Friday, January 24, 2014

Utta and Shazia

Uttara and Shazia attended middle school and high school together. Then Utta went to Montreal and Shazia remained in Toronto. They stayed in close touch and met every time Utta was in Toronto. Growing up Shazia was the most beautiful of Utta's friends with her large eyes, chiselled features and a svelte figure, long limbed and proportionate. She was funny, intelligent and a veritable tomboy. She and Utta walked home together from school since she lived two doors from us and they hung out together a lot at our home. Her parents were progressive and unlike Utta's other Pakistani friends did not try to get her married soon after graduation. She had a loving home and everything appeared to be going well for her as she studied to become a Pharmacist and secured a plum job within a large Toronto hospital.

These last two years Shazia had grown quite thin and Utta and her friends started to worry about her. She said she was feeling fine and was just very busy. She lived by herself in her Toronto apartment and worked hard at her job. She came to her parents home in Markham over the weekends. Last summer when Utta met her over dinner in a favourite Markham haunt she said that Shazia had grown even thinner and barely ate half of her salad. She also told me that she felt like a giant next to her and for the first time noticed people staring at them when they walked together. Two days before she left for London Utta met Shazia again, this time for coffee and a chat. She said Shazia insisted they park their cars a few kilometres away and walk to a coffee shop in Unionville. Utta found this strange but went along because it was a beautiful summer day. When Utta gently broached the topic of her weight and health, Shazia shrugged it off saying she was extremely busy and missed meals because she had no time to eat. Utta gave her my number to call if she needed help with anything. I did not hear from Shazia.

Early this morning Utta called me from London wailing that Shazia had been found dead in her apartment and the funeral was today.

I made my way to the mosque on this bitterly cold day, the mercury showing -25 degrees. The place was milling with people. A young death. On the third floor, the Namaz e Janaza prayers had concluded by then and they were bringing the body down to the ground floor where I was, to take her to the burial ground. Her parents were inconsolable in their grief, holding on for dear life to the plain wooden casket, covered in green velvet cloth with gold Arabic inscriptions. They wanted to see her face one last time. I was there when they opened the casket and uncovered the milk white cotton cloth that they had wrapped her in to just reveal her face. The smell of incense assaulted my senses and forever etched in my memory is that same beautiful baby face that had once brimmed over with laughter, now lifeless and pale. I kept thinking they are going to lay Shazia in a hole in the ground on this bitterly cold day. I left there wondering how her parents would have the courage to do that.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sunday reflections - 6 - Shashi Tharoor and habit patterns!

I had a hard time waking up this morning. I deviated from my regular diet at the party last night and the sugar was still circling around in my blood to reduce me into this big blob of laziness. I eat on these occasions not because of hunger or even craving but by force of habit! While I do notice the disconnect between the act of eating, the food itself and the sensations in my body, habits overpower me. Yesterday the radio doctor said “Exercising self control does not work, but self monitoring does”. Well I was aware of the act of eating but all this noticing was just making me eat more and guilt free! This is because I kept rationalizing that it was ok for me eat since I was noticing! Meanwhile, have I ridden myself of the habit pattern that compels me to eat food which is put before me, especially if it looks eminently edible? Nooo. In other words, just noticing does not break deeply ingrained habits. But, joking aside, it is definitely a start!

Given our conditioning then, the act of falling into temptation is much easier than we care to notice. Our so called transgressions of our personal or public code of conduct big and small, occur on the turn of a dime. Take the case of Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar. The media assault on the strength of their marriage has resulted in tragedy. As news comes out of the couple's public rows on twitter, airplanes and other locales, it appears on all accounts that Shashi had succumbed to old patterns of behaviour that craved the attention of beautiful women. His wife's jealous rages and ultimate death may have resulted directly or indirectly from his alleged clandestine communications with the beautiful Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar.

The question then is this. If we are all so habit prone and eminently capable of deviating from societal or personal norms why do we subscribe to absolute “dos” and “donts”, “right” and “wrong”. Why do we all blindly don the strait jacket of these black and white ideals? They clearly are impractical but we rationalize, cheat and lie our way both to overselves and others because we desperately want to hold on to our carefully constructed image of ourselves. We have a great sense of shame even self censure! Given that we live in self denial we make little spiritual progress.

The first step to our spiritual and moral advancement is unravelling our immutable false image of ourselves and acknowledging we are utterly fallible. That we are no different from Shashi Tharoor or anyone else who repeats patterns of behaviour either unaware or unable to transcend them. The next step is keeping an open mind and listening without judgement to our own mental chatter and to what others have to say about us. As we do this we will peel away our conditioning and see our natural mind free of prior causes or constraints.

In the words of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche in "The Joy of Living"

"For most of us, our natural mind or Buddha nature is obscured by the limited self image created by habitual neuronal patterns - which, in themselves, are simply a reflection of the unlimited capacity of the mind to create any condition it chooses. Natural mind is capable of producing anything even ignorance of its own nature" and he follows this with a quote from the Song of Karmapa " In natural mind, there is no rejection or acceptance no loss or gain". In other words, there is no need for habits.

In summary, if we notice without judgement and chip away at our baggage bit by bit then we will uncover our natural mind and let go of habit patterns.

Here are some non Buddhist suggestions to observe and change habits!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Sunday reflections 5 - Our backyard Bhima

On Sunday Suku and I hosted a lunch for family and friends. We could have ordered from one of the Indian restaurants which offer fare that passes off as "Indian" in the West, but nowhere near resembles what we ate growing up. I did not have to resort to that travesty and have a spread of greasy paneer, naan and oily half cooked rice. This is because we have our own Bhima in the city. Bhima in Hindu mythology, was the second of the Pandava princes, whose story is retold in the Mahabharata epic. He was known for his culinary expertise. One of the 5 famous Pandava princes, he is said to have masqueraded as the king’s cook, for the one year when they went undercover in the kingdom of Virata, mesmerising His Royal Highness with his mouth watering dishes. The famous South Indian “Avial” (mixed vegetable and coconut dish) has been traced back to him as its originator.

Chandramouli Mama, our own Bhima, is a Brahmin priest in Toronto, who manages a temple and cooks and feeds people. Portly and energetic he can make a meal appear in a jiffy with effortless ease. So much so he is the port of call for us Tam Brahms. Right from first birthdays to eightieth and everything in between he handles all with panache and zeal for his loyal followers. We unabashedly ream off items we want on the menu and he gets caught up in our enthusiasm to suggest even more dishes. The end result is a divine spread and a great draw.

So on the appointed day, Suku and I provided an authentic South Indian vegetarian meal which featured saambar saadam (lentil stew rice), thayir saadam (curd rice), Rasam (spicy lentil soup), potato spicy fry, Paruppu vadai (spicy donuts), payaasam (milky rice pudding), thayir pachadi (raita) and appalam. He threw in pulao, mattar paneer and daalpuri for good measure, but with that distinct South Indian home-made quality to them. But that was not all - homemade pickle with mangos cut into tiny pieces as they do with mangos picked from backyard trees in Chennai and thinly sliced plantain chips were included as accompaniments to this great spread. Baadam cake, laddus and thenkozhal in loot bags topped it all off. Mama is a magician because he can produce prodigious quantities of freshly cooked food in a morning. He probably works through the night. The food always arrives piping hot in stainless steel containers at the appointed time, delivered by his brother and one of the temple patrons. Also Mama never skimps on quantity. I always have to remind him to not go overboard. But he never listens and I always have take-away containers for people to take home their next meal. We had 70 people that day and food was overflowing with several people carrying precious leftovers home.

I remind myself never to take mama for granted. It's like having Bhima in our backyard - warming up this cold city of ours. On Tuesday, the day of Tamilnadu’s biggest festival, Pongal (celebrating the winter harvest), I dropped in at the temple and was offered a steaming hot cup of cardamom tea and chakkara pongal (rice cooked with jaggery, ghee and milk). I did not have to make pongal at home. The day before when I went over to pay him for the food he had provided on Sunday he packed me venn pongal (spicy rice) and uppuma (semolina). No one leaves his temple hungry. It is truly a dharamsala (refuge) animated by one man's energy and generosity of spirit. Although there are several others who cater to South Indian tastes, Toronto would not be the same for me without him!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Sunday reflections - 4 - The Ordinariness of My Life

Yesterday’s reflection was on the ordinariness of my life. Every day is mercifully the same. I wake up each day to the sound of the alarm or the husband at 4:30 a.m., and reluctantly make my way to the washroom, aware of each step I take, of the sensations of sleep in every limb, the cold air on my skin. I am aware of the conflict in my being, the part that wants to get back into the womb like warmth of the mattress. The moment passes and I make my way to the kitchen. I boil a kettle of water, peeking out to check out the bevy of options offered by our unpredictable weather conditions. If there is not much snow on the ground and the temperature is mild, contrary to predictions, I walk with a spring in my step to put on the kettle. I wash down a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and honey with a cup of soothing warm water and brew a fresh pot of coffee. I steam idlis in the rice cooker for breakfast and pack our lunch. My first stop being at the yoga centre, I do not eat or drink but chat with my husband as he does.

We leave together at 5:30, him to work and me to the Vedic Cultural Centre for yoga with three or four other loyal folks who are as fanatically committed to the practice as I am. By this time, I have “WhatsApped” my daughter to check in with her in London, reviewed my personal and office emails and facebook updates, and have been reassured that everything is business as usual. After our 75 minute practice of hatha/kundalini yoga and pranayama we chit chat usually complaining about the weather, since it can never ever be perfect, and then make our way to our respective lives. I take on the highway heavy with traffic and alternate listening to Carnatic music or talk radio or chatting with my mom or my two sisters, if they are available. I catch up on all the happenings across the globe and visualize myself in sunny Chennai or Dubai with great longing. On a rare occasion I catch up for a chat with my little girl and these instances being few and far between, kick the day’s rating up several notches on the ordinariness scale.

At the office I change into work clothes and begin my day with coffee and breakfast, as I am usually in before the others. I review my calendar, read my emails and know that this is going to be yet another uneventful day with no life altering moments, no heroic acts, just every- day transactions similar to the ones from the day before. Ever so often when I hear leading lawyers wax prolific about injustices that they are taking on, I notice my mind flicker with a tinge of restlessness craving the adrenalin rush and sensationalism brought on by high profile cases, casting doubts over my choice to run a social enterprise and act as legal counsel doing mostly solicitor work. In those moments I question what it is that brought me to this place at this time, when I could be elsewhere. But as I observe this urge without judgment, I usually calm right down and fully embrace the tedium of yet another day of repetitive activity.

The amazing thing is the more I pay close attention to the everyday routine of my existence, without purposiveness or strategy, I focus better on everything I do and find that each moment brings forth a bouquet of small surprises. It may be new discoveries at the morning yoga session, of the possibilities of mind and body, or breakthroughs when interacting with someone who is hard to communicate with. As I keep myself open to all possibilities without fear or censure, I experience amazing coincidences without any effort or willfulness on my part. And all I really do is observe and revel in the sounds of chatter and laughter around me and give thanks for the moments that roll one into the other bringing forth the state of gratitude I am in. While I love my many interactions with friends over lunches and dinners I equally enjoy my solitude and it is truly the ordinariness of my existence that brings forth for me the joy of living each day!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"How long do you plan on staying ?"

As we head into another year we notice our priorities shift a wee bit. Resolutions to do more of some things and less of others. For folks our age, retirement looms and we ponder more than ever our relatedness with our kids who have been raised with a different set of values in the West, defined by the core ideology of "individualism".

Last night, at the New Year's Eve party, there was a lot of talk among us South Asian women about our adult children who now have their homes, careers and lives. They have different views on love, marriage and it's importance. They don't suffer our suggestions of suitable partners and throw a fit when we raise the issue. These we have come to live with. But we have not yet tempered our expectations on what will become of us when roles get reversed and we come to depend on them!

One particularly poignant and comic tale was narrated by a friend who during the ice storm hastily gathered her belongings and arrived with her husband at their daughter's home for heat and refugee. The still single doctor daughter, known for her sensitivity and caring, had just returned from a long shift and had innocently asked them "how long do you plan on staying"? My friend, a wonderfully dramatic narrator, said the tears just began to roll down her cheeks in an unstoppable torrent and she immediately called her mother and asked her "would I have ever asked you that?" to which her mother replied, taking up for her grand daughter, "you did not work long shifts either".

Jokes aside, I would never have asked my parents that question. We were never "equals" with them to take that liberty. There were boundaries and we continue to carry a deep reverence for and sense of obligation towards them, instilled through years of cultural conditioning. I generalize - but I am not completely off when I say we still think we have no better duty to fulfill and even risk disagreement with our spouses to put our parents above all else.

Not our children. They are blunt to a fault and refreshingly honest about putting themselves above all else. They make it abundantly clear that they have several competing priorities to weigh that prevents them from offering us a carte blanche to their life and space. It is startling for us that we are not the centre of their universe even in our hour of need. Especially since our efforts raising them, without the support of extended family, have been impressive and for several of us has even come at the cost of career and lifestyle. While on the one hand we are happy they are independent and not a liability, we want them to also be the children we are to our parents. Well we gave that up when we moved to the West and challenged them at every turn to take on the world. We supported a system that instilled the very values that have them question our sense of entitlement over their time and space. This is what we wanted. We cannot cry foul now.

So here are some tips for myself and others like me to shape our resolutions for this new year. Assume nothing and be pleasantly surprised. Create a lifestyle and hobbies independent of children that makes them want to hang out with you. And above all else, remember you were a pioneer in a new country, learning the cultural norms, adapting and even sublimating your potential - so stir up that spirit to be imaginative in planning a healthy, happy and fulfilling rest of your life!

Yoga is a very important part of my life. I plan to devote more time to it and add an hour of meditation each day, while continuing my 45 minutes of prayer. I will read all the books in my library, make at least 4 trips and discover at least 4 new experiences this year. I will approach my work with renewed focus and interest, write with more discipline and work on two causes! And through all that I will plan my independence post retirement with intentionality!

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