The last of the despatches from Benaras

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.

One year ago: Where the world is impossibly still
Three years ago: Quiet

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Benaras: Orange

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.

<3

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.

One year ago: The real, deep-down you is the whole universe
Three years ago: How we’ve aged (part 2)

Baffling Benaras

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.

One year ago: Everyday is blue Monday

Home away from home kind of feeling

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.

One year ago: I still remember, when we did not have the answers

As Goa as it gets

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.

One year ago: Hit the road, Jack 
Two years ago: Kitchen soup for the homesick soul
Three years ago: Why Facebook just feels like a lot of noise

Reboot

So it’s happened for the first time in over a year of writing everyday, I, err, totally forgot to post today. And now I feel a little stupid because at the end of this day, I actually have a lot to say. Just no focus to do it right now.

Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow.

One year ago: February
Three years ago: Just go with it

Waking thoughts

At yoga this morning, my teacher said something really simple, but that rang true with the resounding sound of ten bells in my head.

To bring awareness to a part of your body, is to breathe into it. To bring prana into it. To bring life itself to it.

And suddenly I realised, that’s exactly what the journey of awareness has been for me. Like in yoga, bringing awareness has brought life to my life. Without it would be to merely exist.

***

I’ve caught myself saying “I feel so used!” to myself so, so, so many times these past few weeks. So far it’s mostly been in response to things friends have said or done, which has had me sit up and look at the equation between us. But it peaked when my neighbour, who I barely know, just asked me if she could use my home to serve lunch to a bunch of wedding guests they cannot accommodate in their home. It’s been a testing time for my boundaries and the idea of my personal space and how I allow it to be encroached has been coming up a lot, lately. If this is not a sign to wake up and address it, I don’t know what is.

Three years ago: Orange is the new black

An inalienable joy of meeting grief

That post from last week — about old selves — received an alarming number of responses. On the blog and off. And they were all mostly of concern for my well-being and state of mind. But I have to say — that wasn’t a post that came from a place of sadness or dejection.

The responses got me to thinking about what it is we deem as “sad” and what makes us so uncomfortable. Conversely, what is it about difficult, unsavoury emotions invoking the default response of avoidance, that makes us meet vulnerability with the default response of sympathy?

I’ve been writing about my state of mind and this journey of personal work I’ve been on for a few years now, and yet I have never received an outpouring of concern like I did for this post. I’m also not grudging the sympathy, the good wishes and concern I received. I’m touched and deeply appreciative. I’m just intrigued by the sequence of events.

Here’s the truth: I’ve had a contemplative few weeks since resuming therapy, with way too many thoughts than necessary, frankly. This is a natural outcome of any sort of reflective work, if done with a basic degree of honesty, willingness and allowance. And it is not an easy journey to be on because it throws up a lot of discomfiting, unpleasant, unexpected truths that reside within us. But that is precisely the purpose of therapy — to push oneself to face exactly that which we are unwilling to see in our daily lives. To go to the most uncomfortable places in our minds and see what it feels like.

So, it’s been mighty difficult, in that sense. It has been overwhelming, emotional and I’ve cried more this past month than I have all year.

And yet, that wasn’t a sad post. It came from a place of deep, internal (not merely cognitive) recognition and resonance with an underlying grief within me. Grief of not having fully processed emotions and reactions to events in my life. Grief from years of accumulated holding back. Grief of situations that have occurred as much as of grief of impending loss as a crucial and integral part of the process of evolution. Grief of having to let go of so much — so much that is comforting, comfortable, familiar to me — in order to move into a life of new possibilities. Grief of simultaneously knowing what I want to leave behind, and also being shit scared to find a new version of myself.

I’ve been welcoming the overwhelming feelings with joy and celebration, because I know without a shadow of doubt now, that to live in constant avoidance of difficult emotions and in the pursuit of happiness alone is to tread on thin ice.

So I consider that post a major milestone. If my heart is my home, this is me opening the door and letting the light in.

Despite Because of the overwhelming feelings, I had a really good week. And tomorrow I’ll write about all that made it memorable.

Two years ago: 2017 book beginnings
Three years ago: Bengloor-life banter

Day 309: The rest is up to you, you make the call

The #metoo updates have been consistently triggering for me. Much as I have tried to measure how much information I am taking in, I find myself drawn by the seething rage and the collective bubbling over of the resistance to silence with mind-boggling numbers of women continuing to bravely speak up. The last month has felt like the unclogging of a long-blocked pipe, and there is just no stopping it now. I’m enraged, yes, at the sheer extent of the extreme atrocities, violence and exploitation women have put up with for decades and decades. But I am also flummoxed, watching from the sidelines, at the uniform confidence and entitlement male predators possess. Across the board. I’ve watched as so many communities that I have belonged to or engaged with at some point — advertising, journalism, tech companies, the dance and music fraternity — have had so many of their star men and heroes fall. I have felt deep empathy and connection for every single story from every single woman, and a growing sense of blinding rage at how much we are all in this together. Every story (and there have been oh, so many!) that sounds eerily similar to a experience I have had has driven home the truth about how the casual and brazen this violence and exploitation is. How much this  tendency to take advantage of women has been normalised. For us, and by us. And just how much of it has continued to grow and be strengthened by our silence.

But it was this clever little comic that hit closest home for me, bringing back a flood of memories from the time when my trainer came on to me in a way that violated my personal space and consent, left me confused about what I might have done to bring it on, wondering whether he was really being inappropriate or just doing his job as my trainer, and most of all gripped me with worry and fear about whether speaking up would mean having to stay away from and essentially give up what was actually the best form of exercise I had ever experienced.

This was too powerful, nuanced, familiar and clever not to share. I hope you’ll pass it along, far and wide.

One year ago: Hotel hangover
Two years ago: Day 309: Invitation

Day 272: Say, say, say, hey, hey now baby

Amsterdam. Day 3.

It’s been ten whole days since we left India and finally I’m craving a good hot frothy sugarless filter coffee. Even though the frothy hot chocolate I’ve been having everyday (sometimes twice!) Has been excellent. I could also do with some veggies that are not lettuce and tomatoes. The food has been stupendous on this trip. We’ve had everything from local favourites wherever we stayed to fancy Italian and picnics in the park, overstuffed cheese platters, Lebanese, Asian and even so much dessert! I can’t think of a single meal that disappointed me, honestly. And that’s not just my easily-satisfied side speaking. Even so, it’s time for some veggies, I think. And some cold home-set dahi. Those are the basics. And I guess I’m that person who will in cliche fashion want those basics after ten days in a continent that loves white flour.

***

Im most surprised at not getting any reading done. I knew this was going to be a high activity, lots of getting out kind of trip. Even with all the walking, I’d assumed there’d be lots of lazy spaces and pockets of time — a day in the park, some hours ago a coffee shop, an evening by the sidewalk — where I could read. You see, that’s typically what I do on holiday. But this one has been so dramatically different. And in such a refreshingly new way — to be out and about in three different countries in such a short time — I’ve observed, internalised and learned so much just from watching. And like I said before, I’ve been so full with the experiences that I haven’t felt the urge to reach out or need a change of pace.

***

We have walked so, so much. That was a given when we planned this trip. Even so, the amount of traversing we finally have done has been overwhelming. We bought day passes for the trains, buses and trams everywhere and virtually took no cabs. This is a first for us.

The other thing I’ve watched with amazement is how we’ve so easily skipped one me everyday. Either breakfast or lunch depending on how we’ve felt at the start of the day. This was done for no other reason than that all things edible here come in such generous portions, the meals we have eaten have been large and sumptuous. Even with all the walking about we’ve eaten two big meals a day and felt completely fine.

***

This trip has really rekindled the explorer variety of travel that I thought I was done with. I was definitely in a space where all holidays were about winding down and relaxing, but this time I outside my own expectations of myself by exploring every place we went to. Doing it on foot probably added to the experience, because there’s something about getting a grasp of the place on foot that’s unparalleled.

This has also meant a lot of wistful longing for my 20s. Seeing my friends in Europe, with the life and opportunity for so much we can never dream of in India made me really think about how I might do my 20s over if I had the chance. Seeing them reminded me of dreams I’ve let go of and just pass me by as inaccessible because of the way life has come to me.

I have a deep longing to fulfill some of those forgotten dreams of travel and living. But on the other hand, getting out like this without a plan and seeing how easy it has been to navigate the place On my own has also infused me with a new excitement that maybe I will make up for lost time in my 30s.

This is movement for me. And it really made me warm and fuzzy with new eye and virgin excitement, like the world is my oyster right now. The months ahead literally have so many options open. VC has been throwing very tempting life plans at me, planting multiple seeds of possibility and I’m stunned at how longing for lost time quickly becomes excitement for the time I have. This is definitely a movement towards a healthier space.

Two years ago: Day 272: I am eager

Day 269: Take a deep breath

Bruges. Day 3.

What does it really mean to pause, when presented with the opportunity, unexpectedly, out of line?

The process of becoming has so much more silent staying than moving. The becoming happens almost in micro-mini movements. It can only be felt and known in the pauses.

This holiday, in the most unexpected way, is testing my capacity to let go of the need to get out and get moving and forcing me to choose staying in spaces I thought I couldn’t.

I’m trying to trust the uncertainty. The tentative, slow steps. Quite often it is when things are uncertain, that anything is possible. And I have not been too good at waiting to give that a chance.

Hold on to your dreams.

Day 262: We’re speeding up not slowing

En route. Day 0.

No matter how many times I do this, no matter how many borders and miles I cross, the idea that we can jet across entire timezones and mammoth continents in a metal capsule hurtling through the sky, never ceases to blow my mind.

Day 255: I want the truth to be said

I have a long post chock full of my thoughts and experiences post quitting social media, that has been in the works since almost the start of the year. I haven’t posted it because I don’t feels like I’m done. Because every now and then a new insight happens, thoughts follow and inevitably I see how it has panned out, continues to pan out, in my life. And I update the note. I revisited it last week after the recent, brief brush with Instagram, and I realised I will probably not post it after all. Maybe it’s one of those things that will remain in the realm of the really personal.

However, today, with the week-long hit of Instagram still fresh and buzzing in my veins, I’m going to put down a few fresh thoughts I’ve had about what I know for sure quitting Instagram (specifically) did for me. And conversely, what good has come from staying off of it. It reinforced the fact that just pruning my feed or curtailing the time I spent on the app would certainly not have done me as much good as removing myself from it entirely has. It made a very good case for not returning too soon.

I didn’t know it with this much surety then, but I do now. The obvious downsides of social media aside — like the playing on my specific insecurities and vulnerabilities, the steady cultivation of an attitude that preyed on feedback and validation, the unquestionable sinkhole of productivity and time — the single most important reason I needed to get away was that what I was choosing to see, the imagery and thoughts I was exposing myself to, and thereby the way in which they were being reinforced, was influencing the way I thought and lived. And not in a nice way. It had begun to get in the way of my self-improvement. My habits and patterns online — which were clear numbing patterns — were at loggerheads with the habits and patterns I was trying to cultivate offline. In real life.

One of the two had to change in order for me to move forward.

It goes without saying that I was, like all of us, choosing to see a very curated feed. One that suited my leanings and interests. It made for great viewing, but what it also did, rather insidiously, was make me unwilling to see other points of view. And over time, I’d become very rigid and cocksure about my beliefs and attitudes. Even the ones that needed to change so I could move into a healthier headspace. All of this was an  unconscious and rather slow process that crept up on me when I wasn’t looking.

Social media was great for the constant feedback loops — what with a willing audience that consistently clapped for me, liked everything I posted and thereby reinforced how right I was in what I saw, believed, shared and put out there — and the selective way in which I could expose myself to only a very stilted feed that reflected those very same beliefs and attitudes back at me further digging my heels in deeper, making it so hard for me to realise where I might have been wrong, where I could stand to review and reassess my views. And so hard to course correct.

Polarised and fixed views also allowed little to no scope for middle ground, flexibility, or even the idea that other people maybe coming from very different spaces worth considering. So sure and unshakeable have I been about myself that I now recall several instances of having taken a high ground when it wasn’t required, or even my place to. That high ground, build on a rather shaky foundation of opinions that were not fully formed, not even entirely my own, was bound to come crumbling down.

Opinions are great, but the finality of a social media declaration, backed by the external validation and further reinforced by the audiences repeated positive feedback solidified much of me in a very unshakeable way.

That was disastrous for growth.

So many of my half-baked and problematic (for me) views were being reinforced on a daily basis. Even on days when I didn’t post and was in the audience. And so many of them have gotten in the way of my movement and evolution.

Over the years, I lost sight of the basic truth that we are all evolving. That the very nature of growth and growing up is that we can be completely wrong about many things. Also, that everyone else is evolving too. That what holds true at one time may or may not continue to hold true at another.

Today, practically everything that I knew to be true and held as unshakeable truths, has crumbled and re-formed in the period of about 18 months. The only thing I know for certain is that absolutely nothing is certain, and everything changes.

Much of who I am today and the dramatic changes I have experienced, and the way that I have seen life surge ahead, is a consequence of allowing myself to change my mind. Without a doubt, this process was hastened because I just cut social media out of my life.

A lack of social media has:

  1. Shown me what feeling unsure is
  2. Opened me up to being wrong
  3. Encouraged me to look beyond the obvious, and see where people might be coming from
  4. Softened my need to have a fixed opinion about everything

I’m enjoying this space of being undecided and unclear about many things I had rather staunch opinions about. I’m enjoying figuring it out as I go. I’m reaching out for experiences much more willingly, I’m trying new things. Most of all, I’m getting better and better at asking for help, and find that I am able to receive it with a little more grace than before.

I’m finding unexpected outcomes all the time, and the process has really softened me in a way that has made life fuller and richer.

One year ago: Finding life again

Day 254: Not yet lost all our graces

For a bunch of reasons, some self-made some circumstantial, I’ve been so busy since the start of the month. Work has picked up suddenly, and I’m trying to get it done before I take off on holiday again for the last ten days of this month.

On the home front too, things have caught up with me. Rather, I’ve caught up with the home by sheer dint of being around. Since my mum and dad left, and with no sister in close proximity to go to (boohoo!) I’ve been having a regular life again. Waking up in my home, cooking myself proper, full meals, planning my work around things that need to be done, having a routine that includes some chores and some delegation and overseeing too.

And I’m trying to stay on top of it without losing out on having a life too. So in between all of this there have been outings to catch up with friends, working at coffeeshops, an anniversary dinner and watching Hamlet The Clown Prince.

Things have peaked, and despite the overwhelming busyness of it all, it has been such a good time. But, it’s been six days since I picked up my kindle, I realised. Instead, the pockets of time I’d otherwise dedicate to reading have been spent staying on my phone for inordinately longer than usual, and watching a lot of Netflix*. I have genuinely not had much time for TV this year, sticking to only my absolute must watches, like OITNB and waiting for This Is Us. I did watch the odd thing like Wild Wild Country, She’s Gotta Have It and Nanette, when the hype around it made it impossible to miss. But for the most part I’ve missed out on a lot of TV.

My whatsapp DND time has also gone out of whack with all the travelling, when I go easy on the self-imposed time out. I haven’t been strict enough with myself to enforce it again once we returned. More recently though, with my mum in the states, I find it easier to just stay available during the hours she’s awake.

This has meant a lot more screen time than I’ve been used to these past 10 months. So, it was natural and only a matter of time before I noticed that it was not a mere coincidence that a natural spike in my busyness saw a spike in screen time.

This is probably my pattern. When my brain is over-stretched, few things help me numb it out than mindless screen time. And no matter what the nature of what I am watching, or how scintillating the conversation on whatsapp is, I know that I turn to screens mostly to shut my brain out.

Here’s the thing though, it feels like a numbing mechanism, but it is anything but. If anything, it activates my already spread-too-thin brain some more. And instead of stripping down the number of thoughts, adds to them, thereby contributing to an overall restless feeling. Which is all very well for a weekend or a few days here and there, I suppose. I like a good mindless binge-watch every now and then, but last weekend, I suddenly realised I was missing the quiet in my head. The silence that that made it possible to put my phone down and actually forget all about it for hours on end because the book I was reading had me rapt. The silence that encourages me to read, even when I am tired because it soothes. I realised this when even though I had finished my tasks for the day, sent out my work, met my deadlines, my mind wouldn’t stop racing. I didn’t have anything else left to do, I could have picked up my kindle, but instead time after time, I turned to my phone. Or laptop.

Shit hit the fan when VC took this picture of me on our anniversary. I’m not one for big, outlandish celebrations, but I would certainly have liked to keep my face our a screen. And I’d have liked to spend the entire day, and not just the evening, really together, minus laptops and phones.

In a flash, it reminded me so much of my years spent in long hours at work. TV was mostly the only thing I could manage to do to unwind then. The idea that my brain had been occupied for 10 hours a day at work, almost warranted the binge-watch before bed, to just stop my brain from thinking thoughts.

I’ve come a long, long, long way from there, so to slip back momentarily and have those same feelings of restlessness and chatter in the brain surface was a bit unsettling.

The other non-coincidence was that the week of extreme phone usage happened to be the week I re-entered Instagram after nine whole months. I went in to retrieve some images and writing from last year that are locked away on the app. But the cheeky little thing that Instagram is, it wont let you deactivate immediately anymore. One needs to now wait a week between deactivations. It’s a tactic to make you stay and lure you in, I’m sure. And let me tell you, it works, for the most part. I didn’t get lured back in, but in the knowledge that I had a weeks worth of access, and once the literal anxiety and breathlessness I felt to see the feed (and how much it has changed, in form and content) had passed on day 1, I was back watching and watching and watching and watching. Till I could watch no more.

I’ll say it again, it’s not the app. It is entire me. Us. And the way we allow the apps to draw us in, but there is an undeniable link between the quality of the way I spend my time, the state of peace and calm in my head, and being on or off social media (Instagram and Whatsapp, in my case).

It was eye-opening to notice the difference. But it also makes it easier to acknowledge a pattern and reconcile with slowly slipping back to normalcy. I’m trying to wrap up my work at a sane hour rather than let it slip into the evening and night, just because I have the luxury to do that. This is another interesting space to test boundaries and reclaim space for myself, and so I’m trying it out.

Reflecting on the whole experience the other day, wondering about what drew me in, even though I know and have lived a whole, full life and realised that I’m absolutely not missing even the good stuff I thought was keeping on Instagram, outside of it. It’s the very nature of the application. And in some way, maybe it is  in fact a reflection of the nature of the world itself. Aptly described in this quote from Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive that I read earlier this year.

THE WORLD IS increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind. To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.

*What I watched:

  1. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Netflix): it was so sweet and light and lovely. Perfect for a Friday night.
  2. Bareilly ki Barfi (Netflix): was really, surprisingly good. I’m a blind supporter and fan of all of Rajkumar Rao’s work, and even though he isn’t the central protagonist here, he steals the show. Ably supported by excellent work by Ayushmann Khurana and Kirti Sanon who I had hitherto dismissed as just a pretty face.
  3. PadMan (Netflix): was terrible. Lazy, convenient, disastrous way to tell an important story about a real man, and turn it into an outrageous story that doesn’t even so much as acknowledge the man whose life inspired the movie. Again, maybe I’m not the audience, but the way in which everything was dumbed down I wonder if it even did the trick for the audience it was aimed at. Also made me wonder when Sonam Kapoor will figure she cant act and that she should probably try production or something.
  4. Sierra Burgess Is a Loser (Netflix): light, simple kiddie rom-com, worth a watch even though it was problematic in parts and gave me a lot of thoughtssss.

Day 230: What good is it to live with nothing left to give

Two weekends of class/workshopping and two study meets have brought home one message loud and clear.

It sits front and centre of my entire life right now and I am so ready to finally embrace it in its wholeness.

Family is important. Even those parts that I have not seen or lived. Especially those parts that I have not seen or lived.

We are connected in more ways than I know or realise.

I am so much more than the sum total of my body, mind and soul. I carry my family with me in ways I am incapable of fully understanding.

In belonging and connecting with this family, I need not lose any part of myself.

I can be connected, even as I grow and move my separate way.

Starting a ritual to acknowledge this and remember it every single day has been on my mind and today I realised it is something I want to do immediately.

I’m not fully sure how or what I want to do as yet. But I’m going to figure something out pronto.

This is gratitude for my family. For generations before and after. For all that we bring and carry with us. For all that people have held so we can move on and ahead. For life, love and this sense of connection.

Two years ago: Day 230: How many days