of the same exact event. The recollection of the event spurs them to make an impromptu visit to their childhood home and they’re both in shock and in awe at how the very same event they experienced had left them both seeing it entirely differently, much like the shock and awe I experienced at the diametrically opposing emotions I felt at viewing a set of pictures over a gap of 24 hours.
I felt so much resonance with the episode with Beth and how the strong, internalised messages of not showing emotion, working hard, being “sorted” and moving on has shaped her life. Especially her waking up to this reality in adulthood.
The one that touches on teaching children to deal with “failure”, about how there are no mistakes, just transgressions and diverging options, about how there is always the chance to course correct. Oh I felt that so hard.
The entire show, across generations has this strong, underlying constant thread of how parents only ever do the very best they can. Always. Always. And I have come to feel this so much in my adulthood.
There is also a reiterating theme of how the “path” may feel wrong at a particular point in time, but it always has gifts to offer. A capacity for honesty and grace to change perspectives makes all the difference.
These are things we all experience and have the capacity to experience. This is true for all of us. This is who we are.
It’s been the strangest, nicest stay in Goa this time around. Unlike every one of my visits over last year, where I had an agenda and work to get done — whether we were on shoot, or I came down to help get the house in order and done up — this time around I had no plans. Nothing to occupy me except my own whim. I also got a lot of my own work done ahead of game this month, so I had plenty of time on my hands.
I imagined this would free me up to be out and about a lot, but on the contrary, I’ve spent a most of my time on my own. At home, and outside. But on my own. I’m once again in a very inward state of mind, and being free of external encumbrance has meant that I have been still a little more, staying more.
Consequently, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone even when I did step out. I went to the beach alone, I haven’t done that in years. I caught up with C over breakfast and then a couple of hours sitting in the sunshine in the municipal garden. I spent entire days with A, something I have probably unconsciously shied away from these past few visits, I wandered around my neighbourhood, I drove to the airport and back to pick VC up, I spent a weekend with VCs college buddy and family mostly entertaining and being entertained by a 2-year old who was 100% more interesting than any of the adults.
At home, I’ve caught up on reading, I’ve watched way too many terrible Hindi movies (I’m embarrassed to say how many — some days I watched more than one a day) , I’ve cooked most meals at home (we’ve only eaten out twice since I got here!), I’ve managed to get more exercise than I usually do when I come here (though the last week was disappointing in this regard), and still I haven’t felt that restlessness I usually do when I come here. That restlessness to get shit done — to tick things off my wishlist, to go places, to meet people, to garden, to paint chairs, to fix shit or whatever else — has found some stillness.
I’ve just stayed put for a change. I didn’t plan this. It didn’t take deliberation. It has happened mostly because, for a change, I’ve listened to the cues and followed them, I think.
Staying always has incredible advantages. When the rumble of life comes to a slow whir, and my breathing normalises, when there is an almost-uncomfortable silence about me, is when some unshakeable realisations happen. These are moments when I least expect them to happen. I’m learning to welcome them, without having my world temporarily fall apart because of them.
There’s been a fair number of those.
Thoughts about Goa. About home.
Thoughts about friendship. Of letting go.
Thoughts about where to next?
Thoughts about change. And growth.
Gratitude, today, for the opportunity of this time. For the solitary state of mind Goa inspires in me. For all the forces that have worked at unearthing things within me that have brought me this far, to this milestone.
I have an internal map of Goa in my mind. And it is riddled with pins dropped in every nook and cranny of the state — places that dot the landscape of the entire memory I have of the place. Not just physical spaces, locations, but places that evoke feelings, feelings that bring back memories, memories that draw out faces of people I knew and know. And because I am sentimental, that map is alive and thriving, getting updates in real time. Even when a memory is sometimes somewhat hazy, it takes very little for it to jog itself back to the fore, brightening up like a bulb turned on suddenly. A mere mention of that fish thali, a faint passing recollection of that one monsoon 100 km cycle ride, an aching memory of the countless Sunday evening G&Ts at my favourite sunset spot, the joy of that urrak smuggled from the neighbourhood restaurant — and just so many other things — all come rushing back to life.
For the entire duration of the two years that I have been away, I haven’t been able to conclusively decide where I belong. If Goa was a home that I have left, or if Bangalore was always the home that I have returned to.
My life in Goa (and every single thing about my experience here) is so key to my sense of self and who I am, even after all that has happened and after two years of living away, that I sometimes feel I’m split in half. Rendered perpetually torn.
The real-time map in my head makes me feel like I know Goa like the back of my hand. And I do. It’s here where the streets are wide open, the coconut trees stretching over to meet, the salty breeze and muggy air that is so quintessentially special to here, that I’ve roamed around so much all by myself. Driving to faraway beaches, scoping out eateries in distant nooks, seeking out stories and interviews with people doing interesting things, visiting friends in places all the way down south, staying alone on assignment in strange and fascinating hotels, and so much more. I took most, almost all, of these trips alone. They’ve contributed to who I am. And the map is a reminder of all that I’ve been and felt in the years gone through.
There are the parts that signal the newness. A decade old bittersweet semi-excited, semi-shitting-bricks euphoria. My first home, the store right outside that refused to deliver milk to my door, the pao-bhatti that I frequented ever so often. There is the drive down Miramar to office to work. My first workplace in Goa that would be the longest I’ve ever been employed. The days of trying to walk back home in an attempt to get some exercise again. Stopping at our favourite bars on the way home and making last minute plans so everybody would congregate. Endless meals of greasy Chinese and too much consumption of alcohol and other narcotics.
There is the spot that marks fond memories of barbecues past. Of jumping into pools with my jeans on. Of gathering 65 bottles of beer when we were done.
There’s remnants of memories from that daily beach running that eventually wrecked my knees. Of finding a gym that made me fall in love with weights. Of discovering kick boxing and finding true love in my trainers there.
There’s the years spent writing and writing and writing. Blogging. Professionally. Reviewing restaurants. Food blogging. Home baking. Cake selling. Full-time freelancing. The whole nine yards.
There were three home changes. Each home giving me a set of special things to love. Th smallness of the first one matched perfectly with our cluelessness. The open green field view in the second. And priceless neighbours and a promise of the hidden recluse in me in the third.
There was the brush with learning to salsa, jive and bachata. There were innumerable different groups of acquaintances and some friends. Plenty more people I met and knew through work. And the inevitable clashing of all circles and the world closing in.
There was angst about the ex workplace. There was angst about knowing too many people. There was angst about running out of work. There was angst about inadequate internet speeds. There was angst about having to work too hard as a writer reporting in Goa. There was angst about being the lonely isolated writer in my den.
There were the silent noise parties in Palolem, the projector parties every monsoon, the rooftop movie marathons, the holidays bhaang parties and the office Diwali parties. There were the Friday morning visits to Mapusa market, the Sunday morning fish market jaunts, chasing the sunrise at Divar, cycling to save my life all over Goa.
There was so much. Each phase, each year, each stage a page in my Goan chronicles. And in so many ways I feel I’ve lived in so many different Goas. The map in my mind, is very real. It’s as Goa as it gets for me.
Today, I had a quintessentially Goa day. A thali for lunch with A, some aimless wandering in our old haunts, window-shopping for export rejects and fighting a nap because we had too much to talk about. An unexpectedly extended evening there also meant another round at the market. I always feel crippled by nostalgia there, seeing the fisherwomen with their baskets laden with fish lined along the streets. So wistfully I stepped towards one of them and pulled out my phone to snap a picture fully expecting her to smile. Except she rolled up the newspaper she was reading and swatted me on my shin, startling me completely. I nearly dropped my phone in shock and had to make a run for it.
Serves me right for making like an annoying tourist.
Even as I was startled, it was such an endearingly hostile move. It made me grin wide. That’s just such a Goa thing to happen! I thought. And it might have been the highlight of my very Goa day, if I hadn’t wound up at the carnival square where the red and white dance for the year was about to begin. It’s carnival week here in Goa and I didn’t anticipate I’d head to the thick of the action, eat beef croquettes, fish cutlets and drink Urak out of a Thailand-style bucket, all while listening to Maria Pitache.
Two urraks down, laced with slit green chillies, lots of lime and a good dash of salt, and a grilled beef wrap in me, I think this entire day, today, is as Goa as it gets.
That map just stretched itself a little bit more today, and wrapped itself around me.