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“I’m happiest when I travel. When I don’t, depression hits me the hardest.”

He was the owner of a retreat on a secluded beach, I one of his guests. We had become friends for strange reasons. A day before I was to check-in he informed me that women travelling alone were unwelcome at his property as a matter of policy. Furious, I berated him for being discriminatory and cavalier. He asked what I did. “I have a day job,” I replied scornfully, “by night I work as a prostitute”. He was apologetic but insistent on knowing what I really did.

“Find out; you have my name”.

Over the next two days, the staff at the retreat constantly fawned over me. He and I exchanged tales of our travels. He was about 45, well-traveled, polite, and a depressive. My psychiatrist had gingerly placed me at “situational depression with anxiety issues”. (When I first heard the diagnosis, I had given the doctor an incredulous is-that-even-an-illness look.) We concurred that travel was our refuge, opiate, and now perhaps, the only thing that showed us brief glints of happiness.

An affliction of the mind takes you to the troughs of nothingness. On especially bad days, it makes you wake up wanting to be dead. There is cold tar engulfing the soul. In travel, you seek the feeling of existence, however fleeting. From it stems the allure of lying spreadeagled on a rock while staring at clouds, the feet numb from the icy waters of the stream of a waterfall. Of riding a rickety bus that smells of diesel and decrepitude through hamlets slowly waking up and going about life. Of flying halfway across the world and back a few times. Of trying to speak alien tongues. Of tiptoeing precariously on a stone, struggling to get a view of the other side of a dam, and feeling like an explorer discovering a lost world.

You only remember a disjointed narrative of sights, sounds, and smells because your mind (or medication) plays strange tricks with your memory: The hiss of curry leaves being sautéed in a wok. Purple dandelions, tall milk cacti, anthills of red earth, and palm groves, all growing beside each other. Ferris wheels silhouetted against the sky at dusk. Sangria by the glass, for a Euro. Dancing and drinking the night away in a shady bar. Tiny, translucent crabs rapidly burrowing into sand and disappearing into the pits with a leap. Yellow sodium-vapour lamps lining a deserted street. Lying in sand and taking on the tide of the sea. Sometimes its foam tickles the soles of your feet, sometimes the surf threatens to sweep you away. (“Does it matter if I drowned and died? Not really.”)

Inside a tiny cottage made of palm fronds, at the retreat on the beach, I had survived another desolate night lulled to sleep by the music of the waves. Perhaps the only kind of night I can now survive is one that envelopes me but thrums up a tempo plucking the strings of life.

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A birthday gift from my Poet. The many shades of people that colour your life. :-) book

Spring cleaning

English August intro page


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The search for new work and new shores ends with me moving to Bangalore today. It was an especially difficult decision to make perhaps because of the workings of a serotonin-deprived brain, perhaps because of the fog that comes with the clash of conflicting impulses.

The heart-thumping exhilaration of bolting into the blue through an open door versus the intangible apprehension of leaving the comfort of familiarity.
The city I love versus The city I might come to love.
Go-by-the-book versus turn-it-all-on-its-head.
The thrust-and-parry that happens between holding on and letting go.
What ifs, but thens, and devil-may-care.

There is the saddening realisation that all these years of nomadicness have made me immune to the thought of going away from home, that this seems to be adios to the city where I grew up. The sign of having arrived home would no longer be the faint outlines of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link visible from aircraft. Sherlock will mope about my absence for days or maybe weeks. Kalu, the stray dog who ignores the food I offer her and insists that I pet her instead will miss me too. I wonder if I will think of my home in Mumbai wistfully the way I sometimes recall the house in Delhi with its powder pink walls, long powercuts, loud neighbours, farmers’ markets, and the rumble of life. I wonder if I will miss walking by the promenade in the monsoon, or looking at unkempt greenery in the distance from the large French windows of my house. Or the flocks of house sparrows in our compound. Or the solitary mynah who perches herself by the window sill and chirps all day. Or the people who wish I wouldn’t leave. But now that my mind is made, the universe seems to be bristling with possibilities.

Not-So-Lonely Planet

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To travel far and wide is to know the feeling of digging one’s hand into one’s pocket for loose change and finding it in four currencies. Or of setting one’s gadgets and timekeepers to another time zone and forgetting to reset them, so that each one displays a different time of day. To take off to new destinations is, of course, to contemplate Picasso’s paintings, to behold gigantic ships in the harbour, to ruminate over the sights of memorials of war or peace, to meet new people. It is also — strangely enough — to discover new layers and sides of familiar people. It is to arrive in unexpected rain and sleet in another country; to arrive to an old friend who carries half the baggage in the cold and rain. It is to feel grateful for the serendipitous moment of making friends with him, the scraggly boy in college.

It is to spend a week with a friend at her home and helplessly watch her fumble and almost trip over furniture or shoes in her earnestness to be a good hostess. And to discover by chance that the room heater is a borrowed one, and that she had sensed my discomfort in Delhi’s winter, stingless but severe, playing climate change-induced roulette with the temperature. It is to sleepily realise she has been waking up every couple of hours to ensure I was warm and comfortable.

Being itinerant entails being asked “When will you meet me again?” at a train station, mid-embrace, slowing feeling the weight of the question and disconcertedly scrounging for an answer. It involves being unceremoniously told to check out of a government guest house and deciding to call every friend in the city to ask if they’d host you for two days. It means finding shelter in the house of the foster mother — muhboli ma — and feeling the rush of unfettered joy at meeting her after three years, of spending the night chatting with her about love, life, loss, and the future.

To travel far and wide is to meet a chatty, friendly sanyasi who wants to be friends on Facebook. It is to pick his brain by asking what the point of renunciation and detachment is, if one is going to be on Facebook. It is the curious realisation that people one met merely five days ago have begun to seem like one has known them forever. It is the simultaneous amusement and twinge of pain on hearing “Come back soon” — half request, half command, doled out with a wry smile.

To be perpetually nomadic is to feel fortunate to have made friends everywhere. And to measure those relationships as the sum total of sweet memories. Recollections of saying one’s byes before boarding a train only to spot a beaming smile across the glass window. Of texts that read, “Did you reach your room safe? Your phone is switched off. Call when you see this!”

To travel far and wide is to know how to strum heartstrings.

Of Inhibitions, Adventurous Dates and Red Light Districts

“I have never been to a red light area. The city I belong to doesn’t have one. We should go to G.B. Road sometime,” my date said winking at me smilingly as we made our way through one of the cramped, twisting bylanes leading to Jama Masjid. I looked at him with bewildered disbelief, then assumed he was flirting, “If we go there together, the prostitutes will think we want a threesome”.

On my next trip to Delhi, I found myself with him on Garstin Bastion Road on a cold night. A ‘surprise’ change in plans had turned our Saturday night dinner-and-drinks date at a fancy restaurant into one where we ended up gorging on ghee-soaked paranthas at Paranthewali Gali and taking a walk down the street of drugs and sex trade. I objected half-heartedly but gave in; I was curious, scared, excited. We joked about searching for kotha — the local word for brothel — number 69. We walked past cheap seedy hotels with blinking neon signs. We held hands to keep our digits from going cold. In the conservative neighbourhoods of Old Delhi, getting cozy invites either stares or disdainful looks.

As we stepped onto G.B. Road, a miasma of alcohol, nicotine, drugs, roadside garbage and stench from the brothels hit me. The only establishments open were the brothels — congested and apparently squalid with dimly-lit, narrow and steep stairways — and warehouses that stock goods offloaded at the nearby Old Delhi railway station. Pimps stood huddled near streetlights. A few prostitutes dressed garishly with their lips coloured bright red or hot pink gestured to passersby, their trinket jewellery glinting in the light of street lamps. Then, the penny dropped. I was the only woman on the street who was not a sex worker. I clutched his arm hoping that if I were mistaken for a prostitute, I’d at least come across as ‘taken’. I couldn’t help thinking that he had remarked I was looking lovely that night.

We kept walking briskly, avoiding eye contact with everyone on the street. A pimp sidled up to us and asked, “Are you searching for something?” With my head buzzing from a strange mix of thrill and fear, I suppressed the urge to look in his direction. My date suddenly hailed a cycle rickshaw for the nearest metro station.

From onboard the rickety cycle rickshaw, I smiled at the passing sight of a Hanuman temple. Who’d have thought of putting a celibate deity here? “It’s interesting how everyday life goes on in the midst of all this,” my date remarked while looking at the warehouses from where porters were plying goods to and fro the railway station. He pointed out the G.B. Road police station to me, mischievously smirking at the irony of it all.

I clung to him, somewhat overwhelmed, till the last moment that we were together that night. What was it that made me shed my fear and inhibitions? The reassurance of the gentle grip of his hand? The thrill of exploring a new place, of doing something wild? What nudged me on was perhaps the knowledge that I was not alone. And the slow, subtle realisation that in choosing to tread alone I had been trading off these moments of surprise and discovery. I nearly broke down when he asked, “When will you meet me again?” His eyes followed me until the train pulled out of the station and I went out of his sight.

Chaos Theory

I stepped out of my office in unseasonal, apocalyptic rain last evening. Most people, caught unawares by the sudden showers, had decided to stand back. I returned home soaked to the skin, mildly shivering, but happy as a songbird. It is amusing how life’s lessons have reversed. There is now fun in foolhardiness, fulfilment in nomadism, ennui in security, folly in love, pleasure in longing, wisdom in taking chances, and pragmatism in trusting the unknown and serendipitous designs of the universe.


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